Thursday, 24 November 2016
“Murdered Italian will be revenged” “Bomb outrage at Ingham Police Investigating vendetta theory” “Was it murder to prevent murder?”
When I conducted a tour of the Mercer Lane Mosaic installation I was asked what the little black hand high up on a panel was about. The little black hand is a reference to a little known yet frightening episode in the district’s history that gave plenty of scandalous material for the press to feed on: criminal meetings in the Ingham cemetery, brutal stabbings, gunshots in the night, homemade bombs, hired hitmen from the South, a knife wielding mother-in-law, lovers’ trysts in the cane, it had it all! The events occurred over a relatively brief period of time between Ayr and Mossman in the 1930s. They shone an unwelcome national spotlight on the district’s Italian immigrants and served to reinforce prejudice and negative stereotyping of the worst kind.
Beginning in 1932 Italians, and occasionally others, began to receive extortion letters and threats. Bombings, kidnappings and homicides followed. It was suggested that the crimes were being perpetrated by an Italian criminal organization, known as ‘The Black Hand Gang’, La Mano Nera, with supposed links to the ‘Mafioso’. La Mano Nera came from the emblem of a black hand that was imprinted on the extortion letters. Before this strange drama fizzled out in 1938 with the death of Vincenzo D’Agostino who was the supposed Herbert River ring-leader, three other Herbert River Italians were murdered: Giuseppina Bacchiella, Domenico Scarcella and Francesco Femio. Since its flowering in 1932 scholars, and scandal mongers alike, have pondered whether The Black Hand was a disorganized small gang of ignorant, opportunistic thugs or a group with legitimate street credentials that was part of a wider international web of crime.
The drama that played out in the Herbert River district was a strange and perplexing one. It most likely, had no relationship to a national or international criminal conspiracy though there were those at the time, and those even in more recent times, who have tried to concoct that link. More realistically, it appears that the events were perpetrated within a narrow circle. The perpetrators were opportunistically attempting to extort money from those immigrant farmers who were beginning to establish themselves. Their bumbling, amateurish attempts indicated a lack of education and organization. Their activities also seemed to have roots in home grown feuds and vendettas, the intricacies of which remain unclear and unexplained to this day. The activities originated as one contemporary put it in all probability when “These gentry here form a small select band who started to terrorise some of the more susceptible Sicilians…They formed a colourable imitation of the Black-hand of their native land and proceeded to carry out extortion on some of the more timid fry.” At the time however, it provided ample fuel for journalistic sensationalism and the anti-Italian movement.
As Adam Grossetti in his 2016 ABC Radio podcast ‘The Black Hand Gang’ reveals, the episode still reverberates to this day. While many people were happy to speak openly to him, several sought anonymity. Adam has conducted extensive research and produced a fascinating account in which he attempts to explain the Black Hang Gang event and hazards some suggestions as to who may have killed Vincenzo D’Agostino. Though there is suggestion that D'Agostino knew who is killer was, even on his deathbed he refused to incriminate anyone. His murder went unsolved. Go to the following website to listen the two part radio series (May 9 and 10 2016): http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/my-very-good-friend/7337670