Valerio Spada, Serena Uccello and Marzia Sabella at Camera in Turin
Last Thursday i spent the evening at the Camera photo center in Turin for a round table that bore the very intriguing title Fotografare l’invisibile: la mafia tra latitanza e latenza (“Photographing the Invisible: the Mafia between being on the run and latency”, yes, that’s my miserable translation and it definitely sounds more laborious than the original.) The event was a discussion between photographer Valerio Spada, famous in Italy for the way he documents the Mafia in Naples and in Sicily; Marzia Sabella, a magistrate who is a consultant for the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission; and Serena Uccello, a journalist who wrote several books about the Mafia.
I don’t know a lot about the Sicilian Mafia. But there was one name that kept popping up in the conversation that i had heard of: Bernardo Provenzano. Provenzano was nicknamed Binnu u tratturi (Sicilian for “Binnie the tractor”) because of the way “he mows people down.” And of course he was capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) of the entire Cosa Nostra until his arrest in 2006.
Most of his criminal career was spent on the run. From the moment he was indicted for murder in 1963 until the police finally found him, he spent 43 years hiding in Sicily. It was his land, his territory and he needed to maintain a physical presence if he wanted to keep a tight grip on the reins of power.
During all those years as a fugitive, he communicated with his lieutenants by word of mouth or by pizzini – neatly folded pieces of paper that replaced phone conversations. Provenzano was a deeply religious man. He would methodically highlight verses from the Bible and thread relevant passages in his pizzini through otherwise routine instructions regarding business matters.
A photofit of Matteo Messina Denaro whom everyone but me in the room recognised
I did however spent the whole evening wondering “who the hell is this Denaro they keep talking about?” Matteo Messina Denaro, it turns out, is the other very famous Sicilian boss. According to Forbes, he is among the ten most wanted criminals in the world. He too has a nickname. They call him Diabolik. Provenzano named him as his successor in one of his pizzini. He has spent many years in hiding as well (14 years so far) but hasn’t been found yet.
Photographer Valerio Spada is interested in this existence spent on the run. What do you carry with you when you decide to disappear? What do you take along when you are forced to move from one place to another?
The other thing that fascinates the photographer is how much these men sacrifice to stay on top and remain on the territory where they do business. As prominent members of the mafia, they believe that they are ‘on a mission’ and they are ready to give up anything as long as they remain in power: love, family, luxury, comfort. Which explains why Provenzano last hiding place was decidedly decidedly lackluster. As for Messina Denaro, he has probably never met his daughter. In a “pizzino” sent to the former mayor of Castelvetrano (a town in the province of Trapani), he writes: “You don’t know what pain is; living my life without ever having met my daughter.” These men enjoy power and social prestige but not much else.
Matteo Messina Denaro graphological examination of the very few traces he left behind him before disappearing in 1993
Spada managed to get access to and record many of Provenzano’s possessions in his photos. The focus of the series however goes beyond the tangible objects. It meticulously investigates the absence of men who are invisible yet dominate the territory through a complex system of dissimulation, silence and obliteration.
I’m copy/pasting below some of Spada’s photos, with a few comments about them:
Valerio Spada, Olivetti Lettera 35
Typewriter machine used by Provenzano to send messages that ranged from death orders to instructions to move money around. The messages are called “pizzini”, they are A4 paper size coded messages, folded multiple times and wrapped in transparent tape with a number on it that indicates the final recipient. The order will reach its destination after it has passed through 7 different intermediaries.
Matteo Messina Denaro has been known to use Skype for urgent matters.
Valerio Spada, Aula Bunker, Milano, 2013
Giovanni Brusca‘s deposition in the bunker of the Court of Milan on 11 December 2013. Brusca used to be a member of the Sicilian Mafia until he was arrested and became an informant of the police. The deposition is one of the very few instances when the invisible becomes visible.
Note that the policemen have to wear a balaclava to keep the anonymity necessary for their own protection.
