THE BLACK HAND: Leonardo DiCaprio To Battle Italian Immigrant Extortionists

Before the Mafia, a secret society of criminals terrorized New York and fueled hatred of immigrants.

Variety is reporting that Leonardo DiCaprio will produce and star in Paramount's adaptation of Stephan Talty’s The Black Hand, a true story detailing the efforts of Lt. Joseph Petrosino - nicknamed “the Italian Sherlock Holmes” - to stop a secret society of Italian criminals that flourished in turn-of-the-century America.

Though the phrase “Italian Sherlock Holmes” is unintentionally and deeply hilarious, the saga of the Black Hand is a fascinating, underexplored section of American history. More of a loose affiliation of extortion racketeers than the tight mob-run ships that would replace them, “The Black Hand” was a kind of boogeyman to the Italian community, with roots going back to Naples in the 1700s. In the 1900s it was enthusiastically resurrected within the Italian-American communities of cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and the like, as well as more rural areas where Italian immigrants were setting up coal mining communities. Their victims - mostly wealthy Italians who were more apt to be spooked by the reputation of the Black Hand - would be threatened and kidnapped, and ordered to pay a sum of money. Ransom and extortion letters were often “signed” with an etching of, that’s right, a black hand, and murder was a casual and frequent occurrence.

The group's actitivities were heavily covered by the press and led to a swell of anti-Italian hysteria in America. Petrosino put together a team of all-Italian policemen - their identities kept secret from the public - to rid their community and its new home of this scourge from the old country. (To share any more would, I suspect, spoil the hell out of the planned film.) The reign of the Black Hand lasted about 15 years, when La Mano Nera - characterized by Petrosino as "primitive country robbers transplanted into cities" - gave way to La Cosa Nostra.

It’s fertile cinematic territory right out of the gate; a story about Americans swept up in a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria is also, if you haven’t noticed, pretty damn timely. Is it too much to hope that DiCaprio sees this story as a reunion project for him and director Martin Scorsese? Let’s hope so anyway.