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The Curse of the Black Hand: The 1911 Unsolved Murder of Giovanni Baptiste Arecchi

Justin Dombrowski

Friday Oct 21st, 2022

In the early 1900s fear had spread throughout Italian communities throughout America with the terror of the Black Hand. Using methods of extortion similar to members of the Camorra and the Mafia, the Black Hand Society utilized tactics involving threatening letters being sent to a victim, demanding something, usually monetary compensation in return. If the demands were not met they were usually met with violence, even murder. The demands, written in scribbled Italian dialogue, were full of spelling errors and included crude symbols such as guns, skulls, or perhaps a blood-covered knife - complete with the almost childish caricature of the blackened silhouette of a black hand.

When famed NYPD detective Joseph Petrosino was murdered in Palermo, Sicily, in 1909 by members of the Black Hand this only cemented the fear felt throughout the Italian communities.

"None of us can any longer deny that there is a Black Hand Society in the United States." announced the New York Times following Petrosino's death.

This wave of fear was inescapable, and even was felt in Erie, with one of its most infamous unsolved murders associated with the Black Hand Society occurring in 1911.

It was just before 6:00 a.m. on the morning of February 7, 1911 when George Rostovic and Eli Broderick, employees of the Perry Iron Works, were walking to work along a pathway leading the Iron Works through the cemetery of the Soldiers & Sailors Home. It was a cold morning with the air stinging both men's nostrils as they shuffled along the path, hands stuffed into their pockets.

Suddenly, something caught their eye roughly fifty feet north east of the cemetery gate. Both men exchanged glances before deciding to get a closer look.

An eerie silence hung low in the air around the bare, snow covered limbs of the trees nearby, the only sounds being the men's feet crunching against the frozen ground, inching closer.

Rostovic and Broderick could see what looked like a body, lying face down in the footpath, with the head turned to the west. One of the men knelt down, pressing his hand against the exposed skin. It was cold to the touch. In the morning twilight they saw something horrifying - the facial features of what used to be a man had been disfigured by what appeared to be several gunshots to the face, with one of the bullets entering through the man's left eye, with blood still oozing onto the ground.

Rostovic and Broderick panicked and fled to the Soldiers & Sailors Home, immediately contacting police.

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Photograph taken by a Times staff photographer shortly after the body was removed. This view looked north towards the Perry Iron Works. The Erie Daily Times.

Downtown, at police headquarters, Captain William Detzel was informed of the murder by Chief of Police Edwards Williams. Detzel detailed Detectives Richard Crotty and Lambertine Pinney to take charge of the investigation. Coroner Dan Hanley was also notified about the grisly discovery and set off for the bayfront from his Undertaking Parlor on Peach Street.

Patrolmen Willard Rice and George Barber were the first patrolmen to reach the scene and began inspecting the crimson stained snow while awaiting the arrival of the coroner and detectives. As the sky started to become purged with daylight the officers located footprints belonging to three unknown individuals. One of the prints came from someone running through the grounds of the Soldiers & Sailors home, the other running up the nearby hill by the Pennsylvania & Erie Railroad Scale house. The third set of footprints located nearby, converged with the other two pairs of footprints, which were then followed to the property of the old Dunn brickyard where they then disappeared.

All shoeprints were made by pointed shoes, with two of the shoe sizes being a men's size 7 with one a men's size 9.

Officers William Brown and Thomas Culhane passed through the iron gates of the cemetery as the scene was alive with activity. Detective Pinney had located a steel-jacketed bullet underneath the body. A man's black soft hat had also been found nearby. When Detectives tried to lift the body, they found that the dead man's face had been literally frozen to the ground, indicating he had been deceased for some time.  

Patrol officers combed through the nearby woods and surrounding homes and businesses, including the Perry Iron Works and the Soldiers & Sailors Home, trying to obtain any information possible.

Frank Hartline, a conductor employed with the Perry Iron Works, told officers that between 7:00 and 8:00 pm the night before he heard five gunshots in rapid succession. Although Hartline indicated that the shooting sounded as if it occurred close to the Iron Works, he made no effort to investigate further and continued with his work.

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Perry Iron Works. Author's Collection.

Coroner Hanley finally arrived and pronounced the victim deceased and ordered the body removed to his Undertaking Parlor where it could be prepared for an autopsy.

At Hanley's undertaking parlor it was clear the victim was wearing clothes of good quality and presented a 'well to do' appearance. The man weighed about 180-200 pounds, was of medium build with black, bushy hair 'flowing over a prominent forehead.' He was wearing a black serge colored overcoat, a blue striped coat and vest, green necktie, white and striped shirt and brown trousers with new shoes.

