The Black Hand

by Jon Black

An ethnic phenomenon beginning in 1903, and lasting over fifteen years. The extortion of wealthy Italians in New York was attributed to ‘La Mano Nera’.

Coming to America

At the opening of the twentieth century, the influx of Italians in to America began to grow. From 1890 to 1900, 655,888 immigrants arrived in the United States, of whom two-thirds were men. Many Italians arrived in the United States hoping to earn enough money to return home and buy land. Coming especially from the poorer rural villages in Southern Italy, including Sicily and Campania, most arrived with little cash or education; since most had been peasant farmers in Italy, they lacked craft skills and, therefore, generally performed manual labor.

The immigrants populated various US cities, forming ‘Little Italies’, where they could easily establish a familiar cultural presence. Chain and return migration helped subdivide these new Italian communities into regional groupings. Italian neighborhoods typically grew in the older areas of the cities, suffering from overcrowded tenements and poor sanitation.

Living together in such closed communities created little more than a microcosm of the society they had left in Europe. Some criminals exploited this fact, and began to extort the more prosperous Italian’s in their neighbourhood. A crime that would eventually snow-ball into an epidemic known as ‘The Black Hand’.

The extortions were done anonymously by delivering threatening letters demanding money, signed with a crudely drawn symbols, such as a knife or a skull. 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 in the fear that American law had no understanding, or power, to help them. 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 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?

The Cosmopolitan spoke of the ease, in which the threats were sent:

No Italian is too lonely or too poor to embark as a Black-Hander. A sheet of paper, pen and ink, and enough knowledge of Italian to scrawl a few lines of demand and the accompanying threat are all that is necessary

The myth of the Black Hand spread through the Little Italies of America. A strong fear was instilled in the communities, and even the mention of ‘La Mano Nera’ would cause people to cross themselves with the hope of protection. Italian folklore spoke of gangsters being able to ‘cast the evil eye’ and to possess other ‘magical powers’, such fables, mixed with the reality of bombings and murders in the press, only helped to compound the effectiveness of the Black Hand legend.

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 designs were an open hand, others a closed fist, while others showed a hand holding a knife. The extortionists’ targets also varied widely, of course the unifying factor was their wealth.

The Ruin of Pasquale Pati

In January 1908, a bomb blew open the front of an Italian Bank “Pasquale Pati & Son” at 238 – 240 Elizabeth Street. Pati was the most successful Italian banker in New York, with his business capitalised at $500,000. The bank had the unusual trick of displaying piles of money behind their secured windows as proof of their ability to pay depositors. The son, Salvatore Pati, who was in the bank at the time of the bombing, managed to secure the money whilst the bomb throwers escaped into the crowds on Elizabeth Street. The bomb was not an attempt at robbery, but a warning from the Black Hand after Pati had publicly announced he would not fall for their attempts at extortion. After the explosion, nervous depositors began to withdraw their money, and in the next four weeks over $400,000 in deposits were removed.

On 6th March, 1908, three armed men entered the bank, but escaped empty handed when Pati shot one the men who later died in hospital. Pati began to receive more death threats, including one note that said he would be cut-up like the victim of the ‘Barrel Murder‘ several years ago.

Pati was forced to close the bank, just two weeks later, after he learned a group of men had attempted to set fire to his family home in Brooklyn. He pinned a note to the front of the bank reading:

The clientele of the this bank be calm and trustworthy, as the banker, Pasquale Pati, has long been obliged to absent himself to protect his existence and family. He has been molested and threatened and will be back soon. He possesses 45 houses and $100,000 life insurance and has bonds of $15,000 with the State of New York

A crowd ‘that packed Elizabeth Street from Houston to Prince Street” began to rush towards the next largest Italian bank, F. Acritelli & Son, 239 Elizabeth Street, which was then also forced to close. A police guard was provided for both banks.

Three days later, after Pati had not reappeared, the director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce was appointed receiver of the bank by the United States Circuit Court. Pati, who had built his business over seventeen years, starting as a cobbler before moving into grocery and real estate was a ruined man.

The Italian Vigiliance Protective Association

In February 1908, 500 Italians held a mass meeting at the office of Bollettino della Sera, an Italian newspaper edited by Frank L. Frugone. The speakers ridiculed the Black Hand, saying it only existed in Sicily and was a mild form of the Mafia. Frank Frugone was elected president of a new organisation called The Italian Vigiliance Protective Association. A memorial was prepared by the group to petition the Italian Government, stating that all prefects and priests in Italy, and Royal Commissioners on the emigrant boats, be instructed to request the people not to carry arms when coming to America.

The ‘Bollettino della Sera’ was very critical of the American press and its willingness to publicise Black Hand crimes, which seemed merely to augment the epidemic.

Robert Park, wrote the following in his 1921 publication, ‘Old World Traits Transplanted’:

The Italian press got as much news value as possible out of the situation, and threw the blame on the Americans, claiming that they admitted too many Italian criminals, and that the American police and court systems were defective in comparison with the Italian … The Italian papers protested violently against the blackening of the Italian name. The Bollettino claimed that “the fear of the Mafia is in great part a product of the reporter’s fancy.“. The Bollettino resented the fact that “that odious word ‘mafia’ is continually thrown in our faces

Park also talked of the positive efforts by the paper to end the crime wave:

But gradually as the practice became epidemic, affecting all classes of Italians, and involving Americans also, the Italian community and the American police were forced by public opinion into an alliance which succeeded in abating the evil … Two columns in the Bollettino (Jan 1908) call on Italians to rise up and put a stop to the crimes which are besmirching the Italian name … An editorial headed “The Cry of Alarm” warned that the doors of this country would be closed to Italians … The Bollettino printed a notice, “Against the Black Hand” advising all honest Italians to aid Commissioner Bingham by sending him all threatening letters, and information about Black Handers and idle Italians, with a description of individuals

After the formation of the ‘The Italian Vigiliance Protective Association’, Police Commissioner Bingham was asked of his plans to eradicate the Black Hand. He claimed his request for $25,000 to establish a secret detective service had been turned down by the city’s aldermen. He also stated that Lt. Petrosino and his squad were too well known in the Italian quarter to be of any assistance.

