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Anti-Italian bias in Lilly in 1924 sent two innocent men to prison during KKK-riot era

Repost from February 20, 2020

The trial of Italian immigrants Amedeo Tranquillo and Dominick Naples in Lilly, Pa. in June 1924, part of the KKK invasion of Lilly that year, brought out a top defense attorney who managed to successfully argue their innocence

… did Protestant judge sentence them to jail because they were Italian?

The 1920s were a challenging time in America for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Italians, in particular, were targets of many individuals and groups because of the skin tone, their Catholic religion, the fact that they could often not speak English, and because quite simply, they were not 100 percent Americans in the eyes of many.

Fear is a great motivator in man. In the 1920s, immigrants were coming over to the United States in mass quantities. Most of these immigrants were from Southern or Eastern Europe, parts of Asia and Mexico. Because these groups differed in culture, race, and religion from the majority of White Americans, as the immigrant population increased, so did hostility and displeasure towards them. Italians made up 11.8%, or 550,460 immigrants between the years of 1920 and 1930 (Historical Statistics, 456).

These people received an extraordinary amount of antipathy as they differed from white America in so many ways … Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan became much more prevalent during the 1920s, growing as large as 10 million members across the country. These groups exploited racist and xenophobic tendencies in Americans to induce people to join. They used such phrases in their propaganda like “America for Americans” that caught on quickly with a vast number of people.

“Discrimination of Italian Immigrants in American History,” Bartleby

The Sacco-Vanzetti case was one example of that, and I will go through that in more detail in part 3 of this series.

However, in the small town of Lilly, Pa., in west-central Pennsylvania, a large number of Italians had settled in the quiet valley for one reason: Jobs. These started in the coal mines of the region but also included the steel mills of nearby Johnstown along with those on the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose mainline bisected the community with spur lines throughout the area.

In addition, Italians felt at home because they were almost all of the Catholic faith, and Lilly was approximately 90 percent Catholic. And while the Ku Klux Klan is generally associated with hatred of blacks, Catholics were the primary target of the group in the 1920s, along with immigrants, particularly those who spoke in foreign tongues.

The case against Amedeo Tranquillo and Dominick Naples

The arrest of Tranquillo and Naples on what most Catholic townspeople thought were trumped-up charges outraged most to the 90 percent in the town who followed that faith. Shooting into the Lutheran parsonage was a serious offense, but the belief of Catholics was that the KKK members were responsible for that.

The problem for the two Italian men was that the police force was controlled by Protestants. The chief of police, or constable, was David George, a Protestant, who hired a deputy to investigate the shootings into the parsonage. That man was Joseph Aurandt, also a Protestant.

A group from the church had hired Arthur Devetts and John George, both Protestants who were alleged to be affiliated with the KKK, to guard the parsonage. As mentioned yesterday, these men followed Tranquillo and Naples to a store owned by another Italian immigrant, Pete Mattiello. Aurandt arrested the two men in the store and they were charged with three felonies: Assault with intent to kill, pointing firearms, and carrying concealed weapons, according to the Johnstown Democrat newspaper.

A preliminary hearing was held in Cresson on March 24, and the two men were remanded to prison.

John Craig, "The Ku Klux Klan in WesternPennsylvania, 1921-1928, p. 141

The district attorney in Cambria County, D. C. Weimer, a Protestant, hired an Ebensburg law firm to conduct the prosecution.

For the defense, enter Attorney Charles J. Margiotti, who was a godsend to Tranquillo and Naples.

Charles J. Margiotti, one of the top defense lawyers in Pa.

Margiotti was 33-years-old. a young attorney who had already built an impressive resume in the state. I was not able to find why he took this case, but his parents were Italians — maybe immigrants — and he was a man who was building a political coalition that would eventually lead him to the role of state attorney general twice and a candidate for governor.

Winning a prominent case like this could help him in a variety of ways.

How good a lawyer was he in his time? According to his obituary in the New York Times in 1956,

During his career, Mr. Margiotti defended more than 150 persons accused of murder, none of whom was given the death penalty. Only two were convicted of first-degree murder, both sentenced to life imprisonment.

As a prosecutor, he helped to obtain death penalties at ten trials, include that of Irene Shroeder, “The Blonde Tiger,” who was the first woman to die in the electric chair in Pennsylvania.

“C.J. Margiotti, 65, lawyer, is dead,” Aug. 26, 1956.

In short, these two Italian men were very fortunate to have a defense counsel of that caliber.

Who paid him? Great question, one answer that I could not find. I did find a biography of him and perhaps could find that answer there.

Dramatis Personae of the trial

Defendants: Amedeo Tranquillo, 30, and Dominick Naples, 50

Lawyers for the prosecution: J.W. and Russell Leech, Ebensburg, private counsel

Lawyers for the defense: Philip Schettig, Ebensburg, and Charles Margiotti, Punxsutawney

Judge: Cambria County Judge John Evans

Date: June 19, 1924

Chief prosecution witnesses: Arthur Devetts, 23, and John George

John Craig, “The Ku Klux Klan in Western Pennsylvania 1921-28,” 1915

The value of a great defense counsel

Margiotti demonstrated his value early in the trial as he cross-examined the top witnesses and tore apart their stories. In fact, the prosecution’s case simply crumbled for one reason: The lawyer proved that they had no case.

