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By Jack Major

Anyone reading this must have stumbled upon this page accidentally or by Googling one of the several last names that will be mentioned eventually — names such as Chiovitto, Lanzetta, Guadagno and Glielmi. I have no vested interest in any of these folks, nor in their descendants. Almost everything I learned about them appears on this page. Eventually.

So, you may ask, what is this page doing on a website that began as a Major and Smolinski family project? The reason is my curiosity, which was piqued by a newspaper article I found while researching my hometown, Solvay, New York, on fultonhistory.com, a website that is both amazing and frustrating. It's free — though I send contributions from time to time — and when it is not shut down by a hacker attack, it provides access to millions of pages from hundreds of old newspapers, most of them from New York State. The frustration comes from an inconsistent search engine, pages that are difficult to read, and a home page that isn't particularly reader friendly, but is butt ugly.

However, with perseverance, patience and experience, the user can strike gold time and time again. Then what becomes frustrating are the newspapers themselves. There are obvious errors in the reporting, and where competing newspapers are concerned, you'll often find conflicting stories. Just as often you'll discover stories that aren't followed to conclusion, which gets me to this page's first story, the one that lured me to a detour that introduced me to several Italians who arrived in the Syracuse area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But just when I thought my fantastic ride was finished, I made the mistake of glancing at a story that shared the page with an article about one of those Italian families — and got involved in the life and times of Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker, a 19th century black baseball player, who lived for awhile in Syracuse.

But let me go back to the beginning —  a 1907 story about a lawsuit over the incident that occurred in my hometown. It was the headline (below) that caught my eye. I was intrigued, but what appeared under the headline was, forgive the expression, a "smartass story," written by an anonymous reporter who thought the incident was funny (yet somehow missed the most amusing element). However, what happened certainly was not funny to the people involved.

Some blame for the writer's attitude must be shared by a defense attorney who used "a badger game" to describe the incident that triggered the lawsuit. What's a badger game? My favorite example was memorably dramatized in the 26-hour television adaptation of James Michener's "Centennial" many years ago when a married couple, played by Anthony Zerbe and Lois Nettleton, set out to fleece a wealthy man played by Sandy McPeak. The idea was for the wife to lure the man into bed, where they'd be discovered when her husband showed up "unexpectedly." The husband would then offer to forget the incident — for a price.

That is not what happened in the Solvay incident, which became clear when I looked for more information and found myself on a crazy trip back and forth through time with some colorful, often conniving and violent characters who were trying to get along in a new country where they couldn't speak the language and didn't know the rules — or simply chose to ignore them. But that was later. Here is the story that started it all:


Romeo Filippo Vacco loved Juliet Josephine Chiovitto, for Romeo was the star boarder at Juliet’s, which is at 901 Milton avenue. But this Romeo’s mistake came when he didn’t listen for “the lark, the herald of the morn,” and Dominic Chiovitto found this Romeo and Julie together. The Solvay happening reminded of the famous row between the Montagues and Capulets after that, it was so different. Judge Ryan heard all about it in a lawsuit.

When Dominic came in, Vacco said, he was scared stiff. Dominic didn’t say a word, but took Josephine and started for a lawyer’s office. Just as Vacco’s courage was returning, the whole bunch came back with James Lanzetta added to it. Vacco said he was told to put on his coat and come to court. Then he was scared stiff again. As he came to, he said he was informed that if he gave up his money in the bank and what was coming to him on his last job, he would not be arrested.

Vacco said he did his best. He turned over $40 in cash and $13 in an order on “the boss.” For a little while, Vacco felt better, and then he began to brood about his love affair. He decided he had been done good and got E. W. & F. J. Cregg to sue Lanzetta for $53.

This was what made the sensational suit, with Thomas and Frank Woods alleging that Lanzetta was only settling a trouble, and that the action was brought just to get a story on Lanzetta in an Italian newspaper.

