and Police Incompetence
Detectives of The Force Seem Utterly Unable To Unearth “Black Hand” Conspirators.
New York Tribune/August 21, 1904
This city is confronted with an Italian problem with which at the present time it seems unable to cope. Citizens are waking up mornings to read “Black Hand” letters demanding extortionate sums of money, to be deposited in some out of the way rendezvous or else a pistol shot or dynamite bomb will end their days. Some of these letters have been turned over to the police, but it is believed that not one-tenth of them have been made public. Besides such threats, there have also been acts of violence and even of death. Boys have been kidnapped and held for ransom. Homes have been wrecked with dynamite on the failure of their tenants to pay blackmail, and not long ago an Italian was murdered and his body thrust into a barrel and abandoned because he had aroused the vengeance of a gang of conspirators.
In its efforts to grapple with these forms of crime the Police Department has shown itself especially incompetent. Officers make a series of theatrical arrests, only to be compelled to let their prisoners go. Mysterious witnesses are unearthed, who, after many dark hints, leave Police Headquarters as mysteriously as they went there. In the case of the “barrel murder,” after the city had gone to great cost in “scouring the East Side,” in arresting “alleged cutthroats” and in “giving them the third degree,” it was at last requited by seeing the whole gang go free. In much the same way the police allowed the kidnappers of nine-year-old Antonio Mannino to slip through their fingers while following clews which led one moment to a Pittsburg slum and the next to a Hoboken cave.
As the police have shown themselves more and more helpless, the criminal Italian element has become bolder, until the better class of Italians have become thoroughly alarmed. Meetings have been held by some of the more prominent Italian citizens to devise some way of purging the Italian name of the obloquy with which certain vicious members of their colony have defamed it, and a few have taken special personal precautions against the kidnapping of their children. In one instance an Italian banker sent all of his children to a remote part of this State, and has caused them even there to be guarded by a corps of nurses and detectives.
The Italian Chamber of Commerce, which numbers among its members the most prominent Italian merchants and financiers of the city, has also taken action.
A meeting was held last Thursday.
Resolutions were adopted calling on the Italian citizens of this city to lend the police every assistance in apprehending and punishing the guilty persons. In speeches made at the meeting the members of the board showed that they were most bitter against the blackmailers. Some of them favored hiring special detectives to gather evidence for the police. One of the members also insisted for some time that the chamber should hold a mass meeting to denounce the kidnappers and blackmailers who have disgraced the Italian name.
Among those Italians who head the movement to check the present spirit of lawlessness among their countrymen there is a strong belief that the police force is greatly to blame. Some go so far as to say that the detective bureau is more or less a farce, and that many of its members have secured positions there not by merit, but by political pull. They say that Gluseppe Petrosini has been for a long time the only Italian detective at Headquarters, and that he has shown skill and courage, but has been so overwhelmed with work that his efforts have been seriously impaired.
“There should be more Italians on the police force,” said James S. March, the Republican leader of the VIth, or Italian, District. “At the present time nearly one-tenth of the population of the city is Italian, and yet only one-five-hundredth of the Police Department is Italian. Of the 8,151 policemen, only seventeen are Italians.”
New York Evening World/June 3, 1921
Five armed customs guards early this morning fought a desperate battle with about fifty members of the “Gopher gang,” who attacked them in an effort to rescue a prisoner the customs men had seized in a raid on smugglers on the North riverfront near 57th Street.
Shots were fired by both sides and the police reserves and the harbor police were called out. The customs men were beaten and their clothes were almost torn from them, but they clung to their prisoner and the gangsters finally were beaten off with broken heads and wounds.
The customs men were George Barron, John McAdams, William Mangin, Walter Semsey and Edward Starace. The prisoner, who was locked up at the Barge Office, said he was Charles Lyon, a longshoreman, of No. 463 West 52d Street.
The guards were hiding on Pier No. 97, at the foot of 57th street, suspecting that some of the crew of the steamship Caserta, which arrived a few days ago from Naples, were co-operating with the smugglers.
Shortly before midnight the watchers heard the splash of oars and a rowboat without lights nosed its way to a coal barge lying alongside the Caserta. In the dim light they saw four men carrying packages from the steamer to the rowboat. Waiting until they thought the smugglers had loaded a full cargo, the customs men rushed them.
There was a fusillade of shots from the smugglers, who leaped into their boat and pulled away. The customs men fired at them, but in the darkness their shots went wild. The smugglers headed out into the river. One of the customs men summoned aid from the harbor police. Launch No. 3, in charge of Patrolman John Penn, came speeding towards the pier and the smugglers turned back and ran their boat under the piling.
