Piero Francisco spent only three years in Philadelphia in the 1920s, and more than half of his time was behind bars. To earn this, Francisco had the misfortune to witness a pair of mob murders and the willingness to share what, and who, he saw.
Francisco was only following the lead of his employer Anthony “Musky” Zanghi. Talk about making bad choices.
Zanghi, owned La Tosca Café at 9th and Fitzwater, but Zanghi was no restaurateur. He was a gangster who hired Francisco, a down-on-his-luck dancer, to entertain café clientele. In the Spring of 1927, Zanghi was target of a failed hit that claimed the lives of his 19-year old brother Joseph, and Vincent Cocozza, an associate. After the shooting, Zanghi broke the code of silence and named names. He talked to the press, the police, the district attorney and the judges. But when it came time for the murder trial of Luigi Quaranta, the first of the assailants to face murder charges, Zanghi disappeared, leaving the State with Francisco as its one and only star witness.
Piero Francisco’s American tour wasn’t supposed to go this way. In fact, Francisco hadn’t even figured on visiting Philadelphia when he and his dance partner set sail from Italy for New York the year before. They planned to make their way to Hollywood and display their mastery of the edgy, new Apache dance style. But Francisco’s partner died while crossing the Atlantic. And having no luck finding a new one in New York, the “small, sleek-haired young ‘Apache’ dancer” made his way to Philadelphia where he earned “a comfortable salary” giving “dancing exhibitions” in Zanghi’s “cabaret”
Until the day of the Zanghi-Cocozza murders.
“Dancer Replaces Zanghi as Witness, Names 3 in Slaying” reads one headline, reporting on the first of what officials planned to be a dozen trials of the six men charged with murder.
“When the court convened . . . Francisco, a pleasant faced, dark complexioned” man in his mid 20s took the witness stand. “His dashing brown suit, his patent leather shoes, and general dapper appearance contrasted strongly with his air of perturbation.”
Throngs packed the Court in City Hall (Room 453), where Judge John Monaghan presided. And they would not be disappointed.
“Do you remember Decoration Day,” Assistant District Attorney Charles F. Kelley asked his witness. “I do, replied the dancer in a low voice” beginning more than an hour of testimony. “Francisco’s identification was positive,” Philadelphians would learn. “His account of the double murder was clear cut and unshaken on cross examination.”
“I was within three doors of this restaurant when I saw a blue sedan automobile going down 8th st. I saw John Scopoletti at the drivers wheel and saw Quaranta in back with another man I do not know.”
“When Francisco pointed to Quaranta, the stocky, immobile prisoner’s face relaxed into a cynical smile. Then Mr. Kelley asked that the other defendants be brought into the court room. The atmosphere seemed to grow tense as the men came in, and many of the spectators rose and peered at the defendants as they entered in single file.”
“Looking over the prisoners with a hesitant yet deliberate air, Francisco pointed to Scopeletti, who was standing in the middle, and said, “That man was driving the car. Make him put on his hat.”
“With a half grin, not unlike the savage grimace of Quaranta when he was first identified, Scopoletti put on his hat and Francisco then said, emphatically, “That’s him. He was driving the car.” Francisco also identified Dominick Sesta as the other man with the shotgun sitting beside Quaranta.
“I went into a cigar store three doors from the restaurant and when I came out I saw Quaranta, Sesta and Scopoletti in the car. Then I heard shooting. The first shooting was very loud. The second shooting was like pistols. I could see smoke around the automobile. The shooting was coming from the blue sedan they were riding in. There were about eighteen or twenty shots in all, and some of them sounded like pistol shots.” Francisco saw Joseph Zanghi fall to the pavement; he saw Cocozza being put into a car to be taken to Pennsylvania Hospital where he would be pronounced dead.
There had never been such a trial in Philadelphia. According to the newspapers, “The word went out in gangland to get” Francisco. The morning of his first appearance in City Hall, as the witness “walked along the street, downtown . . . a number of shots whizzed past him, missing him narrowly.” A few days later, Francisco “was awakened . . . to find the house where he lived burning and shots riddling the walls in a further effort to bump him off.”
To protect his witness, Judge Monaghan sent Francisco to the House of Correction. When Zanghi resurfaced, the Judge sent him there, as well.
After Quaranta’s conviction and sentence to life in prison, the other trials proved less successful. Some resulted in acquittals, others were postponed or never materialized. After twenty months of protective incarceration, Francisco and Zanghi were both released. Zanghi left Philadelphia for New York, where, in 1934, he would be killed in a fight over the spoils of an otherwise successful crime. (.PDF). Francisco, who gained fluent English reading novels during his incarceration, had no intention of staying in America. “Free Gang Witness to start a New Life,” read the headline.
Francisco had saved just enough from his daily witness fee to pay for a 2nd class ticket on a steamer to Italy. “Officials would not reveal the exact date of his sailing, nor the ship.” And detectives accompanied him as he left the District Attorney’s office, “a free man at last.”
In newly acquired, perfect English, Francisco “thanked all those who had helped protect him” and set off, the newspaper reported, “to live quietly under Italy’s Fascist regime” having had his fill of “America’s gangland entanglements.”
(Newspaper articles consulted at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center include “Dancer Replaces Zanghi as Witness, Names 3 in Slaying,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, June 16, 1927; “Free Gang Witness to start a New Life,” Evening Public Ledger, March 9, 1929; and “State Aids Zanghi Witness to Flee,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1929.)