Racco, Rocco (1868-1909)

b. Grotteria, Calabria, Italy, 1868
d. (hanging) New Castle, PA, Oct. 26, 1909

Rocco Racco served for a time as leader of a Calabrian criminal organization in the area of Hillsville, PA. The testimony of rival gangsters helped to convict Racco of killing a state law enforcement officer, and Racco was executed in 1909.

Racco, born to Giuseppe and Maria Camisi Racco in Grotteria, Italy, arrived in the United States in the summer of 1899. At the time, he had relatives and friends in New York City and upstate and western New York. He initially traveled to Albany and then moved on to western New York. Within a short time, he was settled in the mining community of Hillsville, PA. Italian immigrants in the area generally worked in limestone mines that served Pittsburgh's steel industry. Racco did some work as a miner, opened a store near what was known as the Peanut Quarry, invested in an insurance company and engaged in a variety of extortion.

The men of the region were victimized by a primitive criminal racket, closely resembling a pyramid scheme, in which they were compelled on penalty of death to become members of a Calabrian "Black Hand Society." Membership money flowed upward toward the leader, who retired after a time, turning the lucrative post over to his successor. The society in Hillsville was said to be linked with similar organizations in major U.S. cities. As leader of the local society, Racco set membership dues, targeted new victims and passed death sentences.

A rebellious faction in the Hillsville Black Hand Society rose up against Racco early in 1906. A quarry workers strike split the underworld organization, with Racco and his loyalists siding with employers and rebels siding with striking workers. Racco quickly found himself facing charges of violating the underworld code by sleeping with another society member's wife, an offense punishable by death. A panel of Black Hand leaders from New York City, Buffalo and elsewhere was assembled to sit in judgment on the Hillsville boss. Racco was saved from the death penalty but removed from his leadership post.

In the same period, State Game Warden Seely Houk became terribly unpopular with the men of Hillsville's Italian colony as he strictly enforced hunting and fishing laws. In the summer of 1905, Houk was himself arrested for mistreating an Italian boy who violated the law by fishing on Sunday. Houk was convicted of assault and battery but managed to postpone sentencing.

Luigi Ritorto, a clerk employed in Racco's store, went hunting for ground hogs in February 1906. Ritorto borrowed Racco's shotgun and "Paolo,"  a light-colored hunting dog that was the favorite of the several dogs owned by Racco. Game Warden Houk spotted Ritorto as he entered a wooded area near the Peanut Quarry. As he noticed Houk, Ritorto ran into the woods. The dog, Paolo, ran toward the game warden. Houk pulled the trigger on his shotgun, and the dog was killed. When Racco learned of the incident, he openly swore to kill Houk. While possibly overcome by emotion at the loss of his favorite dog, Racco also may have been hoping to improve his standing in the colony by squaring off with the hated Houk and perhaps return to leadership of the Black Hand Society.

Early in March, 1906, Houk disappeared. Shortly after that, Rocco Racco's brother-in-law Vincenzo Murdocca left Hillsville and sailed back to his Italian homeland. In April, when Houk failed to appear at his sentencing hearing for the assault and battery of the boy who dared to fish on a Sunday, authorities went looking for the game warden.

Houk's remains were discovered in the muddy banks of the Mahoning River where railroad tracks passed a wooded area of Hillsville. The man's chest had been hit with a load of shot. Another apparent close-range shotgun blast had struck Houk in the head, tearing away the lower portion of his face.

The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners set a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Houk's killers. Private citizens pooled resources to call in the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Several Pinkerton men, including the accomplished Francis P. Dimaio, went undercover in Hillsville to gain information on the Houk killing and the Black Hand Society.

In September 1906, Racco and his wife were convicted of stealing a sum of money. Though not yet named as a suspect in the Houk murder, Racco was known to be a former Black Hand Society leader and was widely believed to have taken part in the recent slaying of local resident William Duff. After convincing local friends to contribute $2,000 bail, Racco was released pending appeal and promptly disappeared. Detectives located him in mid-October in New York City, where he was preparing to board a steamship for Italy. His appeal was denied and, in January, he began serving a sentence of a year in prison.

