True Crime Scranton

Who Killed Francesco Favasuli?

In 1904, two boys make a gruesome discovery while on a hunting trip through the woods of Scranton. Over 117 years later, justice is yet to be served.

On a cold November day in 1904, two boys, William Claynor and Ralph Cooper made their through the woods near Nay Aug Park for a hunting expedition. As the boys crossed the Laurel Line tracks, they noticed a figure lying in the snow on the mountainside near the now-abandoned Erie tracks. They climbed up to find a dead man, lying back in the snow, his legs buried in the snow-covered culm, with his eyes wide open and his pipe still clenched in his teeth (another report said the pipe was in his right hand). Horrified, they took off running to find help. It wasn’t until they reached downtown, over a mile away, that they found Officer Charles Neuls on Washington Ave.

Officer Neuls took the boys to the police station where they relayed their story to Police Chief Lorna Day. The Chief ordered Neuls to take the boys back to the scene along with Officer Brown to recover the body and take it to the undertaker’s office. There, the body was examined and it was determined that the man had been shot in the right side with a large caliber bullet. The bullet exited the left side but was not found near the scene.

Philadelphia Inquirer
Nov 20, 1904

It was later reported that investigators had found a .32 caliber bullet and believe that was the bullet that killed Francesco.

The man had about five dollars in his pockets (about $170 today), so robbery didn’t seem to be the initial motive. Also in his pockets were other letters and receipts addressed to Francesco Favasuli. Police now believe they know the identity of the murdered man, but they have little knowledge as to who might have been responsible for his death.

The initial investigation revealed footprints that were fairly far apart, leading detectives to believe that Favasuli was running along the Erie tracks before jumping down the hill where he likely lost his footing and was then shot. There were no other footprints or weapons found nearby – just those of the boys that found him. There was also no mention of the weapons that the boys had planned to use for their hunting expedition.

Considering the man was of Italian descent, initial thoughts pinned the crime on the work of The Black Hand – the precursor to the Italian mafia. The Black Hand was very active in and around Scranton at that time. It was not unusual for Italians to be the target of their fellow countrymen – especially new immigrants. The Black Hand would often target new immigrants and extort money from them by intimidating them with violence – slashings, and shootings being the primary method of force,

Favasuli had just immigrated to the US, arriving on the shores of New York on May 14, 1904. He was going to see his cousin Domenico Romeo in Scranton. Francesco was traveling with several others from Africo who were all going to Montreal.

He was detained for a couple of days before being released but I can’t make out the reason for detention, It appears that he was released on May 17, 1904.

Apparently, his family was no stranger to the law. Papers found on him were interpreted by Louis Morisini and led investigators to believe that his brother was in jail in Naples, Italy. Another letter was from a cousin in Virginia – asking Favasuli to join him there.

There was also some mystery associated with the evidence found on Favasuli that Morisini could not explain. A white handkerchief was neatly folded and tucked into a pocket. Around the edges, it was stitched with numerous letters and signs – it likely had some meaning, but it led Morisini to state “there is something strange about this handkerchief that I can not solve now.”

Favasuli was a native of Africo, Calabria, a farming village deep in the hills of southern Calabria with a heavy Greek influence. So, why his brother was jailed in Naples was another mystery.

Calabrians were “deadly enemies” of the Sicilian Mafia, separated only by the Strait of Messina, so detectives were considering gang rivalry as part of the motive.

Detectives also found letters on Favasuli that were addressed to his wife back in Italy. They were signed by another man. Another letter included a receipt for $110 that was sent back to the woman in Italy, again, signed with a name different from Favasuli’s – so it was believed that the dead man was using an alias – but there was no mention of the alias.

Detectives scoured Little Italy in Scranton. I believe it was then known to be in South Side from Stafford Ave down to Prospect. Their efforts failed to find someone who knew the victim. Police determined that he either did not live in that section of the city or no one wanted to admit to knowing the man.

After five days of police work, it was announced that Detectives Robert Dieter and Dave Davis made three arrests in connection with the murder. Gerardo Marlona, Benni Rich, and Andrew Marchura, all believed to be from the Bunker Hill section of Dunmore, were all charged in connection with the murder. Police believed Marlona was the shooter and the two other men were held as witnesses.

Marlona was taken into custody just as he was making arrangements to leave for Chicago – having already purchased his ticket. Rich had also purchased a ticket to return to Italy and was set to sail in a few days.

Marchura told investigators that all four men were close friends and they all worked for the Erie Railroad. On their last payday together, Favasuli inadvertently received Marlona’s wages of $28.50 while Marlona received Favasuli’s for only a little over $4.00. Marlona demanded that Favasuli hand the money over to him. Favasuli refused, so police believed that Marlona ambushed Favasuli on the way home.

