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Oh, sure, blame "the Solvay gang"
Dime novelists in the 19th Century created folk heroes — and folk villains — that will live in our minds forever, though there may be only slight resemblance between the real characters and the ones portrayed in the many movies that have exploited such people as Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, the Younger Brothers, the Dalton Gang, Billy the Kid, etc.

Only one other period in our history produced so many outlaws and lawmen whose names became household words. In 1931, we were about halfway through that period, one that included Prohibition and the Depression. Newspapers had replaced the dime novel in spreading the fame of such people as Al Capone, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll and many other violent characters who were into bootlegging, robbing banks or all-around racketeering.

Schultz, Diamond and especially Coll would figure tangentially in the most sensational story to come out of Syracuse in 1931. As gangster tales go, the story was rather pathetic, but it provided an excuse for the local press to dress it up in sensational fashion.

The story is recalled here because it had a Solvay connection, at least it did according to Syracuse newspapers. There were, I believe, four of them at the time — The Herald, The Post-Standard, The Journal and The American. Those last two were owned by the William Randolph Hearst company, the Journal being published Monday through Saturday, The American on Sunday.

Unfortunately I had access only to those Hearst publications while researching the story. Perhaps the others didn't blow things so far out of proportion, but sensationalism was a way of life with Hearst newspapers. Facts often seemed to be irrelevant. They were the Fox News of the Flapper Era.

PROHIBITION was on its last legs, but remained the law in 1931, and while hindsight tells us it was a very bad idea (one that was a failure from the start), federal, state and local police were — outwardly, at least — attempting to enforce it.

What happened in Syracuse in 1931 suggests police and bootleggers were playing some sort of game based on a mutual understanding. Oh, arrests were made, but those arrested usually were back in business within days. Judges seemed all too willing to allow defendants to escape through the many loopholes presented by creative defense attorneys.

So long as no one got killed, newspapers (perhaps unconsciously) went along with the fiction that police actually were making progress in the war on booze. And the best way to insure that no one got killed was to prevent outsiders from moving in and attempting to compete with local bootleggers and rum runners.

I've found nothing to indicate there were rival gangs within Onondaga County during Prohibition, though there must have been more than one outfit supplying speakeasies. Perhaps the territory was divided between two or three gangs. No one mobster emerged as the Syracuse beer baron.

There was, however, a group of young men referred to as "the Solvay gang." (Occasionally called "the Solvay-Syracuse gang.") They seemed to be the main suppliers for Onondaga County speakeasies, most of which were located in Syracuse and Solvay. This outfit smuggled beer, liquor and champagne across Lake Ontario from Canada and manufactured their own brands in stills and small breweries set up around the area. Members of "the Solvay gang" didn't necessarily operate out of the village; most seemed to live on the Syracuse west side.

DESPITE frequent raids on local speakeasies, things were relatively peaceful until 1931. That's when a notorious New Jersey mobster named William "Squawk" Reilly, an associate of Jack "Legs" Diamond, decided to spread his business north. During a January visit to Syracuse, Reilly's presence was noted by the city's police chief, Martin L. Cadin, who personally tracked down the mobster at his hotel and ordered him out of town.

Reilly left the city, but soon returned. Cadin found him again, but while this dance continued, Reilly managed to make a deal with at least one Syracuse speakeasy operator. It was William "Billy" Dixon, doing business hidden inside a billiard parlor at 223 East Genesee Street, who agreed to break off from "the Solvay gang" and start buying New Jersey beer. To insure that Dixon, would not go back on his word, Reilly arranged for his first beer shipment to disappear, telling Dixon the truck had been hijacked by — you guessed it — "the Solvay gang." Thus Reilly hoped to start a war between Dixon and his local suppliers.

Dixon took the bait and retaliated by stealing a truck that belonged to the boys from Solvay. The speakeasy operator also was upset, he later told police, that a beer filter that had been borrowed by "the Solvay gang" hadn't been returned. The Syracuse Journal would soon have its excuse to claim that "a big-time gang war" had broken out on East Genesee Street, when, in fact, it was a dispute over a beer filter and a truck that turned out to be worth only $35.

THAT BRINGS US to the wee small hours of June 17, 1931 and a confrontation that would result in the death of an innocent bystander, a manhunt that would send one lucky city detective on an all-expenses paid (but fruitless) trip to Bermuda, and end months later on the mean streets of New York City as a footnote in the careers of Dutch Schultz and "Mad Dog" Coll. The story could have been used for an episode of "The Untouchables."

