St. Anthony festival: Frank Bompensiero’s sister, mother (center, wearing black), brother-in-law, daughter, and nephews
Frank Bompensiero jumped off a freight train in San Diego in the early 1920s. He was 16 or 17 or perhaps even 18 years old. He was five feet, six inches tall. He had hazel eyes and light brown hair. He was in trouble. Big trouble.
Bompensiero’s parents, Giuseppe and Anna Maria Tagliavia, in 1904 had come to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Porticello, a fishing village near Palermo in Sicily. (A quite elderly Sicilian-American told me, about Palermo, “You hear lots of bad things about people from Palermo, but good people also came from there.”) Frank, their first child, was born in 1905. Giuseppe, a laborer, never adjusted to Wisconsin’s cold. He frequently was ill. The Bompensieros sailed home to Porticello in 1915, taking Frank, his brother Sam, and two sisters.
From San Diego Greeters’ Guide, 1921. Bompensiero arrived in San Diego certainly no later than 1923 or 1924.
Mary Ann, Bompensiero’s only child (who was born in San Diego in 1931 and has lived here for most of her life), loaned me a photograph of Bompensiero that had been taken in a photographer’s studio in Sicily. She guesses the photograph must have been made in Palermo. She hypothesizes that the photograph was made as a keepsake for his mother. Mary Ann does not know how old her father was when this photograph was taken. He may have not yet been 16. He may have been 15. He wears a suit that appears to be gray, a white shirt whose collar seems to set right beneath his chin. He wears a dark tie. He sits with his legs crossed. He has slicked back his hair. He has not begun to take on the weight that he will take on in later years. His dress and his posture lend him the look of the ardent, hopeful emigrant, the boy who will come to America, who will make good. I stare into the eyes that stare out of the photograph. I can read nothing from his gaze. His gaze seems entirely neutral.
Frank Bompensiero in foreground (c.1920). Mary Ann: “First, he unloaded fish, and then he got a job as a fisherman because that’s all they knew."
Frank returned to Milwaukee in 1921 or 1922 or even as late as 1923, without his family. No one can or will tell me why Bompensiero did not stay in Sicily. Perhaps the family needed the cash that Bompensiero could earn in the United States. Whole villages in southern Italy were being supported by Sicilians who’d come to the U.S. to work. Immigrants from Italy to the United States, during this era, were sending back as much as one million lire a year to Italian relatives. Or, perhaps Bompensiero wanted to get away from the village where, after ten years in Milwaukee, conditions must have seemed incredibly primitive. Donkeys and mules pulled wooden carts. The evil eye — occhio malo — was cast. Women regularly died in childbirth, and children, in infancy.
Frank and Thelma Bomensiero lived in an apartment at 1907 Columbia owned by Thelma's family.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Mussolini was on his way to transforming all Italy, little Sicily included, into a single-party, totalitarian regime. A certain hopelessness might have infected Bompensiero in Porticello. If he stayed, all he could hope for, at best, was, eventually, to own his own fishing boat and to spend a lifetime hauling tuna out of the sea. Giuseppe and Anna Maria, when they left Milwaukee, had intended to return to America. Maybe the parents proposed that their eldest son return to ready a place for them, or to earn the money for the boat fare. Or, perhaps Bompensiero got himself into difficulty in Porticello or nearby Palermo, Sicily’s ancient capital, where Byzantine-influenced mosaics glittered in harsh sunlight and dour men dressed in dark suits hurried to appointments in shadowy rooms. Who knows?
From the San Diego Union, January 17, 1920. Mary Ann: “Underneath my grandfather Sanfilippo’s nets, there was a trapdoor. You’d open that trapdoor and go into the basement and that’s where my grandparents kept the wine."
The Milwaukee city directory between 1918 and 1922 lists a Salvatore Bompensiero, barber, as resident in Milwaukee’s Little Italy. Salvatore was Giuseppe’s brother. So it is possible to imagine that after the two-week passage from Porticello to Naples and from Naples to New York and the two-day train trip from New York to Milwaukee, that Bompensiero unloaded his cardboard suitcase at his uncle Salvatore’s house. The Milwaukee city directories for those years list names of many Porticello families. Any of the Guardalebenes, Busallachis, Catallanos, Tagliavias, Sanfilippos, San Filippis, Cravellos, Carinis, Aliotos, Balistrieris, might have unrolled a pallet for their young compare.
Jack Dragna. After Bompensiero made his escape from Milwaukee, he went up to Los Angeles to see Jack Dragna, to try to get Jack to straighten him out with the Milwaukee people.
Mary Ann told me, “From what I understand, when Daddy was in Milwaukee, he was working with coal. I don’t know how true that is, but that’s what I understand.”
Bompensiero may have been “working with coal.” Certainly, many Sicilian immigrants—illiterate even in their own language and with only muscle to sell — went to work as manual laborers.
Bompensiero, in November, 1950, testified in Los Angeles before a closed session of the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, popularly known as the Kefauver Committee.
Mr. Halley. Where were you born?
Mr. Bompensiero. Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Tom Dragna. Mary Ann: "My grandmother Sanfilippo introduced him [Frank Bompensiero] to some people in Los Angeles. It was Tom Dragna I was told that he was introduced to, Jack Dragna’s brother. And then, after he met the Dragnas, I don’t think my dad ever went back to fishing again.”
Mr. Halley. In what business were you in Wisconsin?
Mr. Bompensiero. I was just working in a factory. A.O. Smith.
Mr. Halley. What kind of a plant is it?
Mr. Bompensiero. They make automobile parts.
Mr. Halley. And that was your only occupation until you came here?
Mr. Bompensiero. Yes, sir.
From the San Diego Union, December 28, 1958. Tony Mirabile would move to San Diego after Prohibition’s end and set up in business as owner of a bar on Fourth and F, The Rainbow Gardens.
Bompensiero may well have been “just working in a factory.” But, clearly, he had ambitions beyond grinding out engine blocks for A.O. Smith. At some point after Bompensiero arrived in Milwaukee, he became involved with a gang who made themselves useful to liquor smugglers and bootleggers. According to an old friend of Bompensiero’s, Bompensiero, in Milwaukee, “was always out stealing, out bootlegging, out hijacking.” Bompensiero’s friend explained that Bompensiero and his gang hijacked trucks that carried illegal booze. The trucks drove down from Canada. The gang stopped the trucks and either emptied the contents of the trucks into its own vehicle or drove off with the truck and its contents. My informant did not know which. During one of these events, something went wrong and Bompensiero ended by shooting and killing one of the smugglers.
I tried to imagine Bompensiero, at this age. I hope that you will try to imagine this too. You’ve lived for five or six or seven years in a house with outdoor plumbing and no electricity. Your skills are a fisherman’s skills. You read and write English at a rudimentary level. You may not even understand English all that well when you hear it spoken by native Milwaukeeans. Your accent is regularly mimicked. And the “native” Milwaukeeans, people not more than one or two generations away from Germany and Ireland and Scandinavia and Russian and Eastern European shtetls, look down on you. They guffaw about how your people aren’t that far removed from the monkeys. In their newspapers and magazines cartoonists portray Italian men as sinister and evil, or, they draw them as comic — fat-bellied, hair slicked down with olive oil, an ornate mustache waxed upward at its ends. They sketch them as organ grinders, playing a barrel organ on corners and begging for passersby’s coins. They taunt you with “wop” and “spaghetti bender” and “guinea” and “goombah” and “greaseball.” They claim that you and your women are oversexed. They round up your men as suspects in sex crimes and murders. They accuse your men of Bolshevik leanings. They say they are bomb-tossers. They say they are “Black Hand” members who extort protection money from fellow immigrants. These natives warn their children against Italian and Sicilian children, claiming that they are carriers of lice, tuberculosis, typhoid, and physical and moral filth. In Massachusetts, in what all your people know is a put-up case, Sacco and Vanzetti have been sentenced to die in the electric chair. This, easily, you think, could happen to you. The hot seat.
