ODD TRUTHS: DON CIRO THE PRIEST-BANDIT
“A single man sometimes frightened a whole population.”
– Brigand Life in Italy, vol. 1 (1865) by Count Alberto Maffei di Boglio.
The origins of Ciro Annicchiarico (“Don Ciro”) are obscure, but most authors agree that his criminal career started with a blood feud, possibly in the Mezzogiorno village of Francavilla. Don Ciro, then a priest or novitiate, murdered an entire family in cold blood. After the deed, he fled to the surrounding countryside but was caught and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. But Don Ciro never served more than four years.
Instead, the ex-priest escaped from a dungeon in Lecce and underwent an image makeover. In the ensuing years, the “Teflon” Don evaded capture and used charisma and intimidation to become the leader of a secret society of assassins and thieves. According to Theodore Lyman and the anonymous author of The Memoirs of the Secret Societies of the South of Italy, Don Ciro became a folkloric figure in the public imagination; a supposed necromancer who commanded spirits. The author of the Memoirs writes:
“The singular good fortune of being able to extricate himself from the most imminent dangers, acquired for him the reputation of a necromancer, upon whom ordinary means of attack had no power among the people, and he neglected nothing which could confirm this idea, and increase the sort of spell it produced upon the peasants. They dared not execrate, or even blame him in his absence, so firmly were they persuaded that his demons would immediately inform him of it.”
Don Ciro’s seemingly magical hold over the minds of the local populace was definitely helped by widespread government failures, political unrest, and socio-economic issues in the Apulian provinces. At the time of Don Ciro’s “reign”, the Apulias (modern-day Otranto and Taranto in Puglia) had endured the regimes of three different nations: France, Austria, and the Kingdom of Naples. Corruption was rampant. Feudalistic landowners openly conspired with opportunistic racketeers to extort cash from the merchant and peasant classes, and municipal officials (who were usually in on it) frequently turned a blind eye.
As the poor (already exploited by excessive taxation) got poorer, Freemasonic rebel groups (such as the Carbonari) inspired by the French Revolution spurred disorder and helped spread anti-government sentiments. Many of these groups had been employed as proxies by King Ferdinand I of Naples to ward off and disrupt the French military. However, a number of Carbonarist militias made deals with local gang leaders and promoted their own interests. All these factors nurtured a culture of vigilantism and brigandage in the lands of Apulia. As Count Maffei observed: “Brigandage had its origin in misgovernment.” Theodore Lyman expands on this point in The Political State of Italy:
“Poverty and bad passions, taking root in the oppressions of the government, and in that ignorance maintained in the people, either by the ignorance itself, or by the craft of the priests, are the true causes of the numerous robberies committed in Italy…”
Regardless of the conditions that made banditry a common phenomenon, Don Ciro and his proto-mobsters, the Decisi (“The Decided or Chosen Ones”) differed from other brigands like Gaetano Vardarelli in their espousal of a solemn death cult:
The Decisi were also much more flamboyant than contemporary Mafiosi. They carried muskets and poignards, had covert operatives in every township, and occasionally disguised themselves as jesters or clowns (Pulcinella):
In 1817 however, an Irish general named Richard Church was called in by Count Nugent von Westmeath (the de-facto commander-in-chief of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) to put a stop to banditry in the Apulias. Church brought in a diverse regiment of Germans, Albanians, Swiss, and Greeks for the job and quickly targeted the rural kingpins, Vardarelli and Don Ciro. After tracking down and executing Vardarelli, Church’s men, supported by the militia of San Marzano, pursued Don Ciro and his gang to the fortress-like masseria (“ancient farmhouse”) of Scaserba on the outskirts of Grottaglie.
Don Ciro finally surrendered after a day-long siege. He was summarily executed on 8 February, 1818. If the witness accounts are to be believed, Don Ciro was shot multiple times but only died after one of the soldiers shot him with his own silver bullet:
“‘As soon as we perceived,’ said a soldier, very gravely, ‘that he was enchanted, we loaded his own musket with a silver ball, and this destroyed the spell.’ It will be easily supposed that the people, who always attributed supernatural powers to him, were confirmed in their belief by this tenaciousness of life, which they considered miraculous.”
Church’s actions earned him a British knighthood, and–for a time–statewide banditry petered out in the Apulias. Unsurprisingly, it returned with a vengeance after the Neapolitan revolution of 1820. Of course, the next generation of bandits inherited the theatricality and beguiling allure of their forebears. Like the pre-revolution outlaws, they knew how to exploit poverty and foster fear and admiration with folk personality cults. Present-day groups, such as the Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndràngheta , and Camorra, are undoubtedly partial inheritors of this brigandage heritage.