By Maria Monte
When people hear the word Mafia, big cities like Kansas City, Chicago, and Las Vegas come to mind. Urban America was perfect breeding ground for organized crime and its followers in the early 1900s. Al Capone managed Chicago. Nicholas Civella controlled Kansas City and Charles "Lucky" Luciano, "the most important Italian-American gangster" that ever came out of the U.S., founded the national crime syndicate. According to author of The Story of the Italians in America, Michael Musmanno, the entire theme of the Mafia, as it existed in Sicily, implied that its members were above the law. The Mafia’s power, control, and reputation was so widespread that regardless of the crime no punishment would ever be handed down. However, argument resided with the remaining fact that Mafia big shots such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Vito Genoveso, along with numerous followers, were all sent to prison.
People all over the world are fascinated with the Mafia and its legacy, but few know how it came into existence. During the sixteenth century, the justice system in Sicily had become a mockery. Prisoners who were taken into custody quickly discovered that the right amount of money could simply unlock any jail door, also possessing the ability to sweep away evidence.
The word Mafia itself-its origin a mystery-supposedly generated from a well-known group of criminals who lived in the stone quarries of an area known as Mafie. The group became known as the Mafie gang. The word later evolved as other criminal gangs were identified as Mafie and eventually acquired the distinct title of Mafia because of their operations of terrorism and extortion. Not too long after, romanticists aided in the creation of fanciful tales about the Mafia, who soon came to wear a legendary cloak similar to that of Robin Hood.
It is doubtful that Italian immigrants ever expected to witness the acts of the Mafia after entering the infamous United States. However, it is apparent in the history books that the ghost of the Mafia did in fact cross the Atlantic and terrorize America. As organized crime became more prevalent and the name of the Mafia well known, the burglaries, murders and extortion that was once exclusive to Italy, flourished in urban America. The act of extortion has many facets, but one popular form became known as Black Hand Society. Its identity originated from letters they would send to families and storeowners, displaying a handprint at the bottom of the paper in black ink. Thus, the name Black Hand was given. Some historians believe the Black Hand racket was never more than a loosely run extortion racket that was practiced in the Little Italy sections of many American cities. It was claimed to be a pay-or-die shakedown of the Italian community in which murder often followed if a victim refused to pay by means of money or favors.
One particular Little Italy that experienced a mild form of Black Hand is a little village along the Ohio River, which had its own taste of organized crime in the early 1900s. To the Italian community of Wellsville, Ohio, Black Hands were men who would travel from house-to-house soliciting some type of service for money or returned favors. Their services commonly consisted of offering protection, paying off debts, or taking care of any pests or problems one might have. Here, their victims were simply harassed. There were never any murders for turning away the solicitors in Wellsville, but the visitors were persistent.
Wellsville was home to many Italian immigrants. Among the Monte family were other Italian families such as Cataldo, DiLeo, Amato, DiCello and Creotor. Thus, it was perfect operating grounds for Black Hands to operate, especially those who were familiar with Italian culture and the work of the Italian Mafia. Many would claim that such a small community would not have been likely to experience such influences. Some experts even claim the Black Hand racket never existed, but as witness to extortion, the Monte family disagrees.
In 1908, Samuel Monteleone emigrated from Catanzaro, Italy to the United States. When he arrived at Ellis Island, his surname was shortened to Monte because he could not speak or write English. Samuel continued westward where he settled in Martins Ferry, Ohio and lived with his older brother, Bruno, who had emigrated several years earlier. Samuel was only fifteen years old and in order to get a job with the railroad company, he lied about his age.
Later in his life, he was introduced to Eula Burrachio who lived with her parents, also immigrants, in Weirton, West Virginia. Samuel, now thirty-one years old, fell in love with Eula who was only sixteen years old. It was not an unusual custom in Italian culture for a young girl to marry an older gentleman. So, Samuel and Eula were married.
