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Jersey BoyThe Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula
By Adeyinka Makinde
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Adeyinka Makinde
All right reserved.
Francesco Anthony DiPaula entered the world on July 4, 1939. It was the day Lou Gehrig, the baseball maestro diagnosed with the debilitating disease which would eventually bear his name, made his famous farewell speech to the 61,000 fans gathered at Yankee Stadium. To Frankie's Italian immigrant forebears, a child born in the American promised land on the national birthday, would surely be blessed with a multiplication of the breaks they had longed for when they set sail from the Mediterranean ports before the turn of the century. The DiPaola's like the majority of emigrants were of the Mezzogiorno; the southern region which comprised the provinces of Abruzzi, Apulia, Calabria, Campania, Molise and the island of Sicily. The years and decades following the unification of the Italian peninsula in 1871 after the military campaigns of Giuseppe Garibaldi appeared to do little for the fortunes of the south. Its infrastructure remained woefully underdeveloped, and, given the policies of the Italian Parliament, dominated by the interests of the northern region, the situation threatened to persist for an indefinite period. The lack of a system of waterways, for one, meant that there was a scarcity of drinking water and so forced to drink impure imported water, many peasants developed trachoma. The region was subject to all sorts of calamities among which the most debilitating was the spread of disease; many succumbing to frequent cholera and malaria epidemics. In many ways, its populace appeared to be a condemned people whose sufferings garnered little sympathy from northern indigenes who considered themselves to be Alta Italia, the supposed repository of enlightenment and progress, while the south in turn, Italia Bassa, was perceived to be backward and inclined to shiftlessness and criminality.
Frankie's grandfather, Fiore, was the son of Domenico Antonio DiPaola, a Neapolitan native of Dalerno. Fiore was born in October 1877. He was ten years old at the time of the onset of a particularly severe economic depression that would be compounded by a series of natural disasters of rain floods and the volcanic eruptions of Etna and Vesuvius which wiped out many of the outlying villages. It was amid the circumstances of desperate poverty and persistent insecurity that the young man joined the herds seeking a better future by emigrating to America in the middle part of the 1890s. Fiore's older brother, Biagio had arrived a few years earlier in 1891. While Biagio's arrival pre-dated the opening of Ellis Island by a year, Fiore, like millions of Italian's would have glimpsed a sight of the monument to liberty from the decks and holds of the ships which had endured the journey from their homeland to the New World. On disembarking he would have been numbered in the large and noisy registry hall before being put through a series of inspections related to his physical and mental aptitude. This would be followed an inquiry as to his suitability to find work.
Fiore joined his brother in Jersey City across the Hudson River where their sister would live as the wife of one D'Agosta. It would have been an easy decision for a newly arrived immigrant to settle in the vicinity of the economic powerhouse that was New York City. The terminus for a good number of railroads and steamships and the site of the mass production of industrial goods by such companies like Colgate, Chloro, Dixon Ticonderoga and the American Can Company, Jersey City was an urbanized cacophony of noise and smell with factories that belched pungent smoke, of frequent screeches of railcars and the bass horns of barges plying their trade between the city and Manhattan Island.
The America of Fiore DiPaula's day was often an unwelcoming one for Italian immigrants. Already despised in their nativeland, they were lampooned as being 'ignorant', and derided as sly, 'unclean' and criminally disposed. They found themselves on the bottom of the scale and weighted down by the superiority complexes of the past immigrants of Irish and Germans. The tenets of the then prevalent racial theory of 'Nordicism' put the Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germans at the top, and the so-called 'Alpine Mediterranean's' at the bottom. In fact, it was often debated as to whether the darker hued Italians from the south and Sicily ought to be classified as 'White.' Thus the only jobs which tended to be available to those openly belittled as 'dagos','wops', and 'guineas' were of the menial variety; serving as street sweepers, trash and garbage removal as well as in sweatshop factories. It seemed Italians were always fighting for dignity among the slurs which were incessantly hurled at them.
"Taken all in all," wrote one Dr. Napoleone Colajanni in the New York Times of March 1901, "it is true that the knife and the revolver have gained for the Italians an unenviable reputation." But Collajanni went on to bemoan the "disagreeable facts" and the "customary exaggerations" perpetrated by newspapers. Two years later, a Professor S. Marchisio of Brooklyn felt compelled to ink out a letter to the editor of the New York Times asserting that a "large portion of the American press deserves reproof for its maltreatment of Italians in this country." Outlining his case, he alleged "whenever a crime is committed, the slanderous paper instantly proclaims it the work of the Italian. A mutilated body is found in the street -of course the murderer must be one of those bandits who glory in blood, have a genius for counterfeiting (and) make a life study, not of the bible, but of the penal code." Marshisio could not avoid mentioning the notorious events the previous decade in New Orleans when the assassination of a police chief had led to the round up of many Italian males and the subsequent breaching of the prison at which they were held by vigilantes who frog marched eleven of them outside and lynched each one.
