Messina, Gaspare (1879-1957)

Born Salemi, Sicily, Aug. 7, 1879.
Died June 15, 1957.

Gaspare Messina was one of just two men known to have served as temporary boss of bosses of the American Mafia. He is also distinguished among Mafia leaders by his lack of arrests and apparent competence as a legitimate businessman.

Messina was born August 7, 1879, to Luciano and Gasparina Clemente Messina in the inland western Sicilian town of Salemi, province of Trapani. (The name of Gaspare's father was initially assumed to be Salvatore - the name later given to Gaspare's first-born son. Family historians have since indicated that Gaspare's father was actually Luciano. Breaking with Sicilian tradition, Gaspare's second son was given the name Luciano.) Gaspare moved to the United States when he was twenty-six, shortly after his marriage to Francesca Riggio, twenty-five. The couple sailed from Palermo on Nov. 10, 1905, aboard the S.S. Citta di Napoli and arrived in New York City on Nov. 25. They went to meet Messina's cousin, Francesco Accardi, at 715 Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn.

The Messinas settled in Brooklyn for a time, where Gaspare ran a bakery. They resided at 143 Throop Street, near Flushing Avenue, with two of Francesca's siblings at the time of the 1910 U.S. Census. They remained in the borough through the births of two sons, Salvatore Joseph on Jan. 1, 1911, and Luciano on Jan. 31, 1913. In 1915, the family relocated to Boston. Son Vito Anthony was born in that city on April 27, 1915. Daughter Gasparina Francesca was born there about two years later, on May 4, 1917. The family home was located at 330 North Street, in an Italian immigrant community close to the North End Boston wharves. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Messina was recognized as an underworld authority in his new city, suggesting he was backed by important people.

Mafioso Nick Gentile noted in his memoirs that reigning boss of bosses Salvatore D'Aquila inserted loyal men into Mafia organizations around the country as spies. It is possible that Messina's move to Boston was initiated by D'Aquila. Law enforcement learned by 1919 that Messina was regarded as "rappresentante" of the Boston Mafia. The term "rappresentante" has become synonymous with "boss," but it may have held a different meaning at the time. The Italian word translates to "representative," which does not suggest "boss." The position may have been related to regional and national councils of Mafiosi, as discussed by Gentile. If so, we are left to wonder whether Messina was a representative from the Boston area to a greater council or a representative from a council seeking to impose order on the Boston-area underworld.

Messina initially ran a bakery business across the street from his Boston home. With the arrival of the Prohibition Era, he launched a wholesale grocery at the North End's 28 1/2 Prince Street, across from the massive St. Leonard's Roman Catholic Church. His partners in that business were Paolo Pagnotta and Frank Cucchiara.

Pagnotta quickly disappeared from the partnership following an unfortunate arrest-related appearance in the local newspapers. On Feb. 17, 1925, Boston Police investigated a report of a gunshot-damaged automobile at the Court Garage on Arlington Street. Two officers waited at the garage for the vehicle owner to show up. After a short time, they encountered and arrested Pagnotta, 50, of 462 Saratoga Street; Filippo Arrigo, 47, of 119 Hemenway Street;  Jerry Longobardi, 35, of Fleet Street; and Frank Ferra, 28, of Fleet Street. None of the men could adequately explain the damage to the car. Pagnotta and Arrigo said they were not even present when the damage occurred. Longobardi claimed that occupants of a passing vehicle shot at them without provocation. Longobardi and Ferra were found to have handguns. They were charged with carrying concealed weapons. (Pagnotta may have been related to Rocco Pagnotta of East Boston. Rocco was a suspect in the murder of Francesco Mondello in the summer of 1908. Rocco died in October of 1926.)

Cucchiara, who like Messina was originally from Salemi, continued on in the wholesale business for some time. He later became owner of a cheese company in the North End. Police suspected Cucchiara of involvement in gangland murders late in 1931, and Cucchiara would later be identified as the only New England Mafioso known to have been in attendance at the 1957 convention in Apalachin, New York. (In January of 1976, Cucchiara, then seventy-nine, and his sixty-nine-year-old wife were found dead of gunshot wounds in their Belmont, MA, apartment. Cucchiara's wound appeared to be self-inflicted.)

The wholesale food business apparently paid well. In August 1924, Gaspare Messina took a trip to Italy. He returned Dec. 2 aboard the S.S. Patria with four hundred dollars in his pockets. (With him on this return voyage was Antonino Passannanti, who years earlier had been suspected of involvement in the assassination of New York Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino.) The following year, the Messinas moved across the Charles River to a home at 49 Pennsylvania Avenue in Somerville. By the summer of 1927, Messina also had another address. He had a New York City home at 346 East 21st Street. It was while living at that address that he filed his petition for citizenship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on April 4, 1930.

