TELL 'EM NOTHIN': The Murder of Joseph Aiello
My fourth-grade twin sons have begun studying Chicago history in their social studies class. They were assigned to write a report on Al Capone, whose story, without question, is bound up in complex ways with the city we call home and the heritage we claim as Italian-Americans. On the cover of one of the books they found at the library is the infamous photograph of the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Bugs Moran's ambushed men are crumpled in front of the wall of the garage on Clark Street, lying in their own black blood. My boys are drawn to the graphic horror of this image. The familiar lure of the gangsters of Chicago is starting to possess their imaginations. I don't like it, but I understand it.
"Which one of our ancestors did Al Capone kill?" my son Peter asks me.
I've been waiting for this. My children know that I am writing something about the family, and somehow also about Al Capone. It's not shameful, exactly, but this project of mine, they must realize, is the stuff of secrets. They have seen my fat file of newspaper clippings, my notepads filled with ink. I have caught them glancing over my shoulder at a paragraph before I could close the lid of the laptop. They've walked into the family room while I am quizzing my grandmother, and they have been shooed away. I am automatically on guard with them, just like my grandmother was when I was a young girl clamoring to hear these stories. The details are too much for them yet, maybe too much for me still. I feel protective of my children, of my forefathers. My sons should learn that there are finer things about being an Italian-American from Chicago. But those aren't the things you cover in social studies in the chapter about our city in the 1930s. You study gangsters.
"Not our ancestor," I correct him. I try to think of how much I should explain. Certainly not all that I know. Not yet.
When my grandmother was 14 years old an infamous gangster was gunned down three blocks from her house on Chicago's west side. The story made the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune on October 24, 1930: JOE AIELLO SLAIN IN AMBUSH.
Joe Aiello, north side alcohol king, partner of George (Bugs) Moran, and public enemy, was killed—riddled with machine gun bullets—at 8:30 last night. He had stepped into a carefully laid trap and was caught in a murderous cross fire (sic) which streamed from two gun nests at Kolmar and West End avenues. This is near the corner of Washington boulevard and Cicero avenue, a mile west of Garfield park.
Thirty-five steel-coated bullets ended the career of Aiello, who has been described as the "toughest gangster in Chicago, and one of the toughest in the country." The same bullets likewise removed one of Al Capone's bitterest foes and one of his two outstanding enemies.
My grandmother, Angela Williams, doesn't remember much about the incident, which happened far enough away that she didn't hear gunfire or squad cars. She does recall that her brother, Mikey, who probably read about the murder in the morning paper, went to see the scene for himself. The curious 17-year-old rode his bicycle through their middle-class neighborhood past handsome brick apartment buildings and tidy bungalows with well-kept yards to 205 N. Kolmar. My grandmother remembers that Mikey wanted to glimpse the home's shattered windows and the bricks pockmarked by the spray of Tommy gun bullets.
But Angie did not share her brother's enthusiasm to witness the bloody scene. The details did not interest her; the people who lived at the address where the murder happened were strangers. Besides, a mafia killing was not something she wanted to explore. My grandmother was sensitive about being Italian-American. Her family name, Williams, had been changed from Guglielmo when her parents came over from Basilicata in southern Italy. It was easier, more American. A petite blonde girl, Angie bristled at comments that she "didn't look like a dago." In Chicago during those years when mafia violence generated a lurid headline every day, Angie felt embarrassed by the stereotype. It seemed to cling to her heritage like a dark shadow. She was defensive; her family wasn't like those gangster Italians. She was a top student at Austin High School. Her parents were honest people, devout Catholics raising eight children of whom Angie was the baby. They had a happy life. To her, this latest murder was commonplace and deplorable, much as gang bloodshed is today on the city's south and west sides. "It was just another bad story," she says, a story she didn't want to know.
At 93 years old, my grandmother is still a compact ball of energy. She's not quite five feet tall, but insists that she used to be taller. She reminds me of a white dwarf star—those small stellar bodies in their final evolutionary stage, still emitting light. Her hair, soft and white, is neatly trimmed, a job she performs herself using scissors and a mirror. Her blue-veined hands are always dry from her kitchen work—kneading dough, rolling meatballs, washing dishes. She scratches at them absently while we talk.
