Giuseppe “the Clutch Hand” Morello was born on May 2, 1867 in Corleone, Sicily. His biological father, Calogero Morello died when Giuseppe was just five years old. One year later his mother Angelina remarried to Bernardo Terranova, a member of the Corelonesi Mafia in Corleone. The two had three additional sons and two daughters during their marriage. Terranova is partially credited with introducing the Sicilian mafia to the young Morello. In 1892 at the age of twenty-five Morello was forced to immigrate to the United States after becoming a suspect in a murder in Corleone and after his counterfeiting ring had been compromised. Although he was now in the United States the Italian government brought the counterfeiting case to court finding him guilty. In September 1894 he was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to 6 years and 45 days in prison. He would never set foot in Italy again.
Six months after arriving in New York, Morello’s family arrived including his mother, step father, and siblings. Morello and the family worked in New York for approximately a year before moving to Louisiana to look for work. Before leaving Morello founded the 107th st mob. At the time of his departure it was a small time gang that dabbled in racketeering, and minor loansharking. He turned control of the gang to an unknown person and headed to Louisiana with his family. In Louisiana the family worked for a short time planting sugar cane before moving to Texas to work as cotton pickers. They worked for almost four years before bouts with malaria forced them to move back to New York.
When Morello returned he immediately took back control of the 107th st mob and began to expand his territory. On June 11th. 1900, Morello and another member of the 107th. St mob were arrested and accused of selling counterfeit money. Their arrests were the result of a Secret Service investigation where they tracked $5 bills that were being passed to retailers in Brooklyn. Morello was believed to be one of the originators of the bills. However, without a clear connection to the bills, Morello was allowed to walk, and no additional charges were filed. Despite walking free, the Secret Service were determined to put Morello away and although they didn’t have enough evidence to convict, they continued to track Morello hoping to catch him slip.
In 1902 Morello acquired a saloon on 8 Prince St. in Manhattan which became the official meeting place for the gang. From Prince St. Morello launched his empire employing several enforcers whose sole job was to kill anyone Morello requested. Within a ten year period his chief enforcer Ignazio Lupo, is thought to to have murdered sixty people on Morello’s orders. By 1905 Morello had built the largest Italian American mafia in the United States. He was recognized as the boss of bosses, or “capo di tutti capi” by all other rival gangs.
True to their word, the Secret Service caught Morello in a 1909 counterfeiting scheme much like the 1900 plan. He was arrested at his home on November 15th. 1909. While he was detained, the Secret Service searched his home and uncovered six letters written by Morello. Four of the letters were found in his child’s diaper and two were confiscated when Morello tried to pass them off to his son who was standing nearby. Below are a few of these letters:
‘MR. BATAGLIA: ‘Do not think that we are dead. Look out for your face; a veil won’t help you. Now is the occasion to give me five hundred dollars on account of that which you others don’t know respect that from then to now you should have kissed my forehead I have been in your store, friend Donate how you respect him he is an ignorant boob, that I bring you others I hope that all will end that when we are alone they give me no peace as I deserve time lost that brings you will know us neither some other of the Mafia in the future will write in the bank where you must send the money without so many stories otherwise you will pay for it.’
‘DEAR FRIEND : Beware we are sick and tired of writing to you to the appointment you have not come with people of honor. If this time you don’t do what we say it will be your ruination. Send us three hundred dollars with people of honor at eleven o’clock Thursday night. There will be a friend at the corner of 15th Street and Hamilton Ave. He will ask you for the signal. Give me the word and you will give him the money. Beware that if you don’t come to this order we will ruin all your merchandise and attempt your life. Beware of what you do. M. N.’
‘FRIEND: The need obliges us to come to you in order to do us a favor. We request, Sunday night, 7th day, at 12 o’clock you must bring the sum of $1000. Under penalty of death for you and your dears you must come under the new bridge near the Grand Street ferry where you will find the person that wants to know the time. At this word you will give him the money. Beware of what you do and keep your mouth shut…’
This time Morello did not beat the wrap. He and his second in command Ignazio Lupo, were sentenced to a total of 25 years hard labor and within one year of his incarceration Morello lost the position of boss of bosses. The next year Morello was thought to have given the prosecutor information on an unsolved police officer’s murder in exchange for a lighter sentence. Although there is nothing to corroborate this claim, Morello’s sentence was reduced to 15 years.
By this time former Morello crime family capo Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria had gained influence over several gangs and become a powerful force. In the middle 1920’s as Morello was gaining strength, Masseria forcefully took over Morello’s operations in Manhattan and Masseria ally Salvatore D’Aquila took over in Brooklyn.
Although he hadn’t regained enough power to rally against Masseria and D’Aquila, he did have a following of loyal associates from his time as boss. Shortly after losing many of his operations, Morello hired Rocco Valenti to aid in his attempt at a comeback. After failing to kill Masseria two times, Valenti set up a truce meeting between Masseria and Morello. Several of Masseria men showed for the meeting, but neither Masseria or Morello showed. When Valenti tried to escape, he was shot dead by Masseria associate Lucky Luciano. In August 1922, Morello aligned himself with Masseria as his consigliere and Luciano as one of his caporegimes.
With control of New York, Masseria and Morello had fierce competition in a powerful Brooklyn based gang led by Salvatore Maranzano and Joseph Bonanno. The feud turned into the Castellammarese war and lasted from 1929-1931 with Morello leading the conflict as “War Chief”, a position known today as Wartime Consigliere.
On August 15, 1930 shortly after the war began, Morello and a Masseria associate Joseph Perriano were collecting cash from retailers in East Harlem when two men approached. Perriano was shot first, and Morello who was wise in the way of the hit, made an attempt at escape. According to witnesses, he had no place to run and was gunned down on the street.