The Black Hand

Hi everyone, today I thought we’d go to the opera. What you can hear in the background is Enrico Caruso’s Una Furtiva Lagrima – from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. (Readers, if you’re adverse to hitting the play button on my podcasts, that’s okay… you can play the track here on YouTube.)

Let me pause myself a second so you can hear Caruso sing a little.

The first thing we should note – this was recorded in 1904. It sounds like a guy hollering into a horn to cut a groove into a wax disc, cause this is how records were made then. The first microphones didn’t appear till 1920 – and wouldn’t completely replace hollering into a horn till 1925. The second thing, to my ear at least – is that this Caruso kid could really sing. Signed up to the Gramophone company in 1904, Enrico Caruso became the first superstar of the recording age, and the first recording artist to make a million dollars. This was a far cry from his humble beginnings.    

Born 25th February 1873, in Naples Italy – Caruso grew up in a poor, though not terribly impoverished family. His early years as an artist were hard. There’s a promotional photo of Caruso wearing a sheet like a toga – not for Verdi’s Aida. His only shirt was at the laundromat being cleaned. In the 1890s Caruso took whatever gigs he could, till his big break came with a role in La Boheme at Milan’s La Scala. 

Caruso first played New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1903. He became a regular there for most of the rest of his life. Though he bought a fancy villa in Italy, he spent much of the rest of his life living out of an apartment at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel.

On November 16th, 1906, Enrico Caruso got into a difficult situation while at the Central Park Zoo’s monkey house. It was alleged a lady was minding her own business when pinched on the bum. The situation escalated quickly. She protested she had been assaulted – Caruso, just a frantic, protested his innocence. The police arrived, arresting the opera singer. 

Thoroughly embarrassed, a tearful Caruso was bailed the following day.

The police officers would likely have judged him simply as an Italian – an ethnic group White America had yet to bestow whiteness upon. Though a number of Italians had settled in America, prospered and distinguished themselves, far too many white Americans were apt to treat Italian immigrants as a criminal class. Caruso was charged, his case going to trial.

The trial was an absolute mess. First, the victim – an alleged Mrs Hannah Graham of 1756 Bathgate Avenue, the Bronx – refused to testify. What’s more she’d lied to the police about her name and address. The trial continued, regardless. 

The police stated Caruso was a serial sex pest, bringing forth two more women – one who remained veiled and anonymous throughout. Both women claimed to have been been sexually assaulted by the singer. 

The judge noted the witnesses, and police testimony were unreliable; but also stated he was compelled by law to find Caruso guilty. He was charged a $10 fine, then released. More than a century before the Me Too movement this amounted to an embarrassing incident for Caruso – though it did no significant harm to the singer’s career. 

I can’t say with any authority if Enrico Caruso enjoyed pinching womens’ bottoms or not. Nor can I say if his arrest provided the impetus for what followed – His arrest may have had nothing to do with it –  but Enrico Caruso received a terrifying letter soon after. 

The writer knew things Caruso might want to keep secret. It would cost him $2,000 to keep them quiet. Caruso paid. Days later a letter arrived demanding $5,000. The blackmailers threatened to hurt him if he didn’t pay. They would force him to drink undiluted lye water, which would burn his oesophageal tract and end his singing career. On the letter, random pictures which may have included daggers, skulls and their trademark – a black hand. Caruso was willing to pay at first, but a detective convinced him that if he paid, the blackmailers would keep coming back. 

The detective set a trap for the blackmailers – he’d impersonate Caruso and meet with the thugs himself. Two men, Antonio Misiano and Antonio Cincotto, arrived expecting a payday. Instead they copped a vicious beating from the detective. 

All the men involved in this plot, the singer, the cop and the standover men had one thing in common – all were Italian immigrants who had arrived in, or just before a wave of four million Italians coming to America. In 2021’s Mussolini’s Hat I discussed how the history of Sicily created an environment the Mafia could thrive in – and how one young mafiosi embarrassing Benito Mussolini in public led to a purge which set the scene for the Castellammarese War, and the American Mafia we all know. This week we’re going back to just before the Castellammarese War to view the mob from another angle. 

First, let’s recap some of that episode.

For thousands of years, Sicily was a place where a deep distrust of authority was advisable. It is a strategic point in the Mediterranean, close to trade routes, and an ideal base to fight Barbary pirates from. The environment also makes Sicily a perfect place to grow crops. This made the island highly sought after by invaders. This, in turn made the island a two tier society, where the lower rungs were often enslaved – and the upper rung were foreign invaders overly eager to enforce their authority. 

