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.