The Barrel Mystery the room felt like the bottom of a grave. it was damp, low ceilinged, windowless, and—on this raw—boned New York night—as chilly and unwelcoming as a policeman’s stare.
Outside, on Prince Street in the heart of Little Italy, a fine drizzle slanted down to puddle amid the piles of rotting garbage strewn along the edges of the road, leaving the cobbles treacherous and greasy. Inside, beneath a billboard advertising lager beer, a featureless, cheap workingmen’s saloon stretched deep into the bowels of a dingy tenement. At this late hour—it was past three on the morning of April 14, 1903—the tavern was shuttered up and silent. But in the shadows at the far end of the bar there stood a rough—hewn, tightly closed door. And in the room behind that door, Benedetto Madonia sat eating his last supper.
The place was advertised as a spaghetti restaurant, but it was in truth an eating house of the most basic sort. An old stove squatted against one wall, belching fumes. Musty strings of garlic dangled from the walls, mingling their odor with the smell of boiling vegetables. The remaining fittings consisted of several rough, low tables, a handful of ancient chairs, and a rusting iron sink that jutted from a corner of the room. Gas lamps spewed out mustard light, and the naked floorboards had been scattered with cedar sawdust, which, at the end of a busy day, coagulated in a thick mix of spit, onion skins, and the butts of dark Italian cigars.
Madonia dug hungrily into a stew of beans, beets, and potatoes, hearty peasant food from his home province of Palermo. He was a powerfully built man of average height, handsome after the fashion of the time, with a high forehead, chestnut eyes, and a wave of thick brown hair. A large mustache, carefully waxed until it tapered to points, offset the sharp slash of his Roman nose. He dressed better than most workingmen, wearing a suit, high collar, tie, and well—soled shoes—all signs of some prosperity. Exactly how he earned his money, though, was scarcely obvious. If asked, Madonia claimed to be a stonemason. But even a casual observer could see that this was a man unused to manual labor. His forty—three—year—old body had begun to sag, and his soft hands—neatly manicured—bore no trace of an artisan’s calluses.
After a while the solitary diner, sated, thrust his bowl aside and glanced across the room to where a handful of companions lounged against one wall. Like him, they spoke Sicilian—a dialect so rich in words drawn from Spanish, Greek, and Arabic that it was scarcely intelligible, even to other Italians—and, like his, the jewelry and the clothes they wore were quite at odds with their supposed professions: laborer, farmer, clothes presser. Yet there was no mistaking the fact that Madonia was an outsider here. Immigrants though all those in the restaurant were, the others had become New Yorkers and now felt quite at home amid the teeming streets of the Italian colony. Madonia, on the other hand, had first come to Manhattan just a week ago and did not know the city. He found it disconcerting that he required an escort to find his way round Little Italy. Worse, he was growing increasingly alarmed at the way these men he barely knew muttered together in low voices, and spoke so elliptically that he could not grasp the meaning of their words.
Madonia had little chance to grapple with this mystery. The Sicilian had barely finished his meal when, with a click that echoed loudly through the room, the solitary door into the restaurant swung open and a second group of men appeared. In the sickly flicker of the gaslight Madonia made out the face of one he knew: Tommaso Petto, an oval—faced hulk of muscle and menace whose broad chest, strong arms, and limited intelligence had won him the nickname of “the Ox.” Behind him, another figure lurked, silhouetted momentarily against one wall of the saloon. It was that of a man of slender build and middling height, his eyes twin drops of jet, like black holes bored into his skull. The newcomer’s face was expressionless and gaunt, his skin rough, his chin and cheeks unshaven. He wore his mustache ragged, like a brigand’s.
The Ox stepped instinctively aside, allowing the slight figure to step into the room. As he did so, a spasm of anxiety ran through the other figures in the restaurant. This was their leader, and they showed him fearful deference. Not one of the half—dozen others present dared to return his gaze directly.
Madonia himself was not immune to the terror that the black—eyed man inspired. The newcomer’s voice, when he spoke, was parched, his gestures undemonstrative and minimal. Above all, there was the disconcerting way he swathed the right side of his body in a voluminous brown shawl. The arm that he kept hidden was, Madonia knew, appallingly deformed. The forearm itself was stunted, no more than half the length of any normal man’s. Worse still, its hand was nothing but a claw. It lacked, from birth, the thumb and first four of its fingers. Only the little finger, useless on its own, remained, like the cruel joke of some uncaring deity. Black eyes’ name was Giuseppe Morello, but his maimed appendage had earned him the nickname “Clutch” or “the Clutch Hand.”
