Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society

INSPECTOR OLDFIELD AND THE BLACK HAND SOCIETY. By William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce. Simon & Schuster. 326 pages. $26.

“Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society” is an intriguing story told in part by co-author William Oldfield, great-grandson of the famed inspector, who had access to several steamer trunks, a treasure trove full of the inspector’s legacy. With co-author Victoria Bruce, he has produced an account that seems to beg for a movie treatment.

In 1899, John Frank Oldfield was appointed to one of the most important and powerful law enforcement positions in the country, the job of U.S. Post Office inspector. The position came with the power to “bust a crime ring anywhere in the world,” according to the authors.

At the time, organized crime was using the U.S. Post Office to move cash, gold and goods, and the inspectors were authorized to take over a case from any other law enforcement agency if a suspect had used the postal service. (That power still exists today.)

The inspector first learned of the extortion practiced by the group "La Mano Nera," or the Black Hand, from an Italian immigrant and wealthy merchant in Ohio, John Amicon, who described how "the shoemaker, the saloon owner, the grocer ... were paying 'protection' to the Black Hand."

Inspector Oldfield became an expert at finding undercover agents to infiltrate crime rings. With the Black Hand Society, the inspector knew he was onto an important case and pursued it relentlessly, and this new book provides a fascinating detailed account of his efforts to fight a predecessor of the Mafia crime syndicate.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.