On Dec. 13, 1933, two days before liquor sales were again to be legal nationwide, the Illinois State Journal tallied up the body count of Prohibition-related murders in Sangamon County.
The newspaper said the total came to 20. However, only 18 deaths were noted in the Journal story, and it’s not clear that all of them were actually related to the illegal liquor business. Some seem to have gotten that label simply because the victims were Italian, and one case reported in the Journal roundup may not have involved foul play at all.
Whatever the correct count, none of the killings were ever solved.
The 18th amendment to the Constitution, which banned the liquor trade, took effect in 1920, but the first local gang murder wasn’t reported until 1923, the Journal said.
“(M)urders came fast and in a majority of cases furious” after that, the article said:
All were marked on the official ledgers as unsolved crimes. Many suspects were questioned by authorities after each killing, but in each case they invariably were turned loose, police saying that the suspected characters “wouldn’t talk.”
Below is the tally of killings, according to the Journal account.:
*Dec. 26, 1923: Sam Feliccia disappears from his East Miller Street home. His body was found in the Sangamon River north of Springfield three months later. He had been stabbed to death and his body weighted in an attempt to hide it in the river. “(U)nderworld rumors had it that Feliccia was killed because he had collected money from bootleggers for protection and failed to offer the necessary protection.”
*May 1, 1925: The body of John Napoli is found in the Sangamon at Riverton. He was brutally beaten and his throat slit. Police suspected the same gang as in the Feliccia murder.
*Dec. 22, 1925: Bert Zumwalt of Chicago, a Chicago & Alton Railroad special agent, is shotgunned to death, apparently because he “had incurred the hatred of a gang of liquor runners.”
“While driving north of the city on Sangamon avenue he was followed by a carload of gunmen. As he started to turn north on the road to Devereaux Heights, the car drew alongside of his machine, and a blast from sawed-off shotguns riddled his car.”
*Feb. 14, 1927: Jasper Aiello is killed on Ninth Street near Miller Street. Three men jumped out of a black sedan, and as two of the men held Aiello’s arms, all three shot him to death. “(I)t was known that elder relatives of Aiello had incurred the enmity of a powerful liquor gang. …”
*Nov. 11, 1927: Frank and Salvatore “Bob” Aiello, uncles of Jasper Aiello, are shot while playing cards in a cafe at the Blue Bird Cafe, 726 E. Jefferson St.
A black touring car with curtains drawn stopped at the door. One man stayed at the wheel. Two others, both masked, entered the cafe. Sawed-off shotguns again were brought into use and the masked men with deadly aim picked out the two brothers. … Other persons seated at the table with the Aiello brothers escaped the gun fire.
Police theorized the murders were the result of an ongoing “St. Louis-Chicago-Springfield bootleggers war.” An uncle of Robert and Frank Aiello had been shot to death in St. Louis the previous day.
*March 25, 1928: A badly decomposed body is retrieved from the Sangamon. The victim’s throat had been cut and the body weighted down with a “large railroad iron.” The victim was never identified, but the style of the killing led authorities to tie it to gang violence.
*April 7, 1928: Another decomposed body is found in the river. The Journal seems to have decided this was a gang crime because the timing and location were similar to the March 25 discovery. In the second case, however, authorities said there were no obvious injuries on the body.
*May 20, 1929: Cesare Sansone is shot to death by men in a car on East Jackson Street. “Sansone was reputed to have been friendly with government prohibition agents” who had raided a number of liquor outlets a few days earlier.
*May 2, 1930: The body of Dominic Tarro, “the erstwhile bootleg king of Benld,” is found in the Sangamon. He had been beaten and shot to death. “Authorities advanced the theory that Tarro was killed because he ‘knew too much,'” the Journal said.
Tarro, who founded the storied Coliseum dance hall in Benld, had been in Springfield to meet his lawyer following his indictment on charges he led a “big business” bootlegging ring headquartered in Macoupin County. Among the firms accused of supplying the bootleggers were Fleischmann Yeast and Corn Products Refining Co.
*July 1930: The bodies of liquor runners Elmer Stover of Rome, Ga., and R.C. Tincher of Terre Haute, Ind., are discovered — Tincher’s near Rochester on July 11 and Stover’s near Edinburg three days later. “It was said they profited by the hijacking trade and for this reason, local gunmen put them out of the way.”
*Nov. 3, 1930: A carload of gunmen fires on an auto driven by George Mann at Ninth Street and Enos Avenue. Mann, a former member of what the Journal called the Springfield police “booze squad,” died two weeks later. Although he told his father he thought he knew who had shot him, Mann never identified the gunmen to police.
Mann had worked as a private detective and also on liquor cases for southern Illinois authorities after being dismissed from the Springfield force in 1927. (The dismissal was for reasons described only as “for the good of the service,” according to earlier Journal coverage.) Authorities said he might have been killed by bootleggers from either Springfield or southern Illinois, but that the slaying also might have been the result of an unconnected private investigation.
*Nov. 22, 1930: The body of an unidentified man, “apparently murdered and taken for a boat ride,” is found in the Sangamon River near the Chinkapin Bridge north of Springfield. Investigators said he had been tortured to death before being thrown into the river.
*Dec. 13, 1931: Tom Saranita and Sam Albrizzi, both of St. Louis, are shot to death and their bodies left along a road north of Glenarm. The two men and their wives had driven to Springfield for a visit. On the way home, the women said, a lone gunman stopped the couples’ car and forced the men into his vehicle. Police tentatively ascribed the killings to a “slot machine war” involving both Springfield and St. Louis, but Saranita also had a record of Prohibition violations in Missouri.
*Dec. 28, 1931: Charles Dawson, “well known local gambler and former bootlegger, (is) shot down in true gangland fashion” near Seventh and Washington streets.
*April 16, 1932: John Picco, Italian consular agent, is shotgunned while walking with his 9-year-old son near Lewis and Monroe streets. Picco had had a checkered business career — an Italian food warehouse at Third and Carpenter streets in which he had an interest was spectacularly blown up in 1922, and investigations after his death revealed irregularities in accounts he handled for many local Italians. His own home also had been bombed twice. “But,” the Journal wrote, “as was the usual case, police brought liquor deals into the case.”
The getaway car, owned by an Alton man, was identified and three men were questioned in the Picco murder. However, the three convinced investigators they had no role in the killing, and they were released the next day.
More information: See Murder-extortion gang, 1932.
Note: The address of the cafe where Frank and Bob Aiello were shot has been corrected.
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