On June 17 gunshots were fired in downtown Syracuse about 3 a.m. Late that afternoon readers of The Syracuse Journal were given an account of the incident that was wildly inaccurate and misleading, but it was The Journal's story and they stuck to it for weeks.

 

Syracuse Journal, June 17
Armed with a complete revelation of details of the gun battle in which three men were wounded, one probably fatally, and with full knowledge of the identity of the gangsters who engaged in a pitched gun battle in East Genesee Street early Wednesday morning, police are searching the city for the gunmen.

In the wake of the gun battle, Chief Cadin Wednesday [today] declared war on racketeering and gang activities in the city when he ordered instant arrest of every man within the city’s confines known to be engaged in any line of beer-running or racketeering.

While officials extracted from the battered lips of William Dixon, proprietor of a speakeasy at 223 East Genesee Street, a story of the bloody battle which raged in his bootleg establishment and was then carried into the street and into the Waldorf Restaurant at 210 East Genesee Street, physicians in the Crouse-Irving Hospital were battling in an attempt to save the life of Raymond [Reuben] Johnson, 30, of 328 Almond Street, innocent victim of the gunmen’s [gunman’s] hail of lead.

Johnson, three shots lodged in his back, a bullet near his heart and his lungs pierced, is conceded but a few hours to live. He is a news vendor and was felled by wild bullets from the guns of the rival gangsters as he attempted to flee the battle scene.

Steve Mezzatesta, 947 North Salina Street, who was found lying on the floor of the bullet-raked restaurant [the Waldorf, apparently] after the blaze of bullets subsided, is in the Hospital of the Good Shepherd, gaping holes in his legs. He has refused to crack under prolonged police grilling and his lips are still locked in the adamant silence of gangdom.

Equally as reticent is Tony [Thomas] Palerino, 128 Gere Avenue, whisked from the scene to Syracuse Memorial Hospital in a car which disappeared immediately after it had discharged its human cargo at the hospital door. He was shot in the hip and is reported out of danger.

Whether any others were wounded in the battle, in which scores of bullets were exchanged, has not yet been determined. Armed with the names of a half of dozen men who engaged in the fight, however, police expect to learn final details by nightfall.

Dixon’s statement ended all theorizing over the cause and details of the battle. His recital to Chief Cadin was a lurid account of gang activities in this city and an indication of the cold-bloodedness with which gangdom goes after its victims.

Dixon, whose drinkery is concealed behind the false front of the Syracuse Billiard Table Company in East Genesee Street, told police how he had been lured to his speakeasy after leaving for a few moments to secure a lunch, to find himself confronted by a half dozen mobsmen all armed with guns.

Certain that he was to be killed and with nothing to lose if he struggled, Dixon suddenly smashed a gun which was being held in his ribs from the hands of one of his assailants. In the group about him, he later declared, were Mezzatesta and Palerino.

Dixon’s action was the signal for a general assault by the gangsters. Dropping their guns they leaped on him and began to pound him with their fists and kick him. His battered, puffy face gave mute evidence today of the ferocity of the attack.

Suddenly into this wild melee, another group entered the barroom. They were Dixon’s friends. Police believe they know them and will be able to arrest them shortly.

The rescue party pulled “rods” and forced the other gang to release Dixon. A shot rang out. It went wild. It was the signal for a veritable barrage as gunmen took cover behind tables, the bar and whatever protection was offered in the speakeasy. Bullets were popping on all sides as Dixon remained on the floor, bruised and bleeding.

One of the shots, meant for Dixon, it is believed, struck Mezzatesta. His companions grabbed him and rushed him into the street, Dixon’s rescuers following, their guns spitting lead at every step.

As they emerged from the doorway, it is believed, Johnson stepped into the path of the fighters. Bullets from both parties struck him and he dropped against the SA&K building, his body propped against the wall. He was found there a few minutes later by Phil Labovich, Journal-American employee, and Patrolman Liquori.

Mezzatesta’s gang took refuge in the Waldorf Restaurant, evidently believing themselves immune there. A lone gunman burst through the door of the restaurant on the Washington Street side, produced a revolver and began to blaze at the party.

