Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods



In the late 19th and early 20th century, Italian immigrants came to the United States in unprecedented numbers. Of course, Italians were already in America and had been for centuries, but during this era, they fled the Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily by the hundreds of thousands. They settled mostly in Rochester, Buffalo and Albany, but especially in the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan. The tenements in this area and parts of Brooklyn held an astonishing number of people and, for a time, maintained the highest population density anywhere in the world. New York City Police Commissioner McAdoo wrote in 1906: "The density of population in some areas verges on the unbelievable. It is simply impossible to pack human beings into these honeycombs...and then propose to turn them into citizens who respect and obey the law."

As a result, the immigration issue was in the forefront of public concern. The press, which was going through a period of sensationalism unparalleled in American history, reported on the issue in major newspapers nearly every day. Government officials agonized over immigration procedures, gave speeches about it and sought ways to prevent jobs being stolen from "real Americans." This was a common theme repeated many times in the decades to come whenever a different ethnic group came along. There was a natural resentment within the "establishment" that fed upon the fears of an apprehensive public. But the Italians were a proud, industrious people who did not believe in handouts. They were believers in hard work and sacrifice, although their ways were often strange to the Irish and German immigrants who had already been assimilated into the American social fabric. Italians became waiters, butchers, cooks, plumbers, painters and tailors. They swept the streets and sold fruit, cut hair and hauled garbage.

In the vast metropolis of New York City, already one of the biggest cities in the world, and into the surrounding farmlands of Queens, the Bronx and Westchester, Italians joined the building trades. No ethnic group could work as well in masonry as the Italians. They took a stubborn pride in their work and often passed their skills onto their sons and brothers. And they would go anywhere for work, because Italians were accustomed to traveling long distances for little pay in the old country.

So when the overcrowded passenger ship pulled into New York harbor that day in March 1909, and sailed by the Statue of Liberty, the most sacred monument in the world to generations of immigrants, a young man held onto the boat railing and dreamt of his future. Lorenzo Liborio Cali, 24, on the run from Sicilian justice, still feeling the persistent curse of hunger and leaving the miserable vita behind him, stared incredulously at the massive buildings of lower Manhattan. He had never seen anything like it before. New York was huge, modern and rich beyond his wildest dreams. Surely, there had to be a better life in America.

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