Thursday, January 1, 2009

Black Hand Gang Eliminated -- by Johnny Torrio?


Late in the evening on November 22, 1911, three men were shot in the Rock Island Railroad underpass at Archer Street. Two died at the scene, the other was seriously injured and sent to the hospital. Why? There appear to be two theories.

The dead men were Pasquale Damico and Francisco Denello. According to the next day's Tribune, Damico was shot at close range nine times in the back, while Francisco Denello was shot twice, once in the head and the other through his left side. Denello's brother, Stephano, who was also shot, was discovered by a policeman dragging himself down the sidewalk a block away, and rushed to the hospital.

Under police questioning, Stephano refused to reveal any clues about his attackers. He did, however, ask that Levee big shot and Chicago Outfit founder "Big" Jim Colosimo be brought to his bedside. When Colosimo showed up, however, Stephano refused to talk with him.

Police identified the Damico and the Denellos as a Black Hand gang, sending extortion threats to prominent Italian businessmen in the neighborhood. The police captain interviewed by the Tribune said,
The city is rid of a bad gang. It is my belief that the three men were lured to the scene of the shooting by men whom they have blackmailed or were attempting to obtain money from through Black Hand letters. The Denello brothers and Damico have done most of the black hand work in this police district. We have known for a long time that they were black handers, but it has been impossible to get their victims to rap against them. Fear of death has kept them from giving the police information that might have sent the gang to the penitentiary.
As an important Italian businessmen, Colosimo was likely the frequent target of Black Hand gangs. Some historians believe that the fact that practically nothing was left of Colosimo's fortune upon his assassination indicates that he paid heavily to the Black Hand, although as the gangster king of the city, it is difficult to imagine that he would have suffered such indignities.

Instead of paying up, Colosimo may have dispatched his right-hand man (and his successor in leadership of the Outfit), Johnny Torrio, to "bump off" any would-be extortioners. The extreme manner in which Damico was riddled with bullets may have been a warning to other hoodlums that Big Jim was not to be taken advantage of.

Two weeks later, however, the Tribune advanced an alternative theory of the killings: they were part of a classic Italian love triangle. Police theorized that Mary Palaggi, a Levee saloon-keeper's daughter, was engaged to one man, but desired by another. The Denello brothers, it is claimed, were friends of the fiance (though he denied it), and Damico was an associate of the would-be paramour. The shootout under the railroad tracks, then, arose from a dispute among the parties, not an attack from assassins. The question of why the surviving Denello would have called for Colosimo in the hospital is left unanswered.

The underpass separates the Levee area, now dominated by the Hilliard Towers apartments and the Harold Ickes Homes housing project, from Chinatown, visible at the end of the road in the photo below.

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