William Cerioni and Italian ‘Red’


For The Madera Tribune

Anzello “Red” Lunetti is shown here in a Folsom Prison photo. He was incarcerated for the killing of John Cerioni, brother of William Cerioni, in 1915.

 

William G. Cerioni was a pioneer Madera businessman. His name was a household word when it came to men and women’s clothing, even after his death in 1962.


In 1968, six years after her husband’s passing, Mrs. Cerioni gave an interview to The Madera Tribune in which she traced her husband’s roots back to Italy. It was a fascinating article for this writer for two reasons. First, she told a neat story of William Cerioni Sr’s start in business, which led eventually to Cerioni’s Clothing Store.


Second, in telling the story of the beginnings of Cerioni’s, Mrs. Cerioni mentioned one of her husband’s first business partners, Mr. Joe Puzzo. This grabbed my attention because of an incident that had taken place almost 50 years earlier, which put Joe Puzzo right in the middle of a murder story that has me scratching my head because it might be connected to this Madera businessman.


After I read Mrs. Cerioni’s 1968 story, I went back to the newspaper archives and a 1915 Tribune article. I found myself at the gates of Madera’s Calvary Cemetery on Jan. 1, 1915, and there was Joe Puzzo once again connected in print with someone named William Cerioni. Let me share that part of the story with you.


As it happened, Robert Seldon Jay was driving his hearse ahead of a large crowd, mostly Italians. Just as he reached the gates of Calvary Cemetery, Joe Puzzo, one of the mourners, yelled for Jay to halt. Puzzo moved to the head of the procession and began to deliver a graveside eulogy of a dearly departed countryman, one John Cerioni. Jay didn’t understand a word of the panegyric, but the rest of the crowd did, Including the brother of the deceased, one William Cerioni.


With great emotion, Puzzo told of the simple and upright life of his friend in their ancestral home of Ancona, Italy. Everyone in the audience, men, women, and children gave way to tears.


After Puzzo concluded his tribute, Jay continued into the cemetery and consigned Cerioni to the grave. The crowd then went home, and contemplated John Cerioni’s death at the hands of Anzello Lunetti.


John Cerioni and his brother William had been part of a work force that was building a wooden bridge across the Chowchilla River. The crew lived in tents, and the Cerioni brothers’ tent was on one side of the cook’s tent, and Lunetti’s was on the other side. The trouble began when William Cerioni and Lunetti had words, and William slapped Lunetti who then went in his tent and got a knife. When he came out, for some reason he attacked John Cerioni, stabbing him in the back and in one of his arms.


John Cerioni was taken to the Madera Sanitarium, and Lunetti, who was known as “Red the Italian,” was arrested on an assault charge. He was out on $500 bail when Cerioni died on January 29. Sheriff Westfall took him into custody again and this time charged him with murder.


Anzello Lunetti was arraigned and stood trial for the killing of John Cerioni. During that trial, William Cerioni’s testimony shed fresh light onto the case.


William testified that the trouble had started in Lunetti’s tent. He had gone to the red-headed Italian’s tent because he had no heat in his tent, and Lunetti’s was warmed with a wood stove. While he was there, Lunetti, who was drunk, slapped William. The latter held his temper because he considered himself to be a guest in the other man’s tent. William left and waited outside. When Lunetti came out, William landed a haymaker on him, knocking him down and cutting his mouth. Lunetti got up and went back into his tent. When he came back out, he had a large butcher knife in his hand, but instead of attacking William Cerioni, he stabbed his brother, John.


Lunetti was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in Folsom Prison. They held John Cerioni’s funeral, and Joe Puzzo led that march to the cemetery.


Now what about John’s brother William Cerioni? Was he the William Cerioni who went into business with Puzzo, opening a small cigar store and lunch counter, as Mrs. Cerioni described it, on the spot where Gibb’s Hardware store later stood.


According to Mrs. Cerioni, after a time, the partners moved to the building that later became the home of Simon’s Cleaners. Shortly after that, Puzzo sold out to Cerioni and the latter began a progression of business ventures that resulted in the transformation of the Puzzo and Cerioni Smoking and Tobacco Shop into Cerioni’s Men’s Wear, and the rest is history, so they say.


My question, however, remains. Was the William Cerioni who slapped Anzello Lunetti in 1915, the same William Cerioni who started Cerioni’s Men’s Wear? Was William Cerioni, the brother of the murdered John Cerioni, the same William Cerioni who died in 1962, a much respected and revered Madera pioneer? I suspect they were one in the same, but I hesitate to say so for sure. Perhaps one of our readers will know.