Conti, Gregorio (1874-1919)

Born Comitini, Sicily, March 17, 1874.
Killed Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 1919.

Downtown Pittsburgh's earliest documented Mafia boss, Gregorio Conti was a duplicitous underworld leader and an unscrupulous businessman. His treachery appears to have been repaid through his assassination at the dawn of the U.S. Prohibition Era.

Conti's native town of Comitini was engaged in sulfur mining and in the farming of grapes, olives and citrus at the time of his birth to Giacomo and Gesua Terrana Conti. Gregorio Conti may have learned about wines and distilled spirits as a young man in Sicily. He appears to have run his own business before deciding to follow his brother - Dr. Gaetano Conti - across the Atlantic.

Gregorio Conti sailed from Palermo on Sept. 17, 1907, and arrived in New York harbor on Oct. 3. He left behind in Sicily his wife and their two young children. He was accompanied on the voyage by fellow Comitinesi Giuseppe Cusumano and Vincenzo Terrana. Cusumano was a nephew of Conti and a trained chemist. Terrana, a surgeon, appears to have been a relative of Conti's mother. All three continued on from New York to Pittsburgh, meeting up with Dr. Gaetano Conti at 29 Chatham Street in the heart of the city's central Hill District. (Dr. Conti maintained the same office until his death in 1927.)

Gaetano already was a man of some importance in the community, serving as physician for the Italian consulate at Pittsburgh. In 1909, Dr. Conti was involved in a criminal investigation of the consulate after his signature was found on phony papers documenting the physical incapacitation of Italian immigrants seeking to avoid military service in their native country. Dr. Conti and Vice Consul Natali reported that seals, stamps and other materials of the consul's office had been stolen by a short-term office worker and used to generate the fraudulent documents, which were then sold. One of several suspects in the case accused Dr. Conti of being behind the racket, saying he paid the doctor $70 for a certificate of incapacitation.

Gregorio Conti was naturalized a citizen of the U.S. early in 1913. Later in the year, his wife and their children sailed from Sicily to join him in Pittsburgh. Conti had opened a business, Pittsburgh Wine & Liquors, at 801 Wylie Avenue, a couple doors down from his brother's offices. The Conti family resided in an apartment above the business. Giuseppe Cusumano worked for his uncle.

Conti seems to have attained a leadership position in downtown Pittsburgh's Sicilian underworld organization at about the time that the city's most successful produce merchant, Salvatore "Banana King" Catanzaro was seriously hurt in a stabbing incident. Conti may have assumed leadership of an organization formerly run by Catanzaro. (As Catanzaro recovered in spring 1914, Pittsburgh produce merchants threw him a large party. The guests included a number of names linked with Sicilian organized crime in the region.)

Western Pennsylvania of that period was home to a large number of small Neapolitan, Calabrian and Sicilian criminal organizations. The Sicilian Mafia units were linked through a loose regional network.

Nick Gentile, whose memoirs recounted many events in early U.S. Mafia history, joined Conti in Pittsburgh in 1915. By then, Conti was well established as boss of the Hill District Mafia and was already rubbing many the wrong way. Gentile noted that Conti frequently picked fights with Cusumano (a problem Gentile resolved by sponsoring Cusumano as a Mafioso, entitled to respect), increased his profits by selling fraudulently labeled liquor and secretly cooperated in Neapolitan Camorra extortion of Sicilian residents.

Gentile claims that he initiated a personal war against the once-dominant Camorra that resulted in its complete capitulation to the Sicilian Mafia. By about 1917, Neapolitan and Calabrian gangs had been incorporated into a regional Mafia-dominated network.

In the spring of 1918, Gentile and grocery business partners Samuel DiBella and Orazio Leone (Leone and DiBella were likely related) were convicted of conspiring to defraud their suppliers out of $22,000 in produce. The men filed a legal appeal. Conti pressured successful fruit merchant J.C. Catalano to provide $4,000 bail for Gentile's release. Once out of prison, Gentile left the country to return to Sicily, and Catalano's bail was forfeited. The merchant demanded that Conti personally compensate him for the loss or acquire repayment through Gentile. Conti stalled for time.

J.C. Catalano (left) is photographed with other Pittsburgh
produce merchants in 1916. (Pittsburgh Gazette Times).

The following year, the Wartime Prohibition Act (too late to provide any Great War benefit but intended to remain in effect through demobilization) made the sale, manufacture and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal. That closed Conti's legitimate business. Any continued sale of alcohol would have exposed Conti to enforcement by Justice Department and its Bureau of Investigation.

In September, Conti suddenly decided that he, his family and his fortune would return to Sicily. This decision coincided with rumors that he recently had earned $5,500 by convincing some Italian purchasers from New Castle, PA, that 110 cases of bottled river water was actually 110 cases of whiskey.

Conti and his wife obtained passports on Sept. 12, 1919, stating that they needed to return to Italy immediately to settle Giovanna's family estate. They prepared to travel by train to New York City on Sept. 25 and then take a steamer to Italy in early October.

