Notorious Outlaws: Red Nose Mike
If a Hall of Fame existed for Pennsylvania criminals, 19th century outlaw Red Nose Mike would have gotten inducted on the first ballot with the greatest of ease. After he was hanged in 1889, the blood-thirsty killer with the curious nickname became part of Luzerne County legend. A great deal has been written about Red Nose Mike over the years-- much of it true, but some of it grossly exaggerated, and these exaggerations only served to spread his infamy and reputation throughout every corner of the state. Here is the true story of Michael Rizzolo, the heartless bandit known as Red Nose Mike.
Rizzolo, who earned his colorful sobriquet because of the unusual protrusion and color of his nose, was operating a commissary near Laurel Run when the Lehigh Valley Railroad was constructing its cutoff over the mountains from Coxton to Mountaintop. The contractor in charge of the cutoff construction was a man by the name of Charles McFadden, who employed a large number of workers.
October 19, 1888, was payday for McFadden's employees. As usual, paymaster J.B. "Barney" McClure and his bodyguard, Hugh Flanagan, went to the Wyoming National Bank to obtain their workers' salaries-- in this case, $12,000. Before they were able to make it back to the job site, McClure and Flanagan were gunned down in cold blood and robbed, their bodies and horse sprawled lifeless across a lonely road four miles from Wilkes-Barre. Both men had been ambushed from behind and had been killed instantly.
It was Charles McFadden who discovered the bodies not far from the job site. He returned to headquarters and notified the authorities, and instructed his bosses to place the bodies of the murdered men in a wagon and transport them to the undertaker in Miner's Mills.
After two hunters near the scene of the crime had been arrested, Justice Coxe of Parsons determined that they had nothing to do with the murder and the men were released, but not before informing the authorities that the likely culprit may have been at Thomas Quigley's saloon in Miner's Mills. The morning of the murder had been wet and cold, and work on the job site had been suspended. On that morning, a number of Italian railroad laborers had left their shanties and gone to Quigley's saloon. Detectives later went to the saloon in order to pursue this lead.
They learned that, on the morning of the murder-- about 35 minutes before the killings took place-- four Italians left the saloon and started up the mountain to their shanties. One Italian, Red Nose Mike, remained at the saloon. Witnesses recalled that he seemed fidgety; every few minutes he would get up and peek out the window. About ten minutes later he left the tavern. A few minutes later, McClure and Flanagan arrived at the saloon to purchase cigars. Quigley asked them to stay, but McClure said that they had to be getting along because the workers were expecting their pay. That was the last time the two men were seen alive.
|An 1892 illustration of Miner's Mills|
Although Red Nose Mike was a suspect from the start, his close ties with local law enforcement and local judges afforded him a measure of protection; they were reluctant to question him, and hesitant to take any action. Pinkerton agents, who had been tailing Rizzolo, declined to make an arrest. One local detective, identified only as Roberts, did manage to arrest Red Nose Mike, but the magistrate at Miners Mills, Squire Moore, ordered his release. Quigley had served as Mike's legal counsel during the proceeding.
But Charles McFadden had a plan; he transferred Red Nose Mike to another job site in Poughkeepsie, New York, and hired four Pinkerton detectives to keep him under close surveillance at all times. If the police and magistrates of northeastern Pennsylvania were unwilling to bring Rizzolo to justice, perhaps law enforcement in another state would be able to get the job done.
Two of the detectives, disguised as immigrant laborers, lodged with Rizzolo in Stamfordsville, near Poughkeepsie, and soon noticed that he had begun spending money freely. He bought several Christmas presents and shipped them to his friends and relatives in Italy. He began to dress extravagantly and had a habit of purchasing expensive wine by the case. When one of the undercover Pinkerton agents asked Red Nose Mike about his wild spending, he told him that a rich uncle from Italy had died and left him his fortune.
One night, shortly after Christmas, one of the detectives, Frank Thayer, saw Mike remove a large roll of bills from his trunk. The detective ripped off his disguise and placed the suspect under arrest. He was then taken to Philadelphia where, in the presence of Captain Linden of the Philadelphia Pinkerton office, he made a full confession.
The Confession of Red Nose Mike
"I was the leader of five Italians. We concocted the murder. I had plenty of money, but my friends had not. Early on the morning of October 19 last we left our shanties and came to Wilkes-Barre, arriving at 10:30. I told my comrades to go up the mountain and wait. I timed McClure and knew when he was due. I started ahead of him, and waited for him at the knoll on the hill. When he came into view I gave the signal to the other men; they fired, and the work was done. Winchester rifles were used. McClure's horse started to run away, but was shot from the rear and brought to a halt. At one time there was great danger of the horse running away, taking with him in the buggy the money. We buried the guns near the scene of the murder and took the money to our shanty and secreted it."
