By Katie Moller de Silva
In the New York Times at the turn of the 20th Century, the Black Hand crime wave was always a page one story. On August 4, 1907, the following tidbit ran: “Arrest of 14 Black Hand. A detachment of State Police under Sergeant Prynn, arrested fourteen men at Marion Heights, Pennsylvania. They were committed to jail without bail by Justice Williams, charged with conspiracy to murder, inciting to riot, and carrying concealed weapons. Information as to the identity of the Black Hand leaders was offered by an Italian resident of the Heights and police were sent for, but many of the accused men escaped into the woods. Six of the men in custody are residents of Shamokin, who had gone to the Heights to attend a meeting of the society, and were there when the round-up was made. It is thought that many more escaped. The men were every whit as desperate as the Molly Maguires, and proceeded on even more modern methods.”
Thomas Pitkin’s book, The Black Hand: A Chapter in Ethnic Crime describes New York City’s problem as the country’s worst, but shows that over the first two decades of the 20th Century, Black Hand gangs terrorized Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. They stalked reservoir and aqueduct workers in upstate New York, bituminous coal miners in West Virginia, and steelworkers in Pittsburgh and eastern Ohio. Black Hand rings had a penchant for stiletto and pistol assault, kidnapping and bombing, and one of their trademarks was decapitation of their victims. All of this violence was aimed at keeping people frightened enough to pay the gangs’ extortion money, whenever they demanded it in handwritten notes signed with a drawing of a black hand.
The Black Hand hit the anthracite region in 1904, along with the growing wave of immigrant Italians who were arriving to fill the plentiful mining jobs here. The gang operating out of Marion Heights sent extortion notes to miners every payday, and exacted severe vengeance on anyone who refused to pay. The population of Marion Heights at the turn of the 20th Century was 703. Between November 1904 and August 1907, newspapers and court documents recorded 8 stiletto attacks, 7 shootings, one bombing of a residence, and countless muggings on the wooded paths surrounding the Heights. All of the victims were Italian miners, and five of them died.
In June 1905, a severed head was found at the bottom of a mineshaft near Wilkes-Barre, and in March 1907, a headless body turned up on an island in the Susquehanna near Berwick. At that site, police found a note written in blood tied to a wooden stake driven into the ground. It read “R.I.P. Black Hand.” In April of that same year in Luke Fidler, someone gunned down miner Anthony Nestico hours after he testified against some of his countrymen at a Black Hand hearing before the Shamokin magistrate. Also in April, Marion Heights Constable Moroz, who had made efforts to pursue the Black Handers of his village, barely survived having his throat slashed. A sampling of headlines illustrates the chilling pattern:
“Murdered Man’s Head Found This Morning,” Mt. Carmel Daily News, Nov. 29, 1904.
“$1000.00 or Death, Says Black Hander,” Bloomsburg Democratic Sentinel, May 3, 1907.
“Head Was That of Foreigner: Thrown Up on Coal Screen in River,” The Bloomsburg Morning Press, May 13, 1907.
“Reign of Terror at Marion Heights for the Band of Assassins,” The Mt. Carmel Item, Aug. 3, 1907.
“Black Handers: Jails Hereabouts are Full of Them,” The Bloomsburg Columbian and Democrat, Sept. 5, 1907.
“State Police Get Weapons: Locate New Arsenal in Black Hand Headquarters,” Mt. Carmel Item, Sept. 7, 1907.
“Tried to Dynamite a Family,” The Mt. Carmel Item, November 2, 1907.
“Marion Heights Stabbing Affray,” The Mt. Carmel Item, July 1, 1908.
Several arrests were made in these cases, but suspects could not be held for long due to the number of Italians coming forth to volunteer alibis on their behalf. The few cases that made it to court resulted in acquittals, for juries feared the consequences of convicting any Black Hander. In May 1907, police found a shanty filled with revolvers, stilettos, and explosives in the woods between Shamokin and Mt. Carmel. They realized then that the crime wave was bigger than their manpower, and called in the newly created Pennsylvania State Police, who agreed to set up a base of operations at Marion Heights. The state constables were on hand when Shamokin’s coal millionaire, John Mullen, began receiving Black Hand notes. The writer demanded $1500 or, he said, he would bomb Mullen’s Shamokin Street mansion (now Transfiguration School). The notes instructed Mullen to bury the payoff on a wooded hillside near Rock Street. The constables laid a trap and apprehended a man attempting to dig up their dummy package. He was Peter Yoncoski, a seventeen-year-old Polish lad, promptly sent to prison for what he’d thought was the perfect copycat opportunity.