In the 1924, they moved to Wellsville, Ohio-which lies against mammoth tree-covered hills that border the Ohio River. In its prime, the town was known for its railroads, its industry, and its abundance of Italian immigrants. Now, with only a population of approximately 4,200, Wellsville is home to a few still-operating family-owned pizza shops, several old taverns, some antique stores, and several banks. The town’s history, however, is preserved at the Wellsville River Museum, which holds artifacts, pictures, and documents of the formerly thriving riverside city.
Samuel and Eula bought a small two-story house on Commerce Street. Here they raised eleven children; four girls and seven boys. My father, Michael, is the youngest. He, along with his brothers and sisters, recalls Black Hands knocking on doors in their neighborhood.
"When I was younger, there were several men that would come to the neighborhood about once every month. They would walk from house to house and knock on the doors, visiting all the Italian families in the neighborhood," says Michael. It is difficult to prove that these particular Black Hands were associated with the Mafia, but nonetheless they conducted their own form of organized crime in Wellsville.
Michael says, "The men were offering their services of protection or money to pay off debts, but my father always turned them down. Every time. Everyone knew that if you accepted their offer, someday they would ask you for a favor."
The activity of forcing favors upon community members was nothing new to those who were native to regions of Italy influenced by the Mafia. This form of forced friendship is modernly associated with the famous three-part movie series, The Godfather. In similar Little Italies, the men who solicited their services throughout the Italian communities would have most likely worked for a local mob boss, just as men worked for Don Corleone in the popular Mafia flick.
In addition, some speculate that the Black Hand was simply a sinister American-based branch or version of the Sicilian Mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra, the two largest criminal societies in Italy, which practiced extortion rackets. Long before Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese made newspaper headlines, the myths of widespread organized crime "controlled by foreign-born villains in America" provided convenient comfort to reformers who were frustrated with their failed attempts to diminish social problems in a society that was growing more and more urbanized. (There was also an actual society of the Black Hand in Europe, but it had nothing to do with either the Mafia or the Camorra.)
Monte says, "No one really ever talked about what went on in the neighborhood. And I’m sure some of the families accepted such generous offers and their so-called friendship. But for some reason, moral or otherwise, my father always turned down their offer, no matter how many times they approached him. They never gave him a tough time about it, just kept asking from time to time."
As organized crime became more prevalent and bribed authority figures were discovered, communities all over the country became less tolerant of such crimes and extortion and began reporting things to the authorities who were still clean. As local enforcements gained back their authority, more and more people with ties to the Mafia were ending up in jails or being murdered by rival families. Thus, the operation of the Black Hands in Wellsville was rather short lived and ended by the 1960s.
Carl Sifakis states in his book, The Mafia Encyclopedia, "What the newspapers called the Black Hand Society never really existed in America-or anywhere else. That’s cold comfort to the hundreds who number among their victims, forming a bloody trail that makes it easy to understand why there have been and still are today politicians and investigators who speak of the Black Hand as being synonymous with the Mafia." Thus, a distinction must be made that the term Black Hand became synonymous with Mafia only through newspaper reporters who traced connections of Mafia members to Black Hand rackets. Wellsville may not have been housing a mob boss, but rather experienced a very similar form of organized crime.
Mafia Terminology (taken from Carl Sifakis’ The Mafia Encyclopedia)
Kiss of Death: Mafia murder signal-an opponent was informed by a kiss on the lips that his days were numbered.
Four Deuces: Capone mob headquarters and vice den.
Contract: murder assignment; a mob killing was called a contract because murders were, in fact, strictly business.
Bagman: Payoff man or collector; an underworld character who carried a supply of money-cash to be used for bribes, collected from bribers, or for other illegal enterprises.
Clean Graft: Payoffs to politicians and police; the corrupting force among police, prosecutors, judges and politicians.
Consigliere: Mafia "advisor"; functioned as a kind of chief executive officer and supervised many family operations and saw to it that the orders of the family were carried out.
Tommy Gun: mobster weapon; The Thompson submachine gun-nicknamed the "tommy gun"-effective up to 600 yards and spewed out 1,500 rounds a minute.
Hitting the Mattresses: gang war tactic; long-established custom among mobsters goin to war against rival gangs; means being under siege away from home in bare rooms containing only mattresses on the floor-they would be thrown up against windows and doors for protection from a shoot out.