Between 1890 and 1910, over two million Italians immigrated to the United States, some of them, of course, from the island of Sicily. The Sicilians operated small businesses, saloons, and general stores or worked hard labor jobs, but some in their number wanted more. They decided to utilize an old symbol, the black hand or “la mano nera” to terrorize new Italian immigrants and extort large sums of money from them.
The Black Hand gangsters formed a coalition that, internally, called themselves “The Society of the Banana” because the majority of the higher-ups were fresh fruit vendors and distributors. They saw the advantage in using the sophisticated American post office as their vehicle of terror. They could write letters with terrible symbols and threats. They would have one of their fellow gangsters in another city mail it to a victim, thereby concealing who the real extortioner was. At first the victims would not succumb to the threats. Then a second and a third letter would appear.
If the Italian business owner didn’t pay, there were dire consequences.
Victims would see their homes or businesses bombed. Their family members were kidnapped, maimed, or killed. Some even closed their businesses and moved back to Italy. Most paid the extortion money and continued with their new lives. For years and years, Italian immigrants factored paying “protection” money to the Black Hand as the cost of doing business in America. Until a Postal Inspector by the name of Frank Oldfield came along. Known for taking down murderers, embezzlers, and train robbers, Oldfield orchestrated the first organized crime bust in America and no one has ever heard of it.
In a new book, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America's Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought Them to Justice, the postal inspector’s great-grandson, William Oldfield, and his co-author Victoria Bruce tell the story for the first time. VICE spoke to both to find out why the story has been hidden away, how much power postal inspectors really have, and how he brought the Black Hand to justice.
Why was the story of Frank Oldfield hidden away for so many years and why tell this story now?
William Oldfield: The reason my sister and I made the decision to finally tell this story was we wanted the world to know something of our great-grandfather. My father passed away in 1989. He told me just before his death that I should just let the story go. Not much more was said. When my mother finally became close to death in 2002, we talked about my great-grandfather. I knew there were boxes of archives. She recommended that I just burn everything and get on with my life. She was still afraid for my sister and I and our descendants. She also didn’t want to embarrass her friends in Ohio who had prominent positions in society and still had the names of some of the gangsters that my great-grandfather arrested and helped send to prison.
After my mother’s death in 2002, I opened up all the materials from the secret boxes. There were photographs, case notes, and investigative reports. I began a ten year odyssey traveling across the United States to multiple locations referenced in the archival materials. I went to Italy to do research there. Once I had my head wrapped around it, I met a modern day post office inspector. He’d never heard of my great-grandfather and honestly couldn’t believe my story. He invited me to the Inspection service headquarters in Washington, D.C. I showed them the documents, the letters, and the weapons. These inspectors were blown away.
When the FBI was in its infancy, what was the post office’s role in society and law enforcement in 1899 as opposed to now?
Victoria Bruce: In 1899, almost all commerce and business and communication was accomplished using the U.S. mail. International business was also accomplished using U.S. mail. Currency and U.S. government gold traveled exclusively through the mail. Because of the importance of the mail, the postmaster sat on the President’s cabinet, and the postal service was considered a department of the U.S. government unlike today’s modern postal service. A post office inspector was stationed in key transportation and logistics hubs in the United States to protect the flow of commerce and money through the mail.
Each inspector was given the authority to investigate any crime committed using the mail system. This allowed a post office inspector to utilize all forms of commercial and private transportation at a moment's notice to peruse a criminal involved in violating the trust of the mail. From train robbers to safe crackers to extortionists to fraudsters, an inspector was responsible for solving those crimes. As the federal government grew in the 1920s through the 1950s, the FBI and U.S. Marshalls became more prominent. Unlike the post office inspectors, who were told to be very secretive about their cases, the FBI began to make headlines.
