A sugar barrel, a pastry shop, and a body in 1903

New York has had its share of gruesome murders. But this case, kicked off early one morning in April 1903 after a scrub woman discovered a man’s body, was especially disturbing.

The corpse—riddled with 18 stab wounds on the neck and a clean cut across the throat—was found stuffed in a wooden sugar barrel (below) that had been left on East 11th Street near Avenue D.

“He was evidently a foreigner—a Greek or Armenian or Italian, and about 35 years old,” stated the New York Times the next day.

The Times article noted the dead man’s manicured nails and “good garments,” indicating that he was probably fairly prosperous.

It didn’t take long for the police to conclude this was likely a mafia hit.

Detectives went door to door in the “Italian Quarter,” as the Times called the Little Italy neighborhood centered below East Houston Street, asking people to visit a station house and try to identify the man’s face (below). No one could.

Even without an identity, police made quick progress on the case.

Three Secret Service agents in New York City who were surveilling a counterfeiting ring swore they saw the dead man in a butcher’s shop on Stanton Street the night before the barrel was found.

Police arrested eight men who had also been in the butcher’s shop with the man. All were Sicilians armed with revolvers and daggers and suspected counterfeiters, the Times wrote in a second article.

The leader of the counterfeiting group was Giuseppe Morello, an early gangster who used Black Hand extortion to terrorize Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

The sugar barrel itself helped cops figure out where the murder was committed. The barrel and the sawdust inside it matched another one found inside a pastry shop at 226 Elizabeth Street (as it is today, right; in 1903, below).

Morello—known as the “Clutch Hand” for his deformed right hand with only one finger (below)—lived in the tenement above the shop.

While the arrested men were held at Jefferson Market courthouse, the dead man was ID’d, thanks to detective work by Joseph Petrosino, one of the few Italian Americans on the NYPD at the time and an early investigator of Black Hand extortion techniques and the Mafia.

Benedetto Mondania was the man in the barrel. Why he was murdered so brutally wasn’t entirely clear.

“Some say he was a member of the [Morello] gang who wanted out of his lifetime membership, while others say he was the closest relative of a gang member suspected of turning informer,” wrote Andrew Roth in Infamous Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the city went about charging some of the men with murder and preparing for a trial, which proved to be difficult considering the power the arrested men had in Italian neighborhoods.

“There was a forced collection across New York’s Italian communities to pay for the gang’s defense and bail costs,” according to gangrule.com. “Most of the people subpoenaed to be on the jury began to make excuses when they learned of the nature of the trial.”

In the end, the case fell apart because the district attorney’s office didn’t think there was enough evidence or willing witnesses to win a conviction.

It wasn’t the last New York heard from Morello. He was convicted of counterfeiting in 1909 and got 20 years in prison—then was killed in a mafia crime war in 1930.

His crime gang (which evolved into the Genovese family) pioneered the barrel murder style of execution, and Mondania certainly wouldn’t be the last dead man found stuffed into one on New York’s streets.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the Gilded Age city’s most notorious murders.

[Second and third images: the Evening World; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: the Evening World]

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28 Responses to “A sugar barrel, a pastry shop, and a body in 1903”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    So the NYC Coppers solved the case about the sliced ‘n diced gent.
    The looming. lingering, stomach-churn’n question yet is:
    Who turned the Bakery over to the NYC Board of Health for the SAWDUST IN A SUGAR BARREL?

    • Kenny Says:

      “Sawdust in the Sugar Barrel’ was an early Willa Cather Hip Hop record. 🙂

      • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

        Hahahahaaa! As Gore Vidal would say: “What? You don’t know a quote from Tolstoy?”
        (Kenny – you’re now my FAVORITE!) Hahahahahaaaa…

      • Zoe Says:

        Re. “record”
        Perhaps you meant ‘wax cylinder’ Sir?

      • Kenny Says:

        Thanks Audrey ! If memory serves Norman Mailer said it to Dick Cavett. And unfortunately wax cylinders couldn’t stand up to scratching.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Hi Audrey! Apparently sawdust was on all kinds of bar/restaurant floors at the time, so I don’t think anyone reported that to the DOH!

    • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:


      (With food like this, you don’t get a Tapeworm – you get Termites!)

      “The barrel and the sawdust inside it matched another one found inside a pastry shop at 226 Elizabeth Street…”

  3. Zoe Says:

    When I lived on Stanton (pre-gentrification 80s) there was a tiny Italian restaurant nearby w/ the table of *men in suits* in the back (sitting in silence) at every hour. (Not owners/not customers). The place was always empty when I was there w/ my friend — aside from the waitstaff of one & these men & I use to play a *film* in my head of wether I would be taken out if I were a witness to *something*. The food was really good though. That’s what tipped the scale toward staying.

  4. Shayne Davidson Says:


  5. Zoe Says:

    That area around E.11th was an Italian neighbourhood also (Venieros & a few other *amazing* little places remain) in the midst of Klein Deutschland/Little Germany — so I was a bit surprised they looked to Little Italy straight away. But perhaps the police knew who they were looking for. Perhaps there was little of that sort ot criminal activity in the neighbourhood. It’s very sad.

  6. trilby1895 Says:

    Thank you for this article, also to Zoe for his/her comments that feed my boundless fascination with New York City of days gone by.

    • Zoe Says:

      Dear Trilby (love the name & the hat!) I am a *her* 🙂 I just posted on an earlier comment of yours only to look at my email & see your comment here in reference to me made at the same time…

      • trilby1895 Says:

        You’re welcome, Zoe! I, as well, love the hat, name, notion of, era in which it…..You know what I mean. New York City, London, Vienna, Edwardian Age/Gilded Age/Mauve Decade; it all ties in together. All fascinating, enchanting, “never-never land” that I “somehow” missed….although…..

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you Trilby! And I’ve always been intrigued by the mini-Little Italy around East 11th Street that Zoe points out. Russo Brothers is still there, and not far away on East 14th is the Italian Labor Center building:

    • Zoe Says:

      I love that little Italian neighbourhood Ephemeral! Scorcese said he grew up there also (having mentioned going to the local library & theatre there as a child). I lived on E.1rst for years in the 80s & then Stanton St. I am in CT now one hour away & was happy to see that Venieros ships now. Only sadly this dovetailed w/ my discovery that I cannot have gluten — hence no more *stellar* Venieros pastry 😦 Perhaps they can ship me a coffee without too much spillage.

      I’m a bit mental about your blog Ephemeral — I really love it! I’ve been reading it for ages but never commented before the last few days 🙂

    • Zoe Says:

      Ephemeral — I’ve just looked at this link to your earlier post of the Italian Labor Center building. I think this beautiful bas relief stone carving depicts Adam & Eve & the Serpent (Satan) after ‘The Fall’. The crying unconsoled baby must signify *humanity* (us) as the children of Adam & Eve — who must now *suffer* (w/ the troubles of the world) after Adam & Eve disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge. (Etc.!).

      I am a formally trained goldsmith (& prior to that drawing / sculpture / printmaking) AND Orthodox Christian: so I hope that is right! Otherwise I was not paying attention!

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Thanks Zoe, that makes sense to me. I walk by that bas relief all the time and it always captures my attention. It’s understated and not easily seen, and I wonder how many other pedestrians see it and think about the little Italian neighborhood that now barely hangs on. But Venieros is always packed.

  8. Bob_in_MA Says:

    One small point, the Black Hand wasn’t an extortion ring, but just a technique: an anonymous letter making threats and demanding money, often signed with a handprint–not terribly unlike the recent ransomware epidemic (except for the stilettoes. 😉

  9. Newportcarl Says:

    Best article yet and makes the area come alive for me when I walk through.

  10. minihaider Says:

    i am new to wordpress. this is the best article so far i have read!

    • trilby1895 Says:

      Just wait a bit; you will be discovering fascinating bits of information so that when you pass a street corner or building, you’ll be able to imagine what life was like “back then.” Ephemeralnewyork is wonderful reading!

  11. thekeystonegirlblogs Says:

    If you’re down on the East Side and hear a barrel being rolled – get out quick. The Mustachio Petes are coming for you!

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