San Diego Historical Society Photograph Collection
Tait’s market, 1735 India Street, four doors down from 1753 India Street bombing
“You have to get it all in a historic context,’ Mr. Willis said. “The Italianos, or Sicilianos, began to come here to America back around 1870. The main group on the West Coast came to San Francisco and San Diego and San Pedro because of the fishing. Italians from San Francisco came south after the aught-six earthquake. They’d already been in other parts of the United States — New Orleans especially, and New York and New Jersey, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and Boston.
Tuna boats at San Diego harbor. "They didn’t have the great big purse seiners that they have today."
Courtesy of KPBS Television
"But our weather out here was like that where they came from in Sicily and Southern Italy. So that attracted them. They were families and they were young men who would get a stake and then send for their families. There was no such thing yet as Prohibition, which gave birth to and nurtured organized crime.
Local fisherman landing tuna. "They would throw this hook in the water and bring ’em in."
Courtesy of KPBS Television
“The 18th Amendment hadn’t been dreamed up by a bunch of bluenoses. Life was simple. They fished and people bought their fish. And they made a good living. They didn’t have the great big purse seiners that they have today. There were two poles with a single hook and two great big brawny guys would stand there and they would throw this hook in the water and bring ’em in when they hit a school of tuna. They had these little boats.
“Comic” portrayals featured the Italian male as an organ grinder, playing a barrel organ on corners and begging for passerby’s coins.
"A lot of Italians or Sicilianos, whatever you want to call them, were lost at sea between here and Point Mugu and going south. Because we have some terrific storms out there. These boats were only about 30 feet long, maximum, and 8 to 10 feet wide, and they were way out there in deep water. There were a lot of guts shown on the part of those people, real good people.”
Mr. Willis’s voice rumbled and boomed. I was happy to listen. I had become interested in the charge that, beginning in the 1930s, San Diego, in part through several members of its Italian/Sicilian community who owned downtown bars, had connections to organized crime. So I had gone to see the gentleman I call Mr. Willis. He has lived all his 80-some years in San Diego, and, until his retirement almost a quarter-century ago, he worked in local law enforcement.
Prohibition “dry squad” with confiscated alcohol still from Cottonwood Street, circa 1930
San Diego Historical Society Photograph Collection
He told me if you wanted to evaluate the charge that San Diego had connections to organized crime — to the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra — you first had to understand the Prohibition years, locally and nationally. He emphasized that to the degree any of San Diego’s Italian/Sicilian community may have been involved in organized crime at any level, the numbers involved were few. He further emphasized that the local Italian/Sicilian community —“Ninetynine point nine percent of them” — were hard-working, good citizens. He also told me — as would many people whom I queried about San Diego’s connections to crime and vice — that I could not use his name. “Some of the bad guys,” he said, “may still be out there.” Which is why I call him “Mr. Willis.”
Herman Hetzel, known into the 1950s as king of local bookies, served as host in the Gold Room. From San Diego Union, June 12, 1963
Mr. Willis continued: “They built homes down by the bay, along there from Laurel to Ash and up to Front Street. Washington School was in the district, that’s where all the Italian kids went to school, and then to Roosevelt Junior High [at Roosevelt, the Italian male students were known as the “wharf rats”] and on to San Diego High. The Portuguese fishermen were over on the Point Loma side — ‘Little Lisbon,’ people used to call it.
“We are all captives of our own environment and our own culture. The Italianos and Sicilianos grew up in the Italian and Sicilian culture, they brought it with them. They knew about the Mafia because they had experienced it in Sicily. The ones who came from mainland Italy knew about the Camorra or Black Hand, or whatever you want to call it, because they experienced it. But that was one of the reasons they came here, to get away from it. Just like everybody else comes out here to get away from something in their former existence.”
The building where Mr. Viora made keys for 68 years was down the street from what, after Prohibition ended, would become Tony Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Between 1880 and 1920 more than 4.1 million Italians and Sicilians entered the United States. A large proportion of these immigrants were uneducated and few spoke English. They found work as manual laborers and soon outpaced the Irish as builders of railroads and pavers of streets. The principal reason so many Italians began to come to America in the last two decades of the 1800s was that Southern Italy’s economy had fallen to starvation level. At the same time steamship fares from Naples to New York had dropped in the 1880s to $35 for a one-way adult ticket ($35 represented 100 days’ wages for workers in the lower classes). Billboards rose up in Italian town squares promising jobs in America. The billboards advertised steamship tickets, to be paid for in advance by American coal and steel and construction companies that would in turn hire the ticket-holders when they arrived on U.S. shores, deducting the ticket’s price from the immigrant’s wages. American labor recruiters traveled through Southern Italy, spinning tales of a streets-of-gold America.
Golden Lion, 4th and F Street, 1924. Bootlegged liquor was delivered to the Golden Lion in crates of lettuce.
San Diego Historical Society Photograph Collection
In 1893, 70,000 Italians, mostly men, bearing wooden suitcases, left fishing villages and poverty-stricken farms for the two-week journey across the Atlantic to America (so many men left behind wives in Sicily and Southern Italy during these years that the phrase “white widow,” meaning a wife left behind to wait for her husband to send a ticket, came into common usage). In 1905, 300,000 Italians, 80 percent of whom were from Southern Italy, passed through Ellis Island. By 1910, so many Italians had left that Italy’s Supervisor of Emigration noted that in certain parts of the South, “It amounts to a general exodus. In some places the village priest and the doctor, having lost their flock, have followed them to America. Certain municipalities have had to be consolidated and the parish church abandoned.”
"Miss Lee and Cruppi are suspected of robbing at least 12 speakeasies in this city.... A girl usually visited the places ahead of the men and 'got the lay of the land.’"
From San Diego Union, March 25, 1933
Given the vogue, today, for Italian restaurants, for Armani, for Missoni and Ferragamo, for tricolor linguine, for gelato, focaccia, tiramisu, and cappuccino, it is difficult to take in the distaste Americans once felt for Italian and Sicilian immigrants. But dislike them — even hate and fear them — they did.
Italians’ Roman Catholic religion made them suspect among Protestants, and in cities like Milwaukee where many Sicilians initially settled, the Irish Roman Catholics so fiercely resented Sicilians’ worship in their parishes that the Irish battled the Sicilians in the streets. In more tolerant Irish parishes, the Italians and Sicilians were forced to worship in the church basements.
“Carlino’s brains were scattered all over the dashboard and the cowling. They never did find his body." From San Diego Union, March 25, 1933
Italians and Sicilians were derided as wops and guineas and spaghetti benders and greaseballs and mustaches. It was said, and written, that the odor of garlic clung to them and that they drank themselves into alcoholic stupors. They were considered dark, menacing, alien. (Even among themselves, the lighter-skinned Neapolitans looked down on the darker-skinned Sicilians. Northern Italians often spoke of Southern Italians and Sicilians as “Africans” and hinted that these Southerners had Negro blood.) They were described as being “oversexed” and regularly suspected of sex crimes and murders. They were accused of Bolshevik leanings. In schools their children were shunned as carriers office, tuberculosis, typhoid, and general physical and moral filth. The accent given English by Italian and Sicilian speakers was endlessly mimicked. When cartoonists were not portraying Italian men as sinister, they drew them as comic — fat-bellied, hair slicked down with olive oil, ornate mustache; often these “comic” portrayals featured the Italian male as an organ grinder, playing a barrel organ on corners and begging for passersby’s coins. An antic monkey was often set upon the organ grinder’s shoulder.
Many immigrant Italians and Sicilians, however, didn’t think much of their new American neighbors. At least half the Italians and Sicilians who came to the United States eventually sailed back to Italy. These returnees, principally male and unmarried, came to this country to make money, once they acquired a stake, they returned home, bought land, and went on with their fives. A granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants said to me that her forebears spoke of Americans as “dogs.” Why? Because they felt that Americans lived like animals, without proper family feeling. “An unmarried Italian or Sicilian man,” she said, “would continue to live at home with his parents until he married, even if he didn’t get married until he was 35. Americans kicked their kids out as soon as they graduated from high school.” As for the tension between Italians, both those from north and south, and Sicilians, my friend told me her father regularly reminded her that she was “Sicilian, not a spaghetti bender, by which he meant an Italian. Sicilian, he made clear, was the best thing to be."
