100 Years Ago The Black Hand's Ferocious (But False) Reputation Terrorized America's Little Italies

The Black Hand and the Mafia (the pre-1931 organization) were distinct crime rings.

The men on the left and right were caught with Black Hand letters.
Man in the middle was an interpreter.
The Mafia was much larger in size and power -- and was generally a lot more secretive than members of the so-called La Mano Nera.

Huge waves of Italian immigrants crashed along the shores of America from around 1890 to 1900. During this period, one of several massive influxes of Europeans, some 655,888 Italian immigrants arrived in the United States; two-thirds were men. Many Italians arrived in the United States from the poorer rural villages in Southern Italy, including Sicily and Campania. They tended to have little cash and less education.

Most had been peasant farmers in Italy, so they generally were forced into manual labor, lacking the skills to earn higher salaries in better-paying professions.

The immigrants populated various US cities, forming Little Italy's.... Italian neighborhoods typically grew in the older areas of the cities, suffering from overcrowded tenements and poor sanitation.

Living in such closed communities created a microcosm of the society from which they had departed for the land of the free. Criminals exploited this in time, turing to extortion of their more prosperous neighbors.

A group of these criminals eventually earned a name that matched their supposed ferocious reputation: The Black Hand. The extortions were done anonymously. Using soon-to-be-infamous threatening letters demanding money, the missives came to be signed with crudely drawn images of knives or skulls.

Here is an excerpt from an actual Black Hand 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. …

Black Hand extortionists were feared, truly. Not helping the terrorized immigrants was the fact that American law enforcement, at the time, was no match for these small, loose-knit street gangs. The law didn't understand these groups, how they operated, how they accrued the perception ofpower.

This excerpt is from the story of an Italian-American citizen and it depicts what happened when the Black Hand targeted you. The letter appeared in an issue of The New York Times of the 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 Street 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 to 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?

What was left of a fruit store after the Black Hand blew it apart with a bomb.

With the infamous letters and accompanying violence, the myth of the Black Hand spread throughout the various Little Italy's of America. 

It has been said that the mere mention of ‘La Mano Nera’ caused people to make the sign of the cross, their fingertips darting from their forehead to their heart, then to each shoulder. Italian folklore spoke of gangsters capable of ‘casting the evil eye’ -- indeed, some of these men were believed to possess supernatural abilities. Such myths, along with the bombings and murders and letters further compounded the Black Hand's horrible legacy.

Extortion letters were written in various dialects, by people originating all over Italy. 

Black Hand symbols varied hugely -- some featuring an open hand, a closed fist, a hand clutching a blade. The gangs focused on one particular victim: someone with great wealth readily available.

In time the Italians grew tired of the Black Hand. They met and formed groups to counter the criminals.

In New York City, there was the Italian Vigilance Protective Association, which asked the Police Commissioner to eradicate the Black Hand. He claimed the city's alderman had not supported such an investigation -- and he also noted that the famous Lt. Petrosino and his squad were too well known.

Then the year 1908 arrived, accompanied by the highest number of Black Hand cases in recorded history. 

Lt Petrosino apparently had had enough and gave the following statement to the Bollettino della Sera, an Italian newspaper:

The United States has become the refuge of all the delinquents and the bandits of Italy, of Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria. About a year ago the authorities of Tunis decided to cleanse the Italian quarter of that city where there were a great number of crimes. The French government proceeded to make a rigorous inquest which resulted in the expulsion of 10,000 Italians from that country. Where did that flower of manhood go? They were welcomed with open arms by Uncle Sam… Our Penal Code should be made more severe. The worst with immigrants who come here from Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria is that they do not know how to use the liberty which is enjoyed in this country…

Finally a special Italian branch of the police was formed. As per The New York Times story about the group:


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 Street 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.

Included in the story, Petrosino gave his views on the Black Hand:

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.

Shortly after Petrosino’s ascension to Bingham’s secret police squad, he was murdered in Palermo, Sicily.

In 1909, when Giuseppe Morello, the leader of the most powerful Mafia gang in New York, was arrested in connection with counterfeiting, Black Hand letters were found at his home.

A Secret Service agent described how the Mafia leader used the letters, adding a slight twist:

A threatening letter is sent to a proposed victim. Immediately after the letter is delivered by the postman Morello just ‘happens’ to be in the vicinity of the victim to be, and ‘accidentally’ meets the receiver of the letter. The receiver knows of Morello’s close connections with Italian malefactors, and, the thing being fresh in mind, calls Morello’s attention to the letter. Morello takes the letter and reads it. He informs the receiver that victims are not killed off without ceremony and just for the sake of murder. The ‘Black-Hand’ chief himself declares he will locate the man who sent the letter, if such a thing is possible, the victim never suspecting that the letter is Morello’s own. Of course, the letter is never returned to the proposed victim. By this cunning procedure no evidence remains in the hand of the receiver of the letter should he wish to seek aid from the police.

The New York press labeled Morello and his gang Leaders of the Black Hand, even though they were not -- in fact, their main criminal activity was counterfeiting. 

Still, there were connections between the groups. Members of the Mafia gang were arrested in connection with extortion, kidnapping and bomb throwing, all typical Black Hand crimes. These incidents, however, were minor extensions of their much larger criminal activities. True members of the Black Hand never had larger criminal activities going on.

 The Black Hand began to decline after 1915, as tougher sentencing, federal mail laws, and tighter immigration control began turning the tide.

Interested in learning more about the Black Hand?

Check out: The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History, written by author Stephan Talty was published in June.

A film based on the book also has been slated starring this guy as Joe Petrosino (I don't see it.)

Leonardo DiCaprio to star in 'The Black Hand.'

"Before the Mafia captured the American crime spotlight in the 1920s, there was the Society of the Black Hand, which made ends meet by terrorizing and extorting fellow Italians, mainly, among them tenor Enrico Caruso and Italian-American business owners. The Black Hand even targeted Mafiosi in New York and Chicago — not exactly easy pickings."

So noted USA Today in a story earlier this year.

"Oftentimes a threatening letter and a coal-blackened handprint on a victim’s door did the trick. Kidnapping, murder, arson and dynamite were other calling cards of this malevolent organization."

"Waxing ever more brazen, the Black Hand diversified in early 20th century America. It began threatening native-born citizens, including John D. Rockefeller’s granddaughter, baseball player Frank Chance, and, of all people, Daniel Wesson, owner of Smith & Wesson."

In The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History focuses on the details of this shadowy society and revives "the legend of its nemesis, New York City policeman Joseph Petrosino." Petrosino's death may be solved by Italian law enforcement.

Dubbed the "Italian Sherlock Holmes” and himself an immigrant, Petrosino battled the Black Hand with his fists and his wits. A more contemporary nickname might be “Dirty Harry.” When a conviction proved elusive, he and fellow officers on his famed “Italian Squad” were apt to prescribe the “nightstick cure.”

Lost in the haze of history, Petrosino was once a nationally known character straight out of central casting —indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to play him in a movie based on this book. In 1895, Teddy Roosevelt, then New York City Police Commissioner, promoted Petrosino to lieutenant, and in 1901 President William McKinley tapped him to infiltrate an anarchist group thought to be involved in the assassination of King Umberto I of Italy. 

Petrosino’s subsequent warning that McKinley was on the group’s hit list was ignored: an anarchist did, in fact, assassinate the president later that year.