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Sex, Scandal and Murder on 86th Street

At about 9 a.m. on Tuesday, January 25, 1927, George Ricci showed up to his old job with two pistols in his pockets. Until a month before, he had been the superintendent of Garden Court, a ninety-four-family apartment complex named for its verdant central yard. It had been constructed the previous summer—Ricci had worked on it as a handyman—on Fort Hamilton Parkway, just north of 86th Street, where it still stands. That Tuesday morning, numerous residents saw Ricci loitering around the building for hours, pacing.

Weeks earlier, on December 1, 1926, Ricci had gotten a letter from the Stam Realty Company, which owned and managed the property. “We feel that you have had plenty of time to get things running satisfactorily, but you have not done so,” it read. “Please vacate by Dec. 15.” He didn’t understand what the problem was. Ricci was well-liked at the building; after he received the notice, he started a petition, asking to be reinstated, and almost every tenant in the building signed it.


On December 15, Ricci got another letter—he had a week to move out before he would be forced out. Not only would he lose his home and job right before Christmas, he also wouldn’t be able to collect Christmas tips from Garden Court residents. He had a wife, Mildred, and two kids: Joseph, 15, was a student at New Utrecht High School; Evelyn was just five years old.


The Ricci family moved to 1926 60th Street, a modest semidetached home; George had had to borrow $50 [more than $700, adjusted for inflation] to cover the expenses. Then he couldn’t find a new job, especially because he had no reference from his previous employer. He had been “brooding over his grievances,” the newspaper Home Talk reported, “returning frequently to the renting office in the Garden Court building to see his former employer.”


Finally, around noon on January 25, Ricci’s old boss showed up—as Ricci had known he would. Frank Scavullo was 43, full-faced and handsome, an Italian immigrant who’d started with little and through shrewd investments and industry acumen became a rich man, with a net worth estimated at $2 million [almost $30 million, adjusted for inflation]. In the version of the story all the papers told in the immediate aftermath, Scavullo got out of his car in front of Garden Court, and Ricci “walked up to him,” as the Standard Union reported, “saying, ‘Why don’t you tell me why I have been discharged?’ Scavullo waved him aside.”


“When he refused to talk to me, I just decided to let him have it,” Ricci later told a reporter.


“Holding [a] .38-calibre in his right hand and [a] .32-calibre in his left,” Home Talk reported, Ricci shot him. Scavullo staggered across the street, clutching his hip; Ricci ran after him. Scavullo made it as far as Gatling Place, where he crumpled onto the curb. Ricci caught up and shot him twice more, killing him. He hit him point-blank in the chest and the abdomen, possibly also in the head.

Ricci fled down 86th Street but didn’t get far. One patrolman was about forty feet away when he heard the shots. Another was on post nearby. (The local precinct was just a block away, about 600 feet down 86th Street, on the corner of Fifth Avenue.) Another, off-duty, happened to be driving down 86th Street when he heard the shots and witnessed the second set on the corner of Gatling Place. That patrolman, William J. Powderly, got just ten feet away from Ricci; he pulled his gun and was about to shoot when Patrolman Joseph Santa Maria jumped in front of him and stopped him.


Santa Maria got on Powderly’s running board and they followed the running fugitive. As they caught up with Ricci, Santa Maria jumped down and pulled his gun; Ricci pointed one of his guns at the officer in return. “Keeping him covered,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported, “the policeman grasped [Ricci’s] wrist and told him he had better surrender.” Another patrolman arrived, in another commandeered car.


“It’s all right, boys,” Ricci said. “I won’t put up a fight.” He surrendered the guns and stood silently as the officers waited for backup.


“The body of the contractor lay in the street for some time before it was removed,” the Standard Union reported.


Ricci was arrested for murder. In his pocket, police found the petition, signed by Garden Court residents. “He took the bread and butter away from my wife and children,” he told Santa Maria. “I took his life away.”


“I am not sorry I shot him,” he then told a Daily News reporter from jail. “If I meet him in hell, I’ll help shovel more coal on him.”

