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The Amber Lantern Massacre

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS  Storm clouds pass over the quiet corner of Lincoln Drive and Mariner Street in Hometown. Gangland murders at this site 72 years ago sent shock waves throughout the state.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Storm clouds pass over the quiet corner of Lincoln Drive and Mariner Street in Hometown. Gangland murders at this site 72 years ago sent shock waves throughout the state.
Published November 05. 2010 05:00PM

Nobody talks about the mysterious mob murders anymore.

It's an event lost to history's fading memory - almost as if it never happened.

But there was a time, 72 years ago, when big-city crime paid a visit to the quiet, little village of Hometown.

It was a day of mob warfare, bullets, gun smoke, blood and cries. The tragedy shocked the picturesque mountaintop community just three miles north of Tamaqua, and made headlines across the land.

The Amber Lantern Massacre was a true-life, soap-opera mystery that unfolded long before the days of television. It had all of the elements of underworld vice: sex, white slavery, prostitution, gambling and alcohol abuse in the years following Prohibition.

The Al Capone-like shooting left four dead, and a town in shock and disbelief. It also left a legacy of questions. The massacre remains a mystery that's never been solved.

House of ill repute

For years, Hometown's Amber Lantern Hotel and Restaurant, Rush Township, had a questionable reputation. In fact, the saloon was known to be its very own red-light district. Men reportedly visited the roadhouse to gamble, drink, dance, and to hire the companionship of women. The name was changed a few times. At one point it was called the Palais Royal, and then the Rio Rita. But everyone knew the place as the Amber Lantern.

According to reports, gangsters used dynamite to blow open the front of the building in the 1920s or early 30s, ultimately making it their headquarters. From that location, at the corner of what is now Lincoln Drive and Mariner Street, the mob operated a vice ring long before the days of municipal zoning, code enforcement and permits.

It seemed everyone knew about it. But nobody said anything. People in Hometown minded their own business - until June 14, 1938, early Flag Day morning.

That's when neighbors said they heard a car backfiring multiple times. But the sounds weren't backfires. And it wasn't a car.

A gory scene

About 6:40 a.m., Amy Faust, owner of Amy's Tea Room and Coffee House located just 300 feet south of the Amber Lantern, was in her kitchen eating breakfast with her daughter, Mrs. Edward Purnell.

The women thought they heard someone at the front door. It wasn't unusual. Amy's Tea Room doubled as a service station and was open for business. Still, the women were startled by a stranger who staggered in, bleeding profusely from the face and head.

The women said the man stumbled through the door and mumbled in desperation, three times uttering just two words, "Oh ... I ....," before falling backward to the floor. The stranger died within minutes in a pool of blood.

The shocking death was only a hint of macabre events to follow, a series of discoveries that would put an end to the Amber Lantern and blow the lid off organized crime in the lower Anthracite coal regions.

The first investigating officers were Schuylkill County Chief Detective Louis Buono, Sheriff Fred Holman and Trooper Lester Lucas of the Tamaqua Motor Police Barracks, now the Pa. State Police. Arriving at the scene, the men followed a trail of blood along the roadway. It led to the abandoned Amber Lantern, where neighbors said they noticed bullet holes in the building.

With help of a neighbor, Joe Calabrese, who had a key to the place, officers entered the establishment at the rear of the building and made their way around small cafe tables, then to the dining area and on to the main dance floor. The place showed signs of gunfire, they said, with bullet holes in the walls and doors.

At the center of the floor, cops came upon pools of blood. The blood trail led to a small cloakroom, or checkroom behind a Dutch door. Inside, police discovered two bloodied bodies.

Authorities identified the victims as Philadelphians Peter Biscotti (or Viscutti), 28, of 731 Christian Street, and Giustino Starace, 19, of 1824 Dickinson Street.

The earlier victim - the stranger who collapsed and died at the tea room - was identified as Leonard Pugliese, 35, of 931 Moore Street, Philadelphia. Pugliese, who used the alias Jack Leonard, was originally misidentified as Leonard Adducci due to identification he carried.

Police determined that it was a mob-style execution - all three apparently had been lined up on the dance floor. Then came a hail of gunfire. Pugliese somehow escaped through the back door, although the bullet wounds he received as he fled proved fatal.

The police report noted that all three victims were of Italian descent and exceptionally well dressed.

Deputy Coroner Mary Jones released the bodies to Tamaqua undertaker E. Franklin Griffiths, and autopsies were performed by Dr. A. B. Fleming. The story became clearer.

Pugliese apparently was shot four times as he ran, twice in the neck, once in the right shoulder and once on left side of his mouth, which knocked out and broke off a number of teeth.

Biscotti had been shot in the back, stomach and head. Starace was hit in the back and head. Biscotti and Starace had been shot a combined 11 times. Autopsies concluded that the two men had been dead about six or seven hours when discovered, putting an estimate of time of death at sometime after 5 a.m.

Philadelphia policemen Vic Hardy and Joe Geonetti of the city's gangbusting "Little Mob" squad, said Biscotti and Starace had criminal records and were known racketeers, something also reported by United Press International.

