Interesting Facts

12 Criminal Facts About The Black Hand

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The Black Hand was an extortion racket run by the mafia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It came from Italy and Sicily to the United States in this period.

A movie will come out in 2021 featuring Leonardo DiCaprio called “The Black Hand” which is based on a book of the same name that came out on April 25, 2017, and which gives a clear overview of what happened in this period.

Let’s take a closer look at some remarkable facts about The Black Hand and how this crime wave connected to the mafia that came to the United States.

1. The Black Hand dates back to halfway through the 18th century

The Black Hand is the name given to a form of extortion that was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by members of organized crime and the Camorra.

The Camorra is the name of a criminal organization that has its root in the Campania Region in southern Italy, more specifically in and around Naples, the capital of this region.

These criminal organizations, which consist of several groups or “clans,” can be traced back to the Kingdom of Naples in the 17th century. The Black Hand, a particular form of extortion used by the clans emerged in the 18th century around the year 1750.

2. This is how the Black Hand got its name in the United States

The method of extortion used by criminal organizations was to send threatening letters to people. The threats revolved around the individuals being kidnapped, tortured, or murdered if they didn’t pay the requested ransom, which was supposed to be dropped off at a specific location.

This letter usually had a black hand imprinted on it in a gesture of warning, and it’s because of this that the media dubbed the racket as the “Black Hand.”

the black hand facts

3. Crime syndicates in the United States targeted other immigrants

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about the Black Hand is that the criminal organizations that used this racket mainly targeted other immigrants.

Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that not just the wealthy were targeted and up to 90% of immigrants arriving in the United States in this period received such a letter.

Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it?

4. The crime wave quickly spread over the entire country

This type of extortion was relatively easy and relatively successful as well. Much easier than for example selling the Brooklyn Bridge or other types of scams attempted on rich immigrants, which happened as well.

That’s why the Black Hand, which started in New York City in the 1880s, quickly spread over the entire country. By the 20th century, the racket was well established in all major cities in the United States!

5. The Black Hand had headquarters and training school

The racket wasn’t just limited to the big cities. This is proven by the fact that a Black Hand headquarters was discovered in the small town of Hillsville, Pennsylvania, a village just a few miles west of New Castle, Pennsylvania.

It’s here it was discovered that the criminal organizations went to great lengths to establish systems to run the racket. It basically resembled the training schools of terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda or Isis. Members of the mafia were trained in the use of knives and daggers.

By this point, things had seriously gotten out of hand!

6. It was referred to as the “Black Hand Society”

No member of the mafia has ever acknowledged that it existed, but the Black Hand had grown so big that it took on a life of itself. That’s why the media started using the phrase “Black Hand Society.”

This society was considered to be part of a larger criminal conspiracy that involved all aspects of organized crime.

7. Petrosino was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime

When there’s a crime, there has to be a crime-stopper. In the case of the Black Hand, the man they had to fear was named Joseph Petrosino, a New York Police officer who became famous in his endeavor to fight organized crime.

He wasn’t just a pioneer in the fight against organized crime, he also developed techniques that are still used by law enforcement today!

facts about the black hand joseph petrosino
Joseph Petrosino / Wiki Commons

8. He went to great length to capture invisible criminals

Petrosino was responsible for catching numerous members of the mafia, including many of whom used the Black Hand racket to extort money from other immigrants.

On one occasion, a famous tenor named Enrico Caruso was being extorted and paid a ransom of $2,000, after which he received a pile of new letters demanding even more money.

Petrosino convinced Caruso to play along and they set up a trap to capture the same criminals who had received the $2,000 ransom. During the drop-off of the money, the two gangsters collecting the money were arrested.

Petrosino (left) escorting a mafia hit man
Petrosino (left) escorting a mafia hitman (second from left). / Wiki Commons

9. Petrosino became the friend of a very important man in the United States

Petrosino became one of the most famous police officers in New York City, and this earned him some famous friends. One of those friends was nobody else than Theodore Roosevelt, who was a member of the group managing the NYPD at the time.

In 1901, Petrosino received information that an assassination attempt on President McKinley would be attempted. He warned his friend Roosevelt, who was the vice-president at the time, but the president ignored the message.

William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt / Wiki Commons

10. He was assassinated while he was on a mission in Italy

For decades, Joseph Petrosino was the fear of organized crime. In 1909, he made it his mission to deport the known criminals back to where they came from, so he went on a trip to Italy.

The moment he arrived, he was being followed by members of the mafia, something he was warned about by various sources, including the American Ambassador to Italy, Lloyd Carpenter Griscom.

When he arrived in Palermo in Sicily, he was invited to the Piazza Marina and subsequently executed by two criminals. he died on the spot on March 12, 1909.

Petrosino Memorial in Palermo
Petrosino Memorial in Palermo / Beatrice /

11. Leonardo DiCaprio will take on the role of Joseph Petrosino

Leonardo DiCaprio, famous for numerous movies portraying characters in different periods of time, such as the example “The Revenant” which earned him an Oscar, will portray Joseph Petrosino in a movie called “The Black Hand.”

The movie, which is the screen adaption of a book of the same name written by Irish American author Stephan Talty, is currently in pre-production and is set to come out in 2021.

12. Leonardo DiCaprio will portray both the detective and his friend

Perhaps one of the most fascinating facts about The Black Hand is that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to play both Joseph Petrosino and his good friend Theodore Roosevelt.

The movie “Roosevelt,” which will be directed by Martin Scorcese, is currently just announced and not in production yet.

The movie, which is the screen adaptation of a book with the same name and which will be produced and featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, is scheduled to come out in 2021, so we definitely look forward to that!