 

The victim, Scavullo, lived at 2212 Avenue M, a handsome house in Midwood, with his wife, their three children and his blind, elderly mother, Antonia (or Antonette) Farrelli, who’d waited for her son to come home the night he was murdered. “They told her Frank was busy downtown,” the Standard Union reported the day after the killing. “What they will tell her tonight is a problem.”

His life story, one paper reported, “reads stranger than fiction,” which apparently meant it was a case of the American Dream actually achieved. His mother and his father, Biaggio, had had Frank in Avezzano, Italy, in Abruzzo, about fifty miles east of Rome. They came to the U.S. when Frank was a baby; Biaggio found work as a bootblack. He worked his way up to owning a peanut stand and then a fruit store on Thompson Street in Manhattan, eventually opening another in Coney Island, around 1896, which became one of the biggest on Surf Avenue, specializing in fancy fruit. “The boy…once balanced the books for his father and waited on customers, stabling the horses, running errands,” the Brooklyn Daily Times reported.


When Frank was fifteen, his father died; Frank dropped out of sixth grade, at PS 100. “But he had [innate] ability,” the Standard Union added. “He took a chance and speculated in real estate. His enterprises grew. He formed corporations and put up many houses. Soon he was one of the wealthiest Italians in Brooklyn.” He had, the Daily News reported, “recogniz[ed] the future of the [Coney Island] section, [and] he bought real estate when the prices were low. In recent years, he has sold the property at big profits.”


“He apparently had a natural genius for construction work,” the Daily Times reported. “He built better stalls for the horses so that they might have plenty of light and air. If painters arrived to do a job, or carpenters, he put on overalls and helped them, studying how they did their work, learning quickly.”


He married Rose Balzarini, whose father, Joseph, was one of the Joes in Joe’s Restaurant, a popular eatery on Fulton Street. The couple had three sons: Basil, who was 17 when his father died, Joseph, 7, and Francis, 5. (The eldest son was once referred to by the media as Blaise, another time as Biaggio. It’s possible he was named for his grandfather but was known generally by a less ethnic-sounding name, the same way Ricci went as “Rich,” the name used in the earliest newspaper accounts.)


Scavullo started the Stam Realty Company, whose name derived from the last initials of the partners; their names were rarely reported the same way twice, but they might have been Bartholdi Turecamo, Arnold D. Ajello (or possibly Theodore Adams or Adamo) and Herbert McCooey (son of a local Democratic power broker). Scavullo was president. He owned several large apartment buildings, and he was active in Bay Ridge as well as Bensonhurst, Parkville (a bygone neighborhood now usually considered part of Kensington) and Coney Island. He built, for example, Biaggio Court, in honor of his father, on Surf Avenue and W. 29th Street. It no longer stands.


“Intense excitement prevailed in the big apartment house [on the day of the murder] where Scavullo and [Ricci] were well known,” the Standard Union reported. “This is on the northeast corner. Opposite on the northwest corner another big apartment house, controlled by Scavullo’s organization, is being erected.”


He was generous with his fortune, with a soft spot for dilapidated churches. “When he discovered an unpainted church with marks of poverty about it, he would enter, incognito, have a talk with the priest, get the story of his struggles and say, for example, ‘Put a coat of paint on that church,’ and before the surprised priest could recover from his amazement [Scavullo] had departed, leaving a sufficient sum…to do the work,” the Daily Times reported.

Every Christmas he financed the distribution of Christmas baskets to the poor, but with strict injunctions that the name of the donor was to be kept secret. He also liked to visit and cheer up friends who were sick, and he was one of a group of men who planned to build an Italian hospital. He was an ardent believer in neighborhood clubs for boys to keep out of mischief.

“The murdered man was described as the ‘most good-hearted soul in the world’ by [the] sister-in-law of one of his partners,” the Daily Times reported.

“Why, we were all on a theatre party to Manhattan together last night…My husband, his brother and wife and Mrs. Scavullo. [Frank] was such a good-hearted man. I can’t understand how any one could have shot him.”
 

On January 27, 1927—still the coldest January 27 morning in New York City on record—Scavullo’s funeral was held at his Midwood home. His body was then brought to Our Lady of Solace, in Coney Island, and then to Holy Cross Cemetery, in East Flatbush, for burial, where he remains—under a large stone featuring a carved portrait, topped with a draped cross and a sculpted Pietà.