I want to know about Joe Aiello's murder. I want to understand the deeper story it might contain. My grandmother perches on the edge of my green gingham couch. She leans slightly forward in a posture that looks both earnest and uncomfortable. What did she know? What can she remember now? Despite her age, some of her memories are preserved in crystalline detail, like an insect in amber. Others are like a favorite old coat, tattered but patched well enough to remain serviceable.
"Tell me about the night Grandpa proposed to you," I say. My grandmother presses her hands to her stomach, as if to quell the anxiety she felt 65 years earlier. I know already that Joe Aiello's ghost haunts this memory. It overshadows the particulars of a moment that should have been pure romance—where she and my grandfather were, what the weather was like, the words he used to ask for her hand. But my grandmother only remembers two things about Peter Presto's proposal: how much she wanted to be his, and how this longed-for moment came with a confession.
She straightens up on the couch, lowers her chin, and does his voice for me, deep and foreboding: "Ange, before you say ‘yes' there's something I gotta tell you."
Thirteen years after Joe Aiello was gunned down, and before his murder meant anything to her, my grandmother was a young woman working as a switchboard operator at Stein and Elbogan's Jewelers in Chicago. Angie had huge blue eyes, a tiny waist, and size-five feet. Every day, smartly dressed in clothes she designed and sewed herself, she took the Washington Avenue bus downtown to work. It was a good job. Her paycheck was $15 a week, which she gave to her widowed mother to help pay the bills. Angie had beaus in the neighborhood, Irish boys she thought were handsome but who drank too much. "I didn't go for that," she tells me. One of the bosses at the jewelers,' a married man, bought her a pair of red snakeskin shoes. "I felt funny about it," she admits, "but those shoes were the cat's pajamas!" Angie was not to be persuaded by presents, however. She was a straight-laced girl, waiting for the right man to sweep her off her feet.
Peter Presto, my grandfather, was a wiry young man with dark wavy hair. An errant line-drive in a baseball game had broken his nose, lending him a tough-guy look. But he wasn't really that tough. He was so sickly as an infant that his mother, expecting him to die, dressed him in his best linen gown to be photographed as a remembrance. Later, when Peter was 20, he nearly succumbed to an infection that set in after a tonsillectomy. His father Pasquale supposedly threatened the doctor, warning him: my boy dies, you die. Happily, both patient and doctor survived, and Pasquale bought Peter a shiny Packard as a get well gift.
Peter's family had money. His father owned the Roma Macaroni Manufacturing Company (which was eventually bought by Prince, the pasta brand still on grocery store shelves today). His older brothers, Charles and Jimmy, were college boys who worked in Roma's front office. Peter enlisted in the Navy and became a machinist mate. He was learning how to fix airplane engines at Great Lakes Naval Base, north of Chicago, when his courtship with Angie began.
Angie recognized Peter from the neighborhood. She became friendly with his sister Fran, who frequently rode the Washington Avenue bus and talked up her brother to Angie. On their first date, Peter picked up my grandmother not in the slick Packard, but in an old jalopy. "It was a real junker!" she says. "He was testing me, see, to find out if I was after him for his money. But I got in that old car. It had a broken window and everything."
What did she think about his family? The first time my grandfather brought her to his house for Sunday dinner, she distinctly remembers being nervous. "Pete's father was a big shot," she tells me. "I was very apprehensive about meeting him." I ask her what she means by "big shot" and she tells me that she was aware Pasquale was a very successful businessman. "They were loaded," she says. "They had a big, beautiful home with expensive furniture and a grand piano in the parlor. Then we were called into the dining room for dinner. And I'll tell you what really threw me: a black maid came out of the kitchen and served the dinner." That's when she understood that Peter's family was rich. "I wasn't used to being served," she says, explaining how at that moment she felt out of her league.
But it wasn't just her dinner host's success and wealth that characterized him in Angie's mind. By then she had heard ominous rumblings about Pasquale, like his threat to the doctor who had been treating Peter. Whether or not my great-grandfather had really said such a thing, or really meant it, Angie doesn't know. Maybe Peter, in telling her about it, meant it as hyperbole. "Your grandfather was always fooling around, you know," she laughs. Nonetheless, she went to that first dinner with the idea that Pasquale was a man who used intimidation to get his way. "I thought, what he says, goes," she tells me, pounding a fist into her open palm. Before he brought her home, Peter explained what she could expect of his father: although Pasquale might seem tough and gruff, he was really a softhearted man.
