Book Review: The First Detective Postal Inspector

Great read for history !

To my readers: it is time for another book review which I hope to do on a regular basis every month or two. I will let the readers know that my selections of books are dictated strictly by my own reading interests and I hope they will be varied enough to interest at least a portion of my readers.

The book I have selected for this post, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society: America’s Original Gangsters and the U.S. Postal Detective who Brought Them to Justice highlighted above in the image of its book cover is one that I stumbled upon accidentally while searching in another subject area entirely this caught my eye and I knew I had to have it in hard copy form since I found that this was a volume I wish to keep in its physical form and not as an electronic, virtual book. Although the central character in this book, is named Mr. J. Frank Oldfield, he was not related to the famous racecar driver at the turn of the 20th century Mr. Barney Oldfield. This gentleman came from fairly humble roots and interestingly enough came to his profession and occupation as one of the country’s first investigative postal inspectors through the political patronage system where he grew up in the state of Pennsylvania and through his biological father who was somewhat of a political power in the area they grew up in. It makes for interesting reading as to how this process tended to work decades ago. Nowadays we would probably look on the influence peddling and political wrangling that help this gentleman come to into his appointment as a political inspector, as outright nepotism. What further makes the story engaging is that this gentleman aspired in a properly motivated professional manner to become a true postal inspector devoted to the service of protection of the public.

Overall the book traces his development into a supremely dogged, determined and very talented self-taught investigator who truly rivaled in his own way the sharpest investigative techniques of the day. As I’ve hinted in the sentence above, he was a remarkable individual because he really had no formal training in law enforcement, investigative techniques etc. He was truly self-taught. He also existed in an age in which there was no other national police force. He worked toward the end of the 1800s and early end to the 1900s which meant that the Federal Bureau of investigation or FBI, did not exist. Inspector Oldfield also operated before the era of prohibition and famous law enforcers such as Eliot Ness and others. The postal service was the largest national organization in the country outside of the national military organizations such as the US Army. This book also in its early chapters, gives a fascinating history and exposition of the development of the U.S. Postal Service from the eras of the Revolutionary war onward. This piece of history is no idle intellectual exercise as some of its most important early organizational features lent themselves to the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to be turned into a true investigative law enforcement mechanism as implemented by the central figure in this book inspector J Frank Oldfield.

Another fascinating piece of historical circumstance is that this Iinspector Oldfield was stationed in the Midwest out of the way of major crime centers, in central Ohio. It turns out that inspector Oldfield stumbled upon the phenomenon of criminal families in different locales, specifically and importantly located in different states. The historical account of how Inspector Oldfield discovered the existence of ties between criminal families in different states is nothing short of fascinating. This was not an over night discovery but a process that took many months and incredibly persistent mundane effort to sketch outI the existence of cooperation among criminal familiesI that had never been realized in this country before. The reader begins to discover that figures like Inspector Oldfield, and the US postal services inspector capabilities were the only law enforcement body capable of mounting investigations that crossed state lines.

Inspector Oldfield discovered odd use of the Postal Service in a small town outside Cincinnati Ohio. He was astute enough to focus his attention on this criminally appearing anomaly in which a family of Italian fruit vendors and distributors sent money overseas to Italian relatives and also so to other Italian families in other states notably Pennsylvania.

This led to his fateful discovery of the then unknown Black Hand Society, the forerunner in Italian – Sicilian organized crime that evolved in decades to come, especially during and after the Prohibition era to the Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra. As a bit of a spoiler I will reveal one of the fascinating elements of this story which was that at the time Inspector Oldfield discovered and mapped out the existence and structure of this new organized criminal organization, no national state or regional law enforcement body believed even in the concept of organized crime. It was felt that all crime was local and that criminals did not coordinate their efforts across state lines at all. So Inspector Oldfield was fighting against the prevailing notions in law enforcement about the magnitude of criminal activity that was evolving in young modern America.

The authors of this book did a masterful job of constructing the narrative. It reads like the best mystery novel as the plot line unfolds and one witnesses every step along the way of the incredible investigation. It is also extremely interesting as one realizes that the efforts of one man, tucked away in middle Ohio, discovers the existence of ethnic organized crime that served to form the institutions on a national level of law enforcement investigation, namely the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the redoubtable J Edgar Hoover. The authors also researched this book incredibly well. Their references and citations also furnish incredible material for the curious. The narrative of this book is completely supported by the research efforts of the authors. A telling example is that the authors even located a turn-of-the-century photograph of one of the original black hand Society criminal families who look incredibly ordinary like new immigrant workers.

All in all this is a diamond in the rough, a gym of a book regarding little-known history of the U.S. Postal Service, the evolution of its core of postal inspectors into top-flight investigators who paved the way for the decades long war against the Mafia by the U.S. Congress and the Federal Bureau of investigation in modern times.


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