Mezzatesta’s legs were shot from under him. Palerino stopped a couple of bullets and rushed outside where he collapsed. This last barrage ended the battle, both gangs dispersing.

Dixon later told police the trouble started when he decided to buy his beer from a racketeer who had started to run beer into the city a month ago. He had formerly purchased his liquor, he said, from the Solvay-Syracuse gang.

This created ill feeling, which became aggravated when the Solvay gang borrowed a beer filter they failed to return to Dixon.

One thing that struck me in this and subsequent stories about the event is the amount of activity taking place in downtown Syracuse at 3 a.m. It seems that during Prohibition Syracuse was a city that never slept. Well, those days are gone. As for the above story, it is even further from truth than one of those "fact-based" movies. Notice how Steven Mezzatesta is shot more than once, on both sides of the street. That isn't what happened. Anyway . . .

 

News vendor Reuben Johnson held on for four days at the hospital before he died. Meanwhile, Thomas Palerino and Steve Mezzatesta, wounded in the "pitched battle," soon broke the "adamant silence of gangdom" and told a very different version of the incident. Most importantly, it was becoming clear only one person involved in this "war" was carrying a gun, and that was Charles "Ponzi" Albino, who worked for Dixon, the speakeasy operator. There was no exchange of gunfire. It was "Ponzi" Albino who hit the innocent bystander three times in the back and wounded Palerino and Mezzatesta.

That is not to say Palerino and Mezzatesta were choir boys. Along with Mezzatesta's brother, Frank, they entered Dixon's speakeasy, ordered bartender Charles McCarthy to fetch his boss, and then accused Dixon of stealing their truck. Dixon denied it and the three men responded by punching him. They stopped when Albino arrived and pulled a gun. They ran and Albino chased after them, firing his weapon. So much for the gang war.

Police regarded Palerino and Mezzatesta as more believable than Dixon and McCarthy because the two wounded men were separated when the shooting started and had no opportunity to compare notes before being questioned. Yet they told much the same story. Dixon and McCarthy, on the other hand, did have time to confer and both said things that did not stand up to the evidence, or lack thereof. For one thing, no other guns were found at the scene, not even where Palerino and Mezzatesta fell. Palerino said when all the bullets were found they'd turn out to be fired from one gun. This apparently was the case, though I found no mention of later police statements about this important aspect of "the war."

Police arrived at their conclusion early on, and the district attorney's office announced that Albino was the only person who would be charged in connection with the gunplay. Finding Albino then became the big challenge, because in all the confusion on June 17, the butcher-turned-gangster fled the scene. He would never again be seen in Syracuse. Alive, anyway.

 

Syracuse Journal, June 18
Thomas Palerino, one of three men wounded during a battle of bullet in the downtown sector Wednesday morning, told his version in a statement to Assistant District Attorney William Martin this afternoon.

From his bed in Syracuse Memorial Hospital, where he was taken with a bullet wound in his hip shortly after the shooting episode, Palerino told a story which differs in many details from the one given Syracuse police yesterday by speakeasy proprietor William Dixon.

Palerino said an empty truck had been stolen from the yard of one of his friends. A woman, he said, gave members of his gang a description of the man who had stolen the vehicle. Then, Palerino said, he and his friends went to Dixon’s cafe at 223 East Genesee Street to learn what he knew of the missing truck.

Dixon left them briefly, then returned with Charles “Ponzi” Albino, 31, of 406 Hickory Street. A fist fight ensued, said Palerino, until Ponzi entered the argument, drew a gun and began firing at the combatants. Palerino said none of his friends was armed and they fled into the street and then into the Waldorf restaurant.

Albino, he said, fired at them as they ran across the street, one of the bullets striking Reuben Johnson, 35, a news vendor who was near the scene. Palerino insisted that every bullet was fired from Albino’s gun. He is sure that when bullets are removed from his body and from the bodies of Johnson and Steve Mezzatesta, third victim, it will be found that they are from the same weapon.

Meanwhile, Albino has gone into hiding and is the subject of a massive, state-wide police search.

 

At first police thought Albino might be hiding at Dixon's Oneida Lake cottage, so they raided the place, but there was no sign of the fugitive. Within days police were receiving all kinds of tips about Albino's location. Many of those tips were provided by The Journal, which claimed they came from knowledgeable sources. The newspaper soon became highly critical of the district attorney's office:

 

PROSECUTOR LAGS IN ALBINO HUNT
Syracuse Journal, June 23
The district attorney’s office and police today continued their half-hearted attempts to learn the whereabouts of Charles “Ponzi” Albino, wanted here for first degree murder for the shooting of Reuben Johnson, innocent bystander in a bootleg gun battle which flared up in East Genesee Street last Wednesday morning.

