Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE CROTON LAKE MURDER

Mano Nera

The seal of The Black Hand
The seal of The Black Hand

Mano Nera or the Black Hand was not a singular organization as is commonly believed today. It was more a method than a group. Young Italian gangsters, mostly Sicilian, victimized their own countrymen in the big cities of America during the period 1890 through the 1920s. Mano Nera was an extortion racket practiced by young toughs who threatened violence to local citizens or businesses unless they got paid. In short, it was a protection scheme where the victim had to pay the protector for not killing him. Either the victim paid the extortionist or he suffered the consequences, which often included shooting, arson and murder. In New York during this era, the most notorious practitioner of the Black Hand for many years was Ignazio Saietta Lupo, known citywide as Lupo the Wolf. He was feared throughout the Italian American community and considered immune from prosecution because of the bribes he paid to the judges and politicians.

A typical Mano Nera extortion incident followed a well-known script. An Italian business owner would receive an anonymous letter. The message said that he or his family would be killed unless he left an envelope containing a specified amount of cash in a prescribed location. The note was frequently stamped with the inked impression of a hand, which most times was actually a hand pressed into coal dust. If the victim didn't pay, his store or home was bombed or torched. Sometimes, the victim was killed or a family member murdered. It was simple, effective and powerful. The newspapers of the time, especially the New York press, were filled with stories of the vicious ways of the Black Hand among the Italian immigrant community.

Croton Lake Aqueduct (Photo courtesy of Michele  C.Petitt)
Croton Lake Aqueduct
(Photo courtesy of Michele C.Petitt)

Lorenzo Cali and Santo Zanza tried several times to extort money through Mano Nera activities but could never score big. They had to be content to steal what little they could whenever the opportunity arose and working as day laborers. In 1910, Cali and Zanza took jobs in the northern farm country in Westchester County on a massive undertaking that employed hundreds of Italian masons and workers for years. It was to become the largest aqueduct project in the world and would eventually supply clean, safe drinking water for millions of people in New York City.

They worked as laborers in a place called Croton Lake, where for the sum of $1.75 a day, they carried cement, pushed carts of heavy stone, carried water and dug ditches in the mud. They rode the train from the 155th Street Station in the Bronx and made the two-hour trip to Croton aboard the old Putnam Railroad. Sometimes, Cali would stay a week at one of the many camps in the valley that allowed workers to sleep in tents rather than make the arduous trip back to the city. It was there, in one of those temporary camps that lined the perimeter of Croton Lake, that Cali, an ex-convict wanted by the Italian police for murder, saw the Griffin farmhouse for the first time.

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