While the launch cruised up and down the river, cutting off escape in that direction, the customs guards searched the piers. At Pier No. 93 they found the men hastily unloading their boat. They again rushed the men, who threw their bundles into the river and again dived for their boat. One man went overboard and swam under the piling. Another headed out, apparently in an attempt to swim to the Jersey coast.
McAdams, Barron and Sempey leaped for the boat. There was a struggle with the two men in it, and then the boat was overturned and the five occupants were plunged into the river. One of the smugglers, if he came to the surface, escaped by taking refuge under the pier. The other, kicking, biting and striking, was dragged to the pier, on which the customs men found one bag the men had failed to throw overboard and which contained fifty-seven bottles of whiskey.
As they were leaving the pier with their prisoner, the five customs men were attacked by fifty men, who showered them with bricks and bottles and then closed in for a hand-to-hand fight. Policemen in the neighborhood were attracted by the noise and reinforced the customs men. The police reserves of the West 47th Street Station were called. The gangsters were beaten off and fled, firing several shots.
The defeat of the gangsters was the first victory for the customs agents in their campaign against them by the gangsters, who are blamed for an organized system of running liquor and cocaine from ships that dock in their bailiwick.
The gangsters have posted notices on the walls in the neighborhood, threatening to kill any customs man who interfered with them. Several attempts to assassinate customs agents have proved their threats were not an empty boast. Many guards have been attacked whole patrolling their posts on the waterfront during the night.
Three weeks ago Robert O’Sullivan, a guard, was attacked by gangsters, who broke a bottle over his head. The day before he was to appear in court O’Sullivan was knocked from the 14th Street subway station in the path of a Lexington Avenue express by three men, who escaped.
The train was stopped in time to save O’Sullivan’s life. Roundsman Jerry Rothschild is another victim of the gangsters.
Bullets Fly on Riverfront in Fight of Customs Agents Against Gang of Smugglers
Battle with Notorious "Gophers" Follows Attempt to Rescue Prisoner
Whiskey in Bag Seized
Heads Broken and Boat Upturned in Desperate Struggle with Gangsters
Roundup of Armed Italians
About 100 Arrested For Carrying Concealed Weapons.
Bingham Orders the Raid as the Result of The Killing of Policeman Sechler on Sunday; Detectives Unearth Some Arsenals and Get Into Many Fights
The New York Sun/April 16, 1907
Police Commissioner Bingham sent out a general order yesterday asking that as many detectives as could be spared be detailed from every precinct in which there was an unusually large settlement of Italians for the purpose of rounding up all the Italians who could be found carrying a revolver, dirk, knife with a blade longer than the legal length or any other variety of what the law terms a concealed weapon. This order was due to the shooting in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoon of Policeman Sechler and Selleck of the Mercer street precinct, which resulted in the death of Sechler.
About one hundred Italians had been arrested up to midnight in the five boroughs on the charge of carrying concealed weapons. There have been many raids on the Italians in the tougher sections of the city after nearly every Italian outrage of any consequence and many arrests have been made, but last night’s record of arrests of Italians was the biggest ever known.
Commissioner Bingham called Inspector McLaughlin into his office after he had notified the precinct commanders to do what they could and told him to detail as many detective sergeants and other members of his staff as he could spare to work irrespective of the precinct detectives. Inspector McLaughlin assigned fifty men, and sent them out in squads of five, with one Italian detective to each squad. Capt. Price, in charge of the Bronx detective bureau, got fifty detectives out.
The detectives downtown, led by Detective Sergeant Joe Petrosino, made at once for the Italian dives and cafes in Mott, Houston, Elizabeth, Stanton, Chrystie and other streets in the neighborhood. Whenever they ran across a group that looked especially ferocious, whether they were on the streets or in saloons or restaurants, the detectives drew their revolvers and ordered the Italians to submit to being searched. They got a collection of knives and revolves in nearly every saloon that was suspected.
After all the men who proved to have knives or revolves had been sent on their way to Headquarters the other occupants of the place would be ordered out. When the room was cleared the detectives generally found piles of cartridges and knives and revolvers on the floors.
Detective Sergeant Petrosino ran across on familiar face in Elizabeth street, but the most careful search failed to disclose a weapon. Finally the detectives felt a lump along the man’s leg, and after cutting through two thicknesses of drawers pulled out a revolver fully loaded.
In many cases the detectives, who were in plain clothes, bad a fight on their hands, as the relatives of men who had been arrested frequently ran to their aid, not suspecting at first the cause of the trouble. In several instances the sons of men who had been captured rushed in with knives and were themselves arrested.
