Black Hand with Italian Inscription

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The History File of the Game Commission Library (Series 39.2) of the Records of the Game Commission (RG-39), held by the Pennsylvania State Archives, contains extensive materials relating to the tenure of the Game Commission’s first secretary, Joseph Kalbfus (1852–1919). In dramatic contrast to early private conservation efforts, these records reveal the perils — including murder — associated with enforcing Pennsylvania’s game laws in the Commonwealth’s western counties in the opening years of the twentieth century.

Hired by Dr. Kalbfus, Pinkerton Detective Agency operatives prepared reports contained in these files as part of an investigation of the murder of deputy game protector L. Seely Houk, on March 2, 1906. Houk, whose body was found a month later in the Mahoning River near Newcastle, Lawrence County, had a reputation as a fearless and aggressive enforcer of Pennsylvania’s Non-Resident License Law. One incentive that allowed unpaid game enforcers to keep half of the $25 fine no doubt encouraged the ambitious Houk.

Five months after Houk’s murder, 80-year old William “Squire” Duff was shot and killed as he attempted to prevent three members of the Black Hand, a secret society of Italians known to indulge in criminal activity, particularly extortion, from hunting birds on his property near Newcastle. Such recently arrived immigrants were accustomed to subsistence hunting of small game and songbirds familiar to them in their native countries at a time when there was an emerging scientific emphasis on preserving songbirds to reduce wild insect populations. The immigrants saw themselves as hunters; Kalbfus considered them poachers. Pinkerton detectives infiltrated Hillsville’s Italian community and reported to Dr. Kalbfus almost daily. Members of the Black Hand, including the individuals arrested for the murders of Houk and Duff, Rocco Racco and Dominic Sianato, lived in Hillsville, located several miles west of Newcastle, near the Ohio border.

In an apparent act of intimidation, an unidentified individual sent three black hands to Dr. Kalbfus. An inscription written in Italian on a silhouette of a hand warned him “to watch (or guard against) them who send to you the Black Hand.” The imprinting of a black hand on threatening messages, such as extortion demands and ransom notes, was a pervasive practice at the turn of the century among criminals, mostly but not entirely in Italian communities.

A deposed leader of Hillsville’s Black Hand, Racco was executed in October 1909 for Houk’s murder, although it remains unclear whether he, or another member of the organization, was actually responsible. Houk had admitted to killing Racco’s dog, suggesting one of several possible motives for the murder. Dozens of members of Hillsdale’s Black Hand were convicted of various crimes in 1907. Records in this file include detective agency reports and police photographs of suspects Racco, Sianato, and Guiseppi Calauti after their arrests in 1908. With the murder of Houk fresh in their minds, state legislators outlawed possession of a firearm by any non-citizen immigrant in 1909. Pennsylvania’s Alien Gun Law remained in force for more than forty years.


Willis L. Shirk, Jr. is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.