I figured I would give Stephan Talty's new book, The Black Hand
, a try. Any book that gets a movie deal involving Leonardo DiCaprio before it even has been released must be good, right?
After many years of research into the Black Hand, Joseph Petrosino, the NYPD Italian Squad and the early Mafia, I have some familiarity with the subject matter. I acquired the Kindle version as it was released this morning. (Fourteen-ninety-nine?! For a stream of electrons? Are you KIDDING me?) I quickly looked it over. I noted that it has an index, a bibliography and some endnotes - items important to those of us who do research.
I set to reading it, but I didn't get very far before I found something troubling. Chapter 1 begins with a description of what Talty claims was the first U.S. murder performed by a Sicilian "Black Hand Society." This was the killing of Francisco (Talty spelled the name Fransisco) Domingo on January 3, 1855.
According to Talty, the victim was found dead of multiple stab wounds - more than a dozen in all, plus another one across his throat from ear to ear - near the Mississippi River a short distance from New Orleans. Domingo apparently had been dead awhile, as Talty notes the blood on the neck wound was "caking thickly in the heat." (Must have been a particularly warm January in New Orleans.) The waters of the river, Talty says, were just a few feet from the corpse's "out-flung hand."
This is intended to show us that an organized "Black Hand Society" (Talty often refers to it as "The Society") was already extorting payments and murdering uncompliant targets in America at that time.
In the book's endnotes, Talty shares the blame for this tale with historian Michael L. Kurtz. Talty correctly points to Kurtz. That historian started off a 1983 article in the Louisiana History
journal with precisely the same January 3, 1855, murder story and almost precisely the same wording (even the same misspelling of Francisco). Kurtz wrote that Domingo had been stabbed "over a dozen times, and his throat was slit from ear to ear."
In that article, Kurtz indicated that the details of the Black Hand murder of Domingo came from a couple of sources. One was the January 4, 1855, issue of the New Orleans True Delta
newspaper and the other was (insert ominous music here) the book Brothers in Blood
by David Leon Chandler.
I should mention that Chandler is someone to whom I owe an odd sort of debt. If his 1975 book had not contained so many obvious fabrications, I probably never would have chosen to spend so much of my time and resources digging up and writing about TRUE
crime history (thereby avoiding the poverty and obscurity I now cherish).
Kurtz's citation of Chandler was correct. Brothers in Blood
did report an elaborate story relating to the Domingo killing. Chandler claimed that Domingo, a truck farmer, was stabbed eighteen times (Eighteen! proving that when Chandler concocted a story, he went all in) and was also slashed across the throat (the "ear to ear" thing was added by Kurtz) before being dumped at the New Orleans levee. The murder of Domingo, according to Chandler, was never solved.
Chandler insisted that Domingo was identified as a Sicilian despite his Spanish-sounding surname. That's strange but very convenient, considering the whole Sicilian Black Hand theme he was about to explore.
The author went on to state that Domingo's widow provided authorities with samples of extortion letters her husband had received. These were signed, Chandler said, by hand prints in black ink. So, there we have the appearance of the dreaded Black Hand that so excited Stephan Talty that he led off his first chapter with this incident.
However, even Chandler, who elsewhere delivered his misinformation with great conviction, was somewhat hesitant to connect the Domingo killing with a Sicilian criminal organization. He noted that Black Handers were not always organized and not always Sicilian or even Italian. He also explained in a footnote that the ethnic backgrounds of the victim and the killer in this case were uncertain.
Chandler reported that the details of his story came from the January 4, 1855, issue of the New Orleans True Delta
The fact that Chandler said these things caused me to doubt them. It didn't take long to find out the truth of the Domingo killing. We will simply have to wonder why Kurtz and Talty repeated the Chandler tale (and imagined they would get away with it).
|Daily Picayune of June 24, 1855, thought the case was solved.|
I quickly found articles on the killing in the New Orleans Picayune
, New Orleans Bee
and New Orleans Daily Delta
. These articles were entirely in agreement that Francisco Domingo was fatally stabbed at about five-thirty in the afternoon of Thursday, January 4, 1855 - not Jan. 3. Domingo and a man named Guillermo Ballerio (or something spelled reasonably close to "Ballerio"), both fishermen (neither farmed trucks or anything else), had an argument during supper inside a home they shared on Marigny Street with a number of other fishermen. They decided to settle it like gentlemen. When Ballerio quickly found himself at a disadvantage in the fisticuffs, he opted to settle it like something other than a gentleman. He pulled a knife and plunged it into Domingo's side.
Just once. Not more than a dozen times or eighteen times. And just in the side. Not across the throat.
Domingo was never found dead by the side of the Mississippi with his blood baking in the (January) heat. He was, in fact, taken to Charity Hospital. Doctors could do little more than keep him comfortable and await the inevitable. Domingo died at the hospital the following day.
The newspaper accounts mention nothing about extortion, nothing about Domingo's wife, nothing about an inky Black Hand and nothing about Sicily. And it turns out they had good reasons for these omissions.
