Questions about 1920s New York City

Woollybear

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Two questions, actually, about 1920s NYC. I'm close to the point where I can start outlining and getting my head around the antagonists of my story.

(1) Which nefarious groups might use poison on their adversaries, and what kind of poison?

(2) I'm seeing references to the "Italian fascists" in my newspaper searches. Beyond the phrase itself, and despite knowing about the rise of Mussolini in Italy, I have no good context to understand what this group--in NYC--actually is. Is it a criminal enterprise? Is it a group trying to infiltrate American politics? Is it a group extorting money to ship back to Italy? Do you have any sense of "Italian fascists" and what kind of element they might have been? (I'm gleaning some information from this PDF but still curious for a broader set of thoughts.)
 

ap123

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1920s NYC was the initial heyday of the American mafia, Prohibition opening the door to ALL the money and opportunities. While I don't know of poison being a murder weapon of choice as a general rule, I know there were instances of poisoned booze (including the govt doing the poisoning, so that's a fun opportunity for plot). I would also guess that with some research you can find a gangster who used poison for specific murders.
I'm unfamiliar with the term Italian fascists for a specific criminal group here in NYC, but I'm guessing this is likely a term used by media for the mafia, both the initial arm of the Sicilian mafia and then the American mafia. The whole prejudice/racist/othering thing, our country has always loved to use every attack possible, and in those days where so many were desperate here and the organization and $ (and booze) available joining the various families started looking pretty good, calling the groups fascists, public reminders/questions about ties to Mussolini (though Mussolini did not support the Sicilian Mafia at all, and not all of the powerful gangsters in NYC were Italian/of Italian descent) may have been an effort to dissuade the public from seeing the groups as anything other than un-American, etc
 
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Tocotin

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Okay, this is just a general note and not about New York City (about which I know nothing), but please keep in mind that in the 1920s the terms "fascist" and "fascism" were not derogatory. Mussolini and his movement had a lot of supporters among all social classes, all over the world. If you read biographies/memoirs/diaries from that time, even casually, you'll find perfectly respectable, relatively progressive people voicing their admiration for Mussolini's moral crusade and his program to create a highly disciplined, healthy, strong nation.

:troll
 

Woollybear

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Thank you dears!!

The Italian fascists in the 1920s, as I understand it from places I poked around in yesterday, were Italians who were (in part) reacting to the prejudice they faced here, while Mussolini was doing his thing to bring Italy into a more powerful position in the world. My grandmother evidently was a supporter of Mussolini, before, as my cousin says, 'his true colors showed.' Mussolini was also an activist as a younger man, possibly a communist, his is just a very messy story that I'll need to understand better at some point.

But yes, there were reputable organizations including the Fascist League of North America which was an umbrella for several dozen individual Italian groups. (I don't think they were the same as the Mafia.)

My family research indicates only the very barest tangential connection to anything Mafia-related, which was not uncommon for successful Sicilians to experience. So, the research does not suggest these were the antagonists of this story, and using the Mafia as the villains seems too predictable of a choice besides. Especially if there's another realistic option. The mafia certainly need to be part of the setting, in some form or other, just like the rise of Mussolini will be, like many other things of note during the years will be.

But I don't think the Mafia are my bad guys.

There are, however, a couple of strange deaths happening in the events swirling around my grandparents, and the 'convenient' timing of those deaths leads me to wonder if they were murders.

The Mafia tended to use guns--like how Rothstein was shot in Park Central Hotel. Rothstein was three degrees of separation away from my grandparents (and directly tied to the Mafia.) But then another guy associated with that same circle of people died, and this guy was not shot. He was unwell, with stomach pain (death certificate said appendicitis.)

But the timing makes me suspicious... and I wonder if it was actually a hit. If it wasn't appendicitis, but instead poisoning, then it looks from very initial research I did last night that arsenic can cause such symptoms. But who would have poisoned him? He was, according to a couple of newspaper reports, being "blackmailed by Italian fascists." ( :) Media term, yes.)

So that's when I started wondering if this was an antagonizing force I could use instead of the Mafia. In my extended family's experience, people are always equating Sicilians with the Mafia, and frankly, it's annoying. I don't need to lean into the stereotype, and my research doesn't suggest a strong link between my ancestors and the mafia anyway.

But I wouldn't mind putting fascism into the role of villain, heh. :)

Two other people involved with events at the time became ill, again at "convenient times," and one died of a heart attack. (The other went to a sanitarium and recovered somewhat.) Naturally, all of this sickness and death could be down to stress of the events underway, but I want to brainstorm other explanations.

For the heart attack victim, who was supposed to take the witness stand in a major case the following day, I was wondering if cyanide might actually have been at play.

Poisons. If poisons are involved here, and if the fascist leagues were more or less respectable for a time, as suggested by the newspaper reports, and yet some resorted to blackmail, then maybe I can shape a villain from this.

