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Who killed Louis Genovese?

By Frank Whelan, Historian
Published On: Oct 07 2011 03:31:45 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Louis Genovese

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

As a lover of grand opera, Louis Genovese must have understood the passions that seethed in humans and drove them to murder.

How much this modern man, a 42-year-old self-made Italian immigrant and rising star in Allentown real estate, thought they applied to him is impossible to know. For when a murderous end came for him, Genovese could not arise like the full-throated costumed tenors of his favorite art form to accept the bravos of the crowd.

Even today the bungalow home at 1951 Liberty Street in Allentown, set in a leafy neighborhood of solid dwellings, hardly seems the place for murder. And in 1926, the year-old house was on the suburban fringes of Allentown, far more isolated than it is today. Even the Art Deco 19th Street Theatre, only a pencil sketch on an architect’s drawing board, would not open for two years.

The owners and occupants of 1951 Liberty on the evening of July 10, 1926 were the Senape family, Vinzenzo, known to his friends as “James,” his wife Josephine, and their two young children.

Mrs. Senape and the children had spent that day with her mother. That evening her husband picked them up in his stylish Cadillac coupe. Police reports were later to note they arrived home shortly after 9 p.m.

It was a warm night in that pre-air conditioning era, so Josephine Senape allowed her tired daughter to rest on the davenport. Then she went into the kitchen to make tea. Her husband’s friends had already started to arrive. Among them was Louis Genovese.

Her husband had met Genovese outside Allentown’s Atlantic Seafood restaurant that afternoon and suggested a poker game with some friends.  To newspaper readers in the Prohibition era, the location of their meeting suggested that they had not necessarily stopped in for a meal of halibut or cod.

“The words sea food above an eatery,” H.L.Mencken, the era’s leading social critic and passionate beer lover, noted in his memoirs, “was a universal euphemism for beer house in Maryland and Pennsylvania during the 13 awful years,” by which he meant when prohibition was the law of the land.

Front of 1951 Liberty Street, Allentown After finishing her tea Josephine Senape got ready to go to bed. Just before she gathered her daughter from the porch, she looked in at her husband and friends deep in their cigars and stud poker. That was her last memory until two hours later when she awoke to the sound of gunshots.

Throwing open her window, Josephine Senape shouted for help. Then carefully opening her bedroom door, she looked down the staircase that the next day’s newspapers were to mark with a large X. There, in a pool of blood with his glasses balanced on his upturned face, was the late Louis Genovese.

The details of what had happened while Josephine Senape was sleeping were later filled in for the police by the card players. They said in the midst of their card game, three masked men had suddenly burst in on them demanding their money. The robbers, they said, were attempting to sound like New York gangsters but had accents “like coal region people…or Italians from hereabouts.”

1951 Liberty Street Genovese, with a bravado tone, told them to take the money. This so angered the robbers they fired at him wounding his foot. Then they ordered the card player to turn over their money and valuables and ordered everyone but Genovese into the basement. Three of the men had their hands tied before the robbers realized they did not have enough twine for the remaining two. After telling the men they would be killed if they attempted to get away, the robbers went upstairs in search of more twine. Shortly thereafter the card players heard the gunshots that awoke Josephine Senape. After a long silence, they went upstairs and saw Genovese’s body. His killers were nowhere in sight.

Newspaper photos courtesy of Reading Eagle.

Courtesy Reading Eagle The police arrived shortly thereafter and were forced to smash in the front door. Why no one simply let them in was not explained in the newspapers. The police interviewed the men and released all of them but Senape.

The crime made huge headlines in the Allentown newspapers, whose front pages throughout that era were filled with much more violent crimes of Chicago’s Al Capone and other gangsters.

There was much made in the local newspapers of the fact that the nine bullets in Genovese’s body were said to be in the form of a cross, as they would be in a “vendetta” slaying. In an era when ethnic prejudice was virulent across the country, the implication that this was an Italian gangster killing was clear.

Genovese’s funeral on July 17 attracted large crowds to Allentown’s Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church. Among the honorary pallbearers was Allentown Alderman Thomas B. McFadden, George Boyle, president of the Allentown Real Estate Board, and real estate man Nicola Iacocca, father of future auto executive Lee Iacocca.

Courtesy: Reading Eagle But Allentown police appeared to be having no luck finding Genovese’s killer. Senape’s past and ties to petty crime and bootlegging were brought up. Newspaper speculation was that the whole thing was a set up by Senape who was working for a person or persons unknown who wanted Genovese out of the way for some reason. But there was no proof.  Senape’s attorney, former congressman and former Lehigh County district attorney, Fred B.Gernard, accused the police of harassing his client. For lack of evidence, Senape was released.

Later that year the Senape family sold 1951 Liberty Street and never returned. Over the years, it acquired the reputation of being haunted, although that belief was largely confined to schoolchildren. And over 80 years later, the curtain remains up on the opera that was Louis Genovese’s life and death.