Whatever Pasquale might have been, Peter was certainly the love of Angie's life. She waited eagerly for his proposal. But when the moment finally came for him to ask her to marry him, Peter seemed bowed by a heavy weight. It scared her. "So he tells me there is something I should know," she explains, arching her eyebrows. "I thought, ‘Now what?' My heart went into my shoes." She recalls how in that moment her mind raced to all the horrible things he could say next. "What could it be? Was he already married or something? Was he sick?" What was he going to say that could destroy their happiness?
She continues, "He said it was something about the family, that it had been in the papers. And then he told me about the Joe Aiello thing."
Peter revealed that it was his home whose windows had been blown out by machine gun fire on October 23, 1930. His version of the Aiello murder went something like this: Joe Aiello had been his father's friend. They were from the same little town in Sicily: Bagheria. Al Capone had wanted Aiello dead. Knowing he was a marked man, Aiello had come to Pasquale, desperate for a safe refuge. Pasquale hid him in his home for two weeks. It seems my great-grandfather felt that he had no choice but to help a friend in need. Then, as Aiello was trying to sneak out of town, he was murdered.
Peter's admission was not wholly new to my grandmother. His words brought to mind the killing her brother had gone to witness on his bike some thirteen years earlier. There had been talk in the neighborhood. Far from being a horrific revelation, it was an old story that still held no particular interest for her.
"I was relieved," she says to me. "I had been more worried about what he might have said than what he did say." Peter had wanted to unburden himself of the dark secret. My grandmother took this as a sign that he meant their marriage to be based on honesty and trust. It made her happy. Grandma shrugs and looks me in the eye. "I just said to your grandfather, ‘Well, what has that got to do with us?'"
What does the murder of a gangster in 1930 have to do with my family? If Angie Williams had been more inquisitive, more like her brother Mikey—if she had been keener to know the details—perhaps there would have been no family, no me; she might have shied away from marrying into the Prestigiacomo clan. But I doubt that. She is still madly in love with Peter, who died from cancer fifteen years ago and comes to her now in her dreams.
After the war, Peter went to work for Roma and found himself separated from his brothers, toiling in the stockroom with the blue-collar types. He used to tell the story of the day the tailor came to Roma's offices with expensive yardgoods for making suits for the Prestigiacomo men. But after the rest of them had been measured, Peter, waiting his turn, was told that there was not enough material to fit him. Why Pasquale kept his youngest son out of that front office—out of that fine suit—was always a bit of a mystery to Peter, and to me. His brother Charles, an arrogant character, accused his baby brother of having joined the Navy to avoid doing "hard work." Frustrated, Peter soon struck out on his own into the restaurant business, leaving Roma behind.
How much did my grandfather himself know about his father's dealings with men like Joe Aiello? That Aiello was a vicious killer is a matter of record. His name appeared at #7 on the Chicago Crime Commission's first Public Enemy list, published in the Chicago Daily Tribune in the spring of 1930. The authorities considered him a dangerous criminal, and the criminals themselves were out to get him, too; it was Aiello who allegedly offered $35,000 to the chef at the Bella Napoli Café if he would slip prussic acid into Al Capone's minestrone. What exactly was the nature of this hoodlum's connection to my great-grandfather, Pasquale Prestigiacomo?
Before my grandfather's death, my grandmother did not want to talk about these things. She kept this story from my brother and cousins and me as we grew up. We were not even supposed to know—and we were forbidden to say out loud—the name Prestigiacomo. It was legally changed to Presto sometime after the murder, ostensibly to obscure the family's relationship to the incident. My grandfather occasionally entertained us kids with bits of the story, but my grandmother never approved. And it is not something she necessarily wishes to bring to light for its own sake. Time, perhaps, has allowed her to relax her rules. As I press her for details, she seems willing to offer what she can. She enjoys being interviewed, if for no other reason than to talk about her love story with my grandfather, her favorite subject.