The case Chandler said was never solved, well, it actually was solved and almost immediately. Ballerio was arrested. An inquest at the end of the month found that he had caused the death of Domingo by penetrating Domingo's lung with a knife. Ballerio was charged before Recorder Seuzeneau in February and brought to trial before First District Judge Robertson in June. A jury returned a guilty verdict for manslaughter late on the evening of June 19 (or perhaps early in the morning of June 20). On June 24, Judge Robertson sentenced Ballerio to serve seven years at hard labor in the penitentiary.
OK, so that's the story from the Daily Picayune
and the Bee
and the Daily Delta
. But the stories of Chandler and Kurtz (and, by extension, Talty) still could have been drawn on some nonsense published in the January 4 issue of the New Orleans True Delta
newspaper. That's the one Chandler and Kurtz claimed to use as their source. Maybe that newspaper - and no others - published the stuff about the wife and the Black Hand and Sicily and multiple stab wounds and the Mississippi River and... all that.
There aren't many copies of the January 4, 1855, True Delta
floating around. But with help from Becky Smith, head of Reader Services of the Historic New Orleans Collection at the Williams Research Center
, I obtained a copy of that issue.
|New Orleans Daily True Delta, Jan. 4, 1855.|
It didn't even mention the Domingo killing. And, if you think about it, that actually makes a good deal of sense because those historians placed the killing one day earlier than it actually occurred. True Delta
went to press on January 4 before the stabbing happened and a day before Domingo died. The newspaper did not mention the incident even in the January 5 issue. Whether it did so sometime after that seems of little consequence. The Chandler and Kurtz citations of True Delta
Funny thing about Domingo's surname. He had that Spanish-sounding name because - you may want to sit down for this - he was Spanish!
He and Ballerio were both from Manilla in the Philippines. As you probably recall, the Philippines were a Spanish colony from the time of Magellan's visit there in 1521 until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. A listing of passenger arrivals in New Orleans actually shows Spanish citizen Francisco Domingo, then 25, entering the U.S. from Havana Cuba aboard the Brig Salvadora
on September 13, 1847.
Interesting side note: the criminal phenomenon that first became known as the Black Hand had its roots in Spain.
After all of this, I was left staring at Talty's book wondering if I should try to read another paragraph. I decided instead to skip around to a few random pages to check things out.
I noticed Talty's use of an alternate spelling for Petrosino biographer Arrigo Petacco's surname. (The name appears as "Petacco" on his book, Joe Petrosino
, but has also often been written as "Pettaco." I "Googled" it, and found quite a few uses of this spelling.) There was a far less common alternate spelling for the name of the Trinacria cafe ("Trinarcia" - don't bother "Googling" that one).
The book included an often repeated but still inaccurate mention of Petrosino working as a city street sweeping "whitewing." (The white uniform that inspired that nickname was not in use until years after Petrosino had moved on to other things. He and the other sweepers actually swept streets in their own clothes.) And there was an interesting Talty insistence that Vito Cascio Ferro was such a genius that he masterminded the courtroom defense of 1903 Barrel Murder suspects even though he could not have anticipated their arrest and fled New York for New Orleans as soon as he became aware of it.
In my final random selection, I found some familiar stuff about Petrosino's ostensibly Irish assistant "Hugh Cassidy" actually being an Italian with the real name of Ugo Cassidi. I think I first saw that written in NYPD: A City and its Police
by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto. It's a neat story. But it makes me wonder about the Irish-born city police officer named Hugh Cassidy listed as a resident of East 119th Street in the 1900 U.S. Census. (Coincidence?)
Stephan Talty and Leonardo DiCaprio have no reason to care what I think. But I am unimpressed with what fourteen-ninety-five buys these days.
- Chandler, David Leon, Brothers in Blood: The Rise of the Criminal Brotherhoods, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975.
- Kurtz, Michael L. "Organized Crime in Louisiana History: Myth and Reality," Louisiana History, Fall 1983, New Orleans: Louisiana Historical Association, 1983, p. 355.
- Lardner, James and Thomas Reppetto, NYPD: A City and its Police, New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
- Talty, Stephan, The Black Hand, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
- List of passengers arrived from foreign ports in the port of New Orleans, quarterly abstract, September 1847.
- United States Census of 1900, New York State, New York County, Ward 12, Enumeration District 940.
- New Orleans True Delta, Jan. 4, 1855; Jan. 5, 1855.
- "Third District: Another Probable Murder," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 5, 1855, p. 1.
- "Third District: Probable Murder," New Orleans Bee, Jan. 6, 1855, p. 1.
- Third District: The Supposed Murder," New Orleans Daily Picayune, Jan. 6, 1855, p. 2.
- "Inquests," New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, Feb. 2, 1855.
- "Committed for murder," New Orleans Daily Delta, Feb. 11, 1855, p. 8.
- "The Courts," New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 20, 1855, p. 2.
- "City intelligence," New Orleans Bee, June 21, 1855, p. 1.
- "The Courts," New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 24, 1855, p. 4.