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From 1903 till about 1920, murders accredited to the “Black Hand Society” dominated the newspapers and spread fear throughout Chicago, especially in the Italian settlements. The article below is a sample of the newspaper coverage as a result of these crimes. There were numerous theories on how this network operated, as well as those on how to stop them.
In the end, it turned out not to be more than “copy-cat” crimes that went viral. Every two-bit crook used the same modus-operandi. What appeared to be an organized society, turned out to be opportunists who took advantage of the fear of death to anyone who went to the police. All that was needed was a note with a “black hand” on it.
Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1910
Chicago, the favorite stamping ground of Italian banditti! Chicago, the future metropolis of the world, an American city 5,000 miles removed from Italy, being chosen by the brigands of the latter country as the best and safest place to operate in!
In these two statements, startling and improbable as they seem to the uninitiated, are epitomized the ugliest features of the conditions brought to light by investigation following Chicago’s recent Black Hand outrages. Briefly these conditions may be set forth as follows:
- Chicago is safer and easier for Italian bandits to work in than in their own country.
It is more profitable.
Of the 100,000 decent Italians in the city 25,000 have paid tribute to the murderous Black Handers.
It is estimated that 5,000 constantly are under weekly or monthly tribute.
The organized Black Handers are estimated to number less than 100.
They have frightened the entire Italian population into submission.
They have committed thirty murders in the last two years without a single conviction.
To assist the police against them is equivalent to a sentence of death.
The police are absolutely unable to make any headway against them.
Decent Italians are organizing a corps of “dagger men” to fight the Black Handers.
Problem Ugliest That Confronts Police.
Such is the skeleton of this, the ugliest problem the Chicago police have to cope with. The skeleton rattles uncomfortably loud in the city’s civic closet, for with the passing of each year it grows larger, more hideous, more powerful, and more threatening for the future. It stretches its bony hands over the three great Italian settlements of the city and holds them in cowering subjection. It flaunts its grisly grin before the authority of the city and laughs at the law. It sets at naught the spirit of American life and institutions, and among the people where it operates it spreads if reign of terror equaled in contemporaneous history only by conditions prevailing in some of the brigand infested territories of southern Europe.
Chicago’s portion of the Black Hand society, so called, averages a murder a week, contemns the police, and actually exercises more power over Chicago Italians than do the constituted authorities of the city!
“Why should it be otherwise?” demanded an Italian merchant of the writer when this phase of the situation was broached to him. “Listen. The Black Hand men write a good Italian a note.
- Leave $50 in such and such place or we kill you,
they say. If you do not leave the money they keep their word. Then the police come. They say:
- O, we know who did that. We’ll have him in a couple of days.
Then they arrest a hundred Sicilian men that they find around saloons. Then the Black Hand men send another note:
- Do not identify any one under arrest or we will kill you.
- We will protect you.
So perhaps the the good Italians go to the station and try to identify a suspect. A few days later comes another note from the Black Hand men:
- You have betrayed the society and you are to be killed.
- We will protect you,
say the police. But the police forget, and the Black Hand—the Mano Nera—never! Perhaps a week later, perhaps a month, a year, two years, five years, they kill you. Then why should not the decent Italians of the city fear more the Black Hand than it believes in the power of the police? The police can neither protect nor convict. The Mano Nera can and does kill. That is why they rule the Italians of the city.”
Milton avenue and Oak street.
Three Districts the Chief Sufferers.
Three Italian districts suffer principally from the operations of the infamous criminals of the nationality, the north side settlement around Milton avenue, Gault court, and Oak streets, the west side adjacent to Milwaukee and Grand avenues, and farther south in the vicinity of Polk and Miller streets.
The north side settlement is the hotbed of Italian crime and rapidly is developing into the champion murder district of the country. It is in this district that Black Hand oppression is heaviest, where its power is most complete, and where it stays with most frequency and with the least fear of arrest and conviction. It is here within the last few weeks that the society took its revenge on poor old Ben Senene after waiting for seven years, where Tiny Dugo paid the penalty for failing to pay his Black Hand “assessment,” and where Salvatore Pinello’s young widow and little son sit bereaved and weep because the “badda Sicilian man” took the life of their husband and father because he was suspected of being friendly toward the police.
In the vicinity of Oak and Milton streets four murders laid at the door of the Black Handers have been committed in the last three weeks. No one has been convicted. In all probability no one will be. Te decent Italians of the neighborhood are so terrified that though it is highly probable that these murderers are well known and walk Milton avenue and Gault court in the broad light of day, no one will be found who would dare, even secretly, to give their name to the police.
