The Black Hand

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

The Black Hand

A letter shoved through the crack under a door or dropped in a tenement letter-box, bearing the dread symbol of the Black Hand and the signature La Mano Nera, and containing a demand for money under threat of death or disaster. A few weeks later, if the demand in the letter is ignored, a knife-thrust in the dark, or, the explosion of a crude bomb. That is the Black Hand.”– Everybody’s Magazine (1908)

Coming to America

People in steerage on deck of ocean liner
People in steerage on deck of ocean liner

Dur­ing the last decade of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry more than 650,000 Ital­ians migrat­ed to Amer­i­ca, with a fur­ther two mil­lion fol­low­ing over the next ten years. The major­i­ty came from Italy’s impov­er­ished south­ern regions, where half the adult pop­u­la­tion labored in unre­ward­ing agri­cul­tur­al jobs. They were drawn by Amer­i­ca’s enor­mous demand for unskilled labor and its rep­u­ta­tion as a land of wealth and oppor­tu­ni­ty. 1

Many Ital­ians found pas­sage to Amer­i­ca through the exploita­tive padrone (boss) con­tract labor sys­tem. Immi­grants were promised assis­tance with trav­el and employ­ment but were often held under con­di­tions of servi­tude once they arrived. The padrones who acted as mid­dle­men between the work­ers and employ­ers would secure their labor at a low wage before rent­ing them out to other con­trac­tors. Padrones found as many ways as they could to con­trol the work­ers’ money, over-charging them for accom­mo­da­tion, pro­vi­sions and bank­ing. The prac­tice was slow­ly out­lawed in the last half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and padrones began to dis­guise them­selves as bankers or employ­ment agents. Immi­grants were given instruc­tions as to what they should say to pass immi­gra­tion con­trol and were warned to dis­trust every Amer­i­can they met. 2

Interior of 309 Bleecker St, NYC (1916)
Interior of 309 Bleecker St, NYC (1916)

Life in the new world was tough. Many immi­grants found it nec­es­sary to trav­el from city to city to find work. Hous­ing con­di­tions were often cramped and unsan­i­tary. Rents in New York could cost as much as 50 per­cent of an unskilled worker’s wage. 3 One of New York’s worst slum areas was Mul­ber­ry Bend. “In the scores of back alleys, of sta­ble lanes and hid­den byways, of which the rent col­lec­tor alone can keep track, they share such shel­ter as the ram­shackle struc­tures afford with every kind of abom­i­na­tion rifled from the dumps and ash-barrels of the city.” A near­by rag-pickers set­tle­ment acted as an over­flow from Mul­ber­ry Bend. “Some­thing like forty fam­i­lies are packed into five old two-story and attic hous­es that were built to hold five, and out in the yards addi­tion­al crowds are, or were until very recent­ly, accom­mo­dat­ed in sheds built of all sorts of old boards.4

Some immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties showed lit­tle divi­sion of class or sta­tus, with labor­ers, the unem­ployed, skilled and pro­fes­sion­al work­ers inhab­it­ing the same space. In 1881, jour­nal­ist Char­lotte Adams wan­dered the streets of New York’s Lit­tle Italy and remarked on the con­trast she saw had seen, “Some of their homes were low, dark rooms, neglect­ed and squalid; oth­ers were clean and pic­turesque … from the neat and grace­ful pover­ty adorned with bright col­ors, to the dens of one room, in which three or four fam­i­lies live. They told me that the build­ing con­tained a thou­sand souls.5

Nicola Cappiello

Cappiello. The first Black Hand victim.
Cappiello. The first Black Hand victim.

On August 3, 1903, wealthy Brook­lyn con­trac­tor Nico­la Cap­piel­lo received a let­ter demand­ing $1,000 or “your house will be dyna­mit­ed and your fam­i­ly killed” signed Mano Nera (Black Hand). The let­ter result­ed in the first Black Hand case to make the head­lines and marked the begin­ning of a new term applied to extor­tion and vio­lent crimes in Ital­ian neigh­bor­hoods over the next decade. 6

Why Cappiello’s extor­tion­ists chose Black Hand as their brand is not known, but the name had undoubt­ed­ly been pop­u­lar among glob­al crim­i­nal groups in the pre­vi­ous decade.7

Black Hand Poster
Theatrical poster for 1902 Black Hand play.