Once in America, immigrant Italians moved into neighborhoods already settled by family and friends. In these Little Italys, immigrants replicated institutional arrangements that had held together their home villages — the mutual aid society, the padrone system, the parish, the criminal society. While the larger culture may have regarded anyone from Italy as simply “Italian,” the immigrants, particularly among the first generation of newcomers, took their identity from distinctions rooted in village, provincial, and regional origins. Southern Italians and Sicilians, in particular, ruled for centuries by one after another foreign oppressor, stuck together — in the old country and the new — in family clans. They distrusted, usually for good reason, representatives of church and government. (National Opinion Research Center surveys show that even today Italian Americans maintain closer family ties than other ethnic or religious groups.) And more than other immigrant groups, Italian and Sicilian Americans of the first generation held on fiercely to language, cuisine, custom. A man whose parents were immigrants from Southern Italy said to me, “We spoke Italian, cooked Italian, married Italian, and acted Italian.”
“So,” Mr. Willis continued, “you had all these people who came here, and they were good citizens. The Italian and Sicilian fishermen, they went out to sea, they came in about every six days and stayed two weeks in, mending their nets, getting drunk, gambling, doing everything they were chastised for, but that was it. Most of them were married, took care of their families. They had girlfriends and all, but they took care of their families. I don’t recall ever knowing an Italian family, or Siciliano, ever being on relief.
“Now, right after World War I was over, and Wilson was still president, when Congress in its omniscience on January 16, 1920, signs off on the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, we have Prohibition. Of course, California is being run by the WCTU (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union) and the rest of these bluenose organizations, so California, especially Southern California, is right in there.”
Prohibition sentiment and political wars setting “wets” against “drys” had beset U.S. politics since pre-Civil War days. By the early 20th Century, as Americans grew increasingly concerned about social instability, moral decline, and the growing numbers of immigrants (in 1911, 637,003 immigrants entered the United States), no political question became as treacherous for politicians as Prohibition. This new wave of prohibitionism that took root in rural Middle Western Protestantism (H.L. Mencken described prohibitionists as “ignorant bumpkins from the cow states") organized noisy and increasingly effective campaigns for state and local bans on liquor sales. More than half the states, led by the South and West, had dry laws of varying degrees of strictness, and Congress had outlawed liquor sales on Indian reservations and in the District of Columbia. In 1916 national elections returned a Congress in which dry members outnumbered wets two to one.
April 2,1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. “The world,” he said, in a phrase upon whose irony Americans would long reflect, “must be made safe for democracy.” As one after another American unit was landed in France (180,000 American soldiers were fighting in Europe by the end of 1917), prohibitionists added to their numbers by equating prohibitionism with patriotism, anti-prohibitionists with anti-Americanism, and German brewers with the German enemy. A wartime temperance pamphlet vociferated against “the foreigner, alien to the principle of Americanism” who “sets a trap for the boy and girl and cultivates the appetite that is later exploited by the owner of brewery stock in Germany who uses his tainted wealth to buy poison gas or liquid fire to torture the troops of the Allies.”
Wendell Harmon, in a Southern California Quarterly article entitled “The Bootlegger Era in Southern California,” emphasized the connection between Americans’ suspicion and fear of immigrants, particularly those from Southern Europe, and Prohibition fervor. “Prohibition, with its repressive overtones, was part of the attempt to Americanize America: reformers openly proclaimed that it was directed chiefly at the notorious drinking habits of immigrant working men.” Harmon notes, however, that “far from Americanizing minorities. Prohibition tended to reinforce minority characteristics through specific patterns of crime, among Italians, Jews, Irish, and blacks.”
Before the year was out, Congress had passed the War Prohibition Act, forbidding sales of alcoholic beverages to members of the armed forces and restricting alcohol production as a grain conservation measure. So strong then had Prohibition fervor become that by December 1917, nine months after President Wilson declared war on Germany, Congress had adopted a resolution providing for submission to the states of a national Prohibition amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting manufacture, sale, or transportation of beverages containing more than one-half of 1 percent alcohol within the United States, and sent the measure to the states for ratification.
The 18th Amendment was added to the Constitution. But neither the United States Congress nor state legislatures ever allotted sufficient funds to enforce federal, state, and local dry laws. “Hence,” writes Wendell Harmon, “the liquor gangsters and their backers could always command more physical and financial resources than the law. Indeed, they were far better organized on the whole. Prohibition illustrated the law of unintended effect. Far from driving alien minorities into Anglo-Saxon conformity, it allowed them to consolidate themselves. In New York bootlegging was half Jewish, a quarter Italian, and one-eighth each Polish and Irish. In Chicago it was half Italian, half Irish. The Italians were particularly effective in distributing liquor in an orderly and inexpensive manner, drawing on the organizational experience not only of the Sicilian, Sardinian, and Neapolitan secret societies but on the vanguard elitism of revolutionary syndicalism. Prohibition offered matchless opportunities to subvert society, particularly in Chicago. John Torrio, who ran large-scale bootlegging in Chicago from 1920-4, retired to Italy in 1925 with $30 million.”
As a rule, Harmon writes, bootleggers operated with public approval, particularly in cities. Mencken claimed that even in the most remote rural areas, any man who wanted a drink could get one. Mr. Willis said, “It was the most unpopular law this land had ever seen. But you had these bluenoses who forced this thing through, with all the graphic things in the papers, cartoons about little girls dragging their fathers out of saloons. This law becomes the very antithesis of these Italian people. This violates their culture. By God, they’ve had wine since the time of Christ, or before. They’ve had hard liquor too. This violated their concepts. So obviously they are going to circumvent the law every opportunity they can, and not necessarily just to be crooked, but just because they didn’t like the law. And a lot of Americans didn’t like it either. My father was from the South, where they made good bourbon and good white lightning, if you can call white lightning good.
“The water ran red up in Leucadia and the La Costa flats, because that’s where they used to bring that booze in, and the guys who lay up there used to shoot at them. A lot of this stuff hardly ever got in the paper. ‘Somebody was wounded on the beach, somebody with no known address,’ that kind of thing was all that you saw in the papers.”
Wendell Harmon’s account agrees with Mr. Willis’s. “The Southern California coast,” Harmon wrote, “provided hidden coves for ships from Canada, allegedly en route to Mexico, to offload their cargoes of whiskey and gin stealthily by night for shipment by truck to the city. By 1926 the Los Angeles Times was estimating that smuggling of liquor from Canada had become one of California’s leading industries. Hijacking of smuggled cargoes became in itself a subsidiary industry. One fabled cargo was hijacked en route from San Pedro to Los Angeles, then rehijacked by its original owners as the truck reached the city. Another smuggling route led from Tecate to Tijuana to San Diego, the so-called Bootleg Highway.”
Mr. Willis continued, “Anyway, this was what went on. In San Diego City, it wasn’t organized. Nobody knew this term ‘organized crime.’ We didn’t know what organized crime was. You had individual crooks who did their own individual enterprises.
“They weren’t all thugs. Some were. And the smugglers could be a little tough. Because they were bringing stuff from Mexico. There were shootouts up and down the coast. The sheriffs department had most of the trouble. The P.D. used to go up there once in a while if there was an extra big load. But the P.D. wasn’t involved that much, they had enough to do in the city, enough problems.
“In World War I San Diego’s population was 74,000. As time went on — this is the 1920s — the field of play was from the navy, that was it. San Diego had only two industries, the navy and the fishing industry. There was a little tourism. People liked to come here. The weather was pleasant. But, basically, this was a service town, with industries that related to the military. There was never a Gaslamp, those were all cat-houses. South of E Street and between about Kettner and 15th, just about every rooming house — they used to call them that in those days, or small hotels, and that was being charitable — were cathouses: the Minnesota Rooms, the Ardmore, old Mabel Ramsay’s joint, the Leroy Rooms, the Edgemar Hotel, all those places were cathouses. The downtown people now are trying to glorify this area. It’s so damned pretentious, so disgusting. Pretentious yuppies — they are a pain in the keister.
“There was nothing developing here, at all. The Depression started, 1930. Now San Diego was fortunate, we were hit with the Depression, a lot of out-of-work people here. The Salvation Army had a soup line, it was de rigueur, all the big cities did it, so we had to go along with it. People lost jobs and people lost homes, but San Diego was not affected that greatly because there was not that much industry to impact. We had the navy, and believe me, that was constant, steady, consistent. We were not hit that bad. Everybody took pay cuts.