Your father has been increasingly weak and ill and, frankly, querulous, for years. Your mother, every other year, has been pregnant or nursing a new baby. Your mother and brother and sisters look to you for help. Before you left Porticello for Naples, where you would board the ship that would bring you back to America, maybe your mother kissed both your cheeks and slipped down over your head a scapular or a miraculous medal. Certainly, she whispered that she prayed constantly for you. Surely, she begged you to be good, to be a good, good boy. But here you are, returned to Milwaukee where icy wind blows off the shores of Lake Michigan. You do not own a warm coat and you certainly do not own fur-lined gloves or flannel-lined galoshes or a wool muffler to wrap around your short neck. Maybe, like your father, you feel cold all the time, you feel as if you never will get warm again. You have been living with people who are not your family. You feel beholden to them. You never have quite enough to eat. You are trying to acquire some quick, easy, big money. You want something to send back to Porticello. You drive with your friends, out into the country on a deserted road on a dark night. Maybe you and your friends have swallowed rough grappa to build courage and body heat. The car fills up with nervous laughter and tense boasts and the odor of sweat as it soaks clothes that are not all that clean. You plan to stop the truck, grab the liquor. One of the truck’s passengers jumps down out of the truck’s cab. Imagine a truck, circa 1920, its cab set high off the ground, its wide running boards. Imagine the truck’s headlights and how they throw a shimmering veil of light down the dark gravel road and up into the limbs of trees that grow on with side of the road. Imagine a stiff cold wind and sweat funneling down into the small of your back. You have a gun. The man thrusts himself at you. His mouth opens wide. His teeth are white in the darkness. Everything happens faster than you thought anything could happen. The man is on the ground. Perhaps he screams. Perhaps he moans. Perhaps you gut-shot him and you smell cordite and fecal matter.
I might have asked friends who are gun experts to help me with the details of the gun—shotgun or pistol — Bompensiero carrier that night. I considered querying these friends as to how, say, a pistol would have felt in Bompensiero’s hand, how the bullets’ entry — the hole or holes — in the dead man might have looked. Would blood pour out the bullet holes? Seep red into the dying man’s linen shirtfront? Spout out the wound like water spouts out from a dolphin’s blowhole? Would the dying man cry out to his mother, his wife, to the Blessed Virgin, to St. Anthony, to Jesus? If he did cry out, or, moan, would his voice spiral out into the quiet night, rise into an inky sky? Would that call, or cry or moan haunt Frank Bompensiero for months to come, for years? Would it wake him out of sleep? I do not know.
Why, finally, I did not ask gun experts about the night Bompensiero for the first time killed something other than a tuna, a sardine, a chicken or rabbit, a rat or mouse, is that details about the weapon’s possible make and model, the bullet or bullets’ trajectory, the size and placement of wounds, came to seem beside the point. The trajectory, if you will, of this moment, the path this moment takes through the next half century of Bompensiero’s life is what all along I have wanted to understand. How this moment changed Frank Bompensiero’s life is more important than are details of weapon and wound.
Frank Bompensiero knew right from wrong. What he thought was right and what he thought was wrong, likely, is different than what you think is right and wrong. He was no amoral monster. You or I, in good conscience, cannot that easily dismiss him.
After this night outside Milwaukee, Bompensiero will go on to become a soldier in a secret army, or secret society. This army, or, society has its own moral code, its own rules on onore and omertà. He will follow these rules, for many years. He will kill other men. Imagine that. Certainly, that night on the dark road outside Milwaukee, Frank Bompensiero could not have imagined that, could not have foreseen his future, could not have guessed that 25 or 30 years from this night he would stand in a house in Kensington, a house along whose stucco walls red bougainvillea trailed upward. He will stand with Jimmy Fratianno behind the door of that house, on a warm summer evening. The door will open and an old bootlegger will enter, hand out-stretched, thinking he has arrived for a convivial evening among compares who after the kisses and handshakes will pour the good Scotch. The two ice cubes will click against heavy crystal. That is not what happens. What happens is that Fratianno and Bompensiero loop a rope around the old bootlegger’s throat. Fratianno and Bompensiero wrench the rope tighter and tighter until the old bootlegger crumples to his knees, until the old bootlegger’s eyes pop and the trousers of his beautiful suit fill with his body’s wastes. The host, the house’s owner, will complain that his carpet is soiled.
We cannot hope, now, to know what Bompensiero felt when he pulled the trigger that night outside Milwaukee. We will never know what conversation he did or did not have that night and on nights to come with that bodiless voice in his head that we call conscience.
You know how it is in a new love affair, when for the first time you tell your beloved a lie? How, with that first lie, the sweetness of relations between you and the beloved suddenly turns less sweet? How you no longer feel as easy in his company? In her embrace? I believe that Bompensiero no longer felt at ease in the world after that moment outside Milwaukee.
We do know this, for sure. According to Bompensiero’s old friend, Bompensiero suddenly “was in a lot of trouble with Milwaukee people.” I asked if by “people,” he meant, “connected people.” He did, he said, “Yes, connected people.”
“Connected people” were in Milwaukee. Connected people were, indeed, by this time, in all major cities of America. The Milwaukee Journal for February 7, 1921, notes the death of one of them under a headline, “Little Italy Mourns Chief”: “Vito Guardalabene, 75, known as the king of Little Italy, the political ruler of the Third Ward, died Monday afternoon. He had been suffering from heart trouble. Twenty-three years ago Vito came to the United States from Palermo. He was engaged in a wholesale grocery and macaroni business. His approval was necessary to any political aspirant in the Third Ward.”
Guardalabene was a padrone, a power in Milwaukee and nearby Madison. Other powerful families were Aliotos, the same family that also settled in San Francisco and eventually would produce a mayor of that city, and the Balistrieris, who would marry into the Alioto family. Law enforcement agencies later would refer to certain members of these families as Mafia members and would convict and send them to prison, but back in 1921, outsiders to the Third Ward’s Little Italy paid them no notice. Within the Third Ward, however there were men — Sicilian men — who could and would order your death.
Bompensiero likely met “connected people” in the Third Ward neighborhood. Maybe he shook hands with Guardalabene, whose home village was also Porticello. According to the later testimony of Aladena (“Jimmy the Weasel”) Fratianno in Ovid Demaris’s bestseller, The Last Miafioso, the Bompensiero family, while in Milwaukee, was friendly with the Alioto family. Fratianno would claim that Bompensiero, as an older man, became godfather to an Alioto child. But, perhaps Bompensiero met none of these people and only gazed at them, from a distance, and envied their tailored clothes and their Bay Rum aftershave, their cars and their women. Bompensiero may have been a gutter rat, a shabby urban Dickensian freelancer, a bottom-feeder who with other young bottom-feeders made other, slightly more powerful outlaws, his victims.
We can be sure of this, too. Bompensiero was terrified. You could fry on the hot seat for killing someone. But the retribution that the law of the state might seek must have seemed mild next to the retributions his fellow Sicilians would want.
“At this point,” said Mary Ann, “my dad hopped a freight train and came to California.”
San Diego, since the late 1890s, had attracted families from Porticello. They sent back reports of a climate similar to that of Porticello. They mailed black-and-white photographs of fig and palm and citrus trees, of fishing boats and ocean, of stucco houses built along hillsides from the Embarcadero up to Second Street. The immigrants also sent back to relatives in Sicily money they earned from fishing and factory work. Bompensiero arrived in San Diego certainly no later than 1923 or 1924. Mary Ann said, “I understand he went to work on the docks. First, he unloaded fish, and then he got a job as fisherman because that’s all they knew. You don’t shovel coal in California.”
Once Bompensiero jumps off that freight train and steps onto San Diego soil, we are—again—in the dark. I thump those years with my knuckles, and the sound is the sound of hollowness. We know almost nothing. Almost everyone who might have seen or heard about what Bompensiero did during his first years in San Diego is dead. Those who aren’t dead won’t talk or weren’t paying attention and don’t know. In what local police records remain, Bompensiero’s name does not appear until August 25, 1928, when Bompensiero, days away from his 23rd birthday, was arrested for violation of the State of California’s Prohibition Act.
To acquire a sense of Bompensiero’s life after he came to San Diego you have to take what you know, in general, about San Diego, and about Little Italy, and about fishing, and about being Sicilian, and about being young and male and on the run from Milwaukee, about Prohibition, about having killed a man, and with all that, you must patiently construct a framework. Once you build that rickety scaffolding, you can set Frank Bompensiero down within it, but you cannot do much more than that.