Vacco came to court looking like a real Italian Romeo with a bad taste in neckties, for he wore one with a large rose embroidered upon black satin. He told his story as if it were a joke, and smiled to think how frightened he as when Dominic came home so unexpectedly on December 3.

Then the attorneys, as lawyers ever will, began to question the brand of love of this Solvay Juliet, and called it all the badger game, and hinted that it was arranged that Dominic should come home and find the star boarder as he did. The case brought in a half dozen Italian interpreters before the evidence was closed and submitted.

Newspapers are supposed to clarify things. Reading this story made me feel like my brain was trapped in a blender set for "turn into mush."

But I wanted to find out what happened next, and another story told me the judge ruled in favor of Lanzetta. So either that judge had been paid off or, much more likely, the reference to Filippo Vacco and Josephine Chiovitto as Romeo and Juliet was highly inappropriate and a very bad joke. The Journal writer must have relied too much on Vacco's account of what happened the day he was caught in bed with Mrs. Chiovitto.

As I said, the writer missed the funny part: Chiovitto didn't come home early and catch his wife cheating; he suspected it beforehand and was hiding under the bed when she and her lover entered the room. They thought Chiovitto had left for work at the Solvay Process Company.

Chiovitto wasn't playing any badger game with Vacco — not for a measly $53 that went to a third party. The husband really wanted to know the truth about his wife, and, after having made the discovery, he threatened divorce. He told his wife to leave the house, and later that day she and Vacco took a trolley to the city, though that was far from the end of the story, which also was missing the fact Mr. and Mrs. Chiovitto had three children.

Perhaps the most interesting character mentioned in the above newspaper article was James Lanzetta, who was not a lawyer, but a self-appointed intermediary in situations involving Italian immigrants. An immigrant himself, Lanzetta spoke English very well and acted as an interpreter, often in court proceedings. He didn't do it for nothing.

Lanzetta was for awhile one of Central New York's most prominent Italians, an entrepreneur who was a banker, a steamship ticket agent, a real estate agent and a newspaper publisher. But it was suspected, particularly during Lanzetta's early years, that he took advantage of his fellow Italians by charging them for services they really didn't need. So it was in this case, though it was ruled that he was entitled to the money Vacco had paid him, a classic case of buyer beware.

While Lanzetta operated legally, at least one Syracuse judge had spoken out in court against him and others who offered a similar service for a fee. The judge said his court provided an interpreter, usually Syracuse policeman Pasquale Bennett (whose real name must have been Bennedetto), who was paid by the city.

It was typical for Lanzetta to view Vacco's lawsuit as a put-up job by Joseph Ray, publisher of a competing Italian-language newspaper. In 1908, the two men sued each other for libel, and both won, though Lanzetta came out ahead. He was awarded $400, while, in his lawsuit, Ray was awarded only $21. Ray and Lanzetta were bitter rivals who verbally attacked each other at every opportunity.

Interestingly, I could find no mention in the Syracuse newspapers that Lanzetta, through his marriage to the former Constance Glielmi, was loosely connected with one of Syracuse's most famous 19th century murders, committed by his father-in-law, Antonio Glielmi. And Lanzetta's mother-in-law, the aptly named Lucrezia Glielmi, was a central figure in two killings. But Lanzetta's own problems were waiting in the future, after his wife's death, when his relationships with two young woman would prove stormier than anything experienced by Dominic Chiovitto.

Back to Josephine Chiovitto and Filippo Vacco, whose last name began appearing in newspapers as Vacca, which apparently was the correct spelling. His first attempt to live with Josephine Chiovitto did not go well. They may have gone to Syracuse, but Vacca continued to hang around with friends in Solvay, where the chief of police, Michael Casey, was on a crusade to disarm Italian immigrants, who often carried hidden guns and knives.

On Christmas Eve, 1906, Solvay Constable Carmen Louise arrested Vacca for carrying two concealed weapons — a revolver and a stiletto. Three days later, the Syracuse Post-Standard added confusion to the man's name by reporting: "Carmen Vacca, or Felepowachi, was yesterday fined $25 and sent to the penitentiary for 90 days for carrying concealed weapons."

