This provocative book takes a new look at the angry struggles between American conservationists and local hunters since the rise of wildlife conservation at the end of the 1800s.
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The Killing of Seely Houk
On April 24, 1906, a Pennsylvania Railroad engineer on a passing train spotted a body in the Mahoning River in Lawrence County, western Pennsylvania. He dropped a note to that effect at the next station, Hillsville, a small limestone quarrying settlement about ten miles west of New Castle, near the Ohio state line. The telegraph operator retrieved the note and sent a line crew to investigate. Shortly thereafter, the body of L. Seely Houk, the deputy game protector of Lawrence County who had been missing for more than a month, was pulled from the Mahoning with at least two shotgun blasts in his head and torso. Whoever killed Houk did not want his body found: it had been weighed down with large stones, becoming visible only when the water level fell as the spring runoff subsided.
The discovery of Houk's body began one of the most bizarre series of events in the annals of wildlife conservation. Suspicion of murder immediately fell on the residents of Hillsville, most of whom were Italian immigrant quarry workers. Pinkerton detectives hired by the Game Commission soon infiltrated what they called the Hillsville Black Hand, a secret society comprised of Italians known to indulge in criminal activity, especially extortion. One Pinkerton Agency spy lived in Hillsville for a year and a half in order to become a high-ranking society member, while secretly sending important tips to legal authorities. Ultimately--after another murder, dozens of arrests, and a temporary occupation of the town by state police--one local Italian man, the former leader of the so-called Black Hand in Hillsville, went to the gallows for the murder of Seely Houk. Immigrants continued to feel the aftershocks for a long time. In 1909, the Houk murder still fresh in their minds, the state legislature outlawed possession of a gun by any noncitizen immigrant. The Alien Gun Law remained in force for more than forty years.
Around the offices of the Game Commission, the story of the Houk murder became official lore, testament to the tenacity and toughness of early conservationist stalwarts, who faced down even Italian gangsters to save wildlife. But, as useful as the legend was for authorities, to a historian it cries out for explanation. What brought about this bloody turn of events? "Black Hand" organizations are commonly understood as early manifestations of Italian-American mafia, and they are usually associated with crime in the Little Italies of America's cities. Knowledge of such organizations is incomplete at best: sources are few, speculations rife. Authorities at the turn of the century often labeled any Italian immigrant crime as Black Hand activity. But was there something we can identify as a mafia operating in this remote immigrant settlement in 1906? It was not until Prohibition that mafia families began to move into the front ranks of criminal syndicates. What social purposes could a mafia organization serve, what gaps in civic structure could it exploit, over a decade before Prohibition and miles from the larger cities where mafia firms would one day flourish? And when the showdown with state authorities finally came, why was it over rabbits, sparrows, and woodchucks, not bootlegging, prostitution, or extortion? Hillsville was not the only place where Italian immigrants and Pennsylvania game wardens met in violent confrontations. The Game Commission reported other murders, several in 1906 alone. Joseph Kalbfus, head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, received three threatening letters from Black Hand correspondents in the early 1900s. But the Hillsville killings were the only ones solved, and apparently the only ones from which any evidence survives.
The conflict between conservationists and Italians in Hillsville was partly a contest between extra-local authorities and local hunters. The wildlife habitat in Hillsville's environs consisted of private farms. The commons at issue was not the hunting grounds itself but the game on it--the rabbits, groundhogs, and birds to which the state and immigrants staked rival claims. But the struggle in Hillsville was more complicated than this. The confrontation was essentially triangular, among Italian immigrant workers, native-born farmers, and the state. Pennsylvania's rural English-speaking populace had long regulated their own interactions with wildlife, and even state laws were enforced solely by local constables and aldermen. The arrival of large numbers of immigrants in Hillsville had changed all this, as Italian hunters roamed farm fields, contributing to a sense--pervasive in some quarters--that the countryside was under siege by armed foreigners.
The landowners of Lawrence County responded by calling on the newly appointed state game protection officer, L. Seely Houk, who set about rigorously enforcing state game laws. Consequent hardships for immigrants motivated some to violence. The presence of game law officers in immigrant communities was an unprecedented intrusion of state power into local life, threatening the political culture of immigrants settlements in new and sometimes explosive ways.
