Joseph Aiello was Al Capone's most bitter rival. Each wanted control of Chicago's Unione Siciliana and the enormous profits its "alky cookers" generated during Prohibition. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, plus the rise and fall of Aiello play out in this final segment of Chicago's decade of slaughter.
by Allan May
While the Aiello-Capone war over control of the local Unione Siciliana was raging in Chicago, the ''Big Fellow'' himself was taking in the sunshine of southern Florida. Capone had taken his wife and son to Miami in early 1928. Once the sensation of his presence in the Sunshine State had passed, Capone set about finding a suitable home for himself and his family. He chose a 14-room, two-story, white-stucco, Spanish-style home that was, ironically, built for beer brewing magnate Clarence M. Busch of St. Louis. The home was located on what was called Palm Island, a part of Miami Beach. Capone spent an additional $100,000 on home improvements, including the construction of a swimming pool that was said to be the largest private pool in the state.
Capone left the warmth and comfort of Florida to return to Chicago to oversee the mayhem that became part of the April 1928 primary election. Dubbed the ''Pineapple Primary,'' due to the number of bombs that exploded during it, one of the more important battles in the election was for a seat on the Board of Review. Said to be a ''tax-setting plum,'' the Capone forces were backing Unione Siciliana figurehead Bernard Barasa. Despite the number of explosions connected with his campaign, Barasa lost to the incumbent by over 100,000 votes.
After the primary, Capone headed back to Miami Beach to direct the renovation efforts at his Palm Island estate, leaving his Chicago rackets in the hands of his chief lieutenant Frank Nitti. In late June 1928, Jake Guzik, Dan Serritella and Charley Fischetti traveled to Florida to meet with the boss. They were soon joined by ''Machine Gun Jack'' McGurn and the killing twins, Anselmi and Scalise, who had recently been acquitted of killing two Chicago police officers. At this meeting the treachery of Frank Uale, the national president of the Unione Siciliana in New York, was discussed and his fate decided.
Capone's next visit to Chicago was for the funeral of Anthony Lombardo, the Capone-sponsored president of Chicago's Unione Siciliana who had been murdered by the Aiello forces in September 1928. After seeing to the ascension of Pasqualino Lolordo to the presidency of the Unione Siciliana, now the Italo-American National Union, Capone again headed south.
While Capone was on his way out of Chicago, Joe Aiello was headed back in. Meeting with his new allies on the North Side, Aiello still had fatalistic aspirations of climbing into the president's role of the Unione. The first obstacle in his way was Lolordo.
Less than a month after returning from the Statler Hotel debacle in Cleveland, Lolordo was overseeing Unione business. On Tuesday, Jan. 8, 1929, Lolordo and his wife Aleina returned from a trip downtown. When they arrived home they were met by two men outside their apartment that Mrs. Lolordo ''had seen many times, but whose names she didn't know.'' The four climbed the stairs to the Lolordos' opulent third-floor suite where Aleina prepared a meal.
After lunch the two guests departed and five minutes later there was knock at the Lolordo door. Three men entered and were cordially welcomed by Lolordo. While Aleina ironed clothes in the kitchen and a black maid scrubbed the floors, the four men talked business and laughed in the living room. As she worked, Aleina could hear the tinkle of glasses as the men toasted each other during the conversation.
At approximately 4 p.m. she heard the men push back their chairs as they stood up. While delivering one more toast, two of the men pulled out .38 caliber guns and without any warning shot Lolordo 11 times, the bullets piercing his face, neck and chest. Aleina rushed into the living room to see her husband lying on the floor covered with blood.
The three men then exited the apartment, leaving one .38 on the living-room floor and the other on the second-floor landing. Just minutes after the murder, Anna Lolordo, the wife of Joseph Lolordo, the former bodyguard of Anthony Lombardo, arrived. Anna pulled Aleina away from her deceased husband and they called a local mortuary. The drivers walked in, saw the bullet-riddled remains, and called the police.