Valerio Spada, A Concert by Bartolomeo Manfredi, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, 2013
Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting was severely damaged after the bomb explosion in Via dei Georgofili, Florence in the early hours of 27 May 1993. The bombing was part of a campaign of terror orchestrated by the Corleonesi clan in response to the application of the article 41-bis law, by which mafiosi are imprisoned in particularly harsh conditions, which greatly restricts their contact with other inmates and non-prisoners in an attempt to stop them continuing to orchestrate crime from the inside.
Catania, Librino, Teatro Moncada
The photo series is called “I Am Nothing”, a title inspired by words like the ones Matteo Messina Denaro wrote in one of his pizzini:
“You see, I have known pure desperation and I have been alone, I have experienced hell and I have been alone, I have fallen many many times and I have got back up again on my own; I have witnessed pure ingratitude on the part of everyone and anyone and I have been alone, I have known the taste of dust and in my solitude I have been nourished by it […] I am nothing, a loser, but if you need this nothing, I am always here for you, for anything. That is not rhetoric, I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I really love you.
With lasting esteem and love, as always
When you have read this letter,
Valerio Spada, Girls at palazzo di cemento, Catania, 2012
Robert Capa, Just after the liberation of the town, a French woman who had a baby with a German soldier was punished by having her head shaved, Chartres, France, 18 August 1944
Carl Mydans, A tondue, 1944
I’ll never forget the stories my grandmother used to tell me about the ‘shaved women of the Libération. After the Second World War, women accused of having worked with the nazi invader, spied for them, denounced their neighbours, and participated to nazi operations were paraded in the street, insulted, spat on, beaten, etc. The apotheosis of this public humiliation was the moment when men (they were usually men) would shave the head of the women as a punishment for being a ‘traitress’. Roughly 20 000 women were shaved in France in 1944-1945.
However, the only crime committed by some of these women was horizontal collaboration. They had slept with a German out of love, conviction, necessity, under duress or simply because they were prostitutes. All of them lost their hair, symbol of seduction and perdition. Of course, men were punished for colluding with the German invader as well but only women were stigmatized and punished for ‘sleeping with the enemy’.
Album-souvenir d’Isabelle H. (Paris, trips in Normandy and on the French Riviera in the company of a German officer), 1944. Arch. nat. Z/6/1236
Young woman and German soldier in Paris, investigation file of Marguerite P. Arch. nat., Z/6/123/1176
Women shaved and paraded on a truck in Cherbourg, 1945
Presumed Guilty, an exhibition at the Archives Nationales in Paris, explores how women have been judged according to different sets of values -and often with less impartiality- than men. From the XIVth Century to the end of the Second World War, French women were ‘presumed guilty’. They were judged for their crimes (or what was perceived as such) but also simply for being women. Something pertaining to their gender made them more likely to commit certain types of crimes. Until 1946, these women were interrogated by men, judged by men and condemned by them.
The exhibition examines this position through five archetypes of female felons: the witch, the poisoner, the child-killer, the rebel arsonist, and the traitor.
Between the XVth and the XVIIIth Century, 110 000 trials for witchcraft were held throughout France. 80 % of the accused were women. Women were regarded as weaker than men and thus more susceptible to be seduced and perverted by the devil.
It was believed that the devil would touch the woman and leave a mark on her body when they made their pact. The mark was supposed to be insensitive to pain. The investigators would thus meticulously examine the naked body of the accused woman and then prick their body with a blade. If the woman did not flinch nor bleed, it was a proof that they were a witch. Women were also asked questions about their sexuality, in particular the details of their copulation with the devil.