Upward of seventy-five arrests were made in the downtown section and in Harlem, and about twenty-five were made by Capt. Price’s men in The Bronx. The police found that the prevailing spring styles in concealed weapons are dirks and various other dangerous looking knives. About thirty revolvers were found, and most of them were loaded.
Toward midnight the tip got around that all Italians who weren’t especially mildlooking would be safer in bed, whether they had knives or guns or not, and the rapidity with which the downtown saloons emptied after the news spread was marvelous.
While many of the prisoners downtown were taken to the station houses of the precincts in which they were found, a lot of them were sent to Police Headquarters, and by midnight the cells were all filled up.
The Bronx detectives did most of their sleuthing for weapons in the Port Morris section and around 203d street and Jerome avenue, and in East 149th and 150th streets. The detectives generally worked by frisking their men first, and then arresting them if they felt a suspicious bulge in the neighborhood of their rear trousers pockets.
In all cases the detectives drew the knife measurements down to a fine point and didn’t allow anything over three inches to get away from them.
In a rough house in a saloon at 163 Mott street in which the detective were compelled to fight before the Italians inside would be searched, Detective Sergeant Frazee had a finger broken.
Detective Sergeant Antonio Vachris, with half a dozen of his men from the Brooklyn Detective Bureau, made five arrests across the bridge. The five men were locked up in the Adams street station.
The police say that one of the reasons why so many Italians are carrying concealed weapons is the slowness with which offenders are prosecuted. The cases are allowed to drag along for many weeks sometimes, and afterward the defendants go free on technicalities. Detective Sergeant Petrosino scoured the town on his own hook about two months ago and got about a dozen men carrying revolvers and knives. The first three of these men were sentenced yesterday. They got twenty days imprisonment each.
Antonto Zueca, president of the Italian Chamber of commerce, said that the police ought to have greater authority in cleaning out the slum districts.
“In Italy,” he said, “the police have the right to arrest all idlers found in the streets after a certain hour at night. They may examine citizens at any time and learn what is their business. This land has too great liberty for the criminal class, and for that reason many find it easier to write blackmailing letters than to work.”
Another prominent Italian said that Italian crime could not be stamped out until every immigrant was compelled to show at the Barge Office a “Fedina Penale,” or moral passport, signed by the prefect of police of the district from which he came.
The Italian problem is peculiarly hard for the American to solve, because its roots go far deeper than American soil. The crimes of the Italian quarter have a character more in keeping with feudal times than the present age, and they reflect certain evil conditions in Italy at the present time which have been inherited from a lawless and semi-barbaric past. The barrel murder, for instance, has all the stamp of the Mafia, and the kidnapping of the Mannino boy has the very thumbmarks of the Camorra.
Of the four hundred thousand Italians who now form part of New York’s four millions, more than three-fourths are from Southern Italy and Sicily, where the Italian government has been least able to enforce law and order. In Sicily the Mafia is stronger to-day than in many a year, and in the slums of Palermo the Mafiosi are still celebrating the victory of Palizzolo, their chief, in having escaped from a lifelong imprisonment after he had been tried and convicted of a notorious murder.
All Italy knows that Palizzolo is the head of the Mafia in Sicily. He was charged, more than ten years ago, with killing the Marquis Notarbartolo, an Italian senator, mayor of Palermo, governor of the Bank of Sicily, and one of the island’s most distinguished men. On becoming mayor Notarbartolo aroused the enmity of Palizzolo by forcing him to restore to the municipal treasury large sums of money which Palizzolo is said to have stolen deliberately while city treasurer. The mayor investigated still further, and learned of other frauds and forgeries perpetrated by Palizzolo, and he persevered, in spite of the letters he continually received threatening him with death.
At length the bolt fell. The marquis was murdered on a train while on his way to procure the papers in the case. Palizzolo was arrested. The State spent nearly a million lire in the prosecution, and at last obtained the conviction of the Mafian chief. But the Mafiosi brought pressure to bear on certain officials, threatening them with death unless Palizzolo was released, and only the other day, as the result of a third trial, a frightened jury found him not guilty.
Elizabeth St., between Broome and Spring sts., is inhabited nearly wholly by Sicilians, and many of them at home were members of the Mafia. In company with an Italian detective a Tribune reporter made a tour of this part of the city, and learned that certain inhabitants of the district who are now storekeepers or liquor dealers were not only Mafiosi on the other side of the Atlantic, but had committed various murders at the direction of that order. No jury, however, dared to convict them.