“The Mano Nera knows everything,” is one of the sayings in the neighborhood. “It has eyes and ears everywhere and it never sleeps. No matter how secretly one might betray it, the society would know the guilty one. Then, no matter where he went, how he hid, or how he was protected, the society would kill him. It is death to oppose the Man Nera.”
Average Immigrant a Decent Citizen.
In attempting to arrive at a true realization of conditions as they exist in the Italian colonies it is well first of all to have it understood that your average Italian immigrant is a decent citizen and a useful and desirable member of the community and nation. Antonio, when he sets from his native land to take up his residence in America, comes with high hopes in his heart, a determination to work hard, to save money, to get rich. If he holds somewhere down in his heart the determination to live as cheaply as possible and take himself and his savings back to Italy when he has enough money for a competence, it means merely that he loves his native land and wishes to end his days where he was born. Antonio’s great mission in America at present is to do the “shovel work” of the nation, and without him the builders of railroads, the diggers of canals, etc., often would be at loss where to find their help.
Antonio comes—often under a padrone contract, which is in direct violation of the United States laws of immigration, but in which Antonio refuses to see anything wrong—willing and eager to pick up the shovel that the American workman is learning to despise, and get in the sun and toss sand for ten hours a day for a dollar and a half, or thereabouts. He goes to the labor contractor and is shipped to a labor camp. He works hard. He lives cheap. He stores his wages away in a money belt next to his skin and he tends strictly to his own business. So far Antonio, as a representative of Italian immigration, is all that is required or desired by the country at present.
But unfortunately for Antonio and for the peace and order of Chicago, Antonio, the decent, hardworking Italian, doesn’t come alone. Over there in his native country there have grown up through the centuries a species of criminal leeches that have fastened themselves on the body of the people in such tenacious fashion that all efforts to remove them have proved futile. They are known as the Mano Nera (Black Hand), a society of general criminals; the Mafia, composed of the bandits of Sicily; and the Camorra, a fraternal-criminal organization of the Italian city slums; and they feed on the earnings of the decent element.
Leeches Naturally Follow Their Prey
These societies have lived off Antonio’s class, through threats and blackmail, in the old country. An immigration each year takes thousands of Italian wage earners and wealth producers out of the country, what can be more natural than that the leeches who live in them should come likewise to share their prosperity in the new land?
In the old country, especially in Sicily, the government police slowly but surely are unearthing the roots of the criminal societies and steadily are making life shorter and less profitable for their members. In the bandit districts a special national police, called “carbinerrie,” are distributed at regular intervals. These men are armed with rifles and fight the bandits with their own system; they shoot on sight. Many of them are Sicilians or Corsicana whose kin have fallen at the hands of the Black Hand, Camorra, or Mafia. Consequently they are impelled with the racial desire for revenge. It is a matter if personal duty with them. They are as fierce against the criminals as the criminals are against their victims. The result is that life in his native land is not at all easy graft for the Italian outlaw.
And so when Antonio, the decent hard working Italian immigrant, comes to this country he brings with him that bane of his own country, the blackmailing, murdering, secret society outlaw. Some fine day after Antonio has left the pay car and is stuffing his wages into his money belt he is accosted by a smiling countryman with cruel, deepest eyes who falls into step with him and says:
- You are doing well in this new country, brother.
Antonio recognizes the significance of this and begins to tremble.
Continues the countryman:
- There are many of us here, brother. Some of us are not doing as well as you. We must all live, brother; the prosperous must help the others. You will hand me $10 when we get out of sight of the other men, or ————
The Black Hand makes the sinister sign, the forefinger carelessly pointed at the side of the throat, which so many Italians know too well.
Threats Come Only After Defiance.
Or, perhaps it is not until Antonio has worked through the summer months, has saved his money, and has come to Chicago’s Italian quarters to spend the winter that the Black Handers approach him. The mode of procedure varies often in the city, a note taking the place of personal notification. Contrary to general belief these notes aa a general rule do not take on themselves a direful, threatening attitude. It is not until the victim has defied the society’s demands by refusing to pay tribute that the threatening begins. The average Black Hand note which is made public with its scrawled skull and cross bones and its drops of blood, nine caes out of ten is the work of some outside burglar. The power of the societies is too complete to need such crude threats. Here is a sample of Camorra literature:
- Greetings, brother! Your countrymen rejoice at your good fortune. Your riches give us all joy. We do not envy you. It is good that some can get rich, for then they can help the poor. Heed the need of your less fortunate countrymen, brother. At 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon you will be at the corner of Grand avenue and Halsted street. Our agent will speak to you. Bring $100, brother. Your Brothers of the Camorra.
