How Writing 'The Sicilian Inheritance' Led Jo Piazza to Investigate a Murder in the Family

'The Sicilian Inheritance' became a book, a podcast and a hunger to know the truth about what happened to a murdered matriarch

<p>Courtesy of Jo Piazza</p> Jo Piazza and her book

Courtesy of Jo Piazza

Jo Piazza and her book 'The Sicilian Inheritance'

When I first started writing a novel loosely based on the murder of our family matriarch in Sicily, I didn’t want to know the real story. I wanted to let my imagination run wild. I wanted to craft the characters and the mystery in my head using only this nugget of information about a murder of a woman left behind while her husband made his fortune in America.

But once my novel The Sicilian Inheritance was put to bed and in my editor’s hands, something told me the story wasn’t finished. I needed to know the truth about what happened to my great-great-grandmother Lorenza Marsala. I became obsessed with solving Lorenza’s actual murder and, because I am an incredibly thorough content creator, decided to make a true crime podcast about it.

My family has been passing down the tale of Lorenza’s murder for more than a hundred years. It changes depending on who is doing the telling, with numerous theories and tangents and mythologies involved. We are Italian Americans and we love embellishing and entertaining an audience with our lore.

But what has always remained the same is the fact that our family matriarch was murdered before she could join her husband Antonino and five of her children here in America in 1916.

Theories abound about my great-great-grandmother's death

<p>Courtesy of Jo Piazza</p> Lorenza Marsala (center) with two family members

Courtesy of Jo Piazza

Lorenza Marsala (center) with two family members

Some of my family members claim the murder was done by the local mafia, who they always refer to as the Black Hand. They believe that she was killed because the Black Hand wanted her land, or they wanted to steal her money after she sold it. One even believes she was working for the mafia herself.

My dad, who passed away seven years ago, always thought she was killed because she was a witch, or a healer, and that someone important died under her care and then she was killed in revenge for not being able to save them. Or maybe they just didn’t like witches.

Because this story might involve the mafia, the primary research isn’t without risks. I didn’t completely believe this until I spoke to Barbie Latza Nadeau, a reporter and expert in the Italian mafia. Barbie told me that there is still danger in researching mafia crimes, even if they happened decades ago.

“You always have to be careful what you're digging up when you're sifting through the ashes because you may end up stumbling upon something that someone doesn't want you to find out about,” she explained. “I'm not trying to scare you. I just think you just have to be vigilant.”

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Some family members warned me not to investigate

Not everyone in my family is happy about my digging into the past either and many of them tried to warn me off of it.

My Uncle Jimmy cautioned me not to go to Sicily to uncover the truth. “Why are you opening old wounds?” he asked me. “You're going to wind up starting our vendetta again.” He was joking, but also not joking.

I’m not the first in my family to seek the truth. Many of my relatives have gone to the village of Caltabelotta, where our family is from, to try to find information and some have encountered weird things along the way. My cousin Laura  claims that when she mentioned Lorenza’s name to a local official, lightning struck the church in the town square. Another says they were thrown out of the town’s municipal office by the mayor when they asked to see her death record.

Family members have found some birth certificates, but no actual proof about what happened to Lorenza.

How could I go about solving a hundred-year-old homicide? None of the people who were there are still alive. I had no idea how to get any records about a death in a foreign country, particularly one that happened so long ago.

First: The Internet. Next: A Family Trip to Sicily

<p>Courtesy of Jo Piazza</p> The Piazza family on their trip

Courtesy of Jo Piazza

The Piazza family on their trip

I started out on, which gave me a birth and a death date for Lorenza. I quickly learned the limitations of research in the United States. There was no way I could solve this thing from my laptop at my desk. So last summer I packed up my entire family, including three kids under the age of seven, and set off for Sicily to do some original research on Lorenza Marsala.

Could I find the official death record? Was there a police report? Was anyone prosecuted and if so are there records of a trial? I was about to find out.

There is another story that my family has passed down about what happened after Lorenza was killed: Her sons drew straws to see who would go back to Sicily to avenge her death. Many relatives believe that a son named Giuseppe drew the short straw and returned to avenge his mother by murdering her killers during a rabbit hunt and then disappeared.

If that is true, surely some record of it must exist.

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When I arrived in Caltabelotta, I made my way cautiously up the mountain to the small town. Caltabelotta is beautiful, one of the most striking places you’ve ever seen and the road is narrow and winding. If a car speeds down the mountain,you have to pull over to let it pass. The old stone houses seem to spill off the jagged cliffs jutting out the top of the mountain. Clouds often shroud the very top, making the scene both beautiful and ominous.

I had made an appointment in the local municipal office. The guides and interpreters whom I hired, Ciro and Ettore told me I would be better received with an appointment. I still worried.

Finding Clues in the 'Death Book'

<p>Courtesy of Jo Piazza</p> Jo Piazza with the 'Death Book'

Courtesy of Jo Piazza

Jo Piazza with the 'Death Book'

But lightning didn’t strike when I mentioned Lorenza’s name in the commune hall and asked if I could see the record of her death. In fact, the town administrator brought out a massive, two-foot-tall cloth book, the Atti di Morte, or what locals call the “Death Book,” that listed every death in the village in the year 1916.

The book is divided into two sections, A and B, both handwritten in careful cursive. There is one important difference between section A and section B—section A lists people who have died of natural causes, usually in their homes. The second is unnatural causes, accidents or homicides. The second is where we found Lorenza. It was the first real evidence I had that she had been murdered more than a century earlier.

My entire body tensed up as I looked at the page. Here she was. This was real. It was no longer just a story told over cocktails at a family wedding. Lorenza Marsala was born here and died here, possibly in a terrible way.

At first, the town administrator and our translators didn’t think there was anything suspicious about Lorenza being in the book of unnatural deaths. She was a farmer in her fifties in 1916. Farming was dangerous business. Her death record didn’t list a cause of death, just the date, the time and the location where her body was found—five kilometers outside of town.

A suspicious finding, and a cold case warmed up

<p>Courtesy of Jo Piazza</p> Lorenza's entry in the 'Death Book'

Courtesy of Jo Piazza

Lorenza's entry in the 'Death Book'

But just as the administrator was about to slam the book and head out to lunch, I asked him to look again. Something told me we weren’t finished. Call it the intuition of the great-great-granddaughter of a Sicilian witch. He reopened the book and looked at the one other entry beneath Lorenza’s. He gasped and his eyes widened. “There is something here,” he whispered in Italian.

That other person was killed at the exact same time, in the exact same location outside of town as Lorenza. His name was Nicolo Martino, a name I had never heard before. A name no one in my family had ever heard before.

It was clear, finally, that Lorenza’s death was no accident. In a time before cars or gas-powered farming equipment, it would have been rare for two people to die in the same location at the same time.

<p>Courtesy of Jo Piazza</p> 'The Sicilian Inheritance'

Courtesy of Jo Piazza

'The Sicilian Inheritance'

For the first time since I heard this story as a child, I truly believed that my great-great-grandmother was murdered, but there was a lot more work to do to find out how and by whom. There were police reports to hunt down, court records to dig through, local elders to interview. It would take more than a year and another trip across the ocean to learn anything more.

But staring down at the book of deaths and seeing her name alongside a stranger is the moment I knew, perhaps because I have a little bit of that Sicilian with blood running through my veins, that the truth would absolutely be stranger than the fiction.

The Sicilian Inheritance is out April 2, and available for preorder now, wherever books are sold.

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