In Little Italy, mum's the word about mob

In the heyday of the Black Hand in the early twentieth century, residents of Chicago’s Little Italy warily observed a poplar tree that stood at the corner of Taylor and Loomis streets.

Carved into the trunk were the names of neighborhood residents who had refused to submit to the Black Hand’s extortion attempts. Those whose names appeared on the Dead Man’s Tree were not long for the world, says Richard Lindberg, a Chicago author and historian.

One hundred years later, organized crime is once again a hot topic in Chicago, as the most important mob trial in decades unfolds at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop. The Outfit’s reputation still inspires terror -- so much so that the identities of the jurors in the Family Secrets trial are shielded to protect them from threats. But the neighborhoods once ruled by the mob have changed.

Dead Man’s Tree is gone, and with it the Black Hand. Construction of the University of Illinois-Chicago eliminated blocks of housing in the Taylor Street neighborhood and sent many Italian immigrants to the suburbs.

Those who remain don’t necessarily relate to the Outfit’s history in the area.

"I'm not really interested," said Carmen Schiavone, a lifelong resident Little Italy.

No one knows what the Black Hand was, exactly.  Some say it was an organization, the forerunner to Chicago's Italian-style organized crime.  Others say the Black Hand was nothing more than a method of extortion employed by not very organized neighborhood thugs.  A note demanding money would be left at the door of a successful businessman - more often than not an Italian immigrant.  If payment weren't made, the target's name would appear on the tree, and the next thing left at the door would be a bomb.

Police efforts to end the extortion were unsuccessful in large part because people who lived nearby refused to cooperate with any investigation.

"It's a closed-mouth society," said Lindberg.  "Police had no luck when they tried to prosecute the Black Hand.  Nobody knew anything; nobody saw anything."

While the Dead Man’s Tree was unmistakable, public evidence that organized crime was alive and well, things are different today.

"The new Chicago mob has gone so low-profile that experts cannot even agree on who heads it," said author Gus Russo in his 2001 book "The Outfit, the Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America," which details the history of Chicago's organized crime from Al Capone and other prohibition-era gangsters to the mob's current incarnations. 

One speculative head is Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo, 78, who is a co-defendant in the trial.

He is charged in the 1974 slaying of Daniel Seifert, a Bensenville businessman.  Shortly after Seifert agreed to cooperate with federal agents investigating the Chicago Outfit, including Lombardo, he was gunned down in front of his warehouse while his wife and young son watched.

Also on trial are Paul "the Indian" Schiro, 70; Anthony Doyle, 62, a former Chicago police officer; and James Marcello, 65, on trial for his involvement in the murder of Anthony "the Ant" Spilotro, a mob operative based in Las Vegas.  Spilotro, portrayed by Joe Pesci in the 1995 film "Casino," was beaten to death and buried in an Indiana cornfield.

Despite the changes around Taylor Street, the neighborhood still feels Italian. At the west end of Arrigo Park stands a huge statue of Christopher Columbus. And in a city of Cubs and White Sox fans, the baseball player immortalized in bronze on Taylor Street is Joe DiMaggio, an Italian-American -- and a Yankee. Nearby, in the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, the car Mario Andretti drove in the 1970 Indy 500 leans against a wall in the lobby.

Also unchanged is the realization that the less said about the underworld, the better. When residents of this Near West Side neighborhood were asked about the trial and organized crime today, their responses ranged from a flippant, dismissive wave of the hand to cordial, if less than enlightening, conversation.  Most wouldn't speak at all, and no one seemed very interested, let alone knowledgeable.

"I don't know anything about the mob," said Schiavone, an 83-year-old retired homemaker who worked as a bridal consultant at Carson Pirie Scott downtown. 

She had read the news about the mob trial, she said, but she just wasn't interested. 

"I don't know and I don't care.  My mother and father raised seven of us here and we were never affected by [the mob]," she said from the porch of the red brick three-flat on Lexington Avenue where she has lived her whole life.

"My father was never involved; my brothers were never involved, but everybody thinks that because I'm Italian I should know all about the mob."

Paula D'Angelo, who was born in Rome and lives just down the street from Mrs. Schiavone in the home where her husband grew up, dismissed the hype. 

"That's an old, old story that people around here don't like to hear.  This is a very diverse community.  That is an old history that most people don't even know about or want to know about."

The war in Iraq and the upcoming presidential election are more important to her.

“I really don't have time to hear about gangsters," she says.

But for all the hype, not one member of this close-knit and proud community seemed to have the slightest interest.

Nearby, outside the unmarked storefront of a private mens' club, a group of older men sat around the sidewalk talking and smoking cigars.  When asked for their thoughts on the Family Secrets trial, most just laughed.

One, Pete Bartucci, an 81 year-old retired truck driver, was more outspoken than the rest.  "Why are they bothering these guys?  These are the kind of guys, they'll kill you and then they'll go have a cup of coffee," he said, answering his own question.  "But what's true about this neighborhood, we protect them."

One of his friends was less effusive.

"You ain't gonna get nothin' out of nobody," he said. "You can quote me.  But you ain't gonna get no name."

Discuss