Apparently nothing could be simpler than for the recipient of such a note to go to the nearest police station, display the paper, and ask for protection and help in bringing the blackmailers to justice. But Italians who are in the know aver that not one Black Hand note in a hundred ever gets to the eyes of the police!
Why? The answer is simple, and contains the germ of the whole Black Hand situation; the victims are afraid. So thoroughly have the blackmailers terrorized decent Italians that most of them are afraid even to confide the receipt of such a demand to their wives.
- The Black Hand knows everything.
Secrecy Keystone of Its Power.
Even to mention in a whisper such a letter the victims fear will bring down their heads the deadly wrath of the society. So complete is the secrecy maintained as to its membership and operations that no one knows who is a Black Hander and who is not. So deep and wide are its ramifications that the Italian shoveling snow in the streets knows not that the man at his elbow may be a Black Hand man, the merchant does not know but his clerk is the same. Certainly the society has a way of finding out its most secret opponents and bringing them to a speedy end that is something uncanny. And not only this: it kills those whom it suspects without troubling to ascertain if the suspicion is true.
Knowing these things, the Italian does not go to the police with the note except in isolated cases. In most cases he pays without a word to anybody and nobody knows of the blackmail, but the society and himself. He knows if that if he doesn’t his life isn’t worth a cent. Murdering a stubborn countryman is the least of the Black Hand’s troubles.
Occasionally, at rare intervals, an Italian driven to desperation, throws caution to the winds and announces that he will defy the blackmailers no matter what the consequences. Then he arms himself to the teeth, forbids his family to go out after dark, barricades his home, and waits for results. He has been driven frantic by the continued demands and threats of the blackmailers; he will die, but he will take some of his persecutors with him.
Then the wiles and patience of the Black Hand demonstrate themselves. Nothing happens. The defiant one remains under arms for a week, for two weeks. He is unmolested. His vigilance relaxes. Soon he fancies that his determined stand has frightened his tormentors away. He puts down the barricades, leaves his revolver at home, and presently he forgets.
Society’s Memory a Long One.
But the society doesn’t. It may be a month, a year, five years before it acts. Then something like this appears in the papers:
- Vito Riugo was found murdered on his doorstep near Milton avenue and Oak street. It is recalled by the police that Riugo was the recipient of threatening Black Hand letters some time ago.
A typical case of this sort, of recent occurrence, was that of Salvatore Pinello, who was shot dead at Oak street and Milton avenue a few weeks ago. Pinello had been in business long enough to become suspected of being rich. As a matter of fact he was nothing of that sort. The Black Hand society, however, insisted on blackmailing, demanding that he turn over to its agent $300. Pinello didn’t have $300 to spare, or if he had it he wouldn’t yield it up. He armed himself and defied the Black Hand to do its worst. It is suspected among Italians of the district that Pinello went to the police with his troubles. At all events the death sentence was passed upon him. No effort was made to take his life as long as he remained on his guard. But the moment he relaxed his doom was fulfilled. The district shrugged its shoulders. What could he expect, he had defied the society.
This is a typical case of its sort. It is only one of a dozen that the police records tell of Milton avenue and Gault court. For these two streets justly have been named the murder center of Chicago.
District Haunt of Former Gang.
Strangely, or naturally enough, the district once saw another reign of crime, being the neighborhood which fifteen or twenty years ago was haunted and terrorized by the notorious Market street gang. This crew, with such worthies as James Gilhooley, Cabby Burns, and others of the sort as leaders, held forth here in the days when the neighborhood was populated mainly by Irish. Their record isn’t quite as bloody as that of the present régime, but it was bad enough to keep the Chicago police on the jump most of the time. The neighborhood immediately north of Chicago avenue and lying between Sedgwick and the river was popularly known as Little Hell, Smoky Hollow, and other descriptive titles.
As the Irish began to move out the Italians began to move in. The first Italian family made its home here about ten years ago. Now there is practically no other nationality represented in the district.
