Within 14 months, the ‘Shotgun Man’ killed over a nineteen people—four in a single three-day span—in a muddy intersection of Chicago’s Little Sicily neighborhood nicknamed Death Corner. He was never caught.
This was in 1910, when two million people had to live at a full sprint to survive in the city. Jobs were plentiful but exhausting. Progressive reforms in labor, housing, and health had just begun, and Chicago’s rule as the economic and cultural hub of the Midwest was in its infancy. Races and ethnicities that had lived hundreds of miles apart were now neighbors and co-workers. The city had many challenges to tackle, but its rate of unsolved murder lingered near the top.
From 1875 to 1920, 75% of Chicago murders went unpunished (no suspects and/or convictions). Three in four! It was a tough time to be a worker in the city…but it was a Christmas carnival for criminals.
The Black Hand contributed to that. Unlike the Chicago Outfit that emerged during Prohibition, the Black Hand had no real hierarchy, only a loose-knit collection of criminals that were, for the most part, anonymous to even one another. Instead, it relied on cultural relics from the old country (Spain and Italy) and simple extortion. In its home country, the Black Hand had an entirely different purpose. Methods were simple: pay up or we’ll kill you. It was effective.
“…On its native heath the ‘Black Hand ‘ was organized for good. An Italian who wrongs a woman, and fails to right the wrong, is practically driven from among his fellows. The black hand of ostracism is raised against him. The Black Hand in this country, brought into being for noble purposes across the sea, was prostituted and converted for ignoble purposes when transplanted to the United States.”
~Gaetano d’Amato, 1908. “The ‘Black Hand’ Myth“
The Black Hand wasn’t limited to Chicago, but sprang up in many cities with large Italian populations, making life even more difficult for this group of new Americans. San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and New Orleans all hosted versions.
Despite the loose organization and contempt from fellow Italians, the Black Hand were serious people. Favorite targets were almost always fellow Italians, usually those that had found success in America. A letter might just be a bluff…but sometimes the threats were real. That was where the Shotgun Man stepped in.
Was the Shotgun Man real?
It’s easy to dismiss the Shotgun Man as criminal lore. For frightened Italian immigrants, such a character would be the Devil Incarnate: an anonymous man who stalked the streets of Chicago, following through the threats of the Black Hand using the traditional weapon of the Italian underground, the lupara (a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun).
The lupara‘s use is as much tradition as practical devastation. Italian shepherds used them to defend herds against wolf attacks (lupara means “for the wolf” in Italian). They are also inexpensive, easy to make, difficult to trace, and absolutely effective (victims often had closed-casket funerals). An assassin couldn’t choose a better weapon.
The Shotgun Man’s hunting grounds centered around the intersection of Oak Street and Milton Avenue, a site of so much Black Hand violence it became known as Death Corner. Residents of Little Italy credit the Shotgun Man with the majority of murders at this site.
A half-dozen mentions in period papers and graphic is hardly evidence for the Shotgun Man.
Early Italian-Americans considered their immediate community the only trustworthy authority in the city. This cultural code of silence was far more than a plot device for exploitative gangster movies. It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the plight of American immigrants, then and today.