The autopsy was performed by Dr. Henry H. Foringer, a local physician, that afternoon. Foringer confirmed the man was shot five times - with all bullets striking the man in the head. The bullet that entered over the man's left eye traveled clear through the skull, piercing the brain and caused hemorrhaging which resulted in instantaneous death before causing a substantial sized exit wound. The other four bullets struck the man's right ear, right eye, and the back of the head. A lead bullet found inside the man's cheek differed from the other four steel-jacketed bullets. Foringer concluded that with the exception of the bullet through the left eye that the rest had 'glanced off the skull.'

Hanley searched through the man's clothing and located a loaded, brand-new .38 caliber Iver Johnson revolver inside the overcoat pocket. Found in the trouser pockets were two knives, $5 in money, a gold watch and chain, and several business cards bearing the name Luigi Mariano, Sample room, 125 Eleventh Street in Niagara Falls, New York. Hanley also found two handwritten letters addressed to Giovanni Baptiste Arecchi. Other information on the body, not released to the public, indicated to Hanley the murder victim was Arecchi.

Because the letters found on the body were written in Italian, police officer Louis Scalise and attorney Edward Petrillo were assigned to the investigation to act as interpreters. As they tried to interpret the handwriting, they confirmed a connection between the deceased and both letter writers. On both of the letters were scribbled what appeared to be secret signs and symbols, which neither man could interpret. To them, however, the letter from Fiumara, Sicily, appeared to come directly from the seat of the Black Hand Society itself.

The first letter, written by a person named Giuseppe Iola, was dated October 10, 1910, with an Italian postmark, and read:

Dear Friend - From what you wrote to me on account Petrio Licari, you must go see him as soon as possible, and it is a great favor if you get him to scream before I arrive in America, and I will be obliged if you favor what I request to you, and I hope that my work succeeds for what we talking about, and I know your decision getting along pretty well.

I beg you soon as you receive this letter to do what I tell you, and I repeat over again and compell you to do that thing to Petrio Licari, and this must be done before I arrive there.

GIUSEPPE (JOSEPH) IOLA,
"P.N."

The second letter, dated January 29, 1911, from Buffalo, was written by a man named Luigi Labate of Buffalo, New York:

My dear Giaovambattista : - The other day I went to Niagara Falls and I saw our friend Marienna. He told me that you told him to tell me of that business.

Now I talk to you. So the other day I had a letter from Marsiglio. Genaro Letotes told me that a while ago of the arrest of Bruno Anton, who is the lover of Ciccio, the same day they arrest Bruno, Ciccio disappeared from Marsiglio, some way. Wait for another letter and then we will talk about it. I feel good only I am "Entrisia."

I hope that you and all our friends are in good health. That is all to say for the present, only I send my best to all our friends and "C" so to Milan Auello, Misto Rocco and Frank Perrone. I send you ours. I am your friend. Answer here.

LUIGI LABATE,
89 Dant(e) Street, Buffalo.

Very little information was known about Giovanni Baptiste Arrechi other than he was born in 1886 in Italy to Giuseppe Arecchi and Rosaria De Gon. Arrechi's brother, Antonio, lived in Cleveland along with several cousins. Before traveling to America, Arecchi came from the port city of Villa San Giovanni, in Calabria, Italy. Noted as being a butcher by trade, Arecchi was not married and had no children and went by 'Giovambattista', a common nickname.

Police searched throughout the neighborhood of Erie's little Italy and were unable to find anyone who could shed light on the murdered Italian. Making things difficult was that most of the individuals police questioned were clearly in fear for their lives and remained silent.

The letters themselves puzzled local detectives. And to make matters worse police had been inundated the night before with yet another homicide that had occurred, the third in several weeks. These crimes, with the January bombing of the Pennsylvania Coal Trestle several days prior, created frustration within the ranks, with nearly every member of the Erie City Police Department working around the clock.

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East Front Street and Parade Street looking east towards the Soldiers & Sailors Home. The Erie County Historical Society.

Officers Louise Scalise and George Barber, assisted by another local Italian, Ben Siciliano, and caught a break in the case when speaking with 21-year-old George Clea. Clea, who went by the Americanized name 'George Green', lived with an Italian baker named Joseph Comi at 319 German Street. After questioning Clea, the officers also questioned Comi, who said Arecchi arrived in Erie from McKees Rocks on Sunday, February 5th, around 11:00 A.M. Arecchi visited 319 German Street, speaking with Comi for roughly an hour, with Arecchi providing a 'message' from Comi's relatives in McKee's Rocks.