First it was Phoenicians, then concurrent Ionian and Doric Greek invaders; then Carthaginians, Mamertines, Romans, Northern barbarians. The Byzantines were there for a while, followed by Normans, Arabs, the Angevin French, Spaniards and Austrians. Many of the invaders treated the locals horrifically. To fight back, locals formed secret clans.

Typically these groups turned to guerrilla warfare whenever oppressed or whenever their honour was insulted. In 1282, the Norman king Manfred was deposed by the Angevin French, who soon drew the ire of the clans after a French soldier raped and killed a woman in Palermo. Her husband took vengeance on the soldier, which rapidly escalated into an all out war. The locals, known popularly as the Sicilian Vespers, killed 4,000 French, ousting them. Rather than declare freedom, they invited a relative of Manfred back. An unsubstantiated rumour arose that a slogan, “morte alla Francia Italia anela’ – (death to France is Italy’s cry,) went viral – then birthed the acronym MAFIA from it’s first letters. I’m dubious of this claim, but shadowy organisations conduct secret, shadowy business. It’s hard to disprove entirely.

The word mafioso – meaning an honourable man who lived by a code of honour, and who had a distrust of authority – came into parlance in the 19th century. By then the clans were already called families. Their boss, the capo di famiglia. In 1860 these families leant their considerable muscle to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts to rid Italy of the Spanish Bourbons. Free at last, mafiosi were initially given a great deal of power over Sicily. The removal of the oppressors led to a power vacuum and crime wave took off – perpetrated by non mafia and mafia alike. King Victor Emmanuel asked mafiosi to step in and police the island – putting them in the position of both lawmaker and criminal. Several Capo’s, now above the law, became very rich and powerful. 

In Mussolini’s Hat, we discussed how the Fascists clashed with the mafia. In 1925, after a mafiosi swiped the fez from his head, to peals of laughter from the crowd, Il Duce put a thug named Cesare Mori in charge of his war with the mob. Mori leaned on them until several heavy hitters fled to the USA. These fugitives established the vast criminal organisation we think of today. This week  we’re taking a couple of steps back. Our gangsters were something different altogether.

Those blackmailers became known as The Black Hand. This was originally a name which related to the act of blackmail itself, but over time became related to them personally. 

They were mostly unaffiliated thugs, or mobsters with a price on their head back home. The late 19th century Mafia Don were going nowhere themselves. Many had taken over the large agricultural estates abandoned by the Spanish. They were doing well out of local criminal rackets. Another element was they were often called in to arbitrate over conflicts – which led to a lot of people owing capo’s big favours. These favours were often called on to great effect when a mobster wanted to run for a political office. Francesco Cuccia, the capo, and mayor of Piana dei Greci is a prime example. Why risk all that in a move to the USA, when life was so good for them in Sicily? 

This was a small part of the picture of life in a free Sicily. Wealth gravitated upwards, and most Sicilians continued to struggle as they had under the old regime. 

In 1890, the USA opened their gates to newcomers from Europe. Many “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to quote Emma Lazarus – arrived in search of the American dream. Four million Italians would be among them. Most were everyday folk looking for a better life. Some did extremely well – others less so. A small number, maybe a couple of thousand, were violent criminals willing to do what it took to succeed in America. No Sicilian Capo are believed to have sent envoys to set up shop – but plenty of small time mobsters saw great opportunities in replicating the Sicilian model. 

New Orleans had mobsters arrive early on, and became the first city to hold an investigation into Black Hand organisations. By 1890, two rival families were locked in a war for control of the city’s stevedore business. This may have flown under the radar, but on October 15th 1890, police chief David Hennessy – was gunned down by several men brandishing sawn off shotguns. Hennessy was ambushed walking home from work, and managed to return fire on his assassins, before being dropped. He lived just long enough to blame the Italians for his murder – but not name the killers. We think one side believed the chief was a dirty cop in cahoots with the other side, so they had him whacked to level out the playing field.  

As police harassed the Italian American community, and rounded up suspects – the media had a field day with tales of shadowy criminal organisations who take a blood oath, and commit horrific acts. Fear, then anger bubbled over in New Orleans. A long, messy murder trial of nine suspected assassins led to a series of mistrials – so an angry mob gathered outside the court house and lynched eleven Italians leaving the court house.