When police arrived they discovered three half-filled wineglasses on a table; the fourth glass was smashed, its fragments still in Lolordo's hand. Police tired to contact the victim's brother Joseph, but were told by his wife that he was out of town. One of the early rumors was that Joseph was present at the time his brother was murdered and wounded in the attack.
In searching the apartment the police found a sawed-off shotgun and a draft of a new constitution for the North West Italian-American club. Included in the draft was a goal to ''improve the education of its members, morally, economically and socially by means of conferences and discussion and by any other means at hand.'' The police, within an hour of the murder, raided three pool halls on West Grand Avenue that were alleged hangouts for Aiello gunmen. Aleina was taken to the police station where she viewed the 18 men who were brought in, but was unable to identify any of them.
The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that on the evening of the murder that Dan Serritella spoke with Aleina at the detective bureau after which she identified Joe Aiello from a photograph as one of the men present at her husband's murder. The following day the newspaper ran a follow-up story reporting several inaccuracies about recent Unione Siciliana activities and printing a few assumptions made by the police. Included in this article, in which the leadership of the Unione Siciliana was referred to as a ''dictatorship over the Sicilians in Chicago,'' were the following statements:
''Once Aiello had shared Lombardo's offices and, with Al Capone as a silent member, they ruled as a triumvirate. Aiello rebelled and sought to set up a dictatorship of his own, his domain being principally the north side. Lombardo had the followers of Capone do his violence; Aiello allied himself with Capone's enemies, the George Moran gang.
''Capone, it appears, wasn't interested in the small pickings from the Sicilians and Italians, but in the larger field of booze and vice domination. But when Aiello deserted he joined the vice interests of Jack Zuta and other west siders.
''Then Lombardo was killed. Two months ago twenty-three Italians and Sicilians of Chicago were arrested in a hotel in Cleveland, O., all of them armed. Just recently police have learned that the meeting was called for the purpose of selecting a successor to Lombardo. Aiello wasn't there, the police version continues, but he had agreed to be present. It developed that it was Aiello who notified the police of Cleveland that a gang of Chicago gunmen could be found in the hotel. Aiello, police declare, had hoped thereby to settle the question of Chicago leadership.'''
The article went on to claim that the police were told that Aiello had recently returned to Chicago and had suggested a truce whereby Lolordo had invited him to discuss the terms.
In his book, Mr. Capone, author Robert J. Schoenberg wrote: ''Early reports said that Aleina had identified a picture of Joe Aiello as one of the three visitors. 'She didn't identify anyone,' said John Stege, by now deputy police chief. 'I don't know how that report got started. It was the same in this case as in other cases – no identification, no aid.'''
Many crime historians still maintain that Aiello was one of the three men present at the time of the murder and that the two shooters were Frank and Peter Gusenberg. Schoenberg suggests the third man was North Sider James Clark. What is interesting is that whether it was Aiello or Clark with the Gusenbergs that day, why was Lolordo so cordial toward them? By this time it was believed Aiello was behind the murder of Lombardo and that the Gusenberg brothers were the killers. Was Lolordo acting out of fear? Is it possible that the Lolordo brothers were in on the plot to murder Lombardo and were playing both sides of the fence? The men who preceded the killers into Lolordo's apartment for lunch that day were never identified. Had they gone there to set Lolordo up? These questions remain unanswered.
Joseph ''Hop Toad'' Guinta
The murders of Anthony Lombardo and Pasqualino Lolordo and the belief by Capone that Aiello had orchestrated the killings with the backing of George ''Bugs'' Moran and his North Side gang incited Capone to drastic action. From his Florida home, working with chief gunman Jack McGurn, Capone plotted the infamous retaliation that would become known around the world as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On the morning of Feb. 14, 1929, six of Moran's men, including the Gusenberg brothers and James Clark, and one gang hanger-on were slaughtered in a garage on North Clark Street. Moran was believed to be on his way to the garage when he spotted the executioners, disguised as police officers, entering the garage. Moran was never again a factor in the Chicago underworld.
