During the early 1900s, the burgeoning Italian immigrant community in Tuscarawas County watched with trepidation as the local newspaper carried stories of the extortion of their fellow countrymen in cities like New York and Pittsburgh by a shadowy group referred to as the “Black Hand Society”. It would not be long before the “hand” appeared in their own neighborhoods.
The Black Hand Society traced its roots back to 18th century Italy, but its early 20th century form was the result small groups of loosely organized criminals targeting their fellow immigrant neighbors. The group was firmly established in the Italian immigrant communities of most major cities in the United States by 1900 and, as the Italian immigrant population sought employment in other locations like Tuscarawas County, the small criminal element among them followed as well. These criminals typically targeted the more successful immigrants in their own community, though they were known to threaten anyone. The extortionists modus operandi was to send a letter to a potential victim threatening them with injury, kidnapping, arson, or murder unless a payoff was made. These letters were occasionally decorated with threatening symbols and frequently signed with the image of a black hand.
The New Philadelphia Democrat and Times newspaper ran a story on August 25, 1904 about the recovery of a New York City youth believed to have been kidnapped by “members of the Italian Black Hand society.” The newspaper did not describe the Black Hand in detail, so one must assume that it believed its readers were already well aware of the group and its activities. This was the first time that the group appeared by name in the Tuscarawas County press, though the local Italian immigrant community had surely heard of the group via word-of-mouth before 1904.
Over the next four years more stories of extortion and murder appeared in the local newspapers. Large cities like New York and Pittsburgh were joined by smaller cities like Wheeling, West Virginia and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in reporting crimes undertaken by the Black Hand. Anywhere that Italian immigrants were working and living, they were followed and victimized by Black Hand criminals. Tuscarawas County, with its many coal and clay mines, railroad work, and industries providing jobs to Italian immigrants, was about to record its first run-in with the Black Hand Society.
Biagio (William) Bonanno immigrated to the United States in 1898 and, following the work and his fellow Italian immigrants, he in time settled down in Dennison, Ohio and started a small grocery business. Three years later he had saved enough money to bring his wife, Maria (Mary), to Dennison as well. The couple operated their grocery store at 13 North Third Street, just up from the railroad tracks. In less than ten years of arriving, Biagio Bonanno had successfully established himself as a small business owner in his new, adopted country.
Mr. Bonanno opened his mail on Saturday, May 30, 1908 and discovered something dreadful. Among the delivery was an extortion letter from the Black Hand demanding that he pay them $2000 (close to $50,000 today). The extortionists claimed to know that the Bonanno’s had saved up over $3000. The letter instructed Mr. Bonanno to travel to Pittsburgh on June 20 and that seven men would be waiting there for him to collect the money. He was told to wrap one hand in a red handkerchief and smoke a cigar so that the men could identify him. Mr. Bonanno reported the letter to the local police and told the newspaper that he planned to shutter his grocery store and leave Dennison with his family until it was safe to return.
Whether he ever paid the extortion money is unknown, but less than a year later agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service arrested two Dennison men for mailing Black Hand extortion letters. The men, Antonio Vicario and Augustino Marfisi, were arrested as part of a larger effort that targeted Ohio’s Black Hand operatives. Since the men were alleged to have sent the letters via the United States mail, they were charged with federal crimes. Only one of the men, Antonio Vicario, was convicted and sentenced to two years at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Biagio (William) Bonanno returned to Dennison before 1910 and continued to operate his grocery store until his death.
The danger from the Black Hand in Tuscarawas County did not end with the arrest and imprisonment of Antonio Vicario in 1909. Only two years later an Italian immigrant working for the railroad, and living in Newcomerstown, was brutally murdered by two men believed to be Black Hand extortionists. The murder frightened the entire Italian immigrant community then living in Newcomerstown and the surrounding communities. While the railroad and police investigated the case as best as they could, no one was ever arrested for his murder.
I wrote about the 1911 murder of Antonio D’Alassandro here.
There is no way to know how many members of the Tuscarawas County community received extortion letters from the Black Hand. Unless the victims reported the letters to the police, or perhaps a news reporter, there would be no public record. That the Black Hand continued to exist after 1911, and expand its illicit activities, is clearly obvious from newspaper accounts all across Ohio. A double shooting in Dennison in the spring of 1918 was attributed to the Black Hand. During the summer of 1924, the Italian immigrant community in Newcomerstown was flooded with Black Hand letters, each demanding $1000 from the recipients. Incidents of Black Hand murders, bombings, shootings, intimidation of public officials, and extortion were regularly reported on, though no Black Hand murders were reported to have occured in the local community since 1911. That changed in 1925.
Pietro Rossi (Peter Ross) immigrated from Italy to the United States in 1909 and found work as a member of a railroad work crew. That work brought him to Ohio by 1910 and his wife Carmella (Carrie) joined him there from Italy shortly afterwards. After the arrival of his wife, Peter found a job working for the National Fireproofing Brick Plant south of Magnolia, Ohio. Magnolia, and its surrounding industries, straddled the Stark-Carroll-Tuscarawas County lines. Through his hard work and efforts Peter was eventually promoted to Foreman and he and his wife rented a home on Magnolia Road, just south of town, in a neighborhood known as Blocktown. His success encouraged his two brothers to immigrate to America as well. One of the brothers lived with Peter and his wife while the other worked and lived in Canton.
Peter, Carrie, and the brother went for an drive after attending church on Sunday, August 23, 1925. When they arrived back at the Ross home, the two passengers exited and went into the house while Peter parked the car in the garage. As he neared the back of the driveway by the house, a man came out of the bushes and fired his double-barrelled shotgun into the car. Peter Ross was killed instantly. There was no record of Peter Ross receiving a Black Hand letter, but his success in America certainly made him an obvious target. Newspaper accounts of the murder never mention the Black Hand, or that they were suspected of the crime. However, when Peter was buried at Saint Mary’s of Morges Catholic Cemetery his headstone was inscribed with the words “Killed by Italian Black Hands”. No one was ever charged with Peter Ross’ murder and, ominously, the engraved quote has been defaced since his burial.
Organized crime in Ohio, including those who might be associated with the Black Hand, gravitated into other illicit activities as the United States progressed through the Era of Prohibition and into the Great Depression. The Black Hand stopped being an entity of its own and slowly faded into history as the rise of more recognizable organized crime syndicates took its place. Nonetheless, the Black Hand left their mark on the Italian immigrant community in and around Tuscarawas County.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.