In 1920, San Diego’s population was 74,683; 18,000 automobiles drove the one- and two- lane roads and streets. Streetcars moved up and down Broadway. Numbers 1, 3, 7 or 11 carried you to Balboa Park where daily, at 3 p.m., you could attend free concerts played on the organ donated to the city by J.D and A.B. Spreckels. The Zoo was open. The U.S. Grant stood where it stands now. Men could order near beer and sarsaparilla at its bar. If they wanted stronger stuff, they needed connections with a bootlegger or the address of a speakeasy. San Diego Trust and Savings Bank, for $600,000 had purchased the corner of Sixth and Broadway, razed the Hotel Beacon, and begun construction. Dominic Alessio had moved to town. In 1921, Dominic’s older sons, John and Russell Alessio, began polishing shoes near Fifth Avenue and E Street.
I have a pamphlet that I found in a heap of old magazines stacked in a cardboard box in a downtown used bookstore. Dated “January, 1921,” and titled San Diego Greeters’ Guide for the Traveler: Up-to-date information on San Diego, the five-by seven-inch pamphlet offers 50 pages of information about San Diego. Advertisements take up many pages — “Dance Tonight at Ratliff’s, 1029 Second Street, Dancing every night except Monday and Tuesday…Strictly First-Class.” “Savoy Café at 1055-1057 Fourth St. Phone, Main 3725.” “French and Italian Cuisine…G. Topuzes & Bro…Private Dining Room for Ladies and Small Parties, Telephone in Each Private Room, Table D’Hote Dinner, $1.00…Noon Lunch, 40 cents…Planked Steaks, Chops, Poultry and Sea Foods a Specialty.” And this, “The Owl Taxi, Main 1900, Serves you Right, Day and Night! Drivers Wear Uniform and Blue Caps!”
By the time Bompensiero showed up in San Diego, Little Italy had been growing for 30 years. Its population increased after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, when North Beach Italian residents escaped south. Families from Porticello bought and built and rented houses and apartments from the Embarcadero up the hill to Second, and from Date to Mission Hills. All along Columbia and India and State and Date and Grape and Atlantic Streets, clear down to the edge of the water, you could see houses painted pink and blue by transplanted Sicilians. Catenary arch brick ovens rose up in back yards where the women baked bread for their families and for sale as ship’s stores. The fishermen went out to sea for a week at a time, then returned home, mended their nets, refitted their boats, went back out. The Sicilians mixed little, if at all, with the rest of San Diego. They had their own grocery stores, bars, outfitters for boats, net repairmen, bakeries, macaroni makers, insurance salesmen, seamstresses. They began a drive for funds to build an Italian church. Through bazaar sales, individual contributions, and a gift of the land on the corner of Columbia and Date Streets, Little Italy’s residents, on August 17, 1923, were able to break ground to begin construction. The congregation’s size, then, was 2000.
Many did not speak English or did not speak it well. Those who did speak English served as translators for those who didn’t. Families were close. More than other immigrant groups, Sicilian-Americans held on to language, cuisine, custom, each other. A man whose parents were immigrants from Porticello said to me, “We spoke Sicilian, cooked Sicilian, married Sicilian, and acted Sicilian.”
Sicilians like to say how much more friendly, outgoing, demonstrative, and generous they are than are Italians from the north. They like to say that they will give you the shirt off their back, if you need a shirt. I think that is true. Sicilian-Americans whom I met over the decade during which I asked questions about Bompensiero where charming and gregarious. But they did not want to talk about Bompensiero. Some would not even admit to recognizing the name. If I contacted them by telephone, and said that I wished to ask about Bompensiero, some of these charming, generous people hung up on me. Some put the receiver down softly. Some slammed it down. Some hissed, “Don’t call again.”
Omertà: The word means “manliness,” or, more generally, “silence.” According to an authority on Sicilian folklore, omertà derives from omoncità, or, “acting like a man.” Giovanni Schiavo’s 1962 book, The Truth About the Mafia and Organized Crime in America, explains the silence this way: “The worst insult a Sicilian can hurl at another Sicilian is that of ‘nfami or cascittuni, both of which mean the same thing, ‘informer’ or ‘stool pigeon.’ Calling and American ‘a dirty liar’ is mild compared to that.”
A retired FBI agent said to me, “Omertà’s inbred with the Sicilians. Even the law-abiding, honest day-to-day person in that community knows better than to talk. Omertà’s just something that’s inbred. They don’t like to talk about [guys like Bompensiero]. They are embarrassed, they have to live here in these communities and the peer pressure is such that even if they are not afraid of physical violence, they are afraid of being ostracized, because the mob guys have enough influence to put out the word and make these people appear to be snitches and disloyal. So they are very concerned about talking.”
A reader here can scoff at the notion of omertà. He or she can scoff at the notion that contemporary Sicilian-American San Diegans fear discussing Frank Bompensiero, killed execution-style in Pacific Beach in 1977. But they did and they do. They also do not want to discuss Frank Bompensiero with someone like me, an outsider, because to do so is disloyal.
A quite elderly woman, when I asked about Bompensiero, said this: “I knew him when he came out here from Milwaukee. He seemed to be a very nice guy when I knew him. Whatever people say about him, I wasn’t there to hold the candle, so I don’t know. He was nice to me and my family, so I can’t talk bad about him.”
Another elderly woman, her English strongly accented, said, “I don’t like to talk about the past, or to say anything about the past.” Then she hung up.
A middle-aged man whose father came to San Diego several years earlier than did Bompensiero, said, “My father knew Bompensiero extremely well. We knew all these people, we knew them socially, and we never talked about their illegal activities. A lot of people tried to class them as hoodlums, and some were and some weren’t. That stuff was kept secret and the people we knew were certainly never involved. It was something that was on the fringe.” This man made clear to me, by his disapproving tone, that my queries about Bompensiero were intrusive, that I was a trespasser in his community.
I had lists of Sicilian names. I acquired them by squinting at old San Diego city directories and by sitting, hour after hour, in front of the downtown library’s microfilm readers and studying obituaries. At home, I ran my index finger down through the telephone directory and matched names on my list with names in the telephone book. I worked up the courage to dial. I was always reluctant. I always feared failure. I had developed a spiel. Before I dialed, I practiced my spiel. “I need your help. I am a writer. I am interested in writing the true story of Frank Bompensiero. The press has misrepresented Mr. Bompensiero as nothing more than a cold-blooded Mafia hit man, who, when he was gunned down in Pacific Beach, got what he deserved. I want to write about Mr. Bompensiero in a way that shows the family man, the good neighbor, the good citizen.” I would say, again, “I need your help.” I always spoke of him as “Mr. Bompensiero.” I hoped that the people, mostly elderly, whom I dialed, would hear in my use of “Mr.” that I was respectful, that I meant well.
I did mean what I said, about writing about Bompensiero. Early on in this project, I had talked by telephone with a minor hoodlum who had known Bompensiero during the 1960s. He had liked Bompensiero. He said, about what the press wrote about mafiosi, “Nobody looks at the side of them when they’re just with their families, they just look at the shit angles.” I didn’t want just the “shit angles” on Bompensiero. And I truly needed help. I wonder, now, if I sounded as ardent and as earnest as I felt.
Over several months I made possibly 100 telephone calls to men and women who, at least casually, had known Bompensiero or his mother or his sisters or his brother Sam or his first wife’s family, the Sanfilippos. Almost everyone refused to talk.
When someone agreed to answer questions, what they did say acquired a numinous quality. That Bompensiero, for instance, as one woman told me, liked the Sicilian dish, pasta with new green peas, became to me a fact of great enormity. This fact shone. It seemed to light up entire silent, tenebrous, odorless stretches of his life. I saw him, hunched over a wooden kitchen table. Before him sat a white plate. Ivory strands of spaghetti, littered with bright green peas, coiled atop the plate. Bompensiero, using a fork, lifted long strands of the noodle to his mouth. I imagined the taste of new spring peas. I imagined pungent garlic, and hard pecorino cheese of the kind I touched in the stores in Little Italy. I imagined that he grated the cheese atop the pasta. I imagined his wide hands and stubby fingers. I imagined the light through an open window falling down onto the table, onto his hair — brown now and no longer blond, as it was in childhood when everyone in his Milwaukee neighborhood called his “figlio d’oro,” “son of gold.”
I felt queer, and, bad — a bad person — for trying in this way to slip into Bompensiero’s skin. I felt as if I had become one of those unrequited lovers who stalk their would-be sweethearts, who hide late at night in privet hedges and gaze upward at the beloved’s shadow as it drifts across bedroom windows. I felt as if I were trespassing, walking where I was not wanted. I felt as if I were transgressing, exceeding and overstepping what was permitted. I fell in love with someone who did not even like me. I felt I had made myself a victim of what we call “fatal attraction.” I felt doomed.
