HONOR KILLING: Girl's story finally told
A Metro Detroit family kept a painful secret. Then a relative started asking questions.
Susan Whitall / The Detroit News
On a blustery November day, dark clouds heavy with rain thundered across the sky as Karen Tintori tossed a dozen red roses on her great-aunt's grave.
That grave is the Detroit River.
Frances Costa was thrown into the river in 1920, when she was 16, her legs weighted down with concrete. She has long since become a part of the river, one of its innumerable watery secrets, lost forever.
Lost, until a great-niece started asking questions of family members, and found horror in the answers.
It was Costa's two older brothers, relatives said, who killed the girl.
"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'oh my God, I have the blood of murderers running through my veins,' " said Tintori, standing by the river off Belle Isle on Tuesday. The West Bloomfield mother and wife, 59, is a successful author.
She is also the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter of a Sicilian family that came to America in the early 20th century harboring secrets, as well as the unshakable rule that family secrets must never be told.
Omerta is what they call it in Sicily: the code of silence.
Tintori has shattered her family's omerta with her memoir "Unto the Daughters" (St. Martin's Press, $24.95), about her quest to find out what became of her great-aunt.
To Tintori's sorrow, after persistent questioning of older relatives, she discovered that Frances' murder was an honor killing.
Parts of the narrative changed in the telling, recalled from the fading memories of older people. But several facts remained consistent in Tintori's interviews: Frances was murdered by two men, most likely her older brothers; she was drowned at Belle Isle, and her sin was some sort of sexual impropriety, as decided by her male relatives.
"I thought about writing it as fiction, with everybody's name changed," Tintori said. But instead, she felt it important to revive Frances' name.
"Otherwise, she was a woman who would be lost to history, she was dispensable."
Family name changed
Costa is not the family's real surname; Tintori changed that in the book, and her grandparents' surname as well, in order not to embarrass relatives who had nothing to do with the crime, or descendants who don't know about it. But she brushes off the idea that telling the story brings her family shame.
"It's a horrible thing in our family's past," Tintori said. "But to the people who are humiliated or embarrassed, or feel this should be kept secret, that is giving more credence and protection to the perpetrators. Women in the Middle East are just starting to stop being afraid and speak out for the victim."
The Costa family drama played out in the early 1900s on Monroe Street on Detroit's near east side, an area known as Little Sicily.
The family emigrated from Corleone, Sicily, several years after the patriarch, Domenico, and his two oldest sons, Rocco and Pasquale, came to Detroit to escape their life of rural poverty and find jobs. In March 1914, Domenico brought his pregnant wife, Concetta, and their younger children to New York on a steamship, and then to Detroit by train.
Tucked away in Little Sicily, the Costa family still lived by the customs of the homeland. Women were under the supervision of their male relatives, and were worked hard, first in their father's home, then their husband's.
Once, Tintori's grandmother Giusippina handed her fiance, Nino, his hat at the house on Monroe Street, a simple act that earned her a beating from her father. As a young woman, she wasn't allowed to touch him. Earlier in Sicily, as a 7-year-old, she'd had teeth knocked out by her mother for taking bites out of an apple used to scent a linen drawer.
Such violence doesn't surprise Donna Gabaccia, director of the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center and author of a book on Sicilian immigrants, "From Sicily to Elizabeth Street."
The violence in the Costa family "struck me as being the kind of everyday violence that was very common," Gabaccia said.
The "gender dynamics" in Sicilian families were different than in most American families. Disrespect or disobedience by a daughter was met with instant punishment, usually by the mother.
And yet, Gabaccia said that brothers killing a sister was a relatively rare phenomenon. Usually, she says, an honor killing would be a husband taking action against an unfaithful wife.
The missing daughter
The family secret started to unravel in 1993, when Tintori was 45. She found out there were six young Costa children who came to America to join their two older brothers, not just five. She was in her aunt Grace's kitchen, poring over old family papers, when the subject of Frances came up. Opening an old family passport, her aunt Grace pointed to an entry on the long list of children that had been crossed out with a pen.
"That's the one they got rid of," she told Tintori. "Did your mother ever tell you?"
Reeling in shock, Tintori pressed her aunt for details. "That's the one they murdered, Frances," her aunt said. "The next sister after Gramma."
Frances, her aunt told the author, was "oversexed" and was always being caught in the alley with boys. "They just said she had to go away," Tintori quoted her aunt, who died in 2001. "Everyone understood what that meant."
Later, after Tintori implored relatives to talk, more details emerged, both from Grace; from Tintori's own mother, Jenny, and her great-uncles Louie and Michael, Frances' younger brothers.
It was one of the oldest stories in the world, Romeo and Juliet played out on Detroit's east side. Frances' Romeo was a young barber whose name is lost in the mists of time.