“Ryan built Lindbergh’s plane, here, in a one-plane factory. Then things begin to pick up. Major Fleet, from Buffalo, brought in thousands of people. Convair — Consolidated Aircraft — came; this brought something new here. A lot of local people got jobs and this also brought in thousands of other people who got jobs. What with the California Exposition going on, this put San Diego more or less on the map.
“So, before World War II, that’s the situation you’ve got here. What do you have here to attract what we call today ‘organized crime’? Not a damned thing. Nothing. The only thing that was going on initially was the smuggling out of Mexico of the good stuff and the Italians making their own and seeing that they could make a few extra bucks by selling their wine when fishing was not so good. A lot of good families, sure they made wine. [Before Prohibition, San Diego County was home to some 30 wineries and known for its grapevines. After Prohibition ended, most local winemakers migrated to the Napa Valley.] Nothing wrong with that. Except it was a violation of some law the Protestant people back East cooked up. A number of Anglo-Saxons were making their cheap booze, and God, some of that stuff was awful. This, again, was not organized. It was individual people doing their individual thing and making some bucks out of it. There was no effort to bring people together. There was no need. Where was your money here?
“You would have bootleggers who knew each other just like you would have bookmakers who knew each other. Old Whitey — Herman Hetzel — a hell of a fine old man, a professional bookmaker, he had a buddy by the name of Mitchell. They were two fine gentlemen, real gentlemen. Their concept was, ‘How the hell can you violate a law when nobody wants it?’ You can bet at the tracks, why can’t you bet on the streets? It was like a loose fraternity, they knew each other. That’s all.”
I wanted to talk with people who remembered the downtown during Prohibition, a task not made easy by the passage of 76 years since Prohibition began. I chatted with Armand Viora, who opened his San Diego Key Shop at Fifth and F in 1927. “I retired in 1995,” Mr. Viora said in a recent interview. “I operated the shop at the same location all that time, and I never had a lease in my life. I wasn’t sure I was going to stay. But I stayed 68 years.”
The building where Mr. Viora made keys for 68 years was down the street from what, after Prohibition ended, would become Tony Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens, a bar and dance hall (which now houses downtown’s El Indio Shop), and next door to what is now Patrick’s II. At the northeast corner of Fourth and F stood the Golden Lion Tavern and Grill, where Mr. Viora’s father-in-law, Virgil “Pete” Lucarelli, from 1919 to 1924, was the chef. Lucarelli was famous for his Supreme Turtle Soup. “That restaurant," said Mr. Viora, “was known throughout the U.S. as a place to go to when you visited San Diego. It was at the center of the area when I opened up.”
When Mr. Viora moved into his shop in 1927, Prohibition had been in effect for seven years. National prohibition of sales of alcoholic beverages in the United States went into effect January 16,1920. On January 14,1920, beneath a headline that read, “Booze Worth Millions Flocks to Calexico," the Union reported:
“The near approach of national prohibition has brought something like one million dollars’ worth of liquor to Calexico and Mexicali, just across the Mexican border. Brewers and distillers all over the US have been rushing beer and whisky to this point for export into Mexico with the result that 36 carloads, according to Southern Pacific officials, have been shipped through here during the past 30 days and 20 carloads more tonight were awaiting the visit of the customs officers here.” January 17, 1920, the Union headline read, “King Prohibition Holds Sway Over Realm of John Barleycorn, City Takes Change Most Quietly.” The accompanying article noted:
“In the cafes the usual prosaic existence of liquorless times was observed. Diners ate quietly even though the dinners were as arid as the proverbial wastes of Sahara. The after-the-ater meals were served without that abandon that was said to be the sway of other large cities. “The saloons, wherein the faithful were wont to congregate, were most desolate last night A few places were reported to be serving the hard stuff so loved in the olden days, but they were few and far between and difficult to find. Also, those who dispensed the joy-creating fluids were quite fearful and watchful. They knew to whom they sold, if they sold at all. It was reported that during the evening drinks at one place went to one dollar each, with some few takers.”
During Mr. Viora’s first years as a downtown locksmith, bootlegged liquor was delivered to the Golden Lion in crates of lettuce. On the Golden Lion’s second floor was the Gold Room. Herman Hetzel — the “Old Whitey” mentioned by Mr. Willis — known into the 1950s as king of local bookies, served as host in the Gold Room. “Sure, it was a bookie place,” Mr. Viora said. “They had phone lines in for race results and they had the gaming tables and the place was unlawful. It would be raided from time to time. They’d sweep in and arrest a few people and fine them. But they would just keep going. People came and went in a steady stream. A lot of women, too. Women are extremely likely to go to gambling.”
Welton Jones, in a 1995 Union-Tribune article, reported that during Prohibition, speak-easies opened all around the county — the Studio Club at Sixth Avenue and Juniper Street, the Aeronautic Club, Oscar’s, Rena’s, Peter’s, Mac’s, the San-D-Cal Club, the Cabrillo Baths and the 820 Club and the Golden Lion, mentioned by Mr. Viora. However, Jones went on to point out that because liquor was legally obtainable in Tijuana, drinkers tended to shuttle across the border for their evenings out on the town. Jones added, “Thanks to the endless parade heading south to the border, San Diego enjoyed a modest entertainment boom during Prohibition. Hotels filled up most weekends, and celebrities at restaurants, clubs, and shows became part of the landscape.”
A March 25,1933, Union article hints at one of the darker aspects of Prohibition. An account of two suspects in a speakeasy robbery — “Ruth Lee, 22, auburn-haired winner of a theater popularity contest herein 1930, and Jack Cruppi, 23, alias Jack Staples” — tells that Miss Lee was arrested here in 1932 on a bootlegging charge. Cruppi was released from county jail a few months after serving a sentence on a vagrancy charge. According to San Diego police. Miss Lee and Cruppi “and others in their group are suspected of robbing at least 12 speakeasies in this city.... Police explained that in the speakeasy robberies a girl usually visited the places ahead of the men and 'got the lay of the land.’ In most of the robberies, sawed-off shotguns and high-power pistols were used. In the Twenty-Fifth and Imperial robbery the girl robber is said by the victims to have held two guns while the men bound and robbed the victims.” Both Miss Lee and Cruppi denied any knowledge of the robberies. The Union reporter ended his story with this: “Miss Lee was exceptionally cool yesterday afternoon while being fingerprinted and photographed in the police bureau of identification. 'Give me a lucky number, big boy,’ she said just before officers took her picture.”
Pliny Castanien’s San Diego Historical Society publication, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, 1889-1989, notes: “San Diego was on the front line of the battle between the dry law agents and the smugglers, bootleggers, and speakeasy operators. The problem locally was made acute by proximity to the Mexican border and by San Diego’s being a port city. Alcohol from a Tijuana distillery and other liquors — many of top grade — that poured into the city by land and sea made bootlegging big business. Stills sprouted like dandelions.”
Castanien writes that the dry laws were highly unpopular in San Diego. “In only four years, from 1923 to 1926, San Diego police seized 2,587 gallons of whiskey, 5,466 gallons of mash, and untold gallons of homemade wine. They smashed 177 liquor stills.”
A look back at old San Diego newspapers shows that what then was called the “purity squad” and later the “vice squad” indeed did make arrests in Little Italy for winemaking. The Union headline for December 6,1930, read:
SEIZE 4000 GALLONS WINE IN 8 RAIDS HERE; 11 HELD CLEAN SWEEP OF 'LITTLE ITALY’ BY POLICE AND FEDERAL DRY AGENTS ADDS 65 BARRELS AND ASSORTED LIQUORS TO RUM PROPERTY ROOM AT LOCAL HEADQUARTERS
“Through San Diego’s 'Little Italy’ district, police and federal dry agents yesterday afternoon raided eight houses, arrested 11 persons and seized more than 4000 gallons of wine and some 40 gallons of liquors.
“The raids, all made with search warrants, started soon after noon and were not completed until early evening. All of the seizures, incidentally, were made within a radius of a few blocks either in or near the 1600 block on India Street. Some of the addresses where raids were made were on West Date, West Grape and Atlantic Streets and Kettner Blvd. The raiding officers described the work as a general house cleaning of wine-selling establishments in the Italian section.