As an eastern case study, circumstances surrounding the Houk murder suggest that eastern states experienced many of the same tensions over game laws that so fractured western society. Western conservation struggles differed radically from those in the East (see chapters 3-6), but we can learn a tremendous amount about the commons and the social dynamite of conservation by pursuing the mystery that so puzzled authorities in the spring of 1906. To wit, who killed Seely Houk?
Like many other states, Pennsylvania began imposing new laws to protect wildlife during the late nineteenth century. By 1900, the state had imposed bag limits, set closed seasons on hunting, and outlawed the hunting of many species, especially songbirds. For the most part, the legislature intended for these laws to be enforced by local police authorities: the first state game wardens were not appointed until 1895, and even then there were only ten of them. Seeking to broaden the state's enforcement apparatus, the Game Commission lobbied successfully for the creation of a new subsidiary class of wardens, called deputy game protectors. Beginning in 1903, each county could appoint a deputy game protector, bonded and possessing the powers of a regular warden. The principal difference between the two classes of wardens was their pay: deputy protectors received no salary but were entitled to half the fines assessed any violators they caught.
Seely Houk's appointment as deputy game protector of Lawrence County in 1903 brought state authority into the hunting fields around Hillsville for the first time, a development that some local hunters soon resented. After Houk's murder, detectives interviewed local aldermen--who served as judges in poaching cases--to see who might have wanted to kill Houk. They found many potential suspects, all of them Italian. Italian immigrant hunters had been frequent targets of Seely Houk's patrols, and his characteristic aggression in performing his duties often made his arrests confrontational. Alderman Charles Haus adjudicated many of the poaching cases Houk brought to court, and, as he told the Pinkertons, "Houk was a man who was absolutely without fear and, although it was generally understood that his life had been threatened by many Italians, it had never interfered with his work as an officer." Indeed, Houk preferred brinkmanship to compromise. "Houk was a man who was likely to give anyone who threatened him every opportunity to carry out their threat, provided they were quicker in drawing their gun than he was." This would not have been easy, for "Houk was noted for his ability to draw his gun quickly," and in "numerous instances" he had confiscated guns from Italians and brought them to the alderman's office.
Houk's run-ins with Italian poachers were not isolated incidents. The game warden was part of a growing state apparatus intended to seal farm country not just against Italian poachers, but against whole classes of rural and urban hunters. The origins of this campaign lay with rural landowners. In the late 1800s, as railroads proliferated across the countryside, many Pennsylvania farmers began to feel threatened by visitors from once-distant cities and suburbs. Complaints about beggars, thieves, hoboes, and poachers inundated local constables, who found themselves unable to prosecute many cases because alleged criminals frequently fled beyond local jurisdiction on the train. In response to the increasingly cosmopolitan, delocalized nature of rural crime, the legislature created the Pennsylvania State Police, a mounted force with powers to enforce state laws in any county or city.
From their earliest days, much of the state police's energy went to enforcing game laws, for landowner complaints about poachers were particularly vehement. Within farm communities hunting was an established tradition, but many rural landowners regarded city and out-of-state hunters as armed trespassers, at best a nuisance and at worst life-threatening. And the railroad brought such hunters to the countryside in droves. At the turn of the century, many farmers complained that their land "both in and out of season" was "run over by irresponsible hunters from adjoining states, who tore down fences, shot poultry, crippled stock, started fires and committed other depredations, then quietly disappeared into their own territory safe from pursuit."
Given this context, it is not surprising that the Game Commission--seeking to protect the game better in farm country--worked with the state legislature to curb the predations of extra-local hunters. In 1901 the state increased legal penalties for armed trespassing and for the first time required hunters from out of state to buy a license before hunting in Pennsylvania.
