Attack on the Cascarelli Fruit Store

The quiet of downtown Hillsdale was shattered by a violent explosion at the back of the Cascarelli Fruit Store on Broad Street at three o'clock in the morning of Sunday, June 24, 1923. Windows were broken along the entire Broad Street side of the  Waldron Block, the buildings erected between Howell and Broad Streets by Henry Waldon. Boxes, barrels and shattered glass from the cases of bottles stacked outside the Cascarelli store were strewn for 100 feet. While sound sleepers were comfortably blank to any sound as they slumbered on sleeping porches nearby, others from Baw Beese Lake, Boot Lake and a farm south of town were startled out of their beds by the blast that rocked houses and rattled windows.

Sheriff W. H. Bates, who had been asleep at the jail on Courthouse Square, was quickly up and running to where the sound of the explosion emanated. Thinking it was an attempt to break into the The First National Bank, he spotted Dean Stock, who was out in his roadster to investigate the commotion. Sheriff Bates sent Dean to the home of E.T. Prideaux for the keys to the bank. But then he saw the mess on Broad Street and realized it was Pete Cascarelli's building. 

The immediately evident debris that littered the street was only a small amount of the damage done to the store. The bomb had been placed on the Broad Street side of the Cascarelli store between some cases of empty bottles and the building. It tore out some big holes in a stone wall near the building, as well as some of the basement. It knocked off the cellar door and the door of the store. A crack ran up the back of the building and the water pipe was torn off. Clearly, this was not an accident.

In an apartment above the store were Pete Cascarelli, his son Joe and his nephew Frank. They reported to the Sheriff that they were down the stairs in about five minutes. Pete told the Sheriff (and later, The Hillsdale Daily News) that he couldn't imagine who could have done the bombing. He firmly asserted that he had no enemies, he had no quarrel with anyone, and no threatening letters had come to him. 

Like all crime scenes, as soon as "eye witnesses" began to tell their stories things got murky. One citizen swore that he heard a car roaring out of town shortly after the explosion. This could have been Dean Stock, following the sheriff's request to locate the key to the bank. Another person, who lived in one of the upper floor apartments in the Waldron Block, said he got up immediately and looked out the window. He saw nothing. Eventually, the Sheriff concluded that the explosion had been set with a timer and the perpetrators had used a homemade nitroglycerine bomb since the amount of dynamite needed to do such damage would have been prohibitively large.

This was an exciting event in Hillsdale, providing much fodder for gossip. The most titillating speculation from the townspeople concerning the reason for the attack on Pete Cascarelli's store centered around the infamous Black Hand Gang or La Mano Nera, an offshoot of the Mafia that extorted money from shopkeepers through threat of violence. The Black Hand originated in Naples. It moved to the United State in the 1880s when immigrant criminals moved here. Massimo Fanucci is credited with developing the techniques for earning a living at the expense of other Italians who paid to not be a target. His methods were refined by the larger Mafia families in New York City. Usually the more successful Italian immigrants were targeted, but possibly as many as 90% of immigrants of Italian descent in large cities were threatened. Apparently, Pete Cascarelli, living in the small town of Hillsdale, didn't fly under the radar of Black Handers in Detroit or Chicago.

Contrary to his emphatic denial of any enemies, stories circulated that Pete admitted that he knew who the bomber might have been. There was an Italian who had visited him on Saturday, where a vigorous argument had occurred, followed by a threat to Pete and his business. According to The Hillsdale Daily News, Sheriff Bates and his deputies speculated that "… even if Mr. Cascarelli knew (who the Italian man was), he might not tell, fearing that greater vengeance might be wrecked upon him"

Cascarelli family lore, related by Pete's much younger cousin, Don Cascarelli, tells a colorful tale of a proud man who refused to be threatened and who was prepared to defend himself and his property. After the visit by the man who was, indeed, from the Black Hand and the Cascarelli's refusal to give in to his attempt at extortion, Pete, Joe and Frank prepared for an almost certain attack. Situated as they were in the Waldron Block, entries to the building were on two main roads, which might have given the Cascarellis an advantage. The front of Pete's building opened on Howell Street and the back on Broad Street. Thus, a wide street rather than an alley ran behind the building, making it harder for a person intent on mayhem to set up his attack without being seen. Don tells about Pete and Joe sitting in their store through the night of June 23/24, 1923 with their rifles at the ready, not upstairs in their apartment as they told Sheriff Bates. It's a colorful image of  two determined men, sitting back to back, waiting through the night.

     As determined as the Cascarellis may have been, either they fell asleep, the Black Hand gangsters were practiced enough to do their work without sound or Pete, Joe and Frank were all really upstairs. There was no warning that the bomb had been set, with the the perpetrators getting away before it went off. 

     No one was ever caught and charged in the bombing. The immediate furor died down, leaving another wonderful story to entertain for many years.


JoAnne P. Miller