An extract from Chapter One of The First Family

The Barrel Mystery

Benedetto Madonia
Benedetto Madonia - barrel victim

The room felt like the bottom of a grave. It was damp, low ceilinged, windowless and – on this raw-boned New York night – as chilly and unwelcoming as a policeman’s stare.

Outside, on Prince Street in the heart of Little Italy, a fine drizzle slanted down to puddle amid the piles of rotting garbage strewn along the edges of the road, leaving the cobbles treacherous and greasy. Inside, beneath a hoarding advertising lager beer, a featureless cheap working men’s saloon stretched deep into the bowels of a dingy tenement. At this late hour – it was past three on the morning of 14 April 1903 – the tavern was shuttered–up and silent. But in the shadows at the far end of the bar stood a rough-hewn, tight–closed door. And in the room behind that door, Benedetto Madonia sat eating his last supper.

The place was advertised as a spaghetti restaurant, but it was in truth an eating–house of the most basic sort. An old stove squatted against one wall, belching fumes. Musty strings of garlic dangled from the walls, mingling their stale odour with the smell of boiling vegetables. The remaining fittings consisted of several rough, low tables, a handful of ancient chairs, and a rusting iron sink that jutted from a corner of the room. Gas lamps spewed out mustard light, and the naked floorboards had been scattered with cedar sawdust, which, at the end of a busy day, coagulated in a thick mix of spit, onion–skins, and the butts of dark Italian cigars.

Madonia dug hungrily into a stew of beans, beets and potatoes, hearty peasant food from his home province of Palermo. He was a powerfully built man of average height, handsome after the fashion of the time with a high forehead, chestnut eyes and a wave of thick brown hair. A large moustache, carefully waxed until it tapered to points, offset the sharp slash of his Roman nose. He dressed better than most working men, wearing a suit, high collar, tie and well-soled shoes – all signs of some prosperity. Exactly how he earned his money, though, was scarcely obvious. If asked, Madonia claimed to be a stonemason. But even a casual observer could see that this was a man unused to manual labour. His 43-year-old body had begun to sag, and his soft hands – neatly manicured – bore no trace of an artisan’s calluses.

After a while the solitary diner, sated, thrust his bowl aside and glanced across the room to where a handful of companions lounged against one wall. Like him, they spoke Sicilian – a dialect so rich in words drawn from Spanish, Greek and Arabic that it was scarcely intelligible, even to other Italians – and, like him, the jewellery and the clothes they wore were quite at odds with their supposed professions: labourer, farmer, clothes presser. Yet there was no mistaking the fact that Madonia was an outsider here. Immigrants though all those in the restaurant were, the others had become New Yorkers, and now felt quite at home amid the teeming streets of the Italian colony. Madonia, on the other hand, had first come to Manhattan just a week ago, and still barely knew the city. He found it disconcerting that he required an escort to find his way round Little Italy. Worse, he was growing increasingly alarmed at the way these men he barely knew muttered together in low voices, and spoke so elliptically that he could not grasp the meaning of their words.

Madonia had little chance to grapple with this mystery. The Sicilian had barely finished his meal when, with a click that echoed loudly through the room, the solitary door into the restaurant swung open and a second group of men appeared. In the sickly flicker of the gaslight Madonia made out the face of one he knew: Tommaso Petto, an oval–faced hulk of muscle and menace whose broad chest, strong arms and limited intelligence had won him the nickname of ‘The Ox’. Behind him, another figure lurked, silhouetted momentarily against one wall of the saloon. It was that of a man of slender build and middling height, his eyes twin drops of jet, like black holes bored into his skull. The newcomer’s face was expressionless and gaunt, his skin rough, his chin and cheeks unshaven. He wore his moustache ragged, like a brigand’s.

Petto the Ox
Tommaso Petto - "Petto the Ox"

The Ox stepped instinctively aside, allowing the slight figure to step into the room. As he did so, a spasm of anxiety ran through the other figures in the restaurant. This was their leader, and they showed him fearful deference. Not one of the half–dozen others present dared to return his gaze directly.