In 1902, prior to Cappiello’s case, a play titled The Black Hand toured Amer­i­can the­aters. The pro­duc­tion was based on the real-life mur­der by a secret soci­ety that left a Black Hand sym­bol pinned to the body. A stenog­ra­ph­er in the play’s pro­duc­tion office fled after cards had been jok­ing­ly mailed to the staff bear­ing the mes­sage “Beware the Black Hand!” 8

Extor­tion by anony­mous let­ter with the threat of dyna­mite and threats tar­get­ing wealthy Ital­ians were both crimes that had been seen in the US before. How­ev­er, used togeth­er under the name Black Hand, these became a potent new threat. 9

Spread of the Black Hand

Black Hand articles

Reports of Black Hand cases spread rapid­ly, with news­pa­pers giv­ing con­flict­ing expla­na­tions of the out­break. Some reporters believed it was a “secret orga­ni­za­tion more dread­ed than the Mafia” or that it was an off­shoot of the Sicil­ian Mafia spread­ing through Amer­i­can cities. Oth­ers dis­put­ed the exis­tence of any soci­ety at all, claim­ing Ital­ians had been fleeced by swindlers who sim­ply found the US a safer place to com­mit their crimes. 10

Although Ital­ians in New York City and Chica­go had the high­est per­cent­age of per­son­al vio­lence, black­mail and extor­tion offens­es when com­pared to other groups, the sen­sa­tion­al nature of them was often “expand­ed in print under head­lines that catch the eye.”11 Gio­van­ni Schi­a­vo stat­ed that, in Chica­go, “the so-called Black Hand only exists in the imag­i­na­tion of reporters in search of sen­sa­tion­al­ism and of police offi­cials inca­pable or unwill­ing to solve a crime.” 12 This view was sup­port­ed by the Ital­ian con­sulate, which con­duct­ed its own inves­ti­ga­tion into Black Hand alle­ga­tions. The con­sulate found that twenty-nine out of thir­ty cases had log­i­cal expla­na­tions unre­lat­ed to a Black Hand con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry. 13

In 1908, the annu­al num­ber of Black Hand cases report­ed in New York reached 424 with forty-four bomb explo­sions. In 1913, the num­ber of explo­sions across the five bor­oughs approached 100 with­in just the first seven months. The strug­gling NYPD had only forty Ital­ian speak­ing offi­cers, four of which could com­mu­ni­cate in the Sicil­ian dialect but “are of only lim­it­ed use­ful­ness because they so quick­ly become known to the crim­i­nal Ital­ians.” 14

Mafia and the Black Hand

Due to a sim­i­lar­i­ty in extor­tion meth­ods and the reluc­tance of vic­tims to give evi­dence, the police believed that Black Han­ders were close­ly aligned with the Mafia and quick­ly start­ed to refer to them as a “Soci­ety.”15 Over time, the terms Black Hand and Mafia became almost inter­change­able to the press and gov­ern­ment agencies. 

No large cen­tral­ized Black Hand Soci­ety was ever dis­cov­ered, and only a small num­ber of orga­nized groups were exposed. An arti­cle in 1909 explained, “While there is lit­tle orga­ni­za­tion among the Ital­ian des­per­a­does in the Unit­ed States, the title of Black Hand, con­ferred upon them by the news­pa­pers, gives them an advan­tage never before pos­sessed by scat­tered law­break­ers … the indi­vid­ual adven­tur­er need only announce him­self as an agent of the Black Hand to obtain the pres­tige of an orga­ni­za­tion whose mem­ber­ship is sup­posed to be in the tens of thou­sands.” 16

Giuseppe Morello 1910
Giuseppe Morello (1910)

