Black Hand in Baltimore

Black Hand in Baltimore

Antonio Lanasa received a threatening letter in August 1906. A black cross with the inscription “Everlasting Death” was crudely drawn in ink at the top of the page. Below the cross was written:

“We of the Black Hand advise you once more and no more, because we have waited too long and don’t intend to wait any longer. If you don’t wish any disaster in your family we want $5,000. You must give it to the man you saw last week. This is the last time. Don’t do like many others do or you will regret it. We want it at 12 o’clock August 14. We know you. We sign ourselves, “The Head of the Black Hand and Company.”

Antonio was the owner of a fruit importing business in Baltimore, Maryland. He and his elderly parents, Michael and Giuseppa, had received a similar letter a few weeks earlier. They turned the letter over to the Baltimore police.

Antonio Lanasa

Antonio Lanasa

After the arrival of the second threatening letter, the Lanasa family became very alarmed. Giuseppa Lanasa sent a message back that she would pay as much as she could. A few days later a man showed up at the Lanasa’s home. He confronted Mrs. Lanasa and demanded the money. When she told him she didn’t have it, he thrust another letter into her hands and quickly left. She immediately located a policeman, who caught up with the man and arrested him.

The man, Ignazio Castellano, claimed to be a recent immigrant to America from Italy. After he was arrested he was searched and officers found more threatening letters on him. He couldn’t speak English, though several officers said they heard him speaking English shortly after he was arrested. Another man, Romeo Rosario, who was barely out of his teens, was also arrested and charged with delivering extortion letters to the Lanasa family.

Through an interpreter Castellano told the police that he’d been working in a factory in New York when four Italian men suggested that he could make a lot more money in Baltimore. After he arrived the men began giving him letters to deliver to the Lanasa family. He claimed he didn’t know what the letters contained or the whereabouts of the men. But he was convinced that they were watching him all the time. He said that if he didn’t follow their orders, they would kill him.

Castalano and Rosario photos - Newspapers.com

The Baltimore Sun, August 21, 1906

Castellano and Rosario were tried for extortion. Rosario was found not guilty but Castellano was found guilty of sending threatening letters and conspiring to kill Antonio Lanasa. The conviction earned him a six-year sentence in the federal penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois.

According to Wikipedia, the Black Hand (Mano Nera) was a method of extortion rather than a criminal organization like the Mafia. Italians, who began immigrating to America in the late 1800s, brought the practice to the US. It occurred mostly in communities with large Italian populations, and both the perpetrator and the victim were usually Italian. The situation with the Lanasa family was typical of how the scheme played out: Letters were sent that threatened death if money wasn’t paid to the extortionist. The letters often had ominous symbols drawn on them, such as a noose, a smoking gun or a knife dripping with blood. Frequently they were signed with a hand drawn in black ink, which was meant as a symbol of warning; hence the name the “Black Hand.”

The tables turned the following year when another Baltimore fruit dealer, Joseph DiGiorgio, was sent threatening letters. He didn’t pay up and his home was bombed in December 1907. Fortunately no one was injured in the blast. Antonio Lanasa, who was DiGiorgio’s business rival, was arrested and charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to extort money. He was convicted of the crime, but he appealed and the charges were dropped.

DiGiorgio

Joseph DiGiorgio

As it happens, Joseph DiGiorgio was Castellano’s interpreter at the police station after he was arrested. It may have been a coincidence, but it raises the question of whether Castellano was already acquainted with DiGiorgio. Could it be that DiGiorgio wrote the threatening letters to Antonio Lanasa and his family? Was Castellano telling the truth about only being a messenger? Could Lanasa have uncovered the plot and decided to pay DiGiorgio back in kind? The Italian word vendetta springs to mind, but who knows? Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Peaky Blinders!

The story does have a happy ending. After he was released from prison, Ignazio Castellano moved to Rochester, New York, where he opened a grocery store, got married, raised a family and became a pillar of his community. He died in Rochester in 1957.

Featured photo: front and back of Ignazio Castellano’s CDV mugshot. Collection of the author.

The Badger Game

The Badger Game

Old-fashioned terms for crime can be confusing. When Lillie Bates was arrested in New York City on June 17, 1909, the officers listed her crime as simply “Badger.” Did that mean she was caught mistreating a short-legged, furry, mammal that hunts at night? Probably not. More than likely it meant she was involved in a criminal enterprise called “the badger game.”

The badger game involved a woman and her male accomplice, and it was actually the accomplice who was the “badger.” The game was often a venomous combintion of crimes, including prostitution, robbery, con game and extortion.