I assumed the "Carmen" came from the first name of the arresting officer, while the "Felepo" came from Vacca's real first name, Filippo. But wachi?

Anyway, Vacca was sent to the Jamesville Penitentiary, after which Josephine Chiovitto meekly returned to her husband — temporarily. It appears Vacca's prison vacation was cut short in February, which allowed him to start his unsuccessful action against James Lanzetta. A month after that was settled, Vacca was arrested because he hadn't paid $17.80 in court costs from his lawsuit. Friends came to his aid.

By June, things went from weird to weirder.

Syracuse Journal, June 14, 1907
Dominico Chiovitto told Justice DeAngelis that if there had been any expectation that Mrs. Josephine Chiovitto was going to run away with Philip Vacca, Dominico would never have left her $250 and $25 worth of groceries.

Josephine had her whole romance between April 4 and May 4. Dominico went to Chicago to look for work. His letters home went to an empty house in Solvay. When he came back a month later, he also found that Josephine had gone with Philip. When the papers were served upon Josephine, she said Dominico could have a divorce for all she cared.

Richard J. Shanahan called the eight-year-old daughter of Dominico and she said she wanted to stay with “papa.” The Court took the evidence in the case.

There was no clear explanation of what had transpired between the Chiovittos and Vacca from the time of the bedroom incident, so I am taking a guess based on tidbits from a few short stories about court appearances during the previous six months.

First, Josephine Chiovitto and Vacca began their romance six months before April. Then Chiovitto sent his wife packing in December, but welcomed her back a few weeks later when Vacca was sent to prison. In the meantime, Chiovitto filed for divorce, but on February 13, when it came time for a court appearance, he told the judge that he and his wife had reconciled.

It had been reported, early in 1906, that Chiovitto was constructing a building that would include a first-floor grocery store and living quarters on the second floor. A year later, perhaps shamed by his wife's affair and the way he discovered it, Chiovitto apparently decided to look for work elsewhere, and chose Chicago as the place to make a new start for his family.

Well, you know how that worked out. He went to Chicago and she moved in with Vacca. Upon Chiovitto's return, there was a confrontation, and this time Chiovitto punched Vacca, who sought a warrant for assault in the third degree, but the case was settled out of court. At that point, Chiovitto again initiated divorce proceedings and decided to remain in Solvay, where he would become a fairly successful owner of a saloon on the village's west side. You can't go wrong operating a saloon in Solvay.

Chiovitto's mother lived in Solvay, and helped him with the children until he remarried. Stories to this point mentioned only the Chiovitto's eight-year-old daughter, but the couple had three girls — Elizabeth, Lucy and Catherine. All of them remained with their father.

Meanwhile, Josephine Chiovitto was pregnant by Vacca, who showed up in newspaper stories with various first names — Philip and Philippo, in addition to Filippo.

Syracuse Post-Standard, September 17, 1907
Philip Vacca, an Italian, was arrested last evening by Patrolman Edward Tubbert on a charge of assault in the second degree in attempting to stab Josie Stevens with a butcher knife.

The Stevens woman was the wife of a Solvay Italian. They were divorced, and she has been living with Vacca for some time.

The woman claims that Vacca asked her for some money yesterday, and she refused to give him any, as she feared he intended to desert her. A row resulted, and she claims he picked up a butcher knife and chased her around their house on East Water Street. She escaped from the house and went to police headquarters. A warrant was sworn out by the woman for Vacca’s arrest.

"Josie Stevens" was an Americanized version of Giuseppina (Josephine) Stefano, apparently Mrs. Chiovitto's maiden name. Vacca and the woman muddled along together until they were involved in one of the saddest, most pathetic stories I found during this particular detour in my research:

Syracuse Post-Standard, Thursday, March 25, 1909
With a baby in his arms, an able-bodied man wandered hesitatingly into the police station last evening and asked shelter for the child.

