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South of Rome–West of Ellis Island

Child Slavery in Sicily 1910

Tom Verso (January 13, 2008)
Sulphur mine carusi

“The cruelties to which the child slaves of Sicily have been subjected are as bad as anything reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery.” Booker Taliaferro Washington: “The Man Farthest Down”


My Grandfather

At the age of 7, after spending 1 year in school, my grandfather Tony DiChiazza went to work in a sulfur mine in Cianciana, AG. He worked there until he reached the age of 21. His two brothers and possibly his father did also. He never spoke about that part of his life but I remember him telling me that he carried the sulfur. He worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania and West Virginia until he retired.

Child slavery in Sicily

My grandfather was orphaned at a young age and worked as 'nu carusu' in the sulphur mines outside of Caltanissetta. My father told me that all he said about it was that it 'was very hard'. Given the start he had in life, it is a wonder that he created such a wonderful life in this country for his family and the many family members he brought over from Sicily to the US!! Amazing man! I am so proud of him!

Slavery in Sicily

In a trip to my mother's hometown of Bronte, Provincia di Catania in eastern Sicilia I saw the last remnants child slaves. My mother who was born in 1916 in Bronte always told us kids that there had been slavery in Sicily in her youth and for many years before. While we were back visiting her hometown she introduced us to two old ladies who as children were sold by their families to rich people who used them as maids and cooks for the most part of their lives. This was common practice for poor families to sell their girls for domestic slavery. Poverty forces people to do horrible things

Sulfer Mines

Very interesting! My grandfather immigrated from Reisi in 1906. I was always told he was a foreman in a mine because he could read and write. I only recently learned that it was a sulfur mine. This article adds greatly to my knowledge. Would love to read and learn more.

my Dad was one of the kids

my Dad was one of the kids in the sulfur mines ---he told me of daily beatings -----he said that it was so hot that most wore only shoes to protect their feet -----my grandfather and several men stormed the compound where the kids were kept and set free about 100 -----my dad and grandfather then loaded a ship to America ---came in through New Orleans and was lucky enough to get a sponcer in St Louis to sign for them ----the sponsor was the sicilian mob -----at the age of 12 my dad worked for their sponsor for many years to pay off their debt ----he worked hard his whole life and died in 2001 at the age of 95

Slaves of Sicily

My god. I'd never heard anything about this. "Heart breaking" doesn't begin to take the measure of it. My own family, (from Calabria) seemed to have had total amnesia about it past, as though by deleting all consciousness of life in Italy they could "pass" as normal; They could trick us into thinking we were just like everybody else in this country. But other people had their stories and we did not. Even the good stories had been edited, I suspect for fear that they might veer into uncomfortable territory. The town I grew up in in Pennsylvania was about a third Italian. Today there is no trace that we were ever there.No monument, no shelf in the library. Even though Italian laborers built the victorian houses and played an important part in the growth of the industries. We don't have a sense of ourselves as worthy of attention. We make no demands. Maybe Washington's history tells us why.

Very, very sad and gut

Very, very sad and gut wrenching. I feel quite sick at the wickedness of man and filled with so much pity for child slaves then and around the world now.

clarification needed


Thanks for a great post of this historical information.

Your casually dismissive comment grouping authors Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, who dabbled in history with one book, and historian Donna Gabaccia, who has been at the forefront of situating Italian-American immigration, especially women and labor histories, within the larger Italian diaspora with several significant publications, warrants further elaboration on your part.


Clarification provided - I hope!


Thank you for your comment. -- First let me say emphatically, I was not “causally dismissing” anybody or any works! Indeed, it is because I have been so impressed with their works that I consider them. -- Regarding, “grouping” Donna Gabaccia with the others, I did not mean to imply that her work was in the same genera as Mangione and Morreale. Indeed, I chose those three because, while they are distinctively different writers, they each contributed, in my judgment, to a distortion of the Sicilian reality by ignoring facts which did not fit into their preconceptions. However, please note: I chose them as EXEMPLIFYING American writers on Sicily in these various genera; not limited to them. The “etc.” after Ms. Gabaccia’s name is most important. --

