It seems that this humble-looking vegetable was once the centre of attention in the black market and the criminal world. Known for its notorious involvement with the Mafia, its infamy began in the 1920’s with gangster Ciro Terranova “Whitey” also known as the Artichoke King.
In Sicily in the 1870’s, Ciro’s mother Angelina Piazza married Calogero Morello and produced two children, Giuseppe (born 1867 and later known as Peter or ‘The Clutch Hand’) and a daughter Maria. Calogero Morello died in 1872. A year later Angelina married Bernardo Terranova, a member of the Corleone Mafia in Sicily, Italy. Angelina had 6 children to Bernardo; Vincenzo, Nicolo, Rosalie, Ciro, Salvatrice and Lucia.
Ciro Terranova was born in July 1888 in the town of Corleone, Sicily. In 1893, at the age of 5 he moved to New York with his parents, four sisters and two brothers to meet his half-brother Giuseppe Morello, in East Harlem, Manhattan. Giuseppe Morello had arrived six months earlier.
Apparently, Giuseppe escaped Sicily due to a murder suspicion in 1889 for the killing of police official Giovanni Vella. As a young man Giuseppe became a member of the Corleone Mafia commanded by Paolino Streva. By 1889, Morello became Streva’s right-hand man. At the time, local police official Giovanni Vella was preparing to prosecute Streva but was shot down in the street before he could do so.
Witness Anna Di Puma reported seeing Morello in the area when Vella was murdered. Di Puma was also shot down to avoid her testifying in court. Fearing prosecution, Morello left for the United States. His associates in Corleone ‘fixed things’ so a Vella political opponent Francesco Ortonello was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder of Vella.
Not long after arriving in New York, Ciro’s family travelled to Louisiana where his father worked on a sugar cane plantation.
Ciro formed relationships with corrupt law enforcers, bankers, judges and politicians and proved to them that there was an advantage in teaming up with the underworld. He was also one of the first gangsters to get involved with the trade unions, being influential in choosing the presidents and secretaries. Ciro also trafficked in narcotics, and was credited by the authorities with giving cocaine the nickname ‘the white stuff’.
In 1922 Andrew Molera, a landowner in the Salinas Valley, California realised that he could get triple rental money for his land if he encouraged the farmers to grow artichokes instead of sugar beets. He knew the area’s loamy, well-drained soil and ideal weather conditions would allow the globe artichoke to thrive in this environment. He encouraged Italian farmers to grow globe artichokes which were then transported to eager New Yorkers.
Ciro & Saietta worked out of an office near a wholesale meat and produce market. In their hometown in Sicily globe artichokes were considered a delicacy and were highly prized by the locals. Consumers were so enthusiastic to purchase the artichokes that the New York gangsters wanted a piece of the profits.
Ciro earned his nickname ‘The Artichoke King’ when he began his monopoly on the artichoke trade by buying artichokes at $6.00 per crate from California and selling them in New York at 30-40% profit. Ciro’s violent reputation frightened the vegetable sellers from finding alternative buyers. His gang terrorised distributors and producers. They also attacked the artichoke fields hacking down the plants with machetes in the dead of the night to bring fear to uncooperating farmers.
On 18th February 1938 at the age of 49, Ciro Terranova suffered a severe stroke. He died two days later at the Columbus Hospital paralysed and impoverished. Although Ciro was the only of the four brothers to die in a bed, he died in underworld obscurity.The brothers all lie in bare graves in the Queens cemetery in New York.
In 1903, Giuseppe was charged with the barrel murders but was released due to lack of evidence. This involved murdering and dumping dismembered corpses into large wooden barrels which were either thrown into the sea, left in a random street or back alley, or shipped to a non-existent address in another city.
Ciro had now lost his means of making money. In 1937 he lost his luxurious home and entered receivership. He was impoverished and living on borrowed money.
The following year they moved to Bryan, Texas where they worked picking cotton. Two years later in 1896, malaria struck the family so they moved back to New York. Ciro was only 8 years old. Years later they would form the ‘107th Street Mob’ (also known as the powerful Morello Gang).
On 8th May, 1922 Vincent Terranova was gunned down and killed on East 116th Street in Manhattan His brother Giuseppe, Peter ‘the Clutching Hand’ Morello was murdered in his office in August 1930.
1935 would be a turning point in Terranova’s prosperity. He was replaced with other gangsters and his power nearly stripped. His only source of income remaining was the globe artichoke business which would soon be ruined, not by other gangsters, but from the mayor himself! These ‘artichoke wars’ escalated to such a degree that it compelled the New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to take action. He led a successful effort to decriminalise the artichoke trade, attempting to destroy Terranova’s power base.
On 21st December, 1935 La Guardia arrived at the Bronx Terminal Market at the crack of dawn and with a fanfare of trumpets he declared them illegal and implemented a ban on the sale, display or possession of artichokes. The mayor’s announcement was printed in the newspaper the following day. Later when the prices decreased the mayor lifted and ban and admitted that he himself loved the vegetable!
Ciro and his brother Vincent went to school and worked at the family business (a plastering store) in the evenings and weekends. Ciro later worked as a waiter in a restaurant for his half-brother Giuseppe. Their family business also included underworld rackets, such as extortion, loan sharking, Italian lottery, robbery and counterfeiting. The illegally earned money was then legitimised by their legal businesses; stores or restaurants owned by the family. By 1905, Morello had created the largest, most influential Sicilian crime family in New York and was recognised as capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) by U.S. Mafia leaders.
Ignazio Lupo also known as Ignazio Saietta (his mother’s maiden name), but better known as ‘Lupo the Wolf’ began the city’s most successful counterfeiting ring with the powerful Sicilian Mafioso Don Vito Cascio Ferro. They had $5 U.S. bills printed in Sicily and then smuggled them into the country in empty oil cans. He was suspected of at least 60 murders, but he could not be arrested due to lack of proof. Ciro became friends with Saietta then persuaded his sister to marry Saietta. Once Saietta united with the Terranova/Morello clan, they became a threatening underworld power in New York.
In 1909, Morello was finally found guilty of counterfeiting and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Typically, when a mafia boss is sick, killed or imprisoned, a family member will take over the family ‘affairs’. So, when Saietta and Ciro’s brother Giuseppe were sent to prison on counterfeiting charges in 1910, naturally brothers Ciro, Vincent and Nick stood in for them to maintain order in the underworld. They soon rose to be the top gangsters in the Italian Harlem hierarchy running the Morello family.