A Case of Circumstantial Evidence by Arthur Train.

A senseless killing in turn of the century New York City.

In the town of Culiano, in the province of Salano, in Italy, there dwelt a widow by the name of Torsielli, with her two sons, Vito and Antonio. The boys loved their mother devotedly and were no less fond of each other, the height of their ambition being to earn enough money to support her in comfort without need of working in her old age. As it was, she arose before light, made the fire, cooked their breakfast and labored in and about the house all day until they returned from the fields. But she was getting old and at last became bedridden and infirm. She could no longer cook the meals, and the boys had to shift for themselves. Moreover, instead of finding her standing at the door with a smile on her wrinkled face, welcoming them to supper on their return, the fire was always out and their mother lay on her couch, no less glad to see them, to be sure, but no longer able to amuse them or minister to their comfort. Then the taxes were increased and hard times came. By twos and threes the men of the village packed their bundles, bade good-by to their friends and families, and left the town, some to seek work in other parts of Italy, but most of them to take the big iron steamships for America, where work was easy and money plentiful. Sadly the boys watched their comrades depart. They would have liked to go, too, to seek their fortunes in this new land of promise, but they could not leave their mother. The following year some of the men who had gone away to America returned in fine clothes and with full purses to tell of the wonderful country beyond the seas, where one could always earn his ten lire every day and do as he liked. “Viva la liberta!” they cried, pounding the tables in the café. “Come, comrades! We have plenty of money. Drink to the great country of America!”

Vito and Antonio listened with envy. One evening the elder brother asked Antonio to come to walk with him. When they had gone a little way he said suddenly:

“Toni, I think I shall go to this America. We need more money to make our mother comfortable. If we wait until she is dead the money will be of no use. You can stay here, and when I have made a place for you and her, you shall bring her on the ship to the new country.”

Vito was five years older than Antonio, and his word had always been law to the younger brother, so although he was sick at heart at the thought of being left behind, he said nothing against the project, but tried to make it easy for Vito with their mother. The old woman could not bear the thought of her firstborn leaving her, and declared, with the tears running down her face, that she should never see him again, but at last she yielded to their persuasions and gave Vito her blessing. It would be only a little while before she and Toni would join him, and they would be happy ever after.

Then Toni was left alone with his mother. Every day he arose at the first streak of dawn, prepared breakfast, cleaned the house, saw that his mother was comfortable and then started off for the fields. A month went by, two months, three, a year, but no word came from Vito. Toni assured the poor old woman that they would certainly hear from him the next week or the next, but cruel fear had taken possession of him. Something had happened to his brother! The years swept on. Their mother became more and more helpless. Antonio was obliged to hire a woman to care for her as nurse for a small sum, but it was just enough to leave only a pittance for them to live on. Toni grew thin and haggard. Where could Vito be? Was he alive or dead? Next to his love for Nicoletta Lupero it became the great passion of his life to learn what had become of Vito.

He had known Nicoletta from a child and their love had followed as naturally as summer follows spring. It had always been “Toni” and “Nicoletta” ever since he could remember. But she was growing up, and from a boy he had become a man. Yet how could he marry when he could hardly earn enough to support his mother and himself? They talked it over time and time again. If Vito would only return or good times come it might be possible. But meantime there was nothing to do but wait. Nicoletta blossomed into womanhood. Had she not been betrothed she would have been called an old maid. Neither she nor Toni took any part in the village merrymakings. Why should they? He was thirty and she twenty-five. They might have married ten years ago had not the elder brother gone away. Toni secretly feared that the time would never come when they would be man and wife, but he patiently labored on earning his two lire, or at most two lire and a half, a day.

Then a man returned from America just for the harvest to see his family. He said that Vito was alive. He had not seen him himself, but others had seen him and he was rich. He told of the plentifulness of gold in America, where every one was comfortable and could lay up a fortune. He himself had saved over five thousand lire in four years and owned a one-third interest in a fruit store. He was going to take his brother’s family back with him—all of them. They would be rich, too, in a little while. A man was a fool to stay in Italy. Why did not Toni come back with him? He would get him a place on the railroad where one of his friends was padrone.

Toni discussed it all with Nicoletta, and she talked with the man herself.