“Those arrested, according to Archie Munson, federal dry agent, gave their names as Nick Coll, Sam and Frank Bompinserio, Sam Fellipi, Grace Fronterio and Sam Fronterio, Frank DeLuca, Tony Pare and Mr. and Mrs. Tony Adamo.
“The arresting officers, besides Munson, were George Sears, lieutenant of detectives in charge of the police vice detail, Patrolman Mike Shea, E Thomas Osborne, Elmer Macy and Ray Little, detective sergeant, all members of the police department, and G.K. Reynolds, federal prohibition agent.
“The liquor, contained in about 65 barrels, was hauled to the central police station and stacked in the liquor property room. A large truck made several trips to transport the wine to the police station. The greater part of the liquor, about 3000 gallons, was found in two houses in the 1600 block on India Street.”
The San Diego Tribune, that evening, offered under the headline “WILL ARRAIGN 12 ON LIQUOR CHARGES”: “Those arrested were held in jail last night and were to appear before US Commissioner Henry C. Ryan for arraignment this afternoon.
“The following is a list of those against whom charges have been filed, and the addresses of the houses raided, according to report by federal dry agents.
“Sam and Grace Bompensiero, 1631 India Street, alleged possession and sale; Frank and Sam Bompensiero, 1907 India Street, alleged possession and sale; Tony Adamo, 518 West Date, alleged possession and sale; Andrean Punta, 1632 India Street, alleged possession and sale, Frank Delucca, 1470 Kettner Blvd., and Perry Tore, alleged possession and sale, Sam and Mrs. Fellipi, 1971 Atlantic, alleged sale; Nick and Anna Coli, 914 Grape Street, alleged sale.”
Mr. Willis suggested I ask older Italians about Prohibition winemaking in Little Italy. Even now people were reluctant to talk. One elderly widow almost whispered when die told me, “My husband used to make wine. He used muscatel grapes. We would buy the grapes from a man whose name I can’t remember. They came from Escondido, from Bernardo Winery, and this guy from whom we used to buy the grapes used to make the wine for our church, for the priest. They made for church a little darker wine. People used to come here and they wanted it for medicine, they loved it. We used to make barrels of wine. You have to get the grapes and a big presser and grind the grapes and put it in this big container and then start taking the juice and put it in barrels. We had a basement we would do it in.”
She explained that during Prohibition, a family could make wine for its own use. “But you had to have a license before you did that. We went to the old post office, to the downstairs and got a license for three barrels of wine.” If you sold any of the wine you made, you “could get into trouble. The people who did it got into a lot of trouble. The policemen used to come and break the barrels and let the wine go out in the streets. We were away from those things. My husband was scared of doing them. You could go to jail. My husband never wanted to get in anything like that. They used to make it and hide it. A bunch of them, a lot of people did it. I think they did make a lot of money, they must have.”
An older gentleman, less hesitant than the elderly widow, told me his family also made wine. “In the cellar, they made the wine. We all had cellars. We used white grapes and black Mission grapes. The grapes would be in lug boxes. They cost $200 a ton. A ton would make 100 gallons; between fermentation and evaporation you might get 80 gallons. That would be a year’s worth. The wine soaks into the oak and you lose some there. Some families made lots of wine. That was their side income, selling it. At night people would come down to Little Italy, dodging police, to buy wine.”
A second gentleman, whose parents came to San Diego from Sicily early in the century, said his father made wine during Prohibition. As a child, he said, “I used to help. I crushed the grapes with my feet. My father made the dark wine, lot of Concord grape. We did it in the cellars. Once in a while the barrel would blow up, ferment too much. We would forget to get a little vent in there for air and it would blow up. It was a mess, between all the leftovers from crushing up the grapes, and the mosquitoes and flies.”
This gentleman remembered that during Prohibition, the police regularly came into Little Italy. “The police would come and break the barrels. They would smash them up.”
Nick and Anna Coli, 914 Grape Street, were two of the people listed as having been picked up for alleged sale in the December 1930 raid in Little Italy. American spelling of the names of “foreigners” was in those days hit-and-miss. Many immigrants spoke little English; some were canny enough to give authorities a name not their own or with a spelling somewhat distant from the name that appeared on their birth certificate. “Coli” is now spelled “Colla.” The Collas — Salvatore and Anna — came to San Diego after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The couple eventually would have 15 children, 11 of whom survived infancy.
I chatted one day with Josephine Colla, born in 1916 in San Francisco, who married one of Anna and Salvatore’s sons. She explained that her husband was born in 1907 in San Francisco and died in 1958, at sea. “He had a heart attack. He was very young.” Mrs. Colla, whose father was a fisherman, grew up in San Francisco. But her family visited frequently in San Diego. “My dad used to come back and forth to fish here with my uncle Tom Cresci.” Mrs. Colla was engaged in 1932 and married, in San Diego at Our Lady of the Rosary, in 1935.
“My husband’s family lived down on Grape Street, right off the railroad tracks. When my mother-in-law was living there first, Pacific Highway was nothing but dirt, so clear back up to her property was nothing. Their home — at 914 Grape — was a landmark. My mother-in-law owned that property. She had a great big cellar downstairs and a table that extended from one end of the cellar to the other. That table was always full. She had an oven outside where she made her own bread. To me, that was fascinating. When I was a young girl, our stove [in San Francisco] was what we called a wood-and-coal stove. When we came here to San Diego, we saw those big ovens out in the back yard. My mother-in-law would warm it up with newspaper and wood and make her bread in there. She made bread, not only for her own family, but for the fishermen.”
When Mrs. Colla married, she wore a white taffeta wedding gown, trimmed with white lace. She had five bridesmaids and five ushers. The wedding party was held in her mother-in-law’s cellar. “We danced the fox trot and the waltz. They had guitars, violins, I recall one gentleman, a Mexican man, played the violin. My uncle Tom Cresci played the accordion. It was beautiful."
Mrs. Colla recalled that her mother-in-law indeed did make wine. “They would have big washtubs made of galvanized steel and they’d pour in grapes and stomp them in that.” But when I asked Mrs. Colla about her mother-in-law’s arrest, she demurred. She said, “I’d rather you asked someone in the family about that.”
I telephoned one of Anna and Salvatore Colla’s remaining sons, Frank Colla, who for many years has lived in Northern California. Frank was born in San Diego in 1929. He grew up in little Italy on Grape Street “The hobos,” he said, “would get off the train, and my mother would feed them. Never had a key to the house. We left all the doors open.” His mother, he said, “had 15 children. In them days they didn’t have protection like they have today. It was a no-no, you couldn’t have anything to stop nature.” He added, “I miss her so much. I pray to my Heavenly Father for thanks for my wonderful childhood.”
When I asked if his mother made wine, Mr. Colla said he didn’t remember and snapped out, “What did you want to know about that for, Ma’am?”
A female voice came on Mr. Colla’s extension. “I think he doesn’t want to talk about it. His mother did make wine.”
Mr. Colla relented. “My mama made wine in the home. My daddy did most of it Homemade wine. We had a cellar downstairs where we made it. Red wine — they used to call it ‘dago red,’ Italian red wine.”
At least two San Diegans from the local Italian/Sicilian community — Frank Bompensiero (who would be killed execution-style in 1977 in Pacific Beach) and Biaggio Bonventre (1893-1967) — were arrested in San Diego during Prohibition for running “alky cookers.” Both men did federal time in the chilly Washington State McNeil Island prison. (An excellent account of local Mexican American involvement in “alky cooking” and bootlegging is Oceanside author Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold, in which Villaseñor writes about his father’s involvement in the whiskey trade.)
During Prohibition, locksmith Armand Viora said, “F Street wasn’t that busy, that’s for sure; it was quiet. When Prohibition ended, the first thing they had on the market was beer, that was the first to hit the market. After that, they got the liquor business on track. And things got busy.”
April 7, 1933, 3.2 beer again could be dispensed legally in the United States. The Union on March 24, 1933, reported that some 150 breweries in the United States were “ahum with activity.” State legislatures “were grinding out beer control laws." And, the stock market had gone up, “with beer and allied industry stocks leading the advance.” Locally, 150 prospective vendors had filed applications to sell beer and wine with 3.2 percent alcoholic content. Among applicants were “restaurants, cafes, sandwich shops, drive-in eateries, hotel dining rooms and drug store soda fountain counters, with meals or without. Drug stores, grocery stores and drink shops, delivered to purchasers as wrapped goods to be used elsewhere.”
