Black Hand Mysteries
By William Thibodeaux, History columnist
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century a number of Americans, primarily wealthy Italians, received threatening letters demanding money. The letters were simply signed “The Black Hand.” A typical black hand letter threatened a victim of bodily harm, kidnapping, arson, or murder if their demands weren’t met. The letter demanded a specified amount of money to be delivered to a specific location. In many instances these letters were written in thick black ink adorned with intimidating symbols like a smoking gun, a hangman’s noose, or a knife dripping with blood, anything that would frighten the victim. Most black hand victims were of Syrian ancestry and the majority were residents of Chicago. However, individuals from other parts of the country, southwest Louisiana included, also received extortion letters from the black hand.
In September 1910, a Mr. Bourque from the hamlet of Milton, Louisiana, who happened to be the railroad station agent for the F&A (Franklin and Abbeville) line, received a black hand letter. The extortionist demanded $250 and threatened bodily harm if Bourque failed to comply with instructions. Bourque wasn’t intimidated but he immediately turned it over to authorities, who after a thorough investigation concluded the sordid affair was a hoax perpetrated by fun-loving individuals in search of a good laugh. The community of Milton wasn’t laughing, especially after another extortion letter written by the black hand appeared. This time the extortionist sent the threatening letter to R. Hester, the proprietor of the general merchandise store of Milton. It too demanded $250 and politely requested that the money be deposited at a certain spot.
Hester’s store and its contents were insured for $2,500 however, he wasn’t taking chances; he notified Sheriff Lacoste and Chief Deputy Peck to investigate. Several days later Hester received a second black hand letter asking that the money be handed to the letter writer—in person, at a certain time and place. The black hand warned that failure to comply would result in Hester’s establishment being burnt to the ground. Many, who originally thought it was an innocent prank, now had serious doubts. On Saturday, September 3, 1910, Hester received his third extortion letter. This one was far more daring, it was personally hand delivered under the cover of darkness and placed at his doorstep.
Hester apparently thought the letters were a hoax. However, on the morning of September 10, 1910, no one was laughing. The newspaper caption read: “Hester’s Store Destroyed by Fire.” The perpetrator or perpetrators were never found. Interestingly, after Hester received his first threatening black hand letter, he had notified the sheriff and then his insurer, the Liverpool, London and Globe Company, who immediately cancelled his policy. Yes, you read it correctly, his insurance was immediately cancelled. And the perpetrator or perpetrators were never brought to justice.
Another noteworthy item, nearly a year before the black hand letters appeared in Milton, the community of Hahnville, in St. Charles Parish was the site of the first execution in Louisiana for someone involved with writing a black hand letter. According to newspaper reports from the Library of Congress, an Italian named Leonardo Gebbia and a number of others including his parents and his sister Nicolina were part of a large conspiracy to kidnap and extort $6,000 from the parents of ten-year old Walter T. Lamana of New Orleans. Little Walter Lamana was out playing in front of his home on Phillips Street in New Orleans when he was abducted. His perpetrators lived across the street from the Lamana household and the boy knew them quite well. The boy was loaded into a nearby waiting wagon and taken to Hahnville at the home of another Italian named Campisciano. Unfortunately, when the ransom was botched by New Orleans detectives and Sheriff Marrero of Jefferson Parish, the boy was strangled to death. His body was stuffed into a box and buried in the St. Rose marsh.
The would-be ransom money was earmarked for the mastermind’s sister Nicolina’s wedding. Out of all the conspirators, Leonardo Gebbia and his sister Nicolina were the only ones that got the death sentence, the rest drew life. However, Nicolina’s death sentence was commuted due to her gender. The jury wasn’t too keen on seeing a woman hang. Gebbia’s case was appealed to the Supreme Court and to the Board of Pardons—to no avail. At Gebbia’s execution, his only request was to bar little Walter Lamana’s father from viewing his execution, which was inside an enclosed wall. Although Gebbia’s request was granted, the scaffolds towered above the wall and afforded the young boy’s father a perfect view of Gebbia’s long drop demise.
For nearly fifteen years black hand letters were dormant in Acadiana. The year was 1924 when a 26-year old drifter convicted of murder confessed to having written a black hand letter. At the time he was awaiting his date with the state executioner. His victim was Numa Morein, a prosperous cotton farmer from Ville Platte, Louisiana. The extortionist was none other than Euzebe Vidrine also of Ville Platte in Evangeline Parish, who admitted to infamously killing five men in his life. At the time Vidrine wrote the extortion letter, he felt that Morein would pay his demand of $200 instead of taking chances. Euzebe’s instructions were simple; the ransom was to be left on May 30, 1924, near a certain large tree along the Ville Platte-Chicot Road, failure to comply would result in untold atrocities. Fortunately, Euzebe never had a chance to make good on his threat. His black hand letter was never delivered, it was found in Euzebe’s bedroom when authorities stormed his home and arrested him for the gruesome murder of Ville Plate native Robert “Leo” Wiggins Jr., which was perpetrated on May 19, 1924.
Borrowing a line written from a 1930s American author and pop culture icon, Walter B. Gibson, no one knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Equally puzzling, no one knows why the black hand letters abruptly stopped in America. They simply vanished by the mid-1920s.