Is the Famous Italian “Black Hand” Organization a Myth?

Los Angeles Herald/January 17, 1909

No Deep-Dyed Body of Italians, Say Prominent Men, to Conduct Organized Blackmail and Murder

Nearly 500,000 Italians in New York and but Forty Policemen Speak the Italian Language

SCARCELY a day passes without some mention coming up in the news of the misdoings of “The Black Hand Organization.” Either it is a “Black Hand Robbery,” “A Black Hand Kidnapping” or “A Black Hand Dynamiter,” and sometimes even “A Black Hand Murder.’ Reports of “The Black Hand Society” have been so constant and so recurrent that the whole country is kept in a state of continuous alarm. Now the question has come up, somewhat paradoxically at first it seems, “Is there actually such a criminal organization of Italians operating together and known as “The Black Hand?” Prominent Italians in New York City and elsewhere, and those also in a position to most know, scoff at the idea, and deny without exception that such a society exists.

“In the United States, ‘The Black Hand’ is a myth, in so far as the phrase conveys the impression that an organization of Italians exists in America, or that the Camorra or the Mafia has been naturalized,” Gaetano D’Amato, former president of the United Italian Societies, wrote in a recent issue of the North American Review.

Police Sergeant Petrosino, in chaige of the Italian Bureau at Headquarters, recently said: “As far as they can be traced, threatening letters are generally a hoax; some of them are attempts at blackmail by inexperienced criminals, who have the idea suggested to them by reading about ‘the Black Hand’ in the sensational papers, but the number of threatening letters sent with the deliberate intention of using violence as a last resort to extort money is ridiculously small.”

Baron E. Edmond Mayor des Planches, Ambassador to the United States from Italy, who more than anyone else knows the conditions of Italians in America and who is dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Washington, has repeatedly announced that he does not believe that in the United States there exists an organization of criminal Italians operating from any central agency, like “the Black Hand,” and Dr. G. E. Di Palma Castiglione, of the Labor Information Office for Italians, who is in touch every day in the week with Italian Immigrants of all classes, says:— “As an organization “the Black Hand” is non-existent. Its sole existence, in fact, is confined to a literary phrase, which has I grant, so compelling and terrible a symbolism that one must almost believe it really exists when one only hears the phrase ‘Black Hand.’” The report of the Commissioner General of Immigration, Frank P. Sargent, in 1904, contained a study of aliens who at that time were inmates in the various public institutions in the United States. The total number of alien inmates was 44,983 and of this number only 3,266 were Italians. In the penal institutions there was confined 1,318 Italians, as against 9,525 other aliens. In the insane asylums there were 719 Italians, as against 19,764 other aliens, and in the various charitable institutions there were 1,230 Italians, as against 15,395 other aliens. Of the 1,318 Italians in the penal institutions, 755 were incarcerated charged with grave crimes and 563 were incarcerated charged with minor crimes.


THESE figures have been given to indicate the unfairness of making the Italians as a race suffer for the crimes of their proportionately few criminals. Those who have been arrested tor being members of the “Black Hand” organization really are independent malefactors, who might happen to be socially intimate; they might frequent the same cafe, or they might occasionally meet together over a game of cards, but these meetings are a matter of chance and accidental more than the result of the workings of any criminal organization. In grave crimes two or three of these independent Italian desperadoes might band together, but not because they are members of any criminal organization, but because this is a common practice among criminals of all kinds, Americans as well as Italians.

There are many Italian criminals in this country. Prominent Italians admit this, and they blame the federal government for permitting so many of them to enter. In Italy there are two laws which prohibit the mayor of any city from issuing passports to criminals if they have committed a crime which would make them liable to disbarment in the United States by the immigration officials. No Italian, they say, should be permitted to enter the United States until his penal certificate has been examined. Yet there is no examination of the papers of immigrants of any kind at Ellis Island. If he has com mitted no crime in Italy the penal certificate will be blank. If the certificate is not blank the immigration authorities should deport him at once to Italy.

According to the federal laws, any person may be deported who has been convicted of a felony or any other crime involving “moral turpitude.” The federal government as yet has no precise category of crimes which in its opinion involve “moral turpitude.” Conscious of this defect in the immigration laws of the United States, the Italian government has requested the federal government to specify which crimes involve “moral turpitude,” as the phrase is a vague one. In Turkey an Armenian may be looked upon as a criminal; elsewhere he might be considered as some kind of a hero.

Up to the present time the federal government has given no answer to the Italian government. It is said In Washington that the decision must be left entirely to the judgment of the immigration officers who examine the incoming immigrant. “The Italian government does its best to prevent the departure of criminals for America,” Mr. Castiglione of the Labor Information Office for Italians said. “There are a number of Italians who leave Italy not from Italian ports but from French and German ports. The Italian government, of course, cannot reach those, because it has no jurisdiction over them. The Italian criminals in this country are to be found among the Italians who come without passports—that is to say, from non-Italian ports.”