The man, Philippo Vacca, said the woman with whom he had been living had no use for him any longer and made it plain to him that her roof would afford him a welcome no longer.

So he took the eight-months-old baby girl in his arms and carried her down East Water Street and to the police.

The woman, Vacca said, was Giuseppina Stefano. The history of the woman, her divorced husband, Vacca, and the reason for the banishment of the lover are well known to the police.

The case first came to light in Solvay about three years ago. At that time, the woman and her husband, Domenico Chiovitto, lived in the Italian quarter of the village, and Vacca was a boarder. Developments later showed that he was a “star.”

Chiovitto was supposed to work nights in the Solvay Process Works, while Vacca’s shift was of a different turn. This left many pleasant evenings to be spent at the fireside by Vacca and the wife of his boarding-house keeper.

One night, Vacca and the woman supposed that, as usual, her husband had gone to work. Instead, he was hidden under a bed. When he crawled out, such a turmoil resulted that the police were called and arrests followed. Chiovitto sued for divorce, but did not get one. He still lived in Solvay, while his wife, known as Mrs. Stefano, lived at 183 Catherine Street (in Syracuse).

A child was born in 1907, and September 14 of that year, it was christened. At the christening bad blood developed, and before the case was settled, Vacca was arrested. It is said that he chased Mrs. Stefano with a butcher knife.

She said he asked her for money and that she refused it, thinking that he was going to run away and leave her. Patrolman Edward Tubbert arrested him on a warrant charging assault in the second degree. The police could not find the knife alleged to have been used, so Vacca escaped with a light sentence.

Last summer another child was born, the one Vacca carried last night. Several months ago, Vacca wanted to go to the “old country,” and it is said that Mrs. Stefano furnished the price of the ticket and a little spending money besides.

A month or two ago, he returned, and it is said then discovered that during his vacation in Italy, another of his countrymen had displaced him in the favor of Mrs. Stefano. He tried hard to win her again, he said, and repeatedly asked her whom she chose. Each time the answer was the same, and after numerous ineffectual attempts, he gave up the job.

Last evening he told her to choose him or the other. The answer was so plain that he told her he was going away. She dressed the baby for him, he said, and with it in his arms he walked out of the home.

Through an interpreter at the police station, his story was told. Before it had been wholly learned, the baby was placed in the matron’s department. When the truth was known, he was told to take the baby, on account of its youth, back to the woman.

With the child in his arms, he walked out of the police station, but said he would not take the child to her. He said he was going to 604 Burnet Avenue to keep the baby overnight, and today he announced he would have the baby placed in an orphan asylum.

That was the last story I found about Filippo Vacca and Josephine Stefano Chiovitto.

On the other hand, Dominic Chiovitto opened his saloon, re-married and had another daughter, though the marriage didn't last. Maria (later Mary) Chiovitto was described as her husband's "young second wife" and she negotiated a separation deal, probably in 1919, that netted her a settlement estimated at more than $15,000. She bought a farm in South Bay, near Oneida Lake.

But Dominic Chiovitto's death, on December 20, 1920, triggered a legal battle over his estate, with his estranged second wife claiming she was entitled to manage that estate.

The Syracuse Journal, on May 11, 1921, reported another interesting detail being discussed in court:

"From 1915 to 1918, Domenico Chiovitto had taken out five different 20-year endowment policies with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. His pretty second wife was the beneficiary in each one. Later he changed the policies so that only one was payable to her and the rest were made in favor of his children."

Maria Chiovitto lost every battle but one — she was granted custody of her 10-year-old daughter, Teresa. That fact she could not read or write English was given as the reason she lost her effort to manage her late husband's estate. She later married Alexander S. Manilla, and when she died in 1961, her obituary in the Syracuse Post-Standard said she was survived by her husband, her daughter, Teresa, and three step-daughters, the other Chiovitto children, who had all married and were living in Solvay.

