Thursday, July 11, 2024
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This is what happens when you send an extortion letter to the wrong person

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

–by Michael Pierce


The Society of the Banana. It sounds innocent enough.

The organization stretched across America, from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, from Chicago to New Orleans. It was a group of Sicilian fruit merchants, importers, and distributors. Bananas were still considered a luxury in the early twentieth century, hence the name.

The organization also specialized in murder, kidnapping, and extortion. It was also known as the Society of the Black Hand. This criminal organization would send letters “under cover” (a letter inside a letter, with instructions to the first recipient to drop the enclosed letter, to the intended victim, in the mail) demanding money and threatening the victim with violence if they did not comply, and warned the victim not to go to the police. Those who chose to ignore the letter quickly found themselves in the crosshairs of the Black Hand.

Sicilians were already wary of going to the police to report crimes, and they definitely would not report letters received from the Black Hand.

And then the group made the mistake of threatening and attempting to extort Giovanni Amicon, a wealthy fruit and vegetable merchant and distributor in Columbus, Ohio. Amicon immediately took the letter to his local post office, where he was introduced to Post Office Inspector Frank Oldfield.

Oldfield was a small, well-dressed man, He had no trouble using extralegal means to extract confessions from criminals. Originally from Maryland, by 1909 he was assigned to the post office in Columbus, normally working cases of missing or stolen mail or postal money orders. He despised criminals, and he especially despised criminals who took advantage of regular, law abiding citizens.

Salvatore Lima and his family ran a fruit shop in Columbus. It was a fruit store that seemed to make a lot of money, as Sam was always buying several $1000.00 money orders at a time and sending them to family members in Sicily. Sam was also boss of the Society of the Banana. It was Sam who sent the letter to Giovanni Amicon.

Frank Oldfield, and the team he assembled, took their time investigating Lima and the Black Handers. During the spring and summer of 1909 Oldfield and his men captured 14 members of the society and brought them to trial.

The Society of the Banana was broken.

Inspector Oldfield is a wonderful combination of history and family history. William Oldfield is Frank Oldfield’s great-grandson. Oldfield and co-author Victoria Bruce have written a fantastic story that illustrates how one person can make a difference in the world. Inspector Oldfield had left behind six steamer trunks of memorabilia related to the Black Hand investigation and trial. Although four of those trunks were destroyed in a subsequent flood, the two that remained provided William Oldfield with a treasure trove about his family, the life of his great-grandfather, and the work Frank Oldfield did to bring down the Black Hand.

For many years prior to Inspector Oldfield’s investigation, law enforcement authorities in America had denied the existence of an organized crime syndicate among Sicilians in the U.S. that linked to Sicilian Mafioso in the old country. The existence of such an organization was not acknowledged until after had brought the members of the Society of the Banana to justice. As fruitful as his efforts were, law enforcement quickly fell back into an era of complacency, thus allowing organized crime in this country to gain a foothold that was not dislodged for more than a century.

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