His will dispensed an almost $1 million estate. A $200,000 trust fund [about $3 million, adjusted for inflation] was established for his wife, and a similar one for his mother; the principals were to be split evenly among his children when the women died. He left smaller gifts to his aunt and uncle, as well as Holy Cross, for maintenance of the family plot. The rest was put in trust for his kids. “Their full shares,” the Daily Times reported, “will be turned over to them when they are 45.” (It was briefly believed Scavullo may have had a second will, kept in a safe and not on file at the courthouse, but this does not appear to have been true.)


The day before Scavullo’s funeral, Ricci had been arraigned and held without bail on a charge of first-degree murder—which carried the death penalty. Ricci’s lawyer tried to delay the start of trial; he said he needed important evidence from the police, who’d said they'd lost it, an excuse he said the district attorney credulously accepted. The defense wanted the case turned over to the state attorney general, who “might not be so willing to accept the police story,” but the motion was denied. Jury selection began on April 18, almost three months after the killing.

The state established its case in a day. Patrolmen testified to witnessing the murder, pursuing Ricci and arresting him, as well as his confession in custody. (Mrs. Scavullo also testified, but the defense objected that it was “incompetent and irrelevant,” and the judge agreed, striking it from the record.) The trial was then delayed so that Ricci could be examined by a pair of alienists.


How Ricci would defend himself was a cause of speculation in the press during that first week. Many believed the defense would plead insanity. (The crossexaminations of the patrolmen also suggested the defense wanted to establish that Scavullo had also been armed, and the police had hidden that evidence—that the murder was in self-defense.) The papers didn’t report the outcome of the alienists’ exams; presumably Ricci was found sane, as his defense team didn’t pursue that line. They didn’t go for self-defense, either.


Instead, when the trial resumed, Ricci and his wife dropped a bombshell.

 

In the afternoon of April 26, 1927, Mildred Ricci corroborated the story her husband had told earlier the same day. “She walked to the witness chair,” the Daily News reported, “a short little woman, blonde, with a short bob, wearing a severe black dress with a white silk Peter Pan collar and a black toque, and with the assurance of a duchess prepared herself for the ordeal of confession.”


She testified that she had had sex with Scavullo for the advancement of her husband’s career.

“I first met Mr. Scavullo in July, 1926,” she said, “and was intimate with him in the apartment where my husband and I lived…toward the end of September, one day when he sent my husband on an errand,” the Daily Times reported.

“A week later I again had relations with him. Several days after that, when he again sought me out, I repulsed him.” Two weeks later, the woman added, Scavullo discharged Ricci. But Ricci became suspicious, and on the morning of the day of the shooting…he obtained a confession from her.
“We had had company the night before,” her testimony continued, “but my husband seemed moody and went to bed early. When I went to bed later he was still awake, and started questioning me. About three hours later I confessed, after first making him promise that he would forget it. I told him that I had done it for him in order to help him get along in work.”

Ricci had received a $5 a week raise during the time of his wife’s affair with his boss—about $75, adjusted for inflation.


“Asked if she liked Scavullo, she cried: ‘I despised him! I hated him!,’” the Daily Times continued. “’But you sold yourself for $5 a week?’ persisted [the prosecution]. ‘For my husband’s position,’ she replied. ‘Yes, sir, I did.’”


“In the benches reserved for spectators, her son Joseph and her little daughter Evelyn watched and listened,” the Daily News reported. “Evelyn is only 3 and got little of the important testimony, but Joseph, a frail, sensitive youth, blushed and trembled as his mother categorically recited the details of her infidelity.”


The defense was trying to invoke what was known as “unwritten law,” a concept of jurisprudence based on custom and not legislation—the idea, for example, that a jury would acquit a man of murder if his victim had been sleeping with his wife, as that was a culturally if not legally accepted excuse. It “has saved many a man from the chair,” the Eagle later explained.