The move out of Boston to Somerville coincided with a move by boss of bosses D'Aquila from Brooklyn, New York, to the Bronx. D'Aquila had been waging a losing war against Giuseppe "Joe the Boss" Masseria and his Morello-Terranova allies since the early 1920s, and his Bronx move had the look of a retreat. In Boston, Messina had shown some independence from D'Aquila during the period, as he treated warmly visiting anti-D'Aquila Mafioso Nick Gentile. Messina's independence may have won him admiration and a measure of security. Shortly after Messina's return to New York, on Oct. 10, 1928, D'Aquila was shot to death on a Manhattan street less than half a mile from the Messina residence.

War again erupted for the Sicilian underworld society in 1930, as Castellammarese Mafiosi across the country joined with former D'Aquila followers to oppose the rule of new boss of bosses Giuseppe Masseria. As Mafia leaders struggled to find a diplomatic solution to the trouble, Masseria stepped down from his post and Gaspare Messina was selected temporary boss of bosses - apparently in recognition of his even-handedness. Messina organized a large convention at Boston in December 1930 but was unable to resolve the difficulties. The Castellammarese War concluded with Masseria's assassination on April 15, 1931.

As Prohibition drew to a close, Messina set aside his apparently lucrative food wholesaling business and became president of Neptune Oil Corporation, based at T Wharf in Boston. The Messina family returned to its Somerville home.

Messina's wife Francesca died June 22, 1947, in Somerville. Years later, the seventy-three-year-old former Mafia boss traveled back to Sicily for a visit of several months. He sailed from New York on Aug. 9, 1952, aboard the S.S. Conte Biancamino. He returned on the S.S. Saturnia on Dec. 10. (A family historian has suggested that this trip was made not by the subject but by another man with the same name. We note for the record that the traveler had the same name, same age and same U.S. hometown as the subject.)

Messina died in Somerville five months before the ill-fated Apalachin convention.

See also:

  •  Boston City Directory, 1919, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1930, 1933, 1934, 1938, 1941, 1942.
  •  Certificate of Arrival, 2-39510, March 7, 1930, Bureau of Naturalization.
  •  Declaration of Intention, filed U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, Sept. 15, 1916.
  •  Flynn, James P., "La Cosa Nostra," FBI report no. 92-914-58, NARA no. 124-10337-10014, July 1, 1963.
  •  List of In-Bound Passengers, S.S. Saturnia, departed Palermo on Nov. 29, 1952, arrived New York City on Dec. 10, 1952.
  •  List of Outward-Bound Passengers, S.S. Conte Bianamano, departed New York City on Aug. 9, 1952, bound for Palermo, Sicily.
  •  Massachusetts Vital Records, Index to Deaths 1946-1950 Kettles-Mulvehill, Volume 109, Boston: Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
  •  Massachusetts Vital Records, Index to Deaths 1956-1960 Kimel-Morandis, Volume 121, Boston: Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
  • Messina, Michael, Letter to Thomas Hunt, Oct. 21, 2017.
  •  Passenger manifest of S.S. Citta di Napoli arrived New York City Nov. 25, 1905.
  •  Passenger manifest of S.S. Patria departed Palermo on Nov. 20, 1924, arrived New York City on Dec. 2, 1924.
  •  Petition for Citizenship, no. 167233, filed U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York on April 4, 1930.
  •  SAC Boston, "La Cosa Nostra AR-Conspiracy," FBI Memorandum, file no. 92-6054-2516, NARA no. 124-10302-10009, Feb. 19, 1969.
  •  Somerville MA City Directory, 1927, 1939.
  •  Somerville City Directory, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929-1930, 1934, 1940.
  •  United States Census of 1910, New York State, Kings County, Ward 21, Enumeration District 504.
  •  United States Census of 1920, Massachusetts, Suffolk County, City of Boston, Precinct 1, Ward 5.
  •  United States Census of 1930, Massachusetts, Middlesex County, City of Somerville, Ward 1, Enumeration District 9-410.
  •  World War I Draft Registration, Sept. 12, 1918, Boston, MA.
  •  World War II Draft Registration, serial no. U-728.
  •  "Seize four in garage on Arlington St," Boston Daily Globe, Feb. 17, 1925, p. 14.
  •  "Three slay man in street and flee," New York Times, Oct. 11, 1928.
  •  "Racket chief slain by gangster gunfire," New York Times, April 16, 1931, p. 1.
  •  "Police mystified in slaying of 'Boss,'" New York Times, April 17, 1931, p. 17.
  •  Bonanno, Joseph, with Sergio Lalli, A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983
  •  Gentile, Nick, Vita di Capomafia, Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1963.
  •  Valachi, Joseph, The Real Thing - Second Government: The Expose and Inside Doings of Cosa Nostra, unpublished manuscript, Joseph Valachi Personal Papers, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 1964.