- - Sunday, June 11, 2017



By Stephan Talty

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 248 pages

My mother was Italian and I grew up in South Philadelphia, the city’s “Little Italy” section and the hub of the Cosa Nostra organized crime family in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s I lived around the corner from Angelo Bruno, who was then the mob boss. I also lived around the corner from Richard Zappile, who became Philadelphia’s chief of detectives. He served as the city’s point man against the mob and in 1993 he broke up a particularly violent internecine mob war. The late Mr. Zappile went on to become the first deputy police commissioner and deputy mayor.

Yes, Virginia, there are Italian-American criminals. But there are also Italian-American law enforcement officers who are not afraid to take on organized crime.

Stephan Talty’s “The Black Hand” is about an earlier Italian-American police officer who faced a group of Italian criminals who were the precursors to Cosa Nostra. Italian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s called these feared criminals “La Mana Nera,” The Society of the Black Hand.

The Black Hand members were extortionists, kidnappers, bombers and murderers. Initially they preyed upon the Italian immigrant community, but they later branched out. They kidnapped children and held them for ransom and they extorted money from small business owners.

The Black Hand’s calling card was the ransom demand letter reinforced with drawings of coffins, daggers and skull and crossbones, as well as the imprinted image of a black hand placed on the front door of its victims.

Mr. Talty explains that the Black Hand was daring and ruthless. The Black Hand killed dozens of men, mutilated and maimed others, and created widespread fear and panic. The Black Hand once cut off a man’s arms simply to send a message to future victims.

To make matters even worse for the Italian community, city officials were largely indifferent to their blight and fear. The police department and the Tammany Hall political machine were run and staffed mostly by Irish-Americans who thought little of the immigrants who came to America after them.

But there was one police officer, an Italian-American, one of the few on the force, who cared very much for the community and hated the Black Hand.

“Joseph Petrosino was the head of the famous Italian Squad, a short, stout, barrel-chested man, built like a stevedore,” Mr. Talty writes. “His eyes — which some described as gray, others as coal-black — were cool and appraising. He had broad shoulders and “muscles like steel cords.” But he wasn’t a brute; in fact, far from it. He was fond of discussing aesthetics, loved opera, especially the Italian composers, and played the violin well. “Joe Petrosino,” said the New York Sun, “could make a fiddle talk.” But his true vocation was solving crimes.”

He was called the “Italian Sherlock Holmes.” The 46-year-old detective was successful and popular with newspapermen and Italian immigrants. Less so with his fellow police officers, who looked down on him and other Italians. And even less so with Black Hand criminals.

Joseph Petrosino’s career was helped by Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the head of the New York Board of Police Commissioners. The future president tried to reform the police department and root out corruption. He hired and promoted officers based on ability and not political affiliation. Knowing the immigrant neighborhoods had to be policed, he was looking for an Italian to champion. He found Officer Petrosino, a man who had a bulldog tenacity like the commissioner. After only two years on the job, Joseph Petrosino became the first Italian detective sergeant in the country.

The detective was a master of disguises, had many informants and was a physically tough and brave man. He was not afraid to mix it up with the tough Black Hand criminals. He was successful at capturing and locking up numerous Black Hand members, but he struggled to get his fellow Italians to stand up to the Black Hand and he struggled to get support from the police and politicians.

Tragically, Joseph Petrosino was murdered on a mission to Palermo, Sicily. The case remains unsolved, but Mr. Talty offers some interesting ideas.

The book reads like a thriller with the hero cop battling villainous Black Hand criminals like Vito Cascio Ferro, who rose to become the most feared and influential organized crime boss in Sicily, and Giuseppe “Lupo” (the Wolf) Morello, who was also called “Clutch Hand,” due to his deformed right hand that resembled a lobster claw.

Mr. Talty, the son of an Irish immigrant, was fortunate that Joseph Petrosino’s late wife saved documents, newspaper clippings and photos and he was fortunate that the detective’s granddaughter granted him access.

“The Black Hand” is well-researched and well-written and students of crime and history will enjoy reading this book.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism

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