In 1907, a horrible crime captured the attention of New Orleans newspaper readers (and newspaper readers across the country).
On June 8, 1907, little Walter Lamana was lured away from his home at 624 St. Philip Street with a promise of candy and held for a $6,000 ransom. He was strangled to death within a few days and dumped in a swamp. The motive for the kidnapping itself seems to have been tied to an Italian crime mafia that was causing problems in New Orleans at the time.
Little Walter was only 8. He was born in New Orleans on May 17, 1899, to Pietro (Peter) Lamana and Carolina Favalora. He had a twin sister, Olivia Mariana. He also had brothers Frank, Joseph, Charles and John and sisters Ida and Stella.
Walter’s father was an undertaker. This being the early 1900s, he was known as the Italian undertaker.
Little Walter was last seen at 7 p.m. on a Saturday in the stable that adjoined his parents’ home. He was discovered missing when he was called to dinner and didn’t appear.
Peter Lamana thought his son might have jumped onto a tallyho driven by his older son John to the West End resort. But a search turned up no sign of the child.
A few days later, the mailman brought a ransom note written in Italian. A reporter dispatched to the Lamana house found the mother upstairs sobbing and neighbors downstairs talking about reprisals.
The crime was blamed on the “Italian ‘Black Hand,’ which organization has for the last three years threatened and terrorized the ‘Little
Italy’ of the Crescent City.” Nine Italian residents were arrested, including Nicolina Gebbia, who initially refused to say much because she was in love with “Frank,” another implicated Italian.
Police “sweated” the suspects to get a confession out of them. A man named Ignazio Campigciano was taken into the woods by police and vigilantes until he confessed and implicated four others.
According to Ignazio/Ignacio (the spellings weren’t consistent in newspaper reports for any of these names), the boy cried and begged to go home. Frightened by the noise the child was making, one of the kidnappers strangled him to death. The body was bundled into a blanket and taken to the swamp near St. Rose.
Six were indicted: Ignacio Campisciano, Callegero Gendusa, Leonardo Gebbia, Anthony Costa, Nicolina Gebbia and Mrs. Ignacio Campisciano.
Ignacio was thought to have been the killer according to some reports. The Gebbias were brother and sister.
Initially, little Walter was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave. His body was placed into a snow white casket a year later and moved into a tomb.
By this time, defense attorneys were trying to save their clients from the gallows as the case proceeded to trial. One theory raised was that Walter was still alive and the body found in the swamp wasn’t his.
This theory angered Peter Lamana, who said his wife was distraught enough without having to hear this. Peter also was angered that influential women in New Orleans circulated a petition to save the life of Nicolina Gebbia.
“Any woman who signs such a petition cannot have the love or
tenderness of a mother and is without sympathy for one who has been robbed of the only thing in life she cared for the most. I don’t think that there are many women in this city who will take a hand to save that wretched woman from the gallows. She knew that my child was in the hands of her lover, and that her brother was one of the conspirators. If she is a human being, why did she allow them to take it away and kill it? She could have saved its life by telling the police where the child was. When I spoke to the Gebbias, they sympathized with me, said they wished they knew where the child was and came to my house to spy,” Peter Lamana told a reporter.
Peter Lamana later made repeated visits to the state prison in an attempt to see Campisciano, Mrs. Campisciano, Tony Costa, Giandosa and the Gebbias. He was always turned away and then briefly went missing after quarreling with his wife.
It was ultimately decided that Leonardo Gebbia lured little Walter away from home by offering him candy. Leonardo handed off Walter to the kidnappers and later ordered his death.
Or maybe it was Tony Costa, “a worthless loafer … of Little Italy,” who took the little boy by the hand and led him away from his home by promising him ice cream. Then Walter was placed into Stefano Monfre’s wagon. The newspaper accounts vary.
At the Gebbias’ trial, testimony was given that Leonardo went to the home of the Monfres the Sunday before the abduction and that Leonardo told Mrs. Monfre to go away while he talked to her husband in the street. The night the child was abducted, the Monfres’ horse and wagon were gone until the next day. Mr. Monfre himself later vanished.
Ignazio Campigciano (again, an inconsistent spelling) testified at the Gebbia trial that another man related to him that Leonardo Gebbia told the fellow kidnappers that the jig was up and the kid needed to be murdered because the case was attracting too much attention. He also denied that the child was ever at his house and insisted that he only saw him after he was dead.
Nicolina told the courtroom that her boyfriend, Frank Lucchesi, was in the business of stealing children for ransom. She said Lucchesi worked with Campigciano and that she was afraid of her boyfriend.
The jury returned a guilty verdict within minutes for the brother and sister. The judge himself seemed stunned at the guilty finding for Nicolina Gebbia.
Walter Lamana’s father reacted to the verdict by clapping his hands and giving the mailman a steel fork from the dinner table. “I had intended to put out their eyes with this,” he told the mailman. “I would have killed them.”
Leonardo hanged, insisting his innocence and clutching a rosary until the very end.
The consensus seems to have been that the child was hidden in the Campisciano home in Pecan Grove and that Mrs. Campisciano coolly told neighbors that the child was just a visitor and that he was crying because his pet animal was lost.
At trial, the child’s mother wept at the sight of his Buster Brown breeches and called the defendants “dirty wretches” and “hounds.”
Tony Costa died in prison. Nicolina Gebbia avoided the gallows but went to prison.
Ignacio Campisciano, his wife, Mary, and Cologera “Frank” Gendusa were released from prison in 1918 and told to leave Louisiana. Their children were brought to them at Angola, and they reportedly immediately left for New York.