Just one week later, much of the leadership of the Black Hand Society in the region was arrested. This seems due in large part to information obtained by Pinkerton agent Dimaio. The current boss of the society, Joe Bagnato managed to escape to Italy with an estimated $30,000 just as the arrests were made. Several other Black Hand leaders were convicted of blackmailing, assault, robbery and other offenses.

Racco's prison sentence had almost expired when a local judge had him brought to New Castle, Pennsylvania, to face additional Black Hand robbery charges. In May, 1908, Racco was charged with conspiring with Vincenzo Murdocca in the murder of Seely Houk. Agent Dimaio met repeated with Racco in an effort to have him confess to his involvement and implicate Murdocca. Racco refused to cooperate: "I will not speak. I will go to the gallows a brave man."

Racco adhered to the underworld code of silence even when other Black Hand Society members testified against him in court. On Sept. 19, 1908, Racco was convicted of first-degree murder. The local press reported that he was in good humor when he received the news. A legal appeal was defeated in March of 1909, and Racco was formally sentenced to die by hanging. Still, Dimaio attempted to obtain Racco's cooperation against the escaped Murdocca, but still Racco refused. A final appeal, financed by contributions from the Italian community, was brought to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court. The governor granted a stay of execution until Oct. 26, so the appeal could be processed.

On the eve of his execution, Racco informed the press that he would make a statement the next morning as the noose was placed around his neck. The local press wondered if he would reveal the workings of the Black Hand Society or his accomplice in the Houk killing. At 10 o'clock on Oct. 26, Racco offered only a denial of any role in the killing: "Gentleman, I did not see Seely Houk killed. I did not see any one kill him, and I have no suspicion of any person. I pardon everybody and expect to go to Jesus right now. Goodbye."

See also:


