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Massacre at the Amber Lantern

  • (ACME) COURTESY TAMAQUA HISTORICAL SOCIETY Bullet holes and broken glass in the Amber Lantern's side door attest to the violence on Flag Day 1938.
    (ACME) COURTESY TAMAQUA HISTORICAL SOCIETY Bullet holes and broken glass in the Amber Lantern's side door attest to the violence on Flag Day 1938.
Published June 14. 2014 09:00AM

The first clues were the bodies themselves.

Police reports noted 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.

Bisciotti had been shot in the back, stomach and head. Starace was hit in the back and head. Bisciotti 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.

@Body.Head:Link to mafia

Authorities had plenty of theories and clues.

Philadelphia police immediately linked the three slain men to the Lanzetti crime family.

The six Lanzetti brothers, Leo, Pius, Willie, Ignatius, Lucian, and Teo, were notorious. They were gunmen, numbers gamblers, narcotics dealers and liquor bootleggers in South Philadelphia during the 1920s and 1930s.

Their criminal careers were marked by frequent arrests and brutal violence. In fact, between 1924 and 1939, at least one brother was involved as a suspect or material witness in fifteen murder cases, police said.

Leo, the eldest, was killed on August 22, 1925, as he left a barber shop. The slaying, apparently, was retribution for the murder of a rival dope peddler and bootlegger killed by Leo and Ignatius four days earlier.

On Aug. 17, 1936, "Big Nose" John Avena, 43, leader of a rival Philadelphia crime family involved in gambling rackets, was gunned down presumably by the Lanzetti brothers.

Then Pius Lanzetti was killed on New Year's Eve, possibly in retribution.

In fact, the five-year gang war ended only with the death of leader William Lanzetti in 1939.

Were the Hometown killings somehow tied to that violence? Or was there a territorial struggle in the coal regions for control of prostitution and alcohol? Both were solid theories.

The automobile, a 1937 sedan, was found on a Mahanoy City street and removed to state police barracks, Tamaqua.

County Detective Louis Buono said ignition keys and registration cards found in the clothing of Guistine Starace, gunned down on the wooden ballroom floor, indicated he was joint owner of the car. The other owner was William C. Santore, 27.

Detective James M. Coyle, Philadelphia, announced that Santore already was under arrest in that city.

Interestingly, two Philadelphia detectives linked the automobile "to the bombing of a Negro-owned tavern at Baltimore early Monday," confirmed by Maryland police.

@Body.Head:Criminal records

Relatives of Bisciotti and Pugliese said "both were tailors."

But Buono and city police said all three had been identified as connected with a lottery racket.

Meanwhile, two other suspects were detained and reportedly in custody, locked in the state police substation at Tamaqua. Buono declined to reveal their names.

"Wait until we round up several confederates," Buono said. But nothing more came of it.

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

According to police reports, 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.

Bisciotti 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.

@Body.Head:All about vice

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

But prostitution also may have been the reason, according to police.

Police theorized the slayings were a signal to start a new gang war over control of illegal white slave traffic.

The White Slave Traffic Act had become federal law as early as 1910, making it a felony to transport "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." But making it illegal didn't make it go away.

Police believed the murdered men had been involved in bringing girls to the coal regions. Still another theory was that city racketeers supposedly had agreed to meeting coal region mobsters at the Amber Lantern, then tried to shake down the local gang, with fatal results.

At the time of the murders, the Amber Lantern was said to be owned by Roy Mancuso, Tamaqua, and Mike Barella, 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 hideout for the gang all along.

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. The arrest made headlines. In addition, a Philadelphia man was questioned.

But no further legal proceedings materialized. Nobody went to trial. Nobody did time.

@Body.Head:Final shocker

Then came another unexpected twist. Another gruesome discovery.

Just one month 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, a few minutes from Hometown.

The frightening find was made when Norman Wisler, 20, 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. He 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, everyone had theories.

"It was a mob hit," says former Rush Township Police Chief Edward W. Carroll Jr. 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 and the location would've been advantageous.

"It was even a stage coach stop between Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre in the late 1700s and early 1800s."

Carroll theorizes the mob had moved into Hometown after their Hazleton-based operation was discovered.

"Hazleton got hot and so they needed another place."

@Body.Head:The aftermath

Tom Memmi, chairman, Pennsylvania State Police Historical, Educational and Memorial Center, acknowledges the massacre as "another of the unsolved crimes of the twentieth century in Pennsylvania."

An appeal to retired state troopers and others in 2010 provided few additional details.

The early arrest, widely reported in the news, was confirmed by a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"I remember him being lodged in the Schuylkill Haven Borough lock-up instead of the county jail to confound his lawyer serving a habeas corpus," said the source.

Philadelphia police also held a suspect, a man named Anthony Porelli. But again, nothing developed.

Will the case of the Amber Lantern Massacre ever be solved? Likely not.

Today, scant evidence remains.

On Aug. 16, 1940, fire ripped through the two-story frame building. Tamaqua and Park Crest fire departments quickly responded. But the Amber Lantern Hotel was destroyed by flames.

A private residence now occupies the site. Next door, Frank Calabrese, 77, still lives in the home where his father, Joe, assisted police by helping them gain access to the roadhouse where bodies were discovered.

Paul Rice recalls the crime scene. He was eight years old when he sneaked inside with friend Jim Stewart.

"I remember seeing a circle of bullet holes in the floor," says Rice, who still lives in Hometown, as does Stewart.

@Body.Head:Time moves on

Sometimes justice isn't served despite the most heinous of crimes.

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.

People go about their daily lives. Once again, 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.

On site, a blue historic marker recounts details of the gangland murders that shocked the small, Norman Rockwell town. But nobody talks about the Amber Lantern Massacre. There are no calls for justice.

The key players are gone. All of the perpetrators are likely deceased, as are the police investigators.

Even Amy's Tea Room is gone.

The blaze of gunfire is a footnote in history.

Time has moved on.

It hasn't erased reality.

But time has covered the Amber Lantern in a veil of silence.

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