Which takes me back to James Lanzetta, who, by 1913, was doing quite well, having erected a three-story building on North State Street in Syracuse, with businesses on the first floor, a residence on the second, and a ballroom-meeting hall on the third. He also was the long-time president of the Syracuse chapter of the Camillo Cavour Society, an Italian organization named after Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour, a mid-19th Century statesman who played an important role in the unification of Italy.

Lanzetta's wife, the former Constance Glielmi, had a narrow escape in 1912 when she had a fainting spell while walking across the State Street Bridge, and fell into the Erie Canal. Fortunately, she was seen by several men who rushed to her rescue.

The Lanzetta family, which included four children, had another brush with death on January 22, 1913, when firemen were summoned to North State Street to battle a fire that had broken out in the print shop located in the basement of the Lanzetta building. The Lanzetta family was trapped on the second floor, and forced to wait on a balcony from which they were all carried down ladders by firemen.

Eleven months later, however, just before the New Year, Constance Glielmi Lanzetta died. She was only 33. Lanzetta himself was only 37 years old, suddenly a single father of four children who ranged in age from nine to 15. Given what he had accomplished so far, it was reasonable to assume his success would grow. Instead, he'd soon be on the road to ruin, though some suspected there was method to his madness. Or a strategy behind his silliness.

Shortly after his wife's death, Lanzetta placed an ad in a New York City newspaper, probably an Italian-language publication. He was seeking a housekeeper who would also care for his children, particularly 11-year-old Isabella and nine-year-old Constance. Among those who read the ad was 22-year-old Giovina Guadagna, recently arrived from Italy and living with a woman friend in Brooklyn. How Lanzetta made his selection, I don't know, but Giovina was hired and early in 1914 she moved to Syracuse and took up residence in Lanzetta's home.

A year later, she was back in Brooklyn, filing a lawsuit.

Watertown Daily Times, Friday, April 23, 1915
Seeking $5,000 through a breach of promise action for wounded affections, Miss Giovina Guadagno is the plaintiff in a case to be defended by James Lanzetta, of Syracuse, an Italian banker and editor, who is well known in Watertown, where, on several occasions, he was employed as an interpreter. The action is brought in Kings County Supreme Court and the defendant has filed his answer preparatory for trial.

A year has passed since the alleged promise was made to Miss Guadagno by Lanzetta. There ceremony was to have occurred last December, she declares. Instead, Miss Guadagno says that he disregarded his alleged promise and engaged himself to marry a woman who is about to come from Italy to this country for that purpose.

The original date set for her marriage to Lanzetta, says Miss Guadagno, was to be during the month of the anniversary of his first wife’s death. She was Mrs. Constance G. Lanzetta. She died on December 31, 1913, at the age of 33 years.

Miss Guadagno says that she was in Lanzetta’s home in Syracuse a few months after the death of his first wife. It was during her stay that she said the marriage promise was made and she agreed to it.

Miss Guadagno is 23 years old, and is described as a pretty Italian young woman. She is still unmarried, she says, because of Lanzetta’s alleged promise to her. She is also ready and willing to bring about her part of the alleged agreement, she says.

That is the only bit of sentiment in the court papers. Miss Guadagno
accused Lanzetta of betraying her trust and asks for the designated sum of money in recompense. She is represented by Francis L. Corrao, an attorney of Brooklyn.

When seen at his office in Syracuse yesterday, Lanzetta denied every allegation brought against him in Kings County.

“There is not a word of truth in what she says,” he said vehemently. “Giovina Guadagno came to work for me in April or May, 1914. She was not satisfactory because she attracted notoriety. I told her I didn’t want her services any more. She wanted to stay, and begged me to keep her for a time longer. She left finally, at my wish, in March.”

“She is trying to blackmail me,” continued the banker, “but she can’t do it.”

