Pillow Gang

Carmelo Fresina, the pillow gang leader
Carmelo Fresina, the pillow gang leader
Carmelo Fresina was, in his own fashion, the most colorful mafioso in St. Louis, heading up what was certainly the most colorfully named criminal group, the Pillow Gang. Fresina would arrive at a sit-down of the gang, put on his chair the trusty pillow he always carried and, easing himself down, discuss such sundry criminal activities as extortion and murder. Then when the meeting was over, he would pick up his pillow and leave.

The Pillow Gang added a bizarre touch to Prohibition-era St. Louis criminality, in the early part of this century marked by curiously ineffectual bands of mafiosi. This is surprising since St. Louis was one of the early settling spots of the Mafia in this country. Some of the first mafiosi to arrive in New Orleans in the 19th century soon headed north to avoid police trouble and nested in St. Louis.

The city boasted its first Black Hand activity in 1876. Yet, perhaps due to the quality of the mafiosi involved, the Italian criminals failed to achieve dominance for a long time. During the Prohibition era five gangs of major importance operated in St. Louis: Egan's Rats, perhaps the most important; the Hogan Gang; the Cuckoo Gang, mostly hoodlums of Syrian descent; the so-called Green Dagoes, composed mostly of Sicilians; and a gang of Americans of Italian descent, who could be described as Young Turks, in the same sense as Lucky Luciano played that role in New York.

The Cuckoos cooperated with the American-born Italians in waging war against the Sicilians, of which Fresina and his Pillow Gang were an important branch. Fresina had once been shot in the buttocks and thereafter he carried a pillow with him to use when sitting. Somehow, Fresina's pillow tended to detract from the dangerous image the mob tried to project. It did not promote a feeling of terror in others.

It remained for that illustrious senatorial prober, Estes Kefauver, to sum up Fresina's career with a humor he seldom seemed to possess: "Eventually Fresina, an extortionist and bootlegger, was dispatched with two bullets in the head and no longer needed his pillow."

It would be many years after the fall of the Pillow Gang before the Mafia would become a powerhouse in St. Louis crime. The impetus came around World War II, from Kansas City, which dispatched Thomas Buffa and Tony Lopiparo to set up a branch of the K.C. family there and build up an organization primarily on the narcotics trade. Buffa eventually was assassinated, in 1946, and over a period of time the St. Louis crime family was to pass to the control of Anthony Giordano. While he was in prison in the 1970s James Giammanco became acting boss.