Black Hand, or La Mano Nera in Italian, was a type of extortion racket. It was a method of extortion, not a criminal organization as such, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practiced it.
The roots of the Black Hand can be traced to Sicily
and throughout the rest of Kingdom of Naples
as early as the 1750s. However, the term as normally used in English specifically refers to the organization established by South Italian immigrants
in the United States during the 1880s. A minority of the immigrants formed criminal syndicates, living alongside each other. By 1900, Black Hand operations were firmly established in the Italian-American communities of major cities including New York
, New Orleans
, and San Francisco
. Although more successful immigrants were usually targeted, possibly as many as 90% of Italian immigrants in New York were threatened.
Typical Black Hand tactics involved sending a letter to a victim threatening bodily harm, kidnapping, arson, or murder. The letter demanded a specified amount of money to be delivered to a specific place. It was decorated with threatening symbols like a smoking gun or hangman's noose and signed with a hand imprinted in black ink; hence the name La Mano Nera (The Black Hand) which was readily adopted by the American press as "The Black Hand Society".
Gangsters would carry out the threat if the victim did not pay. Ignazio Saietta, a Sicilian gangster in New York's Little Italy, strangled his victims and burned the bodies in East Harlem near the "murder stable". One of the threatened victims was the tenor Enrico Caruso who received a Black Hand letter, on which a black hand and dagger were drawn, demanding $2,000. Although Caruso decided to pay, he again received a demand for $15,000. Realizing the extortionists would continue to demand money, he reported the incident to the police who, arranging for Caruso to drop off the money at a prearranged spot, arrested two Italian-American businessmen who retrieved the money. On occasion, Black Handers threatened other gangsters and usually faced retaliation. In Chicago, the notorious Shotgun Man murdered dozens of people in broad daylight on the same street corner during a decade-long reign of terror.
If law enforcement closed in, gangsters answered with their usual style: assassination. Victims include New Orleans police chief David Hennessy and NYPD lieutenant Joseph Petrosino. They intimidated potential witnesses even in the courtroom.
The Black Hand practice in the United States disappeared in the mid 1920s after a wave of negative public opinion led organized crime figures to seek more subtle methods of extortion.
In popular culture
In Betty Smith
's novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,
the Black Hand society is referenced in chapter 14 as Sicilians
who kidnap small children and demand money for their return.
In Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather Part II, Fanucci, the local mafioso, is referred to as being "..with the Black Hand" by Genco Abbandando, a friend of the young Vito Corleone.
- Lombardo, Robert M. "The Black Hand: A Study in Moral Panic." Global Crime. 6:3-4 (2004).
- Pitkin, Thomas Monroe, and Cordasco, Francesco. The Black Hand: A Chapter in Ethnic Crime. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, & Co., 1977. (An excellent social historical study of the Black Hand during the early years of the twentieth century—when the influx of Italians was the greatest—using a variety of print sources.)
- Wallin, Geoff. "In Little Italy, Mum's the Word About Mob." Chi-Town Daily News. July 3, 2007.