The detainment didn’t last long. Magistrate Howe set the men free stating that the evidence was unreliable and there wasn’t enough to charge the trio. It was also learned that Detectives Deiter and Davis had interviewed dozens of people from the Little Italy (Bunker Hill) section of Dunmore and all vouched for the three men as being of high character, while Favasuli was deemed to be a “reprobate and scoundrel.” Marlona explained the hasty exit to Chicago as a total coincidence since his brother mailed him two weeks ago and told him to come to Chicago because he had a good job waiting for him.

A week after the murder, police continue to be frustrated by the lack of evidence. It’s looking like the person(s) responsible for the murder were about to get away with their crime. While it was clear that Francesco’s death was a homicide, some believe that it was a stray bullet from a hunting rifle – pointing fingers at the two boys that found the body.

Regardless, this was a particularly dangerous time around Lackawanna County. There were six murders in the county in just an eight-day time span. Joe Romanillo was stabbed and clubbed to death in Dunmore. Mary Warner, a wife from the Diamond Flats section of Scranton is brutally murdered on her way home from work. Joe Talerico and Frank Feresi were shot and killed in Carbondale, and Alex Yoshinsky was found dead along the Keyser Valley tracks and was believed to be murdered.

Not a single person showed up for Favasuli’s funeral on December 2, 1904. The man had only been in the country a short time before his murder, but the Italian community was generally a tight-knit group. Perhaps his fellow countrymen knew more about this man than they were willing to share.

Favasuli was laid to rest in the Cathedral Cemetery. The Scranton Times reported, “not a tear fell on the rough pine box in which the body lay” as the casket was lowered into the ground by the sexton’s assistants and the driver of the “morgue wagon”. None of his alleged friends visited the morgue nor made any inquiry about his funeral. A priest at St. Lucy’s, the Italian Church in the city, was the only one that seemed interested.

The city contributed $10 to his services and the balance was to come from other unnamed sources. The funds saved his body from being donated for research to one of the state’s medical colleges.

It was reported that Francesco’s parents were both still alive in Italy and would hopefully raise up prayers “in the little mountain-side chapel” on behalf of their son that died over 4,500 miles away from home.

Church in Africo Vecchio
Credit: Cammino Basiliano

Time passed and with no family to push for a conviction, the case would go unsolved. There were other Favasulis from Africo Vecchio who would immigrate to the US. I don’t know if they were relatives of Francesco. In fact, several men from Africo immigrated to Scranton the following year, including another Francesco Favasuli. There were Favasulis that lived in the Harrisburg area and Rochester, NY. Based on my limited research, I believe these families were all related, but I haven’t connected the lines.

Today, Africo Vecchio is a ghost town, having been partially destroyed by earthquakes in 1905 and again in 1908. The final death knell came when floods and landslides hit the village in 1951. After that, the remaining townspeople abandoned the village and now it attracts just tourists. A new village was created along the Ionian Sea.

Below is an awesome video montage of photos taken in the now-abandoned village.

Africo Nuovo was in the news in the 1980s when the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian Mafia) was very active in the drug trade. Even Pope JohnPaul II was compelled to denounce the violence and silence that strangled Southern Italy – likely because a Catholic Priest, Giovanni Stilo from Africo Nuovo was charged with being a member of the gang. Many of the surnames that appeared in those articles were the same surnames that I’ve seen as having immigrated to the US.

The ‘Ndrangheta mob wars of the early 80s claimed hundreds of lives throughout Southern Italy – with Africo Nuovo contributing over 50 deaths in 1987 alone. That’s a big number considering the population was around 3,000 people at that time.

Today, you can catch a mob movie that was released in 2015 that was filmed in part in the town of Africo Vecchio – just be ready for subtitles.

So. Back to the title of this post. Who killed Francesco Favasuli? Or was that an alias? Was he a victim of the Black Hand? Did the boys accidentally kill him? Did Marlona ambush him for taking his paycheck? What was his alias? And why did he use an alias? Was he in trouble in Italy? Why was he detained upon arrival into the US? Who was his brother and why was he in jail? What happened to the cousin in Virginia? Did his parents survive the earthquakes just a couple of years after his death? Are there Favasulis that are living today related to Francesco? Do they know the story? What happened to the two boys that discovered him? Were they scarred by what they witnessed? Do their children and grandchildren know this story? Does any evidence remain in storage at the Scranton Police Department? So many questions.

In the end, we’ll likely never know the answer to these and other questions – and that’s the problem with unsolved mysteries.

Comment below with your thoughts or questions and I’ll do what I can to address them.


    1. I would tend to agree, but the one thing that sheds doubt is the bullet. It was originally said to be large caliber but later they said it was a .32. That was a common weapon for a lot of the Black Handers.

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