The Black Hand Mafia

*Please note: the content of this blog post relates to historic crimes and accounts of violence which some readers may find distressing.

The Godfather playing out among the cane fields of tropical North Queensland? Sounds far-fetched.

But the unlikely location saw a string of unsolved murders throughout the 1920s and 1930s that baffled police and terrified the public. And at its heart, an Italian-Australian community haunted by a sinister guild which had followed them from their old country.

In 1932, nineteen-year-old Jean Morris’s body was found in an Ayr rooming house, with over 30 stab wounds. In 1935, Domenico Scarcella was shot in the head as he fed his horses and, the following year, Francesco Guglielmo ‘Frank’ Femio was killed in cold blood, riddled with shotgun pellets as he slept. Then Vincenzo D’Agostino was fatally wounded in an explosion at an Ingham bakery in 1938. All were linked to the notorious Black Hand: La Mano Nera, a secret society that originated in 18th century Naples.

When hard-working Italian canecutters and farmers began to prosper in North Queensland, the Black Hand infiltrated, demanding their countrymen pay exorbitant sums of money or risk extreme misfortune. Australians were warned to beware the ‘olive peril’.

Photos of Jean Morris included in her Murder File, 1932. ITM814574.

Jean Morris, a street girl known locally as ‘Stiletto Jean’ because of the small knife she carried, had been involved with several members of the Black Hand up until her an untimely death. Inspector O’Driscoll stated:

“In all my long experience as a policeman I had never witnessed such evidence of lethal ferocity or unbridled rage. Hardened as I imagined myself to be, I admit I felt sickened by the dreadful scene in Jean Morris’s bedroom.”

A clipping from a typed police interview with Francesca Scarcella.
Deposition interview with Francesca Scarcella from the inquest into her late husband’s murder, 1936. ITM349599.

At the inquest into the murder of Domenico Scarcella, his widow Francesca swore that her husband’s death was a vendetta killing. It transpired that Domenico’s brother, Severio, killed Vincenzo Speranzo in Italy. Speranzo happened to be the brother-in-law of D’Agostino, the Calabrian man widely rumoured to have led the infamous Black Hand, and Francesca had received letters from relatives in Italy to support that theory.

A letter was also found among Domenico Scarcella’s personal items: an extortion letter from the Black Hand demanding £250 (approximately $24,500 today). Francesca said her husband had vowed to find its author.

In a post-mortem examination of his body, Dr Morrissey noted 71 pellet wounds to the torso: all had been fired prior to the fatal gunshots to the skull, which were made at close range from behind.

An old passport written and stamped in Italian, showing Francesco Femio's photograph.
Francesco Guglielmo ‘Frank’ Femio’s passport, included in his Murder File, 1937. ITM666429.

For Francesco Femio, potential retribution had long dogged his footsteps. Dr Morrissey, in his Post-mortem examination, confirmed it found him in the form of “Gunshot wounds of the chest, left hip and right knee. Homicidal.” His Queensland police murder file reveals the cane-cutter’s murky past and tangled associations with the Black Hand gang.

Femio had close links to prostitution in the area and was believed to control more than 100 working girls across Cairns, Townsville and Innisfail.  One of whom was also his lover, Jean Morris. The two had quarrels so bitter and violent they were reported in newspapers of the time. Months before Morris’ brutal murder, one passer-by allegedly heard Femio threaten “You come, you come with me. If you don’t, I’ll kill you” as she screamed at him to leave her home.

A clipping from a newspaper article featuring a hand-drawn image of Jean Morris.
Newspaper clipping depicting an artist’s interpretation of Jean Morris, included in Femio’s Murder File, 1937. ITM666429.

Police also suspected Femio was an accomplice in the murder of Domenico Scarcella, the inquest disclosing that a handwriting expert had attested his writing was identical to that on the extortion letter Scarcella had promised to discover. Though Femio vehemently denied the allegations when questioned.

While it was never proven, his familiarity with other “men of doubtful character” and implicated involvement in various criminal offences shored public opinion of his having been, at least at some point, second-in-command to reputed Black Hand leader Vincenzo D’Agostino.

A baker by trade, D’Agostino remains a constant thread through the stories and files on the Black Hand. Suspected by police and reported by newspapers to be its chief – to both he claimed innocence, denying any knowledge or connection. Any truth, which may have aided in his arrest if he was indeed the leader, evaded police at every vicious twist.

A clipping from a typed police report about Vincenzo D'Agostino.
Police background on Vincenzo D’Agostino, included in Femio’s Murder File, 1937. ITM666429.

The whispers of the frightened community terrorised by the Black Hand remained just that, with those interrogated by authorities refusing to share anything they may have known of the society and its actions. And not without reason, in 1933, D’Agostino was charged with corruption of a police witness using threats and intimidation. Though later acquitted of the charge, the warning to those in the community who might speak out about the Black Hand endured.

In 1938, as police sat by his deathbed, D’Agostino steadfastly refused to name his attackers, taking his secrets to the grave.

Perhaps the series of murders stemmed from 1928, when elderly canegrower Nicky Patane refused to pay any more protection money to D’Agostino and was shot in the head, dying in the arms of his wife.

Patane’s callous murder allegedly inspired another secret society in North Queensland. On the banks of a creek at Stone River, 16 defiant farmers allegedly signed an oath written in their own blood, vowing to eliminate the Black Hand permanently.

These cases, and more, remain unsolved to this day.

North Queensland’s Black Hand and its mysteries continue to intrigue and perplex. Presented by Anthony LaPaglia, ABC TV’s The Black Hand is set to unpack just some of these stories and histories from the cane fields. Watch the trailer below.

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