Farmers were seeking better defense of private property, but in turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania, private property and common property complemented each other to such a degree that it is impossible to understand one without recognizing the role of the other. Indeed, at its heart this confrontation between farmers and hunters was a struggle between alternative common property regimes. The new hunting restrictions meant that the commons as a place was diminished, insofar as hunters who had used private land as a de facto common hunting area now faced greater penalties for doing so. At the same time, in propounding complex rules of access to deer herds and bird flocks--hunting licenses, closed seasons, and so forth--state authorities erected boundaries around deer and birds as a kind of common pool resource, regardless of where the resource actually was within the state. Almost all wildlife habitat was privately owned, but the wild animals were public goods: landowners had no more right to hunt them than did any other Pennsylvania hunter. Legally, the animals belonged to the public of Pennsylvania, on whose behalf the Game Commission managed and protected them. In this sense, they now constituted a kind of "state commons." There was much room for conflict between landowners and conservationists on the issue of the public's game, but for the time being, deputy game protectors and state policemen patrolled the "boundaries" of the state commons by prosecuting illegal incursions into private property.
Seely Houk's patrols were part of this development, but they also occurred against a backdrop of ethnic conflict. There was much antipathy between the Game Commission and Pennsylvania's Italian immigrants, and indeed between American conservationists and Italian immigrants in general. Early wildlife conservation in Pennsylvania--and throughout America--was characterized by strong nativism. Turn-of-the-century conservationist polemic often decried the "wasteful" and "greedy" hunting practices of certain ethnic and social groups, among them American Indians, blacks, and immigrants, especially Italians. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which conservationists despised Italians for killing songbirds and insectivorous birds. Part of the conservationist concern was aesthetic. Bird preservation rhetoric featured strong connections among songbirds, femininity, music, and healthy, well-rounded living. Many scholars and writers were convinced that music originated in ancient humanity's study of songbirds. The animals were, in this sense, the means through which culture germinated from nature. To be indifferent to the preservation of songbirds betrayed a callousness not just to the animals but to music and indeed all of "civilized" morality. The point is perhaps best illustrated by Congressman John Lacey, one of America's foremost wildlife champions, who declared in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives: "The man or the woman who does not love birds should be classed with the person who has no love for music--fit only for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. I would love to have a solo singer in every bush and a choir of birds in every tree top."
Increasingly, naturalists attached economic as well as aesthetic values to that "choir of birds in every tree top." In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, conservationists maintained that insectivorous birds were essential to the well-being of farm crops. They saw the dramatic destruction of the passenger pigeon and the carolina parakeet as signs that all birds were in danger of extinction from overhunting. Although conservationists embraced antipredator campaigns and the eradication of raptors like hawks and owls, they also agreed that the impending disappearance of insectivorous birds would bring ecological catastrophe. Farm crops would suffer, and so would other plants. Birds ate tree-destroying insects and helped distribute seeds; therefore, concluded one study for New York's state game authorities, "it can be clearly demonstrated that if we should lose our birds we should also lose our forests." In an age when forest conservation was a byword for watershed protection and the maintenance of urban civilization, this was doomsday rhetoric. State authorities from Pennsylvania to New Mexico frequently drew similar pictures of environmental devastation in a nation without birds, where "this whole continent would in three years become uninhabitable by reason of the myriads of insects."
Because Italian immigrants hunted birds, they were considered a principal threat to bird life and therefore an incipient cause of this potential apocalypse. In the minds of many, immigrants represented as much a threat to American nature, especially American birds, as they did to the social order of American cities. William T. Hornaday, the president of the New York Zoological Society and one of the most famous conservationists of the era, captured conservationists' fears of Italians in his widely read tract, Our Vanishing Wildlife: "Let every state and province in America look out sharply for the bird-killing foreigner; for sooner or later, he will surely attack your wild life. The Italians are spreading, spreading, spreading. If you are without them to-day, to-morrow they will be around you."
The ethnic antagonism between English-speaking white Americans and Italian immigrants in the early 1900s extended far beyond the hunting grounds. The waning of the nineteenth century witnessed a surge in Italian immigration, especially to states in the Northeast, including Pennsylvania. Soon after 1880, large numbers of immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe began to arrive on American shores. Between 1900 and 1910 more than 2.1 million Italians arrived in America, and many went to Pennsylvania.
Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania worked as coal miners, factory employees, and laborers. Their arrival precipitated widespread ethnic tensions and a pervasive sense that American society was undergoing a profound transformation. This social upheaval was pronounced in Lawrence County, where Italians arrived in large numbers to take up jobs in the steel and tin mills of New Castle. In 1890, the town's population stood at 11,000, with only a few Italian families. But by 1900, the population had increased over 150 percent, to almost 29,000, with Poles, Slovaks, and Italians comprising most of the increase. Most of the Italians came from southern Italy, and they took jobs on the railroads and in the steel mills and tin mills. West of New Castle, in Hillsville, they arrived to work the quarries, and by 1906 one observer estimated that the town's population of 1,500 included 900 Italians.
Wage labor may have been the basis of survival for most immigrants, but in Hillsville and elsewhere--where a full day of blasting, hacking, and loading limestone brought $1.65--subsistence hunting was a supplement to wages and an important part of Italian immigrant life. Songbirds were a customary Italian delicacy. They were widely hunted in Italy and sold for food in public markets. In Hillsville, Italian quarry workers often took guns to the woods after work. Particularly in the spring and summer, when the days were longer, they trespassed on surrounding farms, seeking out small game--groundhogs, rabbits, and songbirds--to provide meat for the table.
These hunting trips were more than just a means of gathering food; they were also an escape from the noise and dust of the quarries. The lure of the hunt bonded neighbors and friends. In bed with a painful leg injury, one Pinkerton undercover agent tried to refuse an invitation to a hunting trip, complaining, "It is too hard for me to travel through the woods." The immigrants cajoled him into going anyway, because the party "did not need to go around much," because "they had a good dog with them . . . [and] we could sit down and the dog would bring the rabbits around." Ultimately, "We all went down toward Peanut Quarry angle line and around in the woods. We killed four rabbits."
Game meat like this was prized. "We went by Jas. Rich's house, and he wanted to cook the rabbits, but Joe Gallo . . . wanted his wife to cook them. Lowi Ritort said that he was going to take one to his girl's house and have a supper." Elderly men in Hillsville today recall immigrants hunting groundhogs, rabbits, and "anything that flies," and their mothers cooking songbirds "just like they cook chickens." Sometimes the meat was cooked with vegetables or tomato sauce, or added to a sauce for spaghetti. Groundhog with potatoes made a filling and delicious stew.
Important as it was to local Italians, this subsistence hunting clashed with many aspects of the conservationist program. Indeed, in outlawing Sunday hunting, the killing of all but a few species of designated game birds, and all methods of hunting other than with a gun, the conservationist program was designed in part to convert game from a year-round meat resource to a seasonal recreation.
Obviously, immigrants were not the only subsistence hunters in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. The state's vast and rugged northern mountains were home to many people who hunted for food practically all year. But Italians lived in segregated communities; they spoke another language, dressed differently, were easily identified, and were widely mistrusted. It did not take long for the new Game Commission to zero in on Italian hunters. As early as 1902, the commission reported that "the unnaturalized foreigner" was responsible for the great majority of game law violations, and that Italians were especially troublesome. The 1908 report of the Game Commission complained that "by far the greater number of cases of violation of our game laws reported to us during the past season, killing of game out of season, hunting on Sunday, killing song and insectivorous birds, is of wrongs done by the unnaturalized foreign born resident of this State, mostly Italians."
And, where legislators had begun to push unlicensed, out-of-state hunters off the hunting grounds, they soon took action against the growing numbers of Italian hunters. In 1903--the same year Seely Houk became deputy game protector of Lawrence County--the commission secured passage of a new game law, which had ominous consequences for hunters in Hillsville and other immigrant communities. On its face, the law was a simple measure, requiring nonresidents to purchase a $10 license before hunting (state residents did not need hunting licenses until 1912).
