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Inside 'The Black Hand' Crime Wave A Century Ago


There was a criminal enterprise in the early 20th century that murdered innocents, bombed crowded tenements and even kidnapped children. They often left a sign at the scene of some grisly crime - the symbol of a black hand. The Society of the Black Hand terrorized New York City, aggravated bigotry toward Italian immigrants and drove a frenzy press into a lather. But it also made a public hero out of a genuinely noble man, Joseph Petrosino, the New York detective called in to try to shut down The Black Hand.

Stephan Talty, the best-selling author of crime novels and nonfiction has told this story in a new book, "The Black Hand." And he joins us now from New York. Stephan Talty, thanks very much for being with us.

STEPHAN TALTY: It's great to be here.

SIMON: How evil was The Black Hand?

TALTY: They were a new kind of evil, I think, a new level of evil. They actually used terror to run their criminal enterprise. They would kidnap children, and some of the kids never made it back. And in one instance, they actually cut the arms off a man who they used as sort of a walking billboard to advertise the true terrors of The Black Hand.

So not to make too much of a point of it, but I do think that they anticipated things like ISIS and the fact that they wanted to horrify people. They wanted their crimes to be public.

SIMON: Yeah. How did they make money?

TALTY: It was essentially an extortion racket. They would send you a letter. At first, it might be quite polite and well-written. But they would get increasingly more threatening. And since they had a reputation for taking kids and blowing up tenements and killing people in the street, they were highly effective.

So it acted really as a kind of franchise. It started in places like New York and New Orleans. But when word got out at the incredible success rate they were having, it spread everywhere. And that's really when the panic began.

SIMON: Please tell us about this very admirable guy, Joseph Petrosino.

TALTY: Right. He was an immigrant himself. He came over when he was 13. And he was really brilliant. He had a near photographic memory. He could remember the names and faces of thousands of criminals. He was a master of disguise. Some of his best friends would pass him in the street when he was wearing the robes of Hasidic Jew or a working man or a government employee, and they would never recognize him. So he was absolutely brilliant at what he did. He was also incorruptible, which in 1905 was, you know, kind of made him a rare bird in the NYPD.

SIMON: How did Petrosino go after The Black Hand?

TALTY: He did it in the beginning by disguises. He would often act as the bagman. If somebody came to his door and said - my kids are being threatened. I need to come up with a thousand dollars - he would be the guy who would go pretending to be a cousin of the victim, and he would meet with The Black Hand. And he - oftentimes, they would have a fight right there in the middle of First Avenue.

SIMON: Tell us about the plot against Enrico Caruso.

TALTY: Well, Caruso was really at the height of his fame. He was the most beloved tenor in the world. And he came to New York and immediately started getting Black Hand letters demanding thousands of dollars, or he would be shot. So he went to his friend who was Petrosino and said, I've already paid them once, and now they're coming back. I think I'm going to pay them one more time, and I'll be done with it. And Petrosino was aghast. He was a deep opera lover, and here was his idol being threatened by these hooligans and these predators.

So the idea he came up with was that he would impersonate Caruso, hand over the money but then arrest the culprits. And that's exactly what happened. So that ended the threat to Caruso's life and career. But it was really a symbol for Petrosino of the best of Italian culture being threatened by the worst of Italian culture, and he couldn't sort of stand idly by while it happened.

SIMON: And, of course, it was in Italy where he met his fate - died on the job, a heroic New York cop. All these years later, do we know what happened?

TALTY: We do. The plot originated in America with two Italian American criminals - Giuseppe The Clutch Hand Morello and Ignazio The Wolf Lupo. Both of these were Black Hand Leaders. And these were very bad guys. Lupo alone is suspected of having killed at least 60 people, and they had run-ins with Petrosino in their business. They would attack their fellow Italian-Americans and Petrosino tried to put a stop to it. He even confronted Lupo one day in his department store and beat him to the ground because Lupo had threatened him.

So it was a very physical war, but I believe that The Black Hand felt that Petrosino was untouchable in America. But once he went to Italy, it was a different story. They could sort of hide the origins of the conspiracy, and really that's what happened.

SIMON: It's hard not to hear arguments today about immigrants and allegations of crime without thinking of this period in the early 20th century. What kind of parallels do you see?

TALTY: I see so many patterns in how we're addressing Muslim immigration and how the Americans of the time looked at Italians. One thing that comes up again and again is the idea of divided loyalties. Americans of that time really believed that Italians could get a telegram from Naples or Palermo, and there would be a sudden crime uprising or that they would try to take over local governments. And I think that's the same thing we're seeing now.

I think it's Muslims and their faith. There's always this idea that Muslims when push comes to shove are Muslims first, and they would be more loyal to their faith than they are to the country. I think again and again we've seen that that's not true, and it hasn't proven true for 200 years.

SIMON: Stephan Talty, his book "The Black Hand." Thanks so much for being with us.

TALTY: Thank you.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.