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 238240 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.