Violette Nozière who poisoned her parents
Violette Nozière during her trial in Paris in 1934. Photo credit: Rene Dazy, Rue des Archives, Paris, France
In the modern era, the figure of the witch with her potions and knowledge of herbs was replaced by the one of the female poisoner. Poison was seen as the woman’s weapon of choice. “Brave” men kill with a knife. Cowardly women with drugs. Poisoning someone was adjudged to be more shocking than homicide: it suggested premeditation, ruse and hypocrisy and therefore merited greater punishment. Furthermore, the crime indicated a woman who had chosen to depart from her traditional role of a ‘nurturer’.
Berthe V., arrested for child killing. Archives départementales de Loire-Atlantique
Encore un carreau d’cassé (young pregnant maid and her boss), published in Le Rire, 12th year, 1905-1906. Arch. nat., AE/II/3734
A fourth figure of criminal is the child-killer. These were often girls who had only a vague understanding of what their body was going through and were afraid of losing their ‘reputation’ and thus any chance of ever finding a good husband. Some had been raped, victims of incest or just naive. During the trials, the judges often interrogated them about the seduction and intercourse that led to an undesired childbearing.
Justice was harsh to these women. At least until the XIXth century when society finally recognized that men had to bear some responsibility for the shame, misery and despair of these women.
The anarchist Germaine Berton, 1921
Then came the pétroleuses, the women accused to have used bottles full of petroleum or paraffin (similar to modern-day Molotov cocktails) to set on fire key buildings in Paris during the radical socialist and revolutionary government that briefly ruled the French capital in 1871. Many government buildings were indeed set afire by the soldiers of the Commune but it was only only the rumour that attributed the arson to women. Hundreds of pétroleuses (a word that has no equivalent for men) were brought before a court, none were recognized guilty of intentional firing. But the myth perdured and the term was applied to rebellious women who didn’t conform to the rules that govern their gender and whose beliefs and gestures couldn’t be controlled by men.
Germaine Berton, for example, was born long after the Commune but she was seen as a marginal, a kind of pétroleuse. Berton was a young anarchist activist who shot one of the leaders of the French Far Right organization known as Action française. She was arrested and claimed responsibility for the crime. Everything about her belied the ideal of a woman: she had political opinions, she acted alone, was single and wore short hair. On 24th December 1923, the tribunal found her not guilty of the crime. The judges didn’t want to turn her into a martyr so they claimed she couldn’t be held responsible for her act.
Unfortunately, Presumed Guilty closes today. It is a fascinating exhibition. 320 interrogation records and previously unseen documents give their voice back to these women.
The exhibition closes at the end of the Second World War but as we all know (glass ceiling and all that), the fight for equality, dignity and recognition is not over for many women across the world.
On a side note, i was very surprised to see how few men were visiting the exhibition on the day i was there. There were dozens of women of all ages but only one ‘husband’.
Workers monitored by a nun, drawing by Aristide Delannoy, L’Assiette au beurre, 1901. Arch. nat. AE/11/2940
The blockbuster exhibition in London right now is The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London. I went on a Tuesday early afternoon, it was packed and it was fascinating. First of all, you learn a lot about crime in the capital and that’s as grisly, weird and demoralizing as you can hope for. But you learn just as much about crime-fighting methods and the challenges facing modern policing.
The main exhibition space presents objects and evidence collected from 24 real-life case files. Some of them relate to the capital’s most notorious crimes. From the Great Train Robbery to the Kray twins. Other cases might be less infamous but they earned their place in the show because of the important role they’ve played in the the development of forensics, because they’ve changed the law or because of the impact they had on society.
The cases described date as far back as 1905 and, apart from the section about terrorism, none of them are more recent than 1975 in an attempt to protect the families of the victims.
The Crime Museum was established in the mid-1870s when the Police started to store the belongings of prisoners while they were being detained. Property left unclaimed was soon joined by the items that the Police had seized during their investigations. The collection was used as a teaching tool for newly trained officers and had never been open to the public before.
