April 25, 2017

Stephan Talty

Catching a criminal gang red-handed
We talk to Stephan Talty about his new book about a diabolical gang of criminals and the detective determined to take them down, The Black Hand.
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Stephan Talty’s book The Black Hand focuses on Joseph Petrosino, the first Italian police detective sergeant in the U.S, and his obsession with bringing down a deadly secret society of Italian criminals—the Black Hand. With his "Italian Squad" of NYPD cops, Petrosino fought back against the society and their ruthless tactics of extortion, black mail and bombings that exacerbated already tense relations between native-born Americans and Italian immigrants. 

Talty, whose parents immigrated from County Clare, Ireland, is the author of five nonfiction books, and the co-author of A Captain’s Duty with Captain Richard Phillips, a book that was later made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. We contacted Talty at his home in New York to ask him a few questions about the fascinating detective, the echoes of Italian immigrants’ plight in today’s society and more.

You’ve written on a wide variety of historical subjects, from the Dalai Lama to the pirate Captain Henry Morgan. What brought you to Joseph Petrosino and the Black Hand secret society?
I’m drawn to people who achieve things against long odds, often when going up against an entrenched system. For Captain Morgan, it was the Spanish empire. For Petrosino, it was the Black Hand. The fact that my parents were both emigrants (from Ireland) probably played a part, as well. Immigrant stories feel personal to me.

From death threats to social rejection, Petrosino’s life was made incredibly difficult by his position on the police force and his dogged pursuit of the Black Hand. What do you think drove him to go to such lengths in his attempts to bring down the Black Hand?
Petrosino was like many immigrants who came from societies where governance was awful. He fell in love with America; he saw the government and civic life here as a gift. But he knew the number one obstacle to that goal was the American view that Italians were prone to crime. And the Black Hand advertised that in this extraordinarily vivid way. So it wasn’t only the individual murders and acts of extortion that he was fighting against—it was the image of the Italian American as a person who lived outside the law. Petrosino despised that image, and he thought by finishing off the Black Hand, he would be able to show Americans what Italians were truly like. So for him it was a war for the Italian-American soul.

The terror of the Black Hand fed into a deep fear of immigrants in America. Because of the Black Hand’s criminal activity, many people believed that all Italian immigrants were violent. Do you see any parallels between this 20th-century panic and the state of America’s view on immigration today?
I do. There are several patterns that you see again and again in how America sees immigrants. There’s often a belief that the new citizens still hold on to loyalties to foreign entities. With the Irish, it was the Pope. John F. Kennedy had to address this in his presidential campaign. For Italians in the early 1900s, it was secret societies, or what one journalist called the “alta Mafia,” the high Mafia. Some Americans really believed that a criminal mastermind in Naples would snap his fingers and his underlings in the U.S. would leap into action. The same thing is happening with Muslims—many people doubt their loyalty to the country and think that when push comes to shove, faith will trump patriotism. But that’s been proved wrong time and time again.

Petrosino was brilliant—a skilled detective, a master of disguise, a delightful dinner companion, an incorruptible cop and a patriot with a true desire to see justice done. With all these gifts, what do you think his greatest flaw was?
That’s a great question. He had small flaws that cut down on his effectiveness. He found it hard to trust people at first, in part, I think, because of the abuse he’d suffered as one of the few Italians in the largely Irish NYPD. He didn’t understand that other people found it difficult to be as physically brave as he was; he grew so angry at Black Hand victims who refused to testify that it’s a miracle he didn’t have a heart attack at some point in his career. But what hurt him the most was overconfidence at the end—he’d survived so many threats in New York that I think he went to Italy overestimating how untouchable he was.

