Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Chicopee "Black Hand"

Frank Dixon, Lewis Stephanos, and Marie Boso of Chicopee, Kansas, were arrested in the fall of 1909 on suspicion of committing or orchestrating wholesale robberies in the Missouri-Kansas border area around Pittsburg. After Dixon was convicted in February of 1910, newspapers reported that his conviction and the arrest of the other two had broken up “the most vengeful ‘black hand’ society in the West.” During the three years previous to the trio’s arrest, nineteen murders had reportedly been committed in the Chicopee area, and all had gone unsolved, because everybody was scared to testify or otherwise cooperate with authorities.
Even though I’ve lived in nearby Joplin for over forty years and have occasionally heard it rumored that the so-called Italian mob ruled the Pittsburg area in the early part of the 20th century, I was still a little skeptical of the Chicopee report, particularly the number of supposed murders, when I recently ran across it in a Springfield, Missouri, newspaper. However, after delving into the subject a little more, I’ve concluded that there was apparently considerable truth to it.
The Black Hand officially referred to any of several extortion rackets run by immigrant Sicilian and Italian gangsters in large cities across the US from about 1890 to 1920. The scheme consisted of extorting money from merchants or other well-off people (usually other immigrants) by sending them notes with black hands or other menacing symbols printed on them alongside threats of death or property destruction. The Black Hand was more or less a precursor to the mafia, but the term “black hand” came to be used in a generic sense to mean any criminal enterprise run by Italian or Sicilian immigrants, such as the robbery ring run by Dixon, Stephanos, and Boso around Chicopee, which was a coal mining community inhabited mainly by Italians and Sicilians.
At any rate, my search of Kansas newspapers turned up the fact that murders in the Chicopee area were indeed pretty common during the first decade of 20th century. In late May of 1904, a miner named Bartolomeo Vietta was shot and killed in a Chicopee saloon by another Italian, Costimo Bogetti. In October of 1905, brothers Sam and John Devitto got drunk and shot up a saloon, fatally wounding a man named Otto Odoneno and seriously injuring three others. One night in early November 1907, a young man named Salvatore Pollichino was gunned down at Chicopee, apparently in cold blood. The Pittsburg Headlight reported that who did the killing was a question to which no one knew the answer, although the victim was a recent immigrant and it was thought he might have been killed by someone from the “old country” who held a grudge against him. Thirteen other men had been killed in the Chicopee area in the previous four years, said the Headlight, and their killers were likewise unknown. Less than a month later, on a morning in early December of 1907, a Sicilian miner named Antonio Fasulo was beaten and shot to death in Chicopee by six Italians while he was on his way to work. The crime was supposed to be the work of “The Black Hand.” About 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, August 22, 1908, several gunshots were heard between East Chicopee and West Chicopee, but nobody thought much about the incident until the next morning when a dead Italian man was found with seven bullet holes in his body. “Like the other twenty-four killings which have occurred at or near that place in the past four years,” reported the Columbus Weekly Advocate, “the killing is shrouded in mystery.” In none of the twenty-five cases had a murderer been brought to justice.
On August 4, 1909, however, when two young Anglo-Americans who’d grown up together in the Chicopee area got into a fight and one stabbed the other to death, the assailant, Arthur Connery, was quickly arrested. He was later convicted of manslaughter for killing his friend Harry Kilduff. Both young men came from what were described as prominent families.
On August 14, 1909, three masked men accosted eighteen-year-old Lena Baroni and her fiancé at West Chicopee and ran the fiancé off at the point of a gun. After she refused their indecent proposals, they compounded the insult by offering to pay her for sex. She broke away and started running, and they shot and mortally wounded her. Before she died, however, she said she recognized the men from their voices and other clues to their identity. She named them as Joe Chirafisi, Carlo Caletti, and Tony Mamphie. She again identified Chirafisi and Caletti after they were arrested and brought before her in the hospital. After she died, Chirafisi was tried, found guilty of first degree murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Caletti was later acquitted, and, as far as I have been able to determine, Mamphie was never brought to justice.
Meanwhile, Frank Dixon had been sent to prison several years earlier, but he had reportedly continued to run his robbery ring from behind bars. Then when he got out in July of 1909, robberies in the Chicopee area spiked. He and his cohorts, though, were soon apprehended when about $5,000 of the stolen loot was discovered at the home of Marie Boso, an Italian widow. Dixon himself was not Italian but his two partners were. After Lewis was sent away for another stretch at the big house, the crime wave around Chicopee, including the murders, receded.
So, there does seem to have been something to the stories of an Italian mob operating in the Chicopee area. But I’m still not quite convinced that there were as many unsolved murders as newspaper reports suggested.

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