While Sabatino “Sam” Spadoni of Tacoma lived a colorful
life that sometimes crossed the boundaries of the law and probably embarrassed
his Gig Harbor cousins, he is almost angelic in comparison with another Spadoni
from Ponte Buggianese who spent less than a year in Tacoma and yet surpassed
all other Spadonis in fame—or rather, infamy. Gino Spadoni is without doubt the
baddest Spadoni I have ever encountered, and it must have shamed my grandfather in
the extreme to share a name with this scoundrel, who regularly made the front
page of the Tacoma newspapers
during 1925 and 1926, when Nonno was working at the smelter in Tacoma.
While Sabatino made money selling liquor during the prohibition area, eventually these criminal practices were legalized. Murder, on the other hand, is still illegal, and that’s what Gino was tried for in 1925. He was accused and initially convicted of slaying his
ex-foreman at the Griffin Wheel Company in South Tacoma, where Gino was briefly
employed in 1920 before being laid off. The conviction was overturned in a 5-4
vote by the state Supreme Court because of procedural violations, and during
a re-trial, the prosecution’s case fell apart when key witnesses either
changed their testimony or refused to testify again—most likely because their
lives were threatened.
Obviously Nonno and his nephews Adolfo and Alfredo, all of
whom lived in or near Tacoma during
this time, would have read about Gino’s trial. My Aunt Nelda, the eldest of
Nonno’s children, would have been only 15, so perhaps she and her younger
siblings were shielded from the unpleasant headlines. In any event, I didn’t
find out about Gino until this year, and none of my other Gig Harbor cousins
can recall ever hearing of him. I suppose that even if he had been a close
relative, it would have been one of those topics you just didn’t talk about,
especially in those times.
|Gino in a photo published in The News Times.|
So how did I find out about this black sheep of la
famiglia Spadoni? I first heard about him while doing ancestry research,
though all I initially learned is that Gino lived most of his life in
California yet was accused of a murder in Tacoma. From there, I discovered the
rest of the story through the super-sleuthing efforts of one of my cousins, who
also happens to be a childhood neighbor and friend. Cousin Greg had earlier
done some research just for the sake of his own curiosity about an unrelated
Italian-American who was buried in the same cemetery as his nonno. His skills
in digging into old public records impressed me, and that got me to thinking
about what little I knew about Gino and the murder case.
|Greg at work at the Tacoma Public Library.|
Greg would be the perfect person to investigate, because
if there were documents available, he could figure out where to look. Besides,
he is also an excellent writer, and the fact that he is retired would mean he
could spend some time doing research. Luckily for me and my curiosity, Greg
more than took up the challenge. He spent days in the Tacoma library, Pierce
County courthouse and state capitol scouring documents and clippings, and then
he invested more time finding details and adding background information online.
Many more days were spent writing, re-writing and double-checking facts. The
result is a five-part series that he recently posted on his web site which wildly
exceeds my hopes when I suggested he look into the case.
|Headlines with Spadoni in them were commonplace in 1925.|
I have met a lot of Spadonis in America
and Italy, and
all of them have proven to be hard-working and upright citizens working in
respectable trades and professions. Gino himself had brothers who were model
citizens and one even has a street named after him and a plaque erected in his
home town of Ponte Buggianese. However, Gino seems to have been born with a faulty moral compass, and he did his best to ruin the family’s reputation. Not only
was he accused of murder in America but he also had been jailed and released in
Italy on suspicion of murder. He was accused of trying to poison a woman who
rejected his romantic advances. He was arrested and charged with setting on fire the house of a family who had once taken him in as a border. He threatened to kill a man who had formerly been a childhood friend because the friend repeated in court what Gino had told him about the Tacoma murder. Prosecutors indicated that Gino went free because witnesses were influenced by “a black hand gang,” a sort of predecessor to the Mafia.
I suppose I could be accused of unfairly judging Gino, as
none of the charges against him actually stuck. When I first heard about
the murder and that Gino later won his freedom after his second trial, I wanted to believe
that he had been wrongly accused, that he was a victim of ethnic prejudice.
After all, it is well known that Italians suffered from discrimination in the
early 1900s. But it’s hard to read Greg’s account without thinking Gino was
seriously twisted. The murder of the wheel works foreman was not some
heat-of-the-moment loss of temper but rather a carefully premeditated and
Even though my ancestry research indicates that all the Spadonis
from Ponte Buggianese are related in some extended manner, I’m sorely tempted
to say about Gino, as Nonno undoubtedly had to repeatedly say, “We’re not
Here is a link to Greg’s series of articles, titled The Griffin Wheel Murder
Note: Since writing this entry, I have discovered that Gino was my dad’s 11th cousin. Our nearest common ancestor was born in 1455.