Sensationalist tabloids helped spread the terror of the Black Hand. Do you see similar events unfolding in the press today?
I do. What’s interesting about that is that so many Americans at the time saw the Black Hand as a “medieval” organization. But really they were thoroughly modern: The Industrial Revolution brought the Italians to America, the modern press and the competition between dailies in New York acted as an advertising agency for the Black Hand, and their structure resembled a modern franchise system. Their success wouldn’t have been possible without modernity. I do think that the similarities with what’s happening today show that some features in human beings change very little over time: our fear of outsiders, our mistrust of the world beyond the Atlantic and Pacific.

While ruthless and brutal, the Blank Hand was undeniably effective and far-reaching, employing many clever tactics from coast to coast and even overseas. What do you think their greatest strength was?
When you look at statistics from that era, Italians committed fewer crimes per capita than many other ethnic groups. But it was the brilliance—you could almost say the theatricality of the crimes—that made them stand out. There was an elaborate process to a Black Hand job: the precise tone of the letters, the offers of help from family “friends” (who were often associates of the Black Hand gang), the psychology that allows the victim to be drained of his last cent. There’s just a sophistication to their methods that no other ethnic group could match. Many Italian Americans resent this association with crime that seems to follow them around generation after generation. And they’re right. But you almost have to admire the audacity and the cunning that went into being a Black Hander.

The majority of the NYPD loathed Petrosino’s Italian Squad. Why do you think they were so hostile toward such a successful unit of hardworking detectives?
Mostly, because they were Italian in a time when the NYPD was practically an Irish guild. Irish cops gave their 8-year-old sons little nightsticks to get them ready for the job. The NYPD was seen as a birthright, something the Irish had earned in full. So the fact that Petrosino and his band of Sicilians were digging out this foothold in the department—and performing brilliantly!—did not go down well. The Irish felt that Manhattan was their promised land, but so did many Italians.

So many Italian immigrants came to America hoping for a better life, only to be met with poverty and hatred. Some turned to the Black Hand society and crime. Do you think that if the reception of Italians in America had been different, the Black Hand would have gained power?
I do think that a great deal of the Black Hand’s power came from Italian culture and history. In the small towns of Southern Italy, the policeman and the government were enemies. It’s hard to shed that attitude in a matter of months. But what they found in America helped the criminals too, because Americans didn’t understand Italian crime and didn’t sympathize with Italian victims. That great line from The Godfather comes to mind: “They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” That’s often how Americans thought.

Petrosino is an engaging character, from his love of opera to his incredible and varied skills as a detective. What fact about him do you find most interesting or surprising?
He was unique. His memory was nothing short of astonishing. Then there are little flashes of humor to his personality—there are even reports that Petrosino, this hard-edged legend, would do imitations at parties after a few glasses of wine. But what I found the most remarkable thing was that he could even function under the pressure he was under. It’s one thing to be an Eliot Ness and to go after crime organizations with the full backing of your government, your people and your conscience. That’s difficult enough. But to wake up every morning knowing that there were hundreds of the men in the city who wanted to kill you, that genuinely saw you as a kind of Antichrist, and that thousands of your fellow countrymen considered you a sellout, and then to get almost no help from the FBI and the political leaders of the country you’d given up everything for, I just don’t know how he did it. How he carried on. That kind of spiritual toughness is special.

Did you talk to any intriguing sources while researching this book or discover any exciting firsthand material?
Petrosino’s granddaughter, Susan Burke, is still alive and I spoke with her. She actually remembered Petrosino’s wife, Adelina, and gave me these details of how scandalously independent Adelina was in the early 1900s. It was so much fun to talk to someone for whom this is family history.

The film rights to your book have been optioned by Paramount and the movie is set to star Leonardo DiCaprio. Have you been involved in the process of turning the book into a movie so far?
We’re still in the very early stages, so not really. I’d love to help. The clothes, the street scenes, the political atmosphere in the country at the time: you only have one shot to get those things right. I think it’s one of the great American immigrant stories, and it’s important to make it work.

(Author photo by Nathacha Vilceus.)

Get the Book

The Black Hand

The Black Hand

By Stephan Talty
ISBN 9780544633384

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