Some Mafiosi did grav­i­tate toward wealth­i­er Ital­ians in their com­mu­ni­ties, exploit­ing wide­spread fear of the Black Hand. “Boss of boss­es” Giuseppe Morel­lo repeat­ed­ly offered his ser­vices as a medi­a­tor between the Black Han­ders and their vic­tims and was said to have “made much money set­tling the fright­ened of let­ters.”17 He acquired the gratis ser­vices of a fam­i­ly doc­tor after act­ing as his nego­tia­tor and was sus­pect­ed of secret­ly extort­ing his own attor­ney, think­ing his arbi­tra­tion could lead to lower legal fees. 18 Brook­lyn boss Sebas­tiano Di Gae­tano was described by detec­tives as a “go-between” for a ruth­less Black Hand kid­nap­ping gang and it’s vic­tims. 19

Mulberry St, NYC
Mulberry St, NYC

William 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: 20

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.

Con­tents of some of the Black Hand let­ters found in Giuseppe Morello’s home: 21

MRBATAGLIA: ‘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…

Sev­er­al instances were record­ed of indi­vid­u­als prac­tic­ing Black Hand crimes who would later join the Mafia. These includ­ed Jack Dragna, future boss of the Los Ange­les Crime Fam­i­ly, and Bonaven­tu­ra “Joe” Pin­zo­lo, who went on to lead a Bronx-based clan that became the Luc­ch­ese Crime Fam­i­ly. 22

The Italian Vigilance Protective Association

White Hand Society report, Chicago (1908)
White Hand Society report, Chicago (1908)

In 1907, a soci­ety called the “White Hand” was formed in Chica­go. Backed by the Unione Sicil­iana, the Ital­ian Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Ital­ian con­sul, it was the first sys­tem­atized effort by Ital­ians to defeat the Black Hand threats. How­ev­er, the soci­ety even­tu­al­ly faded away after its lead­er­ship faced extor­tion and death threats. 23

A sim­i­lar effort was start­ed two months later in New York. Under the guard of police detec­tives, 500 Ital­ians held a meet­ing at the office of Ital­ian news­pa­per Bol­let­ti­no della Sera. They agreed to cre­ate an orga­ni­za­tion called the Ital­ian Vig­i­lance Pro­tec­tive Asso­ci­a­tion, made up of thou­sands of trust­ed Ital­ian vol­un­teers with sub­com­mit­tees through­out New York. It was intend­ed to aid the police with local­ized intel­li­gence from the com­mu­ni­ty. 24 The same evening, NY Police Com­mis­sion­er Theodore Bing­ham announced his plan for a secret detec­tive squad to bat­tle the Black Hand. Fund­ing for his squad was refused by the city’s alder­men, and the idea was crit­i­cized by politi­cian “Big Tim” Sul­li­van. Bing­ham was forced to seek pri­vate dona­tions. 25

Lt. Joseph Pet­rosi­no, who was to head the squad, gave his views on the Black Hand crim­i­nals:26

There is only one thing that can bring about the end of the Black Hand and that is enlight­en­ment. The Ital­ians who keep Lit­tle Italy in fear and trem­bling are gen­er­al­ly from Sici­ly and South­ern Italy. They are trans­plant­ed rustic-brigands. Their work is sur­pris­ing­ly crude. No New York high­way­man would think of hold­ing up a man In the streets of New York and cut­ting his face with a pen­cil sharp­en­er to fright­en him into turn­ing over his money. Nor would a New York crook dare to threat­en to dyna­mite the place of busi­ness of a man if he did not appear at a cer­tain time with a cer­tain amount of money. The crimes com­mit­ted here among the Ital­lans are the same that are com­mit­ted by coun­try brig­ands in Italy and Sici­ly, and the vic­tims are the igno­rant peo­ple. It is a rus­tic brig­andage exist­ing in the streets of one of the great­est and most civilised cities of the world.

