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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 07, 2017 1:00 am

One detective's dogged defiance of infamous gang

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle

It sounds like a gang of baddies from a comic book or a Hardy Boys adventure. But the Black Hand was dead serious, a loose network of Italian immigrants who in the early 20th century terrorized dozens of American cities and towns by demanding protection money from merchants, kidnapping children and committing murders – all with near-impunity because the cowed victims refused to testify.

In his gripping account, Stephan Talty focuses on Joseph Petrosino, who did more than anyone else to cripple the Hand. His task was made even more difficult by the failure of his employer, the New York Police Department, to give him the manpower he needed. As long as the Hand kept to Little Italy, the political establishment hardly stirred itself. At the time, the NYPD employed mostly Irish Americans, none of whom spoke Italian or had much interest in cooperating with Petrosino.

The Petrosinos had immigrated in 1873, when Joseph was 13. He left school after sixth grade to work full time as a shoeshine boy, earning about a quarter a day. At age 17 or 18, he was hired as a city street cleaner. Thanks to his work ethic, his obvious talent and the intercession of a mentor, he advanced to commander of a scow that dumped municipal garbage in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1883, despite being only 5 feet 3 inches tall, he was recruited by the police force of what already qualified as “the largest Italian city in the world.”

One of Petrosino's motives in going after the Black Hand was a fear that authorities might eventually crack down on immigration from Italy. Yet he also sought to distance himself from his countrymen. In an almost unheard-of break with Old World tradition, Petrosino remained single and lived alone in a non-Italian part of town. (He finally married at age 47.) His superb memory for faces and his dogged pursuit of leads won him a promotion to detective, leadership of a small unit of Italian cops, and the nickname “the Italian Sherlock Holmes.” One of his star turns came when the Hand tried to extort $5,000 from the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Impersonating Caruso, Petrosino kept the rendezvous and overpowered and arrested the extortionists.

Despite his success, Petrosino faced discrimination within the NYPD just as his countrymen did outside it, and his operation remained woefully understaffed as the Black Hand expanded into other cities and states. All that changed, however, when a man without ties to the political machine known as Tammany Hall was appointed commissioner of police. This was Theodore Bingham, an ex-military engineer. At the heart of “The Black Hand” is Talty's account of how Bingham was both the best and worst of bosses, making a favorite of Petrosino, giving him the support he needed, but foolishly sending him on an intelligence-gathering trip to Italy, where, thanks to Petrosino, so many Black Hand members were now living in sullen exile.

Talty, himself the son of Irish immigrants, tells his story with flair. Talty gives us a peek at the leave-nothing-to-chance ethos of Tammany Hall. “It was said that (boss Big Tim Sullivan) perfumed the ballots on election day so that he could make sure his constituents had actually voted by sniffing out the scent on their hands.” And the Black Hand knew it had arrived when, in 1905, a newspaper serial featuring the famous lawman Bat Masterson kicked off with him “On the Trail of the Black Hand.”

I only wish the author had provided more detail on how the Black Hand was finally stopped. Once Petrosino is out of the picture, Talty seems to lose interest, covering the gang's decline and fall in a mere three-and-a-half pages. On the whole, though, this is a valuable recounting of a lurid and little-known episode in American history.

Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of The Washington Post Book World.