“Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America’s Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought them to Justice,” by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce, Touchstone, 2018, 336 pages, $26

Before the 1920s, the United States had little way to combat interstate crime. In some states law enforcement was purely local. Leave a city or county for the next one and you left the law behind. It was a perfect environment in which organized crime could grow — and organized crime existed before the 20th century, even in the United States.

“Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America’s Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought them to Justice,” by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce tells the tale of one of the federal government’s first attack on organized crime.

The Black Hand was a Sicilian crime syndicate that moved to the United States. It was unsophisticated; a protection racket. It blackmailed other Italian immigrants threatening victims with death if they failed to pay the demanded money, failed to do what the gang wanted (generally forwarding blackmail letters, but including joining), or if they reported the threats to the police.

It was astonishingly effective. Their targets, honest and successful Italian-American businessmen or professionals, mistrusted the local police. Gang members were ruthless, willing to kill anyone refusing their demands to make them examples. They shrouded their activities with anonymity, sending threats by mail and collecting through cutouts. Local law enforcement was not up to solving these crimes.

One of the few federal law agencies at that time was the U.S. Post Office. Any crimes involving the mails could be investigated by Post Office Inspectors. In 1899, Frank Oldfield was one — the 156th inspector appointed.

Oldfield loved solving crimes; the more spectacular the better. After learning of this blackmail scheme, which used the U.S. mails, he wanted to break it. It was the biggest crime he had encountered. This book explores how he went after and dismantled the Black Hand.

The book is co-written by one of Oldfield’s descendants who inherited his great-grandfather’s surviving records. The result is a fascinating and fast-paced story, revealing a complex and unorthodox man’s strengths and weaknesses. “Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society” explores one of the take-downs of organized crime by the federal government.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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