Prohibition ended officially December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th Amendment. During the 13 Prohibition years, the federal government estimated that some 1.4 billion gallons of hard liquor were sold illegally. The next morning, December 6, the Union took notice of the 18th Amendment’s overturn;
CURIOUS REPEAL THRONGS VIEW DOWNTOWN DISPLAYS OF LIQUOR
“...Within fifteen minutes after word had been spread through newspaper extras that prohibition officially had been repealed, drug and retail liquor stores were selling liquor over their counters and maldng window displays of their alcoholic stock.”
The “stocks,” wrote the Union, included “old-line bourbon whiskey brands, domestic and foreign gins, cognac, brandies, wines and cordials.” Thirty minutes after repeal, buyers besieged drug- and liquor-store counters. Crowds pressed noses against store windows and gazed at stacked bottles. Caffe and restaurants were loading up on beer and wine for that evening’s dinners.
An enterprising Union reporter jotted down prices. Bourbon whiskeys and brandies sold for $3.00 a pint. California wines, including sparkling burgundy and champagne, were selling from $1.25 to $2.25 a quart, with French and Italian vermouth going for $1.25 a pint. Drugstores, which already had on their shelves government supplies of medicinal liquors, were the only places selling cognac. This brought $5.00 for a fifth of a gallon. The Union concluded its report by noting, “No disorderly scenes were caused by overindulgence.”
Robert Newsom was born and raised in San Diego; his father, for several years in the 1930s, was San Diego Police Department chief. Mr. Newsom remembered that Tony Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens at 409 F Street was one of the first places to open after Prohibition’s end. “Tony took up an old storage building there at Fourth and F and made it into the Rainbow Gardens. As soon as booze came back in 1933, the bell goes, and the first place to sell beer was the Rendezvous at the Grant Hotel, and the next place was Tony Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens, two blocks south.
“I worked for Tony when I was 18 at the Rainbow Gardens in the afternoon band. It was fall of 1936. He had an afternoon band and an evening band. I earned 50 cents an hour and all the hamburgers I could eat and all the Cokes I could drink.”
Newsom recalled how the bar looked in 1936. “You entered on the corner and you walked up about two feet. There was a U-shaped bar on your right side, tables — pretty sturdy tables and chairs, had to have in those days — and then there was a second bar and they had the dance floor and bandstand and the kitchen against the south wall. In the afternoon, sailors would be there, and women, all the girls, and half the inmates of some of the local houses who if they weren’t working would come down and dance and have some fun and then get the hell out and get back to work. It was a busy place.”
Tony Mirabile (1894-1958) came into the world on New Year’s Day in Alcamo, a mountain town near Palermo, Sicily. Tony’s younger brother Paul was born two and one-half years later (Paul died in San Diego in 1990, leaving the bulk of his considerable fortune to the Paul Mirabile Foundation for the Homeless, from which has grown St. Vincent de Paul’s $9.6 million, 350-bed Paul Mirabile Center). Six months after Paul's birth, the boys’ father died, leaving behind four sons and a daughter. Tony and Paul sailed from Sicily in 1907, entering the United States at Ellis Island and traveling on to Detroit, where they had relatives (and where a glance at Detroit-area maps shows several housing developments with streets and roads named “Mirabile”). Paul, for several years, attended a university across the border in Canada, and Tony became involved with Detroit’s Italian and Sicilian “muscle element.” In 1920, after World War I’s end, Tony and Paul left Detroit for Los Angeles, staying there four years. In 1924, the brothers crossed the border into Tijuana and opened two bars, one called the Midnight Follies.
Mr. Willis recalled, “The Midnight Follies was famous in the ’20s. Prohibition was on, and, boy oh boy, if you wanted to have some fun, you went to Tijuana." It was, “alas,” Mr. Willis added, fun he did not have. “I," he sighed, “was just a kid then.”
According to a woman who for many years worked for Paul Mirabile, Paul helped out at the Midnight Follies, which she described as “a nightclub with a dining area,” by “getting entertainment for the bar, and the entertainment that he picked up was Rita Hayworth and a couple that played with Lawrence Welk’s band. Mr. Mirabile [Paul] brought them to surface and I guess had something to do with getting Rita Hayworth into Hollywood.”
Jasper Sciuto was born in 1928 in San Diego. His parents came to the United States from Mazara, Sicily. “My dad,” Mr. Sciuto said, “built the Roma Inn down on India, and before that, he owned a liquor store on India. Where Filippi’s Pizza is [1747 India Street], the other half was my dad’s first bar. My uncle owned Bernardini’s where the hotel [La Pensione, at the corner of the 1700 block of India] is. Right next to them, then, my uncle had the barbershop in his house and my uncle had the shoe shop right in the 1700 block of India.”
When Mr. Sciuto was a youngster, Tony Mirabile lived for a time with Sciuto’s family in their house near Presidio Park. “Tony,” said Mr. Sciuto, “was a fabulous man. He knew everybody. He was the gentleman of all times. He drove an old Lincoln, 1928 or so; I guess he bought it new. He came to San Diego after he had the Midnight Follies in Tijuana. They had gambling and then closed everything down there and opened up the Rainbow after Prohibition was over. My parents went there. I remember the talk about it. They had slot machines, bands, singers; it was first-class.”
According to an FBI report on Tony Mirabile acquired through the Freedom of Information Act, the Midnight Follies burned down in 1933. Soon after, according to the report, Tony purchased the building at 409 F, together with its fixtures, from the San Diego Retail Credit Association.
As to Tony Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens being the second bar to open up after Prohibition ended, Albert DeSanti wasn’t so sure. Mr. DeSanti, born in 1926 and raised in San Diego, is Jasper Sciuto’s cousin. Mr. DeSanti said, “The Bank Café claims they were the first to sell liquor legally.” Mr. DeSanti added, “The Roma Inn was about the second liquor license in San Diego after Prohibition. Tony Mirabile got the license for my aunt for the Roma Inn.” Mr. DeSanti issued a disclaimer about the matter of who opened up when. “They gave so many licenses on the same day, so when you opened up was a matter of how fast you opened up your mail.”
That local law enforcement was concerned about the bar-owning establishments’ moral tone seems indicated by a January 5, 1934, editorial in the San Diego Union. Entitled “Let’s See What Happens," the editorial stated that “according to [SDPD] Chief Peterson, two-thirds of the applicants for 1934 liquor licenses in San Diego are ex-bootleggers.... We now risk returning to the good old days of prohibition. We may go right back to a lawless management of a business which repeal has legalized. Unless there is a clear-cut, decisive, hard-boiled administration of control, we are going to have the speakeasies with us again, doing business on the old basis of recurrent law violations and small fines. And the legitimate liquor dealers are going to be snowed under by lawless competition from the boys who don’t mind an arrest occasionally. There is no reason why the public should permit the liquor trade to go back to doing business behind a secret door in a back alley."
The San Diego Sun, on March 15, 1935, offered the following example of what may have been bootleg liquor being sold in San Diego:
“Approximately 50 gallons of liquor contained in bottles without Internal Revenue stamps was seized and the proprietor arrested as the result of a combination Federal, State and police raid on a downtown dime and dance hall last night. Tony Mirabile, 40, was arrested at the Rainbow Gardens. He is being held in City Jail today for the government.
“The arrest was made by William Clement, Internal Revenue officer from Los Angeles, Charles Springer of the State Board of Equalization, and Sergeant E.T. Osborne of the police vice squad.
“Mirabile, according to police, said he had placed the liquor in the bottles from barrels. Officers said it was illegal to do this without putting stamps on the bottles and having a license.”
Mirabile’s FBI files show that the case against Mirabile, for possession of untaxed alcohol, was dismissed on authority of the U.S. Attorney General upon acceptance by the Department of Justice of a $100 compromise offer. The Rainbow Gardens continued in business. In late 1935, San Diego Police Department records indicate a complaint was filed by the liquor control board against the Rainbow Gardens for selling liquor to minors in general and to one minor in particular, a 19-year-old sailor named L.J. Dawson.
“Getting back to crime,” my informant Mr. Willis said, “there’ve been varied things. A lot of intelligence work is gossip, without fact or foundation, a lot ofit; some of it is very factual and has a very strong foundation.”
