At the opening of the twentieth century the influx of Italians in to America began to grow, New York was the second biggest Italian city after Naples, one quarter of New York – more than half a million people – were Italian. The new immigrants, bewildered by the new land, and it’s strange language, lived closely together in the Little Italys of New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other cities. They were rendered blind, deaf and dumb by lack of schooling in American language and culture.
Many mafiosi entered the US on false papers, which the Italian authority had been only too happy to supply. The mafiosi had good reasons to travel to America, the law and restrictions against ex-convicts in Italy were crippling. After leaving an Italian prison the convict would be placed on ‘Sorveglianza Speciale’ ( Special Surveillance ), meaning strict night curfew, no employment without permission from the police, regular reports to the local police station, ban on carrying weapons and a ban from frequenting all drinking places. Once they arrived in America they found already established Irish and Jewish underworlds, but did not penetrate these groups at first, instead keeping within their own communities.
Facing lynchings, hatred, poverty and extremely poor living conditions, the law abiding immigrants soon realized that the dream of the’ Promised Land’ they had travelled to was a nightmare. Living together in such closed communities created little more than a microcosm of the society they had left in Europe. As such they clung onto their distrust of the law and authority. Several mafiosi exploited this fact, and found opportunities for their traditional occupations, they began to extort fellow Italians who had a certain amount of money, bankers, barbers, contractors, wholesale dealers or merchants who already understood the capabilities of the Mafia. This was done anonymously by delivering threatening letters demanding money, the letters were signed with a crudely drawn Black Hand symbol. The following is an excerpt from one such letter :
“If you have not sufficient courage you may go to people who enjoy an honorable reputation and be careful as to whom you go. Thus you may stop us from persecuting you as you have been adjudged to give money or life. Woe upon you if you do not resolve to buy your future happiness, you can do from us by giving the money demanded. …”
People paid the Black Hand extortionists with the knowledge that American law had no understanding or power to help them, and that the threats carried in Black Hand letters were likely to be carried out if payment was not made. This an excerpt of a letter that appeared in The New York Times around this period :
“My name is Salvatore Spinelli. My parents in Italy came from a decent family. I came here eighteen years ago and went to work as a house painter, like my father. I started a family and I have been an American citizen for thirteen years. I had a house at 314 East Eleventh St and another one at 316, which I rented out. At this point the ‘Black Hand’ came into my life and asked me for seven thousand dollars. I told them to go to hell and the bandits tried o blow up my house. Then I asked the police for help and refused more demands, but the “Black Hand’ set off one, two, three, four, five bombs in my houses. Things went to pieces. From thirty two tenants I am down to six. I owe a thousand dollars interest that is due next month and I cannot pay. I am a ruined man. My family lives in fear. There is a policeman on guard in front of my house, but what can he do? My brother Francesco and I do guard duty at the windows with guns night and day. My wife and children have not left the house for weeks. How long can this go on ?”
The name ‘Black Hand’ was taken from a secret Spanish society of anarchists, that later spread to other countries, particularly The Balkans, with the purpose of assassinating monarchs and other chiefs of state.
The fear of economic and social exclusion in such a rich and dynamic country, drove many Italians to attempt their own Black Hand extortions and they also began threatening fellow Italians, helping to perpetuate the myth of ‘La Mano Nera’. This was an easy task as a strong fear was already instilled in the community, people were incredibly superstitious during this era, and even the mention of ‘La Mano Nera’ would cause people to cross themselves with the hope of protection. Italian folklore spoke of gangsters such as ‘Lupo the Wolf’ being able to cast the evil eye and to possess other magical powers, such stories only helped to compound the effectiveness of the Black Hand fear. The Black Hand thrived on this myth, and they knew the need to carry out their threats was essential to keep the fear alive.
The trail left by the Black Hand draws a picture of an unorganized body, with no central leadership or hierarchical structure. Extortion letters were written in a mixture of dialects certainly by people originating from different regions of Italy, and the Black Hand symbols varied greatly in design. Some were an open Hand, others a closed fist and others still showed a hand with a knife.
In 1908 Police Commissioner Bingham kept a record of all crime relating to the Black Hand, here is the summary that he made :
Black Hand cases reported : 424
Arrests : 215
Convictions : 36
Discharges : 156
Pending : 23
Bomb outrages reported : 44
Arrests : 70
Convictions : 9
Discharges : 58
Pending : 3
The Black Hand fear became such a problem that a special Italian branch of the police had to be formed, this was essential as the immigrants did not trust the Irish/American law force, and the police had no understanding of Italian customs or behavior. The New York Times ran this story on the new force :
“NEW SECRET SERVICE TO BATTLE ‘BLACK HAND’”
“Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham, finally has his secret service. It is a secret in every sense of the word, since no one at 300 Mulberry St except Lieutenant Petrosino and Bingham himself knows its membership. Substantial funds for the maintenance of the Secret Squad have been made available to the Commissioner, but this is all he will say. He refuses to discuss their source, confining himself to the assurance that it is not public money. It is generally believed that the money was contributed by a number of prosperous Italian merchants and bankers across the city, aroused by the wave of extorsions in recent years.”
