Above, The Nelson Depot (no longer standing).
By Jeff Warren, staff writer
Wander into the Bethesda Church cemetery at Nelson, and you will find it: a statue of a winged angel standing in benediction over a single grave. Not of local stone, the angel (it is said) was carved in Italy from Carrara marble and imported.
It stands atop a pedestal of native Georgia marble inscribed with an Italian name. Other than the angel and some other Italian graves close by, there is little to clue modern Nelson visitors that the town's population once included many Italian families.
For the most part, Nelson's Italian villagers came to work as sculptors and carvers in the marble finishing industry that operated in the town as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Many carvers originated from Italy's mountainous Carrara region, the source of the milk-pure marble that has made the name of that place a familiar sounding word even here.
A crime at Nelson a century ago in July 1911 tragically involved an Italian stone cutter, his attractive daughter, her Italian suitor, and the suitor's hapless friend, who died as a result of the shooting that occurred. Ultimately the crime touched the whole family of Aristide Franzoni, the man who pulled the trigger.
If any transcript of Franzoni's trial still exists, it remains undiscovered. But details from the trial were recorded in an appeal of many points submitted by Franzoni's lawyers after his conviction on voluntary manslaughter. A microfilmed record of the appeal (unreadable in places) is filed among genealogy resources at the Pickens County Library. Facts of the case presented here were drawn from that microfilm.
In 1903, Aristide Franzoni of Carrara, Italy set sail in the ship Lahn from Genoa, leaving July 23 and arriving at New York harbor August 5. Aristide was 36 years old. He left behind his wife, Ernesto Dell´Amico Franzoni and their two children, Hugo (age 13) and Laura (age 6).
Two of Aristide's brothers traveled with him on the Lahn. They were Coronado Franzoni (age 34) and an older brother (age 43) whose name on the passenger list appears to be Arusto Franzoni. The record was written in long hand and is tedious to decipher.
Though the three brothers landed at New York, Nelson was their stated destination. All three were stone cutters. They went to join their brother Cesare who already lived and worked at Nelson.
Also with the brothers Franzoni came Cesare's young wife and infant son. Aristide Franzoni's wife and two children later immigrated to the United States in 1905 and joined Aristide at Nelson. By 1910, another son, Maek (age 3), and a daughter, Julia (age 1), had joined the household. Trouble arrived for the Franzoni family the following year, 1911, when pretty Laura was just 14 years old.
She had found a sweetheart in town some years her senior. Identified only as C. Croscetti in the appeal record, the man's age was not recorded. It is maybe reasonable to guess Croscetti was in his 20s. Croscetti's close friend, Hugo Passani, who died as a result of his involvement in the case, lost his life at age 20.
In that summer of 1911, Croscetti wanted to marry young Laura Franzoni. Her father did not approve the match, having learned of Croscetti's criminal past. Convicted of a crime, Croscetti had apparently escaped justice in Italy by fleeing overseas.
To part his vulnerable daughter from her ardent lover, Aristide Franzoni determined to return Laura to Italy, escorted by her Uncle Coronado, Aristide's younger brother. Wanted as a fugitive in his home country, Croscetti would risk capture if he followed Laura to Italy.
But Croscetti would not part with the girl so easily. With friend Hugo Passani, Croscetti plotted to confront Laura's father at the Nelson railroad station when Laura and her uncle embarked on their journey.
While Laura, Coronado and Laura's father, Aristide, waited at the train depot July 6, 1911, Croscetti and Passani left Croscetti's room in the residential hotel where he boarded, making their way toward the Nelson station.
Now gone, the Nelson railroad depot once stood beside the rails just south of Blueridge Avenue, facing the railroad and the thoroughfare now known as Dogwood Pass. On their walk to the station, Croscetti and Passani paused at a store beside Blueridge Avenue that also housed the town post office.
Storekeeper Lester Holden later testified Passani told him that day a fight was expected––that Croscetti had previously bought a ticket for the same southbound train Laura and her uncle would ride. If Croscetti could not accomplish a provocation at Nelson, Croscetti intended to force one at Atlanta, Passani told the store clerk.
Arrived to the depot platform with Passani in tow, Croscetti encountered Laura, her uncle and father. Croscetti approached the girl.
"When are you coming back to us, Laura?" he was reported to have asked.
Before she could answer, Aristide Franzoni pushed his daughter behind him, placing himself between Laura and Croscetti to block further communication. Insulted, Croscetti reached past Aristide and grabbed Laura's arm, at the same time heaping abuse on her father in blue language.
Angered, Aristide Franzoni struck Croscetti, ultimately pushing him off the station platform onto the railroad track. Croscetti responded by making a grab into his jacket as if to draw a pistol. Franzoni did not wait to see Croscetti's weapon. He drew his own handgun and began firing. He fired multiple shots all directed at Croscetti, it was said at trial.
But Passani was the only man wounded. It is unclear how Passani came unhappily between Franzoni and Croscetti as the pistol blazed. According to a newspaper account, a bullet entered at Passani's shoulder and lodged near his heart. Transported by train to Atlanta, Passani died there at a private infirmary two days later and was buried in that city's Westview Cemetery. Arrested, Aristide Franzoni was charged with murder.
Though Croscetti testified at trial he was unarmed at the depot, his landlord later swore an affidavit saying he had seen a pistol lying on a table in Croscetti's room just days before the incident at the station. And Croscetti had a handgun in his luggage when arrested on a train by the county sheriff just before the Franzoni trial.
A team of lawyers advocated for Franzoni. These defending attorneys were Isaac Grant, Charles H. Griffin, and Colonel Roscoe Pickett, Sr., founder of the Pickett law firm operating at Jasper today. After Aristide's conviction, his lawyers quickly filed a motion for a new trial (the appeal of many points that still exists on microfilm). Despite compelling arguments, a new trial was denied.
A most telling issue involved juror John W. Henderson. James A. Allred and J.C. Allred swore an affidavit after Franzoni's conviction, stating Henderson told them before the trial that if chosen for the jury, he would vote for Franzoni's conviction. If Henderson so spoke, Franzoni's right to an impartial jury was violated.
But the point failed to move Superior Court Judge N.A. Morris of the Blue Ridge Circuit to grant Franzoni a new trial. Confirmed in his denial of a new trial by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Morris issued an order on May 25, 1912 advising that Aristide Franzoni be forwarded to the state penitentiary to begin serving his 10-year sentence.
While her father was in prison, Laura married Andrew Furletti and became a mother at age 17.
Aristide Franzoni was back in Nelson before ten years passed, counted at home in June for the federal census of 1920. But he returned a different man, his mind permanently broken.
Speaking by telephone from near Baltimore, Maryland, Aristide's granddaughter, Carol Ann Franzoni Dodd talked of her grandfather.
"My dad was about five when he [Aristide Franzoni] went to prison," Dodd said. "I remember my dad telling me he was 14 when they moved to Baltimore." Her father was Maek Franzoni, Aristide's younger son. "They came here for my grandfather, because he must have gotten sick in prison," she said. "They came here to take him to Johns Hopkins."
The whole Franzoni clan followed from Nelson, including Aristide's brothers, Dodd said. She described how Aristide's oldest son, Hugo, saw his marriage dissolve after moving to Baltimore with the expectation that the local woman he had married in Nelson would ultimately follow him there. She did not.
From nearly the time the family arrived in Baltimore, Aristide went to live in a mental hospital run by the Catholic Church. Called Mt. Hope, the hospital was later renamed the Seton Institute. Aristide Franzoni lived there 25 years and died at the place February 7, 1947.
"He was there almost the whole time they lived here in Maryland," Dodd said. "My grandmother would bring him home on weekends, and sometimes he was fine, and sometimes they would have to take him right back. I don't remember anything about him being sick or being a problem until he came out of prison."
Aristide's wife, Ernesto, kept faith with her troubled husband through all of those years. Ernesto died a year and a day after Aristide, Dodd said.
Dodd remembers visiting her grandfather as a small child. "My father used to take me to visit him at Mt. Hope," she said. "It was Mt. Hope first, and then they changed the name to the Seton Institute. And it's still standing, parts of it.
"He was an opera singer from what I heard my father tell me. He sang in Italy. I don't have any proof of that, only what my father told me. And I heard him sing at Mt. Hope," she said. "He would sing for the nuns. They could get him to sing every once in a while.
"My father would go pretty often, and I used to come along to visit with him. He never spoke any English," Dodd said of her grandfather. "When they went, they always spoke to him in Italian."
She recalls hearing Aristide sing inside a large stairwell at the hospital. "It was a big stairway," Dodd said. "It looked to me like it was marble. I remember he would stand on the top step." There was a landing there, she indicated. "It was like a platform, and he would stand up there and sing for everybody. It was a big foyer. When you walked indoors, it was a big entrance. His voice just rang through the whole building."
Laura and Andrew Furletti had five children, Dodd said. Laura died at age 98 in the mid-1990s. Two of her children are still living.
Croscetti's fate is unknown.
Many thanks to Nelson historian Sue Cochran whose research uncovered the multiple documents on which this story is based.