The Sicilian colony has centered upon Gault court and Milton avenue as its headquarters. The streets run parallel and a block apart from Chicago to Division street and are as much alike, as two streets can be. Frame houses, old, unpainted, dirty and tumbledown predominate. They are the same buildings that housed Irish in their better days; they look as if they had not experienced improvements since the day of their construction. The streets are narrow and the lights are few. At night the stranger who turns north from Chicago avenue into one of these streets is amply justified in drawing back and hesitating before he plunges farther into the doubtful darkness.
The outlook is anything but inviting to a stranger. The street lamps do little to relieve the gloom and the stores and houses, with wavering jets behind murky windows, do nothing. Only before the saloons is there any degree of light, and here the eye makes out a group of lounging figures that go well with the general gloom and harshness of the scene. And like as not these loungers include in their number one or more of the “badda Sicilian man,” the gun, and stiletto carrying memners of the Black Hand.
Night Reveals Their True Nature.
By day one wanders through the district and these loungers appear mild and innocent looking. By night they seem to take on the appearance of their real nature. They become bolder as it becomes dark. Their sharp little eyes peer insolently into the face of the passerby. It is obvious that strangers are not wanted over here and that every one is under suspicion.
The people are Italians to the last soul. The children in the streets, the women at the windows, the men in the saloons and stores, all are Italians. Among the children may be found some of the most beautiful types of the nationality. Little Vitos, Antonios, Luigos, Giuseppes, Roccos, Maraianas, Laurettas, Roselias, and Beatrices prattle, half in the tongue of their fathers, half in English. As usual in Italian neighborhoods, the percentage of children is high. Watching these innocent, merry hearted little ones at play one has an inkling of the weight of the criminal societies hands on their parents, for the threat of harm to the little ones is one of the harshest resorts of the Black Hand.
Turning from the children to their parents, the observer meets with a shock. There are few faces here that do not turn to the stranger with a flashing look of inquiry, a look which tells of suspicion of everybody, of fear, of constant dwelling under the shadow of a dread that destroys all sense of security. The mother with a babe at her breast starts up at the sound of a strange floor, the strong man blanches when he hears a strange voice. A few friends he knows are his friends, but all the rest of the world he looks upon as possible members of the dreaded Mano nera.
Poverty Stricken Offer No Temptation.
Inside the houses of the neighborhood are poor and scantily furnished. It is a poor neighborhood naturally, but poverty is not the only reason for the lack of comfort and display that everywhere is evident. It is something more than that, something more significant; it is the fear that the sinister Black Hand will send in its demands once the least evidence of prosperity has been displayed. This is why many an Italian who might be considered wealthy goes about shabbily dresses, lives in a small and miserably furnished room, eats poor food and constantly bemoans his poverty and lack of wealth. The poverty stricken have no attraction for the Black Hand, and the wealthy one hopes by these means to deceive as to his real condition.
But so close is the watch which the 100 estimated blackmailers keep on the fortunes of their countrymen that often times elaborate attempts at deception fall flat. The Black Hand spies seem to be everywhere. A man may conceal from his nearest friends the fact that the fruit store has earned for him a small fortune, but somehow the Black Hand finds it out. Some day he receives the customary note in apt to tell him just how much money he has in order to let him know how careful has been the society’s surveillance.
Just how this secret information is obtained is a mystery to the police. Chief Schuettler has often expressed the opinion that there is no regular Black Hand organization in the city, that the crimes are all committed by individual criminals of the race. But indications of late point to a careful organization with headquarters for receiving information, for the issuing of demands, and for the sentencing of “traitors.” And certainly the society keeps books on those whomit sentences.
Someone’s “Account” Long in Closing.
Take the case of Ben Senene. Senene was an old resident of the north side colony and for four years has conducted a small store at %00 Oak street. He was 60 years old and lived in the rear of the store with his aged wife. Seven years ago the police of the East Chicago system had cleaned up a kidnapping mystery of the quarter, and it was supposed that Senene had furnished some of the information on which arrests were made. At all events he soon after received warning that he was a doomed man.
The old man armed himself. By day he was never out of reach of an army revolver and at night he slept with the revolver under his pillow while over his head, within convenient reach, having a loaded carbine.
Seven years went and Senene still lived. It looked as if the Black Hand had forgotten. On the morning of June 6, 1910, Senene’s wife opened the store at 6:30, the old man remaining in bed. A few minutes later two well dressed Sicilians entered the store, asked for some articles, and when the old woman turned to wait on them deliberately walked past her, forced their way into the sleeping room and shot Senene as he rose in bed and tried to reach for his gun. Seven years had gone, but the Black Hand had not forgotten.
