Mafia Death Grip - A Sicilian Family's Escape to Freedom in America
by Nora Sanders
(New Orleans, LA)
My paternal grandparents were both from Alia, Sicily, although they never met on Italian soil. Actually, it's lucky that they met at all, because my grandfather was almost killed from a gunshot wound, courtesy of the Mafia, just a day before their ship sailed to America.
My grandmother was 15 years old when she boarded a ship to America with one of her sisters and a small group of other family members. They were headed to New Orleans via Ellis Island to join family who were already settled and established in New Orleans.
However, my grandfather had no plans to leave Sicily. He was 23 years old; a strong, young man who was trying to make his way in the world, working hard to earn a day's wages to help support his parents and siblings. One fateful day, after working a long, hot, tiring day's work, the man in charge of the work crew that day decided he would keep their wages for himself. My grandfather, being young and strong-willed, stood right up to the man and argued with him about the double-cross. The heated exchange ended with my grandfather punching the man in the face. Unexpectedly, the man pulled a rifle on my grandfather, who had decided it would be wise to beat a hasty retreat. The man aimed and fired the rifle at my grandfather, striking him in the heel of his foot.
Although he was wounded, my grandfather made it home to his family. The man who shot my grandfather, as it turns out, was connected to the Mafia. My grandfather's life was in mortal danger. His mother had heard many stories over the years about men who had been found dead in the hills around their little village, shot to death, and their killers never found or prosecuted.
With the Mafia in control of everything, including the police officials, his terrified mother knew that, in order to save her son's life, she would have to arrange passage for him immediately on a ship to America. My broken-hearted great-grandmother did this knowing that she would probably never see her son again, and she was right. She never laid eyes on him again.
My grandfather was secreted to the ship by his family before it sailed. He boarded by himself, all alone, no family, no friends, and no one waiting in America for his arrival. He must have felt as if his world had come to an abrupt and frightening end. Life as he had known it for 24 years was over.
My grandmother and her family, however, had taken notice of the young man who was traveling all alone. They took pity on him and gathered him under their wing. The women in their group cleaned and bandaged the gunshot wound on his heel day in and day out. During the long voyage to America, when my grandmother was nursing him back to health, romance started to bloom. Since my grandfather had no family in America, my grandmother's family graciously invited him to travel to New Orleans with them, and, of course, he accepted their invitation.
Love continued to bloom and my grandparents were married in 1902 in New Orleans in a Catholic ceremony when my grandmother turned 18 years old. To support themselves, they started a dairy farm. Unlike many people during the Great Depression who didn't have enough to eat, my grandparents had plenty of food from the dairy farm to feed their growing family. They eventually had 10 children; 9 boys and 1 girl. And, of course, they lived happily ever after...