“Toni,” she said at length, “why do you not go? Here you are earning nothing. There you could save in a month enough to keep your mother in comfort for a year. You have to pay the nurse, and that takes a great deal. While you are here it would cause talk if I came to live in your home to care for your mother but if you go away I can do so without comment and it will cost nothing. Perhaps you will find Vito. If not you will soon make enough to send for both your mother and me.”

“You are a good girl,” he answered, kissing her, “but I could not shift the responsibility of my mother to your shoulders. Still, I will talk to Father Giuseppi about it.”

The priest thought well of the plan (he was a little excited over America himself), and agreed to break the matter to the mother.

She begged Toni piteously not to go. He was her only surviving son. Vito was dead. Let him but wait a little while and she would not be there to stand in his way. Then the priest added his personal assurance that it would be for the best, and the mother finally gave way. Toni was obliged to tear himself away by force from the arms of the old woman lying upon the bed, and her feeble sobs echoed in his ears as he trudged down the road with the scarf Nicoletta had worked about his neck, and a small bundle of his tools and most precious possessions on his shoulder. A couple of miles farther on came another harrowing parting with his betrothed, and from the top of the next rise beyond he could see Nicoletta still standing at the crossroads gazing pitifully after him. Thus many an Italian, for good or ill, has left the place of his birth for the mysterious land of the Golden West.

The voyage was for Antonio an unalloyed agony of seasickness and homesickness, and when at last the great vessel steamed slowly up the North River, her band playing and the emigrants crowding eagerly to her sides, he had hardly spirit enough left to raise his eyes to the mountains of huge buildings from whose craters the white smoke rose slowly and blew away in great wind-torn clouds. Yet he felt some of the awakening enthusiasm of his comrades, and when once his feet touched earth again it was not long before he almost forgot his sufferings upon the ocean in his feverish anxiety to lose no time in beginning to save the money which should reunite him to Nicoletta and his mother. As soon as the vessel had docked a blustering Italian came among the emigrants and tagged a few dozen of them, including Antonio, with large blue labels, and then led them in a long, straggling line across the gangplank and marched them through the muddy streets to the railroad train. Here they huddled in a dirty car filled with smoke and were whirled with frightful speed for hours through a flat and smiling country. The noise, the smoke and the unaccustomed motion made Antonio ill again, and when the train stopped at Lambertville, New Jersey, the padrone had difficulty in rousing him from the animal-like stupor into which he had fallen.

The Italians crowded together upon the platform, gazing helplessly at one another and at the padrone, who was cursing them for a lot of stupid fools, and bidding them get upon a flat car that stood upon a siding. Antonio had to be pushed upon it by main force, but the journey this time was short, and in half an hour he found himself upon an embankment where hundreds of Italians were laboring with pick and shovel in the broiling sun. Here he also was given a pick and told to go to work.

Toni soon became accustomed to his new surroundings. Every night he and the rest were carried to Lambertville on flat cars and in the mornings were brought back to the embankment. The work was no harder than that to which he had been used, and he soon became himself again. Moreover, he found many of his old friends from Culiano working there. In the evenings they walked through the streets of the town or sat under the trees playing mora and tocco. His letters home were quite enthusiastic regarding the pleasant character of the life. To be sure he could not write himself, but his old friend Antonio Strollo, who had lived at Valva, only a mile from Culiano, acted as his amanuensis. He was very fond of Strollo, who was a dashing fellow, very merry and quite the beau of the colony, in his wonderful red socks and neckties of many colors. Strollo could read and write, and, besides, he knew Antonio’s mother and Nicoletta, and when Toni found himself unable to express his thoughts Strollo helped him out. When the answers came he read them to Toni and joined in the latter’s pleasure. Toni himself soon became a favorite in Lambertville, for he was simple and gentle, and full of good-will for everybody. He was very good-looking, too, with his handsome Roman profile, snapping black eyes and black curly locks. Yet he was sad always, especially so as since his arrival in America he had made no progress toward finding Vito. From time to time he met other Italians who had been working elsewhere, who thought they had seen him or some one that looked like him. But inquiry always elicited the fact that their desire to give him encouragement was greater than the accuracy of their memories. Of course Antonio Strollo, who had become Toni’s inseparable friend, shared all his eagerness to find Vito. In fact, Toni had no thought that he did not confide to his friend, and it was really the latter who composed the love letters to Nicoletta and the affectionate epistles to the mother.

