Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Black Hand and the West Frankfort Riot

I'm working on a new book — think of it as another bite-size morsel of Bloody Williamson — but this time of a chapter of Southern Illinois' history that's been all but forgotten. It's a chapter that Paul Angle should have included in his book but missed because Oldham Paisley didn't include newspaper clippings of it in his scrapbooks.

You see, two years before the Herrin Massacre, three years before the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, four years before the Klan War, five years before the rise of Shady Rest, six years before the Gang War, seven years before the big media trials and eight years before Charlie Birger's hanging, there was the West Frankfort Riot.

It had all the ingredients of what happened later — vigilante justice, riots in the streets, striking miners, anti-Italian mobs, gruesome murders, well-publicized trials, a hanging in Marion's Paradise Alley and, of course, organized crime.

In many ways it was just the latest wave of violence that had rippled through the region in the decade or so before national Prohibition. It had been fueled in part by factions and elements of the Sicilian mafia emigrating to the Egyptian Coal Belt.

Known also as the Black Hand, they extorted and killed, bombed and harassed both fellow Italians and their American neighbors. Their actions, and the counter-actions they generated, left a trail of distrust and bloodshed that stained the region's name.

The book's title will most likely be "'DeSantis the Doomed' and the Curse of the Black Hand." The name's inspired a booklet published in 1921 following the hanging of Settimi DeSantis. A Williamson County court ordered the death sentence for his role in a double murder south of Royalton the year before.

The picture above is him just minutes before his death as the Catholic priest, Father Seneese of Herrin, gives him comfort. I believe it's Sheriff Melvin Thaxton in the back (though I'm still trying to confirm that). The photo is an enlargement of one of four in the possession of the Williamson County Historical Society in Marion.

West Frankfort, Johnston City, Willisville and Whiteash were just some of the communities that saw bloodshed. I'm still looking for descendants of some of residents, victims and participants of that time period for additional stories and photographs. Anyone with more info please contact me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your comments on the Black Hand, Mano Nero. My wife,in laws who are Italian Catholics thought I was joking or exaggerated the story. During a visit to see my Grandmother, she not only confirmed my stories but had several stories of her own which shocked my wife & kids. Growing up in Frankfort from the mid 50's to 70's, I remember just how racist our town was. Such as; a sign warning non whites from letting the Sun Set on their ass, known as a Sunset or Sundown Town. I served over 20 years on active duty in the military with 8 of them in Italy. I was collecting money for my Daily American paper route. One customer was about to leave, so he asked me to hold his dry cleaning so he could get my money. Imagine my surprise when I saw his KKK patch on the sheet with his hood, he must of used a local dry cleaner. I have rarely returned for visits, but when I did it was common to hear the same racist, bigot views have been passed on by parents. My family has lived in Southern Illinois for two hundred years or more so I am not some Chicago family that moved to town. I have too many stories, memories for this comment post, so I will close. My Email is gingertec@yahoo.com & user name Sgt Redbird Soldier, if you wish to contact me.