Joseph Petrosino, the tough unethical Italian policeman who headed the squad, soon realized that American law was far to relaxed, and was not capable of dealing with mafiosi. He said :
” There is only one thing that can wipe out the Black Hand, and that is the elimination of ignorance. The gangsters who are holding Little Italy in the grip of terror come chiefly from Sicily and Southern Italy, and they are primitive country robbers transplanted into cities. This is proved by their brutal methods. No American hold-up man would ever think of stopping somebody and slashing his face with a knife just to take his wallet. Probably he would threaten him with a pistol. No American criminal would blow up a man’s house or kill his children because he refused to pay fifty or a hundred dollars. The crimes that occur among the Italians here, are the same as those committed at one time by rural outlaws in Italy; and the victims, like the killers, come from the same ignorant class of people. In short we are dealing with banditry transplanted to the most modern city in the world.”
After the first bombing of the Italian Pati bank on Elizabeth Street, a society called the Association de Vigilanza e Protezione Italiana was formed by the community to help combat the Black Hand menace. Frank L. Frugone, the editor of Bollettino paper, was made president with over three hundred members.
In a 1908 eleven page magazine article, Lindsay Denison made some very interesting observations about the workings and origins of the Black Hand. She claimed the gang name had arrived from a story printed in The Herald newspaper, the story claimed that a recent murder of an Italian immigrant had been committed by the original “The Black Hand” – a secret Spanish society dating back from Inquisition days. The Herald speculated that the Black Hand was coming to life again amongst the Latin communities. Other papers seized upon the idea and the story spread.
Denison went on to speak of the organized sections of the Black Hand –
” It is not possible to speak certainly of the way in which the spoils of their plots are divided. It seems most likely that the ‘divvy’ is governed by the generosity of the head ‘bad-man’ and the risks taken by the members accumulating the loot. The worst and greediest scoundrel in the plot takes all he dares. Most of the rest goes to the men who made the threats. Half of what the chief takes goes ” higher up”. There are at least two or three old graduates of South Italian crime, who never sully their Hands with the commission of actual crimes nor trouble their minds to plan them …”
The article told of an incident involving Pasquale Pati a rich Italian banker from Elizabeth Street. Bombed once already he was again singled out by a Black Hand crew made up of mainly Mafiosi. Representations were made to the Mafia that he should be left alone, due to his connections with the Camorra. But the warnings had been made, and the discipline had to be upheld, Pati was still considered a target. When the collectors arrived at the bank for the money, they were shot by Pati and half a dozen other men, one Black Hand member was wounded badly and later died in hospital. Pati was secretly relocated and congratulated by the police as the first man of his Country to face up to the Black Hand. (It was later discovered that Lupo the Wolf had been after Pati, and a run had been made on his bank. The man Pati shot was actually a depositor and Pati had dissappeared with all the banks money). Another man to stand up the menace was Pietro Caropole of New Jersey, he killed one member of the Black Hand and wounded another. At the time of Denison’s article he was still holding his ground, despite new death threats.
The success of the Black Hand methods caused the ‘myth’ to spread all over the country. The Pittsburg police were credited with ‘the break up of the best organized blackmailing bands in the history of the Black Hand’. One of their raids produced evidence that they had ‘stumbled upon a huge society combining the worst features of the Mafia and Camorra’. They had found ‘carefully written by-laws, with a definite scale of spoil division and with many horrible oaths’. Then on another raid they found what appeared to be a ‘school of the Black Hand’, two young Italians had ‘actually been practicing with daggers on dummy figures’. However further investigation revealed that the Pittsburgh plant was in fact the union of the three or four local Black Hand bands and no connection with New York was ever made.
Lieutenant Petrosino learnt of a new, more sophisticated extortion method that was spreading through the community. A shop keeper in Elizabeth Street explained to him, how three men had entered his shop and said they knew he had received Black Hand letters. They offered the shop keeper protection from the Black Hand threats for a small but regular fee. Many of the Black Hand bombers slowly turned into fatherly ‘protectors’ who integrated themselves openly into society. The anonymous terrorist had become a known face in the community.