About The Series

“Pay or Die: A Black Hand Story,” a seven-part serial by Park Burroughs, chronicles the rise and fall in Washington County of what may be called the precursor to the Mafia in the United States.

Pay or Die: A story of the Black Hand – Chapter 7: Arsenic and Old Vendettas

  • August 16, 2017
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Alfonse Polifrone is shown at far right in this photo courtesy of Erma Orsino, who could not identify the others.
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This advertisement was published in the Washington Reporter in December 1922.
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Erminia ‘Minnie’ Orsino
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Prohibition outlawed the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages but did not reduce the demand for them.

The story so far: After 15 years of violent crime committed by Italians on Italians in Canonsburg, Washington County’s district attorney hopes he has crushed the gangster cabal there with the successful conviction and execution of Angelo Fragassa and Marcantonio Daniele. Jim Pizzarella is released from prison in return for his testimony against the killers but is gunned down two weeks later on the steps of his Indiana, Pa., apartment. The victim’s widow and four children, at the urging of her husband’s old friend and fellow inmate, Alfonoso Polifrone, settle in Canonsburg.

Although violent crime seemed to disappear quickly from Canonsburg after Marcantonio Daniele and Angelo Fragassa died in the electric chair on Dec. 10, 1923, the Black Hand was not entirely gone. Francesco DeVito, 34, stepped into the leadership void of the gang for a while until he, too, was taken down by the law.

In February 1924, police raided his Murdock Street residence and found liquor and other evidence that he was selling it. Judge Erwin Cummins fined the diminutive Sicilian (he stool barely more than 5 feet tall) $1,000 and sentenced him to a year in the Allegheny County workhouse.

In the quiet that descended on the town, life returned nearly to normal for Minnie Orsino. Alfonso Polifrone, who had testified at the murder trials along with fellow inmate Jim Pizzarella, had to that point avoided assassination, either through luck or perhaps some secret status that kept him untouched, even with Black Hand members still living all around him. Polifrone was, in fact, living as a boarder in the Orsinos’ house in East Canonsburg. A vengeful Blackhander could have killed two birds with one stone, so to speak, by tossing a bomb in Minnie’s window, eliminating the last two of the three principal witnesses responsible for Daniele’s conviction.

The widow Rose Pizzarella, too, was raising her two daughters and two sons in what appeared to be the perfectly peaceful and close-knit East End neighborhood. But the tranquility would not last long.

At 2 a.m. Sunday, March 14, 1926, Minnie’s husband, Ottavo Orsino, left his home and made several visits around town. He returned to the house at the corner of Third Street and Elm Alley at 6 a.m. and almost immediately became violently ill.

“Throughout the day Orsino suffered terribly and died in agony at 5:45 p.m.,” the Daily Notes reported.

His death gave rise to rumors that Orsino had been poisoned as punishment for his wife’s testimony against Fragassa and Daniele. Washington County detective William Dinsmore, who was summoned immediately, ordered an autopsy, which showed a large amount of arsenic in Orsino’s stomach. The victim had been drinking heavily early Sunday morning, and it was surmised that arsenic might have been administered in the booze.

Fuel for suspicion

Macaque in the trees
Erminia ‘Minnie’ Orsino

Erma Orsino, 77, originally from Canonsburg, now lives in Palm Springs, Calif. A U.S. Navy veteran, Orsino enjoyed a long career as “barber to the stars.” She began cutting hair in 1961, and in 1968, she opened her own shop in West Hollywood. Rock Hudson, Peter Lawford, Jim Nabors, and Pierre Salinger were among her patrons. Orsino is the granddaughter of Minnie and Ottavo Orsino. Although the events involving the Black Hand are long before her time, she has heard stories. And she does not believe her grandfather’s murder was revenge for her grandmother’s testimony.

“I was told that my grandfather was poisoned by Alfonso Polifrone. They said it was because my grandmother was a witness, but it was Alfonso who poisoned him because he wanted Minnie,” Orsino said.

No one was ever charged with Ottavo Orsino’s poisoning. But some suspicions must have been confirmed when about a year after Ottavo’s death Minnie Orsino and Polifrone were married in Elm Grove, W.Va.

Alfonso and Minnie operated a pool hall in East Canonsburg, Erma Orsino said. “She was the godmother of the town. She used to sell hooch.”

If Minnie was the godmother, Alfonso could well have been the godfather; he certainly had the background for it. Born in Oppido, Calabria, in 1893, Polifrone came to the U.S. in March 1910. He stated his occupation as farm laborer on his immigration forms. Eight years later, he was charged with two other men for the murder of Pittsburgh policeman Thomas F. Farrell. Two of the defendants were found guilty at their February 1919 trial, but the judge ordered Polifrone acquitted because of insufficient evidence.