But the Non-Resident License Law, as it was called, contained a peculiar twist: it defined nonnaturalized immigrants--and therefore most of the people in Hillsville--as non-residents. For immigrants who did not buy a license, conviction could follow the simple act of carrying a gun "in the fields or in the forests or on the waters of this Commonwealth." Violations were punishable by a $25 fine. If unable to pay, the violator was to spend one day in jail for each dollar of the fine assessed.
On top of the fines for violating the 1903 law, there were additional fines for violating other statutes. Thus, if a noncitizen hunter were caught with no license and three songbirds, the violator paid $25 for not having a license, and $10 for each "nongame" bird. If caught hunting on a Sunday, a $25 fine was added to the others. Complaining about Italian poachers in 1905, Joseph Kalbfus, the secretary of the Game Commission, estimated that "an arrest of one of these people for violating the game laws seldom results in a penalty of less than $60 or $70 with costs, sometimes very much more than this amount."
Wildlife had never been privately owned in Hillsville; local hunters had stalked farm fields for generations, asserting a kind of community ownership of game. Potentially, outside hunters may have also claimed a right to hunt the animals, but as rabbits and groundhogs inspired little interest beyond the community, local preeminence in the hunting grounds remained unchallenged, and wildlife served as a kind of local commons.
Essentially, immigrants had tried to reformulate the local commons in wildlife to suit their own cultural expectations, and in doing so they reshaped local patterns of hunting. To judge from the complaints of local farmers, the older system of hunting in the county had entailed a degree of personal connection between hunter and landowner, because the latter had to give permission for the former to hunt. Italians did not ask permission to shoot local game. And their taste in wildlife--songbirds and groundhogs--must have struck American-born locals as bizarre. The 1903 Non-Resident License Law was a state effort to extinguish this kind of cultural reorientation of local hunting practices and impose a state order in its place. The bounding of game as a "public good" entailed the exclusion of immigrants from the hunting public. By making it a crime for an immigrant to carry a gun without first paying $10 to the state, the law practically forbade most Italians from hunting at all. The law certainly had that effect in Hillsville.
Conflict over the new game law aggravated an already tense situation in Hillsville. As in other parts of Pennsylvania, confrontations between immigrants and prior residents seemed to threaten the rural social order. The settlement was isolated in rolling country where sugar maple and beech trees grew thick on the hills sloping down to the Mahoning River. The quarries that drew the Italian immigrants belonged to the Johnsons and the Duffs, local families who, like most other landowners in the area, were English-speaking farmers. Such people were perplexed and often frightened by the growing numbers of armed immigrants who stalked their fields, committing trespass at the same time they violated the game laws. Soon landowners were leveling charges of stock theft, vandalism, and intimidation against the newcomers.
The editor of the New Castle News commented on the social tension in the farm fields around Hillsville in a column published in 1907. The piece lauded the arrests of several Italian men in Hillsville, alleging that farmers in the area had been so terrorized by roving bands of armed Italians that "No person in the Hillsville district, either Italian or American, will give the slightest assistance to any officer desiring the prosecution of Italian offenders." The writer detailed incidents of intimidation in the Hillsville vicinity: a farmer who let an officer use his telephone to effect the arrest of an Italian found one of his cows shot dead the following morning, with a note in poorly written English saying, "This is for assisting the police"; the arrest of another Italian for trespassing brought dozens of Italians into the area, asking local residents if they knew the whereabouts of the farmer who called the authorities. Terrified, local farmers snuffed out their lanterns at night and posted armed sentries. Such fears may have been overwrought, and the editorial may have been an example of the yellow journalism so popular during the period. But other evidence substantiates the deep fear and hostility that prevailed in the Hillsville region at the time of Houk's death. Children of Italian immigrants who lived in Hillsville in 1906 recall that some local immigrants committed stock theft and rustling in the area--"lots of that"--until sometime after the First World War.
This was the social context of Houk's murder, and detectives on the case witnessed the simmering hostility between immigrant poachers and local landowners as it boiled over again. Only a few months after the discovery of Houk's body, three Italian men decided to go hunting. Taking along two shotguns, they walked onto the lands of farmer and quarry owner William "Squire" Duff. Duff, eighty years old, found them and ordered them to leave. Shortly afterward and while still on his property, they killed two small birds. Duff returned to order them away again. One of the hunters, Dominic Sianato, discharged his weapon in the old man's face.