If the guy had been shot, it would look like a mafia hit. He wasn't. He might (might) have been poisoned. The death (possibly legitimately) called 'appendicitis.' The timing is suspicious.

This is me trying to make sense of it all, and without my coffee yet, no less.
 
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Woollybear

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1920s NYC was the initial heyday of the American mafia, Prohibition opening the door to ALL the money and opportunities. While I don't know of poison being a murder weapon of choice as a general rule, I know there were instances of poisoned booze (including the govt doing the poisoning, so that's a fun opportunity for plot). I would also guess that with some research you can find a gangster who used poison for specific murders.

I had not heard about the poisoned booze. I'd love to learn more about the government being involved here. (I'll google it, but if you have names or dates etc on the tip of your tongue, I'll send you a cookie.) ETA: Oh, I've found a few sources, thank you!

Al Smith is already on my radar for some corruption his nephew was involved with.

(ETA: Wow, you might know this but there's a mobster who claimed to have helped poisoned Pope John Paul I with cyanide. I've found a new rabbit hole.)
 
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ap123

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It was an actual government program, that I think (memory could be wrong here) began in '25 or '26 here in NYC, and spread outward from there.
I did not know about that mobster claiming to have poisoned Pope John Paul, wow!!!!!
 
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Woollybear

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Is an 'illegal operation' performed by a doctor on a young girl of eighteen, in this time frame, a euphemism for an abortion? I'm seeing references to an 'illegal operation' and assuming abortion but wondering if it could be anything else.
 

benbenberi

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Is an 'illegal operation' performed by a doctor on a young girl of eighteen, in this time frame, a euphemism for an abortion? I'm seeing references to an 'illegal operation' and assuming abortion but wondering if it could be anything else.
Lacking any other information, I would assume abortion
 

Unimportant

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Look up the "Black Hand" -- extortion rackets run by Sicilian gangsters in NYC in the Italian community.
 
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Woollybear

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:)

The Black Hand ran some of their operations right across the street from where my ancestors lived. Out of a pool hall, no less.

They (the black hand) enjoyed making bombs. (My ancestors enjoyed making pies.) But I think the American Mafia came to displace them... (the black hand, not the pies.) So, they (the black hand) figure into my grandparents' story up to 1920. Following that, the even more disreputable folks creep into the area, but not so much into my family's lives, thank goodness.

One of those black hand bombs did go off in my ancestors' building, however.... at 2 in the morning, in 1902. Broke the windows and all the rest, "16 frightened Italian families rush out to the street as fast as their little legs can carry them." They evidently started shooting their guns into the air to get the cops to come around and have a look-see.
 
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Unimportant

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Is an 'illegal operation' performed by a doctor on a young girl of eighteen, in this time frame, a euphemism for an abortion? I'm seeing references to an 'illegal operation' and assuming abortion but wondering if it could be anything else.
I'd say almost certainly abortion. See this article (paragraph 2 of page 2).
 
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Woollybear

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So here's another question.

I'm finding the villains for my story... It's actually becoming blindingly clear who the villains were in this sequence of events. I'm 90% sure I've identified the "Italian fascists" mentioned several posts up (a prominent New York family) who were blackmailing the guy who may have died by poison (also mentioned above). Then there's a third person who is also villainous, and he was a political appointee. He served jailtime. Oh, there is a fourth person, tangential to events, who died childless, and a fifth person who is several degrees removed but who is already seen as a villain by the public. As it turns out, there are plenty of villains.

My conundrum is this:

A good number of these people have living descendants. Some of the descendants are fine upstanding individuals, war heros and the like.

So. How is this typically handled in historical fiction? Do I call out the villains loud and clear, knowing this might cause discomfort among their descendants who would rather the whole thing remain forgotten? Do I fictionalize events (change the names and dates)? Do I do something else? Do I assume the phrase "Any similarity to actual people is a coincidence" will cover my butt?

Am I putting the cart way before the horse? This stuff is all a matter of record from the roaring 20s, but my inclination is to draw the lines even more sharply than the reports indicate. Am I risking being charged with defamation or any such thing?
 

Tocotin

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I'm not sure, perhaps you need to ask a lawyer about that.

You're writing fiction, and you can totally change the names and events if you want to be on the safe side and make sure that no one recognizes your real-life villains. What do you gain by calling them out?

:troll
 
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ap123

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I don't know the legalities, but I would fictionalize enough so it the story isn't necessarily read as the families you're referring to. In other words, definitely change names, fudge dates, places, enough that you aren't causing harm/aggravation or leaving yourself open to legal action.
 
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Bing Z

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What defines the historic figures in your book is what they do (the Jimmy who runs Tammany Hall), not what you call them (Jimmy the super thug). It is open knowledge that Jimmy Walker was among the most corrupt political figures and part of the Tammany Hall. You are not smearing him and making his descendants unhappy (maybe unhappy, but then they'll be unhappy everytime they read about their ancester on Wikipedia anyway).