“As to any agreement when she came here, there was none, except that she was to do the work I hired her for, at the rate of $30 a month. I did tell her that I would some day, perhaps, bring over a wife from Italy; you know my wife died two years ago.”

Lanzetta has retained Richard J. Shanahan as attorney to file the facts in answer to the papers in the courts of Kings.

Months later, the situation became more complicated:
Watertown Daily Times, February 3, 1916
James Lanzetta, who formerly served as interpreter in Italian cases before local courts, was arrested at his home in Syracuse Wednesday morning, on a warrant sworn out by a Brooklyn girl charging him with being the father of her child. He gave bail to appear for an examination in Brooklyn next week.

The complainant is Giovina Guadagno, 23, who in 1915 was employed for a time as Lanzetta’s housekeeper. The young woman now has a suit pending in Kings County Supreme Court against Lanzetta, whom she charged with breach of promise of marriage, but in the present proceeding the young woman claims that he is the father of a child who was born four and a half months ago.

Mrs. Lanzetta died in 1913, and the Guadagna girl later secured the position of cook and housekeeper. She is said to be a pretty girl, and after she lost her position began proceedings which Lanzetta claims was nothing more than a blackmailing proposition. He was preparing to defend himself in the breach of promise case which is to come to trial next week, when this later affair came up.

A jury in Kings Count believed Miss Guadagna was telling the truth, and awarded her $10,000 in the breach of promise suit. Lanzetta had no intention of paying this money, though he did make good on the judgment in the other matter — child support, for which he was obligated to send the woman a few dollars every week until her child was seven years old.

While his lawyer appealed the $10,000 award, the banker systematically began siphoning away the cash and property in his estate. By August, 1918, two banks had foreclosed on his property, and in September, Lanzetta was sentenced to six months in New York's Ludlow Street jail for contempt of court for non-payment.

But that was just the half of it. Before he was hauled away to jail, he attempted to skirt the issue. According to the Syracuse Herald, "he married Miss Beatrice Vernis of 2301 First Avenue, the Bronx, a rarely pretty girl and an heiress in her own right. With his new bride, he set up housekeeping in the state of New Jersey, apparently confident that having disposed of his property and taken up his residence in another state, he was free from his old sweetheart."

However, he and his new wife were lured to New York City by a dinner invitation, and when he crossed the state line, he was picked up and taken to jail.

When released in mid-March, 1919, Lanzetta continue to claim he was the victim of a frame-up. Besides, he could not pay Miss Guadagna because he was broke. He also insisted the woman had a husband and child in Italy.

But then there was the matter of the woman he had married just before he was put in jail. Oh, that, said Lanzetta. He didn't actually marry that woman, but he did put a marriage notice in an Italian-language newspaper in New York to throw the woman's husband off her trail. This didn't make sense, especially since Lanzetta said the woman used a fake name in the notice. He didn't explain how her husband in Italy, if there actually was one, would know from reading the bogus wedding announcement that the bride with a name he did not recognize was actually his wife.

The woman, identified by the Syracuse Herald earlier as Bernice Vernis, was actually Diana Beatrice Tavernese Palumbo. She claimed to be convinced she had become Mrs. Lanzetta, and after his release from jail, she sued him for non-support.

Lanzetta left the country in 1921 and may have spent the rest of his days in Sicily. He died in 1939, and I have yet to find an obituary in a Syracuse newspaper. By the time his troubles with women had come to a head, Lanzetta handed most of his family responsibilities to his son, Thomas, who turned 20 years old while his father was serving his contempt of court sentence. Thomas, incidentally, was educated in Florence, Italy, from the time he was six years old until he was 13.

Margaret Mary Lanzetta, a sister of Thomas, graduated from the Syracuse University Medical School and became a doctor in Pittsburgh, marrying Carl William Littler, a mechanical engineer.

As for her father, James Lanzetta . . . he certainly led a wild and crazy life. but I happened to discover he had nothing on his in-laws, Lucrezia and Antonio Glielmi, who need their own page.

 
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