Every month Toni divided what he earned into three parts. One of them he deposited in the savings-bank, another he invested in a money order which was sent by Strollo to Nicoletta for the mother, and the last he kept for himself. It was astounding how fast one really could make money if one was industrious. Forty dollars a month, sometimes! That made nearly seventy lire to send to Nicoletta. His bank account grew steadily, and he often saved something out of the money he allowed himself to live upon.

Antonio Strollo, on the other hand, was lazy and spent all his wages on chianti, neckties, waistcoats, and gambling. Sometimes he would do nothing for a whole month but loiter around the streets smoking cigars and ogling the village girls. These last were afraid of him and called him “The Dare Devil.”

Toni worked on the embankment for three years, sending his money with a letter to Nicoletta every month. The mother still lived and Nicoletta was giving up her own life to take care of her, but the old woman was very feeble and no longer had any hope of seeing either of her sons again. Moreover, she was now so bedridden that it was useless to think of trying to move her, even if Toni had plenty of money. No, as soon as he was satisfied that Vito could not be found and had saved enough money he must return. How she begged him to return! As Strollo read him the girl’s letters Toni wept bitter tears and Strollo wept likewise in sympathy. But no word came of Vito.

Toni, anxious about his mother, despairing of ever finding his brother, pining for Nicoletta and with three hundred dollars lying in the savings-bank, decided to return to Italy. But if only he could find Vito first! Then Antonio Strollo had an idea. Why not advertise, he suggested. He wondered that they had never thought of it before. They would put a notice in Il Progresso, the Italian paper in New York, and see what would come of it. Toni agreed that the idea was good, so Strollo wrote the notice offering a reward for news of Vito.

Two months passed, once more Toni gave up hope, and then, O-never-to-be-forgotten day! a letter came from the post-office from Vito! Toni threw his arms about Strollo and kissed him for joy. Vito was found at last! The letter, dated Yonkers, New York, told how Vito had by chance heard of Toni’s notice and learned that he was in America. He himself, he said, had prospered and was a padrone, employing many workmen on the water-works. He begged Toni for news of their mother. He confessed himself an ungrateful son never to have written, but he had married and had had children, and he had assumed that she was being cared for by his brother. Toni must forgive him and come to him at once.

“O Dio!” cried Toni, the tears in his eyes. “Forgive him? Of course I will forgive him! Come, Antonio, let us write my dear brother a letter without delay and tell him that our mother is still alive. How should I like to see his wife and babies!”

So they prepared a long letter which Strollo took to the post-office himself and mailed. Toni went back to work with joy in his heart and whistled and sang all day long, and, of course, he wrote all about it to Nicoletta. He was only waiting for his month to be up before starting. Then he would go to Yonkers, make Vito a little visit, and return home to Italy. It would be easy enough, after that, for Vito would send them money, if necessary, to live upon.

Several letters passed between the brothers, and at the end of the month Toni drew out his money from the bank, received his wages in full, and prepared to leave Lambertville. Meantime a letter had come from Nicoletta telling of his mother’s joy at learning that Vito was still alive.

As Toni had doubts as to his ability to find his way to Yonkers, Strollo kindly offered to accompany him. Toni had made many friends during his three-years’ stay in Lambertville, and he promised to write to them and tell them about Vito and his family, so it was agreed that the letter should be sent to Sabbatto Gizzi, in whose house he had lived, and that Gizzi should read it to the others. The address was written carefully on a piece of paper and given to Toni.

So early in the morning of August 16th, 1903, Toni and Strollo took the train for New York. It was a hot day, and once again the motion and speed made Toni feel ill, but the thought of seeing Vito buoyed him up, and by the time they had crossed the ferry and had actually reached New York he was very hungry. In his excitement he had forgotten to eat any breakfast and was now beginning to feel faint. But Strollo said it was a long way to Yonkers and that they must not stop. For many hours they trudged the streets without getting anywhere and then Strollo said it was time to take the cars. Toni was very tired, and he had to climb many flights of stairs to the train. It carried them a long distance, past miles of tenement houses and vacant lots, and at last into a sort of country. Strollo said they should get out. It was very hot and Toni was weak from weariness and lack of food, but his heart was light and he followed Strollo steadily down the wilting road. After going about a mile they crossed some fields near where people were playing a game at hitting little balls with sticks. It was astonishing how far they could strike the balls—entirely out of sight.

