Taking Down America's First Organized Crime Ring

Aug 19, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the early 1900s, Italian businesses across the U.S. began receiving mysterious letters demanding large sums of money. Many were signed with a hand print and the words La Mano Nera - or the Black Hand. If the recipients couldn't pay or went to the police, the extortionists promised death. With local law enforcement in the dark and the FBI in its infancy, there was only one agency that had the resources to take down the criminals - the United States Postal Service. That's because any crime committed using the post office fell under the jurisdiction of the post office inspector general. And leading the charge against the Black Hand was an inspector called Frank Oldfield.

In the new book "Inspector Oldfield And The Black Hand Society: America's Original Gangsters And The U.S. Postal Detective Who Brought Them To Justice," Oldfield's great-grandson William Oldfield, along with co-author Victoria Bruce, describe the takedown of America's earliest organized crime ring. Oldfield joins me now at our NPR studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program.

WILLIAM OLDFIELD: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to say I had no idea. I mean, these were inspectors who could investigate any crime anywhere in the world as long as it had some link to the mail.

OLDFIELD: Correct. The post office goes all the way back to 1775. And treaties came with that all over the world. As the United States became a country, began to grow, we continue to have to have commerce around the world, everything shipped through the post. So a post office inspector was given carte blanche. All they had to do was give it or write a note and say, we're seizing this wagon, this train. We're rerouting it wherever we have to get our man, as they said.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about the villains of the story because they are very colorful. One group was known as the Society of the Banana, which was a very inventive name. And it was run by Salvatore Lima. Tell us about him.

OLDFIELD: Salvatore Lima and his brother-in-law Sebastian Lima were both entrepreneurial characters - had a wonderful fruit business in Marion, Ohio, saw themselves as bigger than life. They saw in Ohio the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Bolton, the Steinbrenners, the Mathers. All these businesses were growing and had multimillions of dollars in these mansions all over the place. And they said, you know what? We want this. We want a piece of this. And a piece of the American dream - how do we get it? Well, we get it in any way we can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, this is set during a period of the great migration from Italy to the United States - millions of Italian immigrants were coming here. But Lima and these others involved in the mafia - they imported that from Sicily, right? They came from this specific part of Italy which had already sort of these criminal groups imbedded.

OLDFIELD: The Black Hand or the Hand of Death concept comes from mafia or the band of men that were usually hired as - for protection by wealthy landowners and other people. If that landowner couldn't continue to pay them, they stayed together and usually went out on their own and created force protection where they would force you to buy insurance, basically against them but also against anyone else. That concept continued because we had millions - actually 2 million - Italian immigrants come to the United States. And when they set up shop in the United States, they found that they could create organizations - this one specifically - where they could begin to grow the organization nationwide and then send money back to Sicily, to, basically, the headquarters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I see a piece of paper in front of you because you brought one letter that the Black Hand sent to its victims and that you have from your papers and documents from your great-grandfather. So tell me a little bit about their threats and tactics and what you have in front of you.

OLDFIELD: If I could just quickly just read you...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Please.

OLDFIELD: ...It's very short. A translation of a letter from Salvatore Lima writes this letter to Gitano de Camilli (ph), a saloon owner in Cleveland, Ohio. And it says (Reading) De Camilli, from one of our secret spies, we have learned that you have informed the police, contrary to our warnings. Therefore, it is time to die. And on the first occasion, you will feel a bullet in your stomach, coward. You have willed it, and you will die like a dog. The terrible Black Hand.

And, of course, there's a graphic of a heart with a dagger in it, a skull and crossbones. Any family...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Terrifying getting that. Yeah, if I had got that, I would be pretty scared.

OLDFIELD: ... And the parents, you know, and the children of these Italian families - most of them can't speak English yet. They don't know whether to trust the police. Since they are so terrified, they just pay. Or they die. Or many of them closed their businesses and moved back to Italy, if you can believe it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

OLDFIELD: After that huge, huge trip to the United States, the big risk that they took to come here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't want to give too much away because there's a lot more that happens, obviously, in the book. But it is a successful operation. I mean, essentially, your great-grandfather was able to sort of crack the case.

OLDFIELD: They were very lucky, maybe bending a few rules on the way, threatening a few witnesses as well as bad guys because witnesses didn't want to come forward. They had to coerce the witnesses too or no one would testify. So there was a lot of that going on. And when we finally get to the point of indictments, 14 men, you know, get indicted. And if you can believe it, not for the murders and the bombings and the maimings that they've done but for defrauding the U.S. mail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of evidence from the trial ended up inside steamer trunks passed down by family members to you, which is where this book is sort of born and comes from. But your family, you write, wanted to keep this story quiet, which seems extraordinary to me. Your mom even told you to just burn everything and get on with your life. Why?

OLDFIELD: We were afraid. We lived in northeastern Ohio. You had Youngstown, which in Cleveland - in the '70s, Cleveland was the bombing capital of America.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the fear was that they were going to come and get you?

OLDFIELD: There was retaliation. We had famous mobsters living all around, you know, in the Great Lakes area - Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Akron. Mafia was big in the '60s and '70s and even in the '80s. And something else we also wanted to show was respect for the descendants because most of the descendants of these gangsters - they become some of the most prominent and successful citizens in the United States. Let's just keep the secret.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't want to make it uncomfortable and tarnish, you know, the entire community with stories about something that happened quite a long time ago.

OLDFIELD: Exactly. I mean, let sleeping dogs lie, as some people say.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you didn't, though, did you?

OLDFIELD: No, I couldn't finally - I couldn't take it anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is that why?

OLDFIELD: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you, why did you feel like the story needed to be heard?

OLDFIELD: My father died in '89. Talked to him a little bit about it. And he kind of rolled his eyes and didn't really say much. And our communication back then was basically, let it go. Just let it go. And again, the same thing happened when I was taking care of my mother before she passed. The same eye roll, the same let it go. But if you can't absolutely tell the truth of both sides of the story - because the families on both sides will be affected today. Their history will affect them in the present.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I have to ask you. How has it been received?

OLDFIELD: Well, let's go with the families of the bad guys. Two or three of them - and they shall remain nameless - over the past 14 years have communicated with me and asked me not to tell the story without any direct threats - but very polite, gentlemanly threats of, this would be embarrassing. It's not a good idea - that sort of thing. And they were very prominent, by the way, and would rather just let it go. Now, on my family's side, there's been a little bit of pushback. The majority of my family are very excited about it because it's a cathartic moment. We can finally just let this go. It's over. It's out. And we can get it done. And everybody knows. While other ones are saying, I wish you'd just kept it put away - because they're still nervous about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: William Oldfield's new book with co-author Victoria Bruce is "Inspector Oldfield And The Black Hand Society." It's out this Tuesday. Thank you very much.

OLDFIELD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.