Morello wasted little time on ceremony. A single gesture from his good left hand sufficed; two of the men who had been lounging along the wall jerked up and pinioned Madonia, each seizing an arm as they dragged the diner to his feet. Their prisoner struggled briefly but without effect; grasped none too gently by his wrists and shoulders, he had no chance of escape. To shout out was hopeless; the room was too far from the sidewalk for even a full—blown scream of terror to be audible. Half standing, half supported by his captors, he writhed helplessly as the black—eyed man approached.
Exactly what passed between Madonia and the Clutch Hand is uncertain. There may have been a brief but angry conversation. Most likely the word nemico, enemy, was used. Perhaps Madonia, aware, far too late, of the lethal danger he was in, begged uselessly for mercy. If so, his words had no effect. Another gesture from the black—eyed man and the two associates restraining the prisoner dragged him swiftly across the floor toward the rusty sink. A rough hand seized Madonia by the hair, yanking his head back and exposing his throat. At this, a third man lunged forward wielding a stiletto—a thin—bladed dagger, honed to razor sharpness and some fourteen inches long. A second’s pause, to gauge angle and distance, and the blade was thrust home, sideways on, above the Adam’s apple.
The blow was struck with such brutal strength that it pierced Madonia’s windpipe from front to back and continued on till it struck bone. The men holding the captive felt his frame collapse, limbs rubbery and unresponsive, as the weapon was withdrawn. Using all their strength, they hauled the dying man back to his feet as Petto the Ox stepped up, his own knife in his hand. A single sweeping slash from left to right, so fierce it cut right through Madonia’s thick three-ply linen collar, severed both throat and jugular vein, all but beheading the prisoner.
Shocking though this violence was, it was premeditated. As life left Madonia in gouts, the men gripping his arms forced his head over the sink so that each succeeding pulse of blood drummed against the iron and gurgled down into the drains. The little that escaped fell onto the victim’s clothes or was soaked up by the sawdust underfoot. None reached the floorboards to stain them and leave lasting evidence of the crime.
It took a minute, maybe more, for the awful flow of blood to ebb. As it did, thick fingers reached around Madonia’s gashed neck and tied a square of gunnysack around his throat. The coarse fabric absorbed the dying trickle from the wounds as the corpse was doubled, lifted bodily, and carried to the center of the room. There other hands had dragged a barrel, three feet high, of the sort supplied by wholesalers to New York’s stores. A layer of muck and sawdust, scooped up from the floor, had been spread inside to absorb any remaining blood, and the dead man’s body was forced inside with uncaring savagery.
One arm and a leg projected from the barrel, but that was immaterial; Morello and his men had no interest in concealing the body. Madonia’s corpse was meant to be discovered, and the savage wounds it bore were a deterrent. Still, there was no point in chancing premature detection. An old overcoat, its labels carefully removed, was spread over the protruding limbs and the barrel wrestled and maneuvered back into the saloon and thence through a door that opened onto an alley. A decrepit one-horse covered wagon stood there, waiting in the darkness. Several of the Sicilians combined their strength and heaved their burden onto it; two men, hunched now in heavy cloaks, climbed on. And, with a creak of springs and clop of hooves, Benedetto Madonia embarked upon his final journey.
An hour or so later, shortly after dawn, a cleaning woman by the name of Frances Connors left her apartment on the East Side and set off to the nearest bakery to buy rolls.
Her neighborhood was desperately impoverished. Connors’s tenement stood between a failing livery stable, its business proclaimed in peeling paint, and a collapsing row of billboards buttressed with iron scrap. To her right, as she turned out of her apartment, the East River slopped a tide of stinking effluent against crumbling wharfs. To her left, a warehouse full of cackling poultry leaned hard against a factory. And directly ahead, where East 11th Street met Avenue D, her route to the nearest bakery took her past the scarred exterior of Mallet & Handle’s lumberyard.
Mallet & Handle’s was just as filthy and decrepit as East 11th Street itself. The yard smelled sourly of refuse, and its walls were pocked with unwashed windows swathed protectively in chicken wire. Most days deliveries piled up haphazardly outside, forcing passersby to pick their way through ragged piles of timber. This morning, though, another obstacle blocked Connors’s path. A barrel, covered with an overcoat, sat squarely in the middle of the pavement.
