Around the turn of the century — that is, the 19th ending, the 20th century beginning — there was a sudden increase in the Solvay population, thanks to job opportunities at factories that opened on Milton Avenue, with the Solvay Process Company leading the way.

The village attracted a significant number of Polish immigrants, but Italy was the birthplace for the majority of Solvay's new residents. Several, perhaps from southern Italy, became targets of threats from people who claimed to represent The Black Hand, often referred to as The Mafia.

Recently Solvay native Susan Mascette Brandt sent me a newspaper clipping about a confrontation on village streets, one that resulted in a bullet being fired through a window at St. Cecilia's Church.

She wrote: "Actually, it's an interesting (and typical) turn-of-the-century sociological study:  The priest and the cops are all Irish, the miscreants are all Italian.  There's a 'Polack Hill' and an 'Italian Quarter.'  With six guys with guns and all that shooting, the best they could do was take out a window, and the clueless priest thought they were after him!  It could have been a Mack Sennett comedy!"

In the last paragraph of the first article is a mention of a man identified as Giuseppe Mascetti. He was Susan Brandt's grandfather. ("He was in his 30's at the time.  A sullen Italian anarchist, it sounds like!" joked Mrs. Brandt.)

Some research turned up more articles, including one that explained what happened to the three gangsters responsible for what Mrs. Brandt's email titled "Bullets Flying at St. Cecilia's." (More on Susan Mascette Brandt at the bottom of the page.)


Syracuse Post-Standard, May 2, 1910
Six Italians, with knives and revolvers, fought a desperate battle at 7 o’clock Saturday night at West Woods Road and Second Street, Solvay, as the culmination of an attempt at “Black Hand” extortion.

The prospective victim, Colagero Ghitino, was slashed and marked for life, but he did not give up any money. Bullets flew like hail as the fight raged. One of them crashed through a window of St. Cecilia’s Church, where Rev. James F. O’Shea, pastor, was hearing confessions. Another took the cap off the head of 12-year-old Edward Frost of First Street. The three alleged extortioners and the prospective victim, with his brother, Salvatore, and another friend, fought a running fight for 500 feet toward “Polack Hill.”

The Ghitinos and their friend escaped,, with blood streaming from Colagero’s wound. Four hours later Chief of Police Hunt and Patrolmen Gaffney and Sullivan found he Ghitinos at their board house, 205 King Avenue. They were locked up after Dr. George T. Boycheff had taken seven stitches in Colagero’s face. The wound extended from his left ear to the eye.

Colagero recently received several “Black Hand” letters,, mailed at Niagara Falls,, and each demanding that he take $200 to a lonely point near the stone crusher at the Split Rock quarries under paint of death. One letter, received March 25, read:

Dear Colagero —
This is the last time that I advise you that since the 10th day of March I have been in Syracuse and have sent to persons to Split Rock and I found no one. So if you don’t let yourself be heard from by the last of this month some of these day you will be cut into pieces and burned,, or you or face will be slashed on both sides.

I give you until the 28th day of March. If you will not obey my commands your life will be ended. You will have to come where I am on the 28th day of March. That is enough. Don’t be a coward. If you are afraid, go to your friends in Syracuse, for I am in league with them.

Black Hand

On the fourth page of the letter were a coffin, containing a body, and a cross upheld by long fingers of a hand. All was in red ink.

Colagero did not have $200, being a day laborer at Solvay, and he was too terrified to take his letters to the police. He and his brother and another man,, whose name they ill not tell, armed themselves with revolvers after that and went about together.

Saturday night, Alfonso Colli, whom the Ghitino brothers had met a short time before; Salvatore Velano, Vincenzo Falcone and the Ghitinos and their friend were drinking in Benjamin DeSpirito’s saloon in Milton Avenue, at the foot of the Gertrude Avenue hill.

Velano suggested that the six take a walk. Not suspecting that their own friends might be “Black Hand” men, the brothers and their friend walked out. They went east in Milton Avenue and turned in West Woods Road toward the St. Cecilia Church.

At West Woods Road and Second Street, it is alleged, Velano, Falcone and Colli demanded $200. “We have no money,” said Colagero.

The demand was repeated, but Colagero insisted that he was poor. One of the men drew a knife, and, although persons were entering the church to the confessional, lunged at Colagero and slashed his face.

The slash was a signal, and every man drew a gun. The weapons popped like firecrackers. The battle raged along the sidewalk, near the church, and the Ghitino party, firing, backed across the street.

At this point a bullet broke the church window. A short distance further stood a street sprinkling wagon, and a red danger lantern on it was shattered by another bullet as the party surged about this temporary shelter.