In March of 1912, a mass meeting of Italians held in Chicago protested at what they called the "defamation of Italian citizens" by future president Woodrow Wilson, at the time, governor of the state of New Jersey. But while prejudice was a real and undeniable factor in the lives of many Italians, the basis of the stereotype of crimininality bore more than a few grains, if not a cellar full of truth. The Mano Nero or 'Black Hand' notoriously exacted tribute from Italian businesses and labourers in turn of the century New York and were ruthless in the manner in which they dispensed with those who wavered or refused to meet their demands. Such ruthlessness was by no means confined to their community of kinsmen. The 'Black Hand' were brutally decisive in supplanting the Irish gangs who had controlled the New York waterfronts.
Fiore found work doing various labouring jobs to which his physique was suited. He had large, heavy hands and wore size twelve shoes. His strength came in handy when unloading pigs from the freights arriving at the abattoir at which he worked in Secaucus. For much of the 93 years of his life, he never failed to smoke one cigar a day, and in his later years would often sit down with his son, Basil and polish off a bottle of Seagrams. The 1910 census lists Fiore as being a 'labourer' and 'illiterate.' He had, by this time, already begun to raise a family with his wife, Christina. Their brood of five consisted of Anthony (Niney), Frank, Richard, Louise and Ray. This was a daunting task given the circumstances of the day. That year, a study published by the U.S. Immigration Commission revealed that Italian families earned just over $100 less than the $800 considered necessary to support a family unit of a man, woman and three children. Five years later, his home, which had been located on First Street, was recorded as being at Railroad Avenue (now Columbus Drive) in Jersey City.
Basil arrived in 1912 and like Fiore would become a labourer. He was betrothed to Virginia Russo, like him American born of immigrant parents; her family having come from Naples. Virginia is described by her son Bobby as having been "very chattery" and a "happy-go-lucky person" who worked in a hospital as a finance clerk. She was also a do-gooder. If Frankie inherited his aggression from his father, then from Virginia, he inherited a trait for helping others. Often times she would take care of the bills of those who had difficulty in paying their debts. Virginia was a member of the Holy Rosary Society, a Catholic association of Samaritans comprised of volunteers who helped people in need by counseling them and through the power of prayer. Together she and Basil had four children. Angela, the eldest was born in 1936. After her was Frankie. Robert came in 1946 and Joseph in 1948. The family lived first at number 755 Westside Avenue; a kerosene-lit four-roomed family apartment house. In 1953, they moved to 140 Duncan Avenue, a larger eight-roomed apartment house situated right next to a school. It was owned by Fiore. This was a typical arrangement among Italian families from the time they settled in America. They often lived self contained and self sufficient lives in the districts in which they settled and placed a great emphasis on owning homes which they often let to near or distant relations.
In many ways Basil was a distant father. "Of all the ball games that I ever played," reminisces Bobby DePaula, "and I played more ball than anyone in the state of New Jersey, he made it to only one of my games." Basil loved his drink, and indeed for a time would be a bartender before settling for a lifetime as a gravedigger. His daily routine remained unchanged for decades. His morning started at a nearby tavern known as the White Spot from which he traveled the few blocks to his workplace at the Holy Name Cemetery at Westside and Montgomery. After a day of back-breaking chores, he would go back to the White Spot for a few drinks before returning home. Despite his poor eyesight, he was a capable athlete who played a good game of softball and swam formidably. Basil was soft-spoken but apt to lose his temper. He was a man's man who was feared and respected. As would be the case with his son, Basil was not afraid of a fight and is reputed once to have kayoed a professional boxer in a bar room brawl. Occasionally, his ferocious temper flared when Frankie did wrong. Once when young Frankie had upset him, he pinned his son against the bathroom door and threw a punch. Frankie dodged the blow, and Basil's arm went through the door up to his elbow.
Frankie and his siblings grew up in Jersey City's Westside, a close knit environment composed not only of those of Italian lineage but also of immigrants from Ireland and Poland. It was a time when the neighbourhood functioned as an extension of the family unit. A time when everyone knew each other and looked out for each other. At the heart of this was the Roman Catholic Church and the role played by the priests and nuns in the spiritual, social, academic and even sporting life of the community. In fact, while many from Frankie's generation remain resolutely proud of the heritage bequeathed them by Jersey City; as children, their first identification related to the Parishes in which they were born and lived. In Frankie's case, this was St. Aloysius Parish. For Father Frank McNulty, who would serve for nine years in the parish, Jersey City was a "great place" to be a priest.
