A new book recounts the long-hidden history of the Columbus postal inspector who took down the mob.
William Oldfield was always intrigued by his great-grandfather's career in law enforcement, but until several years ago, he was reluctant to publicize it. The Akron native is the great-grandson of Frank Oldfield, who, in his capacity as the Columbus-based U.S. Post Office inspector, helped to quash the Ohio arm of a criminal enterprise known as the Black Hand Society.
“It was a secret that had to be kept in the family,” says William Oldfield. “These mafiosos' families, with long grudges ... were living all over the Great Lakes region, and so were we.”
The society, regarded as the nation's first organized crime syndicate, was imported to the U.S. by groups of Sicilian immigrants who issued letters threatening violence to extract money from upstanding citizens—often fellow immigrants. More than a century after Frank Oldfield served as Central Ohio's equivalent to Eliot Ness, his great-grandson decided it was time to tell his story.
In August, Touchstone published “Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society,” written by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce, who appeared together at Half Price Books, 1375 W. Lane Ave., on Sept. 5.
In 2011, Oldfield, an archivist and historical lecturer, happened upon Bruce in a coffee shop in Maryland, where both reside. Oldfield regaled Bruce with tales of his great-grandfather's crusade against the Black Hand Society.
“It was this epic story that no one had ever heard of, so what author could turn that down?” says Bruce. One reason for her interest: the trove of evidence that her eventual co-author had in his possession. Upon conclusion of the case, Frank Oldfield owned trunks full of files, which stayed in the family, eventually falling into the hands of great-grandson William.
The trove had dwindled over time, lost to flooding, but some documents remained intact. “Finally, it came out to maybe half of what would be a steamer trunk today—but enough that it still told the story,” Oldfield says.
In Ohio, that story began in small towns like Marion and Dennison (near New Philadelphia), which were large shipping and manufacturing areas and had small police departments, according to Oldfield. The mobsters found they could pillage the residents' wealth and get away with it.
Then, in 1909, the society attempted to extort fruit distributor John Amicon, “a very, very brave, obstinate man who's not going to pay the bad guys,” Bruce says. After receiving a succession of letters from the society—including mail packed with sticks of dynamite—Amicon enlisted the help of inspector Oldfield.
The book recounts Oldfield's pursuit of the society, which involved soliciting the participation of postal inspectors, mail carriers and others to determine the provenance of Amicon's letters. “From there, he does this amazing and widespread investigation where he has everyone followed and stamps marked,” Bruce says. “It's just mind-boggling how they kept all this organized.”
By 1910, the investigation had crippled the society in Ohio, with 11 members sent to prison—the first organized crime conviction in federal court, according to the book. Frank Oldfield had demonstrated that it wasn't “localized little bands of bad mafia guys,” but that its reach extended throughout the nation and the world, his great-grandson says. “He was able to prove that this was a serious problem.”
Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine, as well as our weekly newsletter so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.