In 1920, Polifrone, known then also by the alias Joe Alia, was found guilty of running a “white slavery” operation in Canonsburg. His 12-year sentence was cut short in return for his testimony against Fragassa and Daniele. He was ordered to leave Washington County upon release, and he did, for a while.

As many of his former colleagues did, Polifrone found easy money in running bootleg liquor. And in April 1928, he was arrested near Hendersonville while trying to run a car loaded with whiskey into Canonsburg.

Like father, like son

Macaque in the trees
Prohibition outlawed the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages but did not reduce the demand for them.

Prohibition had made the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States, but it did little to halt the demand for them. By the mid 1920s, criminals satisfied this need by manufacturing alcohol or smuggling it in over the Canadian and Mexican borders and selling it at inflated prices. The demand was so great and the profits so large that stiff competition among the bootleggers developed. The gang wars that resulted signaled the end of Black Hand-style crime and the beginning of something just as alarming.

Gang warfare raged in Pittsburgh, resulting in 36 killings in 1927. Among the bootleggers involved in the business in the city was John Daniele, the son of the convicted killer Marcantonio Daniele, executed for ordering the murder of Gabriele Fiore. John was charged with the killing as well, but Washington County’s District Attorney Howard Hughes declined to try him due to lack of evidence.

During the past six weeks, a number of Observer-Reporter readers have contacted the newspaper or written posts on social media relating stories about the Black Hand, passed down through their families. “Pay of Die,” the seven-part serial that concludes today, dredged up memories of a fearful episode in Washington County history.

Tish Cardis’ family was from Calabria. They lived in the Black Diamond area of Monongahela. Her grandmother used to get threatening letters if she did not shop in her usual Italian market but went to the other grocery in the neighborhood.

Cardis’ mother, Angelica Vaccaro, was born in 1912. As a child, she and her older sister were asleep when someone blew up their stoop, when they lived on Main Street. And both of her grandfathers had run-ins with the Black Hand. One of them was ambushed and shot one of his attackers. He was cleared, based on self-defense.

Joe Mancuso, 95, was born in Labelle. His parents came from Savelli in Calabria. The family moved to Arden in 1925 or 1926.

“My dad worked in the mine when it was going pretty good then. There were about 20 mine houses, and most of the people who lived there were Italians. These Black Hands would want us to buy oil from them at $5 a gallon, and if we didn’t buy it from them, they’d cause us a lot of trouble. Back then $5 was a lot of money, and my dad got $2.50 for working 10 hours.”

Mancuso’s family lived there a few years. His father died in 1927, and then the family moved to Tylerdale. “The people there were all Calabrians, all along Allison Avenue, Woodland Avenue, Summerlea Avenue,” he said.

Most of those responding to the serial grew up in East Canonsburg or live there now. Before Jim Herron, the retired veterinarian and Canonsburg historian, died last week, he shared with us some of the comments on the Canonsburg Friends page on Facebook:

• Norma Jean Salvino wrote that her father, who came to America in 1921, lived in East Canonsburg. “He was robbed and threatened by these people. They took his food and money. So he moved to Clairton and Morgantown, W.Va. He was a carpenter and built many homes in Canonsburg.”

• Mike Roman said that the building at Second and Euclid was Bonzak’s store. “They wouldn’t pay for protection and the store was blown up. My Syrian grandfather told us the story of when he was first married and living in an apartment where Sarris Candy is now. The Black Hand told him to move his belongings because they were going to blow up the house on Wednesday. Later, they came back and said to stay a couple more days, they would blow it up on the weekend. And they did.”

• Estelle Craft lived on Franklin Avenue until she was 8 years old and then moved to Euclid Avenue. She wrote, “I remember my dad telling me it used to be if you saw a black hand on a house or a building, they were doomed.”

The Italians were not the only people in East Canonsburg who feared the Black Hand. In the first two decades of the 20th century, it was as much a Greek neighborhood as an Italian one.

George Anthou, who has been an attorney for 53 years, said that his father, Emmanuel Savvas Anthou, came from Koskinou, Rhodos, Greece, and worked in the steel mills for five years, then went back to Greece to marry. When he returned, they lived on Blaine Avenue, worked at Standard Tin Plate and helped to establish the Greek Orthodox church there. Anthou said his father remembered being “scared, very concerned” about the Black Hand, which the Greeks called “mauvra heria.”

