Degenerate Italian desperado: takes the money and refuses to use the knife

Have a look at this short article which appeared in the New York Times on 17 April 1885. I read this three times and I still cannot decide if it’s an editorial or some kind of satire.

Note the thesis: when Italians come to America their morals give way to greed. So for example, rather than charging a reasonable $10 to stab a man, the Italian in question was so greedy as to ask ten times as much. He finally agreed to a fee of $300, took the money and accepted a knife to actually carry out the assignment, and then simply did not do the work he had contracted to do. Took the money, took the knife, and snuck away. The cad.

So I’m at a loss. Any thoughts out there?


New York Times.
17 April 1885.

The Italian workman in his native land is a simple, honest person, who will work at low wages, and will do his work conscientiously and well. If, however, he emigrates to this country and lives here for any length of time he becomes demoralized. He is unwilling to work except at the highest attainable wages, and he loses his habit of conscientious, faithful labor.

Of this painful degeneracy the case of Mr. DOMINICO SPADO affords striking evidence. An Italian resident of this city, desiring to have his son-in-law stabbed, applied to Mr. Spado who has the reputation of being a skillful workman, to execute the job. In Naples no honest man would have the impudence to ask more than $10 for so simple an act as the stabbing of another man in the same rank of life. Mr. Spado, however, had resided for some time in this country and instead of charging for any specified job its fair value he preferred to charge the highest possible price. He actually demanded $1,000 for killing a single son-in­ law, and when he was indignantly called an extortioner, he cynically admitted the fact.

After much bargaining, however, he finally lowered his demand, and consented to perform the job for $300, the employer to furnish the tools. There is no possible defense for such conduct. Mr. Spado knew that he was charging an extortionate price, and that nothing but the necessities of his employer could induce the latter to give his consent. Even at this stage of the affair Mr. Spado showed that he had no conscience, and a little later he showed that he had no sense of shame. After taking the $300 and a new knife, Mr. Spado was bound by every sentiment of honor and decency to go and kill his man. His employer had put full confidence in him and unless full confidence can always exist between employers and bravos the trade of the latter must at no distant day prove a failure. Instead of justifying this confidence by stabbing the son-in-law in a workmanlike way, Mr. Spado actually went to him and agreed — doubtless for a consideration — not to stab him. Worse than all, Mr. Spado went further and betrayed his employer — an act that, had it been committed in Naples, would have caused his expulsion from the Camorrista and made him the scorn of every honorable bravo. Very likely Mr. Spado has benefited his pocket by coming to America, but in common with many of his fellow-immigrants he has unquestionably lowered his moral tone.

He is an extortioner for he demanded $1,000 for a job that he knew was not intrinsically worth more than $10; and he is a dishonest man, for he failed to do his duty and he betrayed his employer. Perhaps he is now priding himself on his superiority as a money maker to the modest Camorrista of Naples; but the day will come when this extortioner and traitor will envy the calm conscience of the humble and happy Neapolitan, who is contented with a fee of $10 and who faithfully stabs the man whom he has been hired to stab.

2 Replies to “Degenerate Italian desperado: takes the money and refuses to use the knife”

  1. I’m with you in not understanding the intent of the article…the writer seems to be aghast at Mr Spado’s lack of rectitude yet can’t see the honour in him not committing murder…is it a smear against Italians in general or just a bad example of 19th century muckraking? The tone of the article is kind of interesting. Sounds a bit like David Attenborough uncovering a rare Latin migratory species. As an aside, I recently read Paullina Simons’ latest novel, Children of Liberty, which starts in the late 1890s at Boston’s Freedom Docks and features an Italian family, the Attavianos, just arrived from Belpaso. Fifteen year old Gina was an enterprising character but her brother was quite typecast as a temperamental, egotistical young Italian male, not wanting to accept anyone’s help, which didn’t strike me as real…I would have thought as an immigrant he would have been grateful for whatever help was freely extended.

    1. I think it has to be satire, but who knows? When I have time I may see if there’s a NYT archivist who can shed some light on it.

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