What Became of Them

Joseph Ida, John Avena and Luigi Quaranta (left to right) in a police lineup after the Zanghi-Cocozza murders, May 1927. (

What became of the perpetrators of the Zanghi-Cocozza Memorial Day murders after Anthony “Musky” Zanghi named names and Piero Francisco testified?

At first, city officials thought they might have come to the end of the gangster wars in South Philadelphia. In a sweep the Saturday night following the Memorial Day murders, police raided seven “sore spots” and “disorderly houses” between 5th and 11th, Christian and Federal Streets“all the places where men and women of questionable character congregate” and hauled in more than 100 suspects. “We are going to keep up the raids until all habitual criminals have fled from the city,” they declared, “the death dealing warfare must come to an end.”

But of the six arrested: John Avena and Salvatore Sabella (two of the gunmen on foot) Dominick Sesta and Luigi Quaranta (who fired shotguns from a car), driver John Scopoletti and Antonio Dominic Pollina, aka Mr. Miggs, all but Quaranta were soon back on the street. Despite hopes for law and order, more witnesses than perpetrators went to prison—for their own protection, of course.

Innocent bystander Piero Francisco saw more of Philadelphia from behind bars than anywhere else, during his visit to the city. Francisco briefly worked for Zanghi and had the misfortune of witnessing the murders. After his court appearance and several attempts on his own life, Francisco spent 20 months in protective custody. Finally, in the Spring of 1929, he left City Hall under armed guard to return to Italy on an unnamed steamer, never to seen or heard from again.

After his release from protective custody, “Musky” Zanghi returned to his usual gangland ways and met his end in New York City late one August night in 1934. Zanghi left behind a widow. Antoinette, seven children, and apparently a stash of counterfeit one dollar bills with which Antoinette augmented the earnings at her 8th and Montrose Streets fruit stand.

Instead of being the beginning of the end, the arrests in 1927 were more like the end of the beginning of the Philadelphia Mob. The arrests read more like a Who’s Who of the emerging Philadelphia mob. From left to right in the illustrated lineup we have:

Joseph Ida: Zanghi could not place Ida at the murder scene and he was quickly released. Ida would head up the South Philadelphia family in the 1940s and much of the 1950s, only to flee to Sicily after having escaped arrest, though not indictment, after the famous raid of the Apalachin Meeting in 1957. Ida’s successor was Antonio Domenic Pollina (“Mr. Miggs”), also arrested for the 1927 murders. Pollina briefly led the Philadelphia Family before the start of Angelo Bruno’s reign, which came to a conclusion with his own murder in 1980.

9th Street at Ellsworth Street, Looking South, February 7, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory,org)
9th Street at Ellsworth Street, Looking South, February 7, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory,org)

John Avena: “The biggest numbers man in South Philadelphia,” whose crime interests were as deep as they were wide, Avena took charge after Sabella “retired” in 1931. Avena had repeatedly been a target and on August 17, 1936, he was the first mob boss in Philadelphia to be killed, along with Martin Feldstein, another racketeer. They were standing at Passyunk and Washington Avenues when drive-by shooters, thought to be from the rival Lanzetti brothers, killed both men. Avena left behind a widow, Grazia, two children, a diamond-encrusted wrist watch and $8,000 in safe deposit box. Pius Lanzetti, who ordered the killing, was himself gunned down the following New Years Eve.

Giuseppe Quaranta: Despite all hopes and plans for the end of mob domination with the Zanghi-Cocozza arrests, this “dapper little man,” as newspapers described him, was the only one to be convicted. In court, Francisco had testified that “Quaranta and Sesta fired the shotguns.” Quaranta claimed he was in his “chicken store” at the time of the killings, to no avail. He found himself quickly sentenced to life in prison. In 1935, on the eve of his own execution for the murder of a policeman, William “Mollyooch” Deni scribbled a note that Quaranta had gotten a “bum rap,” that Zanghi had set him up in an extortion attempt. It was enough to throw Quaranta’s life sentence in doubt. In 1938, he was pardoned and released.

Not only did no one else spent time in prison for the Zanghi-Cocozza murders, a few lived long and healthy lives. After retirement, Sabella lived out his life in Norristown, Pennsylvania and died of natural causes in 1962.  And Antonio Domenic Pollina, “Mr. Miggs,” died in 1993, not long after his 100th birthday.

(Newspaper articles consulted at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center in files for John Avena and Luigi Quaranta include “Quaranta Guilty in First Degree,” June 19, 1927; “‘Big Nose’ Avena Slain by Gunmen in South Phila.” August 17, 1936; and “Executed Convict Frees Life Termer,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, December 20, 1935.)