The female in the partnership posed as a reputable woman who was down on her luck and therefore willing to have a sexual encounter with an “old married man with the appearance of honor and wealth.” She got him into her bedroom, which had a secret panel cut in one of the walls. Here’s a description of what often happened next:

She fastens the door and will permit nothing until the lamp is extinguished. The very respectable gentleman lays his clothes carelessly upon a chair, together with his watch and well-filled purse, and the hour of pleasure begins. But the woman’s accomplice is outside the partition and at a signal from her he knows that the time for him to take action has arrived. Silently he opens the secret door. Light as a cat the “badger” passes through it, with his usual dexterity begins to examine carefully all the clothes of the victim as they lie on the chair, far from the bed. The darkness of the room facilitates his work. Very soon he has got possession of all that is of any value and he creeps back through the opening. The door shuts as noiselessly as it was opened. The object of the two is attained and now it only remains to set free the plucked bird without any disturbance. As soon as the “respectable gentleman” begins to dress someone knocks at the door. The “respectable gentleman” gets alarmed. His companion does the same; she urges him to dress as quickly as possible, and go out by the back door, for it is quite certain that her husband, or father, or brother, as the case may be, has returned and wants to come in.

— The Dark Side of New York Life and Its Criminal Classes, Gustav Lening, 1873

Hopefully the victim left the house so quickly that he didn’t check to see if all his valuables were where he kept them.

Variations on the badger game were plentiful. All of them required acting talent along with a boatload of nerve. Sometimes there was no secret panel and the male accomplice simply stormed into the room, claiming to be the woman’s outraged husband, fists cocked and ready for a fight unless he was financially compensated. Sometimes the couple threatened to reveal the victim’s transgression to his family unless he paid up.

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Sophie Lyons, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s, Inc.

Sophie Lyons, the “queen” of nineteenth century crime, was an adept practitioner of the badger game. She was so good at it that she sometimes pulled it off without a “badger.” In 1878 she finally got caught after she lured a well-respected, elderly lawyer to her Boston hotel room with the promise of sex, got him to undress, then locked his clothes in her trunk.

She forced him to write her a check for $1000 ($24,215 in 2018), and told him he’d get his clothes back after she returned from the bank with the money. She locked the door on her way out so he couldn’t call the police.

Officials at the bank were suspicious of such a large check and called the police, who escorted Sophie back to the hotel. There they found her naked victim. She claimed she was his long-standing mistress. He refused to prosecute due to the shame it would have brought him. “She was so bewitching and fascinating that I could not help it,” he sheepishly remarked.

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I found no record of a Lillie or Lillian Bates’ arrest or conviction. Was “Fred,” whose name was tattooed on her arm, the badger? Was her victim a well-known man who was too embarrassed to press charges? We’ll never know the details of how she played the badger game. Ten months after her arrest, when the 1910 census was taken in New York City, there was no one named Lillie Bates living in the city.

Featured photo: Bertillon card photos of Lillie Bates, June 17, 1909, New York Municipal Archives.

 

Give Him Up

Give Him Up

A Montana-born woman, 34-year-old Mae Kavanaugh, was convicted of writing “fictitious checks” and sent to San Quentin State Prison, the infamous northern California prison, on March 25, 1918, to serve a two year term.

Eight years earlier, in 1910, Mae and a male accomplice, H. S. Farnsworth, lured a man to their rented Santa Cruz cottage. Suddenly the lights went out and the victim, John Hodges, found himself in the dark with Miss Mae. A man found alone with a single woman could only be after one thing, and if his wife found out, it would be highly embarrassing for him, perhaps even disastrous. Mae pulled a gun on Hodges and demanded $500. Not having the cash on him, Hodges wrote her a promissory note.

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H.S. Farnsworth, San Quentin Mug Book, July 2, 1910. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.

Instead of paying up, Hodges reported the couple to the sheriff. Farnsworth, a man described as a “once wealthy contractor” was convicted of extortion and given the maximum sentence of 5 years in San Quentin. “I’m sorry I can’t make it more,” commented the judge when Farnsworth was sentenced.

I am down and out. I was once well to do but met with reverses, and this thing appealed to me as a chance to make a raise.

—H. S. Farnsworth, June 28, 1910, Santa Cruz, California

Mae was very lucky; she got probation and was ordered to “give Farnsworth up.” Apparently she gave up Farnsworth, but neglected to give up crime.

San Quentin is the oldest correctional institution in California. It housed women from the time it opened in 1852 until 1932, when a prison for women was built in Tehachapi.

Featured image: Mae Kavanaugh, San Quentin mug book photo. California Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950.