Syracuse Journal, June 24
Spurred into feverish activity by public opinion, which is gathering into thunderheads, the district attorney’s office and police continue ineffective steps toward bringing about the arrest of Charles “Ponzi” Albino.

Syracuse Journal, June 24, 1931
Flashes / By James Warren
The district attorney’s office, up until today, at least, has stubbornly refused to interview a man in Syracuse who has admitted that he talked over the long distance telephone with Ponzi Albino last Thursday.

 

The Journal speculated at first that Albino had gone to Albany, then taken a boat down the Hudson River to New York City, then hopped a steamer to Bermuda, from which point he might have boarded another steamer to South America or Europe.

Later the newspaper said they had learned Albino might be in Huntington, Quebec . . . or maybe in Potsdam, New York, where he had a "high-powered car, fueled ready for flight, in the garage of J. C. Wright."

The newspaper seemed oblivious to the possibility Dixon and relatives of Albino were spreading these stories. Instead The Journal urged the district attorney's office to take them all seriously.

Which is why one Syracuse police detective, J. Martin Kavanaugh, was sent to Bermuda to look for Albino. The newspaper obviously had a high opinion of Detective Kavanaugh, claiming while in Bermuda he had "investigated conditions in the world's greatest rum-running center with characteristic thoroughness." The article also said Albino had used his gun "in his zeal to protect his boss (Dixon) from reprisal by a Solvay gang."

Upon his return, Detective Kavanaugh said Bermuda was so small and so well policed "that the authorities have an accurate check at all times upon all inhabitants." In other words, his trip was unnecessary. All he had to do was call them on the telephone.

Meanwhile, Assistant District Attorney William C. Martin, who was in charge of the case, received death threats. There was some concern on June 29 when Martin failed to appear at his office. The Journal got wind of it and sent a reporter to Martin's home — the newspaper provided the address, which may have saved Albino's pals the trouble of looking it up — but it turned out the ADA was off to a slow start that morning because he had been hit in the face by a golf ball over the weekend and he was sporting two black eyes.

Martin admitted he had received anonymous threats that strongly suggested his life would be in danger if he persisted in efforts to clean up the bootleg gangs in Syracuse. He said he wasn't taking the threats seriously. A photo of Martin, taken before the golf ball accident, indicated why the assistant district attorney wasn't frightened by the threats. He looked tougher than any of the gangsters involved in the case. (Despite the newspaper criticism of Martin's performance, he was elected Onondaga County District Attorney in November by a whopping two-to-one margin over his Democratic opponent.)

As the weeks rolled by, Martin concentrated his efforts on building an assault charge against Palerino and the Mezzatesta brothers. He also figured their testimony before the October grand jury would help him get a murder, first degree, indictment against Albino, whose family had retained a lawyer for the fugitive. The attorney, Saul Kauffman, announced on June 25 that he had told Albino's family to urge the suspect to return home and give himself up because "the authorities have nothing on Albino and he may just as well come back and face the music — however much of it there is."

Three days later, Kauffman claimed he had learned that a colored man used a .45 caliber revolver during the battle. He just couldn't resist playing the race card.

Albino remained in hiding, however, and as I read the stories that slowed to a trickle during the summer months I couldn't help but feel the shooter's absence was helping the assistant district attorney build his case. Perhaps ADA Martin even had a good idea where Albino was hiding and was keeping it his little secret. He might also have been aware of the major league gang war being waged in the neighborhood of Albino's hideout. Because of that war, between Dutch Schultz and "Mad Dog" Coll, there's a strong possibility Albino couldn't have gone back home even if he wanted to.

But as autumn began, there came this bit of misinformation about the fugitive:

 

Syracuse Journal, September 26
Sought since the murder of Reuben Johnson, newsboy, during a gang battle in East Genesee Street last June, Charles “Ponzi” Albino will give himself up to the October grand jury.

That was the information given The Journal by a sister of the missing man when state police and city detective made a surprise raid on the Albino home, 406 Hickory Street, Friday afternoon.