Across the country, from Chicago, to New York, to Philadelphia; independent Black Hand mafiosi groups operated with impunity – mostly against their own people. They sent threatening blackmail letters, and kidnapped children. From 1906, these Black Hand groups took to fire bombing Italian businesses who refused to pay them. Within Italian communities the Black Hand were prolific, but were a hazy rumour – at most – to other Americans. In 1903, this changed when a wealthy Italian contractor living in Brooklyn got a blackmail letter – but before we speak of him – I should introduce that detective who spoke with Caruso. 

Joseph Petrosino was born in Salerno, Italy in 1860. When young he lost his mother to a streetcar accident, and in 1873, he emigrated to New York with his father and brother. The family settled into a poor neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan, which had previously been almost exclusively Irish. Generations earlier, the Irish arrived in America, only to find themselves othered by white Anglo-Saxon protestants. They weren’t bestowed as white until they became useful as enforcers of the status quo in the police forces – Policing cities a new trend following the abolition of slavery. As interlopers on ‘Irish land,’ and considered definitely not of the status quo – Italians faced terrible harassment in the neighbourhood. Irish parents, often policemen, regularly set gangs of their own children out after the Italian kids. A young Petrosino learned to fight very well on his way home from school. 

He was also disadvantaged academically. He was an extremely bright kid, but spoke little English, so was put in a class with children much younger than himself. Petrosino got bored, and left school after graduating the sixth grade. He worked several jobs before a role came up as a rubbish collector. The sanitation department, odd as this may seem now, was then run by the police department. The young collector impressed enough cops to secure himself a position in the police force in 1883. At only 5.3” tall, an exception had to be made for his height, though as a powerfully built, barrel-chested guy – Petrosino otherwise fit in well. As a token Italian kid, on an Irish force, opportunities for promotion were non-existent. Petrocino spent his early years working as a beat cop, though clearly capable of a lot more. 

His big break came in 1895, when Theodore Roosevelt –  yet to run for Vice President, and at a loose end – took a job as police commissioner of New York. As commissioner, Roosevelt cleared out as many corrupt cops as he could find. In their place he promoted on merit. Petrosino had a great arrest record, was tough and resourceful – so was promoted to detective sergeant, the first Italian American to do so in America. 

Once a detective, Petrosino’s career took off. A workaholic, he went well over and above for the role. An innovator of undercover police work, he became a master of disguise. He allegedly carried the dossiers of thousands of known criminals in his head, and was notorious for collaring some fugitive or other in a bar, having recognised him while out on other business. Although he worked alone, his arrest rate was regularly higher than anyone else on the force. A glory-hound, he pursued notoriety for his arrests in the papers – As a tough cop whose arrests led to seventeen murder convictions in a year, a man who sent a hundred killers to the electric chair – he accrued an aura of invincibility about him. Criminals were terrified of Joe Petrosino. 

Of course he broke up a lot of Italian crime rackets – one big one involved criminals befriending new arrivals from the old country, taking out life insurance on them, then knocking them off for the insurance money. This press attention made him approachable to many Italians, who otherwise would have been wary of speaking to the police. 

This played a part in that case mentioned earlier. On 3rd August 1903, a wealthy contractor named Nicola Cappiello received a letter stating if he didn’t pay $2,000, the Black Hand would dynamite his house, and kill his family. He ignored the letter. Two days later, a second letter arrived. He was now as good as dead, but could still save his family if he paid the blackmailers. Days later, several groups of strange men arrived at his home. They informed Cappiello he had a $10,000 price on his head, but if he paid them $1,000, they could make the threat go away. Old friends appeared at his door to beg him to pay the money, accompanied by terrifying strangers. He gave in, and paid them – but then the blackmailers were soon back, now asking for $3,000. 

Exasperated, he turned to Petrosino for help. 

Petrosino was quick on this case, arresting the five men responsible. 

But this case was important for three reasons. First, it convinced Petrosino a network of blackmailers were forming into a crime family in New York – he would declare war on this family. Second, the story was picked up by the press, who reported the case far and wide. The Black hand were no longer a shadowy rumour – they were now a national threat. Third, possibly in relation to point two – the Black Hand threw themselves headlong into a years long crime spree – escalating their activities.  

The first wave consisted largely of dozens of child kidnappings in Italian neighbourhoods. With so many cases, Petrosino turned to the commissioner for help. He begged for his own squad – and was eventually given five men. His crew collectively were known as The Mysterious Six. Over the years, his crew – named The Italian Squad, would become around 40 strong. As press publicity around the ‘Black Hand Fever’ of the summer of 1904 spread, and onwards – some poor, young Italians turned to organised crime. The system was racist and stacked against them, why not climb the crooked ladder to success? 