According to Joseph Comi, Arecchi traveled to Erie in search of work and planned to return to McKees Rocks after several days if he was unsuccessful. While in Erie, Arecchi planned to visit other friends and acquaintances in the meantime. Comi said Arecchi never returned to 319 German Street, and he never saw him alive again and only heard of the murder after it had been mentioned in the papers.

Three weeks prior to the murder police discovered Arecchi had resided in Cleveland, Ohio, with his brother, Antonio. As authorities reached out to find Arecchi's relatives in Cleveland, a parallel search was being performed by Buffalo authorities looking for Luigi Labote on Dante Place, an Italian district of the city formerly known as Canal Street which was notorious for its high crime and dangerous establishments.

Despite their best efforts Buffalo authorities were never able to locate Labote.

That night, Antonio Arecchi was notified of his brother's murder and spoke to a reporter from the Erie Daily Times. Antonio planned to travel to Erie the next morning to bring his brother's body home to Cleveland. When asked if he had any theories as to why his brother would be murdered Antonio was clueless as to why anyone would want Giovanni dead. Giuseppe Anello, a Cleveland grocer, described Giovanni Arecchi's as an honest Italian laborer.

Darkness swept over Presque Isle bay and flooded the frozen streets and neighborhoods of Erie by the night of February 7th, 1911. Slowly, police had begun to piece together evidence in their possession, believing two or three men were responsible for carrying out the murder and ambushed Arecchi as he entered through the Soldiers & Sailor's Home Cemetery. There were also the thinly veiled clues in the letters sent to Arecchi that indicated he, too, was a member of the Black Hand Society.

Was Arecchi visiting Erie to act on behalf of orders from the Society? Had Arecchi been double crossed? Police weren't too sure.

On the afternoon of February 8th, Giovanni Baptiste Arecchi's bullet riddled body was transported by Antonio Fricano, a second cousin, back to that Cleveland where it was prepared for burial. Ficano, when questioned in Italian by Officer Scalise, could provide no clues in his cousin's murder.

An inquest was held by Coroner Hanley at his Undertaking parlor the following night. The first witness called was Dr. Forringer followed by Frank Hartline, the conductor at Perry Iron Works who heard the gunshots the night before the body was discovered. Police were unable to locate George Rostovic and Eli Broderick, the two Russians who found the body, and it was presumed they had skipped town out of fear. 

The inquest failed to identify Arecchi's murderers, and the jury returned the following verdict:

"We the coroner's jury impannelled to inquire into the cause of the death of Giovambastiste Arecchi, find from the evidence that the said Giovambastiste Arecchi came to his death on the night of Feb. 6, 1911, between the hours of 7 and 8 o'clock at or near the foot of Wayne St., in the city of Erie, Pa., by gunshot wounds inflicted by a person or persons at this time unknown to the jury."

Signed,

"E.B. WILLIS,
"E.E. JEFFORDS,
"WM. FARGO BAYLE,
"JOHN J. McANDREWS,
"HENRY J. FRIES,
"THOMAS BLOOD."

On the morning of February 8th, The Erie Dispatch issued a blistering editorial written by Associate Editor Hugh C. Weir, criticizing both the Erie County Detective and Erie City Police Detectives with failing to contain the escalating criminal activity and murder cases within the city. Weir wrote:  

"The Erie police are confronted with a difficult problem, and if their recent record is a criterion, one which they will not be able to solve. They probably will do the best they can, but Erie has reached a point where the city demands something more."

Weir claimed that the rise in crime since the beginning of 1911 'bid fair to rival the crime-record of many cities three and four times our population'

The editorial ended with a question for the general public. It also was a blatant reminder directed at local authorities that they were being watched:

"The detective's salary is wasted and the rewards are never claimed. Isn't it about time that we woke up to the situation and secured two or three really competent men, one for county detective and one or two for the city police force? Or do we have to record a dozen or so murders before we act?"

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Pond located near the pathway leading to the Soldiers & Sailors Home. Author's Collection.

Later that evening, Amelia Hertwig had been traversing through the Erie Cemetery with a female acquaintance when they sauntered past the Scott Mausoleum. Hertwig's attention was immediately drawn to the front doors which appeared ajar. Approaching the mausoleum she discovered, to her horror, that it had been broken into. Authorities were placed on high alert when it had been discovered that not only had the mausoleum been broken into, but, that the crypts had been broken into, with the casket of Mary L. Scott pulled out of the crypt, the corpse exposed. A body - that of Anna McCollom - was also missing, reported as having been spirited away by the desecrating ghouls.

