THE BLACK HAND: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History, by Stephan Talty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 298 pp., $28.
A dozen years before “The Godfather” and “Mean Streets,” there was “Pay or Die,” a gritty black-and-white movie about murderous mobsters and a genuine hero. Ernest Borgnine portrayed detective Joseph Petrosino, the “Italian Sherlock Holmes.”
The largely forgotten film was to the Coppola and Scorsese classics what “La Mano Nera,” or the black hand, was to the mafia in the United States — in effect, a prequel. So was a 1950 Gene Kelly-J. Carrol Naish thriller, “Black Hand” that featured a fictionalized Petrosino.
Stephan Talty’s “The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History” is a taut, brisk and very cinematic book about this organization of extortionists and killers, which preyed on Italian immigrants in the early 20th century.
It’s also a sharply defined portrait of Petrosino, who eventually headed a squad of Italian officers in the NYPD that battled La Mano Nera and investigated it from New York to Palermo. Theodore Roosevelt said that “he did not know the name of fear.” Bombings and burnings, mutilations and maimings, and the kidnapping of children had become part of daily life in “the Italian colonies,” as the immigrant communities were called. Talty’s story reflects the fear of new immigrants and the relentless bigotry they experienced. “To be Italian in America was to be half-guilty,” Talty notes. An Irish judge, the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, once sentenced an Italian to death for murder, adding that Italians “were too prone to commit crimes of that sort.”
Petrosino, Talty writes, was “a brother, a shield” when there were no Italian elected officials. He investigated the killing that prompted the judge’s comment, arrested the real murderer and the innocent man was freed.
It took “a series of grisly Black Hand crimes” for Petrosino’s request for a squad of Italian officers to be approved in 1904.
In that year, more than 193,000 Italian immigrants entered America. The number rose to almost 286,000 three years later. Newspapers including the Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Times called for “curbing the number of Sicilians allowed into the country,” Talty writes.
Petrosino taught the “Italian Squad” how to interpret Black Hand letters and handwriting for signals that could identify the authors. He looked for patterns in the selection of victims. The NYPD consistently sabotaged the unit, but there were successes. The landmark prosecution of the head of the Camorra, the crime syndicate of Naples, was one.
Petrosino agreed to a solo intelligence operation to check judicial records in Italy for possible deportations of criminals in the United States, obtain the names of those in Italian jails who might try to enter the country and develop a spy network to provide information to the NYPD. But mistakes were made, especially in guarding his identity and the details of his assignment.
His Sicilian mission ended with shots described as “detonations.” The first policeman took 15 minutes to reach the scene. Witnesses retracted stories, others denied hearing the fusillade. “Any of a thousand men could have done it,” Talty writes. “Petrosino’s murder was that rare thing, a truly collective crime.”
Petrosino’s killing sparked international outrage. About 250,000 people gathered for his funeral. He’s buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens. Black Hand terror continued. But it finally became a priority for the police: “relentless warfare.” Petrosino himself had “changed the way Italians were seen in America.”
And Leonardo DiCaprio is slated to star in the movie version of “The Black Hand.”