The first section of the exhibition recreates the Crime Museum as it appeared in the illustration of the 1880s and early 1900s, a time when the collection was called the Police Museum. It looks like a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, with its collection of old weapons, shelves of death masks, mugshots with hand-written notes detailing the size of the head of offenders as young as 12 years old, nooses used in hangings, evidence collected during the investigations, courtroom sketches, etc. That and the Jack the Ripper material!
The last part of the exhibition is a video room where experts debate questions that range from “Should such an exhibit be allowed and why?” to “Why does society have such a lurid fascination for crime?”
Now i have a passion for crime stories. Fabricated rather than real ones. This predilection for fiction didn’t prevent me from enjoying the show. I felt that The Crime Museum Uncovered talked more about society, its vices and curiosities, about forensics and history than about the criminals themselves. Something which i think was important to the curators: they wanted to tell horrible stories without ever glamourizing crime and crooks.
What follows is an almost endless accumulation of images related to the show. Some will get a few lines of explanations, others won’t.
I’ll start with a photo i took of the object i found most abominable:
It’s a bit dispiriting to see how often women are the victims of crimes. I was particularly horrified by this pair of spring-loaded spiked binoculars. A man gave them as a gift to his former fiancée after she left him. They inspired a scene in the 1959 film Horrors of the Black Museum.
Annie Parker appeared over 400 times before Greenwich Police Court on charges of drunkenness. She made this small sampler cushion, decorating it with hand-crocheted lace and embroidering it using her own hair instead of thread. She presented it to the prison chaplain who later gave it to the museum. Parker died of consumption in 1885, aged 35. At least two other examples of her work are known to exist.
In early April 1905, Alfred and Albert Stratton, two brothers in their early twenties, were arrested for the murder of Thomas and Ann Farrow. At the crime scene, detectives discovered three stocking masks and an empty cash box which had contained the previous week’s takings. At the trial, the most damning evidence was a fingerprint of Alfred’s right thumb found on the cash box.
This was the first criminal case in British history where fingerprint evidence secured a conviction for murder.
On 18 February 1949, John Haigh shot Olive Durand-Deacon, a wealthy widow, at his workshop in Crawley, Sussex. He removed anything of value and dissolved her body in a drum of sulphuric acid, believing that the police would not be able to convict him of murder without a body. The investigation of the sludge at the workshop by pathologist Keith Simpson revealed three human gallstones and part of Mrs Durand-Deacon’s false teeth which had not dissolved.
A firearm and criminal record belonging to Ronnie Kray
Ronnie and Reggie Kray were twin brothers and gang leaders in 1960’s London. They were responsible for robberies, assaults, protection rackets, fraud and murder. Due to intimidation and witnesses refusing to come forward, they were almost untouchable. However, in 1968 the police arrested Paul Elvey who admitted involvement in a number of attempted murders. Other witnesses started talking. In 1969 the twins were found guilty of the murders of George Cornell in 1966 and Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie in 1967. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.
On display at the Museum of London is a briefcase hiding a spring-loaded syringe and bottle of hydrogen cyanide that was made to kill a witness about to testify against the Krays, the handgun used by Reggie Kray to try to kill Jack McVitie, the crossbow intended for use against an enemy of the Krays and a scrapbook from the late 1960s containing newspaper cuttings on the case.
The Richardsons Electrical generator used to administer electric shocks by the Richardson gang, 1960s Museum of London
In the 1960s, the Richardson gang were Krays rivals. They had a reputation as some of London’s most sadistic gangsters. They were said to enjoy pulling teeth using pliers, cutting off toes using bolt cutters, and nailing victims to the floor with nails. As for the electric generator, it was allegedly used to give potent shocks to the toes, nipples and genitals of their enemies. If the victim didn’t seem to suffer enough, water would be poured over them, the wired attached and shocks administered again.
Large crowds would gather to watch public hangings in London, and those who could afford to do so rented rooms overlooking the scene. In 1868 public hangings ended and executions were moved to within the prison walls.