Although the information upon which they made the raid on the Albino home came from a high official of the state police, the police could find no trace of the hunted man when they searched the premises.

Ponzi’s sister, who refused to divulge her name, told The Journal, “You don’t think Ponzi would be foolish enough to come back here now. What do you think Charlie wanted to do, spend the hot summer in jail? He’ll be here when the grand jury meets.”

Her statement fits with persistent rumors that Albino is ready to give himself up and will do it when the grand jury session begins October 6.

 

October arrived and the grand jury was convened, but Albino was a no-show. ADA Martin got the result he wanted. Albino was indicted for murder in the first degree. Palerino and the Mezzatesta brothers, Steven and Frank Mezzatesta, were indicted for assault, second degree, but they agreed to plead guilty to third degree assault and were sentenced to a few months in Onondaga Penitentiary. They also were expected to offer convincing testimony against Albino.

By the end of the year Albino must have wished he had never left Syracuse. In retrospect, it's easy to come up with a theory that explains why he had wound up hiding in New York City. That theory goes back to where the story began — with William "Squawk" Reilly's attempt to infiltrate the Syracuse beer market. Apparently Billy Dixon thought Reilly was his new best pal. Newark police discovered Reilly was driving around in a car with New York plates, a car registered to Reilly at Dixon's home address in Syracuse. Dixon must have figured Reilly would shelter Albino in New Jersey, and perhaps "Ponzi" stayed there awhile.

Reilly, with an arrest record that went back 30 years, was known to be friendly with Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, a New York City mobster who at one time worked for Dutch Schultz. But those two had a falling out, and by 1931 Coll and Schultz were at war. Reilly's old pal, "Legs" Diamond, also was in trouble and wouldn't live to see 1932.

Nonetheless, Reilly supposedly arranged for "Ponzi" Albino to hide out in a boarding house in the Bronx where he shared a room with a member of Coll's gang. Once he arrived, Albino probably felt like a prisoner. Coll was circling his wagons and certainly couldn't trust an unknown fugitive from Syracuse.

On December 3 two of Coll's gunmen, Frank Giordano and Dominick Odierno, were sentenced to die in the electric chair after they were pronounced guilty for the murder of Joseph Mullen, a member of the Dutch Schultz gang.

But for Schultz there was some unfinished business. And two months later, on February 8, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll was gunned down in a telephone booth. If "Ponzi" Albino were free to return to face a murder charge in Syracuse, he would have done it on February 9.

On the night of February 12, a man named Louis DeMario was found in a vacant lot in the Bronx, shot in the heart and through the left armpit. DeMario was a member of the Coll gang, and possibly the man who shared a room with Albino, who may have witnessed this execution because . . .

 

Syracuse Journal, February 23, 1932
Special to the Journal
NEW YORK — Hunt for Charles “Ponzi” Albino, Syracuse gunman-racketeer sought since June 17, 1931 for the slaying of Reuben Johnson in a Syracuse gun battle, came to an end this morning when Albino’s lifeless body was found under the elevated highway on Eleventh Avenue.

Albino, identified through his fingerprints, was the victim of gangland’s most efficient manner of execution — “a ride.”

The Syracuse gunman, object of a country wide search for several months, was dying of three bullet wounds and his body was wrapped in a gaudy awning when it was dumped unceremoniously from a speeding taxicab at Seventeenth Street and Eleventh Avenue.

In their quest for the executioners, police today are armed only with a brief description given them by David Brotman, taxi driver, who said two men had “borrowed” his machine at gun point a few minutes before Ponzi’s body was tossed into the street.

Lack of information as to Albino’s New York address and his activities while in the metropolis are baffling the police in their quest.

Although the finger prints apparently prove definitely that the victim is the man sought by Syracuse police, officials here are awaiting the arrival of relatives and Syracuse officials who are reported en route to New York City to make definite identification.

A theory which is gaining credence among officials is that Albino had been shot in some speakeasy and cafe, that his body was wrapped in the awning and that the cab had been stolen to make it possible for the killers to dispose of the remains.

It was a few minutes after 6 a.m. that Ponzi’s body was dumped into the street.

The ride victim died as a cop and truck driver looked on. In a few minutes the neighborhood swarmed with detectives from the homicide squad. The truck driver was taken to the West Twentieth Street station and a general alarm was sent out for the cream colored cab.