Joseph Guinta, who had accompanied Pasqualino Lolordo to the Cleveland meeting, assumed leadership of the Unione Siciliana. Robert Schoenberg describes Guinta: ''A dandified hyperactive, Guinta loved power and dancing, his gyrations in aid of both pursuits so frequent and frenzied many called him 'Hop Toad.' His elaborate dress, his cocky demeanor and exhibitionism all spoke of a vanity that could make a twenty-six-year-old listen to whisperings of unlikely ambition.''
In John Kobler's Capone, the author states that after Anselmi and Scalise were acquitted in June 1927 of murdering the police officers, Capone threw a party to celebrate. Kobler claims, ''The life of the party was a flip, strutting, bandboxical Sicilian gunman, a crony of Scalise and Anselmi, Giuseppe Giunta (sic), called Hop Toad because of his nimbleness on a dance floor.''
Capone biographers tell conflicting accounts of what transpired next. There is some confusion as to who was leading whom into a deceitful plot against Capone that would eventually cost all the primary participants their lives.
Kenneth Allsop, in his 1961 classic The Bootleggers, discusses Aiello's continuing efforts to kill Capone: ''These included the wooing of Scalise and Anselmi. Promising them positions of command once Capone was liquidated and the regional Mafia was under his authority, Aiello persuaded them to urge upon Capone that Guinta would be an admirable replacement for Lolordo in the Unione throne.''
This would seem to indicate that Aiello and Guinta were already in cahoots. Lawrence Bergreen, in his somewhat slanted biography, Capone: The Man and the Era, bolstered this claim: ''What brought Capone back (from Florida) against his better judgment was an appalling rumor that Scalise and Anselmi, the Sicilian gunmen who helped carry out the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, had suddenly shifted their loyalty away from Capone and toward the new head of the Unione Siciliana, Joseph ''Hop Toad'' Guinta, who had formed an alliance with another enemy of Capone, Joseph Aiello.''
The turn of events that brought Aiello, Anselmi, Guinta and Scalise together to initiate a murder plot against Capone has never been made clear. What is known is that Guinta, as president of the Unione Siciliana, did align himself with Anselmi and Scalise. Some reports have it that Scalise was named vice president of the organization. Shortly after the massacre there was a marked change in Scalise. Rumors began to abound about him. One was that he was heard to brag that he was the ''most powerful'' man in Chicago. Some believe that he now ran the Unione Siciliana and that Guinta was his puppet. If this were true, it would account for his ''most powerful'' image of himself. While this alone would not mark him for death, what transpired next certainly did.
Scalise had been spotted in a Waukegan restaurant meeting with Joe Aiello. A waiter at the restaurant reportedly revealed this clandestine meeting to a Capone gang member. It was alleged that Anselmi and Scalise would kill Capone for the $50,000 bounty that Aiello was offering. Them Anselmi and Scalise would control Capone's empire, Guinta would oversee the Unione, and Aiello would have the North Side.
The story goes that when Capone was informed of this plot he was still not convinced of Anselmi and Scalise's treachery. Capone, the man who had once saved the two killer's lives at the sake of peace with Hymie Weiss, demanded more proof. He returned from Florida to get it. Sometime in late April or early May 1929, Capone invited Anselmi and Scalise to join him for dinner along Capone's bodyguard, Frank Rio. During the meal Capone and Rio faked a falling out. After a fabricated argument, Rio slapped Capone across the face and stormed out of the restaurant. Taken in by the charade, Anselmi and Scalise met with Rio the following day and let him in on their plot with Aiello and Guinta to murder Capone. Over the next three days Anselmi and Scalise met with Rio to discuss the plan.