One case of note to come across Petrosino’s desk was an early one – but it likely had ramifications on the end of his life. In April 1903, a man’s naked, nearly decapitated body was found stuffed inside a barrel on the East side. The victim was a counterfeiter named Benedetto Madonia. After investigation, the murder was tied back to a Sicilian man named Giuseppe Morello, and his gang – the 107th Street Mob. 

Morello, known as ‘The clutch hand’ for his right hand which resembled a lobster claw – was a bona fide mobster. The nephew of the Don of Corleone, Sicily, he likely fled Sicily to avoid a murder charge in 1892. A terrifyingly cold-blooded killer, he ran his business out of a bar on 107th Street, where he would order the deaths of anyone stupid enough to cross him. He personally was responsible for the deaths of dozens of men. He formed alliances with other heavy hitters, like the suave Ignacio ‘the Wolf’ Lupo – and his Morello family would eventually morph into the Gambino family – the first of New York’s Five bona fide Mafia families.

Madonia had crossed the Clutch hand while counterfeiting five dollar notes; so Morello likely ordered a heavy named Tomasso ‘The Ox’ Petto, to carry out the murder. A dozen men were arrested and charged, but all had to be let go when the trial turned into a circus. One of the mobsters, a man named Vito Casco Ferro, fled back to Sicily after the trial. He, it seems was responsible for the circus, when he swapped out one of the mobsters for an average Joe who looked a bit like him. The decoy was only revealed, to much clamour, on the trial date – when he produced evidence of his true identity. This brought the whole prosecution case into question. It’s been claimed Ferro carried a photograph of Petrosino on him for the rest of his life, in the hope one day he’d get to murder him. 

The war, meanwhile, raged between the Italian Squad and Black Hand groups. Thousands of Italian Americans in New York alone were blackmailed, had their children kidnapped or had their businesses firebombed, but things took a serious turn for the WASPs of New York in 1908 – when they started to send threatening letters to people outside the Italian American community. 

A panic ensued, which could easily have turned into another New Orleans incident. ‘White Hand’ groups of Italian Americans, tired of being branded criminals, came together to fight the Black Hand. In towns outside of New York, a few White Hand groups – and a gang of Pinkerton detectives in a place we’ll return to, had some luck with this method – but the White Hand soon ran out of steam. 

In 1907, another bona fide high ranking Mafiosi named Enrico Alfano showed up in New York. Having fled a murder charge in Sicily, he arrived as a crew member on the ship The California. By chance, Petrosino stumbled across the mobster while meeting with a journalist at a restaurant. Though alone, and outnumbered by the crew of mobsters with Alfano, Petrosino bellowed his name across the restaurant, before beating the living daylights out of the mobster. He arrested Alfano, who was then deported to Naples to face charges. This was not terribly unusual – by this stage Petrosino had arrested many men later deported in a similar manner. 

In 1907, politicians gave the police a new tool to deal with Black Hand criminals and other mobsters. If an Italian criminal made it into the country, and it could be shown within three years of their arrival that they had a criminal record back home, the authorities could now deport them back to Italy.   

But while all of this was going on, threats continued to the rich wasps. Reports on, for example the stress induced death of Daniel B Wesson, the 81 year old heir to the Smith & Wesson fortune – ratcheted up fear among the general public. Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham was pressured to put an end to the Black Hand. Heavy media criticism was levelled against the Italian Squad, who, not that you’d know it,  were actually on a roll with their arrests. It had to be strange times for Petrosino, a lifelong bachelor who – it turns out had been secretly courting a young widow named Adelina Saulino for a decade. The couple married in 1908, had a child, and for a brief time enjoyed what is traditionally considered a ‘normal’ family life. 

In the meantime, Commissioner Bingham chased funding to create a secret team of top detectives to go out there and deal a killing blow to the Black Hand by any means necessary. The politicians at Tammany Hall refused to fund the scheme, but one wealthy patron – possibly a victim of black hand letters – paid for Bingham’s secret service. 

As 1908 rolled into 1909, Joseph Petrosino disappeared from public view. Some claimed he’d taken ill and had been bed-ridden for weeks. In the meantime, a 48 year old Jewish Italian merchant boarded a cruise ship bound for Italy.