Prominent Italians in New York city and elsewhere complain that every European of dark complexion, unless he wears a Turkish fez when arrested, is put down on the police blotter as being an Italian and in this way the Italians are made responsible for crimes committed by other nationalities. An anecdote has been going the rounds of the Italian bankers in New York city of how a well known Italian merchant of Hoboken, Mr. Blanchetti by name, was pictured by an enterprising journalist as being one of the assassins involved in the murder of King Humbert. This picture was copied in all the papers throughout America; it eventually found its way into the Italian news papers in this country, and it was then copied by newspapers in Italy. Mr. Blanchetti, an honored and respected man, soon lost all his friends and his business decreased; he died within a year, his acquaintances said, of a broken heart.


NEW YORK city contains anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000 Italians, yet there are only forty policemen in the Police Department who either speak the Italian language or are themselves Italians. In the city of Naples, which contains about the same number of Italians as does New York city, no more, there are approximately two thousand policemen, which includes the carabinieri, the soldier police. Two to three hundred policemen, who, if they are not themselves Italians, should at least be able to speak the Italian language, are necessary to keep this large Italian population under authority, say the prominent New York Italians.

“The Black Hand has scarcely even been heard of in Italy,” Gaetano d’Amato says, and he quotes from the writings of an English criminologist, A. F. Griffiths, to prove that the Black Hand is not only a Spanish organization but that it had its origin in Spain. He contends that individual Italian criminals in this country on hearing the name the Black Hand were fascinated with its terrible symbolism, and they adopted it; it spread eventually to Italy. These criminals employed it because it acted on the receiver the same as the name of a well known author acts on the judgment of an editor, one Italian banker illustrated to the writer.

The only criminal organization in Italy is the Camorra, and the Camorra exists only in the city of Naples. The poverty of Naples has been responsible for its creation, as the Camorra is a sort of criminal collection agency. Almost the only way a usurer’s debt can be collected in Naples is through the co-operation of the Camorra. because the people of the city are so poor that a judgment from the courts is valueless. The Camorra has its chiefs, its offices and its officers, and it is made up of ruffians, “cadets,” protectors of usurers and adventurers in general. Of course these criminals belonging to the Camorra do far more desperate things than collect debts. The Mafia is not an organization, but, like the Kentucky feuds, it is rather a spirit of revenge, and perhaps it is less cruel than the feuds of the Kentucky mountaineers, for it at least stops at the grave.

All Italians who come from the southern part of Italy or Sicily are looked upon either as being members of the “The Black Hand” or “The Mafia” or some other criminal society, yet of the 1,197,552 persons who migrated from Italy during the years 1904 and 1905 only 6,000 were Neapolitans, and all certainly did not come to the United States. Some went to South America and Canada, and others went to Australia and other countries.

In the report made by Miss Emily Fogg Meade for the federal government, published in the Bulletin of Labor, May, 1907, is given an account of the rise and growth of the Italian colony at Hammonton, Atlantic County, N. J. This town, which numbers now between four and five thousand, has. been built up almost entirely by Sicilians. Miss Meade praises the Sicilians as fruit growers and as farmers, and in general has nothing but praise for their temperance and industry. She Indicates that in 1906-7 they paid $4,493.67 taxes in Hammonton, and that there were 1,370 names of Sicilians and southern Italians on the tax register. In her report it is stated that nearly every week or so a house is built between Rosedale and Winslow by some Sicilian.

“The Italians of Hammonton show themselves to be a social people with simple, natural tastes,” she says; “their love of home and children is healthful. They are ignorant, primitive, childlike, but their faults will largely be mended by contact with good American customs. Their courtesy, gentleness and love of outdoor life and simple pleasures are actual contributions to American life. The country environment seems to develop their better qualities and they take a normal part in the life of the community.” Miss Meade’s general summing up of the colony of Sicilians and southern Italians in Hammonton is as follows:—“In Hammonton are found the results of twenty years’ contact of a typical American population with the lowest class of Sicilian immigrants. It is a safe conclusion that what the Italian has been able to accomplish in Hammonton he can achieve elsewhere under similar circumstances..”


ALL over the country prominent Italians are surprised that the immigration authorities and the police departments of the various cities do not more thoroughly inform themselves in reference to the facts about the so-called “Black Hand Society.”

“There is no doubt that among the two million or more Italians living in the United States there are many criminals,” Mr. Castiglione said, “and if journalists would confine themselves to studying the especial characteristics of Italian criminals it would be legitimate, but so many unscientific and uninformed writers strike not only at the Italian criminals, but at Italians themselves, and for no other reason than that they are Italians.

“The ‘Black Hand’ is not a tree spreading its roots deeper and deeper in the national life of the United States, as so many hysterical writers have affirmed. It is not a closely woven system, as others have written. It is only a general name appropriated by individual Italian criminals, under which they hide their own wrongdoings.