For the two weeks that the Prestigiacomo family was secretly playing host to one of the most wanted men in Chicago, my grandfather Peter gave up his own bed to the gangster. In the room he usually shared with his 16-year-old brother Jimmy, Peter, 13, slept on the floor between the twin beds. The night before the murder, my grandfather pretended to sleep as Aiello began whispering with someone in the other bed. It might have been Jimmy, but no one can remember. "Dorme il bambino?" Aiello asked. When the answer came back that yes, the boy was asleep, Aiello complained that things were getting too "hot" in Chicago for him and that he had to get out. He was going to Mexico the next day.
Peter was not home the following evening, October 23, nor was his brother Jimmy. Where they were is unclear. But their little sister Frances, age 8, was present. The Chicago Tribune reported the testimony she gave at the Coroner's inquest held two days later. They published her picture: a small brunette girl in a fur hat, dwarfed by the big table at which she sits, surrounded by a crowd of 10 men in suits with notepads. More men are blocking the doorway, craning their necks to see. They bend down to hear her explain: "Last night, after supper, Mr. Joe told me to call him a cab, and I did. The cab came and Mr. Joe and father went out. I heard some shooting, but I didn't see anything."
The taxi driver, James Ruane, saw a window sash on the second floor of a building across the street slide up as Aiello followed him towards his cab. Then he noticed "a cumbersome looking instrument lifted to the sill." In an instant, the bullets rang past him. He ducked behind the door of his cab, escaping harm. Pasquale made a dash for the safety of the vestibule of his building.
Ruane heard Aiello groan. The mobster had been hit. He started to run. For a brief moment it looked as though he might get away, but, as the paper reported in florid prose, "Chicago's ‘toughest gangster,' dying on his feet, yanked vainly for his pistol. He turned, just for a second, looked toward the concealed gun nest, whence his hidden foes were still spitting the rat-a-tat of death." As he wheeled around the corner to flee through the gangway, a third-story window next door opened; more bullets rained down on Aiello. Police found a total of three machine gun nests in three different buildings; each apartment had been rented out more than a week earlier. Aiello had been trapped, his every possible route of escape considered and covered by patient assassins.
Inside the Prestigiacomo house, Pasquale scrambled to pull his mother-in-law, his wife Concetta, and their daughter Frances around him on the floor while bullets flew overhead. Glass showered down around them, the couch where Jimmy was often found napping was shredded, and the wall opposite the windows in the living room was ripped apart. In the newspaper was a photograph that shows the plaster perforated with bullet holes in a jagged line about hip-high. The family crawled on their bellies to a back room to safety.
Growing up, I heard bits and pieces of this story at my grandfather's kitchen table. I would often sit there with him before he had to go in to work. He and Angie owned a series of "joints," as he called them, in the western suburbs. His final and most successful restaurant was Uncle Pete's Pizza. As a kid I was occasionally invited to accompany him to the shop, where he taught me how to take phone orders using an ingenious diagramming system. I was allowed to deal pepperoni onto the dough circles, and I would watch as my grandfather slid the pies off the wooden pizza peel into the open mouth of the oven. They would land on one of several long shelves that revolved like a slow, fiery Ferris wheel. It was hot in the shop, and he labored long hours. But he was proud of his work.
The Aiello murder was a story he shared with my brother and my cousins and me, but he would only talk when our grandmother was not around to hear. She'd be in the bedrooms cleaning or folding laundry or sewing and we'd be finishing up lunch. "Tell us about Joe Aiello again," one of us would whisper. If he was in a particularly playful mood, my grandfather would oblige us. Sneaking the story was like a game we played together.
My grandfather was especially proud of his cleverness at faking sleep to hear Aiello spill his escape plan. He also liked to narrate the part when the police took Jimmy and him into separate rooms for questioning down at the precinct. "Jimmy was crying like a baby," he would tell us. He liked to dramatize his blubbering older brother for a little comic relief. He would ball up his fists and twist them into his eyes, wailing a silly boo-hoo in a cracking falsetto. We always laughed. But then his thin face would tighten up, and his deep-set, dark eyes would narrow. He'd place his palms flat on the table, lean onto them, and work up the gruff voice he had used that day at the police station: "Shut up, Jimmy. Don't tell 'em nothin'!"
"What did you want Jimmy to be quiet about?" I would ask sometimes, pushing my luck. "Ah, nothin'," he'd say. If I grew too inquisitive, he would disengage from the game. "What did you know? How could your father be friends with such a bad man?" These felt like indelicate questions, disrespectful, and somehow dangerous. I don't think I really expected, or at that time, fully wanted, answers.