All three wrote distinctively different books connecting the immigrant experience in America with Sicilian culture: Mangione the biographic “Mount Allegro”, Morreale the novel “A Few Vituous Men” and Gabaccia the scholarly “From Sicily to Elizabeth Street.” I find it amazing that none of them (and again other writers such as them) remotely conveyed the description of Sicily that Booker Washington presents. Indeed, I believe Mangione uses the expression “Sulfur Sky” as a metaphor. And, the town of Sambuca Sicily, that Gabaccia bases her book on, is in the same province (Agrigento) and 30 miles from the sulfur mines of Campfranco. She makes references to the Sicilian economy at a time that Sicily was the worlds largest sulfur producer yet she does not mention sulfur. And, Gabaccia’s description of house living conditions stands in stark contrast with Washington’s. --

Again, I do not presume to criticize these three and all the other excellent writers and scholars who have written about Sicily. I simply note that Washington’s descriptions stand in stark contrast to what others have written. I’m not so much critical as perplexed. In future blogs, I will present Mr. Washington’s descriptions of other aspects of Sicily and Italy. He has a chapter on women. It should be interesting to compare his writing with Ms. Gabaccia’s in that respect. --

Thank you again for your input. --

Tom Verso

Brief comment in reply.

I do look forward to reading more of Mr. Washington's observations, as his vantage point may be specialized and, in some ways, especially clear. Not bogged down by certain kinds of personal connections. Also, I just wanted to mention, that a concurrent read of Danilo Dolci's Report from Palermo provides a nice support.

In my own life, we had few tales of Sicily, but one great grandmother, when asked if she missed her homeland reportedly spit on the ground and hissed, "Sicily, what did Sicily ever do for me? In Sicily I would be dead by now." We got the gist, if not the details.

Further clarification needed, and some provided!

Dear Mr. Verso, While I agree with you that some Italian-American writers have “contributed to a distortion of the Sicilian [and Italian at large, for that matter] reality by ignoring facts which did not fit into their preconceptions,” I need to point out a couple of things. First of all, Jerre Mangione is the author of three other “Sicilian” memoirs, namely, “An Ethnic at large,” Reunion in Sicily,” “A Passion for Sicilians” –which are not remotely as nostalgic as “Mount Allegro.” Especially in “Reunion in Sicily,” Mangione observes the way Sicilians responded to Fascism with a rather critical eye. As for Morreale, you seem to ignore that he’s also the author of the 1958 "The Seventh Saracen," entirely set in Racalmuto, a predominantly mining and agricultural town. One of the most dramatic scenes in the novel takes place in the sulphur mine, where the local priest takes the Italian-American protagonist with the promise that he would show him the “wonders” of Sicily. Morreale describes the descent into the mine shaft as a slow and painful journey into Hell. The miners work “naked except for a diaperlike cloth around their loins and large red handkerchiefs tied around their heads. They were singing, ending each line with ‘umph’ and a blow on the wall” (67). He then describes the effects that the visit has on the young Princeton-educated Italian-American protagonist, who is led to re-evaluate the meaning of his sense of belonging and community by tying it not only to the glories of Sicily’s past, but also to the hardships of Sicilians’ present: “Pride welled in his throat. He tried to swallow it down and he grew angry for feeling this pride, for he understood; it was a pride in belonging, being part of those who found it hard to earn a piece of bread” (70). The visit to the sulphur mine also prompts the protagonist to consider the role that chance has played in his life, and he starts wondering what would have happened if only his parents had not decided to leave Sicily and settle in the New World: “But for the accident of leaving, sheer accident, you would be naked in a sulphur mine,” he tells himself (71). Insomma, as you can see, Morreale actually dealt with the problem and, it seems to me, in a way that does not stand in such stark contrast to what Washington has written. While “The Man Farthest Down” is a must read, “in an effort to revisit our past,” we could start by re-reading our literature. Cordiali saluti, Chiara Mazzucchelli


