La Mano Nera - The Blackhand Gang
The Black Hand gangs started to appear in places like Chicago USA in the late 1800's, unlike the mafia as its known today these gangs were not one single collective representative of a crime family. They did not exist as one sole enterprise but rather as a variety of individual criminal sects disconnected from one another. Which popped up in the 1800 - 1900's across certain parts of the USA. Each gang that went under the name of or was identified as a Blackhand Gang would commit similar crimes.
Although it was seen in the USA that these gangs were predominantly of Italian and Sicilian decent. The term Black Hand actually derives from Spain, and it is in reference to a criminal that does underhand things such as extortion, theft, making written threats or racketeering - Roberto Lombardo (2010). This term made its way over to Italy after tales began to emerge from Spain of wealthy landowners being killed by a group of extortionists. Ones that behaved similarly to the Sicilian and Italian mafias. They would be called Blackhand criminals or 'la mano negra' in Spanish and 'la mano nera' in Italian.
Some of the first to arrive in the USA via immigration from 1890 - 1980's were people from Sicily and South Italy.
They were also some of the first Sicilian/Italians to populate and establish themselves in the USA too. Eventually making up small communities known at the time as "little Italy's". During the first few years of the intial influx of people many had no plans to settle in the US and were merely seeking out new opportunities, before eventually heading back to Italy. Some were there planning to stay and invested into starting up businesses.
As this terminology made its way overseas, during the period where immigration from Europe to the USA was becoming popular, the idea of the Blackhand began to adapt. It began to take on an idea of dangerous gangs who would rob and extort local business owners. Due to this ominous reputation local gangs began to adopt the name and methods of the original blackhand gangs. In a knock on effect, these rumours and tales seemingly prompted those who were criminally inclined to run with it. This phenomenon was localised to the USA only and it was not seen to be occuring back in Europe. The tales of the Spanish gangs remained just that, tales.
As small impoverished groups of criminals began to behave similarly to the reported ways of the blackhand criminal, whereby they would threaten and extort those in the community with small businesses. They started to create a reality of real Blackhand Gangs, who were committing crimes via penned death threats, property damage and warnings of violence. As these actual issues began to arise the Blackhand Gangs were no longer European rumours from events past, they had become an actual threat.
By the early 1900's these gangs began to commit more serious crimes, and started to become more organised and efficient they caught the eye of the authorities and the media. Investigations were underway and evidence of their activity was being documented. Articles started to appear in newspapers talking of arrests of Blackhand members. With individual sects beginning to interlink and establish hierarchies. After this, the progression of the gangs led to them commiting more violent acts and even murders, and gaining a substantial amount of money while they were doing it.
Reports and news articles revealed that investigations into the Blackhand gangs " show conclusively that the gang in Columbus, Marion, Dennison, Bellfontaine and other Ohio towns was organized along the same lines as the old Mafia, but with a much more thorough system of concealment. It is now known that the Ohio blackhand, or the "society of the banana," as its members style themselves, had a branch in Pittsburg, one in Chicago and a line tha extended to South Dakota. Regular meetings were held and the money obtained by extortion was distributed to various divisons in this country and then sent to relatives in Italy for safe keeping." - Los Angeles Herald (1909)
This image is one of the threatening letters that would would be sent to those who tried to go against them or avoid tax.
The Blackhand of Little Palermo
One of the better known stories of a Blackhand gang was the gang of Little Palermo. This Gang was infamously known in "little Palermo" (now the french quarter) in New Orleans, for extorting local businesses. They would leave threatening notes on the doors of businesses demanding a tax or the tradesmen would suffer the consequences. Then demand meetings to discuss payment and proceed to bully, and intimidate the business owners into agreeing to hand over money.
Over time this gang had made a bit of a name for themselves locally, many people were fed up of living in fear. One such business was the family run winery owned by the Giacona family. Pietro the owner was approached by members of the Blackhands and was told he would have to pay a tax to keep doing business there.
On June 16th 1908 Pietro invited the men to discuss this proposal with him over dinner. He did so under the guise of being willing to negotiate. However, Pietro had other plans, once the men showed up to his home, he invited them in politey. They began to eat and drink which led to the discussion of business. As they were sat discussing money at some point around2.30am in the early hours of June 17th 1908 Pietro reached for his gun and he proceeded to gun down 4 of the gangs main members. Shot them where they sat in his home, killing 3 of them and seriously injuring another.
A newspaper article reports " Driven desperate by the blackmailing and threatening tactics of a band of black-hand men, Pietro Giacona, wealthy wine merchant, resuding at 1113 Chartes Street, the old home of General Beauregard, invited his enemies to a feast and at two-thirty this morning, after wining and dining a great part of the night, shot dead three of his assembled guests and desperately wounded a fourth." - New Orleans Item (1908)
Although this event pretty much stopped them in their tracks in little Palermo, other factions had already started to pop up across other states in the USA. This resulted in a clampdown on the gangs and across states investigations were underway, arrests were being made. Eventually by the mid 1920's most of the problematic Black hand gangs had been arrested or dispersed. Paving the way for the new wave of organised crime as the famous prohibition era kicked in.
A newspaper article reporting on the shooting carried out by Pietro Giacona.
New Orleans, Wednesday Evening, June 17 1908. 4 Black Hand Bandits Shot Down By Intended Victim.
Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/75511286/pietro-giacona: accessed 28 February 2023), memorial page for Pietro Giacona (1847–27 Jan 1917), Find a Grave Memorial ID 75511286, citing Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, USA; Maintained by Andrea Grega (contributor 47056707).
Lombardo, R. M. (2010). The Black Hand: Terror by Letter in Chicago. United States: University of Illinois Press.
Lombardo, R. M. (2010). The hegemonic narrative and the social construction of deviance: the case of the Black Hand. Trends in Organized Crime, 13(4), 263–282. https://doi.org/10.1007/S12117-010-9094-9
Los Angeles Herald, Volume 36, Number 252, 10 June 1909 — SLEUTHS ARREST ALLEGED LEADER OF BLACK HAND [ARTICLE]. Retrieved from, UCR, California Digital Newspaper Collection
Pitkin T. M. & Cordasco F. (1977). The black hand : a chapter in ethnic crime. Littlefield Adams. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/blackhandchapter0000pitk.