"There was a lot of family life", he recalls. "The people were down-to-earth and honest." Yet, he readily admits to what he refers to as the "Jekyll and Hyde" culture which was apparent even in the behavior of some youngsters. Like many of the adults, devotion to the rituals of faith and deference to the priests who formed the centre point of their lives did not always equate to the possession of an uncompromising sense of virtuousness. On one occasion while attending a basketball match, he was approached by a youth who offered him a pair of binoculars which had "fallen off a lorry" for $20. He can still remember the young man's facial expression of total bewilderment at the priest's refusal: "It didn't even cross his mind that it was wrong."
Corruption and graft for long have been part of the fabric of life in Jersey City. To understand the mentality of inhabitants like Frankie who grew up in an environment that encouraged you, in the local parlance, to be always 'looking for an angle' and one which engendered a cynical outlook that 'nothing is ever on the level,' one needs to go back to the Jersey City of the early part of the 20th century and the time of Frank Hague, Jersey City's own boss-potentate who at the time of Frankie's birth had reigned for three decades.
No story about the city would be complete without referring to the controversial city mayor cum emperor. Hague reigned for thirty years, from 1917 to 1947. Born in the 'Horseshoe' district of Jersey City which was filled with the ethnic Irish who had been gerrymandered there by the Protestant elite, Hague was a grammar school dropout, who formally entered politics at a meeting in a saloon. He was then a dapperly dressed twenty-one-year-old who had earned some money as a prizefighting promoter. At the saloon, Bob Kearney, a local political boss, urged him to fight a local election against one of Kearney's political rivals. Hague won and never looked back. Reforms to the electoral process inaugurated by Governor Woodrow Wilson and designed to encourage business-type civic leaders instead of the old-style politicos, allowed for the emergence of an all-powerful city boss, which was exactly what Hague became. He became known as Frank 'I-am-the-law' Hague. Where some saw a well-meaning leader who "robbed from the rich to give to the poor;" to others he was the epitome of the American phenomenon of 'bossism;' the all-powerful dictator who lined his pockets and dispensed patronage in a typically self-interested and corrupt manner. But when he had first being appointed mayor, he had taken on vice and the big corporations. And for or all the negatives, Hague was able to use his connections to the Democratic party machinery of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the impetus of the 'New Deal' to build up an infrastructure which included the Jersey City Medical Center'; for a time reputably not merely one of the best, but the best hospital in the world, the Roosevelt Stadium as well as other valuable city amenities.
When the depression years came, Hague, many will argue, "took care of the people." It was arguably a genus of fascistic styled socialism. Hague was not afraid to suppress freedom of speech and used strong arm tactics involving hired goons and the police to stifle dissent from political opponents and trade union leaders. He nobbled juries and corrupted judges to maintain his power. The end result was what became know as "Jersey Justice." When Hague finally gave up office, he installed his nephew as his successor; an act which did not go down well with many. The nephew was eventually displaced. Yet although, Hague was gone, his ghost would remain for years to come with the legacy of corruption.
He was known simply as Frankie for as long as anyone could remember. "I can't remember the last time anybody called me Francis," he told the New York Times's Dave Anderson on the eve of his world title bout with Bob Foster in 1969. "I'll have to think about that. My mother always called me her Frankie. It was never Francis." Frankie was always a precocious child. Where his younger brother Bobby would later act thoughtfully and with tact, Frankie behaved impulsively and without tact, and in fact was prone to dispense with civility and be brutish. Frankie simply did not listen. One particular story told of Frankie as a child serves as an allegory of his future. Basil, who worked for over three decades in his gravedigger's job often warned him to tread carefully around the freshly dug graves when he happened by. Needless to say, one day Frankie fell into one and screamed for his father to let him out. The more he tried to get out, the more dirt fell on him.
But he was tough as nails. When he was ten, an uncle once recalled, Frankie would run as fast as he could before colliding head first against a wall. Then he'd get himself up and repeat the trick. This seeming imperviousness to pain was arguably yet another inheritance from Basil who Bobby DePaula recalls would take care of dental chores by removing his own teeth with a pair of pliers. Frankie was also powerful, and was apt to display such power when he felt wronged. Once he had ridden a horse through Lincoln Park and the beast had rubbed him against a tree. Frankie dismounted the animal and knocked it out with a single punch. His fists were of course mostly deployed in the activity of interhuman fisticuffs and what aided Frankie in his life of street fighting and boxing was a set of large knuckles; an inheritance from his grandfather. Much of his power appeared to be harnessed from the densely formed quadriceps and sturdy thighs which he possessed.
Excerpted from Jersey Boy by Adeyinka Makinde Copyright © 2010 by Adeyinka Makinde. Excerpted by permission.
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