Portraits in the Graveyard: An Unexpected Look Into the History of Organized Crime in St. Louis

Graves defaced by some force, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Graves defaced by some force, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Our trip to St. Louis has resulted in a rather strange and entirely unexpected journey for my sister and I. I had heard about the morbid beauty of the gravestone statues at the Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries. We discovered intensely dramatic and artistic pieces adorning many graves. Worn by the elements and, possibly, defaced by vandals over centuries, the weathered sculptures stood as eerie sentinels throughout the cemetery.

Statues on top of gravestones at Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Gravestone statue, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

In addition to the artistic aspect of our search, we were also aware of that within Calvary Cemetery were the graves of Civil War General (and devil-may-care portrait taker – seriously, google it) William Tecumsah Sherman, playwright Tennessee Williams, and original civil rights fighter, Dred Scott.

After finding two of the three, we drove around the expansive grounds, stopping to photograph the striking statues. As dusk began to settle, we decided it would be prudent to find our way through the gates before closing.

Winding our way around the maze of unmarked streets, we found a large section of graves with small photographs built into the marble. It was somewhat unclear from the car to see what the photographs were of, so we carefully weaved our way through the markers. It was then we saw these:

Gravestone portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Gravestone portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Grave portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Grave portrait, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, MO

Grave after grave of tragically young men posing for portraits. We noticed that many of the names were ethnically Italian and an alarming number had died between 1924-1932. Without much knowledge of the St. Louis area, we assumed their had been an epidemic that had claimed large numbers in specific neighborhoods, but after returning to our hotel, we could find no record of a disease epidemic during that time frame. What we did find was far more sinister (and intriguing).

Ask me to name prolific, early 20th century mafia cities and I would have come up with Chicago, New York, and Boston. Probably never would have landed on St. Louis until I’d run through the remainder of the coast cities and a few in the South. Turns out St. Louis was home to at least 5 gangs, who frequently swapped the strong-hold and held court in the streets.

In my initial research, I’ve been able to find some information on Sicilian gang, The Green Ones, and, an Italian faction, the Pillow Gang (so named for the pillow its leader carried with him after a couple well place shots affected his ability to comfortably sit). Another group factored into the warring was the Cuckoo Gang.

This preliminary research has piqued the researchers in us to find out what happened to these men. We ended up going back to the cemetery the next day and photographing dozens of graves with the idea that we would determine their fates. We saw thousands of graves across the cemetery in those two days, but weren’t drawn to try to discover the identities of them all. It was the pictures, the literal face-to-a-name that made us want to know more.

Who were these men? Fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, who also played a role in the criminality of a city. It’s easy to find information on the leaders of these gangs and their eventual outcomes. Many succumbing to a life lived by the gun, but what of these foot soldiers?

I have no delusions that all of these graves hold the remains of St. Louisans with ties to organized crime. There are many family members, friends, and neighbors that are undoubtedly buried alongside them. I intend on including the information we find on these people as well, simply as an honest depiction of our research.

While this is a seemingly morbid journey to embark on, it’s a result of an insatiable curiosity that was piqued and a need to organize the world in a large series of connections. It’s an in depth, intimate way to learn about a piece of the history of St. Louis and the Midwest.

This research will become a series of posts as we find out more and I would love anyone with any ideas, suggestions, or great books or websites on St. Louis organized crime to leave a comment.