“My father recalled that fire bombings took place in East Canonsburg, and on one particular morning observed broken bedroom furniture hanging from the electric wire lines as a result of the bombings.”

Anthou said he is proud of being from East Canonsburg, the “slum where I grew up.”

East Canonsburg is not a slum, however. It’s a quiet neighborhood of small, older homes, most of them well-maintained.

The little groceries and shops that once were so abundant there are gone, for the most part, although there is a barber shop just across the street from where Minnie Orsino’s house once was on what is now Perry Como Avenue. It was through the window of that house they she watched as Angelo Fragassa kneeled and kissed the hand of Black Hand boss Marcantonio Daniele just before the murder of Gabriele Fiore in the early hours of May 29, 1922.

East Canonsburg, like just about every other place in Western Pennsylvania, is much different now than it was 100 years ago. It’s no longer a place where Italian Greek and Polish languages predominate, no longer a place ruled by swaggering gangsters. There is still crime, but that crime is different now. It is mostly drug-related.

John married Eleanor Gosser in May 1925, but the marriage did not work out. On Jan. 10, 1928, about a month after their divorce was final, John, 23, delivered a load of liquor in Pittsburgh in a car that had its rear seat removed to make room for the contraband cargo. At 9:50 p.m., as he was driving on Liberty Avenue at 14th Street, he was ambushed. His body was riddled with bullets.

Nine days later, police battered their way through locked and barred doors at a dwelling at 820 Wylie Avenue. “Detectives say sawed-off shotguns, hundreds of shells and a dozen revolvers were found in the place, together with fuses similar to those used in bombs,” the Pittsburgh Press reported.

Four of the men arrested there were later convicted of John Daniele’s slaying.

A tangled web of characters

In 1932, Polifrone was convicted in Wheeling, W.Va., of counterfeiting and forgery. Four years later, while he was serving six years at Lewisburg Penitentiary, Minnie divorced him.

“Alfonso was a pig,” Erma Orsino said.

Minnie found a way to support herself and raise her sons, Orlando and Olianus, without the help and protection of Polifrone.

“Minnie ran a whore house on Duquesne Avenue,” Erma Orsino said. “She used to call out to men from the window. I asked my mom about it and she just said that she had a lot of lady friends. She was strict with her two sons. She went to the Black Hand for money to get them through college.”

Minnie Orsino was a strong woman of extraordinary courage and determination. But she hadn’t the strength to fight the stomach cancer that killed her at age 45.

Rose Pizzarella was remarried in the mid 1930s to tailor Joe Merante, with whom she had another child, Ralph. They lived just over the borough line in Cecil Township. By 1940, Polifrone was living with them as a boarder.

Ralph Merante still lives in Canonsburg and remembers the former Blackhander.

“He was very close, to our family, Merante said. “He had an obligation to take care of my family. He was the godfather of two or three of my brothers and sisters.”

Merante’s half-siblings were much older than him. Theresa was born in Italy in 1911; Jean in Punxsutawney in 1913; James in 1915 and Patsy in 1917. Jean had married Orlando Orsino – Minnie’s son – in 1931. That marriage is just one example of how tightly woven the Italian community was.

Polifrone was still living with the Merantes in 1954 when Joe died of natural causes at age 54. By that time, Polifrone had gotten into the legitimate bar business. In 1952, he was partners with Patsy Asturino at the Asturino Grille on West Chestnut Street in Washington. The bar was later called the Queen and finally the A&M bar before it was torn down in 1966 during a redevelopment project.

Polifrone and Rose Pizzarella Merante, in whose home he has lived since at least 1940, were married sometime in the late 1950s. She died around 1965.

Of the three original defendants charged with the 1922 murder of Gabriele Fiore and the three main witnesses who testified against them, only Polifrone had managed to survive past the age of 45. He did not live under the radar; his addresses and telephone numbers appeared regularly in phone books and city directories. But how he had managed to avoid being killed for so long – as so many of his underworld colleagues were – is a mystery, and any conclusion merely speculation.

In April 1969, at age 75, Polifrone married Rosaria Frisina, a woman 18 years younger. Shortly after that, he returned to Italy.

The last word on Alfonso Polifrone came from the U.S. Embassy in Rome, which announced his death on Jan. 3, 1973.

“He was killed over there by the Mafia,” Erma Orsino said. “They had this vendetta against him.”

No record can be found that describes the manner of Polifrone’s death. But if what Orsino believes is true, his demise is a fitting ending to his life and to this story. The moral can be found in that old book full of tales of violence and retribution, in Matthew 26:52:

All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.

THE END

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