One thing of which Mr. Willis seemed confident was that during the 1920s and 1930s, at least a minimum of what then was called “Black Hand” activity took place in San Diego’s Italian community.
Various loosely run extortion scams perpetrated principally by Italians upon other Italians were common in America’s little Italys. A note demanding money, signed with the print of a hand that had been dipped in black ink, was sometimes sent to the victim (and New York City newspaper reporters subsequently began to dub various violent crimes as “Black Hand” crimes). If the victim didn’t pay, he might be murdered, as an object lesson, or he might merely be beaten. In 1908 New York City police received complaints of 424 Black Hand-type extortion attempts. The department estimated that for every such extortion reported to them, another 250 went unreported.
The Mafia initially came to national attention in America not in New York but in 1890 in New Orleans. Italians by that time constituted the largest segment of New Orleans’s foreign-born population. The city’s mayor, reflecting the electorate’s bias against Italians, described them as “the most idle, vicious, and worthless people among us.” He added, “Except the Poles we know of no other nationality which is as objectionable as people.” (The bias, as in other American cities, was largely against Southern Italians. Italians who immigrated to Louisiana before 1870 came from Northern Italy; they arrived in small numbers, became businessmen, craftsmen, or members of professions, and were assimilated rapidly in local society. Post-1870 immigrants, however, primarily illiterate paesani from Southern Italy, came in large numbers. Most went to work either as laborers in Louisiana sugar cane fields or on the Mississippi River docks. Some among thee Southern Italians were mafiosi, driven out of Sicily in late 1869 during one of the periodical government reforms.)
In 1890, Mafia and Camorra groups warred for control of a protection racket along the Mississippi River waterfront docks. “The Camorra,” writes Jay Robert Nash in his World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime, “was headed by the Provenzo family while the Mafia was controlled by Anthony and Charles Matranga.” From 1888-1890, the two groups committed some 40 murders. New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessey, announcing he had unveiled a secret criminal society that called itself the Mafia, vowed he’d put a stop to the “dagos’ carnage.” Two days later, as the chief stepped out of his office, assassins shot him down. On his last breath, Hennessey whispered, “Dagos.”
Police instantly arrested 45 people, mainly Sicilian immigrants. A mob rushed Orleans Parish Prison. Eleven of the 45 prisoners were lynched. A New Orleans grand jury investigated the Hennessey murder and the lynchings. They concluded, “Our research has developed the existence of the secret organization styled ‘Mafia.’ Among the members are men born in this city of Italian origin. The larger number of the society is composed of Italians and Sicilians.” As newspapers nationwide reported these events, Americans for the first time became aware, by name, of the Mafia. (An excellent fictionalization of this event is Pulitzer Prize winner E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes.)
Locally, what may have been Mafia-related activity surfaced in 1929 when Los Angeles winery owner and bootlegger Frank Baumgarteker, in September 1929, argued in Los Angeles with a man who called himself Jimmy Fogarty but whose actual name was Zorra. The argument was over Mr. Zorra’s setting up a still to cook alcohol in Baumgarteker’s winery. Baumgarteker reportedly kicked Zorra out of the winery and ordered all alcohol cooking stopped. After Zorra left the winery, Baumgarteker said to his secretary, Mrs. Day, “I have signed my death warrant.” Zorra, according to Los Angeles Police Department records, was an associate of Joe Ardizzone and Jack Dragna (Dragna, beginning in the early 1920s, headed what the Los Angeles Police Department described as the Los Angeles “Sicilian-Italian crime family"). Dragna and his group, at the time, were endeavoring to gain control of bootlegging and whiskey manufacture. Dragna and Ardizzone visited Baumgarteker at his winery in late November.
November 25, 1929, at 11:30 a.m., Baumgarteker had lunch in Los Angeles with his partner and his attorney. He left his lunch appointment, driving away in his purple 1926 Cadillac touring car, saying he was going to Wilmington. When Baumgarteker failed to return home the next day, his wife reported him missing.
The police report shows that on the evening of November 25, at 10:50 p.m., the purple Cadillac was driven into the Sixth Street Garage, at 745 Sixth in San Diego. The Cadillac was driven in and parked by an “Italian-looking man" described as 40 years, 5'8", 160 pounds, wearing a short leather coat, khaki pants, and leather riding boots.
Baumgarteker’s auto was found to be covered with the same type of dust and dirt as was found at the Riverside County Wells. These wells, noted the police report, “are called the 'Ganglands Cemetery’ as some corpses were found there, and it was the suspected location of other gang killings.”
Early in December, Mrs. Baumgarteker received a letter, supposedly written by her husband, and postmarked “San Diego — 7:30 a.m., November 30, 1929.” The handwriting, the police report noted, “showed either great mental strain or that writer was drunk."
Baumgarteker’s body was never found. He eventually was written off as “a victim of the Italian bootlegging element,” or “Black Hand.”
Mr. Willis recalled a local car bombing. “Dominic Megale, a close friend of Tony Mirabile’s, had a Chevrolet coupe that somebody tried to blow up. This, I think, was in 1936. They were building on the new city hall, so maybe it was 1937. But anyway, somebody stuck a couple sticks of dynamite in Dominic Megale’s car. I don’t even recall seeing it in the newspapers. Nobody attributed anything about this to organized crime; it was just some Italian didn’t like some other Italian.”
Another bombing that Mr. Willis remembered occurred in 1934 and was in the newspaper. August 27, 1934, the Union reported:
Mystery Blast Wrecks Store in Extortion Plot
“Probability that an extortion plot underlay the dynamiting early yesterday of a store, 1753 India, was being checked last night by police detectives investigating a mystery blast that blew a hole in the wall of the store building and jarred adjacent homes.
“The explosion scattered canned goods on the floor and broke two front and six side windows. The dynamite had been stuffed between the wall of the building and a milk crate. Pieces of the crate were found 30 feet away.
“Antonio Mattera, 7201 Fay Street, La Jolla, owns the store. He told police he received several threatening telephone calls about a month ago. A male voice addressed him on each occasion and threatened to blow up the store ‘if I didn’t come across with $15,000,’ Mattera was quoted as saying.
“The only clue to the dynamiter’s identity was obtained by Detective Wesley Sharp, when Alvin Kratz, SERA night watchman at a warehouse at Grape Street and Kettner Blvd., reported that he saw a man running from the store at 3:05 a.m.
“ ‘A fishing boat exploded down by Lindbergh Field,’ Kratz quoted the man as saying as he ran by the spot where Kratz was standing. Kratz told the police the man probably was between 17 and 20 years old and wore a khaki sweater.
“Officers in charge of the investigation said they were convinced Kratz saw the dynamiter, as any other person on the streets at that time of the morning would have run in the direction of the sirens rather than away from them.”
Gilio Mattera, who owns the Harvest Ranch Markets in El Cajon and Encinitas, followed in his grocer-father Antonio’s footsteps. “I’ve been in the food business for almost 50 years,” he said, when we talked recently. About his father’s India Street store, Mr. Mattera said, “It was called Southern Imported Domestic Grocery.” Mr. Mattera’s first India Street grocery store was next door to 1753 India Street. “Filippi’s, that’s the spot where the second store was. Where the Roma Inn was, was his first store. My dad opened the first store about 1926-27, and then Prohibition ended and you could open bars and that’s when Roma Inn opened and took that store over. The landlord was Mr. Filippi, not related to the Filippis there now, but Joe Filippi, who was a realtor in town then who owned a lot of property. He built that store where Filippi’s is now for my dad in 1932. My dad retired in 1940.”
The Matteras moved to Southern California from Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. Gilio’s parents, originally from Naples, “having come from a warmer climate,” said Mr. Mattera, “got tired of the snow in Philadelphia. A banker friend of my father’s said he’d just gotten back from San Diego and that there was a beautiful little city just outside of San Diego called La Jolla. We bought a piece of property there that I still own today. My father built a house on it and I grew up there.