Madonia himself was not immune to the terror that the black–eyed man inspired. The newcomer’s voice, when he spoke, was parched, his gestures undemonstrative and minimal. Above all, there was the disconcerting way he kept the right side of his body swathed in a voluminous brown shawl. The arm that he kept hidden, was – Madonia knew – appallingly deformed. The forearm itself was stunted, no more than half the length of any normal man’s. Worse still, its hand was nothing but a claw. It lacked, from birth, the thumb and first three of its fingers. Only the little finger, useless on its own, remained, like the cruel joke of some uncaring deity. Black eyes’ name was Giuseppe Morello, but his maimed appendage had earned him the nickname ‘Clutch’ or ‘The Clutch Hand.’

Morello wasted little time on ceremony. A single gesture from his good left hand sufficed; two of the men who had been lounging along the wall jerked up and pinioned Madonia, each seizing an arm as they dragged the diner to his feet. Their prisoner struggled briefly but without effect; grasped none too gently by his wrists and shoulders, he had no chance of escape. To shout out was hopeless; the room was too far from the sidewalk for even a full–blown scream of terror to be audible. Half standing, half supported by his captors, he writhed helplessly as the black eyed man approached.

Exactly what passed between Madonia and the Clutch Hand is uncertain. There may have been a brief but angry conversation. Most likely the word nemico, enemy, was used. Perhaps Madonia – aware, far too late, of the lethal danger he was in – begged uselessly for mercy. If so, his words had no effect. Another gesture from the black eyed man, and the two associates restraining the prisoner dragged him swiftly across the floor towards the rusty sink. A rough hand seized Madonia by the hair, yanking his head back and exposing his throat. At this, a third man lunged forward wielding a stiletto – a thin–bladed dagger, honed to razor sharpness and some 14 inches long. A second’s pause, to gauge angle and distance, and the blade was thrust home, sideways on, above the Adam’s apple.

The blow was struck with such brutal strength that it pierced Madonia’s windpipe front to back and continued on till it struck bone. The men holding the captive felt his frame collapse, limbs rubbery and unresponsive, as the weapon was withdrawn. Using all their strength, they hauled the dying man back to his feet as Petto the Ox stepped up, his own knife in his hand. A single sweeping slash from left to right, so fierce it cut right through Madonia’s thick three–ply linen collar, severed both throat and jugular vein, all but beheading the prisoner.

Shocking though this violence was, it was premeditated. As life left Madonia in gouts, the men gripping his arms forced his head over the sink so that each succeeding pulse of blood drummed against the iron and gurgled down into the drains. The little that escaped fell onto the victim’s clothes or was soaked up by the sawdust underfoot. None reached the floorboards to stain them and leave lasting evidence of the crime.

Body in a barrel
The Evening Journal's reconstruction
of the barrel murder

It took a minute, maybe more, for the awful flow of blood to ebb. As it did, thick fingers reached around Madonia’s gashed neck and tied a square of gunnysack around his throat. The coarse fabric absorbed the dying trickle from the wounds as the corpse was doubled, lifted bodily, and carried to the centre of the room. There other hands had dragged a barrel, three feet high, of the sort supplied by wholesalers to New York’s stores. A layer of muck and sawdust, scooped up from the floor, had been spread inside to absorb any remaining blood, and the dead man’s body was forced with uncaring savagery inside.

One arm and a leg projected from the barrel, but that was immaterial; Morello and his men had no interest in concealing the body. Madonia’s corpse was meant to be discovered, and the savage wounds it bore were a deterrent. Still, there was no point in chancing premature detection. An old overcoat, its labels carefully removed, was spread over the protruding limbs and the barrel wrestled and manoeuvred back into the saloon and thence through a door that opened on an alley. A decrepit one-horse covered wagon stood there, waiting in the darkness. Several of the Sicilians combined their strength and heaved their burden onto it; two men, hunched now in heavy cloaks, climbed on. And, with a creak of springs and clop of hooves, Benedetto Madonia embarked upon his final journey.