Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Behind the Scottoriggio Murder in Marcantonio’s Bailiwick

A Sordid Record of Corrupt Municipal Politics

(23 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 51, 23 December 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On Election Day, in the East Harlem area of New York City, where the former ally of fascists, present darling of Stalinists and ruthless local machine boss, Vito Marcantonio, rules, a Republican district captain, Joseph Scottoriggio, was murdered while on his way to the polls.

Since then the case has become a cause célèbre in the city. It has been eagerly seized upon by the Republican opponents of Marcantonio as a means of trying to discredit him in the public eye. Governor Dewey paid a personal visit to the widow of the murdered man in order to express his sympathy – in the presence of camera men, of course. The Republicans, convinced that the murder or their local leader could be traced or at least plausibly laid at the door of the Marcantonio machine, have continuously demanded investigations.

Police Shakeup Results

As a result, a major shakeup has just been announced in the New York City Police Department. Assistant Chief Inspector John J. De Martino, for twelve years head of the uniformed police force of Manhattan’s East Side, has been forced to “resign” and the ranks of the cops have been thoroughly shaken up after the charges of District Attorney Frank Hogan that “high ranking police officials in Harlem were hampering the investigation into the Election Day murder.” (New York Times, December 12)

Though Tammany Hall, with which Mayor O’Dwyer is politically associated, has made repeated deals with Marcantonio, it has not relished the need to share patronage and power with this local political martinet and accomplice of the Stalinists (Marcantonio is chairman of the New York ALP). O’Dwyer, both as a result of powerful pressure and a fear that anything less than a forceful investigation might lead to the case blowing up in the face of the local Democratic Party, then put the spurs to Police Commissioner Wallander and the police shakeup was the result.

In the meantime, several local East Harlem toughs have been held as material witnesses. They are: Joey Rao, big-shot aide during Prohibition to the late Dutch Schultz; Michael (Trigger Mike) Coppola, strong-arm man for the late Vincent Coll, Harlem beer runner; and Emilio Tizel, a local tough who is being held in custody for fear that he may be “rubbed out” because of the information he has allegedly given to the police. The former two have had their bail reduced from $250,000 each to $40,000 each – by Democratic Judge Aaron Levy.

Facts Are Sordid

These are the facts at the time of writing. Now let’s try to unravel the meaning of this sordid situation:

1) Who Killed Scottoriggio? According to all observers, the killing of this insignificant little man was probably an “accident.” The skilled crime reporter of the N.Y. Times, Meyer Berger, offered on December 12 a conjecture which seems reasonable:

“ might develop that the Republican district captain’s death from a beating at the polls may have been the mistake of overzealous East Harlem ‘muscle men’ assigned, as underworld argot would have it, ‘to just give it to him once over lightly.’”

It is common knowledge that Marcantonio’s political domination in East Harlem, a neighborhood populated primarily by the most poverty-stricken elements in the city, is based on an alliance between his local political machine WITH the Stalinists and WITH local gangs of toughs. For in no other part of the city are gambling, prostitution, vice, dope-smuggling and other racketeering so common – and so undisturbed by the police.

In the recent election, the Republicans were for the first time in years a major threat to Marcantonio. Republican meetings were constantly disturbed by his goons and in several cases violence was used against Republican election workers. It is then possible that some of these goons got a little too rough; or that, in addition to fulfilling an assignment they had a personal grudge against Scottoriggio and therefore added a few blows for good measure – one of which proved fatal?

2) What Is the Role of the Democratic Party? The Democrats are in a very ticklish situation – for Marcantonio is their ally. He captured the Democratic primary and has often worked with Tammany Hall. If they could be shown to be lax in finding the killer, it would be a tremendous political blow at them. Mayor O’Dwyer has therefore, like it or not, had to put the squeeze on the police’. But one fact is already clear: Tammany Hall has played ball with the Marcantonio gang, has been an ally and accomplice in its corruption; it has winked its eye at the events in East Harlem – at least until the going got too hot.

3) What About the Police? The blunt statement of DA Hogan about “high police officials ... hampering the investigation” is virtually an open admission that the police have looked the other way when things happened in East Harlem. Otherwise, why the shakeup? There then is a damning commentary on New York’s finest.

It is interesting to compare the frantic activity in this case, where the political stakes are high, with police indifference and routinism in the case of the unsolved political murder of Carlo Tresca, anarchist leader, a few years back. The police department, in addition to its traditional sympathetic attitude to local racketeering, is manipulated by the dominant capitalist party according to its passing interests.

4) Where Do the Stalinists Come In? The Stalinists, themselves experienced hands at political murders, who have puffed Marcantonio up from a small-time political wardheeler into a national figure, are worried stiff lest he be implicated, however indirectly, in the affair. The Daily Worker has blown hot and cold in the matter, in its December 11 issue it suggests the possibility that De Martino’s resignation was provoked “because he would not go along with certain ‘suggestions’ made to him to ‘get’ Marcantonio?”

Now the possibility that a move is on to “get” Marcantonio politically by means of cooking up a case in which he would be implicated and that pressure to that effect was put on De Martino, cannot be summarily denied. But that possibility does not remove the fact that Marcantonio has worked together with unsavory elements and that rough-neck tactics have been used, by his supporters – the consequences of which for the Scottoriggio case are suggestive. And that is why the Stalinists are in a stew – and rightly so, for they too are deeply implicated in this mess of capitalist political corruption.

5) And Now: Enter the Republicans. For the Republicans, all of this seems a golden opportunity. To implicate, no matter how Validly, the Marcantonio-Stalinist-Tammany alliance in this murder would be of tremendous help to them; which is why Governor Dewey has been putting so much pressure on the city administration. But the hands of the Republicans are also soiled in this affair. For Marcantonio was the protege and darling of the former Republican Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. As the New York Post of December 13 writes: “Mayor La Guardia ... closed his eyes to the goings-on in the bailiwick of his favorite, Marc, and the police naturally followed suit.” We could not say more ourselves.

Furthermore, the Republicans in this situation have been soiled by the propaganda methods they have used. They have not refrained from none too subtly veiled references to the national groups living in East Harlem – Puerto Ricans and Italians – which were of an inflammatory character. They have been eager to cook up a case regardless of whether there really was one. And they have kept a deadly silence on their own ties to the corruption which is now gradually being exposed.

6) What Does All This Add Up To? Here again we wish to quote the New York Post of December 13:

“... while crime is fostered by faulty or dishonest police work, it is bred by slums, race discrimination, poverty, disease – and in no area of New York do these evils, exist in greater profusion.

“This is a neighborhood of the dispossessed and hopeless. It is a natural haven for gangsters ... Here is the highest tuberculosis death rate in the city; here the overcrowding is three times as great as in the rest of the city, and here live the mass of New York’s Puerto Ricans and many Negroes – last to be hired and first to be fired.”

Accurately put! But the “liberal” Post, of course, does not understand or does not wish to understand what all of this means.

Bred in this “neighborhood of the dispossessed and hopeless,” there has arisen a political machine of cynicism, corruption and demagogy; this machine may now have been involved in outright terrorism; both capitalist political parties are themselves involved and simultaneously trying to use it against each other; the police department is shown to have been involved.

Could there be a more damning and eloquent demonstration of the corruption of capitalist municipal government – what was once called “The Shame of Our Cities”? For here on a local and limited scale have been reproduced all of the features which make of capitalism in general such a corrupting and degrading social system.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 19 July 2020