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A New York Police Department wanted poster for Black Hand activity, 1910
A New York Police Department wanted poster for Black Hand activity, 1910

Black Hand (Italian: Mano Nera) was a type of Italian extortion racket. It was a method of extortion, not a criminal organization as such, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practiced it.

Origin


The roots of the Black Hand can be traced to the Kingdom of Naples as early as the 1750s. The English language term specifically refers to the organization established by Italian immigrants in the United States during the 1880s. A minority of the immigrants formed criminal syndicates, living alongside each other and largely victimizing fellow immigrants.

By 1900, Black Hand operations were firmly established in the Italian communities of major cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Scranton, San Francisco, Olean, New York, and Detroit. In 1907, a Black Hand headquarters was discovered in Hillsville, Pennsylvania, a village located a few miles west of New Castle, Pennsylvania.[1] The Black Hand in Hillsville established a school to train members in the use of the stiletto.[1] More successful immigrants were usually targeted, although as many as 90-percent of Italian immigrants and workmen in New York and other communities were threatened with extortion.[1]

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 such as a smoking gun, hangman's noose, skull, or knife dripping with blood or piercing a human heart, and was frequently signed with a hand, "held up in the universal gesture of warning", imprinted or drawn in thick black ink.[2]

Author Mike Dash states "it was this last feature that inspired a journalist writing for The New York Herald to refer to the communications as 'Black Hand' letters—a name that stuck, and indeed, soon became synonymous with crime in Little Italy."[2] The term "Black Hand" was readily adopted by the American press and generalized to the idea of an organized criminal conspiracy, which came to be known as "The Black Hand Society."[3]

Tenor Enrico Caruso received a Black Hand letter on which were drawn a black hand and dagger, demanding $2,000. He decided to pay, "and, when this fact became public knowledge, was rewarded for his capitulation with 'a stack of threatening letters a foot high,' including another from the same gang for $15,000."[2] He reported the incident to the police who arranged for him to drop off the money at a prearranged spot, then arrested two Italian businessmen who retrieved the money.

On occasion, criminals used violence against law enforcement officials who battled Black Hand schemes. Victims of assassinations linked to Black Hand operations include New Orleans police chief David Hennessy and New York Police Department lieutenant Joseph Petrosino.

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