Ricci testified he paced the floor for hours after his wife’s confession, then “had gone out to find and talk to Scavullo, taking his gun,” the Daily Times reported. He said he eventually found Scavullo in a cigar store, at 86th Street and Gatling Place, possibly one of the storefronts in Garden Court, along the 86th Street side. Ricci confronted him; Scavullo brushed him off. Ricci followed him around the corner, to the entrance of the building and the office inside, demanding an explanation. Scavullo told him to go away. “Then,” the Daily News reported, “he drew a gun and shot Scavullo out of revenge for what the latter had done to his wife.”

“As the session ended, Mrs. Ricci…reached across the rail and grasped her husband’s hand for an instant as he continued to walk out with the guard,” the Daily Times reported. “She smiled.


“His expression was fixed.”

 

Before they went to deliberate, the judge told the jury “there had been no proof of insanity,” the Brooklyn Citizen reported, “and that there was no such thing as ‘the unwritten law.’”


Perhaps because of the expected insanity defense, Ricci was tried by a “blue-ribbon jury,” a group of twelve men of above-ordinary education and intelligence, typically used in complicated cases. This benefitted the prosecution, because these elite jurors didn’t buy Ricci’s defense. After deliberating less than two hours, they came back with a verdict—guilty.


“Mrs. Mary La Salle, sister of Ricci, collapsed and was carried out, sobbing hysterically,” the Daily Times reported. Mildred also collapsed. She was taken to “the clerk’s office, adjoining the courtroom, [and] was so overcome that an ambulance surgeon from Long Island College Hospital was called to attend her.


“Ricci remained expressionless, with the same calm that has been his throughout the trial.”


He was depressed, and his condition became more extreme after the verdict. It “appeared to be so grave that a special guard was attached to watch his cell,” the Daily Times reported. He didn’t sleep the night of his conviction, and in the morning he refused breakfast, taking just a cup of coffee. He told the warden he was disappointed by the verdict—“he thought they would understand,” the Daily News reported.


Mildred showed up to the Raymond Street Jail in Fort Greene before visiting hours and waited impatiently for it to open. She then spent half an hour with her husband, the two of them mostly in tears. “I hope my husband will get another chance,” she told reporters.


“He did it for my sake.”


But with the electric chair a foregone conclusion, Ricci’s depression worsened. On May 1, the night before he would be formally sentenced, he sharpened the handle of a spoon and used it to slice open his wrists and ankles. A guard noticed that he was in a peculiar position on his cot, and when he went to investigate, he found Ricci bleeding out. He had already lost a lot of blood.


The guard alerted the jail doctor and the warden. Ricci tried to fight them all off, but the doctor was able to treat Ricci’s wounds with an ambulance surgeon from Holy Family Hospital, less than a mile away, on Dean Street. “If Ricci had been able to hide his condition for another hour,” the Daily Times reported, “he might have lost enough blood to have caused his death.”


Instead, he was dragged into court, almost literally—he had to be carried in by two attendants. He sat in a chair, shoeless and covered in bandages, “in a state of collapse.” When asked if he had anything to say, he shook his head.


The judge excoriated him for “the pain caused to the bereaved wife by the charge that the murdered man had been intimate with the defendant’s wife…the evidence on this point fell down utterly.”

No intelligent, fair-minded person could listen to the evidence without being convinced of the falsity of this charge. It was obviously trumped up as a forlorn hope when no other defense seemed available. The court is informed that the charge originated before present counsel was obtained, and the responsibility lies with the defendant and the unfortunate wife, who was willing to assume a fictitious infidelity in order to save her husband from the dire consequences of his act.

Every subsequent mention of the crime in the newspapers omitted the couple’s allegation of sexual misconduct; they would instead just mention, in passing, that Ricci had been dismissed by his employer. (It’s impossible for us, almost a hundred years later, to parse the validity of the Riccis’ claim; we really have too little information to take sides, despite perhaps a desire to do so. Both possibilities—a powerful man abusing his stature for sex or a desperate family concocting calumnies to escape execution—are at least plausible.)