Capone now had his confirmation of Anselmi and Scalise's treachery. Schoenberg describes what followed:
''…Capone's hurt fury demanded more than instant vengeance. 'It was Nitti's idea,' says George Meyer (a onetime Capone driver). 'I was in an office and Capone came in with Nitti and Joe Fischetti.' They started to talk and Meyer got up to leave, thinking the big shots wanted privacy. 'Stick around,' Capone told Meyer. 'You're gonna know about it anyway.' Nitti suggested a banquet for the outfit's top people, the three plotters guests of honor. The preceding gaiety and sense of camaraderie and security would make the subsequent terror all the more exquisite.
''Invitations were issued for Tuesday night, May 7, at The Plantation, a roadhouse and casino that dripped Old South magnolia charm near Hammond, Ind., just over the line from Burnham, Johnny Torrio's first suburban colony. The banquet would be in a private back room. ''We frisked everyone going in as usual,' says Meyer''
It was a routine night for Hammond police officers Louis Tebodo and Charles Plant. They were returning a couple of prisoners to the station when two large automobiles sped past them headed towards Chicago at the corner of Sheffield Avenue and Hohman Street. After depositing their prisoners at the Hammond jail they returned to the area where the cars had passed them. As they drove around the vicinity they came across an abandoned automobile. The officers looked inside. Under a brown blanket they found the bodies of Anselmi and Guinta. A short distance away lay the body of Scalise.
The death car had been stolen on April 17. The license plate came from another car stolen the last week of March. Police and the newspapers immediately surmised that ''Bugs'' Moran and Joe Aiello committed the murders in retaliation for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. However, on May 9, the Chicago Daily Tribune was already reporting that from ''Sicilian'' sources the police had been told:
''The three Chicago Sicilians slain near Hammond Tuesday night were the victims of a quartet of their countrymen who, according to police theory last night, aimed in that way to secure peace in the control of rich booze and vice profits.
''According to this report, the triple slaying was not in reprisal for the St. Valentine day massacre (sic) of seven Moran gangsters. The three were killed because they were reaching out with extortionate hands for the rum running profits and levying tribute on tradesmen in legitimate lines of business. The authorities were further informed that the slayings were done in Indiana as an evidence of good will toward the Chicago police.''
The article went on to say that the three were lured to the Indiana roadhouse to be slain by four other men. Just who furnished this information to the police is of some interest. It is amazing that in less than 24 hours after the murders they had such an accurate account of not only what happened – but why. With no by-line on the Tribune story, one has to wonder if reporter Jake Lingle was involved based on his close relationship to Capone and the Chicago underworld. The mystery is how the motive for the murders was discovered so quickly.
What is not clear is the number of people who were present at the time of the murders. The movies always show the banquet room filled with tuxedoed mobsters just before the Capone character produces a baseball bat and begins swinging.
The murders themselves must have been terrifying as well as brutal for the three traitors. The legend has Capone savagely beating each of them with a baseball bat. That Capone did the actual beating was never proven, just assumed. Dr. Eli S. Jones, the coroner of Lake County, Ind., in his examination surmised that after the men were clobbered their assailants shot them to finish them off: ''Scalise threw up his hand to cover his face and a bullet cut off his little finger, before crashing into his eye. Another bullet crashed into his jaw and he fell from his chair. Meanwhile, the other killers – there must have been three or four – had fired on Guinta and Anselmi, disabling them. A bullet broke Anselmi's right arm. When their victims fell to the floor, their assailants stood over them and fired several shots in their backs.''
After the autopsies the bodies of the three men were returned to Chicago. The remains of Anselmi and Scalise were returned to their families in Sicily for burial – Anselmi in Marsala and Scalise in Castelvertrano. Guinta was taken to the funeral parlor of famed mortician and politician John Sbarbaro.
