Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Book Review: Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society

 

Before the 1920s, the United States had little way to combat interstate crime. In some states law enforcement was purely local. Leave a city or county for the next one and you left the law behind. It was a perfect environment in which organized crime could grow — and organized crime existed before the 20th century, even in the United States.

Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America’s Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought them to Justice, by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce tells the tale of one of the federal government’s first attack on organized crime.

The Black Hand was a Sicilian crime syndicate that moved to the United States. It was unsophisticated; a protection racket. It blackmailed other Italian immigrants threatening victims with death if they failed to pay the demanded money, failed to do what the gang wanted (generally forwarding blackmail letters, but including joining), or if they reported the threats to the police.

It was astonishingly effective. Their targets, honest and successful Italian-American businessmen or professionals, mistrusted the local police. Gang members were ruthless, willing to kill anyone refusing their demands to make them examples. They shrouded their activities with anonymity, sending threats by mail and collecting through cutouts. Local law enforcement was not up to solving these crimes.

One of the few federal law agencies at that time was the US Post Office. Any crimes involving the mails could be investigated by Post Office Inspectors. In 1899, Frank Oldfield was one — the 156th inspector appointed.

Oldfield loved solving crimes; the more spectacular the better. After learning of this blackmail scheme, which used the U.S. mails, he wanted to break it. It was the biggest crime he had encountered. This book explores how he went after and dismantled the Black Hand.

The book is co-written by one of Oldfield’s descendants who inherited his great-grandfather’s surviving records. The result is a fascinating and fast-paced story, revealing a complex and unorthodox man’s strengths and weaknesses. Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society explores one of the take-downs of organized crime by the federal government.

Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America’s Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought them to Justice, by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce, Touchstone, 2018, 336 pages, $26


I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

There are 8 comments.

  1. Arahant Member

    Sounds interesting.

    • #1
    • October 28, 2018, at 11:25 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  2. JoelB Member

    Why is a picture of Pittsburgh, PA on the cover?

    • #2
    • October 28, 2018, at 12:13 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Seawriter Member
    Seawriter

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Why is a picture of Pittsburgh, PA on the cover?

    Good question. Most of the story takes place in various parts of Ohio, but some important parts do take place in Pittsburgh. Maybe that is what the cover artist found that is 1900-1910 Midwesternish.

    • #3
    • October 28, 2018, at 12:24 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. PHCheese Member

    That picture of Pittsburgh was taken from just about the spot where I went to high school on the Mt Washington section. The building nearest is the P&L E railroad building and the bridge next to it is the Smithfield St bridge.

    • #4
    • October 28, 2018, at 3:02 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. JoelB Member

    I have heard it said that the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, also known as little Italy was the safest in the city back in the day. The Mafia families lived there and nobody was allowed to mess with them ( or else). Can’t confirm that, just a story I heard. Bloomfield is pretty much the opposite side of town from where this picture was taken, but I don’t know if any photos of that area would have been as recognizable as part of Pittsburgh.

    • #5
    • October 28, 2018, at 5:23 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. PHCheese Member

    JoelB (View Comment):

    I have heard it said that the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, also known as little Italy was the safest in the city back in the day. The Mafia families lived there and nobody was allowed to mess with them ( or else). Can’t confirm that, just a story I heard. Bloomfield is pretty much the opposite side of town from where this picture was taken, but I don’t know if any photos of that area would have been as recognizable as part of Pittsburgh.

    Bloomfield would be to the left part of that picture out of the frame and at the horizon. Most parts of Pittsburgh were safe for the residents of that neighborhood,it was outsiders that were in trouble.

    • #6
    • October 28, 2018, at 8:12 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. PHCheese Member

    I did a little research and found that the cover picture was taken in 1905 the year my father was born. I researched the Smithfield St Bridge and found that same exact picture with the caption that it was taken 1905. The bridge was built in 1883 and is still in great shape. For you folks not from Pittsburgh the bridge is over the Monongahela River one of the few rivers that flows south to north. It never used to freeze because of all the hot water discharged by the steel mills.

    • #7
    • October 29, 2018, at 8:52 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. colleenb Member
    colleenb Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Heard the authors interviewed on CSpan and it sounded very interesting. Have it on my ever-expanding, never-to-be-completed-on-this-side-of-the-afterlife reading list.

    • #8
    • October 29, 2018, at 1:07 PM PDT
    • 1 like