April 15, 1915 | The Black Hand

 Letter from The Black Hand

“You dog, spy, informer. If you do not do what we say, we have a shot gun prepared for you. What a fine feast for the rats your fat carcass will make. Do what we say, it will be better for your skin.”

-Black Hand*

The name The Black Hand or La Mano Nero used to strike terror in the hearts of newly immigrated Italians. For several decades around the turn of the last century, Black Hand gangs across the country posed threats, used bombs, and committed murder to wring thousands of dollars from small business owners. The gangs were very loosely organized, but they used a similar symbology (crude sketches of hearts with daggers, skulls, and bombs) and drew on the collective fear inspired by their name. They were active in many U.S. cities, but their depredations are best documented in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.

In the first three months of 1915, the Black Hand bombed 55 shops and homes in Chicago. From 1910 to 1914, they killed 110 Chicagoans who ignored their threats. In New Orleans, they murdered Police Superintendent David Hennessy and were implicated in the death of NYPD Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, when he was in Sicily consulting with the local police.

Municipal police departments and the Postal Inspectors worked hard to eliminate the gangs. They made many arrests, but as soon as one was eliminated, a new Black Hand posse would take its place. The terror of the Black Hand only ended with the start of Prohibition in 1920. The potential profits from selling illicit alcohol propelled the growth of powerful rackets, which absorbed these petty gangs and assumed the mantle of organized crime as we know today.


*From a 1914 case in New York. The letter in the photograph is from the National Law Enforcement Museum’s collection. We are looking for someone fluent in Italian to help us translate it, along with other similar letters in our collection. Contact museum@nleomf.org if you’d like to help.