And I didn't get many. My grandfather would say he didn't know more. No, his father was not in the mafia, he would insist, laughing off the notion. My great-grandfather, it seems, was just a businessman. He owned Roma Macaroni. He was a good man, trying to help out an old friend in a tight spot.
At some point, my grandmother would storm down the hall into the kitchen, her feet thundering on the linoleum floor. "Pee-yeet!" she'd hiss through clenched teeth. "Don't talk about that stuff with the kids!"
"Oh, Ange," he'd spit back, irritated with her preemption. But that would be the end of it. We knew enough as young teenagers that we were upsetting my grandmother and getting my grandfather in trouble, so we'd let the matter drop. My grandfather would push back his chair from the table and go turn on the Bulls game or wander out into the garage to tinker with his white Riviera and maybe listen to some Frank Sinatra.
The veneer of the Aiello murder shines with drama: it has name-brand, colorful characters; foreshadowing and irony—the whispered escape plans my grandfather overheard; a carefully laid trap; a spectacular firefight; a gruesome murder; a mysterious ending—no one was ever convicted of the crime. These narrative elements must be why we kids were attracted to its telling, and why as a writer I am drawn to it even now. But it always felt to me as though the Aiello murder was only the visible portion of something hidden, something deeper. The bloody incident in 1930 exists at the intersection of public history and private narrative, one I've heard in hints and innuendos all my life. Perhaps it is best left that way: foggy and undecided. After all, the mob is still a living, breathing organization.
We buried my grandfather on a sunny October day at Mount Carmel cemetery in 1995. Sheaves of wheat were draped across his casket to signify his life's work. The Prestigiacomo plot is marked by a large rose marble stone. Pasquale and Concetta are interred there, as are their other children. There are even accommodations for their spouses and the grandkids. My grandfather lies on the periphery, off to the far right. Across the path from the Prestigiacomos rests a better-known Italian-American family: the Capones. "My Jesus, Mercy," is carved on their grave markers. The clans are toe-to-toe for eternity.
Digging into the murder of Joe Aiello leaves me with as many new questions as answers. I have only begun to talk with relatives, to sift through microfiche, to follow different tangents and try to make connections. I wish I could claim that my motive in resurrecting details is to exonerate my great-grandfather. I'd like to prove my grandfather's dutiful assertion that his father was not in the mafia. But that's not reasonable any longer. I've learned too much, found too many holes in the old story.
In an article in the Journal of Law and Economics, Barbara Alexander makes a study of "pasta racketeering" in Depression-Era Chicago from 1931 to 1934, the years immediately following Aiello's murder. Alexander found archived files of a federal investigation into the "Chicago Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturing Club," headquartered at 333 N. Michigan Avenue. All Italian-American macaroni makers in Chicago enjoyed mandatory membership in the "club" and were forced to purchase a "tax" stamp for every box of pasta sold within a 50-mile radius of Chicago. Those who refused to comply "suffered violent repercussions." The archives note two firms from a list of 43 club members as "active participants." One of these was Roma Macaroni Manufacturing Company represented by "Pasquale DiGiacomo." The state's attorney in 1934 was advised to be careful when interviewing club members. The remaining 41 firms' representatives would be afraid to talk if Pasquale or the other boss was in the room. Apparently Angie Williams' first impression of her future father-in-law as a man who used intimidation to get his way was spot on. I wonder how much my grandfather himself really understood about his father.
Newspaper accounts name Pasquale Prestigiacomo, a.k.a. "Patsy Presto," as Aiello's partner in something called the Italo-American Importing Company. Aiello was its president, and Pasquale was acting treasurer and manager. So the men were clearly more than mere friends, as my grandfather characterized their relationship. The Washington Post published an article six days after the murder on October 29, 1930, that sheds light on the nature of the company's dealings: "…the firm did a business of more than $23,000 monthly [more than $310,000 monthly in 2011 dollars] in yeast and sugar alone. Most of this, police said, was distributed to illicit liquor manufacturers."