“Is this Yonkers?” asked Toni.

“It is near here,” answered Strollo. “We are going by a short way.”

They entered some thick woods and came out upon another field. Toni was now so faint that he begged his friend to stop.

“Can we not get some food?” he inquired; “I can hardly walk.”

“There is a man in that field,” said Strollo. “Go and ask him.”

So Toni plodded over to the man who was digging mushrooms and asked him in broken English where they could get something to eat. The man told him that it was a long way. They would have to take the trolley to Yonkers. There was a restaurant there called the “Promised Land,” where one could get Italian dishes. He seemed to take a kindly interest in Toni and in Strollo, who had remained some distance behind, and Toni gave him a cigar—a “Cremo”—the last one he had. Then Strollo led the way back into the woods.

It was almost sunset, and the long, low beams slanting through the tree trunks made it hard to see. They went deeper and deeper into the woods. Presently Strollo, who was leading the way, stopped and said:

“We are going in the wrong direction. We must turn around and go back.”

Toni turned. As he did so Strollo drew a long knife and plunged it again and again through Toni’s body.

Strollo spent that night, under an assumed name, at the Mills Hotel in Bleecker Street. He had stabbed himself accidentally in the knee and also in the left hand in the fury of his attack, and when he arose in the morning the sheets were covered with blood. There was also blood on his shoes, which had been new, but he took his knife and scraped it off. He had experienced a strange sort of terrified exaltation the night before, and in the early light as he crept downstairs and out of the hotel he could not have told whether he were more glad or afraid. For he had three hundred dollars in his pocket, more than he had ever seen at any one time before—as much as a man could save in two whole years. He would be a king now for a long time. He need not work. He could eat, drink and play cards and read some books he had heard about. As for finding him out—never! The police would not even know who Torsielli was, to say nothing of who had killed him, for he had removed, as he thought, everything in Toni’s pockets. There would be a dead man in the morgue, that was all. He could go back to Lambertville and say that he had left Toni with his brother, at Yonkers, and that would be the end of it. First, though, he would buy some new clothes.

It was very early and the shops were hardly open, but he found one place where he could buy a suit, another some underclothes, and a third a pair of shoes. The shoemaker, who was a thrifty man, asked Strollo what was the matter with the shoes he had on, so Strollo craftily said they hurt his feet. Then he ate a hearty breakfast, and bought a better cigar than he had ever smoked before. There was a bookstore near by and he purchased some books—”Alto Amore” and “Sua Maestá e Sua Moneta” (“The Height of Love” and “His Majesty and His Money”). He would read them on the train. He felt warm and comfortable now and not afraid at all. By and by he went back on the train to Lambertville and smoked and read all the way, contented as the tiger is contented which has tracked down and slain a water-buffalo.

The same afternoon about sunset, in a lonely part of Van Cortlandt Park, the mushroom digger stumbled over Torsielli’s body lying face downward among the leaves. He recognized it as that of the man who had asked the way to something to eat and given him a cigar. He ran from the sight and, pallid with fear, notified the nearest police officer. Then things took the usual course. The body was removed to the morgue, an autopsy was performed, and “Headquarters” took charge of the case. As the deceased was an Italian, Detective Sergeant Petrosini was called in. Torsielli’s pockets were empty save for the band of a “Cremo” cigar in one waistcoat pocket and a tiny slip of paper in another, on which was penciled “Sabbatto Gizzi, P.O. Box 239, Lambertville, New Jersey.” Whether this last was the name of the deceased, the murderer, or some one else, no one knew. Headquarters said it was a blind case, but Petrosini shrugged his shoulders and bought a ticket to Lambertville.