Local Italians considered the killing of Duff immoral and unacceptable. Unlike the Houk murder, which was veiled in secrecy, Hillsville residents talked openly about Duff's killing among themselves, enabling the Pinkerton undercover man--on the scene to investigate the Houk killing--to advise the authorities of the assailant's identity soon after the event.
Duff died in August 1906, five months after Houk vanished while patrolling along the Mahoning. We cannot know what was going through Squire Duff's mind when he heard the roar of hunter's guns and set out to investigate who was killing the birds on his farm. But it is not too much to speculate that he thought of Seely Houk, and he probably missed him. Houk had been a principal ally in local landowners' efforts to restrict immigrant hunting. So close was Houk's connection with local farmers, and so zealous his pursuit of Italian trespassers and poachers, that even local officials had begun to wonder if he was overstepping the mark. In Mount Jackson township, several miles from Hillsville, alderman O. L. Miller complained to the Game Commission sometime in 1905 or early 1906 that Houk was exceeding his authority. As Miller explained the matter to investigators after Houk's death, the deputy game protector had informed farmers in the area that they should bring trespassers to him "and he would do the rest." Miller doubted Houk's authority "to deputize anyone in this manner," and he sent a letter to the Game Commission about it. Shortly thereafter, Miller began to notice Houk's vindictiveness toward "foreigners," who were being arrested and fined for trespassing and poaching even when they were obviously innocent.
With the Non-Resident License Law to enforce and landowners to support him, Houk had considerable power over the impoverished and marginalized hunters he arrested, and for these people the very sight of him must have instilled a sense of dread. Striding through the thick woods along the banks of the Mahoning in knee-length black boots, a long, dark coat, a badge in one pocket and a pistol in the other, he represented a particularly harsh arm of the state. In the bare-bones livelihood of the limestone quarries, a $10 hunting license was simply beyond the means of many people, and fines for poaching were a tremendous hardship.
Not surprisingly, Houk earned a lot of local hatred. Five or six weeks before he disappeared, alderman Haus recalled for detectives, Houk had brought an Italian poacher to trial. He was fined $25 and costs, the standard fine for violating the Non-Resident License Law. The man produced the money, and Houk left the room to find change.
As the alderman recounted, while Houk was out of the office the Italian man warned "that he would kill that s--- of a b--- before long." Such sentiment about Houk was not unusual: in fact, Haus could not immediately recall who the Italian in question might have been, "and a search of his docket would hardly bring the particular case to light, for the reason that Houk brought a great many similar cases to him and, owing to the difficulty they had in getting the right names of the Italians, the name of John Doe was used in every case."
Haus remembered that two brothers, Rocco and Antonio Catalano, had threatened to kill the game warden after Houk had arrested them some years before. The lead was promising, and it seemed even stronger when one quarry owner recalled Rocco Catalano telling him that his wife in Italy needed money, but he "could not send her any, being compelled to spend" his savings paying a fine levied by Houk. Detectives turned up court records showing that a "Rocco Catalano" had been arrested and fined after pointing a gun at Houk in 1903. But the leads petered out. No other evidence was found to implicate Catalano in the murder, and it appears that he was only one of several Italian men who publicly threatened Houk.
Immigrant hatred of Houk in part mirrored local resentment of game wardens elsewhere in the state, and as the Game Commission expanded its presence in the countryside, anti-game law violence increased. In 1903, deputy game protectors first ventured into the countryside to enforce the new Non-Resident License Law; in 1904, five wardens were shot at and three were hit; in 1905 no wardens were shot, but, while arresting a suspect, game warden Frank Rowe of Wilkes-Barre "was compelled to defend himself, which he did with his fists." The suspect died that day. The next year was the apogee of violent confrontation over the game laws: fourteen game wardens were shot at, seven were hit, and four were killed. Among the dead were Seely Houk and Squire Duff(whose inclusion in the statistics as a "game warden" underscores the close connection between landowners
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