‘Inspector Oldfield’ tracks Sicilian mafiosi extortion from central Ohio to western Pennsylvania |

‘Inspector Oldfield’ tracks Sicilian mafiosi extortion from central Ohio to western Pennsylvania

Patrick Varine
Above, a Bertillon card featuring a mugshot and information about Orazio Runfola, a Pittsburgh cigar merchant and member of the Society of the Banana, a group of Sicilian Black Hand gangsters who ran an extortion ring in the early 1900s.
'Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society' lays out the investigation of an early-1900s extortion ring spanning central and southeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Above, a Black Hand extortion letter. Letters were sent to merchants demanding payment. Nonpayment was typically met with violence, whether it was a dynamite bombing or murder.

At the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants in central and southeast Ohio began receiving letters asking for a payment.

The first letters were almost polite. If there was no response, however, they became more and more threatening.

The letters were the product of the Society of the Banana, a branch of the infamous Black Hand organization and a precursor to the Sicilian Mafia. The head of this particular group was Salvatore Lima, who ran an extortion ring out of his fruit store in Marion, Ohio.

Lima’s modus operandi was to mail a letter to fellow gangsters Pippino Galbo in Meadville or Orazio Runfola in Pittsburgh. Galbo and Runfola would open the envelopes, which contained the actual extortion letters, and mail them back to Ohio, so that Lima’s Italian neighbors and business associates would receive his extortion demands from a mysterious out-of-town source.

Despite its criminal nature, it was undoubtedly an ingenious plan, with the only overhead cost being a handful of stamps.

That extortion method, however, put the Society of the Banana squarely in the crosshairs of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and one particular inspector, Frank Oldfield.

His amazing story, the full version of which was only uncovered recently, is expertly told in “Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society.” It chronicles the first American prosecution of an international crime syndicate, which many American law enforcement groups did not even believe existed.

Oldfield worked alongside Francis DiMaio, a member of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and one-time head of its Pittsburgh bureau. DiMaio had experience infiltrating Sicilian gangs and helped Oldfield find a way into Lima’s extortion operation and penetrate omertá , the Sicilian gangster’s vow to never speak to or aid law enforcement.

Written by Oldfield’s great-grandson William Oldfield along with author, filmmaker and journalist Victoria Bruce, the book is a quick read that vividly lays out how the gangsters’ scheme worked, how Inspector Oldfield battled against his own superiors to convince them the case was worth pursuing, and how something as simple as the postal service could be used to undertake a vast criminal conspiracy.

In fact, between the seeming jealousy of some of Oldfield’s co-workers and the danger of investigating and prosecuting Sicilian mafiosi — who would continue to gain power up through the mid-20th century — Inspector Oldfield’s work battling the Black Hand was essentially hidden from the public for decades.

In his own family, Oldfield had only heard whispers about his great-grandfather’s exploits.

Only when he was in his 40s did William Oldfield finally convince his mother to let him take possession of an old steamer trunk filled with documents and memorabilia from his great-grandfather’s investigation.

He discovered that there was very little about Inspector Oldfield in the U.S. Postal Archives as well.

“It was my duty to make sure Frank’s story did not die with me,” he writes in the book’s epilogue.

Even when he approached the Smithsonian National Postal Museum with the documents he’d collected, little of Inspector Oldfield’s work ended up on display.

But for anyone with an interest in Mafia lore, the history of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (which had surprisingly broad power in the early 1900s) or a taste for true-crime history that reaches into western Pennsylvania, “Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society” is the perfect read.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.