What do you think of when hear the words “Italian American”?
Tony Soprano? The Godfather? Mob Wives? Pizza and pasta? Baddabing.
Yes I know. These are the media stereotypes foisted upon us. Unfortunately too many think that is really who we are or all we have ever been.
I for one never watched one episode of The Sopranos; Not one. I thought it was insulting. What do I know; the critics thought it was fabulous television. And “The Godfather” was a great movie. How could you not like it? The family had dinner together. It’s on the list of the best movies ever made.
I lived on Staten Island for years (my family still does) and never met a mob wife. Honest.
Politically we are thought of as a nice safe conservative Catholic ethnic group; a group for which the political left is virtually non-existent notwithstanding that in Italy the left has always played an important role. Our most illustrious sons are the demi-fascists Scalia and Alito.
“Despite their present conservative image, Italian Americans have a vibrant and rich radical past. Italian immigrants, for example, played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century, providing both leadership and mass militancy in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
At the same time, they were able to build vibrant radical communities wherever Italian immigrants settled that replicated the traditions, cultures, and institutions of the old country. They formed their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture that was in stark opposition to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italies) and the individualistic culture of capitalist America. Yet, this radical world has been almost completely forgotten, perhaps deliberately suppressed from both American and Italian-American memory.”
“This radical movement included anarchist and socialist émigrés, immigrants—both educated and self-taught, who often were radicalized in America—and, starting with Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922, anti-Fascist refugees. Contrary to the belief that the radical leadership came from the northern cities of Italy, the most important figures among the sovversivi (as Italian radicals were collectively called), as well as the largest numbers of their adherents, were children of the south.”
And it also included the bomb throwers.
And the most radical of them all was Luigi Galleani, best known for his enthusiastic advocacy of “propaganda of the deed”, i.e. the use of violence to eliminate “tyrants” and “oppressors” and to act as a catalyst for the overthrow of existing government institutions.
From 1914 to 1932, Galleani’s followers in the United States (known as i Galleanisti), carried out a series of bombings and assassination attempts against institutions and persons they viewed as class enemies.
And after Galleani was deported back to Italy in 1919 for subversive activities, his followers carried out the bombing of Wall Street.
Galleani, born in the Piedmont in 1861 to a family of modest means became sympathetic to the ideals of anarchism at an early age. He studied law and soon his left wing activities brought the police; he fled to France at the age of 19. He spent the next twenty years mostly in France, occasionally in Switzerland.
In Switzerland he organized a demonstration of students at the University of Geneva in 1887. The event was held in honor of the Haymarket martyrs of Chicago, who were killed in labor unrest. For this, he was arrested and later deported from Switzerland. Moving back to France, Galleani was deported from that country a few years later.
He returned to Italy, where within a few years he was arrested, convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to five years in prison. Beginning in 1894, when he was 33 years old, he spent more than five years in prison and internal exile, mostly on the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily. On Pantelleria, he met and married Maria, who already had a young son, Salvatore. Luigi and Maria Galleani eventually had four children of their own.
Escaping from Pantelleria in 1900, Galleani fled to Egypt. It had a large Italian expatriate community, and he stayed with fellow anarchists for several months. Notified by the Egyptian authorities that they would soon begin proceedings to extradite him to Italy, Galleani abruptly left Egypt and went to London via ship. He then immigrated to the United States, arriving in 1901. He had yet to advocate outright violence.
Galleani settled in Paterson, New Jersey where he became editor of a newspaper: La Questione Sociale” – which became the leading anarchist paper of the time. He now took a pride in advocating the “propaganda of the deed” – violence against the capitalist oppressors of the working class. He had come to the conclusion that peaceful protest was ineffective and would change nothing. He criticized those left wingers who simply “talked and wrote.” Carlo Tresca, editor of “The Hammer” was anti-caipitalist, anti- Stalinist, anti-fascist and anti-mafia was a favorite target. He was not a bomb thrower.
Galleani was attracted to the Italian community in Barre, Vermont, where immigrants had found work as stonemasons in the area quarries. These laborers formed the bulk of Barre’s socialist and anarchist community. Galleani held forth at local anarchist meetings, assailed “timid” socialists, gave fire-breathing speeches, and continued to write essays and polemical treatises.
Galleani was the founder and editor of the anarchist newsletter Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), which he published and mailed from offices in Barre.
He published the anarchist newsletter for fifteen years until the United States government closed it down under the Sedition Act of 1918. Each issue of Cronaca Sovversiva usually had no more than eight pages. At one point the newsletter claimed 5,000 subscribers. It offered perspectives on a variety of radical topics, including arguments against the existence of God, for free love, and against historical and contemporary state tyranny, as well as overly passive Socialists. It frequently published a list of addresses and personal details of businessmen and others identified as “capitalist spies”, strikebreakers, and assorted “enemies of the people”.
In later issues, Cronaca Sovversiva included a small advertisement for a booklet entitled La Salute è in voi! (Health is in You!), sold for 25 cents and described as a must-have for any proletarian family. The foreword to the booklet, first published in 1905, said it was to remedy the “error” of advocating violence without giving subversives the physical means of destruction.
Health Is In You! was an explicit bomb-making manual, in which Galleani supplied to his readers the chemical formula for making nitroglycerine,
Historians believe that Galleani’s followers began their bombing attacks in 1914. Bombings occurred all over the U.S. In February 1918, U.S. authorities raided the offices of Cronaca Sovversiva, suppressed publication, and arrested its editors. Although a staff member hid the subscription list, officials gained more than 3,000 names and addresses of subscribers from an issue already prepared for mailing.
Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1918 and the deportations began. The law that expanded the list of activities that defined someone as an anarchist and justified deportation. In turn, Galleani and his followers distributed a flyer in February 1919 that said: “Deportation will not stop the storm from reaching these shores. The storm is within and very soon will leap and crash and annihilate you in blood and fire… We will dynamite you!” A series of bombings of prominent businessmen and officials followed, including a bomb at the home of Judge von Moschzisker, who in 1908 had sentenced four Italian anarchists to long prison terms.
The bombings continued culminating in the Wall Street bombing after Galleani had been deported.
At noon on September 16, 1920, a horse drawn buggy loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast- iron slugs exploded across the street from the J.P. Morgan bank headquarters in downtown Manhattan, New York.
The explosion blew out windows for blocks around, killed 38 and injured hundreds of others including J. P. Morgan’s son who reportedly was slightly cut by flying glass.
It completely destroyed the interior of the Morgan Bank. The damage is still visible to this day on the building at 23 Wall. Those responsible were never found, but evidence—in the form of a warning note received at a nearby office building—suggested galleanists.
With the public and the press clamoring for action, U.S. Attorney General Palmer and other government officials began a series of investigations. They used warrantless wiretaps, reviews of subscription records to radical publications, and other measures to investigate thousands of anarchists, communists, and other radicals. With evidence in hand and after agreement with the Immigration Department, the Justice Department arrested thousands in a series of coordinated police actions known as the “Palmer Raids” and deported several hundred of them under the Anarchist Exclusion Act.
Galleani was deported to Italy and died there at age 70 in 1931.
Today it is generally believed that Mario Buda, a Galleanist, built and planted the bomb. He departed for Italy after the blast and died there peacefully in 1963.
His acquaintance with Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti cost them their lives. The galleanists subsequently bombed Judge WebsterThayer’s home forcing him to live the rest of his life under guard at his country club.