Execution box no. 9 from Wandsworth Prison, which was sent around the Britain to be used as required. Photo AP Photo/Alastair Grant via Seattle Time
The box contains two ropes, allowing the hangman to choose the most appropriate one. To test the rope, a canvas bag was filled with sand to make it the same weight as the condemned person. It was attached to the rope, dropped through the trapdoors and left overnight to stretch it fully before the execution. The straps and buckles were used to restrain the person’s wrists and ankles and the hood to cover their head.
In September 1975, three armed and masked men burst into the Knightsbridge Spaghetti House, to steal the week’s takings. The robbery went wrong and the gunmen took the staff hostage in the basement.
The gunmen demanded safe passage to Jamaica. This was refused, but they were given a radio, coffee and cigarettes. As the siege progressed, journalists were asked to demoralise the gunmen by broadcasting reports saying there was no chance that their demands would ever be met. Meanwhile, the police squeezed fibre-optic surveillance equipment through a hole in the cellar to monitor conditions inside. A psychiatrist advised police on the group’s mental state. On the sixth day the gunmen surrendered and hostages were released unharmed.
This was the first time police had used psychological strategies to end a siege, had enlisted the help of the media in this way and used real-time surveillance. It was also the Firearms Wing’s first deployment in a major incident.
Handwritten criminal record card for Arthur James Woodbine, aged 12, 1896. Museum of London
Legitimate baby farmers provided a service for pregnant unmarried women who were forced to ‘farm’ out their illegitimate child in order to avoid scandal or to keep their jobs. Baby farmers tried to find a family to adopt or foster the child in exchange for a fee. Others like Sach and Walters would abandon or murder the babies and keep the money.
The Smith & Wesson .38 revolver used by Ruth Ellis to murder David Blakely, 1955. Museum of London
Ruth Ellis was London nightclub hostess and the last woman to be executed in the UK, after being convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely.
Patrick Mahon Miniature furniture used to reconstruct the murder scene of Emily Kaye, 1924. Museum of London
The butchered remains of Emily Kaye and her unborn foetus were found mostly in a beach house in Sussex (England), which she had shared with her married lover Patrick Mahon. When the police visited the bungalow, they found pieces of boiled flesh in a saucepan; sawn-up chunks of a corpse in a hat box, a trunk and a biscuit tin; and ashes in the fire containing bone fragments. Sir Bernard Spilsbury pieced together the body of the pregnant Emily Kaye, but no head was ever found.
Mathers Arsenical Flypaper, exhibit in the Seddons trial for the poisoning of Eliza Barrow, 1912. Museum of London
Death mask of Franz Muller, a German tailor who committed the first British railway murder, 1864. Museum of London
In July 1864, Franz Muller, 24 year-old German tailor living in London attacked Thomas Briggs, 69, in the first-class compartment of a North London railway train. He robbed him, beat him and threw him from the train, committing the first British railway murder. Muller was tracked down through a gold chain he had stolen from Briggs. The case highlighted fears about railway travel and led to the introduction a few years later of the communication cord to stop the train in case of emergency.
Death masks, made from plaster, were created after executions at Newgate Prison. Some were produced for phrenological purposes, to study the shape of a convict’s head, others were made as curios to record the faces of notorious criminals.
Leslie Stone shoe prints recovered by police from murder scene of Ruby Keen, 1937. Museum of London
Between April 1888 and February 1891, eleven women were brutally murdered in the East End of London by an unknown murderer. These murders sparked Britain’s largest ever murder investigation. The Whitechapel murderer became known as Jack the Ripper. He or she has never been identified.
The nickname of this serial killer has its origin in the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, which was sent to the Central News Agency supposedly by the murderer himself on 25 September 1888 and asked anyone recognising the handwriting to contact the police. It was signed “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.”
Death mask of murderer Frederick Deeming, a Jack the Ripper suspect, 1892. Museum of London
Medicine case belonging to poisoner and Jack the Ripper suspect Dr Neil Cream, c.1892. Museum of London