When an Ital­ian-Amer­i­can de­tec­tive thwarted the Black Hand


The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Paul Davis Paul Davis is a writer who cov­ers crime, es­pi­onage and ter­ror­ism

By Stephan Talty

Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, $28, 248 pages

My mother was Ital­ian and I grew up in South Philadel­phia, the city’s “Lit­tle Italy” sec­tion and the hub of the Cosa Nos­tra or­ga­nized crime fam­ily in the Philadel­phia and South Jer­sey area.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s I lived around the cor­ner from An­gelo Bruno, who was then the mob boss. I also lived around the cor­ner from Richard Zap­pile, who be­came Philadel­phia’s chief of de­tec­tives. He served as the city’s point man against the mob and in 1993 he broke up a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent in­ternecine mob war. The late Mr. Zap­pile went on to be­come the first deputy po­lice com­mis­sioner and deputy mayor.

Yes, Vir­ginia, there are Ital­ian-Amer­i­can crim­i­nals. But there are also Ital­ian-Amer­i­can law en­force­ment of­fi­cers who are not afraid to take on or­ga­nized crime.

Stephan Talty’s “The Black Hand” is about an ear­lier Ital­ian-Amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cer who faced a group of Ital­ian crim­i­nals who were the pre­cur­sors to Cosa Nos­tra. Ital­ian im­mi­grants in New York City in the early 1900s called these feared crim­i­nals “La Mana Nera,” The So­ci­ety of the Black Hand.

The Black Hand mem­bers were ex­tor­tion­ists, kid­nap­pers, bombers and mur­der­ers. Ini­tially they preyed upon the Ital­ian im­mi­grant com­mu­nity, but they later branched out. They kid­napped chil­dren and held them for ran­som and they ex­torted money from small busi­ness own­ers.

The Black Hand’s call­ing card was the ran­som de­mand let­ter re­in­forced with draw­ings of coffins, dag­gers and skull and cross­bones, as well as the im­printed im­age of a black hand placed on the front door of its vic­tims.

Mr. Talty ex­plains that the Black Hand was dar­ing and ruth­less. The Black Hand killed dozens of men, mu­ti­lated and maimed oth­ers, and cre­ated wide­spread fear and panic. The Black Hand once cut off a man’s arms sim­ply to send a mes­sage to fu­ture vic­tims.

To make mat­ters even worse for the Ital­ian com­mu­nity, city of­fi­cials were largely in­dif­fer­ent to their blight and fear. The po­lice de­part­ment and the Tam­many Hall po­lit­i­cal ma­chine were run and staffed mostly by Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans who thought lit­tle of the im­mi­grants who came to Amer­ica af­ter them.

But there was one po­lice of­fi­cer, an Ital­ian-Amer­i­can, one of the few on the force, who cared very much for the com­mu­nity and hated the Black Hand.

“Joseph Pet­rosino was the head of the fa­mous Ital­ian Squad, a short, stout, bar­relch­ested man, built like a steve­dore,” Mr. Talty writes. “His eyes — which some de­scribed as grey, oth­ers as coal-black — were cool and ap­prais­ing. He had broad shoul­ders and “mus­cles like steel cords.” But he wasn’t a brute; in fact, far from it. He was fond of dis­cussing aes­thet­ics, loved opera, es­pe­cially the Ital­ian com­posers, and played the vi­olin well. “Joe Pet­rosino,” said the New York Sun, “could make a fid­dle talk.” But his true vo­ca­tion was solv­ing crimes.”

He was called the “Ital­ian Sher­lock Holmes.” The 46-year-old de­tec­tive was suc­cess­ful and pop­u­lar with news­pa­per­men and Ital­ian im­mi­grants. Less so with his fel­low po­lice of­fi­cers, who looked down on him and other Ital­ians. And even less so with Black Hand crim­i­nals.

Joseph Pet­rosino’s ca­reer was helped by Theodore Roo­sevelt, who served as the head of the New York Board of Po­lice Com­mis­sion­ers. The fu­ture pres­i­dent tried to re­form the po­lice de­part­ment and root out cor­rup­tion. He hired and pro­moted of­fi­cers based on abil­ity and not po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion. Know­ing the im­mi­grant neigh­bor­hoods had to be po­liced, he was look­ing for an Ital­ian to cham­pion. He found Of­fi­cer Pet­rosino, a man who had a bull­dog tenac­ity like the com­mis­sioner. Af­ter only two years on the job, Joseph Pet­rosino be­came the first Ital­ian de­tec­tive sergeant in the coun­try.

The de­tec­tive was a master of dis­guises, had many in­for­mants and was a phys­i­cally tough and brave man. He was not afraid to mix it up with the tough Black Hand crim­i­nals. He was suc­cess­ful at cap­tur­ing and lock­ing up nu­mer­ous Black Hand mem­bers, but he strug­gled to get his fel­low Ital­ians to stand up to the Black Hand and he strug­gled to get sup­port from the po­lice and politi­cians.

Trag­i­cally, Joseph Pet­rosino was mur­dered on a mis­sion to Palermo, Si­cily. The case re­mains un­solved, but Mr. Talty of­fers some in­ter­est­ing ideas.

The book reads like a thriller with the hero cop bat­tling vil­lain­ous Black Hand crim­i­nals like Vito Cas­cio Ferro, who rose to be­come the most feared and in­flu­en­tial or­ga­nized crime boss in Si­cily, and Giuseppe “Lupo” (the Wolf) Morello, who was also called “Clutch Hand,” due to his de­formed right hand that re­sem­bled a lob­ster claw.

Mr. Talty, the son of an Ir­ish im­mi­grant, was for­tu­nate that Joseph Pet­rosino’s late wife saved doc­u­ments, news­pa­per clip­pings and pho­tos and he was for­tu­nate that the de­tec­tive’s grand­daugh­ter granted him ac­cess.

“The Black Hand” is well-re­searched and well-writ­ten and stu­dents of crime and his­tory will en­joy read­ing this book.

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