Pressure placed on an already spent group of Erie City Detectives now reached a boiling point as newspaper correspondents and private detectives flocked to the gem city with incredible intensity in the next twenty-four hours. The Perkins Detective Agency took charge of the Mausoleum desecration case, soon joined by their rivals, the Burns Detective Agency. Detectives from the Pinkertons were also still within the area in the investigation of the Pennsylvania Coal Trestle bombing following up leads.

After the inquest rumors circulated an arrest had been made. Chief Wagner squashed these reports as false, claiming the investigation was still open.

The crime in Erie had also been so problematic that the trial list for the February term of court, generally ready the week before the term began, had been delayed, causing the District Attorney's legal department to be busier than usual.

On the night of February 10th, F. Bourgeois, manager of the Pittsburgh office of the William J. Burns Detective Agency, working in Erie on the Scott Mausoleum case, spoke to reporters for The Dispatch and Evening Herald, echoing the belief that Arecchi's murder showed plenty of evidence suggesting authorities were on the right path with connecting Arecchi to the Black Hand Society.

When local businessman and philanthropist Charles H. Strong received threatening extortion letters claiming to be the 'Black Hand' on February 13th and 15th, Giovanni Arecchi’s murder was briefly looked into as being possibly connected to the Mausoleum case, but detectives later determined this was not the case.

From that moment on the search for Giovanni Baptiste Arecchi's killer grew cold.

Until 1912.

On February 5, 1912, William Detzel, having been promoted to the role of Chief of Police, along with the district attorney’s office, announced the identity of Giovanni Baptiste Arecchi's murderer, compiled through evidence from authorities in Erie, Pittsburgh, and Italian detectives in Italy. Chief Detzel revealed other letters found on Arecchi, which had not been released to the public, confirmed he was murdered for revenge after he wronged the sister of a man named Giuseppe (Joseph) Asposito.

Before arriving in Erie, police confirmed Arecchi had lived in Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. On the night of the murder evidence indicated Asposito, too, was in Erie and both men ate and drank at a house at Second and German Street. While under the influence of alcohol, Arecchi was enticed by Asposito to the vicinity of the Perry Iron Works where he was then ambushed, and his head pumped full of bullets.

Police also revealed that while in Erie Asposito had changed his name to Joseph Come.

Following the murder, Asposito stayed in Erie for some time before returning to Italy where he proudly declared to his family that his sister's honor had been avenged and bragged that Arecchi paid for his misfortunes with his life.

The day before Detzel's press conference acting Italian counsel William M. McNair traveled to Erie where he took part in conferences with Coroner Hanley and Chief Detzel. Police learned Arecchi's murderer would never be extradited to the United States, however, McNair planned to provide the results of his investigation to the Italian consul and would later return to Erie to make arrangements with the District Attorney to certify documents which would then be presented to the courts of Italy where Asposito could be arraigned and charged with murder.

A search of Italian criminal records so far has failed to confirm if Asposito ever stood trial in Italy for Arecchi's murder and further inquiries into more questions still is pending by the author at this time while awaiting a response from the Italian government.

The path which once led from the Soldiers and Sailors home to the Perry Iron works no longer exists, however the cemetery is still well preserved. If one walks to the northwestern portion of the cemetery they can still come within several feet of the exact spot where Giovanni Baptiste Arecchi met a grisly end during the frigid night of February 6, 1911.

Perhaps if you visit that spot during after dusk when a faint breeze trickles through the trees, you may be able to hear the faint echo of gunshots still barking into the night, 111 years later.

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Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home in Erie. Author's Collection.

Justin Dombrowski is the author of Murder & Mayhem In Erie, Pennsylvania, published by The History Press. Justin worked with The Erie County Historical Society to put together the 'More Murder and Mayhem' walking tour and exhibit which showcased artifacts connected to Erie's criminal past. His second book with The History Press, Erie's Backyard Strangler: Terror In The 1960s, is scheduled for release on February 13, 2023. A local historian who enjoys spending time with his family and children, Justin is currently working on his third book for The History Press about the Scott Mausoleum Desecration and Extortion Case as well as a future book on the 1915 Millcreek Flood. He resides in Millcreek Township. 

Sources:

The Erie Daily Times (February 7, 1911 to February 7, 1912)
The Erie Dispatch (February 8, 1911 to February 11, 1911)
The Erie Evening Herald (February 7, 1911 to February 11, 1911)