On the eve of their departure from Pittsburgh, Gregorio Conti was shot four times through the back while sitting in his automobile, at Twenty-first and Smallman Streets, with J.C. Catalano, J.C.'s cousin Philip Catalano and Orazio Leone. Conti was alive but unconscious when police arrived. He was dead upon arrival at St. Francis Hospital. The official cause of death was "shock and hemorrhage due to gunshot wounds through heart (murder)."

Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 24, 1919.
The Catalanos and Leone were apprehended. They admitted they were with Conti but claimed that a small man unknown to them jumped on the vehicle's runningboard, shot Conti and ran off before they could react to prevent it or detain the shooter. Police investigated the claim, though Captain of Detectives Clyde Edeburn doubted that anyone outside of the automobile could have shot Conti through the back of the driver's seat. Edeburn also noted that the murder weapon was recovered and turned out to be a pistol that required time-consuming manual cocking before each shot could be fired.

Conti's immediate successor as underworld boss of downtown Pittsburgh is unknown. Salvatore Calderone, an Apollo-based Mafia elder statesman and head man of the regional Mafia network, probably played a role in managing the organization. The next documented Mafia boss in Pittsburgh was Stefano Monastero.

Sources: 

  • Certificate of Death, Allegheny County Pennsylvania, file no. 88497, registered no. 7570, filed Sept. 26, 1919.
  • Declaration of Intention, no. 13546, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Oct. 15, 1910.
  • Declaration of Intention, no. 13547, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Oct. 15, 1910.
  • Gentile, Nick, with Felice Chilante, Vita di Capomafia, Rome: Crescenzi Allendorf, 1993, p. 51-54, 56-57, 62-67.
  • Naturalization Petition, no 7775, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Nov. 6, 1912.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Argentina, departed Palermo on June 14, arrived New York City on June 28, 1911.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Canada, departed Palermo on Nov. 5, 1913, arrived New York on Nov. 17, 1913.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Carpathia, departed Palermo on Sept. 17, 1907, arrived New York City on Oct. 3, 1907.
  • Passenger manifest of S.S. Ivernia, departed Palermo on April 24, 1912, arrived New York on May 9, 1912.
  • Passport application, no. 117780, U.S. District Court at Pittsburgh PA, Sept. 12, 1919.
  • Passport application, no. 117781, U.S. District Court at Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 12, 1919.
  • Pennsylvania Wills and Probate Records, Allegheny County, Ancestry.com.
  • United States Census of 1920, Pennsylvania, Allegheny County, Ward 8, Enumeration District 444.
  • World War I draft registration card, serial no. 3830, order no. A663, stamped 37-1-21C, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 12, 1918.



  • "Fruit dealer gets damages," Pittsburgh Press, May 5, 1911, p. 3.
  • "Gigantic fraud practiced upon Italian consul," San Francisco Call, Aug. 15, 1909, p. 25.
  • "Italian graft arrests," Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 18, 1909, p. 3.
  • "Many attend banquet; all banana merchants," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, May 8, 1914, p. 2.
  • "Indictments," Pittsburgh Daily Post, Jan. 11, 1917, p. 12.
  • "Court news," Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 24, 1918, p. 14.
  • "Men are convicted for $22,000 fraud," Pittsburgh Press, May 27, 1918, p. 7.
  • "Court news," Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 6, 1918, p. 13.
  • "Police take three suspects in Conti murder," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Sept. 26, 1919, p. 1.
  • "Nation goes dry under wartime act," New York Times, July 1, 1919, p. 1.
  • "Murdered in Auto," Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 24, 1919, p. 1.
  • "Italian is shot to death at Pittsburgh," Harrisburg PA Evening News, Sept. 24, 1919, p. 1.
  • "Wine merchant foully killed," Wilkes Barre Times Leader, Sept. 25, 1919, p. 18.
  • "Three held in Conti murder case," Pittsburgh Post, Sept. 26, 1919, p. 1.
  • "Police weave strong web about Italians held in murder case," Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 26, 1919, p. 34.
  • "Police take three suspects in Conti murder," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Sept. 26, 1919, p. 1.
  • "Bail refused accused trio in Conti case," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Sept. 27, 1919.
  • "Conti murderer now known to detectives," Pittsburgh Press, Sept. 27, 1919, p. 10.
  • "Conti murder suspects held for coroner," Pittsburgh Post, Sept. 28, 1919, p. 12.
  • "Police still lack clue in Conti case," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Sept. 30, 1919, p. 9.
  • "Three men jailed in murder case," Pittsburgh Post, Oct. 3, 1919, p. 2.
  • "Three accused as accessory in Conti case," Pittsburgh Gazette Times, Oct. 3, 1919, p. 12.
  • "3 murder suspects held without bail," Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 3, 1919, p. 29.
  • "Murder suspects are released on bail," Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 5, 1919, p. 10.
  • "In Pennsylvania," Indiana PA Patriot, Oct. 11, 1919, p. 4.
  • "Dr. Gaetano Conti," Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 26, 1927, p. 8.