According to a story in the Tamaqua Evening Courier, Starace was arrested six times but never convicted. He was picked up twice for carrying deadly weapons, once as a fugitive from Atlantic City on a robbery charge, once in a gambling raid, once as a suspicious character and yet another time on suspicion.

Biscotti had been arrested twice. Once was for hit-and-run and another time involving a holdup. He was known by aliases Peter Fordano and Little Petey Ford.

Unconfirmed reports stated that Starace had been seen in Tamaqua for weeks prior to the massacre, possibly making an effort to chisel into the local numbers racket.

Police also maintained that the murdered men had been involved in bringing girls to the coal regions for white slavery purposes. The city racketeers supposedly had agreed to a meeting at the Amber Lantern with coal region mobsters, and then tried to shake down the local gang, but with fatal results.

At the time of the murders, the Amber Lantern was said to be owned by Roy Mancuso of Tamaqua and Mike Barella of Hazleton. According to courthouse records, the property was held in the name of M. and R. M. Barella from April 21, 1925 to March 2, 1979. The establishment reportedly had been closed for months, having lost its liquor license on December 31, 1937. However, many said the Amber Lantern served as a hide-out for the gang all along.

Sensational headlines

The massacre became the talk of the coal regions and the state, putting the media spotlight on the village of Hometown.

The headline in the Tamaqua Evening Courier on June 14, 1938, read: '3 SLAIN IN HOMETOWN IN GANG WARFARE, Three Philadelphia gangsters were machine-gunned.'

The headline in the Lansford Evening Record on the same date read: 'MOBSTERS SLAIN AT HOMETOWN, Police authorities believe three victims implicated in numbers racket war.' The next day's Evening Record headline read: 'WHITE SLAVERS SOUGHT IN HOMETOWN SLAYINGS.'

"It was a mob hit," says former Rush Township Police Chief Ed Carroll. Carroll points out that the Amber Lantern was strategically located on old Route 29. Today's Route 309 didn't exist. So Route 29 was the main highway between Tamaqua and Hazleton. At the time, Hazleton was believed to have mob connections, particularly the New York mob.

Solving the crime proved very difficult.

Some witnesses described a Packard-type getaway car.

A Mahanoy City resident who operated a Shenandoah cigar store and pool room, and who was believed to be connected with prostitution, was initially charged in the murders, according to reports. His car reportedly matched the description of the getaway car, which was seen traveling toward Mahanoy City with three men inside shortly after the killings. The arrest made headlines.

In addition, a Philadelphia man was questioned, as was a Shenandoah man. But no further legal proceedings materialized with any of the three suspects. Nobody went to trial. Nobody did time. Eventually, the story faded from the front pages.

Then came another shocking twist. Another gruesome discovery.

Six months after the killings, a fourth victim was found. The body of known mobster Pete Gellelli, 41, a Wilkes-Barre barber, was pulled from the bottom of a mining pit near Delano, five minutes from Hometown.

The gory find was made when Norman Wisler, 20, of Delano, was walking about a quarter mile south of that town, and, by chance, stopped to peer into a coal hole.

Gellelli was known to go by the last names Gallo, Galli and Russell. Gellelli was linked to others involved in the massacre. Due to decomposition of the corpse, an exact cause of death could not be determined. Once again, nothing came of the development.

Decades later, when a local cop was asked why the Amber Lantern Massacre was never solved, he reportedly said: "Back in those days, when gangsters were shooting gangsters, police didn't interfere."

Still, the case was never closed. "It's still an open homicide," says Carroll, who theorizes that the mob had moved into Hometown after their Hazleton-based operation was discovered by authorities.

The aftermath

Seventy-two years later, the big murder mystery in Hometown remains a classic whodunnit.

Tom Memmi, chairman, Pennsylvania State Police Historical, Educational and Memorial Center, acknowledges that it's "another of the unsolved crimes of the Twentieth Century in Pennsylvania."

To assist the TIMES NEWS with this story, Memmi sent an appeal for information to retired state troopers, a few of whom responded with additional details related to the case.

Will the Amber Lantern Massacre ever be solved? It's a question without an answer. There is little evidence that remains.

Years after the massacre, the Amber Lantern Hotel and Restaurant burned to the ground. A private residence now occupies the site. Next door, Frank Calabrese, 73, occupies the home where his father, Joe, lived at time of the shootings. Frank was age 1 when it happened. Clearly, time has moved on. But the questions linger.

Sometimes there are no endings to the most violent of crime cases. Sometimes the passing of days, months and then decades allows the horror to fade from people's minds.

A feeling of peace has long since returned to the streets of Hometown.

Today, people go about their daily lives. They mind their own business. Many pass the crime site with nary a glance at the spot where so much violence and bloodshed took place.

A lone blue historic marker near the corner of Lincoln Drive and Mariner Street recounts details of the big-city gangland murders that shocked the small, Norman Rockwell town.

But seven decades later, nobody talks about the Amber Lantern Massacre.

There are no calls for justice. All of the perpetrators are likely deceased, as are the police investigators.

The key players are gone. The hotel is gone and so is Amy's Tea Room.

The blaze of gunfire is a footnote in history. Time has moved on and brought peace.

It hasn't erased reality. But time has covered the Amber Lantern in a veil of silence.

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