- Fearless Before the LordGiuseppe Alia and Religious and Political Radicalism
On 23 February 1908 the United States was horrified by a murder in Denver, Colorado, which the press described as “strange” and “deranged.”1 An Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Alia, killed Father Leo Heinrichs during Mass at a local Catholic church.2 Years later, historian Robert J. Goldstein described the murder as “bizarre.” In the days that followed, news of the murder spread around the world, thanks to American and international newspapers. The murderer would give different explanations, but in the first hours after the attack he explained that “I just went there because I have a grudge against all priests. . . . They are all against the working man. . . . I am an anarchist and proud of it.”3 The Denver murder provoked an anti-anarchist furor with important consequences. It took place in a historic moment in which a political environment of anti-anarchism intersected with a racial environment of anti-Italian prejudice, profoundly shaping the Italian migration experience. How did the Denver murder contribute to anti-anarchist fears? Was it really politically motivated? Or did it have other causes? If so, what were they?
It is in this context that this article examines the murder and its implications, proving that Giuseppe Alia was completely uninvolved with the anarchist movement. The murder was rooted in an intense clash between the Catholic [End Page 45] and Waldensian churches in Sicily that emigration carried across national borders. Racial and political prejudice in a climate of collective hysteria and xenophobia heavily influenced the press, public opinion, and political class. Fear of anarchists was also a product of the political violence of turn-of-the-century Europe and America, particularly after the 1900 regicide of King Umberto I of Italy (which was also investigated in the United States because the assassin, Gaetano Bresci, came from Paterson, New Jersey) and the assassination of U.S. President McKinley the following year by Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo. The conflation of “immigrant” and “terrorist” shaped politics and provided a preview of American society during World War I and the Red Scare.
This article has four parts. The first examines the spread of the Waldensian church in Sicily and the ensuing religious clash in its social, economic, and political contexts. The second reconstructs Giuseppe Alia’s life in Italy and abroad. The third section analyzes the murder, trial, and death sentence. The article ends with a reflection on the murder’s consequences and its many interpretations.
Giuseppe Alia’s story unfolded in a narrow strip of the Sicilian province of Syracuse stretching from the towns of Avola and Pachino and the hamlet of Portopalo. Pachino, situated on the island’s southern most point, had little more than 11,000 residents at the beginning of the twentieth century, including 1,000 near Portopalo. After a period of famine and hunger in 1879, its economy became relatively prosperous with the spread of vineyards. “For Pachino, the vine is life,” claimed Don Simone Sultano.4 Thanks to its partially volcanic soil and massive investments by noble families, the future of this corner of Sicily seemed prosperous.
But a phylloxera infestation brought producers to their knees by 1894, prompting many of Pachino’s residents to emigrate to North and South America. In Sultano’s words, the towns and countryside looked like an immense graveyard. In addition to vines, the cultivation of flax, hemp, rice, and cotton was widespread, and there was peace and a relatively good network of roads.5 The fishing and tuna industries flourished in the coastal towns of [End Page 46] Marzamemi and Portopalo. It was in this social and economic context that socialists governed.
Unlike central-eastern Sicily, the Fasci Siciliani in the province of Syracuse were not revolutionary6 and mostly involved existing local conflicts for political supremacy. In 1891, Pachino had no shortage of demonstrations with cries like “Pane e lavoro” (Bread and work), but they were nothing like what was happening in other areas of Sicily. Following the Fasci and the phylloxera infestation, local socialist politicians in Pachino began clashing with the Catholic Church. In 1895, conflict arose between the mayor...