That man, of course was Petrosino. He was the head of Bingham’s Secret Service – and on his way to Italy to meet with police commissioners, criminal archivists and confidential informants. Bingham’s plan was to send a man to collect the criminal histories of around a thousand known thugs, to make copies, then send the records back to New York. While there, Petrosino was also tasked with getting the names of all the serious criminals serving time in Italy, so immigration could have a watch list. Thirdly, he was to set up a spy network to observe the Italian Mafia. 

Things started out OK – but while still on mainland Italy, Commissioner Bingham let the cat out of the bag with a flippant comment to reporters that Petrosino could be in Sicily for all he knew. Though he was moving through the country using a series of nom de plumes, he was about to visit Palermo – his only backup a pistol. There were dozens of mobsters in the city who he had arrested, beaten up and seen convicted – any of whom might seek revenge. One of these criminals, Vito Casco Ferro, had risen through the ranks of the Sicilian Mafia. He was now Don Vito, boss of bosses. 

Don Vito rose through the ranks through his smarts, and a sense of brand awareness. He insisted on a level of customer service from his heavies while running protection rackets. His men were nice, respectful young men who offered protection against the other brutish thugs who would come looking for money if they weren’t there. Many locals felt if you have to pay someone, then the nice guys should be the ones to get paid. Many locals appeared to have genuine admiration for Don Vito.  

Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be brutal – he most certainly was to become a Mafia Don. In his lifetime he’d face over 60 charges, and only go away on the last charge – we’ll discuss that in a fortnight. 

Petrosino pushed on in his mission, in spite of the danger. He sensed things were due to turn very ugly, but had a job to complete. One night he wrote a letter back to Adelina stating something he would explain when he got home had left him deeply disturbed. He was feeling quite depressed, and couldn’t wait to return to America. We don’t know what upset him. He reached Palermo, and soon had criminal records transcribed for 350 criminals on his list. These were sent back to Bingham.  

Then March 12th 1909, things went horribly wrong. 

Joseph Petrosino had a busy day ahead – collecting records, meeting with Palermo’s top cop, then holding a mysterious rendezvous with a stranger. 

Petrosino seemed unaware that the night before a former member of the Morello gang sent a telegram to someone in New York about something. Nor would he have known two men he’d arrested in New York picked him out of a crowd, then met in a bar with two other gangsters. A group of people who later got amnesia briefly recalled their conversation about the detective. A young child had been tailing him around the city for days on behalf of someone. This detail had not escaped the eye of police detectives also charged with tailing Petrosino. 

Then there were those rumours Don Vito – who officially was out of town staying with a politician friend – was in Palermo. 

Truthfully, dozens of people only had to pick up an Italian newspaper to know he was there. His arrival made headline news. Besides that, other people just knew. Years later it was revealed on the day he sailed for Italy, Ignacio Lupo knew of his trip. Lupo was another one who had reasons to end Petrosino. He’d threatened the detective once, who showed up on the floor of one of his legitimate businesses, and beat him to a pulp in front of his staff. How he knew is pure speculation. The Italian Squad knew, and one of them may have spoken with someone? Perhaps Petrosino was seen boarding the ship by one of Lupo’s underlings? 

There were many criminals, and at least one politician, who wanted revenge. And whoever they were, two men followed Petrosino out of a restaurant that night – shots were exchanged – and Joseph Petrosino got the worst of it. Witnesses heard the shots, saw Petrosino fall, then saw the men running away. When the gravity of what they saw hit the witnesses … suddenly no-one saw a thing. 

Sicilian Police vigorously pursued several suspects in the murder of Joseph Petrosino and arrested over a hundred suspects – but silence pervaded. Petrosino’s body arrived back in New York to something akin to a state funeral. 250,000 people packed the streets to honour him – considerably more than President William McKinley or the actor Rudolph Valentino. Two of his colleagues risked life and limb to return to Sicily to help in the case. They were too bamboozled with it all – though they came home with several hundred more criminal records – but none the wiser as to who killed their boss. 

Nothing happened with those records for quite some time. Commissioner Bingham lost his job, and his replacement didn’t want to act too soon – giving Bingham any recognition whatsoever for work he’d begun. They did eventually pick up their game, to some real success against the Black Hand organisations – but by this point another threat was on the horizon. 

Next fortnight we’ll return to this – and look into that story a little. Mussolini’s Hat was done a long time back, and needs a serious revamp. Let’s shelve the episode I had planned for a few weeks and talk about the mob a little longer.   

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