The judge sentenced Ricci to die in the electric chair, and the prisoner was taken upstate to Sing Sing, where he was to sit on death row for a month until the scheduled execution, on June 5, unless he appealed. (As the date neared, prison officials became anxious because he hadn’t filed an expected appeal—until they realized they had misfiled it.)


The day after the sentencing, Scavullo’s blind mother died while visiting her daughter-in-law at the house on Avenue M. “She had been in poor health since the murder,” the Eagle reported—she was especially proud of her son for his business accomplishments and “prostrated” by his death. She left $10,500 [about $155,000, adjusted for inflation] to Mrs. Scavullo and the three grandchildren, divided equally. She was given a funeral at Our Lady of Solace, then buried at Holy Cross—just like her son three months before.


Ricci's appeal was heard on Monday, October 10, and it failed. Ricci’s attorney went up to Albany on December 7 to present a final plea for mercy to the governor; that, too, failed.

 

Thursday executions at Sing Sing were typically held at 11pm, but on Thursday, December 15, 1927, less than a year after the murder of Frank Scavullo, the prisoners were putting on their annual musical comedy. Because of The Sweet Little Devil—probably the now-obscure George Gershwin show—the scheduled capital punishments were postponed until the wee small hours of the morning. As the laughter died away, the curtain fell on the performance—and on the life of George Ricci, 31 years old (to paraphrase a Brooklyn Citizen headline).


Also scheduled to die that night was Peter Seiler, who’d been convicted of murdering Patrolman James Masterson during a holdup at a café on W. 103rd Street in Manhattan in January, around the same time as the Scavullo killing. Seiler was indignant at his sentence—he hadn’t fired that shots that killed Masterson, this no one doubted, but the law said anyone involved in a robbery that ends in murder was guilty of the murder.


Ricci and Seiler didn’t attend The Sweet Little Devil; they stayed in their cells, praying with the prison chaplains. “For three hours before they were electrocuted,” reported the wire service INS, “the condemned men were forced to listen to the laughter of 600 other prisoners.”

“The men were [then] led from the main corridor of the death house to the cells just outside the execution chamber,” the Daily News reported, “where they awaited the summons to the chair.”

They were allowed to shake hands with their doomed companions [also on death row]. They walked from cell to cell, thrusting their hands between the bars and whispering: “Good-bye, friend.” “Hope you have better luck.” All of the condemned men answered in kind.

“The lights no longer flicker in Sing Sing when the juice is poured into the chair,” the Daily News reported, “but the [other] prisoners apprehend the event by a curious sixth sense.”


Seiler was brought in first, at 1:26 a.m. He read a short speech to the small crowd, “seated in the high-backed yellow pine pews of the death chamber.” “You are about to see an innocent man die,” he told them. “I did not kill anybody…I will die with a smile; my conscience is clear.” The chaplain stood beside him with a cross; when Seiler was finished, he kissed it, then was strapped into the electric chair.


He was shocked stiff at 1:27 a.m., and pronounced dead five minutes later. Four minutes later, at 1:36 a.m., Ricci was brought in. He said nothing, just prayed to himself. He was shocked, then pronounced dead at 1:43 a.m., following a second shock.


The papers didn’t report if his wife were there to watch.

 

In January 1930, the New York City Police college on Broome Street opened an exhibit on its sixth floor. Inaccessible to the general public, it featured photographs, forgeries and fingerprints but, more compellingly, “weapons of death and implements of criminal cunning,” the Daily News reported—the knife with which Francesco Caruso had cut a doctor’s throat; the bat and the axe with which Ludwig Lee “pounded and hacked his two women victims to pieces”; the bottle of poison Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray had used to kill her husband.


In one vitrine were two pistols, a .32 and a .38, with a small typewritten card underneath to explain what they were: the guns George Ricci had used to kill his old boss, Frank Scavullo, in broad daylight on 86th Street in Bay Ridge just three years before. No longer smoking, no longer loaded, they were neutered threats collecting dust in a display case, reminders of a killing that shocked and scandalized a community, signifiers, though, now alienated from the things they signified. Quickly, they had become mere curios—objets in a museum of crime.

 

Read more Bay Ridge crime history in our book True Crime Bay Ridge and more about the history of the neighborhood in our book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.

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