Banana Mob Rule: Produce, Blackmail and the Mafia in Ohio
September 18, 2018 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Frank Oldfield was the Postal Inspector who took down America’s first organized crime ring, The Society of the Banana (Politico). The Black Hand or "Society of the Banana" terrorized new Italian immigrant communities in parts of the US by mail. An Ohio history writer contends that organized crime didn't start in the U.S. in Chicago or New York, but in Marion (Marion Star). The grip of "la mano nera" spread across the Mid-west, as tracked by postal inspectors (Littleton Independent, 1909). The story of how a postal worker brought them down was almost lost forever (Vice) -- in part because Oldfield's family feared retribution, generations later.
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
The title comes from this short article from the Toledo City Paper, which doesn't add more context or history, but points to one of at least two books on this topic: Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America (Goodreads; Amazon), by father and daughter duo David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker, Ohio-based and focused authors/ investigative historic reporters. The other book is Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America's Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought Them to Justice (Goodreads; Amazon), by the postal inspector’s great-grandson, William Oldfield, and his co-author Victoria Bruce, who tell parts story for the first time.

The (currently) short Wikipedia article on the Black Hand (extortion) claims that "the roots of the Black Hand can be traced to the Kingdom of Naples as early as the 1750s," and notes that Black Hand operations were firmly established in the Italian-American communities of major cities including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Scranton, San Francisco, Olean, NY, and Detroit, but I figure anything regarding the history of mafia-affiliated efforts is not well documented by those involved, for obvious reasons. But The Society of the Banana and Faithful Friends (who may have been the marks or "protected parties" who paid dues to the Society?) seems to be a unique sub-set of la mano nera in the Mid-west.

Unrelated (?): Eli Banana, aka The Mystic Order of Eli Banana, a secret-ish "Ribbon" society that started in 1878 at the University of Virginia.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:30 AM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

What an interesting story, especially since it managed to keep secret for so long. I wonder if there are any aging gangsters out there or descendants that have counter tales of the other side getting busted.

Filthy light thief, your link to school societies is making me feel like I entirely missed out on something in my university experience. Though a quick google suggests my school didn't have any, if they did, none notable enough.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:36 AM on September 18, 2018

One of my rapscallion ancestors moved to Florida in the 19-teens "to escape the Ohio mob", according to the scant family lore, which I guess maybe wasn't a joke. Or maybe the joke was leaving out "his history in".
posted by clew at 11:59 AM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

What an interesting story, especially since it managed to keep secret for so long. I wonder if there are any aging gangsters out there or descendants that have counter tales of the other side getting busted.

I imagine so, and more than that, given that some of the old families wanted this kept mum. From an NPR interview, titled Taking Down America's First Organized Crime Ring (Aug. 19, 2018)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I have to ask you. How has it been received?

OLDFIELD: Well, let's go with the families of the bad guys. Two or three of them - and they shall remain nameless - over the past 14 years have communicated with me and asked me not to tell the story without any direct threats - but very polite, gentlemanly threats of, this would be embarrassing. It's not a good idea - that sort of thing. And they were very prominent, by the way, and would rather just let it go. Now, on my family's side, there's been a little bit of pushback. The majority of my family are very excited about it because it's a cathartic moment. We can finally just let this go. It's over. It's out. And we can get it done. And everybody knows. While other ones are saying, I wish you'd just kept it put away - because they're still nervous about it.
And odd thing on the timing -- Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate by David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker was published on April 9th, 2018. Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society, written by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce, was published on August 21st, 2018, less than 4 months later. The Meyers are Ohio area historians, where William Oldfield had family papers.

I wonder if hearing that the story would be published by someone outside of the family made it easier to tell the Oldfield side of the story, or encouraged him to write his own version of the story.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:44 PM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

How sneaky of you to post this before me; I have it on my "next up" list. It's a really good story, isn't it?
posted by MovableBookLady at 2:47 PM on September 18, 2018

Great minds think alike! There have been a number of items I've seen and thought "ooh, I wonder if anyone has shared this on MetaFilter yet, and lo, you have ;)
posted by filthy light thief at 5:22 PM on September 18, 2018

I do take issue with the "America's first crime ring" characterization, though. Just as an example, New York's poultry scene in the 1900s and 1910s (and definitely 1920s and likely beyond) was a zany web of criminal activity that included price gouging, market fixing, and mob-style intimidation tactics, culminating in the murder of a guy who refused to participate. If you didn't pay for "membership" in the organization, they undercut you in your neighborhood or blocked deliveries or harassed your clients until you went under.

I'm particularly fond of the Bernard Baff story because one of the investigators of that crime was a person named Philip Musica aka Frank Donald Coster, whose career roughly looked like this: (1) took the fall [and eventually was pardoned by Taft] for his father's shady import/export business that ended up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid tarrifs; (2) sold human hair for the beauty industry for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than its value, eventually being found out by a lender he wanted to use to pay off his massive debt; (3) parlayed the resultant sentence for fraud into a helpful role in the investigation of this criminal enterprise, then moved on to WWI draft dodgers and German spies [ended when he implicated William Randolph Hearst, who was rather displeased]; (5) turned that career move into a "hair tonic" (read: bootlegging) company that merged with McKesson Pharmaceuticals [the same McKesson that's an enormous pharma giant today...keep that in mind for the next part]; (5) invented millions of dollars [1920s] worth of drugs "sold" by McKesson to inflate the company's value and hide his continued bootlegging; (6) spawned tons of financial legislation as a result.

Anyway, organized crime is old. It was old in the old world, and even by 1910 it was old in the new world. Bootlegging and other Prohibition-based crime just happened to be particularly profitable, making for an industry rife with extralegal activity. That's why we think of the '20s as a sort of rise of the mafia, but it really wasn't. I might even argue it was a rise of lazy organized crime, where the risks were much higher but the rewards exponentially so.
posted by ptfe at 7:53 AM on September 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

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