Giuseppe “the Clutch Hand” Morello (May 2, 1867 – August 15, 1930), also known as “The Old Fox”, was the first boss of the Morello crime family and later top adviser to Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. He was known as Piddu (Sicilian diminutive form of Giuseppe) and his rivals the Castellammarese knew him as Peter Morello. He was famous for having a one-fingered deformed right hand that resembled a claw.
In the 1890s, Giuseppe founded a gang known as the 107th Street Mob and which would later evolve into the Morello crime family. Today the Morello crime family is known as the Genovese crime family and is the oldest of the Five Families in New York City.
The exact year of Morello’s emigration to the United States is not certain. Dash writes that Morello emigrated in 1892 after becoming a suspect in a murder in Corleone and after his counterfeiting ring had been compromised. Despite his departure the Italian government brought a case to court and found him guilty of money counterfeiting. On September 14, 1894, he was sentenced to 6 years and 45 days imprisonment plus fine and deprived of the right to hold public office. It is possible that the sentence was handed down in absentia; according to Critchley it appears that Morello left Sicily for New York around this time.
Morello’s three half brothers Nicolò, Vincenzo and Ciro, his stepfather Bernardo, his mother Angelina, his sister Maria, his half sister Rosalia, his wife Maria Rosa Marvalisi and son Calogero would arrive in New York on March 8, 1893. In the mid-1890s, Giuseppe Morello moved to Louisiana in search for employment and was joined by the other members of the Morello-Terranova family. The following year they moved to Texas and farmed cotton. After contracting malaria they returned to New York about 1897. Morello tried his hand in different business ventures, including failed investments in a saloon and a date factory. In 1898, Morello’s wife Maria Rosa Marvalisi died. Sometime in the early 1900s Morello married Nicolina “Lena” Salemi (1884-1967), she stayed with him for the rest of his life. In 1902, he acquired a saloon at 8 Prince Street in Manhattan which was to become a meeting place for members of his gang.
In the 1890s, Giuseppe founded the 107th Street Mob which would later evolve into the Morello crime family. In 1903, Ignazio “the Wolf” Lupo, the Sicilian Mafia boss in Little Italy, Manhattan married Morello’s half sister Salvatrice.
Morello built his empire based on his merciless ordering of death sentences against everyone who dared to face him. Lupo, his main enforcer, was responsible for more than sixty murders in a 10-year period. The Morello family would frequently employ the notorious barrel murder system, dumping dismembered corpses into large wood barrels. The barrels would then be thrown into the sea, left on a random street corner, abandoned in a back alley or shipped to nonexistent addresses in another city.
Family business included extortion, loan sharking, Italian lottery, robbery and counterfeiting. Illegally earned money was then legitimized by legal businesses such as stores or restaurants owned by the family, making them the first crime family in town to organize this kind of money laundering. They also introduced revolutionary ways of extorting small amounts of money every week from business owners in exchange for “protection”, as opposed to the theft of large amounts which might bankrupt them. This technique was adopted from Black Handgangsters and it led to increased profits for the gang.
Two members of Morello’s famiglia who became Captains under Morello and who later gained much prominence in the New York underworld were Giuseppe Masseria and Salvatore D’Aquila.
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By 1905, Morello had created the largest, most influential Sicilian crime family in New York City, and was recognized as capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses) by Mafia leaders in other U.S. cities, according to Nicola Gentile.
Morello was found guilty of counterfeiting again in 1909 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Morello maintained his position as the head of his crime family for approximately the first year of his sentence, during which time he hoped his sentence would be overturned on appeal. His appeals were not immediately successful and Morello became depressed as he lost his official position as boss of New York and all the influence he once held. He was not released from prison until 1920.
The youngest of this three half brothers, Nicolo Terranova took over control until 1916 when he was killed by the Napolitan Camorra boss in Brooklyn, Pellegrino Morano. Morello’s remaining two half brothersVincenzo Terranova and Ciro Terranova took over as boss and underboss and ran the family until Morello’s release from prison.
Newly released from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1920 and trying to retake control of his empire, Morello found himself to be considered a threat to his former captain, now turned Mafia boss, Salvatore D’Aquila, who, within a year of Morello’s release, ordered Morello killed.
Morello, along with a number of others now under orders of death by D’Aquila, fled to Sicily for a spell. One of these men, a former D’Aquila gunman, Umberto Valenti, in order to regain the favor of D’Aquila, went after Morello and his chief protector and ally, Giuseppe Masseria. Now a war ensued and after much violence and some prominent deaths among the mafiosi involved, on August 1922, Valenti was killed by Masseria gunmen (some say including or solely Charles Luciano). With Valenti gone, D’Aquila’s power began to lose its luster of invulnerability. Morello, sensing his time to rule had passed and the power of Masseria was on the rise, became consiglieri to Masseria and prospered under him throughout the Prohibition years of the 1920s.
During the Castellammarese War, roughly between 1929–31, Masseria and Morello fought against a rival group based in Brooklyn, led by Salvatore Maranzano and Joseph Bonanno. Morello, an old hand in the killing game, became Masseria’s “war chief” and strategic adviser.
One of the first victims of the war, Giuseppe Morello was killed along with associate Joseph Perriano on August 15, 1930 while collecting cash receipts in his East Harlem office. Joseph Valachi, the first made man in the American Mafia to turn state’s evidence, identified Morello’s killer as a Castellammarese gunman he knew as “Buster from Chicago” a character some people believed was invented by Valachi to hide the fact that he was the real killer.
Filmmaker Martin A. Gosch’s The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, a purported autobiographical account of Charles Luciano of disputed authenticity, claims that Luciano orchestrated Morello’s murder himself.
With Morello gone and two of his half brothers (Nicolo and Vincenzo) now dead, only Ciro Terranova, the Artichoke King, remained of the old dynasty. He died in Under World obscurity, his once mighty power and influence, along with that of his family, faded into nothingness.