Ancient Vendetta: Murder of Joseph Busemi 1915

Murder Victim

Joseph Busemi
27-year-old Laborer
Waterloo Fuel Company
Cause of Death: Stabbed
Motive: Black Hand Vendetta

Murder Scene and Date

Near Old Paper Mill
Cedar River
Waterloo, Iowa
Black Hawk County
October 4, 1915


By Nancy Bowers
Written May 2011

location of Waterloo, Iowa

location of Waterloo, Iowa

In 1915, 27-year-old Joseph “Joe” Busemi seemed to be doing well in the country and city he adopted after leaving Italy seven years before.

He was surrounded by a large Italian community in Waterloo, where he had lived for three years; and he had a steady job at the Waterloo Fuel Company.

Busemi — a name often Americanized as “Bushema” — was recently married and lived at 409 Glenwood Street with his wife and two of her cousins.

But things were not going smoothly.

Joe’s wife battled illness and the doctor bills piled up. Stories later surfaced of marital problems, and Joe often complained to co-worker Harry Frisby about frequent quarrels with the “crazy” cousins.

☛ Day of the Murder ☚

Joe worked as usual on Monday, October 4, 1915. He came home for supper at 6:00 p.m., as he always did. Then he told his wife he was going out and asked for $33.00 — $30 to pay a doctor who recently tended her and $3 for payment on a stove.

She later said she urged him to stay home with her, but he left about 7:00 p.m.

When the hour got late and Joe had not returned, Mrs. Busemi sent for her father, Tony Morete, who waited all night with her. When Joe failed to come home by dawn, the two asked a neighbor to notify police.

☛ Gruesome Discovery ☚

At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, October 5, 35-year-old Mary Jacobsen of Mulberry Street discovered a man’s body lying face down on a seldom-used road near the old Paper Mill on the west bank of the Cedar River.

Postcard view of the Old Waterloo Paper Mill

The old Waterloo Paper Mill along the Cedar River near where Joseph Busemi’s body was found.

She brought neighbors Ben Vaughn and Ace Cole to the spot. Cole stayed with the body while Vaughn went to notify police.

Waterloo Police Chief E. A. Leighton, Black Hawk County Sheriff David B. Henderson, and Coroner Sidney D. Smith reported at once to the scene.

When they turned the man over, they discovered his face was badly beaten and cut. His nose was crushed and his throat was slashed ear to ear, almost completely severing the head. From the throat, a jagged cut ran down to the breastbone.

The man, whose cap was found a short distance from the body, had no identification. There was 25 cents in his pockets, and he wore a gold watch and a small gold ring.

Other people began to gather, so Dr. Smith immediately empaneled a jury from among them.

C.E. Pritchard, George Witt, and Lou Armstrong ruled the victim was murdered between 9:30 p.m. and midnight — first beaten to death and then his throat cut afterwards with a very long knife.

The body was taken to Peterson Brothers Undertaking Parlors.

When police learned that Joe Busemi had been reported missing, they asked his wife for a description of clothes he wore the night before and believed they had identified the victim. Tony Morete conclusively identified his son-in-law’s body at the undertaking parlor.

☛ Investigation ☚

Because Joe and his wife were having marital troubles, his friends speculated to authorities that he took his own life, a theory dismissed because no weapon was found nearby.

from the Cedar Rapids Daily Republican

It was learned that the physician who was to receive $30 was not in his office the night of the murder and was never paid, making robbery a clear motive.

Yet, Busemi’s gold watch and ring were not taken.

Was he lured to the desolate spot, perhaps — as Waterloo Police speculated — by a fellow Italian who knew he would have money?

Close by his body were indications two people sat on the river bank; and a nearby family reported two men passed their house going towards the river about 9:00, thirty minutes before the estimated time of death.

☛ Grisly Clues ☚

from the Atlantic News Telegraph

On October 9, a cloth and several pieces of paper covered in blood — all partially burned — were found in a vacant lot directly behind the Busemi home.

This evidence made the police believe Busemi was murdered close to home and carried to the river bank, perhaps by someone who lived nearby.

Medical authorities were certain that lack of blood at the scene indicated he was killed elsewhere.

☛ Ancient Vendetta? ☚

Friends of Busemi insisted to police that Busemi was poisoned by relatives or friends of Busemi’s wife before he was beaten to death, carried to the dump site, and mutilated.

The Waterloo Evening Courier reported:

“Prominent Italians declare it is an ancient custom in Italy to murder a man who was responsible for causing his wife to suffer as Mrs. Bushema [sic] is alleged to have suffered.”

Black Hand symbol

The family’s reluctance to discuss personal business complicated the investigation and made it more difficult.

The Black Hand, an extortion ring of Italians in America who threatened and often killed fellow countrymen, was a prominent presence in the teens and 1920s in areas, including Iowa, where Italians clustered.

Several murders in Des Moines and elsewhere in Iowa testified to the terror and violence the Black Hand could create.

However, whether the murder was personal or the result of organized crime was never determined, and the Busemi murder went cold.

☛ Joseph Busemi’s Life ☚

Joseph Busemi was born in 1887 in Italy and immigrated to America in 1908. He lived in Waterloo for three years, marrying there a fellow Italian, the daughter of Tony Morete. He had not yet become a naturalized citizen. His only known blood relative in America was a brother in Illinois.

Busemi’s funeral was held at St. Joseph’s Church and he was buried in Calvary Cemetery.

☛ Other Iowa Black Hand Murders ☚

Following is a partial list of unsolved Iowa murders believed related to the Black Hand. Click on the name where possible to read the articles about these victims:


Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ “Another Mystery In Murder Case,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 9, 1915.
  • ☛ “Claim Murdered Man Was Poisoned,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 8, 1915.
  • ☛ “Coroners Jury Reports,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 26, 1915.
  • ☛ “Hawkeye State News,” Humeston New Era,” October 13,, 1915.
  • ☛ “Grocer Shot By Holdup Man Will Recover,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 11, 1915.
  • ☛ “Iowa Man Dead Head Severed,” Iowa City Daily Press, October 5, 1915.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” Postville Review, October 15, 1915.
  • ☛ “Murder Mystery Still Unsolved,” Waterloo Evening Courier and Reporter, October 6, 1915.
  • ☛ “No Developments in Murder Case,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 7, 1915.
  • ☛ “Robber Almost Beheads Victim,” Atlantic News Telegraph, October 7, 1915.
  • ☛ “Waterloo Murder Case Still A Deep Mystery,” Cedar Rapids Daily Republican, October 14, 1915.
  • ☛ “Young Italian Is Victim of Brutal Murder,” Waterloo Evening Courier, October 5, 1915.

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