When I found the pamphlet titled San Diego Greeters’ Guide for the Traveler: Up-to-date Information on San Diego, my eyes widened when I saw the date — “January, 1921.” It seemed like a sign — portentous and consequential — that this pamphlet turned up when it did. It seemed to say that I should go on and I did. I went on. I sat with my lists and I dialed more numbers. Some days, I got lucky.
Soon after Bompensiero first strolled down India Street, Bompensiero moved in with an uncle, Giovanni, a fisherman, who rented a small house from the Sanfilippos. They all lived within a few blocks of each other in San Diego’s Little Italy. Someone told me, who knew the Sanfilippos and Bompensiero during those years, “Frank and the guys who were living there, they were all bachelors then and a little bit wild.” I talked by telephone one morning with one of Thelma Sanfilippo Bompensiero’s sisters. The sister, quite elderly, was concerned that I wished to ask about Bompensiero. She reluctantly talked with me. She told me that she was born in San Diego. She said that her mother and father had eight children — four born in San Diego, and four “back East in Milwaukee.” (One of those four, Thelma, who would marry Bompensiero, was born in Milwaukee in 1911.) Her father Lorenzo, she said, was a fisherman and her mother Felipa, “a businesswoman. She owned property at the time when San Diego was nothing. When my family came here from Milwaukee, where Lindbergh Field is now, there was nothing and downtown, there was nothing.
“My folks come from Porticello, Sicily. My father was in the Italian Navy and came to San Diego. It was nothing then, empty, but my father fell in love with the climate. It was like Sicily, and then when he went back and was out of the Navy and he fell in love with my mother and they got married, they went to Milwaukee. My father had friends in Milwaukee, that’s why they went there. My mother didn’t like the cold there. So my father said, ‘Okay, we are going to San Diego.’ They came here in 1915. My mother was pregnant when she came to San Diego and then she had me and my brother and my younger sister, all four born in San Diego.
“Back then, where I grew up, all the Sicilian fishermen lived along on India Street, on Kettner, Atlantic, Date and Juniper, Union. We lived at 1971 Atlantic. Before they made the freeway, it was just dirt road and the bay. The tide goes out and comes in, it used to come up to Pacific Highway, that’s how close the water was. When I was a little girl we had a skiff in the back yard in case the tide would come in. We had two big palm trees in front of our house, a beach in front of our house. There was no pier, no Anthony’s, nothing at all. We could walk right to the water’s edge. We used to go swimming there. When you walked by people’s houses, they would be sitting on their porch, you wave to say hello and people ask, ‘Where are you going?’ and they would say, ‘Come on over and have a cup of coffee.’ But now you go by, they don’t even say hello. Everyone knew everyone in the neighborhood, someone got sick and everyone ran to help. The doors were left open and no one stole anything.
“At the time the boats they didn’t go far out. In the winter months the men could not go out because it was too choppy for the boats. So in the beginning the fishing was more in the spring and the summer. After they made bigger boats and were catching tuna, they would be gone two and three weeks. My father had a small fishing boat, he went out every day.
“My mother and I, we worked at the fish cannery, all hard work, getting up at two in the morning. When those little fishing boats go out for sardines and anchovies, they would blow the whistle and we had to be alert and hear that whistle blow so we could get up at midnight, two, four in the morning to go to the cannery. The Del Monte cannery was at Juniper and Atlantic. I was 11 years old. We would walk there. That was our life, working at the cannery.”
Mary Ann added this to her maternal aunt’s account. “My grandmother Sanfilippo, I think, really was the boss of the tribe. She was a hard businesswoman. I kind of have to believe that she was kind of the boss of everything, even over my grandfather. Which is unusual, coming as an immigrant from the old country. But she was the one with the brains. What she did is borrow money and buy property. She was a shrewd lady. She was not naïve. And she was attractive. She had gorgeous wavy hair that she wore pulled straight back from her face, in a bun. She never wore makeup.
“She had apartments at 1907 Columbia Street and then they had the big two-story house on Pacific Highway and Grape. My grandmother had three houses. On the outside of the house they lived in my grandfather Sanfilippo had a shed where he kept his fishing nets. He had all blue boats, two or three blue boats. They were for local fishing. Their house was big. Because of all the children. My grandfather Sanfilippo’s mother, they’d brought her over, too, and she lived with them. She was a teeny little thing. She dipped snuff and smoked a pipe. She was past 90 when she died. And besides that, they had other families living with them, people that came over from Sicily. And when people would come in, like from Milwaukee, they also would all stay at my grandmother Sanfilippo’s house until they got a job or went fishing. They all lived together until the husband would find a job and then they’d go out on their own.
“My grandmother had in her back yard on Grape and Pacific Highway — there was no Harbor Drive the — an oven that looked like an igloo. She baked all of her bread. From the leftover dough, she’d make little rolls for all the grandchildren. And she would pour a little bit of olive oil on top and salt and pepper and it was delicious. Right out of the oven.
“Many of these houses, like my grandparents’ house, had two kitchens. They had a kitchen upstairs and a kitchen downstairs in the basement. The upstairs was for company and for entertaining and the downstairs was where you really lived. They never lived in their living rooms. The reason for the two kitchens and the basement is because the families were so big, and where are you going to put them? Another reason they had the basements was because they didn’t want to ruin the house. My grandmother had a gorgeous dining room, a beautiful kitchen upstairs, but she never cooked on the stove upstairs or had anything in the refrigerator. She never ate in the dining room, except at perhaps Christmas or Easter or weddings or funerals. Downstairs in the basement, she had a huge oak table. Every Sunday there were 15 or 20 people at that table. She also had, down there, a kitchen sink, a regular gas stove, refrigerator, a couch and radio. She used to say, ‘Put on the cowboy music.’ Country-western music is what she liked. And she’d sit on the couch and listen to the cowboy music. And she had a black, ebony player piano. She’d put rolls in it, and all the children and even the teenagers would pump away.”
A woman in her 80s told me this about life in Little Italy in the 1920s and early 1930s. ”My mother would have down in her basement 40, 50 people. They would stay up all night playing cards, playing bingo. We would make our raviolis, our round steaks — braciola — where you make bread crumbs with cheese and garlic and put a little oil on it and flatten it down on the steaks, then on the steaks you put salami slices and hard-boiled egg, and then we would roll the steaks up real tight and tie them and fry them and put them in the sauce and then cut them and they’d be delicious. Then we would have either baked chickens with the sauce or baked spaghetti, lasagna, a nice big salad, the antipasti — the pickers that we’d eat before dinner and all day — little pieces of lunch meat, carrot sticks, celery sticks, pieces of cheese, olives — and for dessert, we served cookies and the cannoli. One time we had 50 people down there and the whole basement was filled and we had tables all the way around. We often had almost that many people every year after the midnight Mass.”
Mary Ann said that it was difficult, now, to realize how close the families were in those days. “Cousins married cousins back then. Because they were all the same clan, they all came from Porticello, they all congregated, they all went to the same parties, they went to church together, they danced together, and they fell in love. Cousins would fall in love with each other. it was a different world. You’d think they were still in Sicily.”
All through the 1920s, San Diego’s newspapers were filled with references to Prohibition, which had been in force since January, 1920. Even at the downtown library, Prohibition asserted itself. According to an issue of the San Diego Union published shortly after Prohibition went into effect, the Encyclopedia Britannica had a recipe for the manufacture and distillation of whiskey. The question had arisen as to whether the encyclopedia must “therefore be barred from its place on the shelves of the San Diego Public Library.” The Union went on to note that “Miss Althea H. Warren, San Diego’s chief librarian, hopes not. Officially, she will bring the question before the board of library trustees at the regular meeting today.” Eventually, librarians placed behind the reference desk the volume of the encyclopedia that contained the “recipe.” This is a fact I have always liked.
Mary Ann had heard stories about her maternal grandmother’s defiance of Prohibition law. “Underneath my grandfather Sanfilippo’s nets, there was a trapdoor. You’d open that trapdoor and go into the basement and that’s where my grandparents kept the wine. Policemen used to stop by, and they’d buy wine by the shot. Also, my grandparents sold the wine in pints. When my mother was 12, which would have been in 1923, she learned how to drive a Model T Ford. She would drive my grandmother around to deliver wine. My grandmother wore long skirts and my grandmother would have under her skirt, two jugs of wine. My mother drove and her grandmother delivered the wine to their customers.”
Bompensiero’s old friend, the man who told me about Bompensiero’s first killing, also told me that at some point after Bompensiero made his escape from Milwaukee, he went up to Los Angeles “ to see Jack Dragna, to try to get Jack to straighten him out with the Milwaukee people. Jack did and from then on in, Frank was with Jack.” Bompensiero’s friend said that more than once Bompensiero told him that he “loved” Jack Dragna that Dragna, by speaking to the Milwaukee people, saved his life.
Born Anthony Rissotti in Corleone, Sicily, in 1891, Jack Dragna arrived in California with his brother Tom around 1908. The brothers set up shop in Los Angeles. Los Angeles writer Charles Ripley 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 of 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 eleventh 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 prominence in the affairs of his countrymen, Dragna was still an outsider in the world of Los Angeles crime. Most of the cities 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 concentrated his attention to prying graft and tribute from the Italian community and on bootlegging.”
Mary Ann has a more detailed account of how her father met Jack Dragna. “Sometime after my dad got to California, from what I was told my grandmother Sanfilippo introduced him to some people in Los Angeles. That’s what I was told by a close member of the family. It was Tom Dragna I was told that he was introduced to, Jack Dragna’s brother. And then,” Mary Ann laughed , “after he met the Dragnas, from that point on, I don’t think my dad ever went back to fishing again.”
When Bompensiero in November 1950 testified in Los Angeles before the Kefauver Committee, he testified cagily. The nation was entering into a rapt, almost hypnotic, fascination with gangsters. In May, 1950, Kefauver’s committee had set up shop in Miami and grilled mob moneyman and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel mentor, Meyer Lansky. Bompensiero did not have the gloss and acumen with which Lansky was gifted, but he knew what to leave out. He left out entirely the five to eight years that he lived in Sicily. He mentioned nothing of his gang activities in Milwaukee or that night outside Milwaukee when his gun flared in the darkness. He changed the date of his arrival in San Diego from early in the 1920s to 1926, and the date of his first meeting with Dragna from early in the 1920s to 1927. He denied that he knew Joe Sica, a Los Angeles-based “handyman” who, with his brother Fred, was closely connected to Mickey Cohen. Bompensiero may not have liked the Sicas, but he knew them.
Mr. Halley. What was your occupation when you came to San Diego?
Mr. Bompensiero. I used to fish for a living.
Mr. Halley. For how long did you do that?
Mr. Bompensiero. I do not—I did that for about, I should say, about, maybe, a year.
Mr. Halley. Then what did you do?
Mr. Bompensiero. Then I started selling a little liquor and I got caught at it.
Mr. Halley. Who were your associates in the liquor business?
Mr. Bompensiero. I was by myself.
Mr. Halley. Did you know Dragna at that time?
Mr. Bompensiero. At that time, no sir.
Mr. Halley. When did you first meet Dragna?
Mr. Bompensiero. About 1927.
Mr. Halley. Well, then, that was before your liquor conviction, was it not?
Mr. Bompensiero. Yes, it was. Yes, sir, before my liquor conviction.
Mr. Halley. Were you still living in Wisconsin when you met Dragna?
Mr. Bompensiero. No, sir.
Mr. Halley. Then, you are here—
Mr. Bompensiero. I came out here, I guess it must have been in 1926.
Mr. Halley. Now, do you know Joe Sica?
Mr. Bompensiero. No, sir.
Mr. Halley. You have never met him?
Mr. Bompensiero. Never met him.
Mr. Halley. What was your business after the prohibition conviction?
Mr. Bompensiero. With me?
Mr. Halley. Yes.
Mr. Bompensiero. I was working here and there.
Mr. Halley. Doing what?
Mr. Bompensiero. Well, fishing once in a while, peddling fish for myself.
Mr. Halley. Any other businesses?
Mr. Bompensiero. No, sir.
Mr. Halley. How did you happen to meet Dragna?
Mr. Bompensiero. I met him in San Diego through — he used to come down to my mother-in-law’s. That is where I met him.
Who, you have to ask yourself, was Felipa Sanfilippo, a little Sicilian woman in San Diego who wore her hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her neck, a woman illiterate in her own language and clumsy in the New World’s to be entertaining Jack Dragna, or, to suggest that Bompensiero go the visit the Dragnas, Jack or Tom? How did Felipa Sanfilippo come to know Tom and Jack Dragna? The Dragnas weren’t from Porticello. And did Bompensiero tell Mrs. Sanfilippo that he was in trouble in Milwaukee? If he did, did he tell her the nature of his trouble? And why and for whom did Jack Dragna agree to settle things with the people in Milwaukee? And why and for whom did Jack Dragna take in a rough, perhaps impulsive, and certainly desperate teenager? Did Felipa Sanfilippo reach into her bootlegging proceeds and send “tribute” to Jack Dragna? We don’t know. We won’t know. Of this, I think, we can be sure: once Jack Dragna, perhaps as a favor to Felipa Sanfilippo, settled things in Milwaukee, there was no turning back for Bompensiero.
There is only one word from the Sicilian dialect of Italian which is known around the world: mafia. According to Giovanni Schiavo’s The Truth About the Mafia and Organized Crime in America, “The adjective mafiusu (mafioso, in Italian), has been common in Sicily for at least two hundred years…The word was common in the Borgo section ‘of Palermo and…meant beauty, charm, perfection, excellence. Today the noun mafia commonly means criminal organization or gang, but the adjective mafioso still has two meanings; first, that of a member of the Mafia, and second, that of tough, or what the lower classes would call ‘wise guy.’ Thus, it is common to hear one say ma chi ti senti mafiusu? (you think you are tough?).”
Schiavo, himself Sicilian-American, notes that one “can be a mafioso without being a criminal.” He explains, “Mafia pertains to something inherent or almost innate in the Sicilian mentality, the Sicilian way of life, such as the code of honor, omertà, longing for freedom, intolerance on injustice… Such sentiments…are embodied in the word Mafia as a state of mind.”
Scoff, too, if you like, at the idea of Mafia and Mafioso and secret initiation ceremonies like those we have seen in movies. But, it is likely that between 1923 and 1928, Frank Bompensiero, at the hands of Jack Dragna, became a “made man,” a soldato, a Mafia member. Certainly, until Dragna’s death in early 1956, Bompensiero would do chores, many of a deadly nature, for Dragna. With few exceptions, we will never know what these chores were. Even when they were performed in daylight, these chores were done in darkness.
In San Diego in September, 1922, U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenant James Doolittle made the first coast-to-coast flight in a single day, flying from Pablo Beach, Florida to San Diego in 21 hours, 28 minutes’ flying time. Construction started on a second pier at the foot of B Street. By 1923, there were 30,000 cars registered in the county. East San Diego was annexed by the City of San Diego. Street car lines were under construction from downtown San Diego to Mission Beach and La Jolla. The command of the Pacific Fleet was transferred to San Diego.
We know that John Alessio was shining shoes in his shop at Fifth Avenue and E Street. We know that C. Arholt Smith became director of the Bank of Italy. We know that Bompensiero’s future mother-in-law was buying property in Little Italy. Many Ann said, about her maternal grandmother, “The guy at Bank of America, where my grandmother went, said that had she been able to read and write and speak better English she would have been a multi-millionaire. She was willing to take chances.” But what, precisely, Bompensiero did during these years again, I do not know. What Mary Ann knows, is this. Her father, all his life was a graceful dancer. At some point after Bompensiero came to California, he entered and won several dance contests. “My father, “ she said, “won a trophy, doing the ‘Black Bottom.’ ” He was also, at this age, said Mary Ann, "a dandy, a fancy dresser, and something of a favorite among the ladies.” I have enjoyed imagining Bompensiero at Ratliff’s, whose advertisement was in the 1921 pamphlet, “Dancing every night except Monday and Tuesday…Strictly First-Class.”
I have a photograph, taken after Bompensiero arrived in San Diego. Dressed in shirt, bow tie, and dark vest, Bompensiero appears to be standing near a fishing boat or a dock. His face is in a profile and a slight smile lifts the corners of his mouth. He does not look unhappy.