Here he found Sabbatto Gizzi, who expressed genuine horror at learning of Toni’s death and readily accompanied Petrosini to New York, where he identified the body as indeed that of Torsielli. He told Petrosini that Toni had left Lambertville in the company of Strollo on Thursday, August 16th. This was Saturday, August 18th, and less than thirty-six hours after the murder. Strollo, reading “Alto Amore,” and drinking in the saloon, suspected nothing. New York was seventy miles away—too far for any harm to come. But Monday morning, walking lazily down the street near the railroad station, Strollo found himself suddenly confronted by a heavily-built man with a round, moon-shaped face thickly covered with pockmarks. Strollo did not like the way the latter’s gimlet-like eyes looked him over. There was no time to turn and fly, and, besides, Strollo had no fear. They might come and ask him questions, and he might even admit almost all—almost all, and they could do nothing, for no one had seen what he had done to Toni in the wood. So Strollo returned Petrosini’s gaze unflinchingly.

“Are you Antonio Strollo?” asked the detective, coming close to the murderer.

“Yes, certainly, I am Antonio Strollo,” replied the latter.

“Do you know Antonio Torsielli?” continued Petrosini.

“To be sure,” answered Strollo. “I knew him well,” he added almost insolently.

“Why did you accompany him to New York?” inquired Petrosini sharply. Strollo paled. He had not known that the police were aware of the fact.

“I had errands in the city. I needed clothes,” said Strollo.

“He has been murdered,” said Petrosini quietly. “Will you come to New York to identify the body?”

Strollo hesitated.

“Why—yes—certainly. I will go to New York.” Then he added, thinking that his words seemed insufficient, “I am sorry if Torsielli has been murdered, for he was a friend of mine.”

There was a wait of several hours before the train started for New York and Strollo utilized it by giving Petrosini a detailed account of his trip with Torsielli. He took his time about it and thought each statement over very carefully before he made it, for he was a clever fellow, this Strollo. He even went into the family history of Torsielli and explained about the correspondence with the long-lost brother, in which he acted as amanuensis, for he had come to the conclusion that in the long run honesty (up to a certain point) would prove the best policy. Thus he told the detective many things which the latter did not know or even suspect. Strollo’s account of what had happened was briefly as follows:

He and Toni had reached New York about twelve o’clock and had spent an hour or so in the neighborhood of Mott Street looking at the parade of “San Rocco.” Then they had started for Yonkers and gone as far as the terminal of the Second Avenue El. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon. They had got out and started to walk. As they proceeded they suddenly had seen a man standing under a tree and Torsielli had said to Strollo:

“That man standing under that tree looks like my brother.”

Strollo had replied:

“You know I am not acquainted with your brother.”

As they reached the tree the stranger had stepped forward and said to Torsielli:

“Who are you?”

“Who? Me? My name is Antonio Torsielli,” had been the reply. “Who are you?”

“I am Vito Torsielli,” had answered the stranger. Then the two had rushed into each other’s arms.

“And what did you do?” inquired Petrosini, as Strollo naïvely concluded this extraordinary story.

“Me?” answered Strollo innocently. “Why, there was nothing for me to do, so I went back to New York.”

Petrosini said nothing, but bided his time. He had now several important bits of evidence. By Strollo’s own account he had been with the deceased in the general locality of the murder shortly before it occurred; he had given no adequate explanation of why he was in New York at all; and he was now fabricating a preposterous falsehood to show that he had left his victim before the homicide was committed. On the train Petrosini began to tie up some of the loose ends. He noticed the wound on Strollo’s hand and asked where it had been obtained. The suspect replied that he had received it at the hands of a drunken man in Mott Street. He even admitted having stayed at the Mills Hotel the same evening under an assumed name, and gave as an excuse that his own name was difficult for an American to pronounce and write. Later, this information led to the finding of the bloody bedclothes. He denied, however, having changed his clothes or purchased new ones, and this the detective was obliged to ferret out for himself, which he did by visiting or causing to be visited almost every Italian shop upon the East Side. Thus the incident of the shoes was brought to light.

Strollo was at once taken to the morgue on reaching the city, and here for the first time his nerve failed him, for he could not bring himself to inspect the ghastly body of his victim.

“Look,” cried Petrosini; “is that the man?”

“Yes, yes,” answered the murderer, trembling like a leaf. “That is he.”

“You are not looking at him,” said the detective. “Why don’t you look at him. Look at the body.”

“I am looking at him,” replied Strollo, averting his eyes. “That is he—my friend—Antonio Torsielli.”

