Friday, September 02, 2005

Enrico Caruso & the Black Hand

Until a year before his death in 1921 at age 48, Enrico Caruso was a star of the stage. No other dramatic tenor was his equal during his lifetime, and he became a pioneering recording artist, making phonographs for the Victor company as early as 1903.

While most Americans know him by his incredible performing voice, not so many know of his brush with the Sicilian-American extortion organization called the Black Hand. Originating in the Mediterranean in the 18th Century, the Black Hand was active in New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and other major American cities in the early 1900s. Its modus operanda was to send to an Italian immigrant a threatening letter adorned with images of crossbones, daggers, nooses, pistols or other unnerving symbols (including black hands), demanding money under penalty of injury or death. By some estimates, more than half the Italians who immigrated to New York during the late 1800s and early 1900s were threatened.

Caruso, a native of Naples, was an obvious, affluent target. He fearfully paid the society $2,000 upon demand. Alarmingly, he received a subsequent letter requiring $15,000. Caruso realized he had two choices: Devote his career to supporting the Black Hand, or go to the police. He took the latter course. Two Italian-Americans were arrested after retrieving the extortion money which Caruso delivered under the watch of officers.

The famous singer survived the Black Hand. Many others were shot, knifed or strangled. Sometimes the brutal executioners burned their bodies. The most notable victim was Giuseppe Petrosino, a New York City detective whose specific quest was to bring to justice the criminals of his native country who had become the scourge of the city’s “Little Italy” district. In March 1909, Petrosino arrived in Palermo, Sicily, to investigate Black Hand connections in the homeland. He was shot to death outside the Palazzo Steri, the city’s judicial building.


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