Student Showcase: The Black Hand: alien or socially derived? [Elycia Elsom, BA History student, Year 2]

Student Showcase: The Black Hand: alien or socially derived? [Elycia Elsom, BA History student, Year 2]

This blog post was written by Elycia Elsom, a 2nd year BA History student undertaking the module A History of International Crime.

Two theories have emerged in the discussion of organised crime: Social disorganisation and alien conspiracy. Social disorganisation explores how social conditions can shape individuals and push them towards organised crime(Lombardo, 2013: 19).  On the other hand, alien conspiracy discusses an implantation of outside attitudes and activities designed to invade and corrupt (Paoli, 2014: 33). However, which one can adequately explain the rise of Black Hand activity in the United States?

The Black Hand

An example of a Black Hand letter
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Individuals within Italian communities in the United States held their neighbours hostage, and the way that they did this was Black Hand activity (WETA and Ark Media, 2015).  It was a form of extortion where victims would be sent a letter asking for money along with a location to meet. These letters were accompanied with a threat of violence if the money was not paid (Nelli, 1981: 70).  They gained their name as the letters contained a drawing of a black hand along with other threatening illustrations. This type of activity typically targeted wealthy Italians (Lombardo, 2004: 268).

The Alien Conspiracy

The alien conspiracy theory on organised crime assumes that “Italian-immigrants imported the problem of organised crime” into the United States. It explains that organised crime occurs as “outsiders threaten society” (Paoli, 2014: 33). However, it does not accurately explain the emergence of Black Hand activity. A vital aspect of the alien conspiracy theory is that it begins as several small criminal gangs (as those demonstrated at the time of the Black Hand) that continued to grow in size and power during prohibition (Mastrofski and Potter, 1987: 271).  However, those who participated in Black Hand activity scarcely progressed into other forms of organised crime (Critchley, 2009: 35).

Another idea on organised crime that comes from the alien conspiracy theory is that those who participated in the underworld in the United States belonged “feudal, secret, outlaw societies” such as the Mafia and Camorra (Mastrofski and Potter, 1987: 270).  The Black Hand was seen as one single organisation because the criminals that participated used similar methods of extortion. But in fact, there were many small groups (Lombardo, 2002: 396). Furthermore, there was no evidence to suggest that Black Hand activity had any connection with the Mafia in Sicily or the Camorra in Naples (Critchley, 2009: 35.) So if the Black Hand was not the result of outside invasion, could its roots lie in the United States?

Social disorganisation

Mulberry Street, A Little Italy in New York
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the late nineteenth century, immigration from Italy rose dramatically from 74,687 in 1890 to 145,429 by 1900 (Critchley, 2008: 14). Instead of spreading proportionately across the cities they inhabited, Italian immigrants kept together and formed communities that became known as Little Italies. Within these communities, the residents recreated southern Italian society (WETA and Ark Media, 2015). In Chicago, in particular, immigrants initially settled in “outlying areas of the city and even the suburbs.” This isolated them from the rest of the city’s population (Vecoli, 1983: 6).

Social disorganisation is a theory that explains the emergence of organised crime, and control theory is a subsection within it. It explains that “deviant acts result when an individual’s bond to society is weakened” (Lombardo, 2013: 19). This theory can be easily applied to the rise of Black Hand activities. Despite a sense of togetherness that the Little Italies produced, conditions that the Italian immigrants lived in were appalling (U.S. Works Progress Administration, 1939: 19).

Children living in Mulberry bend on Mulberry street
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In his exploration of control theory, Frederic Thrasher stated that gangs presented an alternative way of living than what society was offering and also provided relief from day to day life (Thrasher, 2013: 37). This is evident in the lives of Italian immigrants who lived in a “purgatory of unrelieved squalor,” with many sleeping in “damp basements” and clammy cellars” (U.S. Works Progress Administration, 1939: 19). Additionally, Thrasher states that “low wages” and “unemployment” creates the right environment for crime. Many Italian immigrants faced large-scale unemployment coupled with racial prejudice, which severely restricted them in the labour market (Critchley, 2009: 14). With these conditions, Little Italies were the perfect environment for crime to emerge, and the Black Hand was one of the first types to do so. The targeting of primarily wealthy Italians (Lombardo, 2004: 268) demonstrates how the Black Hand was at first, a result of these conditions. This targeting hints at jealousy for the success of only some Italian immigrants when many others were facing unemployment and poverty. Furthermore, the majority, if not all, of the victims being Italian highlights the isolation of their community, they could not access wealthy Americans due to their separation within their cities (WETA and Ark Media, 2015).


To conclude, while alien conspiracy raises valid points on the emergence of organised crime, the Black Hand does not fit its mold. It was not a part of a higher organisation,(Critchley, 2009: 35)  nor did it expand further into the underworld (Lombardo, 2002: 396).  On the other hand, social disorganisation and control theory explain its emergence more accurately. It is clear to see how the conditions in Little Italies that Italian immigrants lived in would lead to wanting for a better life, and subsequently, how this leads to crime. The unemployment and poverty that they suffered through along with the isolation they faced in their cities shaped Black Hand activity initially.

Reference List

Critchley, D. (2009) The Origin of Organized Crime in America The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. New York: Routledge

Lombardo, R. M. (2002) ‘The Black Hand Terror by Letter in Chicago’ Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice [online] 18 (4), 394-409. DOI: 10.1177/104398602237685

Lombardo, R. M. (2004) ‘The Black Hand: A Study in Moral Panic.’ Global Crime [online] 6 (3-4), 267-284. DOI: 10.1080/17440570500273366

Lombardo, R. M. (2013) Organised Crime in Chicago Beyond the Mafia. Chicago: University of Illinois Press

Mastrofski, S. and Potter, G. (1987) ‘Controlling Organized Crime: A Critique of Law Enforcement Policy’ Criminal Justice Policy Review [online] 2 (3), 269-301. DOI: 10.1177/088740348700200305

Nelli, H. S. (1981) The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Paoli, L. (2014) The Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Thrasher, F. (2013) The gang: a study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

U.S. Works Progress Administration. (1939) The Italians of New York. New York: Random House

Vecoli, R. J. (1983) ‘The formation of Chicago’s “Little Italies”’ Journal of American Ethnic History [online] 2 (2), 5-20. available from <>

WETA and Ark Media. (2015) The Italian Americans [online] available from <> [21 November 2019]