The prisoner was now taken to Police Headquarters and searched. Here a letter was found in his hip pocket in his own handwriting purporting to be from Antonio Torsielli to his brother Vito at Yonkers, but enclosed in an envelope addressed to Antonio at Lambertville.

This envelope bore a red two-cent stamp and was inscribed:

      Lambertville, New Jersey.

The letter as later translated in court by the interpreter read as follows:

LAMBERTVILLE, July 30, 1905.

My dear Brother:

Upon receipt of your news I feel very happy to feel you are well, and the same I can assure you from me. Dear Brother, you cannot believe the joy I feel after such a long time to know where you are. I have been looking for you for two years, and never had any news from you. I could not, as you wrote to me to, come to you, because I had no money, and then I didn’t know where to go because I have been always in the country. Know that what little money I have I sent it to mother, because if I don’t help her nobody will, as you never write to her. I believe not to abandon her, because she is our mother, and we don’t want her cursed. So then, if you like to see me, you come and take me. You spoke to me about work thither, but I don’t understand about that work which you say, and then what will I do because here I have work, therefore, if you think I can come and work with you let me know because I have the address. But if you want to do better you come and take me. Dear Brother, I remind you about our mother, because I don’t earn enough money, which she is your mother also. DEAR BROTHER, I hope you did not forget our mother. Dear Brother, let me know the names of your children, and I kiss them. Many regards to your wife and Aunt. I beg you to write to me. Dear regards, your brother, Antonio Torsielli. When you answer send the answer to the address below, Antonio Strollo.

Strollo made no attempt to explain the possession of this letter, which, if sent at all would naturally have come into the possession of the addressee.

“And what was Vito’s address at Yonkers?” inquired Petrosini.

“1570 Yonkers,” answered Strollo.

“Is that the street number of a house or a post-office number?” asked the detective.

“Neither,” said Strollo. “Just 1570 Yonkers.”

Thus the infamy of this villain was made manifest. He had invented out of his own brain the existence of Vito Torsielli in Yonkers, and had himself written the letters to Antonio which purported to come from him. He had used the simple fellow’s love for his long-lost brother as the means to lure him to his destruction, and brutally murdered him for the sake of the few dollars which his innocent victim had worked so hard to earn to reunite him to his mother and his betrothed.

The wounds in Strollo’s hand and knee were found to correspond in shape and character with the thirty-six wounds in Torsielli’s body, and the mushroom digger unhesitatingly identified him as the man in the company of the deceased upon the afternoon of the murder.

It almost seemed like the finger of Providence indicating the assassin when the last necessary piece of evidence in this extraordinary case was discovered. Petrosini had hurried to Lambertville immediately upon the discovery of the letter and visited the post-office.

A young lady named Miss Olive Phillips had been employed there as a clerk for twelve years, and had lately had charge of what are known as the “call boxes”—that is to say, of boxes to which no keys are issued, but for the contents of which the lessees have to ask at the delivery window. These are very inexpensive and in use generally by the Italian population of Lambertville, who are accustomed to rent them in common—one box to three or four families. She had noticed Strollo when he had come for his mail on account of his flashy dress and debonair demeanor. Strollo’s box, she said, was No. 420. Petrosini showed her the envelope of the letter found in Strollo’s pocket. The stamp indicated that it had been cancelled at Lambertville on July 26. When she saw the envelope she called Petrosini’s attention to the fact that the stamp was a two-cent red stamp, and said, to his surprise, that she was able to identify the letter on that account as one mailed by Strollo on July 26. As there is no local delivery in the town, she explained, “drop letters,” or letters mailed by residents to other residents, may be franked for one cent. Now, in the first place, no Italian in Lambertville, except Strollo, so far as Miss Phillips could remember, had ever mailed a letter to another Italian in the same town. A frugal Italian, moreover, if he had done so, would have put on only the required amount of postage. On the 26th of July, Strollo had come to the post-office and pushed this identical letter through the window, at the same time handing her two cents and asking her to put on a red stamp for him. She had been surprised at this, and had at first thought of calling his attention to the fact that only a one-cent stamp was necessary, but she had refrained and put on the stamp. At the same time she had noticed that it was addressed to “Antonio Torsielli, Lambertville, New Jersey.” Strollo had then taken the letter and slipped it into the “drop” and she had cancelled the stamp, taking the opportunity to examine the letter a second time. A stranger coincidence could hardly be imagined, and this observing young lady from the country was thus able to supply the most important link in the chain against the murderer, and to demonstrate conclusively that the wretch had himself been mailing in Lambertville the letters purporting to come from the fictitious brother in Yonkers.