“After my father built the house, he started looking around and there were no Italians in La Jolla to speak of, so he wandered down on India Street and decided that’s where he ought to be. He made a connection there and opened the store in 1926 and catered to the Italian people with imported cheeses, sausages, dried fish, pastas, olive oil, tomatoes. I can remember him stacking fresh tomatoes out front. We used to sell them for ten cents a lug. Olive oil was the main draw in those days. You had to have the right price on olive oil! We sold live chickens in coops on rollers so you could bring them in at night. You’d roll them out on the sidewalk in the morning and people would come by and come in and say, ‘I want a chicken,’ and you’d go out and they’d pick out the one they wanted and bring it in and wring its neck and wrap it up and that was it. Those were the old days.”
Although the majority of the residents of Little Italy were Sicilian, Mr. Mattera said, there “were also people from Genoa and Florence and Venice, and each one had their own style of cooking,” so that his father had to stock ingredients for a variety of cuisines. Mr. Mattera added, after a pause, “For a man who only had a sixth-grade education, my father did very well. I am very proud of him.”
The Mattera’s Southern Imported Domestic Grocery also did significant business with the tuna boats. “The boats would come in and then come up to the store and give us a want list of the items they needed. My father would put the order up and he and my brother would deliver the order to the boat and then you got paid when they came back in with their load. They’d stop over at the cannery, and then they’d pay for their provisions and load up and go out again. The wives worked on the nets, had them strewn across the streets, to make sure they were in good repair. Most of them had a beehive oven in the back yard. Next to the door to my father’s store the Assentis had bread, and you could just smell it. As a youngster, I can remember going over there and Mrs. Assenti would have a little mini-loaf for me.”
Mr. Mattera was nine or ten when the store was dynamited. Did he remember the event?
“Sure do. Those days, they were trying to extort money from business people.”
Who, I asked, were “they”?
“Italian Mafia,” Mr. Mattera said, then paused, saying, “They never found who did it. If they did, no one told me. My father never said who he thought blew it up, I just think that he thought of them as people in those days who were trying to extort money. Whether they were Mafia, I can’t attest to that.” He added, “Fifteen thousand dollars in those days was a lot of money.”
I asked Mr. Mattera if he was frightened by the dynamiting. “Yes,” he said, “yes. You are scared when you drive up and find the front end of your store blown up. It didn’t bother, the product too much, though.”
Was extortion among Italians and Sicilians fairly common in those days?
“Seemed to be. Because they lived in fear. Italian people did, I remember that. If you were in business.”
Did Mr. Mattera’s parents ever talk about the Black Hand?
“I was pretty young and I know my family was pretty protective of me. Those were bad years. But the same kind of thing is probably going on today in some parts of the country.”
Were the extortionists seen as “have-nots" who wanted to take from those who “had”?
“Yes. They wanted to take it away from the ones who had it, and in those days they would threaten families and threaten children, do you bodily harm unless you came across with some money. So my parents were very, very protective. In fact, they sent me to a private school where nobody knew where I was.”
I spoke to a second retired San Diego policeman now living in a distant state. This retiree, born and raised in San Diego, was on the police department for several decades. As well as the usual patrol duties, this gentleman worked vice, and later, intelligence. He wishes to remain anonymous. I will call him “Mr. Owen." Mr. Owen told me, about San Diego Black Hand-type action, “It was mostly bars they were hitting, but they were also bombing grocery stores, shoe shops. There were, roughly, 15 bombings through the 1930s. Dynamite is what they mostly used, gunpowder, black powder. It was extortion. Straight-out shakedown. There wasn’t much money involved, but they'd take a percentage of a guy's earnings.”
In early 1940, 29-year-old Victor Carlino came from Los Angeles to San Diego and took a job as a waiter at Tony Mirabile’s Rainbow Gardens. On March 29, Carlino’s car was found abandoned near La Mesa in the 7900 block of University Avenue. What appeared to be blood-stains were found on the seat, upholstery, and door.
Sunday, March 31, the Union printed a photograph of Carlino and reported “Missing Man Clue.” The accompanying article reads, “Sgt. Ed Dieckmann, head of the police homicide squad, said a La Mesa woman, who asked that her name not be used, told him another automobile, whose occupants apparently knew the occupants of the Carlino car, was parked near the latter car about 11 p.m., March 21.
“The woman told police she heard occupants of one of the vehicles talking to occupants of the other, and then one of the cars, a roadster, was driven away.”
Mr. Willis, who recalled the Carlino incident, said, “Carlino’s brains were scattered all over the dashboard and the cowling. They never did find his body. They did a real good job on him, a real permanent job. His body obviously ended up off Coronado Islands or somewhere, fish food.”
I asked a Sicilian American, born in San Diego and now in his late 70s, if in his family there was talk about the Black Hand. “Oh, yes,” he said. “At times. My parents took it seriously, very much so." I asked if when he was a child the adults believed that Black Hand tactics, such as strong-arming store owners into paying protection, were used in San Diego. “They did,” he said, and then refused to say more.
James E. Hamilton, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department’s intelligence unit, known as “Cap” Hamilton to his law-enforcement confreres, was one of the first men, together with the Chicago Crime Commission’s Virgil Peterson, to do battle with organized crime. In 1950, in part in preparation for the arrival in Los Angeles of Senator Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, Captain Hamilton and his intelligence unit put together a document titled “Gangland Killings.” The unit searched Los Angeles city records for the first half of the 20th Century — coroners’ reports, homicide reports, crime reports, missing-person reports — and from those reports compiled a list of murders and disappearances in Los Angeles that seemed connected to organized crime.
This research disclosed the following;
I. The Italian element was firmly entrenched in Southern California in the late nineteenth century.
In the early part of the 1900s the dreaded Black Hand Society (Mafia) was operating, using its devious methods on the Italian people. This is borne out by the activities and type of killings of this era.
II. The suspected gangland murders and mysterious disappearances of the victims followed the identical pattern as to method of operation. Through the years, it seems, only the motive has varied.
III. As to motives for these violent killings of the last half a century, they seem to relegate themselves to approximately three divisions or phases, as to origin and cause.
A. The early murders were predominantly of Italian origin.
(a) Either for intimidation, extortion, revenge, or jealousy, all suspected Black Hand operations.
B. The second era opened with the enactment of Prohibition upon the Country as of January 29th, 1920. The opportunity to “bootleg” liquor illegally gave this type of person a chance to make fast money in large amounts, unheard of prior to this time. There was much jousting for power and control of the local market.
(a) This period, the roaring ’20s, was noted for boot-legging, smuggling, hijacking, and murders.
(b) Darwin Avenue, a street on the north side of Los Angeles (Italian section), was known as “Shotgun Alley” because of the bootlegging and gang wars in that vicinity.
(c) This era also was dominated by the Italian element, using the methods as described as to the Black Hand Society (Mafia).
C. The third phase began with the repeal of prohibition December 5, 1933. When the juicy revenue from illegal liquor was cut off, the Mafia leaders (who were well established by this time) cast about for another source of income.
(a) The Mafia leaders in the early ’30s followed the Syndicate party line by beginning to push into gambling and bookmaking.
(b) When two large books in the Los Angeles area — operated by Guy McAfee and Tutor Sheerer — began to be “muscled” for a “piece” of the “take” by Italians, led by Jack Dragna, McAfee refused and was reported to ask, “Who the hell is Jack Dragna?” He found out! Stick-upmen raided the books; runners were roughed up, all of which cost the books thousands of dollars. Soon the Italians were cut in!
(c) Entrances of the Mafia mob into gambling and book-making enterprises were followed by violence and murder.
IV. From this research, it is the opinion of the writer, from the facts brought to light and complied for comparison, that most of the gangland activities (including murders, missing persons, etc.) in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years are directly traceable to the Mafia element and its constituents. Certainly it has been shown as the predominant factor or the sinister force behind these nefarious activities.
The generally held opinion, among crime experts, is that San Diego was a “crime” outpost of Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Jack Dragna (1891-1956) headed the local Sicilian and Italian bootlegging and bookie group. San Diego’s Frank Bompensiero, from the mid-1920s until Dragna’s death in a Los Angeles motel, was a close associate of Dragna. In the immediate post-World War II years, Bompensiero and Dragna’s son, Frank Paul Dragna, and Jack Dragna’s nephew, Louis Tom Dragna, in partnership owned the Gold Rail Bar, a downtown bar located at 1028 Third Avenue, San Diego.
