The hot spot for Mafia activity in 1890s America was New Orleans, where the Matranga family and the Provenzano family were at war over control of shipping, extortion, and labor racketeering. The Matrangas assassinated New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy on October 15, 1890. Infuriated by the slow course of justice, a mob of New Orleans citizens lynched 11 Matranga gang members on March 14, 1891.
In the months following the assassination, cities around the United States suspected Mafia activity in any neighborhood with Italian immigrants. Cincinnati was no different, and something suspicious was happening in Cincinnati. According to The Cincinnati Post [26 November 1890]:
“Indications point to some deep-laid Mafia plans for further trouble in New Orleans. The authorities here have notified the New Orleans police of the mysterious actions of the Italians in this city. For the past three weeks, every morning, a little batch of these fellows could be seen, bag in hand, wending their way to the Grand Central depot, where they bought second-class tickets for New Orleans. It is estimated that about 500 Italians have left this city for New Orleans in the last 18 days.”
So many Italian men left Cincinnati that the local Post Office reported piles of unclaimed mail. When mail men attempted to deliver letters landlords invariably said the recipient had left for New Orleans. Post reporters approached several Italian men remaining in Cincinnati to ask about the departures, but got nothing but shrugs.
Cincinnati’s first personal look at an alleged Mafioso was provided on the arrest of one Enrico Basante. A con man with a long record, Basante appeared in Cincinnati on the lam from St. Louis. He was wanted there for attempted armed robbery of a brothel keeper and for bilking a St. Louis grocer out of $3,000. According to Grannan’s Pocket Gallery of Noted Criminals :
“Enrico and his pals have worked the same racket, varied a little to suit their victims. They represented themselves as capitalists and pretended to go into business with their victims, or buy real estate from them. The one aim in all their jobs has been to induce their victims to get their money from the banks. Then they worked a valise-change or some other flim-flam racket, to get the money.”
Cincinnati was so unfamiliar with Italians and Italian names that the police couldn’t tell whether Basante or Enrico was his given name and “Enrico” also appears as “Angko.” Nevertheless, Cincinnati Police Detective John Aloysius Schnucks set a trap for Basante with the unenthusiastic participation of Covington saloon keeper Tony Calia. According to The Cincinnati Post [20 Sep 1892]:
“Angko [Basante] is a shrewd man, and is a member of the Mafia. Monday, when he was arrested, he nearly scared Tony Calia, the Covington saloon-keeper to death, and caused him to weaken and almost frustrated the crook’s capture. When Schnucks approached Calia and Angko according to the program, the detective asked Calia if the man with him was the ‘con’ man. ‘Yes,’ said Calia. Angko heard this answer, and turning fiercely to Calia, said something in Italian that caused Calia’s face to blanch with fear.”
Calia attempted to tell Schnucks that he had been misunderstood, that Basante was a friend. Schnucks wasn’t buying, made the arrest, and forced Calia to show up in court to testify. The Post noted:
“Schnucks learned afterward that the threat was a particular kind of the Mafia society and when breathed by a member scares any Italian at whom it is hurled. Angko is a vicious looking fellow, and just the man for a society like the Mafia.”
Mafia or not, Enrico Basante had no intention of returning to Missouri. When a St. Louis detective showed up to escort him back for trial, Basante insisted on formal extradition, sending the St. Louis cop to Columbus for paperwork. Basante told The Post:
“Why should I go to St. Louis? I have done nothing, and they would string me up or shoot me like they did the Italians in New Orleans. They say that I belong to the Mafia and I know what they do with people of that kind in the South and West.”
Basante did return to St. Louis for trial, and Cincinnati eventually realized that all Italians are not Mafiosi, especially after the center of Mafia activity moved to New York later in the decade.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities