The story surrounding the St. Louis Vivianos is prime for a mob drama. Kidnappings, cousins avenging cousins, tax evasion, murder, and the “Black Hand.”
Part myth, part truth, the “Black Hand” was a loosely-connected network of extortionists, primarily comprised of immigrants from Southern Italy. Italian immigrants who arrived in America were from peasant farming backgrounds, lacking skills, education, and funds. Many Italian immigrants would settle in the same neighborhood, forming “Little Italy” neighborhoods across U.S. cities. However, these communities suffered from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poverty, ripe for being exploited. Criminals would extort more prosperous Italian families under the guise of the “Black Hand.”
Unlike the mafia, the “Black Hand” had no central leadership or organization. Individuals or small groups of criminals would act under the “Black Hand” for their own benefit, making them difficult to identify and control. [iii] The newspapers at the time manufactured the “Black Hand” as an epidemic and work of the mafia, encouraging anti-immigrant and anti-Italian sentiments.[iv]
By 1915, tougher sentencing, federal mail laws, and immigration control weakened the “Black Hand” activity.[v]
As prosperous businessmen, the Vivianos were prime targets of Black Hand activity. Pietro Ziprano was arrested shortly following the February 8, 1908 explosion at the V. Viviano & Bros. factory and store at 515-519 Biddle Street. Ziprano was suspected of extorting money from the Vivianos in exchange for protection. Vito tried to convince the police that Pietro was an employee, explaining why Viviano paid him, but police were not convinced. Research has not provided clarity about Pietro’s true involvement in the bombing or extortion. However, Vito did reveal that he had received Black Hand letters demanding $2,000; he made smaller payments in return for “protection.”[vi]
Later in 1908, Joseph Viviano was struck in the head with a brick while relaxing at his home, after receiving numerous letters demanding money.[vii]
Again, in January 1909, after a string of threatening letters, an explosion wrecked the front of the building, shaking the entire block and breaking many windows, though no one was injured. Vito Viviano, who lived above the factory, denied hearing the explosion and refused to go to the police, insisting the explosion was caused by a gas leak. A neighbor, Charles Rutledge, reported hearing a firecracker and a watchman reported seeing a man in a black suit and hat in an alley before the blast, who disappeared soon after the explosion.[viii]
A June 1910 article reported a “fifth calamity” brought on by the Black Hand. A watchman at the factory heard Jip the bulldog whining while being pinned under debris, discovering the fire.[ix]
A fire was also set at the S. Viviano Macaroni Manufacturing Company in January 1912.[x] The timing of this fire was suspicious as the headless body of Salvatore Leoni had been found in the neighborhood just days before. Leoni was scheduled to be a witness in an upcoming murder trial.[xi]
This firm was owned by “Big Pietro” and Vito’s cousin Salvatore Viviano (1876 – 1959). Salvatore sold his factory to a former employee, Antonio Randazzo, within a month to join his brothers in Chicago.[xii] A month after leaving St. Louis, Salvatore sued his cousins for $100,000 for interfering with the sale of the St. Louis plant and new partnership with the Viviano Brothers Macaroni Company in Chicago.[xiii] (Two 1911 articles confirm that this venture was indeed by the author’s great-great-grandfather and not the Salvatore Viviano who was brother of the family primarily mentioned in this article.)
There were additional attempts to blow up the Viviano home on December 23, 1912; January 16, 1913; and February 2, 1913.[xiv] Trouble returned to the Vivianos in March 1928 when a bomb exploded on the front porch of Gaetano Viviano, likely connected to a string of bombings throughout the city. The source was not identified.[xv]
THE KIDNAPPINGS: GRACE & TOMASSO
Amidst the string of mysterious bombings, fires, and threatening letters were kidnappings of the Viviano children. In Missouri in 1909, the punishment for kidnapping was life in prison or death.[xvi]
The first kidnapping occurred on August 2, 1909 when cousins Tomasso, age 4, and Grace, age 2, were kidnapped from their homes. A $25,000 ransom was demanded from the Vivianos. Tomasso’s father, Pietro, stated, “If all my brothers and cousins were to put their cash together, they could not raise that amount. The kidnaper is mistaken if he thinks he can get a large sum from us. When he realizes that, I think he will return our children.”[xvii] Within days, the kidnapping reached national attention.[xviii] The Lieutenant Governor offered a $300 cash reward for the safe recovery of the children, the largest reward in state history, at the time.[xix]
When investigators began tracking down the kidnapped children, Tomasso’s father Pietro revealed that he had be receiving threatening letters. A handwriting expert identified the penmanship of Sam Turrisi, who was also the last person seen with the children and was nowhere to be found during the investigation.[xx] Turrisi had taken the children to an ice cream parlor.[xxi]
Sam Turrisi had been employed at the Vivianos’ macaroni factory for six months. Due to their shared origin of Palermo, the Vivianos embraced Turrisi as part of their family. Turrisi held the children in high regard, so taking them out for ice cream was not out of the ordinary.[xxii] As the kidnapping and Turrisi were investigated more closely, it was discovered that Turrisi was likely another name for Callegero Glandusas, a fugitive from Louisiana, who had murdered a boy he had kidnapped after the parents refused to pay ransom.[xxiii]
Early suspects and accomplices, in addition to Sam Turrisi, included Vincenzo Ricardo, who had been reported to have a plan to “raise capital” for a business venture in New Orleans and had been seen with Turrisi; Ben Marghest, a close friend of Turrisi from Palermo; Joseph Pagano, whose home was entered by a man matching the description of Turrisi just a half and hour after the Viviano children left home; and Joe Ventimiglia, who had murdered Sam Bommarito a year earlier.
While the nationwide search for the children went on, the Vivianos, against the advice of police, were bribed out of $2,500 in exchange for their children. However, this was a false claim only to get money out of the family. There were several other attempts in the following weeks to make a buck from the family’s misfortune.[xxiv]
John Rayburn, a private investigator, reported seeing the children with a man on a train headed for Chicago. He had noticed that the man seemed to have his hands full, fussing with the children. However, it wasn’t for several days when the kidnapping reached national news that Rayburn recognized the children as Grace and Tomasso.[xxv] Justice E. M. Williams reports seeing the children in the company of an Italian street band.[xxvi]
On August 5, suspicious trunks were spotted in Chicago. Captain Joseph Schoppe of the St. Louis police headed to the city to follow the kidnappers. When he arrived, he opened the trunks and found them full of documents and photographs connected to the primary suspect, Sam Turrisi. Reinforcements from St. Louis and Chicago police were called in to support the investigation. A house-to-house search was organized.
Two months later, on October 16, 1909, the children were located wandering the streets of Chicago after they were set loose by a woman who was caring for them as the police search closed in.[xxvii] Grace and Tomasso arrived at 1322 Larrabee Street, freezing cold, and tugged at the skirt of Anna Venzig. With a friend, Anna tried to get information about who the children were before sending for the police. It took several attempts for the children to identify themselves, either from shock or potential drugging. Captain Joseph Schoppe of St. Louis, who had been tracking the kidnapping in Chicago, was called in and confirmed that the children were indeed the kidnapped Vivianos. Their families came swiftly to Passavant Hospital in Chicago. The children immediately recognized their parents and embraced.
Tomasso shared that they were taken by wagon from St. Louis to Chicago and kept in a house near the East Chicago Avenue Police Station. He explained that they had been with Sam Turrisi, a woman they were instructed to call “Mama,” and “Joe” which was alleged to be Benedetto Marghest’s nickname.[xxviii] They had been promised that their parents would be coming to see them. Towards the end of the police search, the children were separated, though allowed to see each other on occasion over the weeks.
With the children found safe, the search for Turrisi, Marghest, and “Mama” continued across the United States.[xxix] With the kidnappers still at large, the Vivianos were skittish to engage with the police’s search.[xxx] Sam Turrisi was reported to have escaped back to Sicily, but was never tried for his crimes.[xxxi] Captain Schoppe was long remembered for his tremendous efforts of trailing the kidnappers.[xxxii]
After recovering at the hospital for several days as Grace had contracted pneumonia, the children and the families returned to St. Louis. One hundred family friends and members of the San Giuseppe Society celebrated their return at St. Louis’ Union Station.[xxxiii]
(Some reports identify Alphonso, not Tomasso, as the kidnapped boy and report them as siblings, not cousins)
The Black Hand continued to the Vivianos and other Italians in St. Louis. However, the Vivianos were on both sides of the stories.
In October 1911, Vito helped the police ambush four conspirators who were demanding money from a wealthy St. Louis man, Ghio (Gaetano) Lafata. Following the instructions of the letter, Lafata, and undercover police arrived at the gates of the Calvary Cemetery. A wagon approached and the driver coughed, which Lafata replied with a cough, a common Black Hand signal. At that point, the police emerged, guns pointed at the wagon and the four men who were riding in it, including Vito’s uncle, Ghio “Tony” Viviano. However, Vito came forward alleging that the men had been hired to track down the Black Handers that were blackmailing the Vivianos and were not the same men threatening Lafata.[xxxiv] Lafata refused to prosecute them.
In March 1912, 50-year-old Gaetano “Ghio” Viviano was tracked down by Captain Schoppe and deported to Italy. Several anonymous tips had indicated that Ghio was the lead conspirator for many Black Hand jobs. He was seldom directly implicated in any of the crimes, but during most investigations “they have come across this man’s ominous presence.”
Ghio’s criminal history tracked all the way back to Sicily. He had been sentenced to two years in prison in Palermo for highway robbery, placed under police surveillance, and sentenced to another five years to the penal colony of Ventotene, one of the Pontine Islands off the coast of Central Italy. In 1904, Gaetano came to St. Louis, which he began a small grocery business before being hired as a factory watchman by Salvatore Viviano. He disappeared after a fire at the factory in January 1911. Sicilian and Italian officials confirmed that Ghio was tied to the Mafia and Cammora.
There was resounding joy when Gaetano was deported in April 1912.[xxxv] However, in March 1913, he was spotted again in St. Louis. A postal worker identified Ghio, who had been calling regularly for mail at the White Ash, Illinois office.[xxxvi]
EVERY GOOD STORY HAS A MURDER
On the morning of April 17, 1915, “Big” Pietro (1877-1915), father of the kidnapped Grace Viviano, was murdered by Salvatore “Sam” Lupo. Big Pietro went to Lupo to discuss money that was owed to the Vivianos. A quarrel began, connected to Lupo’s daughter Grazia (or Rosalie) employment at the Vivianos.[xxxvii]
In the newspapers, Grazia reported that tensions with her father had escalated since his recent second marriage. She sought employment at the Vivianos to avoid contact with him. However, Lupo thought that Big Pietro was spreading rumors about him and prevented his daughter from contacting him. Big Pietro insisted that Grazia did not want to return home.[xxxviii] However, some suspect that Pietro had been liaising with Grazia and gotten her pregnant.[xxxix]
In the heat of the argument, Lupo drew his gun and shot Big Pietro, killing him instantly.[xl] News of the murder ran through the city. Neighbors flocked to Lupo’s home as the police responded, chanting “Kill him!”[xli]
Seeking revenge for his brother-in-law, “Little” Pietro, murdered Lupo on April 17 later in front of his home. Little Pietro claimed that Lupo was threatening his own life following his relative’s slaying.
“You assassin, you killed my brother,” Little Pietro recalled yelling to Lupo as Big Pietro’s body was being removed from his home.
“Yes, and I’ll kill you too,” was Lupo’s alleged reply. It was then that Little Pietro shot him.[xlii] Lupo succumbed to his wounds at the hospital several hours later. [xliii]
Little Pietro did not resist arrest. He proclaimed that is was his sacred duty to avenge the death of his kinsman.[xliv] After being released on bond in late April, Little Pietro was tried for Lupo’s murder in November 1915.[xlv]
The Assistant Circuit Attorney stated that “punishment of crime is in the hands of the legal authorities, and that [the Italians] must not take private vengeance.[xlvi] However, the public celebrated Little Pietro’s actions.
During the trial, it was revealed that Lupo was connected to the 1909 kidnapping and other Black Hand threats.[xlvii] The Vivianos had given Lupo over $5,000 for ransom and protection.[xlviii]
Lupo’s murder of Big Pietro was compared to Abel slaying Cain; Little Pietro’s retaliation compared to the killing of the Egyptians by Moses.[xlix] The jury, under the instruction of the judge, considered Little Pietro’s positive reputation and historic threats made by Lupo. [l]
Little Pietro was acquitted, greeted with cheers from court audience of friends and family.[li]
In 1944, upon the death of Big Pietro’s brother Vito, a $150,000 trust was setup to support the Pietro’s widow and children.[lii]
THE KIDNAPPINGS: FRANK VIVIANO
On March 1, 1917, 8-year-old Frank Viviano (1909-1982) became the third Vivano cousin to be kidnapped. The son of Gaetano Viviano (1883-1950) was kidnapped on his way to school. The key suspects were two Italian peddlers who were reported to have been at the Viviano home the prior day. Mrs. Viviano remarked that the peddlers were interested in her home and apparent wealth, inquiring about her husband’s profession. Neighbors recalled two men acting strangely that morning. In fact, one woman was so worried she called her daughter’s school to ensure she had arrived safely – which she had.
In the evening, a ransom note arrived at the Viviano home, demanding $50,000 for the boy.[liii]
Two weeks later, Reverend J. J. Butler was walking home and found young Frank, crying, wandering the streets. The priest asked where the boy was heading and discovered that he was the kidnapped Viviano. Butler took him home for something to eat and call his parents.
Frank reported that he had been taken by two Italians and carried across the Missippi River in a wagon.[liv] He was a prisoner for days until March 14, when a man had left him on the corner that evening and told him not to move.[lv]
Joe Cariona was arrested in Kansas City days later as a suspect, following information from neighbors close to where Frank was held. However, Frank could not positively identify him.[lvi]
In January 1918, Michael Angela was convicted of kidnapping Frank based on handwriting analysis of the ransom note. The decision was appealed, citing lack of evidence.[lvii]
While this drama may be enough for some families, the Vivianos had a business to run. In 1919, the Vivianos invested $200,000 into real estate on Delmar Avenue, growing the footprint of the Viviano Brothers Macaroni Company.[lviii] V. Viviano and Brothers reached national markets, as a 1935 article welcomed the arrival of the brand to the San Antonio, TX market.[lix]
Following World War I, Vito Viviano was recognized by the Italian government with the honor of Cavaliere of the Order of the Crown for his wartime support of Italian charities.[lx]
Throughout the 1920s and 30s, macaroni become a staple of American cuisine. The V. Vivano & Bros. Macaroni Manufacturing Company prided themselves of using premium, genuine Durum Cream Wheat Semoline to make their premier products.[lxi] The company even tried to secure a place at the Thanksgiving table in 1932, publishing a recipe for macaroni turkey stuffing.[lxii]
However, this success was not always ethical. In 1918, a Court of Appeals records reports that Vito Viviano was convicted of employing a 14-year-old boy without the proper certificate from the board of education.[lxiii]
The St. Louis firm’s first reported financial trouble began in the 1930s when brother Vito, Gaetano, and Salvatore were charged with avoiding $80,963 of income tax from 1929 and 1932. In March 1938, The Vivianos pleaded guilty, paying $35,963 in cash upfront and the remaining $45,000 over three year, secured by mortgage on their company.[lxiv] Public accountant D. L. Lacy was selected to watch over the daily business operations until the debt was paid off.[lxv] Charges for evading taxes before 1929 and Big Pietro’s estate, as well as against the company’s secretary, were struck out.[lxvi]
The brothers were later sued for $20,000 by the law firm Leahy, Walther, Hecker, and Ely for not settling their legal fees associated with the federal court cases.[lxvii]
After months of newspaper headlines, in September 1938, Frank Paul Viviano (son of Big Pietro) resigned as treasurer of V. Viviano & Bros. Macaroni Manufacturing Company. Peter Ross Viviano (son of Big Pietro) assumed the role of secretary of the pasta firm, as well as the Viviano estate and Pietro Viviano Investment Company.[lxviii] Gaetano removed himself from the macaroni business, focusing on a family real estate venture.[lxix]
With a multitude of Viviano cousins arriving in St. Louis over the decades, in 1951, the V. Viviano & Brothers Macaroni Manufacturing Company sued Viviano Foods, Inc (4160 Geraldine Ave., St. Louis) for using the name “Viviano” and packaging similar goods. The latter was being investigated for maggots found in canned spaghetti, which the V. Viviano & Bros. Company did not want to be associated with.[lxx]
From the outside, the Vivianos were living in splendor. A 1952 profile depicts a joyous family living in a 22-room Georgian Colonial mansion, Villa Gracia, in St. Louis. The family doted upon founder Pietro’s wife or “Angel.” The family played music together and hosted dinner in their formal dining room.[lxxi]
However, by 1956, the St. Louis company owed creditors nearly a quarter of a million dollars. These creditors, including flour mills and packaging companies, wanted to collect on their debt, as well as continue business with the company. In order to keep the business afloat, Viviano entered into an agreement with Prince Macaroni Manufacturing, a Boston-based firm. Prince would assume 50% ownership in the company, make capital available, and give these vendors priority, as long as the debts could be deferred for four years. The creditors could collect prematurely on their debts if 100% of the creditors felt that Viviano was financially unstable.[lxxii] As a result the Prince-Viviano Macaroni Company became the nation’s largest macaroni manufacturer, operating six plants in St. Louis; Lowell, MA; New York City; Cleveland; Chicago and Rochester, NY.[lxxiii]
However, the situation worsened. The Viviano brand failed to pay back its creditors and Prince acquired more stock in the company.[lxxiv] Mound City Macaroni, a Missouri-based macaroni production conglomerate, was fearful of the deal falling through and a Boston-based company coming into the St. Louis territory ad threatening their local brand “Ravarino & Freschi.” In 1956, investors submitted a bid to assume all assets and debts of the struggling company.[lxxv] By January 1962, V. Viviano & Bros. Macaroni was assumed by Mound City Macaroni and independent operations ceased.[lxxvi]