“The publication of these hastily prepared and sensational articles is an offence against American common sense and against the Italian American citizens. Articles of this kind powerfully contribute to the creating of an unfair feeling all over the country against a large part of the Italian population. These stories circulate not only in the larger cities, where the readers are more sophisticated, but they filter their way into the interior of the country, into the smaller towns, and are read by the gentle and peaceful farmers.

“These simple-minded readers believe firmly that every word printed in these articles is correct, that the stories are founded on fact, and in every Italian they meet, even if it be only a poor worn out laborer with his dinner pail, they see a “Black Hand’ member. And if in these portions of the country there are no Italians the residents take steps to prevent any from ever settling there.

“Is it fair to the Italians, is it useful for this country that this feeling should be created and spread among its citizens?” Mr. Castiglione continued. “Of the two million Italians in the United States many have taken out their papers and become naturalized Americans. Many of them have settled here with their families, are sending their children to American schools, are investing their savings in American real estate, in American industries, in American business enterprises. In the city of New York alone conservative estimates place the value of real estate owned by Italians at twenty millions of dollars.”

Gaetano D’Amato, in his North American Review article, places the wealth of the Italians of the United States, and which he says has all been earned within the last twenty-five years, as follows— Property, $120,000,000: invested in wholesale commerce, $100,000,000; real estate, $50,000, 000; deposits in local banks, $20,000,000.

The large majority of the Italians work hard to build the subways, to ditch the sewers, and they are obliged for the limited wages they receive to live in slums where many of them contract tuberculosis and other dreaded diseases. Others are building the railroads, excavating the canals, and they live in labor camps far from any civilization, sleeping in shanties, nourishing themselves with poor food. Still others are working in the mines, the quarries, risking their lives every moment of every day, without practically any protection of the law in case of accident. Many Italians devote themselves to agriculture. Prosperous agricultural colonies are lo be found in Vineland, N. J.; Tentitown, Ark., and St. Helena, N. C. In California Italians own and cultivate the largest and finest vineyards in the United States. In Louisiana many Italians are working in the cottonfields and in sugar plantations.

“Is it fair to arouse a national feeling against them, and only because some of them (and the statistics eloquently show how proportionately few) are criminals? It is unfair not only to the Italian race, but it is even dangerous to America and Americans,” Mr. Castiglione said.

It is quite evident that so long as credence is given by the papers and the American public at large to the stories relating to the so-called “Black Hand” organization individual Italian criminals will be encouraged to continue keeping up their delusion, for by doing so they hide their own crimes behind the phrase “the Black Hand.”


AMERICA is still in need of settlers,” Mr. Castiglione continued. “Large tracts of its territory must yet be cultivated. In arousing a feeling of disgust and fear against Italians many sections of the country are prevented from using them in the development of their natural resources. A few months ago the Legislature of the State of Virginia passed a resolution the aim of which was to prevent the settlement of Italians in Virginia. In 1907 in North Carolina, there was also some legislation enacted to this effect, and yet in St. Helena (the same state) there is a flourishing settlement of Italians. They have their own church, co-operative store, bake oven, blacksmith shop, and they have designed and built all these buildings themselves. The Southern newspapers time and time again have featured and written up the virtues and progress of the Italian colonists at St. Helena, N C.”

The usual impression is that America gets “the scum of Italy.” It is significant that only one and one-half per cent of Italian immigrants are debarred by the immigration officers. The Italian immigrants are usually strong, healthy and able-bodied, their ages varying from twenty to thirty-five years. These immigrants never become paupers. Mr. James Forbes, chief of the mendicancy department of the Charity Organization Society, says he has never seen or heard of an Italian tramp. Detective Sergeant Petrosino says he has never seen or heard of an Italian woman “on the street,” and Miss Meade in her government report praises the chastity of the Sicilian women in Hammonton, N J.

Although the Italians drink considerable of their own light wines, they yet are a temperate race. John Foster Carr says:— “With the exception of the Russian Jews, the Italians are by far the most sober of all nationalities.” James J. Starrow, of Boston, says in a recent article:—“The Italian drunkard hardly exists.”

“So far from being the scum of Italy’s paupers and criminals, our Italian immigrants are the very flower of her peasantry,” John Foster Carr said in a recent article in the Outlook. “They bring healthy bodies and a prodigious will to work. They have an intense love for their fatherland and a fondness for old customs, and both are deepened by the hostility they meet and the gloom of the tenements they are forced to inhabit. The sunshine, the simplicity, the happiness of the old ways are gone, and often you will hear the words, “Non c’è placere nella vita” (There is no pleasure in life here). But yet they come, driven from a land of starvation to a land of plenty. Each year about one-third of the great host of the industrial recruits from Italy, breaking up as it lands into little groups of twos and threes and invading the tenements almost unnoticed, settle in the different colonies of New York. New York tenement houses are not adapted to life as it is organized in the hill villages of Italy, and a change has come over every relation of life. The crowded living is strange and depressing. Instead of work accompanied by song in orangeries and vineyards there is silent toil in the canyons of a city street; instead of the splendid and expostulating carabiniere there is the rough force of the New York policeman to represent authority.”

(Source: Chronicling America,