Brotman, the taxi driver, said he was hailed by two men shortly before 6 a.m. One of the men pressed a gun against him and told him to drive around. Somewhere in the Fifties, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, they forced him into a hallway.

Brotman heard his cab driven away. His two captors gave him cigarettes and the three of them smoked in the hallway for about half an hour.

A closed car drew up to the curb. Brotman was ordered into the car and driven to Fifth-second Street and Sixth Avenue.

When he got out, the car drove away and he saw his cab standing nearby. Without going near the machine, he reported the incident to the police.

The body of Albino was discovered by Martin Yerk of Carlstadt, New Jersey. Yerk was driving his truck under the West Side Express highway on Eleventh Avenue when a speeding taxicab turned in from Seventeenth Street. The door of the cab was opened and Albino, draped in a gaudy awning, was thrown out.

The truck driver pursued the cab, but soon gave up the chase to return to the victim who died as Yerk reached him.

 

I just love this phrase from the above story: "the finger prints apparently prove definitely that the victim is the man sought by Syracuse police." Yes, were almost certainly certain about that. Anyway, four days later came this item:

 

Syracuse American, February 28, 1932
Flashes / By Louis Burrill
Funeral services were held Saturday for Ponzi Albino, reputed Syracuse beer racketeer sought for months in connection with a murder here, shot and killed by New York City gunmen. One hundred cars, four of them filled with flowers, followed to the cemetery. Uniformed police and plain clothesmen watched at the church and at the grave. If they knew for whom they watched, they didn’t say.

The killer of Reuben Johnson, innocent bystander in last July’s gunfight in East Genesee Street, was laid to Ponzi Albino. Now Ponzi is dead, and that chapter of the story is ended. But who killed Albino? That’s a chapter that hasn’t been finished yet. Perhaps it never will be.

 

My guess is that except for Albino's family and a few of his friends, no one really cared who killed him. In Albino's business, knowledge was often a dangerous thing.

In an odd footnote to this case came a story four months after Albino's murder. Mentioned in the final paragraph of the following story is one of the men who was wounded in the 1931 shooting. However, what I found more interesting is the first paragraph and the conclusion drawn by police and/or the newspaper:

 

Syracuse Journal, June 28, 1932
Spurred by belief they are involved in a murder investigation, police Tuesday pressed their probe into the death of Frank Vitalli, 56, of 918 Emerson Avenue, supposed victim of a gang beating, who died in St. Joseph Hospital shortly after 5 a.m.

Convinced that Vitalli was murdered in a fiendish attack, Detective Capt. Thomas Carroll ordered his squad to bring in everyone who saw Vitalli Friday night, when he was found unconscious on the sidewalk beside his home.

An autopsy at the morgue Tuesday revealed Vitalli had suffered several fractures of the skull and had been severely beaten about the face and body.

Vitalli was unable to give police any information prior to his demise. Police were not called into the investigation until Monday night when the victim was transferred to St. Joseph Hospital.

According to Ralph Vitalli, a son, he was preparing for bed st 11:45 o’clock that night when he heard his father conversing with several other men in front of the house. There was loud talking for several minutes, he told police, and a few minutes later, when he heard no voices, he opened the door to investigate.

Ralph found his father lying on the sidewalk unconscious. He carried him to his room with the aid of other members of the family, and when Vitalli did not regain consciousness by the next morning he summoned a city physician. It was not until more than two days had passed that the elder Vitalli was taken to the hospital, and this was done on the advice of Detectives Elijah Buck and Edward Dolphin after they were called to the home by the son.

Thomas Palerino of 926 Milton Avenue told police today he was with Vitalli Friday night. He said he met him in a restaurant at 849 Emerson Avenue and the two left together at 8 o’clock. Both walked to Vitalli’s home, he said, sat on the porch talking for a while and then walked to Emerson Avenue and Chemung Street where they separated. That was the last he saw of Vitalli, he said.

 

A day later the story was considerably different, albeit still tragic for poor Frank Vitalli. As Emily Litella used to say, "Never mind!"

 

Syracuse Journal, June 29, 1932
Investigation in the death Frank Vitalli, 56, of 918 Emerson Avenue, appeared near an end Wednesday with police ready to accept the theory that the victim had suffered his fatal injuries in a fall at his home.

Delay in reporting the case interfered with the probe. Although Vitalli was injured Friday night, it was not until he was taken to St. Joseph Hospital unconscious Monday night that police were brought into the investigation.