Strollo was now placed in the House of Detention as a “witness,” a course frequently pursued when it is desirable to prevent a suspect from knowing that he is accused.

The case against him was practically complete, for it did not seem humanly possible, that any jury would hesitate to convict him upon the evidence, but juries are loath to find any one guilty of murder in the first degree upon purely circumstantial evidence, and this was the first purely circumstantial case in a long time. Inspector Price, therefore, conceived the idea of trapping Strollo into a confession by placing a detective in confinement with him under the guise of being a fellow-prisoner. It was, of course, patent that Strollo was but a child mentally, but he was shrewd and sly, and if he denied his guilt, there was still a chance of his escape. Accordingly, a detective named Repetto was assigned to the disagreeable task of taking the part of an accused criminal. He was detailed to the House of Detention and remained there for five days, from September 8 to September 13. Here Repetto became acquainted with Strollo and the other prisoners, giving his name as Silvio del Sordo and his address as 272 Bowery. He played cards with them, read the papers aloud and made himself generally agreeable. During this period he frequently saw the defendant write and familiarized himself with his chirography.

The scheme worked and Repetto afterward received five letters from Strollo, sent after the latter had been removed from the House of Detention to the Tombs and indicted for the murder of Torsielli. The first, dated September 22d, was merely to inform his supposed friend Silvio of the change in his residence and to inquire the whereabouts of another prisoner named Philip. The second would be pathetic were it not written by the defendant in the case. It carries with it the flavor of the Calabrian hills.

NEW YORK, October 17, 1905.


I write and believe not to sicken you with my words, but it is enough that you are well in health. I take the liberty again not having any one else but you, and I believe to find a brother in you, not a friend. I ask you nothing, only if you have time to come and see me as soon as possible. I ask you this as a favor because I know and believe to find a true friend, as I want to ask you a certain thing at the cost of my life. I will not say any more. Bring me five cents of paper and envelopes to write letters and when you come I will give you the money. Nothing else. I am yours ever. Servant and

Perfect friend,


The third letter from the perfect friend to his equally perfect friend is an extraordinary combination of ingenuity and ignorance. It contains the only suggestion of a defence—that of an alibi.

NEW YORK, October 30, 1905.


With retard I answer in receiving yours. I was very, very glad. I believe all you told me and I am grateful, and hope you will not betray me, because you know it will cost the life of a poor unfortunate, so do as you told me, keep things to ourselves, if you wish to help me you will do me a great service, and if God helps me, you can dispose of my life.

So I will have you called unexpected, saying that I did not know if you remembered. So if you are called the first thing you must do is to make believe to look at me, and then you say you remember of having seen me looking at the pictures in front of place where you work, and you asked me if I wanted my pictures taken and I said no. If they ask at what time say 5:20 or 5:30 P.M., and that you spoke with me for quite awhile. If they ask how was he dressed? The coat was black, the shoes russet the Trousers with white stripes which is the one I am now wearing; what tie, I don’t remember, I only know he was well dressed, the hat was brown, if they ask did he have a mark on his hand? Say no, he had a ring with a black stone, how many times did you see him, say that after your work you were going around Mott Street and you saw me again and how it was eight o’clock or past eight and you saw me with a handkerchief around my hand, and you said to me, why I had my hand so. And he answered that some one struck him, I asked if it hurt much, he said he did not feel it, did both of you go to drink. No. Where else did Strollo go, Strollo said he was going at the Bleecker Street Hotel to sleep, did you see him again. No. Nothing else, if you want to help me reflect well, but you don’t need any more words from me say just what I have said and I hope, with faith of a brother not a friend, I am ever your Friend,


It may, and probably will, appear to the reader that a clearer case of guilt could hardly be established, but the action of juries is always problematical, and this was a case composed entirely of circumstantial evidence. The jury would be obliged to find that no reasonable hypothesis consistent with the innocence of the accused could be formulated upon the evidence. Thus, even in the face of the facts proven against him, some “freak” juryman might still have said, “But, after all, how do you know that Strollo killed him? Some other fellow might have done it.” Even the “faking” of a defence does not prove the defendant guilty, but merely that he fears conviction, and is ready to resort to feigned testimony to secure his freedom. Many innocent men convict themselves in precisely this way.

