Before the mafia, there was the Black Hand, the deadliest secret society you’ve probably never heard of.
Now, before we get started, I do want to clarify something. There are two groups known as “The Black Hand.” The first is a proto-mafia group known for extortion, kidnapping, and bombings, particularly in New York, from the late 1800s through WWI. They were later supplanted by the more modern mafia at the start of Prohibition. The second group is a Serbian-Austrian group most active in Eastern Europe, credited with starting WWI. While both are ethnic-based terror groups, in this post, we will be talking about the Italian American group, La Mano Nera.
While the name might imply an organized group, it was more of a phenomenon at the start. Poor Italian immigrants arrived in major US cities to find themselves in crowded, unsanitary slums with people just like those they had left behind in Italy, particularly in the south (that’s important later). They had little or no education or professional training, having spent their lives as peasant farmers. Desperate, jaded, and jealous of the success of wealthier Italian neighbors, they began sending letters threatening violence if they were not paid exorbitant amounts. These letters were written in various Italian dialects and targeted fellow Italians, offering the senders some protection. It was thought–not without reason–that American police would not take the threat seriously or know how to combat it. The letters often contained threats of exposure of the recipients pasts in Italy or other secrets that would further put them at risk. The combination of blackmail, a language barrier, and racism (Italians were not always considered “white” in the early 20th century, or if they were they were the “wrong” white…yay, white supremacy. ) led to the victims reluctance to report the threats, many of them simply paying up in the hope of avoiding confrontation, either with the police or the Black Handers themselves. The letters were unsigned, but almost always decorated with threatening images, such as fires, nooses, guns and other weapons, and a hand in a threatening gesture, drawn in thick black ink, from which the group draws its name (for images, please see the GangRule link below). Though the Black Hand of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was distinct to America, it does trace its origins–or at least it’s inspiration–to 18th century Italy and the original La Mano Nera.
By 1900, these small groups of extortionists were getting organized, and had established strongholds in every major US city. While they terrorized cities and towns from New York to New Orleans to San Francisco, the main hub for activity was just outside of New Castle, PA in Hillsville. Here, leaders established training schools for fellow Italians to learn knife work, how to build bombs, and other terrorist training.
The black handers mainly targeted fellow Italian immigrants who had found success with skilled trades or white collar work following immigration. They sent letters threatening violence, kidnapping, arson, or murder, which could only be prevented through payments of large sums. The smallest I found was $2,000, which in today’s money would be about $58,000, and the amounts only went up from there. If the victim revealed the threat or contacted the police, the amount could jump significantly. In the case of the $2,000 threat, word of the letter got out and the victim received stacks of additional threats, as well as a demand for $15,000 (about $433,000 today).
Activity peaked in 1908, when over 400 cases of Black Hand threats were reported New York, where the Black Hand was most active. About 10% of those cases were bombings, which prompted the formation of a civilian group, The Italian Vigiliance Protective Association (not a typo; that is how they spelled it), which put pressure on local government and law enforcement to bring the Black Hand to heel.
Things came to a head in March. After months of sending threatening letters to Pasquale and Salvatore Pati, the two most successful Italian bankers in the city. Pasquale Pati & Sons Bank held deposits in half a million dollars (over $14 million today), and displayed large amounts of cash behind a secure window to give the public confidence in their ability to pay out cash. Prior to the creation of the FDIC in 1933, banks regularly failed in time with market fluctuations, panics, natural disasters, or other triggers, so it was important for banks to create a sense of trust with potential clients, if they wanted their business at all. Prior to the credit boom of the 1920s, it was more common for people to keep their money under their mattress or in a coffee can than in a bank.
Pasquale Pati was vocal about these threats and refused to capitulate, bragging that he would never give in to the threats and demands of the Black Hand. On March 6, the gang bombed the bank while his son was inside. Salvatore managed to secure the money and the thieves left emptyhanded, but over $400,000 was withdrawn the next day by fearful customers. Three days later, Pati senior closed the bank after a second bombing attempt at his home. Though he left a sign on the bank stating that the closure was temporary, he effectively vanished and the city put the bank in receivership. The remaining customers fled to the next-largest Italian bank, flooding it until it, too, was forced to close. The Pati family was ruined.
The IVPA continued to put pressure on authorities, and a secret police force was established. Additionally, they tried to get the media to stop reporting on Black Hand activities, as it only fed the flames. Many copy-cat crimes were reported, and the threats were now branching outside the Italian community to include “real” white Americans (again, that white supremacy…).
But the challenge wasn’t over. Even when the so-called “White Hand Society” made arrests, the victims were too terrified to testify, so the suspects were set free.
Joseph Petrosino, a tough Italian policeman, was the head of this “society.” Compared to Dirty Harry, he was not opposed to violence and was one of only a handful of people to know what officers were working under him, in order to keep them safe from direct attacks and threads from the Black Hand. While investigating links to the Black Hand in Sicily, he was murdered shortly after his appointment–the first NYPD officer killed in the line of duty outside the US.
At this time, the American Mafia as we know it today was still in its infancy*. When the police broke through a counterfeiting ring and also discovered Black Hand letters at the site, they conflated the two and the Black Hand and the Mafia became inextricably linked. Though Black Hand activity declined as the US approached WWI (largely due to harsher sentences and immigration control**), many participants became absorbed in Mafia activity instead. By the mid 1920s, La Mano Nero had mostly dissipated, as crime lords went underground, seeking more subtle means of doing business amid public outcry and police crackdowns. Additionally, the profits to be made from bootlegging and smuggling during Prohibition were too great to ignore, and most turned their attention from violence and blackmail to speakeasies and stills.
According to author Sephan Talty, “Only the Ku Klux Klan would surpass the Black Hand for the production of mass terror in the early part of the century.”
The Black Hand might be a thing of the past, but it left an indelible mark on American immigration policy, police work, and even our mail system. It sprouted from economic inequality, was fed by racial tension, and was only brought down by systemic change and widespread death in a time of war and disease before being absorbed into what could be argued was an even more dangerous system.
As we face ethic terrorism today, I hope that we can look back on groups like the Black Hand, and learn from our mistakes.
*The Italian Mafia dates back centuries, however it was only just getting established in America at the time and had yet to reach the massive scale it would see in the 1920s and 1930s.
**Though none of my sources mentioned this, it’s also easy to infer that this sharp decline around the start of WWI was also due to the enlistment, and later draft, of thousands of men who would be sent overseas to be killed, and also of the high death rate of the 1918 flu pandemic, which hit crowded slums like Little Italy especially hard.
Unfortunately, it looks like I lied in my last post. Between now and probably the start of May, I’m going down to a 1x week blog schedule so that I can meet my deadline and maintain my commitments to my patrons. Thanks for your patience!
Like what you see? Check out The Dark History of Contraception.