Born in Hell

"For every talent that poverty has stimulated it has blighted a hundred."

-- John W. Gardner

Nobody really noticed, nobody really cared, when Antonia Giancana gave birth to Momo Salvatore on May 24,1908. His first cries were just another discordant squeal in the Patch, an appropriately named area of dilapidated, hand-me-down frame cottages wasting away southwest of Chicago’s Loop. Cries of beaten women, moans of penniless winos, cursing of arguing cumpari took precedence. An area of poverty-plagued Sicilian immigrants who failed to find the fine grapes that American propaganda claimed grew for the picking, the inhabitants carelessly shrugged off their disillusionment to let the life that they found grow tepid around them here in what outsiders called "Little Italy." There were no green pastures, no olive gardens, no vineyards -- just cobblestone and concrete, unsafe by day and worse after dark.

If anyone felt joy at Momo’s birth it was his sister, Lena. A tot herself, she didn’t understand why Papa sat in the kitchen cussing in Italian about "another mouth to feed." Income from his fruit store hardly fed his family now -- what the hell would he do with an infant requiring nourishment? He remained in the darkened kitchen, sipping his cheap vino and watched the sky outside the window turn gray with morning. The sky above the Patch was always gray at dawn and failed to brighten into day.

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Sam Giancana (left) with mother, sister and father
Antonio had been poor in Castelventrano...but he seemed poorer here in Chicago. He yearned to return to the isle of Sicily, now just a dream. And the bitterness tortured his soul until sweet memories dissipated into agonized ones. Momo, to him, embodied his fate and he took every opportunity to lash out at that fate. He blamed Momo for the molded bread they ate; he blamed Momo for the rags they wore; he blamed Momo when his wife died as if the two year old maneuvered his mama’s fate. Even after he remarried -- to Mary Leonardi -- and other children were born -- somehow Momo remained the whipping post.


A slight mistake, an accidental spilling of his milk, would result in a beating with a belt. As the toddler turned into a boy the beatings hardened. Antonio would chain the child to a dead oak tree in their back yard and whelp him blue. Even Mary’s pleas couldn’t stop the punishments. But, the more severe the beatings the more defiant the boy. And the thicker the strap.

The calluses he bore on the surface toughened his life’s outlook at an early age; teachers at Reese Elementary School found his mind closed against their authority, an attitude born on an oak tree. In 1918, the boy was expelled from Reese and charged to suburban St. Charles Reformatory where the disciplinarians found him equally unmanageable. Deserting six months later, Momo returned to Little Italy, but didn’t return to the Giancana home. He spent his adolescence in gutters, abandoned basements, beneath fire-escapes and under whatever kept the cold Chicago rain off his head.

But, his greatest refuge came in the company of the 42 Gang. When the Irish that used to live in the Patch evacuated it to escape the influx of "those greaseball dagos," they left in their wake the "mick" cops who angered at seeing familiar neighborhood shingles like O’Brien’s change to Sottasanto’s. Every chance they had they would roust the "wop" kids with billy clubs. Soon, the Sicilians realized that if they hoped to survive they would have to fight back -- or stay off the streets. For self-protection, gangs of young Italian toughs formed throughout Little Italy, taking to the night streets to taunt the flatfeet at every turn.

The largest of these neighborhood gangs, the 42, adopted its name from the children’s tale, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. In its company of pickpockets, hustlers, pimps and swindlers, Momo -- who was often referred to as "Mooney," which was an early century word for crazy -- but preferred simply Sam -- learned how to steal, first bananas and peppers from peddlers’ carts, then automobiles. The cars were stripped for parts or sold in whole through underworld auctions. He learned how to use a baseball bat, not on the playground diamond, but wherever a copper was caught unawares or an Irish punk had wandered into no-man’s-land past Archer Avenue.

Several of the 42 were murderers by the time they were 15 years old. Mooney was, by reputation, one of them.

1. Fondless Memories

2. Born in Hell

3. Killin' for Capone

4. Changing of the Guard

5. Moving Up

6. Eyeing the World

7. Kennedy Connection

8. Wayward Politics

9. Betrayal

10. Marilyn Monroe

11. Nov. 22, 1963

12. Downfall

13. To Die in Hell

14. Bibliography

15. The Author
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