Vitalli died several hours after his admittance to the hospital. An autopsy revealed several fractures of the skull as well as bruises about the face.

Police believe that Vitalli stumbled over a sewer vent as he emerged from the cellar of his home and fell heavily against the concrete steps of his home.

 

Thomas Palerino was back in the news in October, 1934, when police found him hiding in a variety store on Milton Avenue, a block from the Syracuse-Solvay line. It was after midnight and police had been called by neighbors who said a man had broken into the store. Palerino was charged with attempted burglary, third degree.

In November, 1935, Steve Mezzatesta, the other man wounded by Albino four years earlier, was convicted of counterfeiting by a jury in federal court. He was sentenced to serve four years in Northeastern penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and fined $6. Yes, $6. Earlier the Syracuse Journal said he could have been sentenced to 107 years and fined $45,000. So I guess he was lucky.

Frank Mezzatesta moved to Solvay, at least temporarily, which is why, in 1933, he was referred to as the "alleged Solvay gangster." His troubles began in late 1932 when he was charged with burglary and larceny in Utica. By mid-1933 he had added charges of assault and illegal possession of a gun to his resume. He remained on the loose, but things just got worse for him in another case that attracted some sensational coverage. To make a long story short:

 

Syracuse Journal, October 13, 1933
More than a dozen witnesses awaited their turn to be called Friday morning when the grand jury took up its investigation into “white slave” charges lodged last summer against Frank D. Mezzatesta, young North Side dance hall idol.

Mrs. Helen Morgan, 202 Seymour Street, formerly of 219 Hawley Avenue, in whose place Mezzatesta is claimed to have placed a young girl, was among the witnesses. Mrs. Morgan gave the police a long and lively hunt during their investigations at the time of Mezzatesta’s arrest.

The girl Mezzatesta is claimed to have induced to go to the Morgan home for immoral purposes, and her sister, were among the witnesses called. Seven other women occupied seats outside the jury room in answer to subpoenas.

District Attorney William C. Martin is presenting the case to the jury. He did not say what specific charge he is seeking.

 

Though referred to there as the "young North Side dance hall idol," his residence was listed at 406 First Street, Solvay. In December a county court jury returned a guilty verdict. He received a prison sentence of three to six years and a severe tongue-lashing from Judge William L. Barnum.

“I have no sympathy for you and no one else should have,” Judge Barnum told Mezzatesta. “You have been no good to your family and certainly of no use to the community, which will be fortunate to be rid of your presence for a while. You haven’t earned an honest dollar in years and it is only by chance that you didn’t become a defendant in a murder case not very long ago.”

Judge Barnum referred to the shooting of Reuben Johnson, a news vendor and innocent bystander during a beer gang battle in East Genesee Street, and for which “Ponzi” Albino was indicted.

I have no idea if it was the same Frank Mezzatesta who popped up in a short item in the Syracuse Journal on March 8, 1937. If it was, then he apparently had benefited from Judge Barnum's lecture and had found God. In any event, Frank Mezzatesta was listed as one of the participants in a program to be presented by the Italian Church of the Redeemer. He was scheduled to offer a monologue entitled, "Did You Hear About Me?"

FINALLY, there's Dutch Schultz, who in the spring of 1935 spent time in Syracuse where he was tried in federal court on charges involving income tax evasion. The trial ended with a deadlocked jury. A second trial was held in July, but this time it was conducted in Malone, a tiny city in northern New York, just a few miles from Canada. Schultz arrived in Malone about a month before the trial and conducted himself like a man who wanted to be elected mayor.

His tactics worked. He reportedly charmed Malone residents, and those who sat on the jury found the notorious gangster not guilty of the charges against him.

However, Thomas Dewey, then a special prosecutor (who would go on to become governor of New York and a two-time Republican nominee for president), was determined to put Schultz behind bars. This so infuriated Schultz that he wanted to have Dewey killed. This idea didn't sit well with other mobsters, who had their own solution to the Dutch Schultz problem.

Thus on October 23, 1935, the man who was born Arthur Flegenheimer and became famous as Dutch Schultz, was shot while he was dining at the Palace Chophouse in Newark, New Jersey. With him were two bodyguards and his accountant. All of them were fatally wounded, with Schultz hanging on for almost 24 hours before he was pronounced dead. He was only 34 years of age.

— JACK MAJOR
 
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