The unsolved murder of famous anarchist Carlo Tresca
From NY Daily News by Jay Maeder (republished online 8/14/2017, originally June 12, 1998)
The thing about Carlo Tresca was that he looked exactly like what a crazy bomb-throwing radical foreigner was supposed to look like: wild-bearded, wild-eyed, always passionately shaking his fist and thundering away about the oppressed workers. Actually, he was quite a genial fellow, unfailingly polite to the cops who started visiting him regularly in the wake of the 1920 Wall St. explosion. "They are nice boys," he told reporters. "Whenever there is a bomb, they come to me. They ask me what I know, but I never know anything. So we have wine."
He'd been the town revolutionary for four decades, ever since he fled Italy in 1904, an actual practicing political refugee, and the town was really quite fond of the old duck. He'd spent his life on the barricades, striking with the Pennsylvania coal miners and the New Jersey silk workers alongside Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the International Workers of the World in those long-ago times; he'd been beaten and shot at and stabbed and kidnapped; he'd been arrested three dozen times and occasionally sent to prison. It was said of Carlo Tresca that he might well have become the most important man in American labor history, had he ever learned to speak better than rudimentary English. Late in his life he was still publishing an earnestly revolutionary newspaper, railing against class principles, doggedly fighting the battles of labor against capital, the trade union against the state. His job, The New Yorker observed of him, was "fanning volcanoes."
In 1943, Tresca was 68 years old; distinguished elder statesman to some, quaint old pterodactyl to some others, a wild-bearded, wild-eyed, firebrand editor enormously proud of the countless enemies he had made in his stormy life. Investigators had absolutely no idea where to start investigating when, at 9:40 p.m. on Monday the 11th of January, on the corner of Fifth Ave. and 15th St., someone slipped up behind Carlo Tresca and fired a bullet into the back of his head.
Who were cops supposed to arrest? To anyone not fluent in revolutionese, Tresca's politics were impenetrable: He had abandoned all party affiliations in 1907 and marched to his own drums since then, sometimes a Leninist, sometimes a Trotskyite, always a rabid anti-Fascist, a life-long foe of Benito Mussolini, with whom he'd had a storied falling-out when they were young men. "Well, Comrade Tresca, I hope America will make you over into a real revolutionary," Mussolini had sneered at him when he left Italy. "I hope, Comrade Mussolini," Tresca had sneered back,
"That you'll quit posing and learn how to fight." Mussolini had put him on an official death list in 1931. Tresca liked to boast about that.
Meanwhile, he was also a noisy anti-Stalinist, energetically crusading to keep Reds out of the unions, and the Communists all hated him too. Chiefly, Tresca was a formal anarchist, meaning he wanted down with pretty much everything. Everybody in the phone book might have been a suspect.
On the last afternoon of his life, Tresca lunched with novelist John Dos Passos; that evening he went to the Fifth Ave. offices of his twice-monthly newspaper, Il Martello (The Hammer), to meet with fellow members of the Mazzini Society. New York in 1943 was not exactly a hotbed of Italian Fascists, but there were pockets of them, and Tresca felt there to be Fascisti elements in the society that warranted purging. But no one showed up for the meeting except his friend Giuseppe Calabi, and after a while the two of them gave up waiting and went out for a glass of wine.
On the blacked-out wartime avenue, Calabi never got a good look at the gunman, who came out of nowhere and then leaped into a waiting dark sedan and roared away.
Fascists, Communists, who knew? What police had here was a sensational political assassination, a genuine international incident, right here on New York soil.
Cops soon caught a break. Two hours before Tresca died, a petty Brooklyn hoodlum named Carmine Galante had visited his parole officer down on Centre St. to report that he was gainfully employed as a $25-a-week trucker. The parole officer had believed this not for a minute and had dispatched two men to trail Galante as he left. They lost him when he got into a dark sedan. Unable to follow with gasoline rationing in effect, their cars had been taken away from them the state men took down the tag number as Galante disappeared.
And this proved to be the same tag as that on a 1938 Ford found ditched several blocks from the Tresca murder scene. Rounded up, Galante protested that he'd spent the evening at the movies, watching Humphrey Bogart's new "Casablanca." But he couldn't say what the picture was about, and cops had no doubt that here was their shooter.
Plainly, he was just somebody's hired gun. A little jerk like Carmine Galante wouldn't even know what an anarchist was, much less want to assassinate one. But Galante had no comment. District Attorney Frank Hogan threw him into the jug and kept him there for eight months, waiting for him to crack. He never did.
Meanwhile, as the Tresca case itself flickered and went cold, it veered, quite accidentally, into another inquiry altogether. And suddenly, in his death, New York City's pet anarchist took the town straight to the door of one of its most explosive political scandals.
District attorney Hogan had put taps on the telephones of hundreds of persons prominent in the city's Italian-American community. He never turned up a lead to Tresca's killing but late in the summer he recorded a conversation between a city magistrate named Thomas Aurelio, who recently had won nomination to the state Supreme Court bench, and a gentleman named Frank Costello, known by authorities to have a hand in the rackets.
Thanks for everything, Aurelio had said.
It went over perfect, Costello had replied. When I tell you something is in the bag, you can rest assured.
I want to assure you of my loyalty for all you have done, Aurelio said. It's undying.
I know, Costello said.
On Saturday the 28th of August, Hogan gave this transcript to the papers and wondered aloud why such a man as Aurelio would be so grateful to such a man as Costello.
The Carlo Tresca slaying has never been officially solved. It is widely believed that the hit was ordered from Italy by then-in-exile Vito Genovese purely as a favor to Benito Mussolini.
First published on June 12, 1998 as part of the "Big Town" series on old New York. Find more stories about the city's epic history here.