John Avena and South Philadelphia’s “Bloody Angle”

Demolition of Old Fire & Police Station, 7th and Carpenter Streets. October 19, 1962. Replaced by the Charles Santore Branch of the Free Library. (PhillyHistory.org)

As he liked to tell it, John Avena had friends at 7th and Carpenter Streets. Thing was, Avena, aka “Nozzone,” aka “Big Nose John,” was a Sicilian-born gangster who’d eventually head up the Philadelphia mob. And if he didn’t have friends exactly, Avena had allies at the old 33rd District police station.

Avena’s interests would come to include dope dealing, extortion, numbers and eventually two high-stakes gambling houses at 11th and Christian and 9th and Washington. The $100 counterfeit notes he passed were good enough to impress bankers, and even the Secret Service.

When federal agents set out to arrest Avena in June of 1922, the gangster bragged he got tipped off by a policeman from 7th and Carpenter. The officer told him to “beat it” and Avena went off to New York.

When they caught up with Avena and arrested him, the bail was set at $10,000. It wouldn’t be the last time. There was a lot going on in the 1920s in the vicinity of “Dope Row” (the 800 block of Christian Street) and nearby. And cornering prohibition, gambling, and the protection rackets would grow fierce as Avena made his way to become the biggest numbers man in South Philadelphia.

A decade-long war would claim as many as twenty five lives in the neighborhood surrounding the police station. The area would earn the nickname the “Bloody Angle” (the same as the most fatal places on the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Spotsylvania). And along this stretch of Passyunk from Christian Street to Washington Avenue, Avena himself would survive several assassination attempts in the 1920s.

According to this Bulletin clipping of August 17, 1936 from Temple University’s Urban Archives:

The first time came early in 1926, when police had marked him as a bootlegger. They missed that time, missed altogether. Then it was July 29, a few months later. Avena was running a cigar store at 12th and Webster streets. It was night. Outside the store “Big Nose” heard a persistent whistling, a peculiar whistle, short and sharp, as though someone were calling. He went out. He met a burst of fire, and three shots ploughed into his back as he turned around to see where the whistling visitor was. An innocent woman bystander was wounded that night.

The word went out that they had “Big Nose” at last. Three shots. The boys shook their heads. But he made the grade, and then came March 10, 1927. He was in a restaurant on 8th street near Catharine. It was night again. He stepped out and two men, lurking in the shadows, sent twin streaks of fire across the pavement. They missed. A bootleggers’ feud.

“South Philadelphia’s Public Enemy No. 1″ would become famous for denying death. “He’d been news for years. Always, they said: ‘Well, Big Nose beat ‘m again. He’s going to live.’”

“And always, when he was shot, or shot at, or whenever he was on the police records, the cops used to ask him: “Come on Nosey, who did it? And what did “Nosey” always say?”

“I like to settle these things myself.”

 

The story continues…Zanghi’s Revenge: A Pivotal Mobster Moment

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