Accordingly it was by no means with confidence that the People went to trial, but throughout this remarkable case it seemed as if it must have been preordained that Strollo should not escape punishment for his treacherous crime. No defence was possible, not even the partially prepared alibi was attempted, and the only thing that savored of a defence was the introduction of a letter alleged to have been received by the defendant while in the House of Detention, and which, if genuine, would have apparently established that the crime had been perpetrated by the “Black Hand.”

The offering of this letter was a curious and fatal blunder, for it was later proven by the People to be in Strollo’s own handwriting. It was his last despairing effort to escape the consequences of his crime. Headed with a cross drawn in blood it ran as follows:

I swear upon this cross, which is the blood of my veins, Strollo is innocent. I swear upon the cross the revengeful Black Hand could save me. New York, Oct. 12, 1905. Sir Strollo, knowing you only by name, eight days after that I leave this letter will be sent to you. I leave at seven o’clock with the Steamer Britain the Harbor. Therefore I leave betraying my oath that I have held for the last three years belonging to the Black Hand. I will leave three letters, one to you, one to the Police Officer Capri, and the other to the law, 300 Mulberry Street. All what I am saying I have sworn to before God. Therefore your innocence will be given you, first by God and then by the law, capturing the true murders. I am sure that they already captured the murderer of Torsielli. Who lured you to come to New York was Giuseppi Rosa, who knew you for nearly two years, and who comes from Lambertville, came among us and played you a trick. He is a Calabrise and has a mighty grudge. He and four others are averse to them. Announce the name of the man who stabbed you with the knife was Antonio Villa. He had to kill you, but you was fortunate. He is in jail for the present time and I don’t know for how long, but I know that he was arrested. Nothing else to say. I have done my duty in giving you all the information. 407 2nd St., Jersey.First page of the "Black Hand" letter written by Strollo,
and put in evidence at his trial, placing the murder of Torsielli upon
members of that imaginary secret organization. This letter convicted

First page of the “Black Hand” letter written by Strollo, and put in evidence at his trial, placing the murder of Torsielli upon members of that imaginary secret organization. This letter convicted him.

It is clear from the letter that Strollo had formed a vague plan for his defence, which should, in part, consist of the claim that he, as well as Torsielli, had been marked for death by the Black Hand, and that while both had been induced to come to New York, the plans of the assassins had in his case miscarried.

The reader has already observed that purely for the purpose of securing his continued interest in the present narrative the writer has, as it were, told his story backward, reserving as long as possible the fact that the finding of the beloved Vito was a pure fiction invented by the murderer. At the trial, however, the jury listened breathlessly while bit by bit the whole pathetic story was painted before them, like a mosaic picture. They heard first the story of the mushroom digger, there of the expedition of Petrosini to Lambertville, of the identification of Torsielli’s body, of the elaborate fabrications of Strollo, and in due course, of the tell-tale letter in the murderer’s pocket. Gradually the true character of the defendant’s crime came over them and they turned from him in aversion. The natural climax in the evidence was Miss Phillip’s extraordinary identification of the defendant sitting at the bar as the man who had mailed upon the 26th of July, at the Lambertville post-office, the envelope purporting to come from Yonkers and containing the forged letter from the imaginary Vito.

Strollo remained almost to the last confident that he could never be convicted, but when his own letters in prison were introduced in evidence he turned ashen pale and stared fixedly at the judge. The jury deliberated but fifteen minutes, their functions consisting of but a single ballot, followed by a prayer for the wretched murderer’s soul. Then they filed slowly back and, in the waning light of the summer afternoon just one year after the murder, and at the precise hour at which Strollo had killed his victim, pronounced him guilty of murder in the first degree. In due course his conviction was sustained by the Court of Appeals, and on March 11th, 1908, he paid the penalty for his crime in the electric chair.