Her father objected to the barber, adamant that Frances marry a much older man who was high up in one of the local Italian gangs. But Frances was in love, and she would sneak off to the alley to meet her barber.
Family members told Tintori that Frances and the barber got married. When she returned to tell her parents, her two older brothers Rocco and Pasquale resolved to punish her for disobeying their father.
The brothers were rough characters who ran with gangs back in Sicily, Tintori discovered. In Detroit they worked at Ford, but they soon quit for the even more lucrative bootlegging trade, and were known to run with the neighborhood gangs.
Rocco and Pasquale thought they would impress the local gangsters by getting rid of their sister and restoring "honor" to the family.
That they chose Belle Isle to kill Frances disturbed Tintori greatly. She thought back on the many picnics on Belle Isle, and happy wedding photos taken in front of the Scott Fountain. What did her older relatives think when they went there, Tintori wonders. Did they think of Frances?
When Rocco and Pasquale told the gang capo who hoped to marry Frances that they had killed her and restored honor to the family, he was horrified. A hit was ordered on the brothers, which created a whole new set of problems. Their father went to the gang boss, begging that his sons' lives be spared. Domenico's plea: That he had already lost a daughter.
As for Frances' barber, he disappeared. "He thought he would be next," Tintori said.
Police kept out of it
It's hard to imagine today how such a thing could happen in the 20th century, in a North American city, without raising the interest of the police.
"Omerta," Tintori said. "You don't tell."
Detroit was also a densely populated, somewhat lawless place in 1919, when Prohibition went into law in Michigan. Organized crime was just taking shape and rival neighborhood gangs fought over turf.
JoEllen Vinyard, a history professor at Eastern Michigan University, describes what the city was like in the newer immigrant enclaves.
There were more blind pigs after Prohibition, than there had been bars," Vinyard said. "The city was packed to the gills because of all the new migration from the South that had come in, and a booming auto industry. It was lawless, the gangs were pretty much in control of their territory."
Detroit's newer ethnic neighborhoods, where Italians and Poles lived, were particularly impenetrable.
"These were very closed, ethnic societies," Vinyard said. "They had their own churches and social groups, they associated with each other. Many did not even speak English, especially the women."
Many girls from the ethnic neighborhoods didn't even go to school. Because the older Costa daughters Giusippina and Frances already could read and write, they didn't attend school, so there was no sudden absence to explain after Frances disappeared. After Tintori found out what happened to Frances, she summoned up the nerve to ask her mother Jenny about it. Her mother's reaction was immediate, profane and angry. "Forget about that (expletive)" she shouted. Jenny had never even told her husband, Tintori's father, about Frances.
Faced with either outright hostility, or with tears from the older generation -- her great-uncles Louie and Michael both cried when recalling their sister Frances -- Tintori pressed on for years, trying to piece together how such a thing could happen in 20th century Detroit.
Tintori's great-uncle Louie, who was a boy when his older sister Frances was killed, spoke to her several times over the years about Frances' murder, usually insisting that only "family" be present, no in-laws.
His story varied at times, but key details remained the same. After one of the brothers told his parents what they had done to Frances, Louie said his father cried, and his mother screamed all night, so loudly that she could be heard for blocks.
Although Frances' generation, the one that guarded the secret, are now all dead, the family's younger members, many years distant from the crime, were more supportive of Tintori's quest.
One of Grace's daughters, Donna Schepke, 45, of Warren remembers when her cousin started digging for the truth about Frances in the early '90s.
"I found out about (the murder) right as Karen was starting to, because my mom was still alive and bits and pieces were slipping out here and there," Schepke said. "Every time we'd get together with Karen it'd be, 'What else did you find out?'"
"It's a little bit disturbing to know that this happened in your family, basically you only see stuff like that on TV," Schepke said.
"But you know what? I'm not ashamed, I'm not disgusted. I'm just really happy that she wrote the book to tell the story of my great-aunt Frances, to finally let her rest in peace."
Speaking out for others
While Tintori's family happens to be Sicilian, honor killings of women have occurred in many cultures and religions.
Today we hear about such practices in the Mideast and Africa, but "it's quite common around the Mediterranean and in all the religious groups that live around the Mediterranean," said researcher Gabaccia.
"You find concerns about honor in Greek Orthodoxy, you find it in Catholicism, you find it in Islam, you find it in the non-Islamic parts of Africa as well."
Tintori said she hopes her book helps to show how far we've come as a society, "and how far some societies still need to come."
Tintori and her cousins plan to have a memorial service for Frances, with a priest. "But, I thought, where would I go? Where would she be?"
In the river, at Belle Isle.
"I'm glad the roses ended up on the rocks," Tintori said, after tossing a dozen into the river. "They'll stay there longer."
Reprinted with permission of The Detroit News