BLACK HAND SQUAD
A historical summary of the Black Hand Squad.
WHAT IS THE “BLACK HAND”
Black Hand Note
Black Hand was a method of extortion and wasn’t necesearily a criminal organization, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practiced it. The roots of the Black Hand can be traced to the Kingdom of Naples, Italy as early as the 1750’s. However, the term as normally used in English specifically refers to the organization established by Italian immigrants in the United States during the 1880’s who, though fluent in their Southern Italian regional dialects, had no access to Standard Italian or even a grammar school education. 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, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Scranton, San Francisco, and Detroit. Although more successful immigrants were usually targeted, possibly as many as 90% of Italian immigrants and workmen in New York and other communities were threatened with extortion.
HOW BLACK HAND WORKED
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, hangman’s noose, skull, or knife dripping with blood or piercing a human heart, and was in many instances, signed with a hand, “held up in the universal gesture of warning”, imprinted or drawn in thick black ink.
Black Hand letters written by Italian immigrant George Pavlick. (December 1910)
BLACK HAND AND CHICAGO
Little Sicily, Chicago (circa 1910)
In the first decade of the 1900s, there emerged a confounding crime pattern in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods. Extortion notes were being sent to Chicago’s wealthy citizens and businessmen. The notes threatened harm to the recipients unless members of “The Black Hand” received payment of the sun demanded.
And harm did come to many people. Between 1910 and 1915, Black Hand activity was implicated in 149 murders and 12 bombings. The thing that made this criminal activity so difficult for Chicago Police to address was the fact that “The Black Hand” did not actually exist; rather, it existed in name only.
The result was a criminal free-for-all as people blamed all manners of crimes on the Black Hand. One man, Joseph Vacek Jr., took advantage of the recent crime spree to try and cover up his father’s murder. He killed his father and pinned a note on him blaming the murder on the Black Hand.
While these crimes occurred in neighborhoods throughout the City, the North Side neighborhood known as Little Sicily, present day Cabrini Green, experienced a disproportionate concentration of Black Hand activity. Over 20 Black Hand deaths occurred at the intersection which is now Oak and Cleveland; thus prompting the intersection to be dubbed “Death Corner.”
As early as 1908, the Chicago Police Department attempted to combat this crime trend by assigning Detectives Gabriel Longobardi and Julius Bernacchi to investigate Black Hand activity. Within a few years time, the Department would dedicate several more members solely to these investigations.
In 1911, the Chicago City Council approved the establishment of a 25-member bureau of Italian American police officers to be designated as the Black Hand Squad. A special police exam was subsequently given in order to select candidates who were fluent in the Italian dialects most commonly used by Black Hand criminals. The records of the Chicago Police Department identify the members of the newly formed Black Hand Squad as Paul Riccio, Michael Divito, Philip Parodi, and George DeMar.
Chicago’s legacy of political corruption only added to the difficulty of apprehending these extortionists as Black Hand criminals intimidated and bribed witnesses and jurors to avoid prosecution. Even when Black Hand criminals were successfully convicted, they were frequently able to obtain pardons after serving only a fraction of their sentences.
One notable arrest made by the Black Hand Squad was the apprehension of the Mennite Brothers. Brothers Paul and Pietro Mennite had been shaking down an Italian shoemaker, who was cooperating with police. After the shoemaker delivered the black mail money, officers staked out the delivery point until the brothers arrived for the payoff. The Mennite brothers were arrested with assistance from federal agents and were brought into federal court under a Justice Department initiative.
Ultimately, federal intervention, along with prohibition, helped squash the proliferation of Black Hand extortion. Prohibition, and the bootlegging it inspired, gave many Black Hand extortionists a new brand of crime to practice. At the same time, extortion letters sent via U.S. mail meant that any ensuing arrests would fall under federal jurisdiction. Federal jurisdiction helped alleviate the bribery and questionable pardons associated with local Black Hand cases.
Like all social behaviors, crime can follow certain trends. The actions of the police and federal government, combined with historical events, eventually rendered Black Hand activity undesirable enough that, by the 1920’s, this strange brand of crime had finally faded into Chicago Police history.
- Chicago Police Star Magazine (March 2004). “Black Hand Squad: Times Change, Crimes Change.” Retrieved from ChicagoCop.com. Accessed February 3, 2014.
- National Archives Blog (September 7, 2011). “You Puta Da $200.00 Dollars in A the Alley…” Retrieved from Archives.gov. Accessed February 3, 2014.
- Wikipedia. “Black Hand.” Retrieved from Wikipedia.com. Accessed February 3, 2014.