George Scigliano won the reverence of Boston’s North End for vanquishing the money lenders, criminals and labor bosses who preyed on poor Italian immigrants. Perhaps his greatest achievement was dismantling the padrone system, which made debt slaves of Italian immigrants.
Yes, debt slaves. During the late 19th century, criminals exploited the hapless new arrivals from southern Italy and Sicily. They offered to find them jobs and shelter, and if they got into trouble they helped them get out of it. For a fee, of course, a fee that turned into debt bondage.
The corrupt system of feeding powerless immigrants to industrial America was called the padrone system. Even children suffered from it. Poor, starving parents in Italy sold their children to the padrones, who put them out as peanut vendors or street musicians.
Some people defended the padrones, calling them labor contractors who found jobs, saloonkeepers who gave them a refuge from hostile natives and as translators who helped them navigate the U.S. court system. Gunther Peck argued they “acquired success by providing vital cultural, economic, and political services.”
George Scigliano began to dismantle the padrone system. He called, “perhaps the greatest evil which has beset the Italian immigrant in this country.” He died at a tragically young age of 32 before he could finish his work.
He was born on Aug. 26, 1874, the son of Italian immigrants. His mother came from Tuscany, his father from a Neapolitan family with a Calabrian name. They arrived earlier than the great wave of Italian immigrants from the south, and George’s father built a modestly successful business. He ran a food-and-wine shop and then added a saloon, at 140 North Street (since demolished).
George attended the Eliot School and then the Boston University School of Law. In 1900, he won election at the age of 26 to Boston’s Common Council. Three years later, he ran for and won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
He labored on behalf of his Italian constituents. Scigliano helped organize the first Italian labor union, founded the Italian Benevolent League and established October 12 as Columbus Day in Massachusetts.
He also earned the admiration of the city’s Italian immigrants by defending them from verbal attack. In 1901, Sen. George Frisbie Hoar called Portuguese and Italian immigrants ‘absolutely unfit’ for U.S. citizenship.
Scigliano then replied with a stinging rebuke. He characterized ‘The Italian’ as ‘a people descended from the ancient Roman dynasty which conquered all of the then known world and educated it.’ He noted the Italians ‘entered and conquered England at a time when the ancestors of our able senator were roaming savages, opened up their country and taught them the meaning of citizenship.’
Facing Down the Padrone
Just before Scigliano filed his bill to ban the padrone system, one brazen boss stood in North Square and announced he needed a thousand Italians to work on a huge construction project in Providence. The job would last nine years, the workers would have nine-hour days and they’d get paid as much as $2 a day. All they had to do was to pay a $1 registration fee to get hired and $1.05 for transportation to Rhode Island.
Word spread quickly and within a day several hundred workers deposited several hundred dollars. State Rep. Scigliano, then president of the Italian Protective League, smelled a rat. He asked his friends in Providence to find out if the construction project actually existed. He didn’t. So he called the police and went with them to Washington Street downtown and arrested the padrone. He then made sure the padrone returned the money to his victims.
Horatio Alger exposed the padrone system to a wide audience with the publication of his novel Phil the Fiddler in 1872. It told the story of padrones who forced Italian boy slaves to beg in the New York streets. The local papers did a series of exposes in the following year, which forced some of the padrones to move north to Boston.
They’d been in Boston already, meeting immigrant ships at the dock with promises of employment in exchange for a dollar or two. The padrone then hustled them onto trains bound for logging camps in the north woods. Or to farms and mines in the south and west, or to construction projects building canals, railroads, bridges, sewers and skyscrapers. When the immigrant arrived at the job site, he found he owed the padrone for transportation.
Isolated, unable to speak English and unfamiliar with their surroundings, they became debt slaves to the padrone. They then had to give him part of their paychecks and shop at the company stores. The stores charged exorbitant rates and gave the padrone a kickback.
George Scigliano to the Rescue
Scigliano filed a bill to abolish those practices. He told legislators:
In almost all cases, where payment is held back, the money is not paid to laborers, and so, at the end of the season, late in the fall, after the first frost sets in, the laborer returns to the city, and is to house himself for the winter without funds.
He won the enthusiastic support of the local newspapers. The Boston Post editorialized,
These men, bound by contract to the padrone, must buy the necessaries of life from the contractor’s store, live in the miserable shanties which he puts up, and often submit to the withholding of the greater part of their pay until the end of the season.
The bill passed. Then Scigliano took aim at another common swindle: the immigrant banks. Italian immigrants who managed to keep some money often deposited their savings in immigrant banks. The banks were notorious for cheating their customers—by simply not giving them their money back.
Scigliano filed a bill to regulate the immigrant banks. But it didn’t pass until after he died of a mysterious ailment at the age of 32.
His funeral was the largest in North End history, with 1,500 people marching in the procession that carried his coffin to St. Leonard’s Church. Hundreds, if not thousands, watched from the street.
With thanks to Eric Scigliano, What Would Uncle George Do? My Heroic Immigrant Great-Uncle And His Message For Today in Post Alley and to Stephen Puleo, The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, from the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day.
Images: Immigrants arriving, courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library. St. Leonard’s By yeowatzup – Saint Leonard's Church, North End, Boston, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24521830. This story was updated in 2021.