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Italian-American bias was evident in Lilly, Pa. in the 1920s during the Klan imbroglio



Most notorious case of bias, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

University of Pennsylvania photo


... repost of the Tranquillo-Naples case in 1924


A Sacco-Vanzetti-styled case occurred in Lilly, Pa. in 1924. Two Italian immigrants were wrongly accused of attempted murder, just as the two Italian immigrants were earlier in the 1920s in Massachusetts — KKK members accused the two immigrants, Amedeo Tranquillo and Dominick Naples, of shooting into the Lutheran parsonage


Repost from Blogspot, February 19, 2020


… target of anti-Italian, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrants


It is the contention of the defense that these shots were fired into the house of the Rev. Brown by witnesses who appeared here on the stand for the Commonwealth in order to arouse an ill-feeling against the Italian element of Lilly, and to secure the arrangement of a demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan, through the lodge affiliations with the American Patriotic Club, or whatever it is, at Lilly, to produce a thrill.

Defense Attorney Charles Margiotti, in his summation to the jury

After each major world war of the 20th Century, the United States experienced what was called a “Red Scare” in which people were alleged to be Communists affiliated with the Russians/Soviets.


As a result, hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan became powerful in the 1920s after World War I, and in the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy went on a fruitless witch hunt for Communists, called “Reds,” aided by his infamous lawyer, Roy Cohn.`


Few “Reds” were found, but in the 1920s, two Italian immigrants were accused of killing a paymaster and security guard in Massachusetts. They were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who despite little evidence, were convicted of the killings and were executed.


The case is still one that many consider to have been wrongly decided, but it illustrated the anti-immigrant and anti-Italian fervor of the period. The group that became so strong with their message of hate during that time was the Ku Klux Klan, which preached against Catholics, immigrants, and anyone who spoke a foreign language. They sought a country with only “100 percent white Americans” in it.


That is how the small community of Lilly, Pa. in Western Pennsylvania, which was about 90 percent Catholic and filled with immigrants in the 20s, found itself the target of a Ku Klux Klan march of more than 450 people in April 1924, one that resulted in the deaths of three people.


However, prior to that march, some altercations occurred that involved the Catholics who believed that they were set up by KKK-affiliated people both inside and outside the community.


This is the story of two Italian immigrants from Lilly, men who found themselves the target of the Klansmen -- but whose ultimate decision was not as horrible as the other two.


Professor John Craig’s contribution to the case


The excellent, well-researched and well-documented book, “The Ku Klux Klan in Western Pennsylvania, 1921-28,” by Slippery Rock University history professor John Craig, provided some great context and information about the Lilly riot that has made the case of Tranquillo and Naples clearer to me.


Craig went through trial transcripts and newspaper articles to put together the most credible story of the KKK in Western Pa. that has ever been printed. In it, he looks very thoroughly at the invasion of Lilly by the Klan on April 6, 1924, a night that saw three men killed and more than 20 wounded in a confrontation that the KKK leaders and local members of the group were seeking over a period of at least the previous six months.

I was very conversant with the trial of the Lilly Catholic townspeople and the Klan and have read the transcript of that trial numerous times. However, because of the sensational nature of that trial, one that drew national attention and one that was called “The Trial of the Century” in Cambria County at that time, the unfairness of the charges against the two Italian men from Lilly flew under the radar screen.


Here is my first recounting of it from Craig’s book and from my previous research of people who were on the streets that night.


Altercations started in Nov. 1923


The first accounting of confrontation between the KKK and the Catholics in Lilly occurred on Nov. 23, 1923, Craig notes, citing an article in the Ebensburg Mountaineer newspaper,


Klansmen lighted a cross in the [St. Luke’s Lutheran Church] cemetery at about 9:30 p.m. “Before flames made much headway in making an illumination, a large group of Lilly men reached the cross and destroyed the burning cross.

After “the fiery emblem was trampled, they searched for the Klansmen who had fled to safety. “Feeling here ran very high,” noted one resident, “and more conservative heads are convinced the only reason the incident passed over without trouble was the hurried disappearance of those who lighted the cross.”


