By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The phenomenon of the Black Hand at the turn of the 20th century represented a brief and turbulent chapter in the history of Italian immigrant criminality.
"There is talk of this terrible society of delinquents called ‘la Mano Nera’ here in America, and in New York above all, one hears and one reads every day of terrible crimes." (Adolfo Valeri, "La Mano Nera," Stamperia del Bolettino della Sera, New York, 1905)
"The Black Hand preys first upon the millions of law abiding Italians in this country, then upon American born. The Italian government must be compelled to ply more effectively in thwarting and preventing the departure of the criminal minded among its immigrants." (The New York Times, October 23, 1905)
By 1908, Blackhanders were in full swing in New York City. Here are a few of the several reports in the New York Times (1908) of victims: A. Farmica, 19 Union St., Brooklyn, killed by Black Hand; J. Tamburro, banker, 185 Johnson Ave., Williamsburg, bomb found on doorstep; P. Ciro, grocer, 252 Elizabeth St., shop wrecked by dynamite, December 27, 1906; F. Fasett, barber, 417 Third Ave., forced to close shop by bomb; M. Paladina, 417 East 106th St., attempt to blow up his house, August 1905; G. Lerido, grocer, 13 Stanton St., store wrecked by bomb.
La Mano Nera, or simply Mano, was the Black Hand array of unorganized rackets, with antecedents in Sicily and Calabria, Italy, transplanted to North America with the increasingly large waves of Italian immigrants beginning in the 1890s and into the first decade of the 1900s. Both in the United States and Canada the Blackhanders preyed on their own paesani in large cities, small towns and among construction work crews in rural America, sowing terror throughout the Italian colonies, overwhelming and often baffling the authorities, roughing up targeted victims, and committing murders and revenge destruction of property. That "bad element" also engaged in shakedowns of immigrants in scams such as selling tickets to non-existent banquets and festivals, and strong-arm "contributions" to defense funds for Blackhanders on trial for criminal offenses. The New York City Deputy Police Commission, Arthur Woods, in 1909, spoke for the hapless immigrants when he exclaimed, "Blackhanders are parasites fattening off the main body of their fellow-countrymen."
La Mano Nera was associated primarily with the imprint of a hand over two crossed swords. This symbol can be traced to Italy in the 1880s when on the walls of dwellings in Sicily began to appear an imprint of a hand blackened with coal dust. It was message that proclaimed, "You do as I say or you are finished. Pay or die!" It is possible that the phenomenon can be traced to a Spanish origin. That symbol was used to demand tribute of victims in New Orleans as early as 1855 by a Spanish/Italian criminal outfit, which operated for a scant few years.
Extortion letters were written in a mixture of Italian dialects, clearly indicating that the perpetrators originated from different Italian provinces. The Mano symbols varied greatly in design. Some were an open hand, others a closed fist or a hand clutching a knife. As the extortion technique caught hold and spread there appeared threatening letters adorned with such hints as daggers, skulls, crosses and coffins. To site one of many examples, in March 1904 C. Decaneine of 342 East 40th St., NYC, received a letter written in red ink from the "Black Hand Society" demanding $100 that evening or "Prepare for death in ten days!" The letter was covered with sketches of daggers, pistols, skulls and crossbones.
Apart for New York City, the concentration of Backhanders was greatest in Chicago. Late in 1907, prominent leaders in the Italian community founded the "White Hand Society," its aim to serve the paesani in their fight to suppress the Mano. The Society was quickly beset with problems and ceased to exist with two years.
Well-to-do Italians were favorite targets because of the possibility of a big score. One of the highly publicized cases was that of Enrico Caruso, then a world-renown Neapolitan tenor. While in New York, he received Mano letters demanding $15,000. The NYC Italian Squad detectives moved decisively, capturing two of the miscreants, Brooklynites Antonio Cincotto and Antonio Misiani, both career criminals. The pair were found guilty and sent "up the river" to Sing Sing for long stretches.
The belief that there existed an actual and powerful and organized criminal conspiracy of Italian mafiosi, a belief fostered by the Press and the Blackhanders themselves, achieved a wide currency in America, signaling the shaping of the stereotype of Italians as evildoers (a belief that has persisted, to a degree, to this day), overshadowing other ethnic crime. Italian crime dominated the Press to such an extent that there was much squabbling, hand wringing and finger pointing among prominent Italians over responsibility. Remarks by two elite NYC Italians, in 1910, one a Sicilian, the other a Neapolitan, characterized the blame game, which was an extension of the traditional negative stereotypes Italians in one part of Italy had of those from other Italian regions. When the Neapolitan expressed that "Sicily is a paradise populated by demons" (meaning mafia and grungy peasants), the Sicilian countered, "Sicilians are no worse than Neapolitans (meaning the camorra and grungy street people).
