Anger festered and grew among the gangs of Italian immigrant workers who were knee-deep in the pits. It was half past 8 Friday morning, and they were in for another backbreaking 12 hours of shoveling, wielding picks and clearing trenches for the city of Geneva’s new sewer lines. Nearby residents awakened to heavy, repetitive thuds, sharp scraping and an occasional shout of profanity in Italian. The late 1800s was a time of rapid growth for cities in upstate New York. Italians working in Geneva were relegated to ghetto living conditions and shunned socially, but tolerated by townsfolk to perform the cheap labor they were unwilling to do.
Suddenly the noise halted. One by one workers armed with picks left the trenches, forcing other gangs, by coercion, to join them. The Geneva Gazette reported the events of that morning in August, 1896. “Mike Sandro, himself a boss, led the 75-man strike against another boss, John West, a man guilty of intimidation and extortion of his workers.” West, a notorious gang boss, demanded payment of a dollar from the men when hired and 50 cents every two weeks, on payday. He sold provisions for twice what he paid and charged workers for the use of tools. The men refused to return to their jobs until West left town.
In his book, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880-1930, Gunther Peck wrote how the 1800s was a time when the demand for a large, cheap labor force to build railroads, canals and sewers was growing. By the 1880s the United States government had made immigration more difficult. One had to provide proof he could secure work before being allowed to enter the country. For this reason, large railroad and canal construction companies preferred to leave the details of supplying immigrant labor to padrones. Under this system, padrones contracted their own countrymen as laborers.
If your destination as one of these immigrants had been Geneva, Raymond Del Papa would have been your padrone. Nicknamed by the mayor “King of Little Italy,” Del Papa owned a hotel, which was used as a dorm for workers, operated a steamship agency, became a notary public and real estate developer, opened a private bank, an employment agency, and a grocery store, providing these services exclusively to Italian laborers. You would have been indentured to Del Papa to pay back your $9 steamship passage to America, lodging upon arrival and any food and supplies needed. Labor wages were low, $6 per week, and the padrone’s fees totaled $3.75. Left with only $2.25 for living expenses, the settling of accounts was bondage.
In 1895, Geneva’s Smith Opera House advertised “The Black Crook,” a 16 tableaux extravaganza in four acts, featuring a quartette of French Quadrille Dancers, offering seats for 50 cents, 75 cents and a dollar. Local high society dandies, wearing tailored $30 suits and $5 shoes, escorted finely attired ladies through the ornate doors. Scenes like this would fuel your desire to keep on, dreaming of you and your wife dressed so richly.
As if the language barrier, slave wages and contractor fees weren’t enough, you would have been tormented by intolerance in the form of bigotry. The Geneva Federation of Trade Unions, in an article in the Geneva Gazette on July 2, 1897, stated, “The fight is against the establishment of a permanent Italian colony in Geneva – the question concerns all citizens.” In their list of complaints, the Gazette cited “their manner of herding together is immodest and degrading and a menace to the health and well-being of the community. They are a quarrelsome, vicious people, and if a large number colonize here, it will necessitate an increase in the police force and consequently an increase in taxes.”
It was requested that “people of Geneva, ignorant of the habits of these Italians, make a visit to Wadsworth Street and to Border City and there make their own investigation.”
The Geneva Gazette, again on July 22, 1898, printed, “Importing cheap Italian labor will be a curse on the community … There is a nest of foul-smelling hovels north of the Lehigh Railroad tracks, in low meadows and in rocky areas.”
As early as 1883 there was mention of the unbearable living conditions these men had to tolerate. In the September 12 issue of the Geneva Courier that year, the Castle Garden superintendent stated, “There are health concerns with over 200 Italians sleeping on the floor in the house on Mulberry Street.”
Desperate for Money
You would have been part of a tough breed, yet there was loyalty in your small, tight community. The meager pay and deplorable living conditions prompted some to commit petty crimes and thievery. Local farmers complained of Italians from the ghetto coming onto their land, stealing hay and vegetables. The September 9, 1898, issue of the Geneva Courier told of one officer who decided to investigate. “On Friday evening at 9 p.m., Officer Allen caught an Italian stuffing hay into a bed tick. His yells alerted 30 Italians. Armed with stilettos, clubs and stones, they circled the officer. Two stabbed the officer as he was running away, but he managed to return the next day to their work car with a gun and backup. He held his gun under the nose of one. Six were arrested and four found guilty of assault, fined $25 and served 80 days in county jail. The other two were discharged.”
Everyone was desperate for money to bring loved ones to America. Card games were a means to an end, but someone had to lose and this led to many a skirmish. As late as 1914, the Geneva Gazette reported how Sam Malcurria and Joe Ponnie fought a stiletto duel in a card game gone bad. They were arraigned before Judge Keyes. Both pled guilty to a charge of assault in the third degree. Sam was fined $150 or 150 days in jail, and Joe $200 or 200 days in jail.
A secret criminal society, The Black Hand extorted money, targeting wealthy Italians by the use of scare tactics. A thundering blast reverberated through the town around 11 p.m. on May 20, 1908. The May 27, 1908, issue of the Geneva Daily Times told how 16 Elm Street, the home of a prominent fruit wholesaler, Phillip Lanasa, was dynamited. He failed to heed the money demands made in a letter, sent with a dagger and body parts crudely drawn on it and signed with the mark of a black hand. No one was hurt, but the explosion tore the piazza from the house.
Before entering the ghetto, or what would soon be known as “Little Italy,” you would later tell your grandchildren how you and other workers would have been met by members of the Black Hand and made to pay for protection. Chief Kane, the local sheriff, followed them for years and theorized “a red necktie or kerchief worn about the neck is the badge of their order.” Whether this was a large, coherent organization or a small group of local thugs trying to profit illegally has remained a mystery to this day.
Conditions would finally improve when the Sherrill and Torrey Park Land Companies started to develop lots in Little Italy, advertised at a low $200, with $10 down and $1 per week payment. By 1903, you would have purchased one of the 36 new homes in the area and been reunited with your family. With the help of Del Papa’s banking, many would open tailor, confectionary, tobacco and cigar shops. Had you lived to an old age, you would have seen first- and second-generation offspring self-employed in the construction trades as well.
By the late 1950s, education had become more important to young men and women than following in their father and mother’s footsteps. The community now includes professional doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers and building contractors. Many of the original family-owned shops are gone. The past may have dimmed and the old times are no more, but the dreams of the first immigrants echo across fields, along old railways, through time-worn buildings and churches, calling to us, “Remember.”
by Connie Cellucci-Bezanski
Connie Bezanski is a freelance writer and works at a school district in the Finger Lakes region. She moved to the area from Las Vegas, Nevada in 2000. The Geneva Historical Society archives records of Italian immigrants and their history. For more information, visit their website, www.genevahistoricalsociety.com.