Just after dawn on the morning of April 14, 1903 Frances Connors left her apartment on the East Side and headed toward the local bakery. As she approached the intersection of East 11th Street and Avenue D an obstacle blocked her way. Just outside the lumber yard of Mallet and Handle at 743 East 11th sat a barrel with an overcoat thrown over it. Connors lifted the overcoat and what she saw inside the barrel caused her to scream so loudly that the windows up and down 11th seemed to all open at once.
Inside the barrel was the body of a man who had been murdered, probably after being tortured. The New York newspapers at the time were big on playing up grisly crime scenes and this was no exception. The 1903 “Barrel Murder” received a lot of play in the dailies. The identity of the victim was not known.
At the same time, William Flynn, the chief of the New York bureau of the Secret Service was otherwise occupied. Today, we think of the Secret Service as the group charged with protecting the President, but the Service was originally formed as a part of the Treasury department to specifically target the crime of counterfeiting. In the early months of 1903 William Flynn was closing in on a ring of counterfeiters who had been plying their trade with great success. While the barrel murder may have made for sensational reading in the daily newspapers, Flynn was too busy with the huge quantity of bad bank notes in circulation to pay much attention.
With the newspapers all trying to one up each other, publishing a picture of a murdered corpse on the front page was not uncommon. When Flynn saw such a photo of the barrel victim in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, he recognized him as one of the group of counterfeiters he had been tailing. He had been spotted with the group at a saloon at 8 Prince Street. The barrel murder was now Flynn’s concern.
The saloon was owned by the leader of the suspected counterfeiters, one Giuseppe Morello. Known as the “Clutch Hand” because of a deformed right hand Morello had long been the head of a Sicilian counterfeiting ring that had been running Flynn ragged. On April 15 Morello and seven of his colleagues were arrested on counterfeiting charges. The identity of the barrel murder victim was still not known.
After the Morello arrest made the papers, a letter arrived from Sing Sing prison claiming to know the identity of the barrel murder victim. His name was Benedetto Madonia a small time counterfeiter from Buffalo. When police interviewed his family after the murder his wife confessed that he had been a member of a secret Sicilian society, the head of which was Giuseppe Morello.
Flynn now knew he had more than just a counterfeit organization to deal with. Morello was the head of the “Mafia”. Police had suspected the existence of a group that would kill for vengeance and torture anyone who betrayed their organization. While confessing to nothing, the Morello gang put out word that they had been responsible for the barrel murder and that Madonia had been done in because he threatened to rat out the group.
Flynn now knew the rules had changed. Informants who he had called on to testify against the group now clammed up, worried about ending up in a barrel. The group that had started with counterfeiting would now use terror and murder to facilitate their move into prostitution, gambling, narcotics and labour racketeering. The barrel murder of 1903 was the public’s first real glimpse into the world of the “Mafia”. It was meant not just to end the life of someone who displeased the “mob” but to grab the attention of the public, law enforcement and anyone within the syndicate that was thinking of breaking the code.
In the years to come, organized crime’s influence on the city of New York would only get greater. It could be said that Giuseppe Morello, The Clutch Hand, was at the start of it all.