Part of the national interest in the Aiello murder case as it unfolded derived from the fact that, following the demise of Aiello, my great-grandfather went into hiding. He just disappeared. Why? On October 25, The New York Times reported that
The partner, who had left the home with Aiello but by miracle or design escaped the hail of lead, is Pasquale Prestigiacomo. Patsy Presto, as Prestigiacomo is known, fled after the shooting of his partner and all day today remained in hiding. Some of the official investigators expressed belief that Presto had given information as to Aiello's whereabouts to the Capone gang.
The assassination of Aiello halted a well-organized plot to slay Al Capone and place the Aiello brothers and George (Bugs) Moran in control of all the gangster enterprises in Chicago, police are said to have learned.
The plot had progressed far when one of the conspirators, according to police information, decided it was foredoomed to failure and decided to get on the winning side.
My grandfather never mentioned these details to me, nor did he explain that his father had been booked as an accessory to Aiello's murder (the case seems to have gone to a grand jury but was nulle prossed—effectively dropped—on January 29, 1931). Another Washington Post article on October 25 reported that the police believed they had evidence of Pasquale's complicity with the assassins. A locksmith told them that Pasquale had had his doorbell removed from the front of the house. This made it hard for the taxi driver to determine which apartment had summoned him, "a ruse of the gang to give them plenty of time to prepare for Aiello's emergence from the hiding place." The locksmith's story matches the account the taxi driver gave the Tribune, that "all the name cards were missing and all the door bell buttons had been pulled out." The article calls Patsy Presto "a supposed friend" of Aiello.
Loyalties indeed appear to have been shifting. While Pasquale was still on the lam, police arrested Bugs Moran on separate charges (he was thought to have been harboring a criminal). The Chicago Tribune reported that the cops found Moran in a resort north of the city, in his pajamas, reading the Sunday paper's accounts of the investigation into Aiello's murder. They took the opportunity to question him about his associate's slaying: "What do you know about the murder of Joe Aiello?"
"‘That double-crosser?' Moran inquired. ‘I haven't seen him for eight months. I haven't been in the rackets for four years. I'm a respectable guy.'"
There's a photograph in the Chicago Tribune on October 29 of Pasquale talking to a police lieutenant who is taking notes in a long, skinny pad. The picture accompanies the headline: SLAIN AIELLO'S PARTNER COMES OUT OF HIDING. The article reports that "…the Italian made a detailed statement," and paraphrases Pasquale's declaration that "Aiello was one of his closest friends, and that to intimate that he, Presto, had given Aiello's enemies information whereby they were able to murder him was unthinkable." To look at the photograph, you'd believe him. Pasquale's eyes are large and dark, his expression a muddle of fear, sorrow, and abdication. A piece of hair sticks out from the back of his head, making him seem youthful and slightly disheveled. His shoulders slump. He thumbs the brim of his fedora, which he holds between his knees. My breath caught when I first found this picture; he looks so much like my grandfather Peter.
The article reports Pasquale's account of his unfortunate houseguest:
"Joe came to my home ten days before the shooting," Presto said. "He asked if he could stay there for a week or so, and I, following the custom of our people, bade him welcome. He said nothing about his private affairs or troubles, and I, as a true Italian, never questioned him."
He also explains that he fled after the murder out of fear that he would himself be killed. When I look at the photograph of my deflated great-grandfather and read his words, I want to believe his version of events, or at least to believe this was the truth so far as my grandfather knew it. Or, if Pasquale did give his friend up, perhaps it was because he had little choice. Maybe he was protecting his own family.
I show the article to my mother and grandmother and despite the sad picture, they laugh. "He would never have talked like that, with those words," my grandmother asserts, waving her arm with a flick of the wrist as if to brush them aside. His words do sound put-on to me, too proper for a man whose tongue preferred Italian. But they do make a good story.
Eighty years later, how can I know with any certainty what is fiction and what is truth? I stare at Pasquale's eyes and wonder what they saw. This photograph haunts me. I see that long, skinny pad in the lieutenant's hand. Questions about loyalty and betrayal start to seep through the grainy image into the present as I sit here and write. The men are side by side, nearly touching. The bespectacled lieutenant looks earnest, maybe even sympathetic, as he tilts his head, rests his elbow on his knee for leverage, and turns to face Pasquale, who sits at his left hand. The lieutenant extends the notebook towards my great-grandfather so that it bridges between them, as if to catch any crumb of detail that might fall from his lips. I wonder if he got the story right.
-Gina P. Vozenilek (from Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture)