I Was an Outlaw
IT WAS May 1, 1947, in Sicily. Some 3,000 people, including women with babies, had gathered at a mountain pass for the annual Workers’ Day celebration. They were unaware of the danger concealed in the nearby hills. Perhaps you have read about or have even seen movies of the tragedy that followed. The massacre has been called the Slaughter of Portella della Ginestra, which left 11 people dead and 56 wounded.
Although I had no part in that tragedy, I did belong to the band of separatists who were responsible for it. Their leader was Salvatore Giuliano, with whom I had grown up in the village of Montelepre. He was only a year older than I. In 1942, when I was 19, I was called to serve in the army during World War II. Earlier that year I had fallen in love with and married Vita Motisi. Eventually, we had three sons; the first was born in 1943.
Why I Became an Outlaw
In 1945, the year World War II ended, I joined the western division of the Volunteer Army for Sicilian Independence (EVIS). This was the paramilitary arm of the separatist political party known as the Movement for the Independence of Sicily (MIS). Salvatore Giuliano, already a fugitive, had been appointed by the upper ranks of EVIS and MIS to take command of our division.
We were united by our love for our island of Sicily and for our people. And we were angry over the injustices we felt. So I embraced the cause of the Giuliano band, which was to have Sicily annexed to the United States of America as its 49th state. Was there reason to believe this was possible? Indeed there was, for officials of MIS had assured us that they had a close relationship with Washington, D.C., and that United States president Harry S. Truman was in favor of such an annexation.
My group’s work consisted mainly of kidnapping and holding for ransom persons of prominence. By this means we obtained funds to buy needed supplies. None of those kidnapped, whom we called “our guests,” were ever harmed. When they were released, we gave them a receipt to be used for reimbursement of the ransom money we had received. They were told that the receipt could be used to get their money back after we had gained victory.
I participated in about 20 kidnappings, as well as in armed assaults on barracks of the Carabinieri, a national militarized police force. However, I am glad to say that I never killed anyone. Our separatist attacks culminated in the ill-advised action at the village of Portella della Ginestra. It was organized by about a dozen men of the Giuliano group and was directed against the Communist Party.
Although the killing of common people—including neighbors and supporters—was not intentional, people who had supported us and felt protected by us believed we had betrayed them. From then on, the hunt for the Giuliano band of outlaws was relentless. After tip-offs to the police, many of my companions were captured. On March 19, 1950, I fell into a trap and was arrested. And that summer Giuliano himself was killed.
Imprisonment and Sentencing
In a Palermo prison, where I was held pending trial, I grieved at being separated from my young wife and three sons. Yet, the desire to fight for what I felt was right protected me from utter despair. I began reading to occupy my time. One book sparked my desire to read the Bible. It was an autobiography of Silvio Pellico, an Italian imprisoned for political reasons during the 19th century.
Pellico wrote that he always had with him in prison a dictionary and a Bible. Although my family and I were Roman Catholics, I really had heard nothing about the Bible. So I made a request to the authorities to obtain a copy. I was told it was prohibited, but I was given a copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Later, I was able to obtain a copy of the whole Bible, which I still keep as a treasured memento.
Finally, in 1951 my trial began in Viterbo, near Rome. It lasted for 13 months. I was sentenced to two life terms plus 302 years! That meant I would never come out of prison alive.
Learning Bible Truths
On being returned to the prison in Palermo, I was assigned to a section where a member of our group who was a cousin of Giuliano was also imprisoned. He had been arrested three years before I was. Earlier, he had met in prison one of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Switzerland who had spoken to him about marvelous Bible promises. The man had been arrested with a fellow Witness from Palermo while preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14) I was later told that his arrest had been instigated by members of the clergy.
Despite my lawless activities, I believed in God and in church teachings. So I was shocked to learn that veneration of so-called saints was unscriptural and that one of the Ten Commandments prohibited the use of images in worship. (Exodus 20:3, 4) I subscribed to the Watchtower and Awake! magazines, which became very precious to me. I did not understand all I read, but the more I read, the more I felt the need to escape, not from jail, but from the prison of religious falsehood and spiritual blindness.
