Words By Dominic
Joey, the six-year-old son of Cheech and Maria Caruso, has been ill with diphtheria for a week and a half. Although a quarantine sign is posted, no one from the local medical community comes to the Caruso apartment to offer assistance or medical treatment.
Cheech and Maria hardly sleep during this long, anxious time, doing all they can to make their beloved son comfortable. Neighbors provide food so the family doesn’t have to leave their rooms, lessening the chance of spreading the disease.
On Saturday, February 13, 1927, with Joey’s condition worsening, Cheech commits the legal offense of breaking the quarantine in an effort to save his son’s life. Unable to find a doctor for Joey, he stops at the neighborhood drugstore, desperate for help.
The owner-pharmacist at Pendola’s arranges for the assistance of his brother from Queens who is a doctor. Cheech runs home to prepare for the visit from Dr. Pendola, who arrives within the hour. After examining Joey, he gives him a shot and sends Cheech to the drugstore with a prescription.
At the drugstore, Mr. Pendola tells Cheech that the prescription is too strong for a child of six and he wishes his brother wouldn’t do such things. However, he fills the order.
When Cheech arrives home, he tells the doctor what his brother said. Dr. Pendola says his pharmacist brother doesn’t know what he’s talking about and should keep his Goddamn mouth shut. He gives Joey the medicine he ordered, then leaves, saying that he will return on Sunday afternoon.
Joey’s condition worsens, and Cheech and Maria are up all night trying to comfort him. Exhausted and apprehensive, they can’t see how close the end is.
Lying in his father’s arms on Sunday, Joey says his last words. “Papa, I’m dying. The shot the doctor gave me is killing me; please don’t let me die, help me, Papa.” As Cheech assures his boy that he isn’t dying, Joey closes his eyes. He’s gone.
Cheech believes his child died as a result of a doctor prescribing the wrong dosage of medicine. In mental and emotional denial of death, he wraps his son in a sheet, sitting by the oven door, trying to warm the cold little body.
His grief is beyond reasoning or reach. Banging his head against the wall incessantly, Cheech splatters blood all the way to the kitchen ceiling, until he passes out from the injuries. Distraught herself, nothing Maria does can stop her brawny husband from harming himself.
The death wagon arrives and takes Joey’s body away. Inconsolable, Cheech won’t allow treatment of his considerable head wounds.
When Dr. Pendola arrives about 2:30 p.m., Cheech tells him his son is dead from his too-strong medicine. The doctor suggests they talk in private, and they head for the front bedroom. Maria goes to the back bedroom with the children.
The doctor offers to pay Cheech to buy his silence. Stricken with grief and outraged at the callous attitude of the doctor, Cheech beats the doctor to silence and slits his throat.
After cleaning up at the O’Hanlen’s apartment downstairs, Cheech goes to his brother on Staten Island. Rosario calls Cheech’s close friend for him, Sergeant O’Mally of the Brooklyn Police Department. Through favors and shared evenings, Cheech and O’Mally are closer than brothers.
By turning himself in with O’Mally present, Cheech has the opportunity to send a message to his friend D’Aquila before he suffers the fate he knows is coming. By the time Cheech is returned to Brooklyn, Maria sits in a cell at the same precinct as her husband. Desperate to protect Cheech, she has also confessed to killing the doctor.
The children are taken from Maria after her confession and locked in the mop closet of a contagious disease center. At the time, their ages range from three months to eight years. They’re given a blanket but no light, food, water, bathroom facilities or diapers--for more than twenty-four hours.
When Maria is finally released, she regains custody of the children. Destitute, she goes to live with her father who has Family connections.
The powerful New York Chapter of the American Medical Association decides to make an example of this unknown immigrant. Medical personnel must be invulnerable.
In a hasty trial, Cheech is denied an interpreter even though he speaks little English. The charge of pre-meditated murder is an outrage in an obvious crime of passion, committed by a father distraught with grief over the death of a beloved boy, exhausted from sleepless nights, and dazed from head trauma so bloody it appears the doctor’s throat was cut in the kitchen.
The trial is a sham. Judges, lawyers, and jurors are bought and influenced. It is believed that Assistant District Attorney Gallagher and the presiding Judge McLaughlin have been bought by the American Medical Association, making an example of this immigrant to show support for one of their own.
Cheech Caruso is sentenced to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair. A hearing is set to arrange the date for the execution.
But Cheech is the trusted friend of Salvatore D’Aquila, the first boss of the Gambino crime family. Despite Cheech sending him a note saying to forget him, Salvatore D’Aquila intervenes.
D’Aquila hires the well-known theatrical and public relations agent Alexander Marky to head up a Caruso defense fund. This fund is not only used to raise money for an appeal but is an ingenious device for laundering mob money. During 1927, about a million dollars is laundered in this way.