Now, if you want to portray, say, Babe Ruth, to have been involved in serious crimes, that is another matter altogether. That guy might as well be renamed Joe 'Thug' Smith.
 
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Woollybear

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The question I have, suppose, is whether I should have a character call Jimmy a thug outright, or simply describe the bribes he took (or whatever his corruption was) and let the audience make their conclusion. I think I need characters to call out the other characters, though.

I could theoretically limit most of the villains' representation to what has been officially reported, and then create a single fictional character to add to the mix who is the 'fall guy' for the book. That's one possiblity. The fictional character would be the focal point of the harshest hostility.

I'd like to stick as close to facts as possible, though.
 

Woollybear

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One of the villains, according to various testimony in the newspapers, was called a slur for a tough guy, by his Italian friends and acquaintances.

Q: "Is it true you would call him (slur) for "tough guy?"
A: "Yes." (with a broad grin, and the witness repeated the slur.)

The actual slur is never printed in the paper. I've googled around, and I can rule out certain slurs. I don't *think* it would be anything like wop or dego, since these are Italians casting the slur to another Italian.

I'm curious if you have any thoughts about what the slur might be. It could be anything, the only clue I have is that the slur means 'tough guy.'
 

dickson

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In addition to Italian mobs, there were Irish ones (in New York, since the Civil War) and Jewish ones, vide. Dutch Schulz in the next decade.

A bit of lore concerning the 1920’s that would be hard to discern in period photography: Gore Vidal, who was there, reports that, while ‘neon’ lighting was widespread in NYC, all the lighting was white. Colorful neon lighting came in later.

Finally, one of my professors worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street at that time, and personally witnessed people jumping out of high-rise windows after the 1929 crash.
 

Woollybear

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Can anyone here enlighten me as to what a "private bank" would be in the early 1900s New York? Specifically, how would the regulations around such banks be handled? (Were there any regulations of these banks?)

Is a "private bank" the opposite of a "commercial bank?" What is the banking structure, writ large, for banking in the early 1900s?

Would private banks be run out of someone's home? Or would they have a storefront? Would they make reports to state agencies?

Did the state banking departments concern themselves over them? Were there boards of directors, that sort of thing?

I have one source that helps a little, but hoping some of you know what a private bank is in the early 1900s, new york. Today, the term is entirely different.
 

Unimportant

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Can anyone here enlighten me as to what a "private bank" would be in the early 1900s New York? Specifically, how would the regulations around such banks be handled? (Were there any regulations of these banks?)

Is a "private bank" the opposite of a "commercial bank?" What is the banking structure, writ large, for banking in the early 1900s?

Would private banks be run out of someone's home? Or would they have a storefront? Would they make reports to state agencies?

Did the state banking departments concern themselves over them? Were there boards of directors, that sort of thing?

I have one source that helps a little, but hoping some of you know what a private bank is in the early 1900s, new york. Today, the term is entirely different.
Google to get the pdf for:
THE SMALL, PRIVATE
BANKER
IN
NEW
YORK AND
REGULATORY CHANGE,
1893-1933
 
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Fi Webster

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A wee reminder you probably don't need: the "Spanish" flu pandemic of 100 years ago was similar to the Covid pandemic in that it went through multiple surges over the course of two-plus years. So that would be well into 1920, perhaps even 1921.

Laura Spinney's excellent book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World includes a section on how New York City was affected. If I recall, there was an outsized death toll of Italians living in crowded tenements.

Just as we're seeing now, fascist movements do take advantage of events that destabilize society, like a pandemic, to spread disinformation, stoke xenophobia, and increase violence. I don't know how the aftermath of the 1918-20 pandemic played out in New York further into the 1920s, but it could well have contributed to the politics of that decade.
 
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Lakey

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Can anyone here enlighten me as to what a "private bank" would be in the early 1900s New York? Specifically, how would the regulations around such banks be handled? (Were there any regulations of these banks?)
This is probably somewhat oversimplified, but there was precious little regulation of banking and securities before the 1929 crash and the run on the banks that followed it. Banking and securities regulation (and the establishment of FDIC, SEC, and the like) followed in the Roosevelt administration.

:e2coffee:
 

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'The Black Hand' is a rich topic and an excellent response to the original query.
I haven't read every reply in the discussion but I'll contribute these:

Italian politics are found in 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins. Remember? Italian nationalism was an international concern long before the mafia. The situation was always frenetic.

A great resource might be "The Leopard" by Giuseppe de Lampedusa. The classic study of dying Sicily aristocracy; the Garibaldi era; Emmanuel Vittorio; and whatnot.

Poisons: I'm not at all familiar. I can only suggest the classic poisons like belladonna and foxglove and hemlock. Probably too corny.
 
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