In time, I realized that to please God I needed to strip off my old personality and to put on a new one—one that was meek and similar to that of Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 4:20-24) My change was gradual. Yet almost immediately I began to do things in behalf of my fellow prisoners, and I tried to speak to them about the grand things I was learning. Thus, in 1953 a joyful period began for me. But there were obstacles.
Opposition From the Chaplain
Six months after I subscribed to The Watchtower and Awake!, their delivery was interrupted. I went to the censor of prisoners’ correspondence and brought the matter to his attention. He told me that it was the prison chaplain who had the delivery suspended.
I requested to see the chaplain. During our discussion I showed him what little I knew from the Bible, including such scriptures as Exodus 20:3, 4 and Isaiah 44:14-17 regarding the use of images in worship. I also read to him Jesus’ words, recorded at Matthew 23:8, 9, not to “call anyone your father on earth.” Offended, he replied that I could not understand the Bible because I was an ignorant man.
It was good that I had already begun to change my personality—otherwise, I don’t know what I might have done. Staying calm, I answered: “Yes, it’s true; I’m ignorant. But you have studied, and you have not done anything to teach me Bible truths.” The chaplain replied that to obtain the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I would have to make a request to the Ministry of Justice to renounce the Catholic religion. I did so right away, but the request was not honored. Later, however, I was able to have myself recorded as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was able to receive the magazines again. But I had to be very insistent.
A Kingdom Hall in Prison
For some time I had asked the prison director for a job so that I could earn money to send to my family. He would always say that if he gave me a job, he would have to give one to others too, and that was not possible. But on the morning of August 5, 1955, the director gave me some good news—I was to take up work as a clerk inside the prison.
My work enabled me to earn the respect of the prison director, and he kindly gave me permission to use a storeroom to hold meetings for Bible study. Thus, in 1956, using wood from discarded file cabinets, I prepared benches for what could be considered a Kingdom Hall, as meeting places of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. I met there every Sunday with other inmates, and we reached a peak attendance of 25 for our Bible discussions.
In time, the chaplain found out about the meetings I was holding, and he was furious. As a result, in the summer of 1957, I was transferred from Palermo to the penitentiary of Porto Azzurro on the isle of Elba. This place had a terrible reputation.
Baptized in Prison
When I arrived, I was put in solitary confinement for 18 days. There I was not even allowed to keep my Bible. Afterward, I again wrote the Ministry of Justice requesting that I be allowed to renounce the Catholic religion. This time, however, I asked for the help of the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Rome. After ten months, the long-awaited answer came. The Ministry recognized my change of religion! This not only meant I could have a Bible, the magazines, and other Bible literature but also meant I could receive regular visits from a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
My joy was unbounded when I received the first visit from Giuseppe Romano, who was from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Italy. With the permission of prison officials, arrangements were made so that I could finally symbolize my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. On October 4, 1958, in the presence of the prison director, the commander in charge of discipline, and other officials, Brother Romano baptized me, along with another inmate, in the huge tub used for watering the prison garden.
Although I was almost always able to study The Watchtower with other inmates, I had to observe the annual Memorial of Christ’s death in my cell alone because this celebration takes place after sundown. I would close my eyes and pray, imagining that I was gathered with fellow Witnesses.
Making Disciples in Prison
In 1968, I was transferred to the prison at Fossombrone, in the province of Pesaro. There I enjoyed good results from speaking with others regarding Bible truths. I worked in the infirmary, where it was easy to find opportunities to witness. It was especially a joy to see the progress of one inmate, Emanuele Altavilla. After two months of study, he realized that he had to apply the counsel of Acts 19:19 and destroy his book on the magical arts. Later, Emanuele became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The following year I was transferred to the prison on the island of Procida, just across the bay from Naples. Because of good conduct, I was once again assigned to the infirmary. There I met Mario Moreno, an inmate who was a confirmed Catholic. He also had a position of responsibility, working in the accounting department.