Finally, as the fight neared the houses of “Polack Hill,” the alleged “Black Hand”men ran and escaped.

Father O’Shea thought an attempt had been made on his life and a young man of the parish escorted him home.

The news stirred the entire Italian colony. The entire police force assembled at midnight in the Italian quarter and dispersed a crowd in front of DeSpirito’s saloon. One man refused to move and was locked up. He gave the name of Giuseppe Mascetti (Mascette) and said he lived at No. 204 First Street.


Syracuse Journal, May 2, 1910
With three men in custody as a result of a battle among Italians at Solvay Saturday evening, Police Chief Hunt is making an effort to find the others who had a hand in it. In the confusion they succeeded in escaping and it is believed that they have also succeeding in getting away. Chief Hunt regards it all as a “Black Hand” outrage.

The battle began about 7 p.m. near the corner of the West Woods Road and Second Street when demand for $200 was made upon Colagero Ghitino, who claims to have received several letters demanding money an threatening his life unless the demands were heeded.

Ghitino and his brother, Salvatore, and a friend were on one side in the battle, and arrayed around them were three men whose names are said to have been Velano, Falcone and Colli.

The six met in Benjamin DeSpirito;s saloon in Milton Avenue, near the foot of the Gertrude Street hill. Velano suggested taking a walk.

The demand on Ghitino for money was met with refusal. One of the men whipped out a knife and made a lunge at him, slashing his face. Instantly all the others had out their revolvers, and there was a fusillade of shots. The fight raged along the street toward St. Cecilia’s Church,, and the Ghitinos and their one friend backed across the street.

One of the bullets crashed through a window in the church, barely missing Father O’Shea, who was hearing confessions, and another clipped off the cap of Edward Foster, 12, whose home is in First Street.

The bullet flew thick and fast, but all went wide of the mark. As the fight neared the dwelling on the hill, the attacking party fled.

Chief Hunt says their is no room for doubt about its having been a Black Hand attack. In a letter received on March 25 Colagero Ghitino was notified that “this is the last time that I advise you since March 10. I have been in Syracuse and have sent two persons to Split Rock and found no one.” In other letters he had been ordered to leave $200 at a lonely spot near the stone crusher at Split Rock.

Syracuse Post-Standard, May 3, 1910
All Solvay is in terror as a result of Saturday night’s alleged “Black Hand” outbreak, in which one man was cut and perhaps disfigured for life. Italian leaders in the village hesitate to denounce the organization and Americans, with property, are not anxious to put themselves on record as antagonistic to the extortionists and their violence.

One man was asked yesterday to express his opinion of the “Black Hand.” He did, but refused to identify himself publicly as one opposed to the “bad men” of the Italian race.

“I would be in fine business,” said he, “doing that. Here I’ve got property and suppose I should come out and denounce the ‘Black Hand.’ Why, some night my property would go up on a bomb and where would I be? No one would know who did it and no one probably would ever find out. I don’t want to mix up with it at all. Personally I am not afraid of them, but I don’t want to risk my property by mixing up in this.”

That the stamping out of the order is a gigantic problem is admitted by Chief Hunt, but the names of the men who attempted the lives of Colagero and Salvatore Ghitino Saturday night because Colagero refused to part with $200, have been learned and warrants have been issued charging them with assault in the first degree.

Police Justice William Ryan said yesterday: “I doubt if it will ever be possible to stamp out the “Black Hand” without the co-operation of the Italians with the police. Had Ghitino taken his first letter to the police, the extortionists could easily have been trapped red-handed. The majority of Italians are afraid. They fear if they go to the police someone will stick a knife into them. Also,, they have a habit of settling troubles in their own way. I admitted the Ghitino brothers to bail as witnesses against the ‘Black Hand’ men in any court. I told them to rely on the police.”


Syracuse Journal, July 25, 1910
Every clew (clue) has been followed in the second “Black Hand” case developed in Solvay, but the person who signed the threatening letter “Mano Nera” [Black Hand] has not been located.

The letter was received a week ago by Louis Reale of Gertrude Avenue, instructing him to deposit $500 behind St. Cecilia’s Church at the expiration of six days from the time he received the letter.

Reale took the letter to Chief Hunt, and, acting with the police, complied with the commands in the letter. Friday night Reale left the package at the church. The place was watched, but no one appeared.


