Black Hand (extortion)

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

Black Hand (Italian: Mano Nera) was a type of Italian extortion racket. Originally developed in the eighteenth century, the Black Hand extortion came to the United States in the later nineteenth century with immigrants.

The Black Hand was a method of extortion, not a criminal organization as such, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practiced the method.


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.


  1. ^ a b c Watkins, John, The Big Stunts of Great Detectives: The Scrapbook, Vol. 4, No. 6, New York: Frank A. Munsey (December 1907), p. 1098
  2. ^ a b c Dash, The First Family (Chapter 3, page 26)
  3. ^ Dash, The First Family (Chapter 3, page 27)

Further reading[edit]

  • Critchley, David (2008). The Origin of Organized Crime: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. New York: Routledge.
  • Dash, Mike (2009). The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-84737-173-7.
  • Lombardo, Robert M. (2004). "The Black Hand: A Study in Moral Panic". Global Crime (6:3-4).
  • Pitkin, Thomas Monroe & Cordasco, Francesco (1977). The Black Hand: A Chapter in Ethnic Crime. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, & Co. (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 (July 3, 2007). "In Little Italy, Mum's the Word About Mob". Chi-Town Daily News. Archived from the original on April 23, 2008. Retrieved December 19, 2007.
  • White, Frank Marshall (November 1917 – April 1918). "The Passing of the Black Hand". The Century Magazine. XCV.

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