In the early hours of the morning on Sunday, June 24, 1923, an attack was launched in an attempt to destroy the fruit shop of the Cascarelli family, a hardworking, Italian family living in Hillsdale, Michigan.
And the perpetrator is still a mystery today.
The Cascarellis found their home in the hushed, quaint town of Hillsdale, one of the few places that accepted Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. Fulfilling their American dream as entrepreneurs, they started their own fruit business with locations in Hillsdale and Albion.
The night of the attack, a bomb had been placed on the Broad Street side of the Cascarelli’s store. In the apartment above the store, the explosion woke Peter Cascarelli, his son, Joe, and his nephew, Frank Cascarelli. While causing great structural damage, no one was injured or killed.
Upon hearing the explosion, Sheriff W.H. Bates, who was sleeping in the jail on Courthouse Square, immediately headed toward the scene of the explosion.
No one was ever arrested. All that remains is the testament of the Cascarelli descendents who know the oral tradition of that summer night, told to them by the generations before them.
Today, Peter’s great-nephew, Robert Cascarelli, lives in the Hillsdale area. Robert and a few of his other relatives carry the family legend through the oral tradition. He said he grew up hearing the stories from his father, Frank Cascarelli, who was at the fruit store the night of the bombing. Frank told Robert that the blast of the bomb blew both Frank and Joe out of bed and just about every window on the block was blown out.
“It was not a small bomb,” Robert said. “It was meant to do damage. The power of that bomb, to do what it did to the whole block, there was intent to do badly on the people.”
Robert also understood from the stories of his father that his great-uncle Peter was not someone who took matters to the authorities, he dealt with them himself.
“You have to remember that old Italians, like my father, were very closed mouth about what was going on,” Robert said.
The sheriff only knew what Peter offered to him, and it wasn’t much.
At the time of the bombing, Peter Cascarelli owned the fruit store on Broad Street in downtown Hillsdale, while his brother, Robert, owned the store in Albion.
The location of their fruit stores wasn’t the only difference between the brothers. According to the younger Robert Cascarelli, the family knew Peter was someone not to be messed with. The story that Robert tells is that Peter was asked to pay protection money to the mafia, and he refused.
“Italian’s took advantage of their own race,” Robert said. “Peter only had his son Joe, he could be tougher against the group. But Robert had eight children to protect, he had more to lose.” Peter later found out that his brother, Robert, was paying the group believed to be out of Cicero, Illinois. According to the Hillsdale County Historical Society, at the time it was known as “The Black Hand,” which was a criminal tactic of extortion and a precursor to organized crime and the mafia.
At one point after the bombing in Peter’s store in Hillsdale, he got a call from Robert in Albion that “the guy” showed up to collect the money and was at the Stag Bar next door to Robert’s fruit store. Peter proceeded to drive to Albion and confront the man in the bar.
“Pete had a weapon on him and walked up to the guy in the bar and stuck the pistol in this guy’s ear,” the younger Robert said. “My dad told me that Pete stuck it in his ear and made it bleed like hell.”
According to the stories Robert heard from his father, Frank, Peter told the guy in the bar, something along the lines of, “You tried to put me out of business, blew up the whole block in Hillsdale, and I’m still not going to pay you. I understand my brother Robert is willing to pay you, but if you ever come back to Albion, if you ever go near my brother, I will kill you.”
The guy never came back.
“You figure they ran into a toughy,” Robert said, “and they knew he meant what he said.”