I sit with the photograph and try to see him, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt and polished shoes at the festive wedding parties held in Little Italy during this era. Mary Ann has said that her father sang in the shower, that he was fond of Al Jolson’s rendition of “My Mammy.” (Al Capone, by the way, also was a Jolson fan. On the night of the Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney rematch in September, 1927, Capone gave a party at which he paid Jolson to entertain. Exactly what Mary Ann said is this: “He used to say to me, when I was still a little girl, ‘Baby, put the Jolson records on.’ He’d be in the shower and he’d sing, “My Mammy”.” I look up titles of songs popular during the 1920s—“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “My Buddy,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart," Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Mexican Rose.” I try to guess which songs Bompensiero might have wanted to sing along with. I get him to nodding to the rhythm of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” I see him on the dance floor. I see him rise to the toes of those shined shoes, did Johnny Alessio shine them? I watch as he twirls young women who dress in pale voiles and sheer cottons hand-embroidered with the minutest of roses.
Mary Ann’s maternal aunt, when we talked, described the social life in Little Italy during these years. “There were so many parties,” she said, “back in those days. Mostly weddings. In the olden days, the weddings were more family get-togethers and it isn’t like what you see in The Godfather. They would rent a hall and everyone goes, but the only ones who went to the dinners were the family. In the olden days, say, for instance, the bridesmaids’ families, they all go to the dinner and the friends come later to the reception, where they had cookies, wedding cake, champagne. At the old weddings, they had bands. Six-piece bands.
“When my older brother got married to a girl from Los Angeles, he had the most beautiful wedding. My mother gave her the wedding, because my sister-in-law's family couldn’t afford it. So my mother did it all, because she wanted her first son to have a beautiful wedding. I have never yet seen a wedding that could compete with that. For the dinner there were 700 people, sit down. It was half Los Angeles and half San Diego people. My mother had two bands; a 13-piece orchestra and a black band. At ten o’clock we had a floor show. In between, the band played and then when they got tired the other one went on. They had a floor show with a Spanish tango. The wedding cake, the bride had to stand up on a chair to take off the top of the cake and three canaries flew out. And the cake was huge; it was seven layers going up. It didn’t have any pillars to hold the cake up; it was seven layers, cake over cake over cake. For the dinner, it was in a hotel. The dinner part was really nice. They had booths for the children and the grownups sat at large tables in the middle. They had a stage up there and a few people from San Diego knew how to play saxophone and sing and it was like a little entertainment up there while they were eating. The bridesmaids were dressed with dresses with beads on them and those big wide-brimmed hats. The bouquets were huge: two dozen and a half roses in each one with plumes, feathers in them all the way around them and the bride had two dozen Easter lilies for her wedding bouquet. That wedding cost my mother a fortune, $14,000.”
According to Bompensiero’s old friend, the gentleman who told me about Bompensiero’s first killing, Bompensiero, during his first years in California, spent considerable time in Los Angeles with the Dragnas. They introduced him to men involved in bootlegging and illegal whiskey making and what the Los Angeles Police Department described as “gangland murders and mysterious disappearances” and “the bootleg wars.”
Los Angeles since the late 1800s, like San Diego, had an Italian community. Charles Rappleye and Ed Becker write in All American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story, that this community was “concentrated in the flatlands east of downtown, a fringe neighborhood of small wood-frame houses bordered in the west by the floodplain of the Los Angeles River, on the north by Lincoln Heights, and on the southeast by Boyle Heights…Los Angeles’ Italians were still an immigrant community, hemmed in by poverty and isolated by language and culture. The police were considered outsiders, and the laws of the land largely irrelevant.”
Tony Mirabile, who would move to San Diego after Prohibition’s end and set up in business as owner of a bar on Fourth and F, The Rainbow Gardens, by 1921 had moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. Mirabile made the acquaintance of Jack Dragna and, through Dragna, Bompensiero met Mirabile. In 1923 Mirabile opened a nightclub, The Midnight Follies, in Tijuana, but all through the 1920s, Tony Mirabile and his brother Paul, were in and out of San Diego and Los Angeles. Bompensiero was introduced to Frank Borgia, a bootlegger and “sugar man,” supplier of sugar to whiskey makers who worked with the Dragnas through the Twenties and Thirties. He came to know Biaggio Bonventre, who lived off and on in San Diego and had connections to Dragna through bootlegging. He got to know Joe Adrizzone and Joseph Bernardo, also in bootlegging with Dragna. But what Bompensiero, in these early years, did for or with Dragna, if anyone alive still knows, they are not willing to say.
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 serious research on the men involved in organized crime. In 1950, in preparation for the arrival in Los Angeles of Kefauver’s committee, 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 disappearance in Los Angeles that seemed connected to organized come. This document gives a picture of the society in which Bompensiero began to move and whose history and values he absorbed. As I read and reread this LAPD report, I tried to imagine, and hope that you will too, Bompensiero, not yet in his 20s, sitting in Los Angeles with Jack and Tom Dragna, with Bonventre and Borgia and Adrizzone. Imagine his listening to “war stories,” to tales of bootlegging and killing, comparisons between this weapon and that, this car and that. Imagine his beginning to add his two cents to plans for revenge, to schemes for cornering the Los Angeles bootlegging market, to winning the bootleg wars. Imagine, too, Bompensiero finding himself involved in some of the activities described below. I think that we can be sure that he was involved.
One caveat needs to be offered to this LAPD summary. Its writers repeatedly refer to the “Black Hand Society.” Extortion scams perpetrated principally by Italians and Sicilians upon other Italians and Sicilians 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. No doubt exists that these so-called Black Hand activities went on, but, no organized “Black Hand” society existed. Certainly, Dragna and his bootlegging compares did not think of themselves as a “Black Hand” group. They thought of themselves as businessmen, as deal makers, and they thought of threats and intimidation and violence and murder as part of doing business. Al Capone’s brother Frank was noted for his statement, “You never get no back talk from no corpse.” Younger men, like Bompensiero, were assigned the murders—the rubouts — of people who got in the way of doing business. The assignment of these murders was made casually. Paul Ricca, for many years a power in the Chicago mob, ordered murders by saying, “Make him go away.”
The LAPD document’s introduction notes:
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 two divisions or phases, as to origin and cause.
A. The early murders were predominately 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 29, 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 bootlegging, 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 the vicinity.
(c) This era also was dominated by the Italian element, using the methods ascribed to the Black Hand Society (Mafia).
The following are the gangland killings of the early part of the century of suspected Black Hand (Mafia) origin.
June 2, 1906. Avenue 19 and North Main. 7 p.m. Died July 29, 1906.
Italian fruit peddler shot by JOE ADRIZZONE who escaped and was not tried until February 9, 1915. (See report on JOE ADRIZZONE.) Shooting was without warning. Victim shot in back on street. Believed to be long standing feud of Sicilian origin. Residence of victim: 1822 Darwin Avenue.
September 18, 1906. In front of 1590 North Main Street.
Shot and killed on street in Black Hand turmoil of these times. Supposedly shot by one notorious MATRANGA gang, one TONY MATRANGE, a.k.a. TONY SCHINO. No prosecution.
December 31, 1907. At 2205 East Ninth Street.
On above date approximately 8:10 p.m. unknown person fired through a window of victim’s barber shop, above address, killing victim. Definitely a “Black Hand” killing as a letter was found in victim’s pocket written in Sicilian. This letter also bore a crude drawing of a clown and a policeman, evidently referring to victim as a stoolie. Considered at time to be the outcome of a feud or revenge of the Sicilian society (Black Hand). No prosecution to date.
August 14, 1914, 11:10 p.m. At Lamar and North Main Street.
Victim and one VINZIONE FORTE were shot by unknown person with a shotgun on street. Victim died. FORTE wounded. FORTE stated he did not see who fired on them as his back was turned towards assassins (although he received wounds in front of body). FORTE stated he had received Black Hand letters demanding money under threats of death. Letters later found in his room. Nothing found in PETROLIO’S room to throw light on affair.
November 15, 1917. 1837 Darwin Avenue. In rear garage.
Shot and killed by unknown party. A sawed-off shotgun used. Wife heard him drive car in garage. Also heard shot. Found victim sitting in auto dead. A NICK SOLVATO arrested; later released. Black Hand Sicilian killing.
December 18, 1917. 9:45 p.m. Eastlake and Henry Streets.
Victim a fruit merchant. Shot and killed by shotgun by unknown party on street. Received 10 wounds in chest and back from buckshot. Suspects fled in auto from scene. Same were suspects in above killing of CICCIO and BENTIVEGNA. Known assassins for the Black Hand. Fell out of favor. Revenged. Residence of victim: 1510 Biggy Street. No prosecution to date.
