Leave The Gun; Take The Gelato

Local authors trace organized crime roots to a Central Ohio fruit stand.

The lessons of The Godfather?

Do not go against your own word.

Do not go against your own family.

Do not become predictable.

And fruit means death is in the air.

These were true even 60 years before Mario Puzo published his iconic novel. The father-daughter writing team of David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker has resurrected the forgotten story of the origins of organized crime in the United States. It began not in the gambling circles of New York or the bootleggers of Chicago, but in 1909 with an unsophisticated, inelegant, yet successful group called the Society of the Banana, operating from the back of a fruit store in a town that was the centerpoint of various shipping routes …

Marion, Ohio.

Their book, Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America, published this year, traces the largely forgotten story of criminal events in Central Ohio that later became a model of mob prosecution.

Using essentially the same technique as a basic internet or telephone scam—a message threatening harm and a demand for money—the Society of the Banana and Faithful Friends, led by Salvatore “Sam” Lima, ran a multi-state extortion network likely responsible for at least 30 murders. “Black Hand,” a name roughly synonymous with the Mafia at the time, appeared as the signature on each letter.

“All they knew was what they brought with them,” says Meyers, explaining how early Italian immigrants came to an America with no resettlement programs, no language classes, and no easy ways to make a decent living.

One of the more available jobs for immigrants was to get a wagon and become a “franchiser” for an established business. In many cities, that was a fruit business, brought by foreigners who were used to having fruit available most of the year. For some vendors, it might be the beginning of prosperity. For others, it might be the introduction to a criminal network, a phenomenon that many were already familiar with.

“[Italian immigrants] came here not having experienced trust in government, not having experienced trust in law enforcement,” Meyers explained. “So when they experienced crime, they didn’t tell anybody.”

Murders, bombings, and assassinations splashed the headlines in local papers, which theorized the possibility of a single responsible organization. The publicity only increased the popularity of the letters—copycat, pranks, and actual. “What you needed was somebody to stand up to [the Black Hand], and not pay the money,” said Meyers.

That somebody was Columbus resident and Italian immigrant John Amicon, a wealthy fruit dealer.

“He was doing really well, and that made him a target, because the community could see that he was doing really well,” Meyers Walker explained. “He started to get letters, really threatening letters—we’re going to do these things to your family. We’re going to bomb you. We’re going to do all this stuff. And he said: one, I’m not paying, and two, I’m not going to put up with it.”

When a bomb appeared on his porch, Amicon contacted the authorities. Cue the US Postal Inspectors. (Yes, the mail fraud guys.)

Uninterested in bombings and murders, the US Postal Inspectors, one of two federal law enforcement organizations in existence at the time, began to trace the threatening letters crisscrossing the country. Enough evidence was gathered to conduct a raid, and bring the perpetrators to trial as an organized crime syndicate. Marion’s Lima was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

“I think it’s fair to say that this was a bit of a model for creative prosecution—the fact that they went after them on the mail charges, and you line that up with Al Capone getting taken down for tax evasion,” said Meyers Walker.

Uncovering local history can be intriguing, but learning from history is another matter. While too many are familiar with the images and stories of the Italian mafia, few are familiar with the Italian community members and law enforcement officers who fought against that terror by resisting threats, reporting activity, gaining the trust of the community, translating the letters, and infiltrating group activity. Even fewer know the stories of redemption that eventually emerged post incarceration.

“Since doing this, we’ve met descendants of people on both sides of the divide,” said Meyers Walker. “It’s really interesting. After [those prosecuted for Black Hand activity] got out of prison, they went back to where they were from in their towns in America and made something of themselves.”

The co-authors describe how former criminals opened restaurants, engaged with their communities, and raised children and grandchildren who led respectable lives and held positions of importance. Their descendants look back on their ancestors’ previous lives with an attitude of forgiveness, noting how young and isolated some of these men were and how unprepared they were as they tried to start their lives over in a new country.

“My opinion: we need immigrants,” said Meyers, who hopes that readers will see parallels between the situations of newcomers to America past and present. “We don’t need criminal immigrants; we’ve got some ways of rooting them out. But we do need immigrants. But we have to prepare them to succeed.”

Ohio’s Black Hand Syndicate: The Birth of Organized Crime in America is available now via Arcadia Publishing and the History Press, as well as on Amazon. For more, visit arcadiapublishing.com.

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