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Italian brothers leave a mark on Hannibal’s business climate

This building with the awning at 203 North Main Street in downtown Hannibal served as a fruit vending shop for two decades prior to 1930. The proprietor was Joseph Caruso, an Italian immigrant to America. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION


For the Hannibal Courier-Post

Big responsibilities fell upon Nicholas Caruso’s shoulders in November 1924. That’s the year his father, 49-year-old Joseph Caruso, died following a short illness. As the only son, at the age of 26 he assumed responsibility for maintaining the prospering family business and providing for his mother, Leboria.

Equipped with a fifth-grade education earned in Hannibal schools, and a wealth of practical experience gained working as a store clerk under his father’s tutelage, the native-born American with black hair and black eyes, and with rich Italian heritage, set forth to live up to his father’s reputation as a venerable Hannibal businessman.

The family business was fruit vending. The shop, for two decades located at 203 North Main - a door to the north of the Farmers and Merchants Bank building at North Main and Center - served the downtown business district, just as Nicholas Caruso’s Uncle Anthony’s fruit stand at 712 Broadway served the mid-town clientele, and third brother Samuel’s shop served South Main Street.

But unlike his father and uncles, fruit vending didn’t come naturally to Nicholas Caruso. And if a childhood memory shared by Jean Moore – a nonagenarian and Hannibal native – proves to be true, it is no wonder why Joseph Caruso’s wife and children had closed up shop and moved to St. Louis prior to 1930, leaving the fruit vending business behind.

Here is Jean’s story:

“One time, when I was about 5 years old, I was with my Dad walking long Main Street. There was a white stone building with curved steps. The occupant was an Italian fruit store.

“A man came running out flapping a long white apron and yelling at the top of his lungs. ‘Helpa, Helpa, Spider asa biga as my hand and eyes likea a shoe butt.’ All the men along the street went in and exterminated the spider that had come in a crate of bananas.

“His was the one Italian family in town at the time and a new experience for me,” Jean said.

Diversified downtown

During the 1920s, Main Street was occupied from one end to the other with family-owned businesses. The Heisers – German immigrants – operated a jewelry store on South Main Street, nearly next door to the Robinsons, (Irish immigrants) who ran a paint and wallpaper store. Sonnenberg & Son brought another German influence to the street, and Hezekiah E. King, a man of color, further diversified the business district with his barber shop at 405 N. Main. Add to this the Italian representation of the Caruso family, and the street was thus blended with culture and ethnicity that formed the precursor to today’s business climate.

Joseph Caruso, born in 1875 in Italy, was an established businessman in Hannibal as early as 1897, when he is listed in the city directory as a fruit vendor at 710 Broadway. By 1905, his fruit vendor business was set up at 203 N. Main, and he and his family were living upstairs over the shop. Here they would all remain until after the death of the family patriarch in 1924.

His family consisted of his wife Leboria, daughter Nexina, who married Agostina Menardi, and daughter Josephine, who married Andrew Arcilesi, plus the aforementioned son, Nicholas Caruso.

Family wedding

On Feb. 15, 1902, a brief item, published in the Quincy Daily Journal, offered a telling detail about Joseph Caruso’s extended family.

“Miss Domenica Campayna is expected to arrive shortly from Italy. She is a sister of Mrs. Joseph Caruso, and she will be married to Mr. Caruso’s brother, Tony. Joseph Caruso went to St. Louis to meet his sister-in-law. Hannibal Post”

True to the newspaper’s prediction, the Marion County Herald of Feb. 27, 1902, printed the news that that Antonio Caruso and Domenica Campayna of Hannibal had taken out a marriage license.

The wedding took place at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 25, 1902, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Hannibal, the Rev. Father McLaughlin officiating.

Now two Italian brothers, married to two Italian sisters, were operating fruit vending businesses in Hannibal, raising their families as Catholic Americans.

Antonio and Domenica

By April 1906, Antonio (Tony) and Domenica (Minnie) had two young children, Nancy, born in 1903, and Nicholas, born in 1904. Minnie took the children back to her homeland in Italy for a visit, and sometime around August 1907, Tony set out en route to Italy in order to accompany his family back to Hannibal.

They arrived in Boston in October 1907, and that’s where complications set in. Their young daughter had an infirmity, and immigration officials wouldn’t let her land in the United States without proof of birth in America.

Tony Caruso telegraphed his brother in Hannibal to forward a registered birth certificate to Boston. When approached, City Clerk August Scheineman discovered that the birth had not been recorded.

The Quincy Daily Journal reported:

“He then went to Father Sullivan, pastor of the Catholic church and procured a certificate showing the child had been christened in that church, and sent the certificate to his brother in Boston which was presented to the United States authorities, but they declined to accept it, requiring a certificate from the city clerk of Hannibal.”

While an ordinance had been on the books in Hannibal that doctors were to record all births within the city, many doctors failed to follow this procedure.

The family was finally able to complete their journey, returning to Hannibal where they would remain for a number of years. Two other children were born to this marriage, Joe and Josephine. In later years, Tony converted his business into a confectionary shop.

Hurley and Roberta Hagood, in a history of Harrison Hill published in the Hannibal Courier-Post, make note that Tony and Minnie Caruso lived in an old white house on Harrison Hill from 1927 to 1935. In 1960, the house would be converted into a nursing home by its owner, Mary Long, who purchased the house and a large area of surrounding property.

In 1946, Tony, Domenica (Minnie) and daughter Nancy Caruso were living at 1606 Harrison Hill in Hannibal. Tony died in 1950, Minnie and Nancy died in 1965. All are buried at Holy Family Cemetery in Hannibal.

Joseph and Leboria

Joseph and Leboria Caruso’s daughter, Josephine Caruso Arcilesi, and her husband are buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. Daughter Nexina Caruso Menardi and her husband, and Nicholas Caruso and his wife, Mary Helen Dattilo Caruso, are buried near Joseph and Leboria Caruso, at Holy Family Cemetery in Hannibal. Leboria outlived all three of her children, dying in 1959.

Samuel and Lena

A third Caruso brother, Samuel, arrived in Hannibal in 1902. He and his wife, Lena, made their home at 215 N. Third St., and operated a confectionary shop at 221 S. Main. Samuel died in 1939 and Lena died in 1952. They are also buried at Hannibal’s Holy Family Cemetery. They had at least two children, including Nick and Maxine.


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