November 31, 1918. 9 p.m. 17th and Darwin.
Aftermath of a Sicilian mob feud. Victim shot in back of head and in hand. Three shots heard by witness. Believed at time to be Italian Black Hand killing. No prosecuition to date. No residence address.
February 25, 1919. 5:30 p.m. At 151 South Avenue 18.
Shot three times by buckshot from a shotgun, 12 gauge, while driving his auto, from another auto. Victim a vegetable merchant. Attempt to kill victim was made on November 10, 1918, at 51st and Hooper. Shot in shoulder. Black Hand Sicilian trouble suspected. Residence of victim: 128 East 51st Street.
With the advent of prohibition, the Mafia element struck out into broader fields of activities.
In the ensuing struggle for money, power and control, there was much jealousy and many violent crimes committed. It was one faction of the original association against another, brother against brother, and dog eat dog, for the plunder of the spoils.
The following murders are listed as the outcome of these “bootleg” wars:
September 13, 1920. 7 p.m. 2121 East Ninth Street.
Two men entered victim’s store and demanded that he buy liquor from them. In the argument that followed, victim was roughed up and shot in abdomen. Victim then shot one of the suspects, ROY GAROLDINO, in the head, killing him instantly, at the above address.
Victim BLANDINO made his way to 2152 Wilson where he was found and made above statement.
At the residence of ROY GAROLDINO were found several barrels of wine; also large vat in which wine had been started.
On September 14, 1920, approximately 6 a.m., a gun was found in an excavation at 2127 East Ninth Street, by ALEX ACUNA, 717 Kohler, and turned over to police. Weapon described as 32.20 caliber Police Positive Model Colt No. 33515, loaded, containing two exploded shells. It had been hidden in front of the location where the shooting had occurred the night before. Unknown as to the outcome of ballistics.
This killing was the outcome of bad blood between Italian elements and also from “muscling” of different factions. Black Hand methods.
August 4, 1921. Body found in Elysian Park Reservoir. August 7, 1921.
Mixed up in bootleg wars and Sicilian mob activities. Two suspects, ANTONIO TORIZZIO and BATISTA TORIZZIO, were arrested but later released. Residence address victim: 2114 Louise Street.
September 7, 1921. 7:10 p.m. At 19 and Darwin.
Victim was shot by unknown men he was seen with. Witness unable to identify suspect. Suspect fled scene afoot. Victim was known bootlegger and hijacker. Residence of victim: 174 West Avenue 26.
January 4, 1922. 7:45 p.m. Avenue 19 and Darwin.
Shot and killed by unknown party. LUNETTA was standing on corner when an auto drove by and two shots were fired. Shotgun with buckshot. Mrs. LUNETTA suspected VICTOR MATRANGA, 1822 Darwin Avenue, who left house with victim. MATRANGA stated he left victim about 5:45 p.m. at 19th and Main.
January 11, 1922. 9 p.m. Avenue 21 and Mozart.
Shot down as he left his Buick auto, with rear wheel over curb, 100 feet from where he fell dead. When he left his auto another man was with him. This man got into a Ford auto from which bullets were fired, leaving with others in car. Residence of victim: 931 Court Circle.
April 15, 1925. In garage at 2214 Duane Street (rear).
Shot and killed by unknown person when he went out to garage to move some barrels of wine from one garage to another, so stated his partner, JOHN LENZINE. He heard some talking and heard a shot and found victim on ground shot in head. LENZINE held as material witness but later released. Both known bootleggers and suspected members of Sicilian Society, had fallen out of favor with Black Hand.
May 13, 1926. Tenth and Wall. 3:05 p.m.
Investigation disclosed that TONY RAIA went into Stall No. 9 in City Market where THOMAS and BARTOLO PANNA had had a fruit concession. RAIA demanded $2,000.00 from PANNA brothers stating he was a member of the dreaded Black Hand Society. If they didn’t give him the money, he would get them. In the ensuing argument Raja shot and killed BARTOLO PANNA. RAJA was shot at the same time by his victim. RAJA died a short time later. THOMAS PANNA received wounds but recovered. District attorney refused to issue a complaint against him for RAJA’s death, self defense. RAJA was identified by Sheriff as wanted for the murder of SAM VASSALLO, January 8, 1925.
February 1, 1927. 8 p.m. 1953 South Bonnie Brae.
Shot and killed by unknown hijackers in the yard of his home, above address. Hi-jackers attempting to take liquor victim had stored in his basement. HARRY (MILE AWAY) THOMAS arrested as suspect, February 14, 1927, but was dismissed, insufficient evidence. (THOMAS later killed by police officers on April 21, 1927, while reportedly hi-jacking liquor from a garage at 1408 West 35th Street, 7:50 p.m.)
March 19, 1927. 11 p.m. 1201 1/2 Macy Street.
Shot and killed by unknown person, shooting from outside open door or stepping in door and killing victim. Victim had been in act of preparing a meal. Victim shot through head. Victim had been arrested four days prior to his death for “bootlegging.” The victim was a one time “stoolie” for the Sheriff’s Office, Seattle, Washington, causing no arrests of bootleggers there. Suspected Black Hand Society killing for informing. No clues. No prosecution.
April 1, 1927. In front of 659 Kohler Street.
At 7:30 a.m. above date deceased discovered in rear section of Studebaker sedan parked in front of 659 Kohler. Body resting on six 5-gallon cans of olive oil. Blood spots found on left front door and steering wheel and windshield. Right part of front seat covered with bloodstains. A colt auto .38 cal. with seven loaded shells in clip and one in barrel unfired. One .38 cal. empty shell found in front cushion. Victim evidently killed in front seat and dumped in rear. Victim had been arrested a few days prior for operating a still at 532 Soto Street with his partner, JIM MASSACI, a known bootlegger. Relatives and friends were very reluctant to furnish any information, if any, in their possession, fearing Sicilian Black Hand retribution. No clues. No prosecution.
During his first years in San Diego, Bompensiero, at least part of the time, lived in one or another of his future mother-in-law’s apartments. He didn’t fish. He didn’t work on the docks. An elderly Sicilian gentleman, after several hours’ talk, allowed this: “Frank Bompensiero, after he’d been in town awhile, became a big bootlegger. The police were always after him. But he was pretty sly. He got away a lot. Mostly it was wine he was selling.”
When I had gathered what facts I had gathered and talked with people who would talk to me, I was left, as I leave you, with an incomplete picture of Bompensiero as a young man. We can guess at some of what he did and we can be fairly sure of what and who he knew. By the time he turned 20, he was no longer the hopeful boy whose face gazed out at us from the photograph taken in Sicily. He has seen blood. He has shed blood. He is the carrier of secrets and leads a life that he must keep secret—omertà: “manliness,” or more generally, “silence.”—I think that we would miss the point of who he is to shrug and say, “He was just after a quick, easy buck.” I don’t think Bompensiero simply was after easy money and I feel sure that he never looked forward to any violent act. What he looked forward to, I believe, was the act’s completion, the moment when literally and figuratively, he could wash his hands. I, continually, have tried to imagine the conversation with himself that Bompensiero carried on in his mind. I have tried to imagine how California must have appeared—downtown San Diego’s tall buildings, Los Angeles’ even taller structures, and the fast cars and good paved roads and movies and movie stars and tailored suits and silk ties and flush toilets and hot showers and porterhouse steaks served at all hours in restaurants and dances where he could show himself off as the master of the Black Bottom.
The most important thing that happened to Bompensiero, once he jumped down off the freight train, was not California and was not America. It was Jack Dragna. Jack Dragna became for Bompensiero what now in our secularized, pop psychology-inflected worldview we would call Bompensiero’s “mentor.” Jack Dragna seemed to young Frank Bompensiero a veritable demi-god, colossus, and savior. Jack Dragna, Bompensiero would always say, had saved his life. Jack Dragna became Bompensiero’s lodestar, his cynosure. “Frank,” Bompensiero’s old friend said, “became Jack’s.”
I do not think that Bompensiero talked with himself in the hyperconscious way in which so many of us carry on. I do believe, though, that during his late teens and early 20s, that at least two voices other than his own occupied his mind—Jack Dragna’s and his mother’s. I think that insofar as Bompensiero had what now we speak of as “goals,” they were to please Dragna, to serve Dragna, and to help out his mother.