John Craig, “The Ku Klux Klan in Western Pennsylvania, 1921-28,” 2015, p. 111

Art Yingling, a life-long Lilly resident who was 90-years-old in 1994 but still possessed a keen recollection of that night, said in an interview that the reason the KKK chose Lilly was because of the intransigence of the Irish Catholics and other immigrants who chose to fight back,


"The reason that they came in a gang was because (Lilly) was the only place that would tear down their crosses. “They (the Klan) wanted to show that they were going to burn their cross, come hell or high water. When they (Klan sympathizers or members) put up crosses in Lilly, we (Catholic townspeople) tore them down."


Interview 1994, Lilly, Pa.


In another interview, this one with the late Gerald Carney, he pointed to some crosses in a town south of Lilly in which the Catholics encountered some hatred and confronted those who were seeking to continue it,


There was a dance in South Fork on St. Patrick's Day, and a lot of guys from town were there. We heard that they had two crosses set to burn up on the hill outside of town where everybody could see them, and the guys from Lilly went up and tore them down. That was why they came to Lilly.

Interview with Gerald Carney, 1993

Craig posits that the Klan leaders had targeted Lilly because of its large number of Catholics and that religion was the driving force behind that decision.


Italians in Lilly became worried


After the cross burning in November and failed ones in March, those of European ancestry, particularly those who spoke foreign languages, were very worried about their becoming targets of the KKK. The Klan published a newspaper that was distributed in Lilly, and residents placed small KKK regalia on the guy wires of telephone poles in the town, actions that fed the hysteria that was present at the time.

Craig wrote this from the Indiana Gazette of June 1924 about the fears of the Italians,

Following the cross-burning [in November], Lilly residents of Italian descent grew increasingly concerned regarding threats made against them. General-store owner Carlo Campagna reported that Arthur Devetts, who would play an important role in bringing violence to Lilly, said the Klan would “clean up the Italians.”


Craig, p. 111-12


Devetts would become one of the lead witnesses for the prosecution in the subsequent trial of Tranquillo and Naples, but he apparently cracked on the stand when facing intense scrutiny from their defense attorney, a man of Italian extraction who eventually became one of the top defense attorneys and also an attorney general in the state: Charles J. Margiotti.

The crux of the case: Who shot into the Lutheran parsonage?


After the initial cross burning in November, the animosity between the Catholics and the Klan escalated with a series of shootings that were directed at the parsonage of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, which was located at the corner of Cleveland and Portage streets in Lilly. The essence of the case would be who actually shot into the home,


However, most important in explaining the timing and scope of the April 5 Klan demonstration in Lilly were three incidents where shots were fired into the home of Rev. Elmer F. Brown, the new pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. Brown and his family moved into the parsonage on Cleveland Street on February 26 as rumors of Klan membership circulated in the town. The very next night, Brown reported being awakened by the sound of a gunshot. Two weeks later, March 13, he claimed a bullet narrowly missed his wife, who was sitting in the living room.


Craig, p. 112


The quotation that I list at the start of this piece was one that was given by the defense attorney for the two Italian men, Charles J. Margiotti of Punxsutawney. In it, he explains the thinking of the townspeople of Catholic extraction who believed that the shots were actually fired by Klan-allied people in an attempt to try and convince the KKK klavern in Johnstown to demonstrate in Lilly. [Ironically, that decision had already been made to demonstrate in Lilly by a Johnstown klavern.]


The Klan-affiliated people tried to pin the shootings on Tranquillo and Naples. Craig quotes information from the Mountaineer and the Johnstown Democrat to explain what occurred,

The Lutheran congregation posted guards outside the house after the second shooting. Then, on the night of March 21, Arthur Devetts and John George said they saw and heard the two men fire shots into the parsonage from an adjoining alley while the minister and his family were away. They reported that they followed the shooters a couple of blocks to Peter Mattiello's store on Railroad [Cleveland] Street and summoned constable David George. Joseph Aurandt, deputized that day “to help protect the town,” arrived at the store with a large group of men and arrested store customers, Dominick Naples and Amedo [sic Amedeo] Tranquillo, naturalized United States citizens born in Italy. Both were carrying pistols. They were charged with felonious assault with intent to kill, pointing firearms, and carrying concealed weapons.


Most residents believed that the shootings were staged and the arrested men innocent. According to an individual labeled a longtime “prominent citizen” by a writer for the Johnstown Democrat, there was “a growing opinion [in Lilly] that the shooting was done by two well-known residents [Devetts and George] … for the express purpose … that the Klan might have a kick coming.


Craig, p. 112


The bias was unfortunate as two men went to jail because they were Italian immigrants, not became they were guilty.


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