Black Hand methods were by no means confined to Italians. Other ethnic criminals and mischief makers hid themselves under the Mano cloak to carry on illegal activities. As the La Mano Nera mania took root, non-Italians joined in. The extortion technique was practiced by Jews, Greeks, Magyars and Slavs in New York City. Then there were those persons who got caught up in the spirit of the times by mailing threatening Mano-marked letters for sport.
There is the claim that the Sicilian Don Vito Cascio Ferro (1862-1943) of historical mafia fame (born in Sambuca, Sicily; resided in nearby Bisacquino), who lived in the United States, from 1901 to 1904, perfected an extortion system, which had been a camorra specialty long before. This evocative metaphor for extracting periodic payments from victims has come down to us: Fateci bagnare u pizzu, meaning literally, "To wet our beaks" (in American argot, "Wetting the whistle"). That is, to take small amounts that cumulatively add up to a tidy sum. Don Vito, while in New York and New Orleans, has been given credit as the professor of crime, founding and organizing gangsterism in America. Others have questioned his influence, noting correctly that gangs were already on the American frontier and in the cities, and not an import alien to American culture.
The Blackhanders were not understood as camorristi or mafiosi. They were, according to majority opinion, "more a rabble than an organized crime enterprise…unorganized thieving groups and individuals with not central leadership or hierarchical structure." (Thomas Pitken, The Black Hand, 1977) There were none of the usual characteristics that one associates with a mafia-like association—no centralized organization, no top capo, no initiation ceremony, no sense of brotherhood or swearing to codes of honor and fidelity to one’s dying breathe. Blackhanders were generic, a passing phenomenon of innumerable small groups of malefactors, each with its own flag, that engaged in opportunistic street crime.
Gaetano D’Amato’s article, "The Black Hand Myth" (North American Review, April 1908) concluded that the Blackhanders are "no more organized than the many thousands of lawbreakers of other nationalities in America." He blames the Press for sensationalism and such irresponsible coverage that a myth of the "Black Hand Society" was born, a myth that conveyed "the impression that an organization of Italian criminals exists in America." Others stated categorically that the governments of the United States and Italy were at fault because of ineffective immigration controls that allow thousands of convicts from Naples, Sicily and Calabria to slip unnoticed into the country.
The Black Hand era ended in the 1920s. Several factors could have contributed, including the end of mass migration and federal prosecutions for the use of the mails to defraud. A crucial factor, according to many experts, including Herbert Nelli, were "the federal laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages." Bootlegging was much more lucrative during the Prohibition years. "Blackhanders forsook the less-profitable extortion rackets in order to join the liquor-traffic scramble." It was the beginning of the syndication of organized crime on a grand scale.
La Mano Nera also operated in Canada. The Italian immigrants in that country who were proprietors in the various Little Italies were also intimidated by toughs who demanded ransoms in the form of "protection" money.
The first documentation of an extortion letter, which was received by the Calabrian shopkeeper Annunziato Cappiello, featuring the Mano imprint was published in the New York Herald in 1903. Five years later, in 1908, the Canadian police in the village of Fort Frances (Ontario) acquired a similar letter. That December 7th in another Ontario village, Nicholas Bessenti and Joe Ross mailed an extortion letter to Louis Belluz, a baker, written in red ink in Italian. When Bessenti was arrested he readily admitted his Mano affiliation: "I have sworn fealty and obedience to the association." The criminal pact, he said, allowed him to rob, burn, kill as well as to bond with other members and avoid surveillance by the police. "Who disobeys the laws of the Mano will be punished or even killed."
The construction of the Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario with Lake Erie, brought immigrant labor to Ontario, Canada. An Italian colony arose and immigrants opened businesses to cater to the workers. The local police were soon alerted to extortion letters being received by the owners. One letter ordered the storeowner Fred Guido to being "$500 to the Catholic cemetery at 3 a.m." The letter contained a veiled threat.
As more Italians settled in Canada the volume of Mano letters increased. A decisive turn of events occurred on 2 November 1927 in Niagara Falls when shoe store owner Frank Mango received a letter containing the following symbols: a fist, a heart, a cross and casket. The letter had been posted over the border in Buffalo, New York. The demand was $4000. Mango had no intention of handing over that much cash and took the letter to the police, as well as the one that followed. A few days later Mango’s establishment was bombed. Mango stood firm. Then Mango received a visit from Giuseppe "Joe" Italiano, who lived close by. Joe did not mince words: La Fratellanza vuole i soldi." ("The Fraternity wants the money.") Mango handed over to Italiano a first installment of $300. Unbeknownst to the extortionist the bills had been marked by the police. Italiano was arrested and in February of 1928 was given a nine-year prison sentence. His co-Fraternity brothers were expelled from Canada. Judge Mc Avoy in sentencing denounced the foreigners, saying that "…there is no room in Canada for your organization." That was the last case tied to La Mano Nera in the Niagara province.
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