Quite how Bompensiero’s family in Porticello communicated with its oldest son, I do not know. But certainly, Bompensiero was aware that his father was failing rapidly. “Back in Porticello,” said Mary Ann, “Grandfather Bompensiero kept getting worse. He had a sore in his mouth, and wouldn’t go to the doctor. Eventually, in 1925, he died, of cancer. My father then was the head of the whole family—his mother, four sisters, and his brother Sam.”
Mary Ann remembered her grandmother Bompensiero “as a typical little peasant Sicilian lady. I never saw her wear a color in my life and she died at 92. No lipstick, no perfume, nothing. Ever. Once she became a widow, she wore black, for the rest of her life. And all black, too, like the peasants. The immigrant ladies wore bandannas, tied like kerchiefs, and she wore these. She also wore tiny gold ball earrings that hung down from her earlobes. That’s all the jewelry I ever saw my grandmother in. She never said much. She was more of the immigrant. She never remarried. Continued living, after my father was married, with my Aunt Grace and everybody else that came over, or got a start in life, all in one house at 2033 Columbia Street.”
Mary Ann said, too, that whenever her father was in San Diego, he never failed, every morning, to go by to visit his mother. “Every single morning of her life—and she lived to be 92—if he was in town. I don’t care if he stayed for five minutes, whatever. Every day he went to see his mother. Every day. That’s how he started his day. Before he attended to anything else. And he gave his mother money. She didn’t want for anything. They sat at the table and drank coffee. She always poured a lot of cream in his coffee. They spoke in Sicilian. She never spoke English. She was very very religious. In her bedroom, she kept an altar on top of her dresser, with the saints, the Virgin Mary, Saint Anthony, the candles, and she prayed all the time before the altar. She went early every morning to mass at Our Lady.”
I talked one day with one of Bompensiero’s sisters. She spoke with me hesitantly, and, obliquely. This is what I learned. Giuseppe Bompensiero had hoped, eventually, to bring his family back to the United States. But his cancer progressed to a point that left him unable to travel. After his death, his wife, Anna Maria, left with five youngsters to support, struggled on. “When my father passed away, she didn’t have any money and she had to go to work. So she decided to come over here, because that was the best thing. She said it was a better place to live. God bless America!”
Mrs. Bompensiero knew that she didn’t want to live in Milwaukee again, because of the snow and cold weather which she blamed, In part, for her husband’s decline and death. Some of Mrs. Bompensiero’s cousins already had settled in San Diego. By 1928, she had decided she would return to the United States and chose San Diego as her destination. The family sailed from Palermo to Naples and from Naples to New York. From Naples they traveled on the Conte Vianco Amaro. The youngest Bompensiero daughter was ill all through the 12-day voyage, so ill that she was bedded down in the ship’s hospital bunks. The family stayed in New York for several weeks with relatives and then boarded a train headed for San Diego.
They lived on Columbia Street in an apartment owned by the Sanfilippos. Bompensiero’s sisters remembered that “San Diego in 1928 was just a handful of people and everybody knew everybody. On India Street, on Columbia, on Union, in that area. Almost nobody had a car. If you had a car it was just a luxury.”
For Anna Maria Tagliavia Bompensiero, a fisherman’s widow and mother of six, a woman who never again would wear red or blue or green or yellow, this is what she found in San Diego. Her oldest son. Head of the family. Who, all her life, when he was in San Diego, would begin his day by dropping by 2033 Columbia for a cup of coffee. She found Our Lady of the Rosary Church, formally dedicated in December, 1925, where early morning after early morning for almost half a century she knelt with other women who’d made the two-week trip across the ocean from their birthplace. They muttered the prayer of St. Bernard, a fisherman’s prayer: “Quando le tempeste della vita minacciao la tua fragile barca, guarda la Stella — invoca Maria.” “When the storms of life menace your fragile boat, look to the Star, call on Mary.”
Mary Ann said that her grandmother Bompensiero always worried about her oldest son, but that because she spoke little English and could not read she remained protected from the facts. “She never knew. Her daughter and my uncle Sammie kept it a secret. When my father was gone, in hiding or in prison, they would tell her that he was working here and working there. But she never ever knew he went to jail or went to prison. When my father was home and she would ask him if everything was okay, Daddy would kiss her on the forehead and say, ‘Don’t worry, Mamma, I am in the trucking business.’ ”
“Quando le tempeste della vita,” she must have whispered to herself, “minacciao la tua fragile barca, guarda la Stella — invoca Maria.”
August 25, 1928, the police nabbed Bompensiero for selling wine. He was arrested, but never would be convicted, for violation of the state’s Prohibition Act.
Jack Dragna, meantime, had become partners in a scheme to outfox Prohibition law. Liquor service and sales, as well as gambling, were legal across the border in Tijuana and on the high seas. June 23, 1928, Agua Caliente, where gambling ran 19 hours at a stretch, from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m., had opened in Tijuana. Among its comforts, the resort offered the Gold Room, where wealthy gamblers were served gourmet fare from pure gold table service. The San Diego Union noted the next day that “Lower California’s great new $1.5 million resort opened here last night with an elaborately formal dinner dance. The merry-making throng of San Diego, Los Angeles and Hollywood notables arrived early and stayed late, entranced with the magnificence of the creation of Baron Long, Wirt G. Bowman and James N. Crofton.
“The atmosphere of old Mexico added a touch lacking north of the border and the opening event was celebrated in a lively fashion. James Coffroth, race track operator, entertained a large party of friends, as did John and George Burnham, San Diego capitalists. Among the Hollywood crowd at tables were Al Jolson, Delores Del Rio, Charlie Chaplin, Joe Schenck, Lupe Velez, Harry Weber, Jack Dempsey, Jackie Coogan, Estelle Taylor.”
In October, 1927, the Dragnas had entered into a partnership with a group of non-Sicilians men that the Los Angeles Times described as “sportsmen,” a euphemism used in those days to mean “gamblers.” This partnership purchased a wooden 282-foot-long boat that had been built in Texas in 1919 — the Montfalcone. The boat, for a year, sat in the dock in San Pedro undergoing conversion to a pleasure boat. The Los Angeles Times on November 28th reported:
NEW GAMBLING VESSEL READY
“Another attempt to operate a gambling and café barge off the California coast will be made when the former barkentine Montfalcone leaves LA Harbor at daybreak this morning for an anchorage six and one half miles off the harbor, which her owners say they have been advised is on the high seas and beyond legal jurisdiction.
“The big windjammer, with gaudily painted top sides and her interior transformed into a café and casino that equals the best of Mexican resorts, has been converted for her new career at a cost of $58,000 and last night her operators put aboard the last of stores and paraphernalia.
“The Montfalcone is a ship without a country and thereby her operators believe she may operate as a gambling vessel beyond the law. She originally was documented as a coastwise fishing barge, but at the San Pedro customhouse yesterday it was announced that her papers have been canceled. The federal statutes have no jurisdiction, it was explained, because she is undocumented.
“H.O. ‘Doc’ Dougherty, well-known local sportsman, who says he is one of the Montfalcone’s owners, explained her status and plan of operation while superintending lading of supplies.
“ ’We intended to begin operations Saturday night, running the gambling and book-making departments on the same basis as Tia Juana. You see there is nothing in the Constitution that makes gambling illegal and as far as the State and county are concerned, the boat will be on the high seas.’ “
Bompensiero, according to his old friend, went to work on the Montfalcone. “As a card dealer, as muscle, when folks got too rowdy, when guys wouldn’t pay their gambling debts, that kind of thing.”
Bompensiero’s sister reported that when they arrived in San Diego in 1928 that she and the other young Bompensieros enrolled in Washington Elementary and Roosevelt Junior High School Their mother stayed home. “My mother was a terrific cook. She cooked everything — pasta, meat, fish, vegetables, you name it. She used to cook twice a day, lunch and dinner. Pasta with sauce, with garlic, with beans. She didn’t have time to make her own noodles, she had a family to take care of, she couldn’t do all that. There were six of us, two brothers and four sisters, a big family.”
I asked Bompensiero’s sister about her brothers. “My brothers,” she said, “both were fishermen. They used to go out to sea.”
I asked if she would tell me her brothers’ names. “I can’t tell you that,” she said. “I do not remember. They are gone, they have been dead for a long time.”
I sat, then, by the telephone. I said to myself, in clumsy Italian: “Quando le tempest della vita minacciao la tua fragile barca, guarda la Stella — invoca Maria.”