Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Times of the Sicilian Robin Hood

The Mystery of the Massacre at Portella della Ginestra

Throughout the first months of 1947, signs in enormous letters were painted on the walls of nearly every town and village in the Palermo region.  They read:  "Death to the Communists.  Long Live Giuliano, Liberator of Sicily."

Giuliano was an anti-communist not so much by an allegiance to political parties of the right, but more likely for his affinity for all things American, including the emergence of American opposition to the growing threat of the Soviet Union.  It was, in effect, his response to the Cold War that was just beginning.

Surprisingly, the communists did very well in the elections of 1947, despite Giuliano's well-advertised opposition.  There is some evidence that Giuliano intended to either kidnap or assassinate the leader of the Sicilian Communist Party.

Sometime in late April, Giuliano received a letter, unread by others in his bandit band.  After reading it, he gathered his band around him and declared that they were about to engage in an operation that would show the Communists that they had no future in the life of Sicilian politics.  Even though the separatist movement was at a standstill, particularly since the mafia had withdrawn from the movement, Giuliano was still, at heart, a man who intended that Sicily should become a part of the United States.

The contents of the letter are not known.  Giuliano destroyed the letter after reading it.  Who was it from?  Speculation is that it was from the Italian Minister of Security, with instructions to disrupt the May 1 celebration of the Communist Party.  If that is true, then Giuliano was about to become a pawn in an operation that would, if not diminish his popularity, then seriously damage his credibility as the protector of the downtrodden.

Villagers gather for the celebration
Villagers gather for the celebration

In a vale between three villages Portella della Ginestra villagers gathered for a May-Day celebration of the recent Communist advances in Western Sicily.  It was, as was usual on that day, a festive celebration of the Communist ideals.  There would be banners and gaily colored carts and a parade and speeches by Communist dignitaries.

As the crowd gathered, as speeches were about to be made, shots rang out from the surrounding hills.  Seventeen people were killed, and over thirty celebrants were wounded.  Among the dead were children.  It was an ambush of the innocents.

The aftermath of the massacre was condemnation of Giuliano, who later assumed responsibility for the slaughter.  He maintained that the intention was to fire above the heads of the crowd, not to kill the innocent.

People flee the area after the attack
People flee the area after the attack

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