Every time I visit a National Archives site around the country, I learn something new. Passionate staff educates me about the nature of the records in our custody. At each stop I have jaw-dropping moments.
In a recent visit with our Chicago staff, I learned about Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, U.S. District Court, Chicago. Specifically, I got a chance to review Criminal Case 4632: The United States vs. George Pavlick. Pavlick, the defendant, in mid-December 1910, mailed a threatening letter to Max Maas of Chicago demanding $200 or Pavlick would kill Maas. Pavlick was charged with violation of the postal laws—scheming to defraud using the U.S. Post Office. Pavlick, a minor, pleaded guilty and was turned over to the juvenile court.
Extortion letter written by George Pavlick of “The Black Hand.” From Criminal Case 4632: The United States vs. George Pavlick. Pavlick, the defendant, in mid-December 1910, mailed a threatening letter to Max Maas of Chicago.
Robert M. Lombardo, former career Chicago policeman, now faculty member in Loyola University’s criminal justice program researched these records in preparing The Black Hand: Terror By Letter in Chicago.
An early 1908 Chicago Daily Tribune article reported that one-third of Chicago’s Italian immigrants were being victimized by an organization of extortionists, blackmailers, and assassins known as The Black Hand. Extortion letters, demanding money and threatening harm for non compliance, were signed with drawings of knives and skulls and black hands.
Thought at the time to be largely Italians against Italians, Lombardo used National Archives records to reveal the truth. U.S. District Court Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis “…challenged the idea that Black Hand crime was peculiar to the Italian race, stating that most of …the cases that came before his court did not involve Italian criminals at all. The Black Hand was nothing more than a method of crime like armed robbery or safecracking. All that was needed to commit Black Hand extortion was a pen and paper. One did not even need to speak Italian.”
As George Pavlick demonstrated in his bad parody of Italian immigrant writing! Whaddaya think?
Extortion letter written by George Pavlick of “The Black Hand.” From Criminal Case 4632: The United States vs. George Pavlick.