In August 1907, police finally got some solid help. Marion Heights resident Dominic Rovito came forward with information leading to the arrest of most of the Black Handers of his village. He’d heard the gang was going to hold a secret meeting in his neighborhood, by a tree marked with a cross. From a hiding place under a bush, he listened as the members voted to kill him for refusing to join their society. His own cousin, Joseph Rovito, passed a hat for money to pay an assassin to do the job accutane capsules 40mg. Dominic decided to risk cooperating with police in hopes they could protect him, and ran for help. The ensuing raid and arrests encouraged two other victims to come forward to describe threats they had received and attacks they had suffered. In September, the constables raided another arsenal of stilettos and pistols at a home in Marion Heights, and rounded up eight more ring members in April 1908. Newspapers across the country trumpeted the demise of the Black Hand in the coal region.
Before the cases could be brought to court, however, Rovito and the other two witnesses fled to Italy. Due to the constant death threats they were receiving, and with the image of all those severed heads in mind, they lost the nerve to testify. On May 8, 1908, a reporter for the Mt. Carmel Item summed up the situation:
Criminal Court Ends. The Black Hand cases in which seven men were charged with extortion, conspiracy to kill and carrying concealed deadly weapons were ended Saturday when a jury rendered a verdict of not guilty on all charges. Owing to the difficulty in securing convictions, the other cases will likely be dropped. When the released men reached the Marion Heights trolley station on their way home Saturday night, they were met by a big delegation headed by a man carrying a red and black flag. A great celebration followed their arrival on the hill. The members of the State Constabulary have sent a request to headquarters asking to be transferred to some other post. They do not desire to return to Northumberland County, where they have not yet succeeded in gaining one conviction out of all the arrests they made.
Between 1907 and 1913, Black Hand crime was reaching its peak across the United States. Lurid press reports cited an “assassination school” in Youngstown, Ohio, where the arts of stiletto fighting and crime concealment were taught to Black Hand trainees. Copycat criminals signed their extortion notes with black hand drawings: many were non-Italian solo operators, often teenaged boys. However, the public perception of a vast Italian crime organization was difficult to debunk, even though several newspaper commentators and New York and Chicago police commissioners emphasized that Black Hand crime was mostly a neighborhood gang phenomenon.
In Pittsburgh and Chicago, groups of law-abiding Italians calling themselves “The White Hand” vowed to stand up to the extortionists. They wrote to newspapers condemning the criminals and imploring people to view the majority of Italian immigrants as victims rather than as part of the problem. Their efforts, together with those of federal, state, and local law enforcement, began to make a difference. By 1914, many Black Handers had been jailed, executed, or killed by intended victims who met violence with violence. Others fled the country to avoid arrest. During Prohibition, Black Handers naturally gravitated to bootlegging, which was far more profitable and less punishable than extortion. Many of those charged with bootlegging in our area, had been held as Black Handers a decade or two earlier.
Local Black Hand crime subsided after the conviction of two Marion Heights men in Columbia County. In March 1907, Nicolas Gidaro and Antonio Bressi were convicted of attempting to murder a Centralia man for insulting them in a tavern. “Nicky” Gidara was the reputed head of the Marion Heights ring, and “Tony” Bressi owned the home where an arsenal of stilettos and pistols was seized. Each received a four-year prison sentence. The following May, Columbia County authorities convicted two other ringleaders, Fortunato and Antonio Calabro of Briar Creek, near Berwick. Their crimes: extortion and murder. The boss of the Briar Creek ring was Fortunato, whose customary extortion threat – according to trial testimony – was “I’ll cut your head off.”
Author: Steve Bartos
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