I provide thousands of words describing horrific treatment of children. And, a one sentence reference to three American works, to ILLUSTRATE what I mean by “errors of omission” by the corpus of Italian American writers (not just those three), is the basis for the responses that I get. -- Again, it was not my intention to critique the three writers. – Again, the three works that I cite are excellent. Nevertheless, they, TO MY MIND, present a picture of Sicily that has come to be thought of as ‘typical’ or ‘representative.’ Ergo, I used them to illustrate my characterization of the corpus of Italian American writing about Sicily. -- To ILLUSTRATE further: a couple of years ago a delegation from Rochester, NY’s sister city Caltanissetta visited Rochester. While here, they did a presentation at a local college that has an Italian Studies program and a “Casa Italiana” cultural center. The presentation was about the children in the sulfur mines. It included both historical factual reports similar to Mr. Washington’s and dramatic poetry reading on the theme. The large audience which consisted of Sicilian immigrants, Americans of Sicilian descent, Italian Studies professors and students were socked. The lead presenter emphasized that Rochester Sicilians and descendents largely come from the sulfur mining region. Sister city visits are generally loving and upbeat. Why did they make such a negative presentation? What impressed me was the fact that these Sicilians (all university professors in Sicily) had gone to such effort to communicate to Americans the reality of Sicilian history even if that reality is ugly. At the reception afterwards repeatedly one heard: “did you know about the mines” and the response “no, I can’t believe it.”- -Mr. Washington’s book, like the sister city presentation, shows us that Sicily is a far more complicated culture than most Americans have come to believe. -- Nevertheless, the whole point of the article was about the children not the scholars. I’m reminded of why I dropped out of graduate school. The professors never seemed to connect with what I was talking about. -- Thank you very much for bringing my attention to Morreale’s book. He is one of my favorite writers and I am delighted to find that he dealt with this profound issue. I will get the book as quickly as I can. – And, I did not mean that “The Man Furthest Down” should be the ONLY book read in Italian American Studies courses. Rather, it is an important book that has, it seems to me, been ignored. I hope we can dialogue again. -- Very Most cordially yours Tom Verso

Sicilian sulphur mines

I read your article about the sister city visit from Caltanisetta to Rochester And the presentation of child slavery there with interest. Though not at all Italian, I have been interested in Sicily since my Medieval History Professor introduced me to the glories of Frederick Ii, HRE. I have twice travelled to Sicily and was astounded by its besuty and incredible depth of history. I have read Danilo Dolce as well as Lampedusa, but have long been fascinated by the thoughts and plays of Luigi Pirandello, visiting his home and grave in Kaos. Pirandello's family fortune was based on sulphur so this dreadful heritage must have been part of his thinking and perception of the world. Thank you.


Dear Mr. Verso,

your piece on the tragedy of the carusi was very informed and useful, and I can only nod in agreement with most of your/Washington’s points on the topic. However, in order to illustrate your point, you made an incorrect statement which I simply could not let hang there in the cyberspace.

Hoping you'll enjoy Morreale’s book(s) and looking forward to dialoguing with you again, Chiara Mazzucchelli

Thank you

Thank you Joe and Chiara (if I may). As good scholars you 'held my feet to the fire.' I learned from both of you. Tom Verso

Sulfur, carusi et. al.

As an American of complete Sicilian descent, son of a sulfur miner, and intensely interested in my roots, the fact that it has taken me three years (since the last comment) to find this thread supports the idea that some Italian-Americans may have practiced 'selective memory'. Even though I knew my father had been a sulfur miner (and then a coal miner in the U.S.), I was a child when he died, and that, coupled with typical Sicilian reticence, ensured that I knew nothing about the 'carusi'. I first learned about them on a trip to Sicily, during which my landlord took me to a mining museum and through an abandoned sulfur mine, and told me about the 'death benefit' the pickmen paid to poor families for their 'carusi'. Since then, while there may be little coverage in English about the subject, I have found that Italian-readers (and the rarer Sicilian-readers) can find discussions on the subject, and there seem to be numerous vernacular songs or poetry about it in Sicily. Part of the disconnect may be that use of the the Sicilian language, which has poignant descriptions of the 'carusi', is discouraged by the Italian government; part may be due to the fact that many 'Italian-Americans', who visit Tuscany and Venice (rather than Sicily), barely remember that their parents or grandparents were Sicilian, and attribute to themselves the characteristics of 'cultured Italians', rather than the often sordid history of Sicilian peasants. I have written a short story about Sicily in which a pickman says of the 'carusi' situation: “This practice can only scorch the souls of the piconnieri as well those of the carusi”. Denigrators of the pickmen's practice may forget that being a pickman was no 'walk in the park'; that they were paid meager wages, on which they had to support their own families. My father was a pickman, as was his father. Apparently 'carusi' were not used in all mines , nor in every town, nor in every period of history. But I can't help but wonder, did he have 'carusi', and did 'having' them hurt him as it hurt them?