Ex-pugilist Meyer Harris (Mickey) Cohen (1913-76), beginning in the 1930s, managed a good-sized bookmaking ring in L.A. Cohen was a frequent visitor to San Diego, coming to Del Mar for the races and in later years, when his health suffered, to Scripps to visit his doctor.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (1906-47) arrived in L.A. in the 1930s. Al Capone sent Johnny Rosselli (1905-76) from Chicago to L.A. in 1924 for his health — poor lungs. Both men regularly visited Agua Caliente and Del Mar. Chicago pulled strings in Los Angeles and Hollywood via Rosselli, and New York sent out Siegel to manage bookmaking and get things going in Vegas.
Although Dragna had the support of New York’s Thomas “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese, a fellow Sicilian and associate of Charles “Lucky Luciano, dons back East gave Dragna negligible respect. As Mickey Cohen explained it, “See, Three-Finger Brown in New York was Jack Dragna’s goombah and a real nice guy. Benny’s was Meyer Lansky.” Dragna, for instance, was not invited to the May 1929 Atlantic City convention of mobsters from all over the United States, a group that included Al Capone and his Chicago entourage, Meyer Lansky, Luciano, Frank Costello, Cleveland’s Moe Dalitz, Detroit’s Joe Bernstein, Kansas City’s Johnny Lazia, and Moses “Moe” Annenberg, who owned the Daily Racing Form (and whose son Walter, after World War II’s end, would roll his father’s fortune into founding Seventeen magazine and TV Guide).
Jack Dragna, born Anthony Rissotti in Corleone, Sicily, in 1891, detrained in California with his brother Tom around 1908. The brothers set up shop in Los Angeles. Los Angeles writer and LA Weekly editor Charles Rappleye and Las Vegas private eye Ed Becker in All-American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story describe Jack Dragna.
“Stocky, with a broad nose, thick lips, and a short temper, Dragna...had a primal instinct for power, which he exercised as sort of unofficial mayor of the Italian ghetto, settling family disputes and enforcing discipline. A conviction for extortion in 1915 and a three-year stint in San Quentin only enhanced his reputation as a man to fear and respect.
“Dragna employed as a front the offices of the Italian Protective League, located on the 11th floor of the Law Building in downtown Los Angeles. Dragna was president of the organization formed ostensibly to promote immigrant rights but described in police documents as ‘strictly a muscle outfit, preying on various business activities,’ which ‘also had its fingers in gambling, bootlegging, and smuggling and was suspected of many Black Hand killings.’
“In later years, Dragna came to be referred to in the press and in government documents as the Al Capone of Los Angeles. But in the middle 1920s, while he maintained preeminence in the affairs of his countrymen, Dragna was still an outsider in the world of Los Angeles crime. Most of the city’s vice, prostitution and gambling in particular, was controlled through a well-established syndicate, a small group of businessmen who managed their rackets through payoffs to the police and city administration.... Dragna and [John] Rosselli concentrated their attention to prying graft and tribute from the Italian community and on bootlegging.”
Mickey Cohen, in Mickey Cohen: In My Own Words (as told to John Peer Nugent), explains the L.A. rackets this way;
“Until Benny [Siegel] came to LA in 1936, maybe 1937, it was a syndicate, a combination like the syndicate in Chicago and the syndicate in New York. But here, gambling and everything like they did in Jersey, Chicago, and New York was completely run by cops and stool pigeons.
“Benny came out here and took it all away from the police and stool pigeons. Benny was part and parcel of New York. He was all-powerful and connected with the main organization back East, on a par with anybody you could mention — Joe Adonis, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello. In Los Angeles there was this Italian man by the name of Jack Dragna. Jack was very powerful and very well respected, but he got kind of lackadaisical. He wasn’t able to put a lot of things together to the satisfaction of the Eastern people, or even keep things together for himself to their satisfaction.... There was no combination; everyone was acting independently. The organization had to pour money on to help Dragna at all times. So Benny came out here to get things moving good.
“Although Benny had great respect for the Italians, he was always considered like a boss on his own. See, outside the East, like in New Jersey, the Jews and the Italians had a strong combine together, or as close as any Italian could be with any non-Italian. But Dragna was of the old school where only Italians ran things, and certainly not Jews like Benny with his Eastern ways. But that didn’t bother Benny none. ‘Fuck Dragna’ was his attitude, and he did.”
Pete Hamill, in a February 1992 article in Playboy, explained Siegel’s move to the West Coast this way:
“Siegel went west in 1936. The reasons were complicated. Tom Dewey was now special prosecutor in New York (later district attorney). Urged on by New York’s flamboyant mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia, he was directing the toughest investigation of organized crime in the city’s history. The heat, as they said, was on. Siegel wanted to get out of the way.
“Another reason was economic. The city was bogged down in the Great Depression, and even the racket guys were beginning to feel the pinch. Of all the old bootleggers, only Siegel seemed to be without his own fiefdom. He couldn’t shoot his way into personal power in New York; he didn’t have the manpower and, besides, these were his friends. So when Dewey applied the big heat, Siegel — possibly at Lansky’s suggestion — went to California. In 1936, that state was not the economic powerhouse it is today, in many ways it was provincial, underpopulated, isolated from the mainstream. He had a piece of a gambling ship called The Rex and of the racetrack at Agua Caliente, across the border from San Diego in Mexico. He had established himself as the Mob superior to lack Dragna, the old boss of the L.A. rackets.”
“Getting back to ‘organized crime,’ as we call it,” Mr. Willis explained, “everything that was done here in San Diego in the early years was done on an individual basis. That was not true back East and up north. Pete Licavoli, with whom Tony Mirabile [owner of San Diego’s Rainbow Gardens] was friendly, was part of the old Purple Gang from Detroit. The Purple Gang was created before World War I, about 1910, by Jewish kids in Detroit, the Bernstein brothers, Benny and Joe. They had a gang of 10 to 15 tough guys, and they all wore purple shirts. World War I came along, most of the guys entered the war and then they came back to Detroit. And boy, Prohibition’s coming in, and there they were, in Detroit. Right next to Canada. They said, ‘Let’s cross the straits there at Lake St. Claire and we got it made!’ They started smuggling Canadian booze. And they organized it. Boy, they were good. They were also involved in drugs and were one of the prime suppliers to jazz musicians in the 1920s. Then all of a sudden they began getting their guys knocked off or a warehouse was burned or a car would get vandalized and smashed and their customers started backing away from them. The dagos, as they called them, started moving in. This was endemic to organized crime at that time. The Jewish guys got things organized, but once it was organized then they didn’t seem to know what to do with it, and the Italian and Sicilian kids, who could be vicious, would move in on them, in New York, in Chicago, in Detroit.”
Jay Robert Nash’s World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime describes the Purple Gang as “among the most vicious of the Prohibition-era bootlegging gangs,” noting that the gang “was headed by Benny and Joe Bernstein and Harry and Louis Fleisher, who had close ties with Cleveland Syndicate figures Moe Dalitz and Chuck Polizzi." According to Nash, the Purple Gang, engaged in competition with a mob that called itself the Little Jewish Navy, imported Sicilian Yonnie Licavoli and his gunners from St. Louis to help them out in Detroit, and thus the Licavolis formed in Detroit what Senator John L. McClellan’s 1961 Senate Permanent Subcommittee Investigation of Gambling and Organized Crime would later describe as Detroit’s Mafia family.
Mr. Willis’s theory on organized crime in San Diego is that although nothing here was organized previous to World War II, that “back East and up North” various crime figures began to realize that San Diego would “be a very lucrative area. Why? Well, cherchez l’argent! Because we had one thing going for us that no one else really thought of. You’ve got a lot of guys on steady payroll here — it may only be about $25 or $30 a month, but they got free room and board and hospital are and everything else, so they’ve got money to spend. They may be wearing funny-looking clothes — those dang uniforms — but they still spend money. They have all that money to spend in Tijuana, so why shouldn’t they spend it here? Again, no need for organization, there’s nothing organized here until they started thinking about this, back in New York and Chicago and Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They said to themselves, 'Well, let’s see what’s going on.’ “
— Judith Moore
Next week Who was Tony Mirabile and what do we know about him?
Judith Moore is recipient of two NEA Fellowships for literature, most recently in 1996. She is coauthor with Sue Coe of X, published by Raw Books and Graphics and reissued by New Press. She is author of The Left Coast of Paradise (Soho Press). Her newest book, Never Eat Your Heart Out (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) will be published in January 1997.