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Joseph DiGiovanni (April 23, 1888 - August 1971) also known as "Joe Scarface" and "Joe Church", was a notorious Kansas City mobster and boss of the Kansas City crime family. He was prominently featured in the Documentary film "Blackhand Strawman" as well as many books and other works on the Kansas City mafia.
Born 'Giuseppe DiGiovanni' in Chiusa Sclafani, Palermo, Sicily. Joseph arrived in Kansas City in 1912 fleeing a murder investigation where he joined the Black Hand. He allegedly became boss of the Black Hand gang that would be the predecessor of the Kansas City mafia syndicate. Joseph along with his brother Pietro DiGiovanni began making money from a variety of criminal operations or "rackets" shortly after they arrived, engaging in Black Hand extortion within the Sicilian and Italian communities in Kansas City. A botched attempt at insurance fraud - the firebombing of a building - left Joseph permanently scarred.
In 1924, DiGiovanni became a naturalized American citizen. 'Joe Scarface', as he became known, and his brother Pete were once arrested by a police detective on extortion charges after many local merchants filed charges against them. The brothers sent a warning message when the detective was shot dead before they could be taken to trial. Joe's arrest record also included charges of murder and kidnapping but none of the charges ever stuck. Besides several minor bootlegging convictions, his only serious conviction was from a 1929 rape conviction. DiGiovanni allegedly could not read or write English and could barely speak the language.
During the Great War, Joseph and Pietro, with their two other brothers, Paolo and Vincenzo, ran a wholesale grocery business while also engaging in black market ventures. The DiGiovanni brothers fortunes improved greatly with the introduction of Prohibition, when they became the only group bootlegging alcohol in Kansas City. Joseph and Paolo DiGiovanni entered into a bootlegging partnership with James Balestrere and later founded a wholesale liquor business. Paolo, the oldest of the DiGiovanni brothers, died apparently of natural causes in August 1929 at the age of 54.
Their rackets at this time were controlled by Johnny Lazia who later became the leading figure in Kansas City when the organization expanded. The DiGiovanni gang was given virtually a free hand to operate by their "Boss" Tom Pendergast, head of the "Pendergast Machine" that controlled Kansas City's government at the time. Under Pendergast, Kansas City became a "wide-open" town, with absolutely no alcohol-related arrests being made within city limits during the entirety of the Prohibition. The DiGiovanni gang directly benefited from this absent law enforcement.
In the 1930's he allegedly masterminded a large scale heroin operation. The ring was decimated when seven members were indicted in 1942. Joe Continued to be seen as the boss of the Kansas City mob until 1950. He is believed to have retired from the Kansas City mafia in 1953 but still wielded great influence in the Mafia.
Joseph "Joe Scarface" DiGiovanni died of natural causes in August of 1971 at the age of 83.