The lights were coming on in nearby tenements and the rain had all but ceased, but it was still too early for the stevedores and sweatshop workers of the neighborhood to be about. No one saw Mrs. Connors chance upon the barrel. No one watched her size up the obstruction, or lift a corner of the cloth to peer inside. They heard the Irishwoman, though. What Connors saw brought a scream to her lips so full of terror that heads came thrusting out of windows up and down the street. The cleaner had exposed the right arm and the left leg of a corpse. And below them, peering out from sawdust dark with blood, a face with a high forehead, chestnut eyes, and thick brown hair. Connors’s cries brought the local watchman running. He, in turn, ran for the police. Patrolman John Winters, who hastened up from his post nearby, pulled away the coat and saw at once that the man in the barrel was dead; his gashed throat and the chalky pallor of his skin were proof of that. Long blasts on the policeman’s whistle brought reinforcements rushing to the scene. One man was sent to phone the men of the Detective Bureau while the others set about examining their find.
It was a horrific job. Everything that Winters touched was sticky with gore; the face and body of the dead man were spattered, the clothes saturated; blood oozed between the barrel’s staves. But there was little to show how the corpse had found its way to East 11th Street. Rain had wiped out traces of the covered wagon’s journey; footprints had dissolved to mud, cart tracks had been obliterated. And though Sergeant Bauer, of the Union Street station house, had passed the lumberyard at 5:15 a.m. and was quite certain that the barrel had not been present then, door-to-door inquiries along both sides of the street failed to reveal a single person who had seen the wagon as it rumbled down the road or had any idea how it could have been unloaded by Mallet & Handle’s without anybody noticing.
Forensic science was still in its infancy in turn-of-the-century Manhattan; fingerprinting, just introduced by Scotland Yard, had yet to be adopted by the New York Police Department (NYPD), and the notion of preserving a crime scene was unheard of. Not bothering to wait for the detectives of the 14th Precinct to appear, Winters prized Madonia’s body from the barrel—a difficult job, as it was wedged firmly inside—and stretched it out amid the puddles to examine it for clues. No effort was made to protect the body from the elements, but the patrolman did observe two details of importance: the coat that had covered the barrel was only slightly wet, despite the drizzle of that night, and the body beneath it remained warm to the touch. Plainly the butchered corpse had been abandoned only recently, and the man himself had not been dead for long.
It was left to Detective Sergeant Arthur Carey to start a systematic search. Carey, the first policeman with experience of murder to reach the spot, tagged the contents of Madonia’s pockets; they consisted of a crucifix, a date stamp, a solitary penny, and several handkerchiefs, one of them, small and drenched with perfume, evidently a woman’s. A watch chain dangled from the corpse’s waistcoat, but the watch was gone; there was no wallet, and no name sewn anywhere into the clothing. Even the labels in the victim’s underwear had been removed. “There was,” the detective conceded, having checked, “not a scrap of information on the body to establish identification.” Carey felt more confident in guessing the dead man’s nationality. The corpse’s looks were clearly Mediterranean. More tellingly, a brief note, written in Italian in a woman’s hand, had been found crumpled in a trouser pocket. Both earlobes had been pierced for earrings, a practice commonplace in Sicily, and the stiletto wounds on Madonia’s neck also looked bloodily familiar. In the course of his career, the detective had examined the victims of several Italian vendettas. Most likely, he concluded, the man had died in one of the murderous feuds common in Little Italy.
Not all of Carey’s colleagues were so certain; in the first hours after the murder, some officers were working on the theory that the dead man might have had his throat cut by a vicious robber or was even the victim of a deranged crime of passion. The possibility that the corpse was Greek or Syrian was also mooted. Most policemen, though, concurred with the sergeant’s swift deductions. There were, after all, dozens of murders every year in the Italian sections of the city, and most were the products of exactly the sort of deadly feuds with which Carey was so familiar. Few cases of this type were ever solved; New York’s police (nearly three-quarters of whom were Irish) did not pretend to understand what went on in Little Italy, and faced with witnesses and suspects who rarely spoke much English and seldom sought to involve the authorities in their disputes, detectives found it almost impossible to solve even incidents in which the murderers’ identities, and the reasons for the killing, were common knowledge in the immigrant community.
It was clear from the outset, though, that this murder would not go uninvestigated. The brutality of the assault, and the unprecedented circumstances of the barrel’s discovery, had all the makings of a great sensation; by the time Carey had concluded his initial examination, at about 6:15 a.m., the sidewalks outside Mallet & Handle’s were already clogged with gawkers who milled about in the hope of glimpsing the now shrouded body. A squad of police reserves, summoned from nearby station houses, had to link arms to keep back a crowd that quickly swelled to several hundred people. The first newspapermen appeared as well, scrawling down their shorthand summaries of what was known about the case. Bloody murder was always front-page news.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The First Family by Mike Dash. Copyright © 2009 by Mike Dash. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.