Welcome To The Family:
An introduction to the Scranton area mafia
Scranton was no stranger to Mafia activity in the early 1900’s. Many Italian immigrants had moved into the area, finding work in the mines; as with Italian immigrants elsewhere in the country, these miners often were targets of “Black Hand” extortion attempts. The target would receive an anonymous note demanding money, and threatening violence if they did not comply. Such notes were signed with an image of a Black Hand, hence the name.
Some “home-grown” Black Hand groups sprang up in Scranton on their own, but others were founded by gangsters on the run from New York City. Tomasso Petto, one early Scranton Mafioso, fled a murder charge in New York in 1902 and began engaging in “Black Hand” extortion against miners. While Petto escaped New York law enforcement for the murder charge, he seems to have been caught by other Mafioso; he was found dead in 1905. Santo Caressi, another mob boss and extortionist, may have been responsible. Several other small crime bands were at work in Scranton at this time, jockeying for control of the region.
Then in 1908, one such boss emerged as the boss of Scranton – Santo Volpe, born in Sicily in 1880. Volpe got his foot in the door in 1906 when he married the sister of Stefano LaTorre, head of his own small band; by 1908, Volpe had taken over the family. Throughout his reign, Volpe had a job as president of a Scranton coal company as a cover, but his criminal empire included most of eastern PA’s coal region, including such cities as Wilkes-Barre and Hazelton, and extended into parts of New York State, such as Syracuse and the Catskills. Volpe’s coal company was an effective cover, as the family’s early money came from racketeering in area mines and control over union activity.
Volpe had control of the family throughout the Prohibition years, and like many other Mafioso, was involved in bootlegging, smuggling boatloads of whiskey in from Canada across Lake Erie. The Volpe family also maintained several stills in the area, and also sent “hijackers” to steal shipments of whiskey from other smugglers to distribute themselves. In the late 1920’s, two of Volpe’s ablest underbosses were John Sciandra and Joe “The Barber” Barbara, each also skilled at bootlegging in their own right. In addition, Barbara served as an occasional hit man for Volpe, as well as for other crime families elsewhere in New York State.
In the early 1930’s, Volpe’s family suffered a series of shakeups. The first came in August of 1932 when the body of one John Bazzano was found strangled, stabbed, and stuffed into a sack in the middle of a street in Brooklyn. Bazzano was the crime boss of Pittsburgh, and may have also been responsible for murdering three Pittsburgh area criminals, named Arthur, James and John Volpe, who had tried to overthrow his leadership. The Volpe brothers may have attempted an overthrow of Bazzano's power. While there’s no concrete proof that Santo Volpe was any relation, there’s some evidence he was their cousin. Even if he wasn’t, having control of Pittsburgh certainly would have been sizeable expansion of Volpe’s territory, and Volpe came under heavy suspicion for being involved with the murder.
Barbara also had problems of his own. He had already been arrested in Brooklyn in 1931 for carrying a submachine gun and driving a car that wasn’t actually his; he was released for lack of evidence. He also posted bail for one Tony Morrale, who was arrested in Wyoming, PA for suspected murder (the victim was a bootlegger who'd gasped Morrale's name out as his last words).But in 1932, Barbara was again arrested and extradited from Scranton back to Brooklyn, as a suspect in two unsolved gangland murders. (Accounts say that the only surviving witness was still in the hospital, and after Barbara was extradited to Brooklyn, he paid that witness a visit -- and wouldn't you know it, shortly after Barbara's visit, that witness recanted his statement...)Later that year, one Albert Wichner was found dead in his own car in Scranton. Wichner had been a "hijacker" for the Volpe family -- actually, in today's parlance, he could probably be called a "carjacker"; he would steal competitor's liquor trucks, full of bootlegged or black-market alcohol, and bring them in to the Volpe family for their own distribution.A witness, who police believed had driven the car just prior to the murder, first accused Barbara of the crime; shortly after, he too recanted, saying he couldn't really remember all that well. Police kept at the case, eventually bringing charges against Volpe himself in 1933; that case too fell apart.With the all the fuss from the murder of Albert Winchell, as well as the continued investigation into the murder of John Bazzano, Volpe voluntarily stepped down from power in 1933, turning control of the family to John Sciandra. Sciandra had been active in bootlegging for the family and had also worked in Volpe’s mines. Many believed that Volpe had died, but he was in fact alive; he just stayed out of the public eye, serving as an advisor to the family until his death in the 1950’s.
As for Joe Barbara, he too had chosen to lie low after the Wichner incident, retreating to Endicott, New York, where he took advantage of the repeal of Prohibition to set up a small bottling plant and get a New York State license for beer distribution. He also got a franchise and distribution contract with Canada Dry. But he still kept an eye on things in Pennsylvania throughout Sciandra’s reign in the late 1930’s, keeping in close contact with Angelo Polizzi, another consigliere in the Volpe family. Sciandra was found murdered in 1940, and whether Barbara actually did murder Sciandra or not, he stepped in as the boss of Scranton in 1940. Sciandra actually had little support from Volpe’s family at this point, nor did he have the support of “The Commission,” a sort of underworld U.N. which kept peace among the country’s various crime lords; so Barbara’s assumption of control went uncontested and Sciandra’s murder went largely unexamined. Barbara kept uncontested control of Volpe’s family for nearly 20 years afterward, eventually becoming a prominent enough figure that he was able to coordinate a nationwide meeting of all Cosa Nostra bosses in 1957. He died of natural causes in 1959.