He started with Devetts,

A lengthy, confrontational cross-examination followed under the direction of Margiotti. He asked the witness to expand upon his story of the events surrounding the shooting, particularly why he was out on a cold night, why he did not notice the footprints of the alleged gunmen in the freshly fallen snow, and how he was able to see so well int he darkness. Devetts provided evasive responses and kept to the basic account [he had] already provide [to the prosecution.]

Craig, p. 140

However, he then went at the crux of the problem: the affiliation of the two prosecution witnesses with the KKK,

Attorney Margiotti then changed his line of questioning. “Are you a member of the Ku Klux Klan?” he asked. Devetts refused to answer, retorting, “It don’t concern the case and it is none of your business.” Then Margiotti asked if he fired shots into the parsonage, to which the Lilly resident replied, “No, sir.” The witness also denied that he was guarding the Lutheran Church and refused to state the nature of conversations with residents who were milling about the area all evening.

Craig, p. 140

The American Patriotic Club

When Margiotti cross-examined the other key witness, John George denied that he was a member of the KKK. The next morning, the defense attorney narrowed the focus of his affiliations,

George was asked the next morning whether he was a Klansman or belonged to any similar organization. He admitted membership in the American Patriotic Club, and when directed by Judge John Evans to answer, acknowledged that the group was connected to the Klan. Also recalled, Devetts said he was a member of the American Patriotic Club as well, but did not believe it was affiliated with the Klan.

Craig, p. 141

This “club” was an alleged fraternal organization of people who believed in the KKK mantra of the 1920s,

Ideologically, the Klan blended xenophobia, religious prejudice, and white supremacy together with a broadly conservative moralism. Amidst a global recession that came in the aftermath of World War I, fear and anxiety were widespread among native-born white Protestants that the country they had known and had been accustomed to dominating was coming undone.

Joshua Rothman, “When bigotry paraded through the streets, The Atlantic, Dec. 4, 2016

Margiotti continued to break apart the prosecution’s case against these Italian Catholics. Store owner Pete Mattiello, himself Italian and an immigrant, testified that the two men that night came into his store separately, and they were in no hurry to leave. Joseph Aurandt, the man deputized the day of the arrest, admitted to Margiotti that he was a Klansman who had demonstrated [back of a veil] in the April 5 riot that had killed three and wounded more than 20.

Testimony of Tranquillo and Naples

The defense brought another man to the stand who eventually became an assistant attorney general of Pennsylvania,

Lawyer Thomas Bender, who had represented Tranquillo and Naples at the preliminary hearing, testified that Devetts and George’s original acount of the incident was at odds with their trial testimony. Carlo Campagna, whose store sat next to the alleyway from which shots were fired, reported that after he heard the noise, he hurried outside. In the alley, he met Devetts and George, who were running toward the church, the opposite direction from that noted in their testimony..

Craig, p. 141

Bender was a native of Lilly who grew up in an area outside the town called Dutchtown. [Bender’s son, Tom, became an announcer of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games in the 1950s and 60s.]

Finally, Margiotti, demonstrating his confidence in his case, and probably in himself, allowed the two defendants to take the stand, something that many contemporary lawyers will not permit,

Tranquillo and Naples both testified. The latter, fifty years old and a naturalized U.S. citizen, denied involvement in the crime. Thirty-year-old Tranquillo, also a U.S. citizen, was married with a daughter. He had served in France with the AEF in World War I, where he saw extensive action. Both explained that they had carried guns since the Klan burned a cross near the Italian Social Club in October 1923.

A number of other witnesses concurred, including Campagna, who reported the Devetts had warned him the Klan was coming back “to clean up the Italians.” Harry Leahy, a town councilman and coal company manager, observed that “the Italian population of the town had been noticeably intimidated concerning the return of the Klan” [The Johnstown Democrat].

Craig, p. 141

The verdict was mostly positive but demonstrated a biased judge

The decision did not take long for the jury, but while positive, the judge also gave them a ridiculous sentence,

Tranquillo and Naples were found innocent on the attempted murder charges, but guilty of carrying concealed, deadly weapons. Evans sentenced the men to three months in jail [they had already been in prison for almost three months for the crime for which they were found innocent]. Though hardly a severe punishment, their sentence would represent the only weapons conviction for any of those involved in the entire Lilly affair. None of the Klansmen or Lilly residents who participated directly in the April 5 riot were ever tried for carrying or discharging firearms. Moreover, the Klansmen or Klan sympathizers who probably fired the shots into the Lutheran parsonage March 21 also escaped prosecution.

Craig, p. 142

Were they sentenced only because they were Italian?

Why did these two men not receive a suspended sentence -- or probation?

Evans, a Protestant, was simply being hypocritical in sentencing since every one of the 450+ Klansmen had weapons under their robes when they invaded Lilly, yet not one was sentenced for a gun charge. Three men were killed and more than 20 wounded, yet not one person was sentenced on a gun charge.

That brings me to this conclusion: These two men were sentenced to jail simply because they were of Italian heritage. The likelihood from the trial was the KKK actually fired the shots into the parsonage, and the jury found that to be the case.

How, then, did Evans see justice in giving then an additional three months in jail?

I never knew Mr. Naples, but did know the Tranquillo family. Mr. Tranquillo raised a beautiful family, very religious and very good people. Nevertheless, he had to spend time in prison as a husband and father for just one reason: He was an Italian man at the wrong place and time in history.

And, that is sad and repugnant.

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