“That undertaker over there,” said the detective, pointing to a sad, half-starved looking man leaning against a sign shaped like a baby’s coffin, “committed four murders in Sicily. Though he seems to bury here only those who die from natural causes, yet we have suspected him of foul work several times. On that other corner, where you see that short, thick-set fellow, with the bushy mustache, is another member of the Mafia, and I understand that he was high up in the organization. Few patronize his saloon, yet he seems to prosper. We have thought several times that he gets odd sums by blackmail, but we can prove nothing.”
The police discredit the belief that Sicilians who were members of the Mafia in their native land have reorganized here, although such an act would be most simple and easy. But whether or not the Mafiosi have transplanted their organization to these shores, they have revived here most of its traditions. Here are some of their proverbs: “The poor resort to force, fools resort to law.” “Take the life of whoever makes you lose the means of living.” “If I die I will be buried; if I live, you will be,” “Do not speak of what does not concern you, either good or evil.”
Whenever a crime is perpetrated in the Sicilian quarter the police find its inhabitants peculiarly dumb. Even the oldest Italian detectives are likely to meet with only shrugs and grunts in answer to their questions. The more ignorant, even though absolutely innocent, seem to feel that they must keep silent or else they will be drawn somehow into the net. At home they dreaded the police because, if they helped an officer, some relative of the pursued murderer might assassinate them as they slept. Loyalty is still stronger than law in most parts of Sicily.
It is estimated that more than one hundred thousand persons have settled here from the southern end of the Italian peninsula, and many of them have brought along the teachings of the Camorra, which until recent years prevailed in the provinces near Naples. At one time the Camorra was simply organized blackmail levied on rich and poor alike. Until a generation ago the Camorra thrived. It had members both among the poor artisans and the high officials of state. It undertook the transportation of smuggled goods. It contracted for the commission of theft or murder. If one wanted an enemy slain, he hired the Camorra. It extorted tribute from storekeepers, or, if they refused, boycotted them or set fire to their shops. It compelled professional men to pay blackmail by threatening them with financial ruin or death.
At the time Italy was reunited the Camorra became so powerful that it got control of the politics of Naples, and ran the city much according to the principles of Tammany Hall, only more openly. Offices were bought and sold, and the municipal treasury robbed till it was empty. At last the Italian government suspended the municipal administration of Naples, and in 1899 it ran the city itself. In 1901 the “Honest party” won the election, and instituted many reforms. The Neapolitans have settled here principally in Mulberry St. and in East 104th-st.
That Italian immigration contributes more than any other to the criminal element of this city may be seen from the records of Sing Sing prison, which is recruited chiefly from the metropolis. Although the Italians, according to the census of 1900, rank third in the population of the city, they rank first among the foreign born inmates of Sing Sing. The census records 275,102 New-Yorkers who were born in Ireland, 155,201 in Russia and 145,433 in Italy. At Sing Sing 151 of the 1,182 prisoners are natives of Italy, 60 of Russia and 52 of Ireland. At Auburn prison 49 are from Italy, 31 from Ireland and 10 from Russia.
The “black hand,” which has appeared on a number of threatening letters recently exposed, is of Sicilian origin, and is frequently used by those members of the Mafia which still terrorize the province of Syracuse. Such a letter was recently received by S. J. Polise, a tailor in Third-ave. It threatened Polise, his wife and child, with death unless he handed $200 to a “man with a black mustache and wearing dark clothing, with a white silk handkerchief,” at an uptown rendezvous. At the end of the letter there was a poorly drawn hand, which was blackened with ink. Although Polise said it was a joke, he has, nevertheless, obtained a permit to carry a revolver. Another letter having such an ominous emblem for a signature, was received the other day by Joseph Bruno, the fourteen-year-old son of a Newark fruit dealer. It was as follows:
“Dear Sir: If you don’t send $100 in 3 days we will kidnap you. Leave the money under a brick under the railroad on the right hand side. If you don’t, look out for yourself. Only a warning.
A pen drawing of a heart transfixed with a dagger decorated the lower left hand corner of the page.
The emblem of the Mafia has also appeared on many blackmailing letters. It is a crucifix on the arms of which is written the victim’s name.
The mania of blackmail has even spread to children, and among several boys who have been arrested for this crime are Henry Hebbner, a seventeen-year-old lad, and William Dekuski, eighteen years old, both of Brooklyn, who sent a letter demanding $500 of Dr. Truman Nichols, of No. 95 Rodney-st. A decoy package was placed at the specified rendezvous, and the boys were nabbed when they came to take it.
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