Syracuse Post-Standard, December 11, 1911
Vincenzo DiMarco, Alfonso Colli and Vincenzo Falcone, wanted by the Solvay police for an attempt at “Black Hand” extortion in April, 1910, are believed to be among the men sentenced to death last Tuesday at White Plains. They were found guilty of the November 9 murder of Mrs. Mary Hall. They will die in the electric chair the week of January 15.

The news received a few days ago at Solvay by an Italian who knew the men when they lived here clears up what was one of the most difficult and desperate cases that ever confronted the Solvay police.

Vincenzo DiMarco is said to be known at White Plains as Felipo Di Marco, Alfonso Colli as Lorenzo Cali, and Vincenzo Falcone as Vincenzo Corna [?[.

According to the evidence given at their trials, these three and two others went to Croton Lake the night of November 9 to rob a farm house, believing they would get between $3,000 and $5,000. All were sworn to maintain silence if arrested, if but one was caught he was to suffer for the others.

In the attempt at robbery, they murdered Mrs. Hall, wife of a superintendent of the Croton viaduct, which carries water to New York City. Within two days they were arrested.

The Solvay police had been looking for them since April 30, 1910. At that time Colagero and Salvatore Ghitino, brothers who had received several “Black Hand” letters demanding money, ere induced by DiMarco, Colli and Falcone, whom the brothers regarded as friends, to take a walk in the evening.

Near the St. Cecilia Church, West Woods Road and Second Street, a lonely spot, a knife was drawn on Colagero Ghitino and, pulling guns, the five men fought a desperate battle for two blocks.

One bullet went through a window of the church while Rev. James F. O’Shea, rector, was hearing confessions. Both the brothers were wounded. Chief of Police Harry Hunt of Solvay search for weeks, but the three men wanted made good their escape. Their whereabouts were unknown until the Solvay Italian received a letter from one of the trio telling of their trouble in Westchester County.

Susan Mascette Brandt was a daughter of Vincent J. "Zinzi" Mascette and Helen Narewski Mascette, both of whom died in 2000. Susan grew up on Hall Avenue and graduated from Solvay High. in 1964. From there she went to Cornell, and then NYU Law School, where she met my classmate and husband, Bill Brandt.

She and her husband practiced law at firms in NYC for a few years, and "I taught at Brooklyn Law School, but I really missed Upstate, so in 1977, we moved to Rochester (Pittsford, actually).  I taught for a bit at S. U. Law School, then joined the Rochester firm of Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP, where I became a partner and did mergers and acquisitions for about 25 years. We also raised 2 wonderful sons. I retired in 2002, and in 2007 we moved to suburban Boston to take on the jobs of Grandma and PopPop." 

Her father, "Zinzi" Mascette, a World War 2 veteran, was the eldest of four brothers. He also had two sisters, Rose (Monti) and Dolores (Nicolini). His brothers — Paul, Leonard and Mike — also served in World War 2. Leonard (nicknamed "Luna") was killed in action in the Huertgen Forest in November, 1944, having won the silver star, bronze star and Purple Heart. Paul Mascette had one of the all-time great nicknames — "Bumbalooch."

Wrote Susan:

"Zinzi worked year-round at the State Fair, and retired after 35 years as Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. Hundreds and hundreds of Solvay's and Syracuse's future doctors, lawyers and priests spent their summers working for Zinzi collecting garbage and sweeping the streets of the Fair."

(Among the work crew during the summer of 1954: Jack Major and Tom Smolinski. We wound up in different professions, but swept the same streets. We also cleaned the stables and picked up pebbles on the mile-long oval track used for the annual 100-mile race for Indianapolis 500-style cars.) 

"Zinzi was also a minor league professional hockey player (with Bill Galante, Harmon Tarolli and Pepe Miguel; they were known as the Solvay Line) for the Clinton Comets, the New York Rangers' farm team, and he was an American Hockey League and NCAA referee for decades."

Referring to a location mentioned in the first story on this page, Susan said:

"I have Polack Hill roots as well!  There were three Grabowski sisters who came from The Old Country together (I'm not sure if they came with or without their parents).  One married a Zamojski and lived on the corner of Gertrude Ave and 3rd St.  One married a Kosakowski, and they lived on 1st or 2nd St. between Gertrude and Woods Rd. The third was my grandmother, Francesca, who married my grandfather, Jan Narewski, a merchant seaman who jumped ship in Baltimore.

"They lived on Gertrude Avenue (probably with the Zamojskis) for a bit until he bought a hardscrabble farm in Baldwinsville, where my mother was born (on Smoky Hollow Road — what a great name!).  They had a very tough life, and my poor grandmother died before she was 30 in Marcy State Hospital."  

For more on Solvay way back when, check out
the Solvay-Geddes Historical Society