‘Clutch Hand’ Confusion

Mafia Boss of Bosses Giuseppe Morello

There is no more mysterious and confusing figure in American Mafia history than the powerful Giuseppe Morello, who more than once climbed to the pinnacle of the society’s leadership.

While many details of Morello’s life are documented, a number of major puzzles remain. The precise nature of the working relationship between Morello and infamous Black Hander Ignazio Lupo is in doubt. The relationship between Morello and later crime boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria is similarly cloudy. Some historians have also been confused by Morello’s personal family history, by the appearance of a powerful Mafioso named Peter Morello in the Prohibition Era and by tales of an uptown abatoir in which the Morellos allegedly slaughtered their enemies.

I will attempt, as best I can, to resolve these issues here. Some questions will certainly remain, but many can be put behind us. And I believe most of the rest will prove to be inconsequential. For the few stubborn issues that remain both important and unresolved, perhaps drawing attention to them here will help other investigators in their research.

Family History

Historical works often disagree on Morello’s birth date. Many sources point to 1870 as the probable year. But it is important to note that Mafia historians frequently draw information from each other. Eighteen-seventy may have started as someone’s educated guess and through repetition became regarded as fact. David Leon Chandler places Morello’s birth back in 1863 put provides little clue why he has done so.

Giuseppe Morello

Giuseppe Morello

In fact, official documents indicate Morello’s birth date was May 2, 1867. He was born to Calogero and Angela Piazza Morello in the Sicilian town of Corleone. (The town has a rich and colorful history, though it is now more widely known for its impact on the “Godfather” stories.)

A few years after the birth of Morello’s sister Maria, their father died. Angela Piazza later remarried. She and her husband Bernardo Terranova had at least three sons and three daughters.

Some Mafia historians have had some trouble tracking the number of Morello brothers and their ages. Allan May, among others, lists four brothers and two half-brothers. But May stumbles when he counts “Peter” as a blood brother of Giuseppe Morello. Peter was, in fact, the same person as Giuseppe. But more about that later.

Further confusion results from speculation that the Terranova boys were step-brothers rather than half-brothers of Morello.

Birth records from Italy and immigration records in the United States show conclusively that Ciro, Vincenzo and Nicolas Terranova were half-brothers of Morello, as they were also born of Angela Piazza. Vincenzo was born in 1886. Ciro arrived a couple of years later. Nicholas was born in 1890. Morello’s half-sisters were Lucia, Salvatrice and Rosalia.

Nicholas has been a particular problem for historians because he apparently used the Morello surname on business documents. When he was found murdered on a Brooklyn street in 1916, he was in possession of documents identifying him as Nicholas Morello. Police called Ciro Terranova to the scene. In his conversation with authorities, Terranova drew a distinction between Nicholas and his step-brother Giuseppe Morello. But authorities seemed not to pick up on that.

Another bothersome story relates to the deaths of Morello relatives named Antonio. Some sources indicate that Antonio was Morello’s father, shot down after a night of drunken gambling. Others say Antonio was an older brother murdered under similar circumstances. There is no evidence to support either claim. There seems to have been no one in the Morello family named Antonio.

The Morello-Terranova clan family entered the U.S. in spring of 1893. While the rest of his family is noted on the manifest of the S.S. Alsatia, Giuseppe Morello’s name does not appear there. It seems he entered the country under an assumed name.

After an initial landing in New York, they lived for a time in Louisiana and Texas before returning east.