Block Coal Company
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Black Hand Vendetta
Murder Scene and Date
1518 S. 18th Street
February 10, 1920
By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2011
Nicollo Vinceri immigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1909 and made his way west to Iowa, as many of his fellow countrymen had done.
Coal was being extracted in southern and central Iowa, attracting large numbers of Italians to mining camps and towns in those areas.
Vinceri settled in Centerville, a primary Iowa coal extraction location, and was a miner at the Block Coal Company. He prospered and bought his own home at 1518 S. 18th Street in the south part of town, where many fellow Italians lived.
☛ The Black Hand ☚
In Iowa Italian communities, the language, food, customs, and traditions of the native country could be kept alive.
Unfortunately, another more sinister tradition followed the Italian immigrants to their new homes in America: the Black Hand, a menacing group of fellow Italians who sent extortion letters demanding money and threatening death.
The threats were very real and many Italians in Iowa were injured and killed during the reign of the Black Hand from the early years of the 1900s through the 1920s.
The Centerville Italian community was not immune. In February 1915, an Italian miner — unnamed by the newspapers and a resident for only nine weeks — was murdered by the Black Hand. His throat was slit and he was dragged to the railroad tracks and left with his head on a rail.
In February 1916, Italian grocer August Francesco received a Black Hand letter ordering him to leave $150 in a certain place and warning him that if he did not comply or if he notified the police, he would be killed. But risking great danger, Francesco ignored the threats and informed law enforcement to protect his family and home.
☛ Another Violent Death ☚
At 5:00 a.m. on Tuesday, February 10, 1920, Nicollo Vinceri — who was then 44 — went outside to feed his cow.
Someone lying in wait fired a shot. A bullet grazed his right arm and entered his right breast. Vinceri ran a few yards — calling out for help — before collapsing and dying on the porch of a nearby grocery store.
Appanoose County Sheriff George Elgin and his deputies arrived to investigate within 40 minutes of the shooting. However, little could be learned from neighbors and family. The Humeston New Era wrote:
“. . . attention was at once given to a survey of the grounds for a possible clue to the party who had fired the shot. This proved to be a hard task. No one living in the vicinity had seen the shooting, no person had been seen loitering around and none seemed to have any idea as to who might have committed the deed or the motive therefore. Vinceri seemed to have no enemies among his neighbors, the majority of who [sic] are of the same nationality.”
The Waterloo Evening Courier suggested the murder was Black Hand-related and reported:
“Vinceri’s family of wife and [four] children maintain terrified silence when questioned as to whether there had been threats.”
The powerful Black Hand not only likely murdered Nicollo Vinceri but also prevented a resolution of the case through intimidation. It is unknown, at least publicly, who committed the homicide.
☛ Nicollo Vinceri’s Life ☚
Nicollo Vinceri was born March 16, 1875 in Messina, Sicily and married Concetta Gagliardo. In February 1909, the Vinceris and their young son Gaetano (known both as “Guy” and “Tony”) departed Salerno on the S.S. Re D’ Italia and landed in New York City.
Their second child, Mary “Marie” was born in Perry, Illinois. By 1911, the Vinceri family was living in Appanoose County, where two more daughters — Rosa and Josephine — were born.
In the years following Nicola’s death, Concetta Vinceri married Carmello LaPaglia of Centerville.
In early 2012, a granddaughter of Nicollo Vinceri contacted the author to say that the family never talked of the death and she had not been able to learn much about the murder from them. It was only whispered about, as though descendants still feared the powerful Black Hand.
☛ 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:
- ☛ Joseph Busemi: 1915 Waterloo, Black Hawk County
- ☛ Unknown Italian Immigrant: 1915 Centerville, Appanoose County
- ☛ Francis “Frank” Oliverio: 1917 Des Moines, Polk County
- ☛ Dominic Sposeto: 1919 Des Moines, Polk County
- ☛ Domenico Barretto: 1921 “Little Italy,” Des Moines, Polk County
- ☛ Angelo Ferrari: 1921 Des Moines, Polk County
- ☛ Phoebe Jane Vigoletti: 1926 Oelwein, Fayette County
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Black Hand at Centerville?” Humeston New Era, February 18, 1920.
- ☛ “Black Hand Letter To A Centerville Grocer,” Cedar Rapids Republican, February 19, 1916.
- ☛ “Family Shrinks In Terror Over Second Mysterious Murder,” Waterloo Evening Courier, February 16, 1920.
- ☛ “Hawkeye State News,” Marion Sentinel, February 11, 1915.
- ☛ Moulton Weekly Tribune, February 13, 1920.
- ☛ New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, Ancestry.com.
- ☛ Personal Correspondence, Vinceri family member, March 2012.
- ☛ U.S. Census.