Bingham’s plan was halt­ed in 1909 after Pet­rosi­no was assas­si­nat­ed while in Sici­ly gath­er­ing intel­li­gence on Ital­ian crim­i­nals. The NYPD Ital­ian Squad, formed under Petrosino’s lead­er­ship, was later reduced to just four men. 27 Extor­tion and kid­nap­ping crimes began anoth­er dra­mat­ic rise in New York, with 151 record­ed arrests for bomb-throwing in 1913. Two years later, how­ev­er, offens­es had dropped by 70 per­cent. The appli­ca­tion of updat­ed polic­ing meth­ods by the new NY Police Com­mis­sion­er Arthur Woods, stricter extor­tion laws and a drop in Euro­pean immi­gra­tion dur­ing the Great War all con­tributed to the slow decline of the Black Hand phe­nom­e­non that had raged for the past twelve years. 28

Buster Keaton film
1921 Buster Keaton film about a Black Hand victim.


1Varese, Fed­eri­co. (2011Mafias on the Move. How Orga­nized Crime Con­quers New Ter­ri­to­ries. Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 104 
Gross­man, Ronald. (1975The Ital­ians in Amer­i­ca. Lern­er Pub­li­ca­tions. 13 – 15Sassone, Tom­ma­so. (1922Italy’s Crim­i­nals in the Unit­ed States. Cur­rent His­to­ry 15. New York Times Co.
Foer­ster, Robert F. (1919) The Ital­ian Emi­gra­tion of Our Times. Cam­bridge: Har­vard uni­ver­si­ty press. 49 – 50
Will­cox, Wal­ter F. (1931Inter­na­tion­al Migra­tions, Vol­ume II: Inter­pre­ta­tions. Ital­ian Migra­tion Move­ments, 1876 to 1926. NBER456 
2Hall, Prescott Farnsworth (1906Immi­gra­tion and its Effects Upon the Unit­ed States. New York: H. Holt. 131 – 133
Let­ter from the Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury, in response to the Sen­ate res­o­lu­tion of June 12, 1894, call­ing for facts in regard to the padrone sys­tem. Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Gov­ern­ment Print­ing Office. 
3Bul­letin of the Depart­ment of Labor (Mar 1897) No.9The Padrone Sys­tem and Padrone BanksHall. Immi­gra­tion and its effects upon the Unit­ed States. 131 – 132
De For­est, Robert W. (1903The Ten­e­ment House Prob­lem. Vol.2 New York: The Macmil­lan com­pa­ny. Appen­dix IX. Ten­e­ment House Rentals 
4Riis, Jacob August (1890How the Other Half Lives: Stud­ies Among the Ten­e­ments of New York. New York: C. Scrib­n­er’s sons. 5565
5Gabac­cia, Donna (1992Lit­tle Italy’s Decline: Immi­grant Renters and Investors in a Chang­ing City. In, Land­scape of Moder­ni­ty: Essays on New York City, 1900 – 1940. Rus­sell Sage Foun­da­tion. 240 – 242
Adams, Char­lotte (1881Ital­ian Life in New York. Harper’s New Month­ly Mag­a­zine. Vol.62 (No.371) New York: Harp­er & Bros. 680 – 682 
6Pitkin, Thomas M. & Cor­das­co, Francesco. (1977). The Black Hand: a chap­ter in eth­nic crime. Totowa, N.J:  Lit­tle­field, Adams. 15 – 16
New York City press (Sep – Dec 1903
7Some sus­pect­ed it was taken from a Span­ish soci­ety active in 1874, oth­ers claimed it came from the Camor­ra in 1825 (New York Times. Sep 27, 1903. p32 / The Tope­ka Daily Cap­i­tal. Sept 22, 1903. p4) Other Black Hand groups includ­ed an orga­nized Bel­gian gang of mur­der­ers known as The Black Hand was bro­ken up after a sen­sa­tion­al trial in 1894 (The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle. Aug 5, 1894. p1); A “noto­ri­ous Black Hand soci­ety of Anar­chists and fire­bugs” oper­at­ed in New York around 1894 (New York Tri­bune. Oct 21, 1894. p1); The fic­ti­tious tale of a Black Hand killer stalk­ing the streets of Guadala­jara in 1897 was mag­ni­fied until it “equalled Jack the Rip­per in Lon­don.” (The Buf­fa­lo Com­mer­cial. Mar 22, 1897. p7); In 1898, a Puer­to Rican secret soci­ety of thieves and mur­der­ers used a Black Hand sym­bol to mark their vic­tims doors (Buf­fa­lo Evening News. Dec 71898
