INSPECTOR OLDFIELD AND THE BLACK HAND SOCIETY: AMERICA’S ORIGINAL GANGSTERS AND THE U.S. POSTAL DETECTIVE THAT BROUGHT THEM TO JUSTICE
By William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce
Touchstone, $26, 326 pages
“On the night of April 18, 1908, in the railroad town Bellefontaine, Ohio, eighteen-year-old Charles Demar walked into the fruit shop he owned with his uncle, Salvatore Cira, and put a bullet into his uncle’s head,” opens the story of a Post Office inspector who investigated Black Hand criminals — with a suitable bang.
When the police arrived, the victim appeared not to speak English, which was not uncommon among the roughly six million Italian immigrants across the United States at the time. Although the Italians were preyed upon by the violent extortionists who called themselves “La Mano Nera,” the Black Hand, the victims also feared and mistrusted the police.
The Bellefontaine police were glad to find two letters written in Italian in the victim’s pocket, as they could now hand off the murder case to the local Post Office nspector, who had jurisdiction due to the letters.
The police brought the letters to the U.S. Post Office in Columbus and handed them to Inspector Frank Oldfield, a diminutive man in a well-fitting suit, who was chomping on a cigar.
“Oldfield pushed some papers and files aside and opened the letters. He made a quick visual scan of the documents with his magnifying glass. A satisfied smile appeared on his face.”
So begins “Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America’s Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective That Brought Them to Justice.” The book was written by William Oldfield, the great-grandson of the late Post Office inspector, and journalist Victoria Bruce.
Mr. Oldfield discovered a trunk of his great-grandfather’s, which offered documents, letters and photos about his major Black Hand case. Victoria Bruce mined modern digital tools and came up with additional information about the case and the time.
The authors tell us that since arriving in Columbus in 1901, 40-year-old Inspector Frank Oldfield had become one of the most aggressive and successful Post Office inspectors in the service, According to the authors, “he’d run down safecrackers, exposed a corruption ring between a U.S. Congressman and a New York City assistant district attorney, and busted crooks on the railroads for robbing the mail.”
But there was nothing Oldfield wanted more than to “run to earth” what he believed was an international organized crime ring spanning America all the way to Palermo, Sicily: Truly bad guys whose members called themselves The Black Hand Society.’
At the time of this story, the U.S. Post Office inspectors were the most powerful federal law enforcement officers. Several decades prior to the creation of the FBI, the Post Office inspectors had worldwide authority if the U.S. mails were involved in a crime.
“Inspectors had the legal authority to commandeer any vehicle they needed: A horse and buggy, a train — even a steamer ship — if it meant catching a crook,” the authors inform the reader. “They dressed in plain clothes, carried concealed weapons, and worked mostly under the radar, using secret coded telegrams to update headquarters along the way. But with all their incredible crime busts, not one Post Office inspector had yet had a single break into the crimes of the Black Hand Society.”
When Inspector Oldfield planned to take on the Black Hand, he knew very little about the shadowy and sinister criminal organization. He knew the reputations of only two detectives in the country who could help him. One was a New York City detective named Joseph Petrosino, who headed an Italian American squad that investigated the Black Hand. Unfortunately, the NYPD detective was shot and killed in Sicily while he was investigating the overseas connections to the Black Hand in America.
The other knowledgeable detective was a man with obsidian black hair who was known as the “Raven.” The Raven was a Pinkerton undercover detective in Pittsburgh by the name of Francis Dimaio. The detective had infiltrated the Black Hand in New Orleans and was successful in other places as well. Inspector Oldfield hired the Pinkerton man and others to assist him take on the Black Hand.
The local Black Hand group that Inspector Oldfield went after had the non-threating and somewhat comical name of “The Society of the Banana.” In 1905, Salvatore “Sam” Lima had a fruit store where bananas hung in the front and other members of the gang were also fruit sellers. The Monty Python-sounding name of the group was misleading, as they were violent and ruthless criminals.
“Inspector Oldfield and The Black Hand Society” is part family history and part history of a terrorist crime group that was finally rounded up by a dedicated Post Office inspector. It is a well-written and well-researched book that will interest students of crime and history.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.