A side note to the Tribune reporting of the murders. In two consecutive articles following the killings the newspaper refers to two meetings of the national Unione Siciliana taking place in Cleveland, Ohio. It is know that one took place in December 1928. But the paper claims that, ''A meeting of Sicilian rulers of various cities was said to have been held in Cleveland last week,'' which would have meant the first week of May 1929. No other information regarding this second meeting has ever surfaced.
Capone historian Kenneth Allsop gives us an early look at Joe Aiello and his brothers in The Bootleggers: ''The Aiello's gang was a family business. There were nine of them – Joe, Dominick, Antonio and Andrew ruled the roustabouts – and also numerous cousins of the same name. Their entry into bootlegging was via supplying wholesale sugar for the Genna brothers' alky-cooking syndicate. After the Gennas had been cut to pieces and disbanded in 1925, Joe Aiello pieced the organization together to keep Chicago's worst and cheapest rotgut liquor flowing, and the brothers ruled the illiterate peasant families who were their scab labor force with the same kind of harsh paternalism that the Gennas had practiced. But an obstacle to their complete domination of the Little Italy community was the nomination of Antonio Lombardo, by Capone, to the presidency of the Unione Siciliana following the deaths of Angelo Genna and Sam Samoots Amatuna.''
Following the death of Lolordo, there was confusion in the minds of organized crime historians about the leadership of the Unione Siciliana. In Capone, John Kobler mistakenly claims that after the murder of Lolordo, ''Joe Aiello finally won the presidency of the Unione Siciliana. He held it almost a year.''
Right after the murders of Anselmi, Guinta and Scalise, Capone headed to Atlantic City for a crime conference that was in part organized by his former boss, Johnny Torrio. Lawrence Bergreen in Capone: The Man and the Era, states that Capone was dictated to that Aiello would head the Chicago branch of the Unione Siciliana. The author claims that this was part of a 14-point peace initiative that only Bergreen seems to know about.
After the conference, Capone went to Philadelphia where he allowed himself and his bodyguard, Frank Rio, to be arrested for carrying concealed weapons. It was never clear if this idea was Capone's or if it was done at the suggestion of Torrio, Frank Costello, or Lucky Luciano. (Their respective biographers give the credit for the idea to their own subject.) The general feeling was that the slaughter in Chicago had brought too much heat and unwanted publicity down on the underworld and perhaps if Capone were to take a ''short vacation'' it would blow over.
Robert Schoenberg states that while Capone was serving his one-year sentence in Pennsylvania, ''Joe Aiello had returned to follow Guinta as head of the Unione, which automatically gave him a renewed power base, inspiring him to resurrect dreams of getting Capone. Gossip put him again plotting with Moran – who wisely stayed clear of Chicago…''
There is virtually no information on the activities of Joe Aiello from his attempts to conspire with Anselmi, Guinta and Scalise in April 1929, until his death in September 1930. If Aiello did anything with his ''renewed power base'' or ''resurrected dreams,'' Schoenberg did not say what, nor did any other writer or historian.
Around Sept. 10, 1930 Aiello secreted himself at the rooming house of Pasquale Prestogiacomo. Nicknamed ''Patsy Presto,'' Prestogiacomo was the treasurer and manager of the Italio-American Importing Company of which Aiello was the reputed president. The young daughter of Prestogiacomo, Frances, would later testify that ''Mr. Joe,'' as she called him, ''never went out of the house,'' during his two-week stay.
Aiello remained at the Prestogiacomo rooming house at 205 Kolmar Avenue until Thursday evening, Sept. 23. Reported to have a ticket to Mexico City in his pocket, he asked Frances to call a taxicab to the rooming house. When the cab arrived the driver, James Ruane, went into the rooming house, but could not find a doorbell for the name Presto. Returning to his cab, Ruane turned his spotlight on the building and noticed ''four or five shadowy figures'' near a front window. When Ruane returned to the rooming house and ''kicked'' on the door Aiello appeared.