The postal inspectors today continue to call themselves “The Silent Service” because they continue to work on cases that seldom get them big headlines, although they have just as much power and jurisdiction as they always have. It’s not well known, but post office inspectors broke the Unabomber case, the anthrax case and are constantly on the lookout for international and domestic sex and drug trafficking which utilizes the internet, electronic banking, and the traditional U.S. mail.
How did Inspector Oldfield first get on the Black Hand’s trail and what led him to continue investigating them?
Oldfield: My great-grandfather knew of the existence of crimes in the immigrant communities. Due to a language barrier, the insular nature of the new Italian immigrant community, and the very crafty or very stealthy efforts of the black handers, crimes would go unpunished and investigations would meet dead ends. In the book we tell about a story in 1908 where a young fruit peddler shoots his uncle, who is he business partner, and kills him. When local law enforcement arrive, they find two Black Hand letters in the pocket of the uncle. Local law enforcement forward them to my great-grandfather.
Frank aggressively investigated for over a year with no success. Finally in 1909, he receives a break in the case. A wealthy Italian businessman comes to his office with multiple Black Hand letters. John and Charles Amicon, the multimillionaire fruit importers and distributors, made the conscious decision not to pay tribute to the Black Hand and to work with inspectors to bring the black handers to justice. With this renewed confidence, Frank began a complicated and well organized national investigation to find these black handers and bring them to justice. I don’t think he saw his family for the good part of a year.
How did Francis Dimaio factor into the case?
Oldfield: My great-grandfather couldn’t infiltrate the mob by himself because of language and cultural barriers. He needed someone to get inside. After U.S. attorney William Day told him there wasn’t enough evidence for an indictment or conviction, Frank came to terms with the fact that he had to contact a rival and famous Italian private detective by the name of Francis Dimaio. Dimaio agreed to help. He was a boss at the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Pittsburg with a long history of working undercover on mob crimes. Dimaio proceeds to map out a strategy to infiltrate the Society of the Banana and get one of the members to turn and testify.
How did Inspector Oldfield convince witnesses to testify, which led to the takedown of the mob?
Bruce: Frank and his fellow inspectors operated prior to some of the modern witness and perpetrator protection laws including the Miranda decision. This allowed the inspectors some leeway in gathering information from criminals, suspects, and witnesses. In fact, witnesses who were afraid to testify were coerced both personally and emotionally by inspectors. Threats were not used, but strong reminders of the importance of their testimony and the consequences of future terrorism were used to squeeze witnesses and to squeeze victims into providing depositions and to testify in court.
What type of man was Frank Oldfield and why do you think he took it upon himself to do what he did despite the threats on his life?
Oldfield: He was a deeply dedicated and driven man. He focused primarily on his work and secondly on his family. He felt that he was doing his best for his family if he was successful in his career. He was a charmer when he wanted to be and he was a tough guy when he wanted to be. Criminals in those days regularly threatened police and judges. I also don’t think he feared for his life. Family lore spoke about Frank being completely fearless and not afraid of death, feeling that he’d provided for his family if anything happened to him.
His investigations led to the first national organized crime conviction in the U.S. What were the tactics he used and how did he pull this off?
Oldfield: My great-grandfather was a [trailblazer] within the postal service. He utilized new techniques that were still in their infancy world-wide, such as handwriting analysis, stakeouts, using the newspapers to call out or intimidate criminals as well as human intelligence. He possessed a logistical and organizational expertise uncommon for law enforcement of the time. He was able to recruit and organize a regional and national support structure of city, county, state, and federal law enforcement. It was a cross cultural and intergovernmental team which was one of the first of this type ever created. He got them all to work together which doesn’t happen often.
This is a story that has been with you your whole life, how does it feel to finally get it out there?
Oldfield: From the time I was young, I was transfixed by this story. It’s literally a wild tale of cops and robbers involving my great-grandfather. I loved it so much because everyone loves a story of good triumphing over evil. Of course the lines are never that clearly drawn. I want readers to have a blast uncovering the story just as my sister and I did from the time we were little children and first heard about the amazing Inspector Oldfield.
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