Today marks the birthday of Lucy Lawless. The woman who single-handedly turned the phrase “iconic New Zealand-born actress” from a sly joke into absolute truth, Lawless became famous as warrior princess Xena in the 1990s. Combining a handsome frame and steely gaze with abundant swordsticuffs, she banked such a mountain of nerd cred that she will be able to turn up across the science fiction and fantasy genre for as long as she likes. Nowadays, in between acting gigs, she brings light to our lives in her singing career and exults that a dwarf planet was for a time named Xena.

lombardoYou know who else was lawless? The Black Hand. Infamous for a far-ranging extortion scheme, the Black Hand leaned on wealthy Italians and others in the wild, wild Chicago of the early twentieth century. Their rather quaint m.o.: sending a target a letter stating that they had to come across or come to harm. The blackmailers’ missive often included a drawing of a black hand or other frightening symbols.

For a long time historians and criminologists considered the Black Hand an extension of a certain Sicilian flavored organized crime, and its victims the ethnic population most likely to take their threats seriously.

Nerts, says Robert M. Lombardo in his gritty study of this legendary Chi-town racket. Looking at the Black Hand from a sociological perspective, Lombardo shows how the Hand’s criminal enterprise evolved as the result of social conditions within American society such as the isolation of the Italian community, political corruption, and an ineffective criminal justice system. The media tied the Hand to Sicilians for purposes of a good narrative, ignoring the fact that plenty of non-Italians dipped a pinky into the felonious waters. The Black Hand sets the record straight on a crime gang still remembered by old-timers, one that preyed on those who found paradise in America, who had a good trade, and made a good living.

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