Over a hundred suspects were arrested with the usual results. Nobody could identify anybody. It is always so. A dozen Italians may see a deliberate murder, but though they are confronted with the right man in the police station they refuse to identify him. It is better to see a murder go unavenged, they reason, than to be killed one’s self. The suspects are discharged. So the killings go on and the police are powerless.
The decent Italians say:
- It is safer for the Mano Nera, the Mafia, and the Camorra here in Chicago than it is in Italian. That is why there are more coming here every year.
“War of the Knife” the End?
Where will it end is the question that the initiated are asking. That the evil is spreading is known. No only is the north side district terrorized, but the two west side colonies likewise are in the toils.
An Italian physician with offices on Grand avenue said:
- Where will it end? By a war of the knife. It will be stiletto man against stiletto man. The respectable element among the Italians of Chicago, which, of course, comprises practically all of the 100,000 in the city, are growing tired of having themselves slandered because of the viciousness of perhaps 100 of their nationality. The result is the White Hand society, formed to obtain and deliver to the police evidence as to the identity of the criminals.
But more than that, Italians are preparing to take the law in their own hands. There are thousands of hardy, courageous characters among the respectable workmen. Feuds are not unknown in their country and they have protected their hearths, families and crops against the banditti with lead and steel. They are ready to do it here. There is but one thing that will drive a Black Hand man away and that is the knowledge that he is known, and that his days are numbered if he remains.
The Italian secret criminal in the future will find that he is fighting something besides unarmed workmen who may be shot down on their door steps. He will find that he is up against armed and fearless countrymen who are determined to drive this disgraceful element out of Chicago if has to kill the last man of them to do it. That is where it will end unless the Black Hand takes warning and ceases its operations in the city.
In New York Detective Joseph Petrosino and his Italian squad practically had the Black Hand gangs broken up before they succeeded in taking his life. In Chicago Detective Gabriel Longobardi and John Bernacchi are working with a corps of investigators for the same end. With the determined and even bloody assistance of the respectable Italians the police possibly will be able to smother the hideous society to a considerable extent. But for the present the fact remains that Sicilian bandits are more at home in the heart of Chicago than in the mountains of their native land of Sicily.
Every dot on this 1914 map indicates where a man was murdered.
Death Corner is Oak Street and Milton avenue (Cleveland avenue).
Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1911
Injustice is done to Italians in charging up to them the writing up of all blackmailing and threatening letters, according to Judge K. M. Landis.
In sentencing Jacob Basta, a former chauffeur, to the federal prison at Leavenworth yesterday the judge declared that several years’ experience had made it evident most of the “black hand” letters were written by others than Italians.
Basta pleaded guilty to writing a letter demanding $500, to Jacob Stech, a grocer, at 1904 West Fifty-first street.
The following is an excerpt from a 2002 study by Robert M. Lombardo, The Black Hand, Terror by Letter in Chicago.
Mr. Lombardo is a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, where he served for 11 years as a detective and supervisor in the Organized Crime Division. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Illinois and is the recipient of the Illinois Academy of Criminology’ s prestigious Hans W. Mattick Award for his contributions to criminal justice research. He is currently an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago and a research associate at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
Black Hand activities were reported in Chicago newspapers as early as 1904, however, most Black Hand activity occurred between 1910 and 1915.
Although often equated with organized crime, the Black Hand (Mano Nera) was not a criminal organization. The Black Hand was simply a crude method of extortion by which wealthy Italians and others were extorted for money. Intended victims were simply sent a letter stating that they would come to violence if they did not pay a particular sum of money. The term Black Hand came into use because the extortion letters usually contained a drawing of a black hand and other evil symbols such as a dagger and skull and crossbones. It is believed that the term was first used in the United States by a small group of blackmailers who were attempting to extort money from a New York bank.
To be an Italian was to be a suspected member of this criminal group. In fact, Chicago attorney Bernard Barasa stated that he was having difficulty defending Italians in court because of the prejudice caused by Black Hand activities. So many Black Hand crimes were incorrectly attributed to Chicago’s Italians that Judge Kenesaw Landis publicly stated that crediting all blackmailing crimes to the Italian race was an insult and an injustice. It was the experience of his court that many Black Hand criminals belonged to other ethnic groups.
The activities of the Black Hand also ended any doubts in the minds of Chicagoans about the existence of the Mafia. The advent of Prohibition and the domination of the bootlegging racket by the Capone syndicate forever tied the Black Hand to organized crime and the alien conspiracy theory.