  •   "Black Hand Society (Seeley Houk Murder) - Hillsville PA," Lawrence County Memoirs, lawrencecountymemoirs.com, May 2014, accessed May 4, 2015.
  •   Commonwealth vs. Rocco Racco, Court of Oyer & Terminer,  Lawrence County, PA, No. I, June Term, 1908. (Thanks to Margaret Janco.)
  •   Horan, James D., The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty that Made History, New York: Bonanza Books, 1967.
  •   Horan, James D., and Howard Swiggett, The Pinkerton Story, London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1952.
  •   Passenger manifest of S.S. Tartar Prince, departed Naples on June 23, 1899, arrived New York City on July 9, 1899.
  •   Roco Racco death certificate, no. 94896, filed Oct. 27, 1909, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Bureau of Vital Statistics.
  •   Seely Houk Murder and the Black Hand Investigation, Box 117, Folders 1, 3, 4, 5, Criminal Case Files, 1861-1962, Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
  •   Warren, Louis S., "The Hunter's Game," New York Times: Books, nytimes.com, 1997, accessed May 4, 2015.
  •   "Hillsville Italians found insurance co.," New Castle PA Herald, Feb. 10, 1906, p. 1.
  •   "Charter notice," New Castle PA Herald, Feb. 19, 1906, p. 2. 
  •   "Charter notice," New Castle PA Herald, Feb. 26, 1906, p. 7.
  •   "Big reward out for murderers," Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, April 26, 1906, p. 4.
  •   "Corpse of game warden lies on river's bottom," Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, April 27, 1906, p. 1.
  •   "Finding of body explains a mystery," Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 27, 1906, p. 1.
  •   "True bills found against twenty-six by the grand jury," New Castle PA Herald, June 6, 1906, p. 8.
  •   "Duff murder trial begins," New Castle PA Herald, June 8, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "Assassin may be captured," New Castle Pa Herald, Aug. 29, 1906, p. 3.
  •   "Grand jury cases for coming term," New Castle PA Herald, Sept. 1, 1906, p. 12.
  •   "Law's heavy hand," New Castle PA Herald, Sept. 14, 1906, p. 1.
  •   "Rocco Racco in custody," New Castle PA Herald, Sept. 15, 1906, p. 1.
  •   "Friend of murderer of 'Squire Wm. Duff now behind the bars," New Castle PA News, Oct. 17, 1906, p. 1.
  •   "Rocco Racco wants trial," New Castle PA News, Nov. 28, 1906, p. 5.
  •   "Rocco Racco case is before court," New Castle PA News, Dec. 5, 1906, p. 16.
  •   "Rocco Racco refused new trial yesterday; opinions handed down," New Castle PA Herald, Feb. 26, 1907, p. 2.
  •   "Judge Porter has secrets of dreaded Black Hand society," New Castle PA Herald, March 5, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Five leaders of 'Black Hand' are taken by police," New Castle PA Herald, March 11, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Five Black Hand men jailed at New Castle," Pittsburgh Post, March 11, 1907, p. 5.
  •   "Black Hand suspects get hearing last night; will be tried in June," New Castle PA Herald, March 15, 1907, p. 16.
  •   "Five alleged leaders of Black Hand society," New Castle PA Herald, March 20, 1907, p. 1
  •   "Black Hand men indicted by grand bury," New Castle PA News, June 12, 1907, p. 7.
  •   "Father-in-law of Rocco Racco behind the bars," New Castle PA Herald, July 16, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Blackmail charged vs. Black Hand men," New Castle PA Herald, June 17, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Italians are found guilty by the jury," New Castle PA News, June 19, 1907, p. 2.
  •   "In gloom of state prison, Racca and pals of Black Hand Society may find time to repent of crimes," New Castle PA Herald, June 22, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Wilkinson gets L. Luccisano his release," New Castle PA Herald, July 17, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Houk's slayer may be caught," New Castle PA Herald, Oct. 15, 1907, p. 1.
  •   "Real king of Black Hand in this county is now in jail here," New Castle PA Herald, Dec. 30, 1907, p. 8.
  •   "Calaute confesses he was with those who killed Houk," New Castle PA Herald, Jan. 11, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "Jim Brown lands his man safe in jail," New Castle PA Herald, Jan. 23, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "Murderer Calute out," New Castle PA Herald, Jan. 27, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "News of nearby towns," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 28, 1908, p. 8.
  •   "Rocco Racco isn't guilty," New Castle PA Herald, May 29, 1908, p. 3.
  •   "Three pen prisoners are here to testify," New Castle PA Herald, June 3, 1908, p. 8.
  •   "24 true bills by grand jury," New Castle PA Herald, June 5, 1908, p. 3.
  •   "Duff murder trial begins," New Castle PA Herald, June 8, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "Rocco Racco's trial may be continued," New Castle PA Herald, June 8, 1908, p. 3.
  •   "Calaute proves a bad witness today," New Castle PA Herald, June 10, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "'Not on your life,' says Joe Calaute when asked if he were a married man," New Castle PA Herald, June 10, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "Two lawyers named as counsel for Racco," New Castle PA Herald, June 10, 1908, p. 8.
  •   "Sanati's letters to Racco are read," New Castle PA Herald, June 11, 1908, p. 1.
  •   "Racco in good humor," Pittsburgh Daily Post, Sept. 21, 1908, p. 8.
  •   "'It's just as I expected' is Rocco's comment," New Castle PA Herald, March 2, 1909, p. 1.
  •   "Rocco Racco to be hanged," New Castle PA Herald, March 9, 1909, p. 1.
  •   "Rocco Racco receiving aid of Black Hand?" New Castle PA Herald, March 18, 1909, p. 1.
  •   "Racco appeals from sentence," New Castle PA Herald, March 24, 1909, p. 10.
  •   Brown, James H., "James Brown tells facts about Mafia," New Castle PA Herald, April 17, 1909, p. 3.
  •   "Respite is granted," Harrisburg PA Telegraph, Sept. 17, 1909, p. 1.
  •   "Black Hand leader faces death calmly," Pittsburgh Daily Post, Oct. 26, 1909, p. 2.
  •   "Hanged at New Castle," Washington D.C. Evening Star, Oct. 27, 1909, p. 1.
  •   Obituary, Butler PA Citizen, Oct. 27, 1909, p. 1.
  •   "Denied guilt as he swung," Montour PA American, Oct. 28, 1909, p. 1.