At Sing Sing, Cheech is hardly the usual death row inmate. His beautiful singing voice entertains his fellows and guards, and soon Warden Lewis E. Lawes comes to listen. The two men become friends and Lawes takes a special interest in Cheech’s situation. Often Cheech visits the warden in his office.
Marky arranges speaking engagements at which Maria will appear as the wife of the condemned father who killed in the throes of grief. Unaccustomed to public appearances, she stifles her natural reticence to speak before innumerable groups and even on the radio. Eight-year-old Lena, the eldest child in the Caruso family, appears at fundraising efforts for her father. During one appeal, she’s photographed on the lap of the young and future Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia. These activities are onerous for mother and daughter, coping with strangers, their unfamiliar ways, and the foreign language.
With connections to the Chicago crime Family, D’Aquila contacts Al Capone about interesting Clarence Darrow in Cheech’s case. When this most famous of all criminal defense attorneys arrives in New York, D’Aquila suggests Marky talk with him.
Darrow volunteers his services to the Caruso defense effort as he often does for underdogs. Not licensed to practice in New York, he will advise other attorneys who are: former Deputy Attorney Schneider, former District Attorney Spellman, and New York attorney Pollack. Meeting with Maria and Cheech often, Darrow grows close enough to discuss spiritual issues of God and death with them both, despite being an atheist himself.
Italian groups, Italian lawyers and other professional Italian organizations join the effort to save Cheech. Prominent politicians such as then-congressman Fiorello La Guardia and Governor Alfred Smith take part in the appeal.
With an appeal signed and Darrow working on the case, the AMA goes into action. Physical threats are made to Maria both face to face and on the telephone. Strange men confront little Lena on her way to and from school, threatening her and her family.
The conviction is overturned and a new trial date is set. It’s all but certain Cheech will go free after the new trial. He is transferred from Sing Sing to Raymond Street Jail for those proceedings.
Salvatore D’Aquila visits Cheech in jail, posing as his brother. Cheech tells him of his concern for the safety of his family and asks Salvatore to work something out with the AMA.
The day of the appeal, Cheech unexpectedly stands up and pleads guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter. Taken by surprise, many people involved in the case react with dismay.
Cheech’s attorneys are aware of the arrangement. The day before the trial, Darrow and the legal team met with Cheech at Raymond Street Jail. Darrow has promised Maria, Cheech’s wife, to try to convince Cheech to plead temporary insanity. In return, she has promised to pray for Darrow for the rest of her life, and she does.
Refusing the temporary insanity defense that was undoubtedly true, Cheech tells Darrow that a deal has already been offered and accepted. This is his choice and nothing will change it.
At the appearance before the Court, Cheech shocks the courtroom. He stands up and pleads guilty, but to the lesser charge of manslaughter in the first degree.
Francesco Caruso is given a ten-year sentence. He serves seven years of the term.
The Family sees to it that Maria is taken care of for the seven years he is away. Through Sgt. O’Mally at first, money makes its way to Maria on a regular basis. In the summer of 1928, D’Aquila is assassinated and a new Boss takes over; but for Maria nothing changes. Support money continues to arrive.
During a visit in prison by his friend New York City police detective Sergeant O’Malley, Cheech advises him to disappear. In 1930, he vanishes and is never located. After this, Marky brings Maria funds on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Dr. Pendola’s widow and child receive no help from the American Medical Association. The organization’s interest in the family has extended no further than self-interest. Mrs. Perotta struggles against privation to support her mother, herself and an infant by opening maternity lodgings in her home.
Following his release from Sing Sing, Cheech and his family live a life of obscurity until Cheech’s death in 1968. In the early years after release, he works by Family arrangement on the 350-acre New York State farm belonging to Charles Roditi, an Argentinean who owns the famous horse Rodson. Those are to be Cheech’s most contented years.
Despite early association with the Family in Sicily and New York, Cheech is allowed to disconnect from Family activities. Though he did favors and jobs for his close friend D’Aquila, Cheech was never formally made. After the trial’s publicity, he’s too notorious to be useful; but his past respect to the Family is honored.
Over one million dollars of Cheech’s defense fund is never found.
After his release from prison in 1934, Cheech lights a candle on every February 13, for the rest of his life. The candle burns on his dresser until it gutters without comment, but his family knows that he grieves the deaths of Joey, infant Ida and the doctor’s little bambina, Catherine.
Neither he nor Maria ever applied for American citizenship. Ill, they avoid hospitals. As a convicted felon, he fears deportation.
Though my father was not executed, after February 13, 1927, tomorrows for our family could never be the same. There were No More Tomorrows……….Only yesterdays.