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CARUSO AND THE EXTORTIONISTS 

IN HER BOOK A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera, Vivian Schweitzer offers fascinating tidbits about famed tenor Enrico Caruso. One is that “… when Caruso sang the aria [“Vesti la Giubba,” from Pagliacci] at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, it was transmitted in the world’s first public radio broadcast.”

Caruso in one of his signature roles, Canio in Pagliacci, 1908. Image from Wikipedia by Aimé Dupont Studio—available from the U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs.  

Another rather more complex tale is Caruso’s encounters, yes, more than one, with extortionists. 

Neapolitan Youth. Born in Naples in 1873, Caruso sang in churches during his childhood. Schweitzer notes, “He was distressed when a local claque booed him during a youthful performance in his hometown as punishment for his failure to pay them the requisite bribe, and declared that he would never again perform in Naples.”

La Mano Nero, the Black Hand. Wikipedia says, “Black Hand, Mano Nero, was a type of Italian extortion racket…. The roots of the Black Hand can be traced to the Kingdom of Naples as early as the 1750s.… By 1900, Black Hand operations were firmly established in the Italian communities of major cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Scranton, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Detroit.”

“Typical Black Hand tactics,” Wikipedia describes, “involved sending a letter to a victim threatening bodily harm, kidnapping, arson, or murder. The letter demanded a specified amount of money to be delivered to a specific place. It was decorated with threatening symbols such as a smoking gun, hangman’s noose, skull, or knife dripping with blood or piercing a human heart, and was frequently signed with a hand, ‘held up in the universal gesture of warning,’ imprinted or drawn in thick black ink.”

Caruso Extorted. Wikipedia writes, “Caruso’s success in the Metropolitan Opera drew the attention of Black Hand extortionists. They threatened to injure his throat with lye or harm him and his family if he did not pay them money [$2000, about $57,000 in today’s dollar] ….” 

Wikipedia continues, “He decided to pay, and, when this fact became public knowledge, was rewarded for his capitulation with ‘a stack of threatening letters a foot high,’ including another from the same gang for $15,000.”

The Rascals Captured. With the Black Hand upping the ante to $15,000, the New York City Police came up with a clever ploy. Police City police detective Joseph Petrosino impersonated Caruso and captured the extortionists.

Lt. Joe Petrosino, NYPD, Badge No, 285. Image from Wikipedia.

A TimesMachine Trip. One of the spiffs of a NYT subscription is access to the newspaper’s archives through its TimesMachine: The New York Times, March 26, 1910, gives details: “Caruso, himself an Italian and thoroughly familiar with the tactics of a certain class of his countrymen, has paid between $1500 and $2000 to the Black Hand to purchase peace for himself, according to present report. Caruso himself wouldn’t admit it, but his associates unhesitatingly accepted the statement as true.”

Two Sicilians, Antonio Misiani and Antonio Cincotta, were arrested “on suspicion of being the principals in the plot…. The men have been out on $5000 bail, and they and their lawyer were much surprised when Judge Fawcett, as soon as they were arraigned, announced that the bail had been increased to $10,000 in each case.”

“Neither man,” The New York Times continued, “was able to furnish the increased bail and they were locked up in the Raymond Street Jail.” 

An Ad Pitch. By the way, accompanied ads in that Saturday, March 29, 1910, edition included “Men’s Silk Hose—a special one-day sale—They came to us as ‘seconds,’ but the imperfection is so slight you could not notice it unless it was pointed out. Usually 50¢—special at …. 29¢.”

Known for being fastidiously attired, Caruso would not likely have been attracted to this pitch. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

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