Billante

No matter how the name is spelled, Bellanti, Billante, Bellante, or Billanti; according to all the old records, the root spelling is Billante.  It appears that the spelling changed with the generations that migrated to the United States.  It is not likely to have been an error made by Immigration Officers at the ports of entry because the change occurred at different times in virtually all the families that came over.

The story of how my family came to America is unusual.

Of all my ancestors, I believe my Grandfather Bellanti was the most adventurous. In the 1880's, when my grandfather was a teenager, he joined the Italian Merchant Marine and sailed all over the world. He told many stories of his travels.

It was a time when the sea-going vessels were a combination of sail and steam ships.

As one story was told to me, he worked in the "Black Gang" meaning his job was stoking the boilers. He claimed that shoveling coal into the furnaces was so grueling and hot that the shifts were only four hours, with eight hours rest in between.

I recall him telling a story of his ship being anchored off the coast of South America. Natives paddled their canoes up to the side of his ship. He described the females as bare breasted with bones through their noses, and the males either naked or wearing skimpy loin cloths. As the canoes pulled up along side the ship the natives attempted come on board. Not knowing if they were hostile, the Captain ordered the crew to pour boiling water over the side to deter the natives from coming on board.

Another story involved my cousin Peter S. Bellanti. During World War II my cousin joined the United States Coast Guard.

One time when he was on leave he visited my grandfather and told him about his tour of duty in the Mediterranean Sea. My cousin related one story of his visits to southern France. 

My grandfather asked if he visited Marseille. My cousin Pete responded that he did. Then my grandfather asked if he was on a certain street and asked if he visited the houses where the women wore "red aprons". My cousin was floored to think that these houses of prostitution were in existence back 60 years prior and that he walked the same streets and had the same pleasures that my grandfather had. 

My favorite story, however, involved my great-grandfather, Domenico Billante. This story was passed down four generations, from father to son. 

The incident took place in the year 1837 in a region referred to as "I Munti" (the mountains) near Capo Zaffarano. This area is adjacent to the towns of Porticello and Santí Elia, Sicily. My Great-grandfather was a young man about 25 years old.

During that year there were outbreaks of Cholera throughout Europe. It was particularly prevalent in areas where the population was mal-nourished. Medical help was generally non-existent and no known medication was effective. The population was not schooled and generally illiterate. Superstition ran rampant. With the epidemic at its peak, the people were dying faster than could be accommodated. One theory the villagers had was that government gun boats in the local harbor were shooting flares in the air and spreading the disease to reduce the population of the Island. They concluded that the government (which no one trusted to begin with) was resorting to a policy of genocide to cull the Sicilian population.

The healthy men of the villages, which included Dominico, gathered up the dead and of necessity, buried them in common graves. The villagers from both Porticello and Sant' Elia immediately started seeing an eerie procession of the dead, with each spirit carrying a candle. there was no doubt that the spirits could not find peace because they were interred in  common graves unceremoniously. The apparition continued until a shrine was built on the site. Once completed, as lore has it, the spirits finally were at peace and the apparitions ceased. I find this story fascinating because in later years, through research, I was able to substantiate the fact that a plague did exist in 1837.

I could remember my grandfather splicing a length of rope. He soaked the ends in a bucket of water and methodically rolled each strand in his fingers until all the strands were spliced together. He then stated with pride, in Sicilian, "the rest of the rope may break but the splice will remain." 

The story of how he decided to come to America is an interesting one.

In the early 1890's he was assigned to a ship that carried passengers as well as cargo. He came up on deck, after working a four hour stint in the boiler room, for a breath of air. At that time it was the custom that the crew did not mingle with the passengers. Not thinking, he ladled a drink of water from the barrel reserved strictly for passengers.

The captain of the vessel, Don Pietro de la Spedzia, ("Don" being a title of respect) saw that my grandfather drank the water reserved for the passengers and beat him unmercifully. The passengers witnessed the beating and, according to my grandfather, he was greatly humiliated.

Shortly thereafter the ship arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana and the crew was given 24 hour liberty. It was then my grandfather decided to "jump ship". In order not to arouse suspicion, my grandfather left all his personal belongings on board. He left with only the clothes he was wearing.

During that same period of time an incident occurred, which was commonly referred to as the "Mafia Trial". It surrounded the murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessey. Basically Hennessey; a man who it was rumored that had murdered someone in cold blood only a few scant years before, had been appointed New Orleans Police Superintendent under a corrupt administration. He had made it his mission to root out the Black Hand amongst his newly arrived Italian immigrant population. A population that was heavily comprised of new arrivals from Sicily.

