Double executions were no rarity at Sing Sing, especially in the 1920’s. The Jazz Age saw an unprecedented number of men (and a few women), 125, walk their last mile in the Empire State. That trend would peak in the 1930’s (153) before decreasing in the 1940’s (114), continuing to drop in the 1950’s (55). Between 1960 and 1963 only nine men saw the inside of Sing Sing’s death chamber. In contrast with the chair’s halcyon days the 1960’s were its swan song. In August 1912 New York had set a record for twentieth-century America equalled only by Kentucky over a decade later; seven executions in one day.
1927’s ‘double event’ involving Hilton and Paretti was anything but unusual. It was the long-delayed final act in New York’s Mafia-Camorra War of 1915-1917. By 1927 the war was long over and the New York faction of the Camorra was effectively destroyed. Nature abhorring a vacuum, the Camorra was replaced by an organisation that would rule not only New York’s underworld but the nation’s; The American Mafia.
Contrary to what many might think the Mob is far from the only organised crime group of Italian extraction. The Mafia originally hails from Sicily. The Camorra and N’hangdreta hail from mainland Italy and in the 1910’s the Mafia and Camorra were battling for a stronger foothold in New York’s rackets. The Mafia (today’s members prefer ‘La Cosa Nostra’ meaning ‘Our Thing’) won the war. Paretti’s execution marked the end of it.
Paul Hilton was a criminal of far lower stature. Known as the ‘Radio Bandit’ and ‘Radio Burglar’ the music-loving Hilton had a compulsive desire to collect radios, usually other people’s. When pursued by NYPD Patrick Kenney after a robbery in Queens, the burglar became a murderer. Hilton had no illusions about the Empire State’s attitude to cop killers. He was quickly tried and condemned and didn’t expect the Governor’s mercy. New York’s courts also had an unwritten rule not to interfere in cop killings. Unless it was legally impossible condemned cop killers would die. Hilton himself was indifferent to his impending execution. Hours beforehand he remarked:
“It looks as if it’s all off with me.”
Hilton was right, but Paretti might have had other options. His lawyers were pressing the courts and Governor for mercy and, being a gangster, Paretti’s jailers had increased the already formidable security around the prison and especially the death house. They hadn’t forgotten the 1916 escape of gangster Oreste Shillitoni.
Already condemned for triple murder including two NYPD officers, Shillitoni used a smuggled pistol to kill one death house guard and seriously wound two more before escaping both the death house and the prison. He was only out for a few hours and didn’t get far, but such an incident would never be allowed again. Shillitoni was executed only days after being recaptured.
As a result Sing Sing’s first death house was scrapped and its brand-new, custom-designed successor was far more secure. Some might argue its lay-out (if not its grim purpose) also made it more humane for those sent to die in it. The first death house had the execution chamber and autopsy room right next to the cells. Only a stone wall and single door separated prisoners from the sounds of one of their peers dying and being autopsied soon afterward.
Staff and condemned alike hated it. It was a grim enough ritual for staff and even worse for prisoners who could hear everything going in the room next to them. Worse still was the prison doctor’s bone saw afterward. The record set in August 1912 had seen chaos and mayhem with cells wrecked by maddened convicts. Even those whose day hadn’t yet arrived had taken part in the madness.
The new building saw the chair and autopsy room sited away from the main cell-block, between the condemned cells and he chair lay a long corridor. At its centre were six special cells for prisoners wose day had come. They were legendary in themselves, a part of New York folklore given a surprisingly cheerful nickname; The Dance Hall.
The Mafia-Camorra War had officially ended a decade earlier. It had started over rival gambling interests and nobody at the time realised the full consequences of the Mafia’s victory. Lasting only two years it also cost many lives. Nicolo de Gaudio, Joseph DeMarco, Charles Lombardi, Ncholas Morello, Charles Ubriaco, Guiseppe Verrazano, George Esposito and Joseph Nazzaro had died in a little under two years.