Aiello followed a few steps behind Ruane on the way to the cab. The driver opened the door for Aiello. As Ruane waited he noticed a window being raised across the street in a second-floor apartment. A dark figure then raised a machinegun and opened fire. Ruane heard Aiello groan after being hit with a burst of fire. He ''saw the figure of Aiello rolling, pitching, and staggering south a few feet toward a possible haven.''
Reaching for his gun Aiello cried out, but his words were unintelligible. He made it around the corner of the rooming house, only to be greeted by another hail of bullets coming from a second machinegun nest that had been set up on the third floor of another apartment building. These shooters were firing almost straight down on their helpless victim. A police officer later said Aiello was filled ''with a ton of lead.'' As it turned out, it was only a pound. The coroner removed 59 slugs from his body.
After the guns silenced, Ruane ran to Aiello. With the help of a motorcycle patrolman they carried Aiello to the cab and sped off to Garfield Park Hospital. Aiello was dead on arrival.
An investigation discovered that a ''Morris Friend'' and a ''Henry Jacobs'' had rented the two apartments right after Aiello had taken refuge at the Prestogiacomo rooming house, and had been waiting for him to appear the whole time. A search of the Kolmar Avenue apartment shooting nest, the one facing the rooming house, disclosed ''at least 1,000 cigarette stubs,'' a half-eaten box of candy, a pair of rubber gloves and a silk glove. Also found was a copy of Rudyard Kipling's book, Soldiers Three opened to the chapter, ''His Chance in Life.''
Across the street in the Prestogiacomo home, the walls and the front door were perforated with bullets. A basement flat was also peppered; the occupants had missed the lead downpour by just two minutes. Following the shooting, Prestogiacomo disappeared and went into hiding. Police believed he might have tipped off the killers to Aiello's whereabouts, or to his plans to flee. During the coroner's inquest, Prestogiacomo's lawyer promised he would surrender his client.
Joe Aiello was the eighth person to hold the title of president of the Unione Siciliana since May 1921 – and the eighth to die. Of these dead presidents only Mike Merlo died of natural causes. In John Kobler's Capone, he claims that ''Aiello's Capone-supported successor, a macaroni manufacturer named Agostino Loverdo, also reigned for a year before he was killed in a Cicero dive.''
The prestige, power and mystique that the presidency of the Chicago Unione Siciliana held seemed to dissipate after the murder of Joe Aiello. Perhaps control of the alky cookers who made up a large percentage of the membership held less significance to Capone's overall liquor income with the real product pouring into Chicago almost unheeded from Canada, Detroit, and the East Coast. After all, even going back to the Genna brothers days, this locally produced alcohol was always considered an inferior ''rot gut'' liquor product.
As a political entity, the Unione Siciliana continued until at least the mid-1940s. Virgil W. Peterson, head of the Chicago Crime Commission, in his 1952 gem, Barbarians in Our Midst, wrote the final chapter of this society that caused so much death and destruction during the Roaring Twenties:
''The Italo-American National Union, frequently called the Unione Siciliana, was utilized to advance the cause of Capone candidates for political office. Phil D'Andrea testified that from 1934 to 1941 he was president of the Unione Siciliana and was responsible for bringing his friends, Tony Accardo, Charles Fischetti, Paul Ricca, John Capone and Nick Circella (alias Nick Dean), into this organization as members. D'Andrea, who was very influential in First Ward politics, brought before the Unione Siciliana as speakers those political candidates who apparently had the blessing of the Capone syndicate.
''Paul Ricca testified that he continued to pay his membership dues in the Unione Siciliana until he was committed to the Federal penitentiary in December 1943. During part of the time that Ricca was active in the Unione Siciliana, Joseph Bulger, an attorney, was its president.
''The exploitation of the Unione Siciliana, a benevolent association, for the advancement of the Capone organization was not peculiar to Chicago. In New York, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano and other gangsters became powerful in Unione Siciliana activities, as did gangsters in many of the other large American municipalities.''
Allan May's e-mail address is: AllanMay@worldnet.att.net