My grandfather, Nicola Dello Russo, owned a tavern at the corner of Lewis and Commercial Streets during the early to mid twentieth century. Like all taverns, the walls were covered with pictures of local celebrities and events and the picture I am sharing today was one of those. Unfortunately there were no annotations as to what the picture represented but since it was important enough for my grandfather, a hard, unsentimental man, to keep, I decided to do some sleuthing and try to deduce what this picture represented and how it related to the North End.
The first mystery was the setting, where and when was the picture taken?
The photo had to have been taken in the North End, it just has that North End look and feel about it. The monolithic structure in the background looks like the Customs House which was the dominant feature of Boston’s skyline for a century. There are no automobiles on the street, just horse drawn wagons and trolley cars. This, and the clothing of the people, led me to think this was taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. It is a wide street, one of the main streets in the North End, with a mix of residential and commercial real estate, even a Chinese restaurant, but which street? The sight lines and street layouts of the North End have been altered over the past century with the construction of the Sumner Tunnel and Central Artery but I think it is Cross St where it merges with North Washington although Merrimack St is a possibility. I would appreciate any other suggestions.
Now, even more important, what does it depict?
It is obviously the funeral procession of a local celebratory. There are flower cars in front followed by a marching band. Behind them is the hearse with the casket covered by a blanket of white flowers, probably carnations. Prominent local men are accompanying the hearse on each side carrying an American flag and an Italian flag, not the familiar tricolor but the flag of Naples and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This was an expensive funeral for a very important person but who could it be?. I was stumped but my daughter suggested I look in Stephen Puleo’s wonderful book “The Boston Italians”. There I found the answer and the story is fascinating.
I believe this photograph was taken in 1906 and depicts the funeral of George Scigliano, one of the most revered and admired men in the history of the North End but a man who is almost unknown today.
George Scigliano was born in the North End in 1874. He graduated from Boston University Law School in 1900 and was elected to the Boston Common (City) Council that same year, the first person of Italian decent to attain that position. Three years later he ran against the North End political machine of John F. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald and became a member of the State House of Representatives. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of Italian immigrants and fought to end the “padroni” system of employment which exploited the immigrants. He also introduced legislation to regulate the local Italian banks, often run out of grocery stores, which cheated poor immigrants out of their money. He founded the Italian Protective League, the first Italian labor union and was instrumental in obtaining a cemetery for Italians in Boston. George Scigliano died tragically at the age of thirty two and the North End lost one of its great early leaders.
If I am right this picture is an important record of a bygone era in Boston’s North End. I have never seen it published before and I am pleased to share it with our readers.
So, is the mystery solved?
My grandfather is long dead so I can’t ask him why he saved this picture but he and George Scigliano were contemporaries in the North End. In 1900 my grandfather and his young wife, Carmela, were living at 4 North Square in a tenement building owned by a paesano. Being a day laborer he was subject to the indignities and prejudices of the bosses and padroni and I don’t doubt he knew and admired George Scigliano. He may even have gone to his rallies and heard him speak. Scigliano’s death obviously had a profound effect on my grandfather, so much so that he kept this picture on the wall of his tavern for decades. Perhaps nonno Nick was more sentimental than I thought.