• CMTU History

Episode #2: Ohio's Black Hand Syndicate

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

From James Cagney to The Godfather, the era of the American gangster has been romanticized in popular culture. But, as today's guests point out, the pioneers of organized crime were as brutal as they were opportunistic.

David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker are the authors of Ohio's Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America. In the book, this father-daughter-author-duo describe a time before Capone and the Purple Gang when organized crime was first taking root in the United States and one of the first major efforts by law enforcement to combat their activities. David is a graduate of Miami University and The Ohio State University, and Elise Meyers Walker earned degrees from Hofstra University and Ohio University. Elise is a former board member of the Columbus Historical Society and the Ted Lewis Museum in Circleville, Ohio. Together they have written Inside the Ohio Penitentiary, Historic Columbus Crimes: Mama's in the Furnace, The Thing & More, and Wicked Columbus, Ohio.

Key Points in Today's Podcast Some of the major topics I discuss with David and Elise in this episode are:

  • the origins of the Black Hand in the United States and in Ohio

  • the difference between the Black Hand technique and organized crime

  • crimes committed by the Society of the Banana

  • parallels between the experience of Italian immigrants arriving in the United States in the early 1900s and immigrants arriving today

  • how law enforcement in Ohio pioneered new investigative and prosecutorial techniques to combat Black Hand activity

  • responses from the descendants of some of the individuals described in the book 

Personal Reflections I always enjoy reading local history. It brings to life real world examples of the trends you learn about in a history textbook. In the case of Ohio's Black Hand Syndicate, David and Elise put names (and in some cases photos of faces) to criminals and cops who lived in places I am familiar with like Marion, Columbus, and Cleveland. It is one thing to learn about mass migrations from Southern Europe and ethnic nativism in a vague sense, but to read the personal stories of real characters who lived these experiences in another entirely.

When reading the book, I was struck by how similar some of the stories seemed to compare with the situation facing many immigrants today. Immigrants then (and now) filled some of the nation's least desirable jobs in hopes the next generation would have a better life. Immigrants then (and now) often congregated in their own ethnic communities and experienced nativist discrimination in their new country. Immigrants then (and now) were often preyed upon by criminal elements in their own ethnic community and did not feel confident in seeking help from their local authorities. For as different as the 21st century is from the 20th, much remains the same. I loved this aspect of the book. I think one of the major reasons to study history is that it usually has so much to say about us and our times.

For the Ever Curious If you are interested in learning more about this topic, consider checking out these resources: www.explodingstove.com

The Black Hand (Wikipedia)

White, Frank Marshall. "The Passing of the Black Hand". The Century Magazine, (November 1917 – April 1918).

The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia by Mike Dash


© 2018 by Can't Make This Up History Podcast.

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