Title: Mob Boss
Birthdate: Sicily, 1893
Death Date: Philadelphia, August 17, 1936
John Avena was once known as “the biggest numbers man in South Philadelphia.” Born in Sicily around 1893, John succeeded Salvatore Sabella as Philadelphia’s mob boss in the early 1930s. It is believed that Sabella, the founding boss of Philadelphia’s crime family, personally chose John as his successor and fully supported his leadership.
In addition to the numbers racket, John was allegedly involved in drug dealing, extortion and operating two high-stakes gambling establishments in his neighborhood which was known as “Bloody Angle.” Named after the location of a famous Gettysburg battle, the block on Passyunk Avenue between Christian and Washington Streets had seen a number of murders committed there.
It was John’s home turf. He also claimed to have “friends” at 7th and Carpenter, the local police precinct at the time, which is now the Charles Santore branch of the Philadelphia Free Library
John and one of his top aides, Martin Feldstein, were standing on that corner of Passyunk and Washington on August 17, 1936 when multiple shots were fired from the rear window of a moving vehicle. Reports indicated that the hit was ordered by the Lanzetti Brothers (most of whom were named after Catholic Popes), members of a rival gang within the warring Philadelphia family.
Although there were two witnesses on the street at the time of the shooting, they were not able to identify the gunmen in what today is called a “drive-by” shooting. John was the first mob boss to be killed in Philadelphia. He was survived by his widow, Grazia/Grace and one son. There was no will but his wife received his estate valued at $5,500 and included a diamond wrist watch.
An estimated 500 people assembled at John’s home on 15th Street the day of his funeral. Many were drawn not by their connection to the deceased but by his notoriety, which was well known by the police. Curiosity attracted others amid rumors that he was being buried in a $10,000 casket. Neighbors denied that, stating that the cost was closer to $3,500. However, those viewing the casket reported it was bronze with ornate decorations and that parts of it glistened as if it was gold.
Following a service at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, 50 cars led mourners to Mount Moriah Cemetery with at least two of them piled high with flowers. He was buried in Section E but it’s believed his remains were removed to a cemetery in New Jersey sometime in the 1970’s.
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