1908 showed the highest number of Black Hand cases recorded. Commissioner Bingham’s report listed the following:

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

Lt Petrosino gave the following statement to the Bollettino della Sera in 1908:

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…”

Petrosino’s Secret Police Squad

The NYPD was incapable of dealing with the explosion in crime. It had no intelligence network inside the Italian community, and little understanding of the culture and language. Even when the police made arrests the American criminal procedure, and the ‘Presumption of Innocence’ provision, was simply not able to deal with the criminals when people would not dare testify against them.

A report issued by the Italian White Hand Society, Chicago, 1908, hinted at the problem:

To a certain type of Italian criminal, who in his native land lives in continual dread of the carabineers, the guards of public safety, the civic guards, and even the rural and forest guards, any one of whom may appear at his very bedside any hour of the night to make sure that he is at home from sunset until dawn, this country where such an abundance of guardians of the peace is replaced only by the policeman, often nothing but a creature of politics, cannot fail to appear as the promised land … To a certain type of Italian criminal, who, when mysterious crimes are committed, is liable to be locked up in jail as a suspect, sometimes even for months, simply because he is recognised as being capable of committing crime, this country, where hold-ups, thugs plying their trade in the most prominent streets, or in the elevated railroad stations and street cars, night riders and lynchers, so often escape justice, cannot fail to appear as a most fertile vineyard, easy of cultivation for one willing to take chances.

The Black Hand fear became such a problem that a special Italian branch of the police had to be formed. The New York Times ran this story about the new force :

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.

Joseph Petrosino, the tough Italian policeman who headed the squad, gave his views on the Black Hand criminals:

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. Becoming the first NYPD officer to be killed whilst on duty outside of the USA.

In a 1908, Lindsay Denison wrote 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 declared 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. According to Denison, other papers seized upon the idea and the story spread.

She went on to purport of 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 Cosmopolitan wrote about the crime wave in 1909. They had a slightly different theory to Denison about the origins of the ‘Black Hand’ name:

Some years ago the story of an Italian murder was running in the New York newspapers, a space-writer on a certain morning paper needed more money than the story was bringing him. He could get more space only by giving a new twist to the crime, by working up an exclusive angle. The victim of this murder had received a letter warning him that death would follow his failure to contribute a specified sum by a certain date. At the top of the sheet was a crude drawing of a fist holding a long, wicked-looking dagger. It was drawn with black ink, a somber, sinister emblem. For the reporter it held an idea. The name “Black Hand” leaped from his imagination, and there you are.

With great circumstantial detail and flaring heads he introduced his find to the public this characterization was an instantaneous hit. The murder story was again good for columns of space. The inventive reporter’s rivals went him several better in succeeding editions. They found meeting places of the Black Hand. They traced other unsolved crimes of the Italian district to the same mythical source. The police said nothing. They had been unable to solve the crime, but if it was the work of a powerful secret organization there was some excuse for them.

Mafia and the Black Hand

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

Agent Flynn of the Secret Service described the way in which the Mafia leader used the letters, adding a slight twist to the more simplistic methods of lesser criminals:

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.

View the contents of the Black Hand letters found in Giuseppe Morello’s home

“MR. BATAGLIA: “Do not think that we are dead. Look out for your face; a veil won’t help you. Now is the occasion to give me five hundred dollars on account of that which you others don’t know respect that from then to now you should have kissed my forehead I have been in your store, friend Donate how you respect him he is an ignorant boob, that I bring you others I hope that all will end that when we are alone they give me no peace as I deserve time lost that brings you will know us neither some other of the Mafia in the future will write in the bank where you must send the money without so many stories otherwise you will pay for it.”

DEAR FRIEND : Beware we are sick and tired of writing to you to the appointment you have not come with people of honor. If this time you don’t do what we say it will be your ruination. Send us three hundred dollars with people of honor at eleven o’clock Thursday night. There will be a friend at the corner of 15th Street and Hamilton Ave. He will ask you for the signal. Give me the word and you will give him the money. Beware that if you don’t come to this order we will ruin all your merchandise and attempt your life. Beware of what you do. M. N.

FRIEND: The need obliges us to come to you in order to do us a favor. We request, Sunday night, 7th day, at 12 o’clock you must bring the sum of $1000. Under penalty of death for you and your dears you must come under the new bridge near the Grand Street ferry where you will find the person that wants to know the time. At this word you will give him the money. Beware of what you do and keep your mouth shut…

The New York press often labelled Morello and his gang “The Leaders of the Black Hand”, when actually their main criminal activity was counterfeiting, but there are some connections that can be made. Some 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. An argument that cannot be applied to most Black Hand offenders.

The trail left by the crime wave draws a picture of an unorganized body, with no central leadership or hierarchical structure. Practiced by individuals, small groups of criminals and sometimes more established larger gangs, they all worked without kneed of knowledge of other Black Handers. It was a phenomenon born of imported criminal practices and the unique immigrant situation at the time. Had the criminals been centrally controlled, then they might have been easier to suppress. The Black Hand phenomenon began to decline after 1915, mainly due to tougher sentencing, federal mail laws, and tighter immigration control.