As October 14, 1890 rolled around he was busy investigating a so called feud between two rival "Mafioso's" the Provenzano's and Matrenga's. That night he was returning to his home, alone, after a night of drinking with his deputy Bill O'Connor. As he fumbled with his keys in front of the door, he was shot. O'Connor rushed to his side in enough time to report his dying words: "the dagoes did it." Based on that evidence over 200 Italians, (mostly fruit vendors) were rounded up and questioned. Eleven of them were held over for trial. (the youngest was only fourteen years old.) They had to interview over 780 prospective jurors, a process that took twelve days, until they could find twelve who didn't state some form of prejudice. The evidence presented seemed to leave a reasonable doubt in the minds of the twelve as they either acquitted or declared a mistrial for the accused. The courtroom erupted. The judge, placed them in protective custody, back in prison, and scheduled their release for the following morning. The verdict did not sit well with the citizenry.

The next day, March 14, 1891, a mob which included several prominent citizens rallied to denounce the verdict. They then marched onto the prison, breaking into gunshops along the way to arm themselves, and with little resistance broke inside the front gate. They then went through the prison and dragged out the now acquitted men and either shot, hung, or clubbed them to death. Upon hearing of the incident the Italian consulate was outraged. They demanded the immediate arrest and prosecution of the members of the mob. Well, as often happened at that time, the result of the grand jury investigation stated that the lynching was carried out by "persons unknown". It has been highly suggested that those involved in the investigation may have been directly responsible.

Representatives from the Italian government in Washington demanded that the federal government get involved, but our government declared it a state matter and could only back the assertion of the Governor of Louisiana that they could not discover the identity of the persons involved. At that time, it's true that the Italian Government withdrew its diplomats and contemplated sending warships to Louisiana, but a compromise was reached that the federal government would pay reparations to the families of the slain men, and the matter was laid to rest.

The fall out of the incident resulted in a diminishing wave of new Sicilian immigration to Louisiana, and the flight of the Italian population to other cities in Northern Louisiana, Mississippi, and even Tampa, Florida where they became a point of controversy providing "scab" labor in the cigar factories there during a labor strike. The Mafia Trial wasn't the only time Italians were lynched in the south, but one of several incidents.

Eight years later there was an incident that happened in Tallulah Louisiana, sparked by an argument over a wayward goat which moved the citizens of that Mississippi town to lynch all five of the Italians in their town. Ironically, the men had moved there to escape the harassment that they had suffered in New Orleans.

During these violent times, my grandfather walked the streets of New Orleans, wondering what he should do, and where he could go until his ship left port.

During this quandary, two Sicilian brothers who were from the town of Termini and passengers on my grandfather's ship spotted him and asked what he was doing. After my grandfather explained his situation to them, the brothers said it was too dangerous to stay in New Orleans. They further told my grandfather they were on their way to Buffalo New York to start a produce business and insisted he accompany them.

My grandfather took them up on their offer, and this is how he settled in Buffalo.

Under the guidance of these two brothers, my grandfather entered the fruit and vegetable business and started peddling produce in a basket he carried door to door.

Although he more or less adjusted, over a period of time he longed to see his family. He was unable to fulfill his wish because there was a price on his head. By jumping ship as he did, in effect, he was A.W.O.L. from a branch of the Italian Government Service--The Italian Merchant Marine. He was unable to return to his homeland.

It so happened that King Victor Emmanuelle of Italy was expecting his first born, an heir to the throne. He made a promise to his patron saint that if he was presented a healthy male offspring he would grant an amnesty for all minor crimes in the country.

As good fortune would have it, the Queen presented him with a healthy baby boy. Thus, the amnesty was granted, which included my grandfather.

My Grandfather returned to Sicily in approximately 1895. He married my grandmother, Providenza Tarantino, settled in Sant' Elia and reared his first two children, Anna born in 1898 and Maria ( Mary) born in 1900.

                                                               Pietro and Providenza Bellanti

                                                               1869-1947                     1875-1927

He then decided to return to the United States. The family settled in Buffalo where the next two offspring were born. Domenico (Dominic) was born in 1902 and my father Antonino (Anthony)  was born in 1903.

Being a restless man, my grandfather decided to again return to Sicily in 1903. During this stay, four more children were born. Rose was born in 1905; John in approximately 1907; Joseph (a/k/a "Dauber") was born in 1910 and Thomas in 1912.

In 1914 the entire family returned to Buffalo, New York, this time to stay permanently. The last two offspring, Santo and Catherine, were born in 1915 and 1919, respectively.

The Bellanti Family

Circa 1903

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