Dakota Datebook

Black Hand

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

On December 8, 1913, a Fargo Forum story read, “The secrets of the terrible (Camorrista) clan, the black hand of Italy whose power is feared in every corner of the globe, may be bared at Bismarck…when Francesco Coccimigilio faces trial for the murder of Antoine Rigori.”

Actually, the reporter had his Italian groups mixed up. The Camorristas were from Naples and the Black Hand was part of the Mafia down in Sicily; the two groups were competitors. The Mafia segment got its name for drawings of threatening black hands they added to extortion letters.

Our Italians in Bismarck didn’t belong to either group, and the victim was not Antoine Rigori; it was Felice Yannazzo. It took many days for the press to drop its sensational speculation of vendettas, secret letters and assassination, and instead report the actual facts of the murder trial, which ended on this date in 1913.

The victim, the accused, and at least six other Italians were part of a Northern Pacific railroad crew working southeast of Bismarck that year. The Italians all came from the same town, Sambiase. Yannazzo joined the crew in July and appears to have been Coccimigilio’s cousin.

The crew was living in a railroad camp at Apple Creek Station, and their living quarters consisted of two adjoining boxcars outfitted with bunk beds. It was in one of these that Yannazzo met his death during the night of September 10th.

That day, the crew’s timekeeper, Percy Cardieux, and four of the Italians took a hand-railcar into Bismarck to pick up groceries and supplies. They also brought back two 10-gallon kegs of whiskey, and that night every man drank his share.

During the party, Yannazzo pulled out his guitar, and the Italians sang some of their native folk songs. The men had to work the next morning, and some decided to go to bed, but Yannazzo was having a good time and kept playing. Through an interpreter, witness Tony Delucci said Yannazzo was a bully who kept several knives on him, plus a dagger and two revolvers by his pillow. When Yannazzo continued partying, Coccimigilio yelled at his cousin to go to sleep, and the two got into an argument.

“It was difficult for (Mr. Delucci) to explain,” a news story read, “in his native language…to the jury just how the murder occurred, and using States Attorney Berndt as a subject, he illustrated how Yannazzo had first attacked Coccimigilio and threw him to the floor of the car, and struck him several times while he was on top of Coccimigilio with his fists.”
Delucci also said Yannazzo threatened to kill Coccimigilio, who threw him off and stabbed him, killing him. What appeared to be a case of self-defense turned out to be a bit more complicated. Doctors stated Yannazzo’s body had thirteen deep stab wounds “about his trunk and head, any one of which might have caused his death.”

In the end, the jury found Coccimigilio guilty of 2nd degree murder. The 25-year-old appealed to Judge Nuessle for clemency, saying he had never been in trouble before and that he had served honorably in the Italian army. He was in America to support his wife and baby daughter back in Italy; they had no other relatives or means of support. The judge gave Coccimigilio 16 years and told him he might get out earlier for good behavior.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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