Updated: May 10, 2021
When Sicilian immigrants flooded into the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, they brought many of their customs and traditions with them. They brought their unique language, their exotic cooking, and of course their Roman Catholicism. However, one custom followed them from the old country that stayed hidden in the shadows. Something ancient, something horrifying. The Sicilians called it "a Manu Neura" but we refer to it today as "the Black Hand".
Originating in Sicily centuries ago, Black Hand extortion was a criminal tactic that ended up being practiced amongst gangsters in large American cities. It predated the Mafia here in the U.S. and inspired many mobsters to use it as a means to make money, in fact many organized crime groups still use something similar to this day. Basically what would happen is a wealthy businessman or merchant would receive letters written in red ink and decorated with symbols such as daggers or skulls. These letters were almost always demands for money, or ransom notes, signed "a Manu Neura" or "Black Hand".
If these Black Hand thugs did not get paid, they would plant bombs at homes or businesses, kidnap children, or brutally murder someone and dump their body in the street. According to crime historian and author Daniel Waugh, "Unlike their Mafia counterparts, Black Handers had no qualms about killing law enforcement or government officials who got in their way." If anyone crossed them the penalty was surely...death.
Many people believe that The Hill was St. Louis' only Italian neighborhood, but that is simply not the case. Many Sicilians that immigrated to St. Louis ended up settling in a neighborhood north of downtown that they named "Little Italy". Whereas The Hill was split between Sicilians and Northern Italians, Little Italy was predominantly Sicilian and much larger than The Hill at the time. It was in this neighborhood where some of the notorious criminals of St. Louis' twentieth century would come from.
Not all Sicilians that came out of this area were criminals, many of them were hard working class people. Some worked in clay mines, became fruit merchants, or opened up their own shops and restaurants. Probably the most wealthy of these Sicilians were the Viviano brothers; Giovanni, Giuseppe, Pietro, Salvatore, and Vito. They immigrated to St. Louis from Palermo, Sicily in the 1890s along with their cousins Gaetano, Pietro, Salvatore, and Vito (Italians have this thing about naming everyone the same). The Vivianos started a pasta company and quickly became St. Louis' most prosperous Sicilian family. Their shops were along Biddle Street, the main drag of Little Italy.
This made the Vivianos perfect targets for Black Handers. The Vivianos were clearly wealthy, from the old country, and would have definitely heard of and feared "a Manu Neura". In fact on January 6th, 1909 members of the Black Hand exploded a bomb that wrecked the store and spaghetti factory of the Vivianos. Despite this being the second mysterious explosion to occur at the factory, and law enforcement having knowledge of previous threats made by the Black Hand to the family, the Vivianos denied that the explosion was caused by a bomb. Vito Viviano stated to law enforcement, "It was no Black Hand work, the gas pipe exploded." Vito even went on to deny that he heard the explosion, even though he slept in a room right above the factory and the blast shook storefronts across the street. Was Vito telling the truth? Of course not! Vito and his brothers had been seen around Little Italy giving cash and writing checks to suspected Black Hand associates. The Black Hand had the Vivianos scared and under their thumb. Two explosions at their places of business couldn't get them close to testifying against the Black Handers.
Later that year, five-year-old Tommaso Viviano and two-and-a-half-year-old Grace Viviano were abducted from the family home by childhood friend of the Vivianos, Sam Turrisi. Turrisi had grown up with the Viviano brothers in Sicily and immigrated to America with them, but was suspected of having ties with Black Hand extortion. A Black Hand ransom note was later sent to Pietro Viviano and his cousin (also named Pietro) the fathers of the two kidnapped children, demanding $25,000. Two months later the children were rescued, but they were not in St. Louis anymore, they were in Chicago.
STL Police Captain Schoppe "was on the heels of the kidnappers when they left the children in the streets of the Italian quarter of North Chicago. He and his assistants were closing in on Sam Turrisi and his companion Benodetto Marghesi."The two Black Handers became fearful of law enforcement and abandoned the children. Turrisi eventually fled back to Sicily and was never tried for his crimes. Part of this was because, even though grateful for their children being returned home, the Vivianos did not offer much help to law enforcement. "Frightened by the threats of the kidnappers to kill them or their children, the Vivianos were afraid to be seen talking with policemen."
Even though the Black Handers weren't caught, this story still has a happy ending. Tommaso and Grace Viviano were returned safely to their parents and the family continued on with their successful business. However, not all stories that involved "a Manu Neura" had a happy ending. These were cold blooded criminals who only murdered and stole to enrich their own lives. In some ways it was in their blood. Sicily is considered the most conquered place in the world, most Sicilians had to look after one another because no one else was going to do it. However, there were some Sicilians that took this as an opportunity to prey upon their own and benefit themselves. Hence that is why traditions, such as the Black Hand, go back centuries if not millennia and eventually found their way across the Atlantic to America, giving us fascinating stories such as this one.
For more stories like this about STL Crime History make sure to follow Underground St. Louis on all social media platforms and visit our website undergroundstl.com for a street-level view of the Greater St. Louis Area.