One evening Mario asked me for something to read, and I gave him the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life.a He understood at once the importance of what he was reading, and we began a Bible study. Mario stopped smoking his three packs of cigarettes a day. In addition, he realized that he must conduct himself honestly even in the accounting work done in prison. He began witnessing to his fiancée, and she too accepted Bible teachings. Shortly afterward, they were married there in prison. At a convention in Naples in 1975, Mario’s wife was baptized. Her joy was great when she heard that her husband had been baptized the same day in prison!
I was allowed weekly conversations with Witnesses who visited me on Procida. I was also permitted to prepare meals to share with them in the visitors’ hall. Up to ten could be present at a time. When traveling overseers of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited, I obtained permission to show their slide presentations. Once I had the pleasure of conducting the Watchtower study during the visit of 14 Witnesses. The authorities seemed to trust me fully. On assigned days, toward evening, I would go preaching from cell to cell.
In 1974, after spending 24 years in various prisons, I received a visit from a judge who encouraged me to file a petition for a pardon. I did not consider doing so appropriate because it would have acknowledged involvement in the slaughter of Portella della Ginestra, and I had taken no part in it.
Occasions of Great Joy
In 1975 a new law provided for the granting of exit permits from prison. Thus, I had the opportunity to attend, in the city of Naples, my first convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I enjoyed five unforgettable days, during which I met more Christian brothers and sisters than I had ever seen before.
What brought me special joy was finally, after so many years, being reunited with my family. My wife, Vita, had remained faithful to me, and my sons were now young men in their 20’s and 30’s.
The following year—during which I enjoyed being on leave from prison a number of times—it was suggested that I apply for a release from prison. In the probation magistrate’s report about me, he recommended that my application be accepted. He wrote: “It can be said without fear of contradiction—today Mannino, compared to the bloodthirsty youth who carried out Giuliano’s orders, is another man; he is completely unrecognizable.”
In time, the prison authorities of Procida requested pardon for me. Finally, the pardon was granted, and on December 28, 1978, I was released from prison. What joy, after more than 28 years of confinement, to be a free man!
Only Hope for Justice
As a kidnapper under Salvatore Giuliano’s command, I had fought for what I believed would bring true freedom for my family and my countrymen. Yet, I came to learn from the Bible that regardless of how sincere humans may be, they can never bring about the justice that I so earnestly desired as a youth. Thankfully, Bible knowledge helped me to see that only God’s Kingdom in the hands of his Son, Jesus Christ, can provide the relief from injustice that is so desperately needed.—Isaiah 9:6, 7; Daniel 2:44; Matthew 6:9, 10; Revelation 21:3, 4.
Many newspapers documented the change in my personality, for which such Bible knowledge was responsible. For example, Paese Sera quoted the prison warden of Procida as saying: “If all prisoners were like Franck, prisons would disappear; his conduct has been irreprehensible, he never quarreled, and he never received even the slightest reprimand.” Another paper, Avvenire, said: “He is a model prisoner, out of the ordinary. His rehabilitation is beyond all expectations. He is respectful toward the institutions and the prison officers and possesses an extraordinary spirituality.”
A Rewarding Life
Since 1984, I have served in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an elder and as a pioneer, as full-time ministers are called. In 1990 a prison guard with whom I had shared Bible knowledge 15 years earlier phoned to tell me that he and all his family had become Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But my happiest experience came in July 1995. That year I had the great joy of attending the baptism of my dear wife, Vita. After so many years, she had made the teachings of the Bible her own. Perhaps my three sons, who for now do not share my faith, will one day also accept what I have learned from the Word of God.
My experiences helping others to learn Bible truths have given me pleasure beyond compare. How rewarding it has been to have come into possession of the knowledge that leads to everlasting life and to be able to share it with honesthearted ones!—John 17:3.—As told by Franck Mannino.
a Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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The mountain pass in Sicily where the slaughter occurred
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When we were married, in 1942
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I often shared Bible truths with prison guards
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With my wife