8 New York Times (Aug 18, 1902)
Couri­er Post (Sep 9, 1902)
Detroit Free Press (Jul 23, 1902)[1] The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Dec 1, 190121 
9The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Dec 1, 1901) 21 
Rich­mond Dis­patch (Sep 28, 19021 
10The Cincin­nati Enquir­er (Dec 3, 1903) 1
The San Fran­cis­co Exam­in­er (Dec 6, 1903) 1
Brook­lyn Times Union (Sep 19, 19032 
11Unit­ed States. Immi­gra­tion Com­mis­sion. (1911Immi­gra­tion and Crime. 61st Con­gress. Doc­u­ment 750. 17 – 22
Lord, E., Bar­rows, S. J., Trenor, J. J. D. (1905The Ital­ian In Amer­i­ca. New York: B.F. Buck & Com­pa­ny. 216 
12Schi­a­vo, G. Ermenegildo. (1928). The Ital­ians in Chica­go: a study in Amer­i­can­iza­tion. Chica­go, Ill.: Ital­ian Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing co. 130 
13Abbott, Grace (1917The Immi­grant and the Com­mu­ni­ty. New York: The Cen­tu­ry Com­pa­ny. 119 
14New York (N.Y.) Police Depart­ment. (1908). Annu­al Report of the Police Depart­ment of the City of New York. New York: New York Print­ing Com­pa­ny.
White, Frank Mar­shall (1913The Black Hand in Con­trol in Ital­ian New York. The Out­look. V104 New York: Out­look Co. 864
15St Joseph News Press Gazette (Dec 9, 1903)
Brook­lyn Times Union (Nov 30, 19034 
16Critch­ley, David (2009The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca: The New York City Mafia, 1891 – 1931. New York: Rout­ledge. 23
White, Frank Mar­shall. (1909How the Unit­ed States Fos­ters the Black Hand. The Out­look. V93 New York: Out­look Co. 497
17U.S. Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion (here­after referred to as NARA), RG 87, Daily Reports of Agents, (here­after referred to as DRA) William Flynn. Vol. 29 (Feb 271910
18Critch­ley. The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca. 31 – 32
NARA. RG 87. DRA. William Flynn. Vol. 28 (Dec 131909
19The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Dec 9, 19102 
20Flynn, W. J. (1919). The bar­rel mys­tery. Toron­to: McClel­land & Stewart.
21Flynn, W. J. (1919). The bar­rel mys­tery. Toron­to: McClel­land & Stewart.
22Critch­ley. The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca. 26 – 31 
23The Mis­sou­lian (Nov 19, 1907)
Des Moines Tri­bune (Nov 19, 1907)
Chica­go Tri­bune (Aug 18, 1908. Jan 28, Apr 31911
24 Burling­ton Daily News (Jul 27, 1908) 6
Chica­go Tri­bune (Feb 7, 1908) 4
Har­ris­burg Tele­graph (Mar 12, 1908)
New York Daily Tri­bune (Feb 71908
25 The Brook­lyn Cit­i­zen (Apr 22, 1908
Nor­wich Bul­letin (Feb 20, 19091 
26NYT. Dec 301906
27The Brook­lyn Cit­i­zen (Jun 22, 1911)
Brook­lyn Times Union (Jun 301911
28New York Tri­bune (Jun 23, 1911) 7
Har­ris­burg Daily Inde­pen­dent (May 20, 1913) 3
The Bridge­port Times and Evening Farmer (Jun 22, 1916) 3Pittsburgh Daily Post (Feb 12, May 211913