White Hand Society

In 1907, an odd exercise in law and order was attempted in Chicago by an organization of Italian business and professional men, the Italian Chamber of Commerce, Italian newspapers and several Italian fraternal orders. For one of the rare times in American history, an ethnic group, the White Hand Society, was organized to fight criminals of the same ethnic background. (The more common tendency among all ethnics is to belittle such criminal activity as a slur upon the entire group, something Italian Americans started doing a half-century later.)

At the time, the Chicago Italian community was being terrorized by Black Hand gangsters. Black Hand extortionists were rampant in every big-city "Little Italy" in the country, but nowhere as active as in Chicago. The Black Handers threatened people with maiming or death—for the victim or members of their families—unless tribute was paid.

Murder victims of the Black Hand—many of these extortionists were mafiosi although others were not or only pretended to be Mafia (or Camorra) members—ranged anywhere from a dozen to as many as 50 a year in Chicago.

Hiring attorneys and private detectives, the White Handers, virtually every one of whom was threatened with death, sought to cooperate with the police to exterminate the Black Hand by providing them with the evidence needed for convictions. It was a vital function since the police, having little knowledge of the various Italian dialects or of Italian customs, had done little on their own—and some said had little interest in doing so.

The White Handers brought about the conviction of several Black Handers and drove from the city what were described as the 10 most dangerous of the terrorist gangsters. Unfortunately, many of the Black Handers convicted were quickly released on parole through the efforts of fellow conspirators who put up cash to suborn officials. These Black Handers returned to their extortion activities with a vengeance.

What had started out as a most impressive citizens' effort to fight crime sputtered to a stop. In 1912, Dr. Joseph Damiani, the president of the White Hand Society, said in an interview with the Chicago Record-Herald that the members of the group "were so discouraged by the lax administration of justice they were refusing to advance further money to prosecute men arrested on their complaints."

They were further disheartened by the fact that they were unable to bring to justice the notorious Shotgun Man, a known assassin who carried out many murder assignments for the Black Handers. Witnesses viewed the failure of the society to keep convicted terrorists in prison as sufficient reason to consider only their own personal peril if they testified.

Another woe for the society was the fact that many rank-and-file Italians had come to feel that the White Hand effort to expose crime in the Italian community was leading to a backlash against all Italians by other Chicagoans, a viewpoint unfortunately well founded. By 1913, the White Hand disbanded; the Black Handers extended their reign of terror for the next several years.