Friday, June 16, 2017

The Black Hand: the Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History

The Black Hand / Stephan Talty, 298 pp.

Joseph Petrosino is an American hero that most of us have never heard of.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a form of organized crime developed in Italian-American communities which was new for its time.  Members of the mysterious Black Hand would kidnap people, in particular entirely innocent children, and demand cooperation with their protection racket in exchange for the prisoner's life.  Talty draws a skilful portrait of the helpless terror families faced, and of the idealistic, almost supernaturally courageous Petrosino, the first Italian-American detective of the New York police force.

A great all-around slice of history, Talty is especially strong when looking at the effects of prejudice on policing; in this case, the largely Irish NYPD saw the Black Hand's predations as just Italians doing their violent Italian thing.  The result was that the Black Hand grew unchecked for years before Petrosino stubbornly climbed the ranks and pushed for more vigorous policing of his community.  Eerily and depressingly similar to Jill Leovy's analysis of under-policing of African-American communities in Ghettoside.

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