A few weeks ago, Anthony Riccio sent me this picture taken in the North End and asked if I could identify the men. Anthony is writing a book about the North End that will be published later this year. The book will consist of pictures and interviews collected by Anthony when he worked at the North End’s senior citizens club back in the 1980s. He would like to accurately identify as many of his subjects as possible.
The picture was labeled as being taken in front of a building at 175 Endicott Street. The building is now a condominium, but was previously owned by a man named Pantaleone Mercurio whose granddaughter, Marie, still lives on Endicott Street.
Pantaleone had a business called Calabria Wine Company that was located on the street level of the building. Anthony Riccio wasn’t able to date the picture and thought it might be from the 1940s, but after looking at the clothing and hair styles I placed it at about 1920. The men in the picture would be my grandfather’s contemporaries in the North End. The picture shows six men standing or crouching on the doorstep in front of the building. I was unable to identify the five on the periphery, but the one standing in the center looked very familiar. I knew I had seen that face before.
The hat pushed up at a rakish angle, the stylish, double breasted gray suit, the boutonnière in his lapel, the pocket handkerchief, and the slight smirk on his face reminded me of this man, one of the most famous North Enders of all. I am convinced the man in the photo is Charles Ponzi, a person I have written about previously on NorthEndWaterfront.com:
There is no doubt that Ponzi was a character and a lifelong con artist. He was born in Emilia Romagna, Northern Italy, and in the photo you can see how pale his complexion is, contrasting to the olive-skinned Southern Italians in the photo. I can’t help thinking he was somehow uneasy posing for the picture.
A basically self-educated man, Ponzi could speak several languages and traveled easily in the company of rich and poor alike. He arrived in Boston in 1903 aboard the SS Vancouver with only a dollar in his pocket. He worked first as a dishwasher and bus boy while sleeping on the floors of various restaurants. (My grandfather told me a similar story about his coming to Boston in 1895.) Ponzi worked his way up to being a waiter, but was later fired for shortchanging customers. He spent time in Montreal where he learned the financial manipulations possible in the privately owned banking industry. His mentor was Luigi Zarossi who owned the Banca Zarossi and who hired Ponte as a clerk. When Zarossi’s bank went under and Zarossi absconded to Mexico, Ponzi supported himself by smuggling Italian immigrants from Canada to the United States. He was caught and served a short prison term.
By 1919 he was back in Boston planning his next financial scheme. At that time, right after the end of World War I, Europe was in a shambles and the European currencies were crashing vis a vis the American dollar. Enterprising Italians in America took advantage of this currency imbalance by engaging in kind of arbitrage, smuggling money from America into Italy, buying Italian goods and products, and shipping them back to the States where they could be resold at an enormous profit.
Since America was on the gold standard, American greenbacks could be exchanged for gold in Italy at a ten or even twenty-to-one exchange rate. North End jewelers bought gold chains and bracelets in Italy to resell here. Grocers imported wine, cheese, salumi, and many other Italian food products that they would repackage and resell. Many locally famous Italian grocery companies, such as Pastene, Progresso, and Genoa Foods, started in this way. These remittances were done on such a large scale there was a danger they would weaken the currency and push the American economy into deflation. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was enacted to severely limit Southern Italian immigration and put an end to these remittances.
Ponzi was well aware of the currency arbitrage that was making North End merchants wealthy. One day he received a letter from Spain that had an International Response Coupon attached to it. He noticed the coupon cost a few Spanish pesos, but could be exchanged for an American stamp which was worth two or three times that. He used that perfectly legal fact to start his eponymous financial scheme from an office called the Securities Exchange Company on School Street. Ponzi promised investors a 50% return on money in forty-five days. That was in January of 1920. Within months he was taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, so much that he tried taking over the Hanover Trust Company, a bank on Hanover Street to hide his vast amount of cash.
With so much money coming in, Ponzi began spending it by emulating the Boston Yankees he so admired. He bought a mansion in Lexington, a Locomobile, the fanciest automobile at that time, and even bought the Napoli Macaroni Company. He claimed he never wanted to run out of spaghetti at home. One of his investments was a wine importing company. Could it have been the Calabria Wine Company? We’ll never know. Prohibition and the Volstead Act went into effect in 1920 so any investment in a wine company would have been worthless.
So who were the men in the photo Ponzi was posing with? Were they investors in his financial scheme or could they be tough North End guys who ran rum trucks from Canada to Boston? Again, we’ll never know.
I’ve never seen this picture properly identified before. Anthony Riccio and I have discovered a true North End treasure, a glimpse into the colorful past of our interesting neighborhood.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.