Mobsters Alessandro Vollero and Frank Fevrola had also gone to the death house, but been reprieved and their sentences commuted. Paretti had fled to Sicily only to return years later. By then, he thought, the witnesses against him would have died or disappeared. Paretti was wrong and his return to the US cost him his life.
Other mobsters had flipped, turned informant and testified to cheat the chair. Ralph Daniello escaped legal justice, but not the criminal code. He was found shot dead at his saloon near Metuchen, New Jersey in 1925. By then Paretti was already in the death house. Another former ally, Alphonso ‘ The Butcher’ Sgroia, hadn’t liked prison life. He wanted out and testifying against old friend ‘Tony the Shoemaker’ was his ticket out. Paretti would be the last casualty of the Mafia-Camorra War.
The additional 24-hour-a-day security weren’t the only additional visitors as Paretti’s time drew near. Moved from their regular death house cells twelve hours before 11pm on Thursday February 17 1927, Hilton and Paretti spent their final hours in the legendary ‘Dance Hall,’ the six pre-execution cells only twenty steps from the chair itself.
Both ordered the same last meal choosing chops, ice cream, cake, coffee and cigars. Hilton willed two watches and some other jewellery to a distant relative in Brooklyn. Paretti, meanwhile, was receiving his final visitors. They were unusual guests. In later years a rule demanding all visitors pass an FBI background check was enforced. Had it been in 1927 they would never have been admitted at all except as inmates. In fact one of them already had been.
Paretti’s brother Aniello didn’t need directions around the death house, he already knew it all too well. Himself condemned for murder in 1921 Aniello had won first an appeal and then been discharged entirely. He needed no explanation of death house lay-out, routine or rules. The other visitor was one of Paretti’s professional acquaintances, La Cosa Nostra’s future boss of bosses Vito Genovese.
Despite being a Mafioso while Paretti was with the Camorra, Genovese still came to pay his last respects to his old rival. They didn’t have long to say their farewells or discuss business. Death house routine and rules were as rigid as the building itself and State Electrician Robert Elliott was already at the prison testing his equipment. Warden Lawes was already meeting and greeting the witnesses and reporters gathering to watch his inmates die.
Principal Keeper John Sheehy (known to inmates as ‘the big boy’) was in charge of the execution team. Appointed ‘PK’ in 1925, he was running through the final details with his hand-picked men. All of them were volunteers. Although Lawes would give the signal and Elliott (‘the burner’ to inmates) would do the deed, Sheehy would ensure the event ran smoothly. By Sheehy’s retirement he would have done so at over 300 executions.
It did run smoothly. Neither Hilton or Paretti made any kind of scene or put up a fight, it’s far rarer a thing than Hollywood might have people believe. So too is the phone ringing, staying the executioner’s hand as it grasps the switch. That isn’t particularly common, either. It certainly didn’t happen for Hilton, Paretti or 613 of Sing Sing’s other condemned. With his work done Elliott collected his usual fee ($150 for the first and an additional $50 for the second plus travel expenses).Elliott then returned home to Queens where Hilton had earned his death sentence.
By the time Lawes had finished his paperwork and Elliott had returned home Paul Hilton and Antonio Paretti lay in the refrigerated autopsy room adjoining the execution chamber. State law, unchanged since the chair’s installation, still mandated an autopsy after any un-natural death and executions were no exception. Now empty and with their few personal possessions cleared away, their cells would be made ready for whoever was next in line. They wouldn’t remain empty for long.
Nor would the space once occupied by New York’s Camorra. Local Mafiosi moved quickly to take and consolidate the Camorra’s lost ground. There would be competition from rivals and still more bloodshed, but the Mob would take and hold what the Camorra had lost. By the time Paretti had walked his last mile his gang had been wrecked, their territory taken by what would become the powerhouse of American crime. Not that it made any difference to him. In time Paretti, his gang and ‘Radio Bandit’ Paul Hilton would be virtually forgotten. Their time had passed.
‘Don Vito,’ on the other hand, was only getting started…