Red Nose Mike implicated four of his friends in the murder; Joseph and Antino Bevevino, Vincenzo Vellali, and Pedrio Lumechi. Lumechi, who had been a sharp-shooter in the Italian army, was the one who pulled the trigger. They managed to evade capture and fled the country. A Pinkerton detective from London eventually tracked them down in Mida, Italy.
District Attorney Darte of Luzerne County and Captain Linden presented their evidence to Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard, who sent extradition papers to Italy. The Italian government, however, refused to surrender the wanted men. When James Blaine became the Secretary of State in 1889, he decided to let the matter rest so as not to cause a rift between to United States and Italy, much to Captain Linden's chagrin.
Two of Rizzolo's accomplices, Vellali and Bevevino, were eventually tried and convicted in an Italian court for their role in the murders of McClure and Flanagan. In 1894 they were both sentenced to twenty years in prison. Interestingly, though Vellali, Lumechi and the Bevevino brothers had played a far more significant role in the deadly ambush than Rizzolo, Red Nose Mike was the only one who would pay for the crime with his life.
Red Nose Mike Swings Into Eternity
A grand jury indicted Rizzolo on January 11, 1889, and his case went to trial on February 7. On February 11 he was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death by hanging. On June 22, Sheriff Search entered Mike's cell and read to him the death warrant; he was scheduled to hang the following Tuesday. The condemned man didn't flinch as the warrant was read. He waited until the sheriff was done reading, then said, simply, "Alright, sir."
The city was brimming with excitement over the coming execution. Sheriff Search was besieged with requests for tickets to the hanging, but under the law only two dozen witnesses would be granted admittance to the jail yard.
The weather was beautiful on the morning of June 30, 1889, but it seemed that every shopkeeper in Wilkes-Barre had closed his doors in anticipation of a slow business day. Before the sun had fully risen, hundreds had flocked to the prison, and hundreds more ascended hills and climbed to rooftops, hoping to gain a vantage point that would allow them a peek into the jail yard.
Shortly after 9 o'clock Red Nose Mike's spiritual advisors visited him in his cell. Meanwhile, Warden Brockway ordered the gates open, and there was a mad rush for the jail yard. Tickets were carefully scrutinized by the guards, and it was discovered that numerous forgeries were in the hands of morbid curiosity-seekers. But even the excitement of legitimate ticketholders faded to somber silence when their eyes fell upon the gallows.
Red Nose Mike displayed steely resolve as he was led to the platform, giving no impression of fear, remorse or sadness. He showed no emotion as the black cap was placed over his head, and the efficient hangman, Atkinson, finished his task so quickly that those who blinked might have missed it.
It was 10:16 when his body fell, but his neck was not broken. It took fifty-three minutes before he died of strangulation. His body was cut down and turned over to Undertaker Peter Conniff and his assistants, who had arrived through a rear entrance. The body of Red Nose Mike was lowered into an imitation rosewood coffin and conveyed to St. Mary's Cemetery in Hanover Township.
There is a strange post-script in the story of Red Nose Mike, however.
On February 21, 1892, it was discovered that someone had stolen the body of Red Nose Mike from the cemetery. A week earlier two men from Wilkes-Barre were sitting in a saloon reminiscing about the outlaw, when one proposed a drunken wager-- $15 says Mike's body was not in the grave where it had been placed. The wager was accepted and a "colored man named Packer" was hired to open the grave. Cloaked by the darkness of night and obscured by the pounding of rain, the gravedigger went to work. When the coffin was opened, Packer discovered that there was nothing inside. He was so shocked that he fled from the scene without filling the grave back in, and the two men who had made the bet were compelled to procure shovels and finish Packer's job.
So whatever happened to the body of Red Nose Mike? There are a few possible explanations, though there is nobody alive who knows for sure. One possibility is that his body was stolen and sold to a medical school for dissection, since bodysnatching was not uncommon during this time. But since Red Nose Mike was buried in a pauper's unmarked grave, it's also possible that Packer-- who was digging at night in a steady rain-- had opened the wrong grave by mistake. Perhaps some day, a brittle scrap of paper from the 19th century or the discovery of a long-forgotten diary will solve the mystery. But, until then, all we can do is wonder.
Did you enjoy this article? If so, then pick up a paperback copy of Pennsylvania Oddities, which features even more true stories of the strange from around the Keystone State, as well as more in-depth versions of some of the more spectacular stories shown on this blog. Only $14.95 and free shipping is available!