“Fear of the Dread Black Hand”: Murder of Domenico Barretto 1921

Murder Victim

Domenico Barretto
25-year-old Laborer
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Black Hand Vendetta

Murder Scene and Date

1519 Jackson Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
March 27, 1921


By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

On the night of March 27, 1921, 25-year-old Little Italy resident Domenico Barretto walked home from a dance and was crossing his own front yard at 1519 Jackson Avenue when someone approached him.

A neighbor heard a loud noise. When he opened the door, Barretto fell dead at his feet — shot through the heart with a sawed-off shotgun.

Barretto’s money and jewelry were intact, so robbery was not a motive. The shooting appeared to be a personal attack, perhaps revenge or part of a vendetta.

☛ Black Hand to Blame? ☚

Black Hand symbol

From the latter part of the 19th century into the 1920s, thousands of Italian-Americans nationwide were terrorized by the extortion activities of the Black Hand, which had been imported from Italy.

Des Moines police believed Barretto’s death was related to Black Hand activities among Des Moines’s large Italian population and pointed to the criminal organization’s involvement in the unsolved murders of Francis “Frank” Oliverio on August 6, 1917 and of Dominic Sposeto on July 22, 1919.

According to the Waterloo Evening Courier, Barretto lay on his funeral bier at his home with grieving friends looking on. One of them cried out:

“The man that killed Domenico Barretto must be punished by death.”

Those close to Barretto swore he had not received a Black Hand letter. However, the Courier wrote:

“Friends and relatives of Barretto, their lips sealed by fear of the dread ‘blackhand’ [sic], refuse to help police in the case.”

photo by Katie Lou

photo by Katie Lou

Domenico Barretto, who was born September 5, 1895, was buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Patrick Sposeto, 18, a family member of Dominic Sposeto — who was killed in Des Moines in 1919 by the Black Hand — was arrested and questioned in connection with Barretto’s murder but not charged.

On February 26, 1922, a year after the Barretto homicide, a fourth murder occurred — that of reputed “King of Little Italy” Angelo Ferrari. His shooting was believed connected to the first three and also to the Black Hand.

Those who had information or who were witnesses to the murders were too terrified of the Black Hand themselves to come forward with information to help the police. And all four homicides went deadly cold.

Click here to read about the unsolved murder of Francis “Frank” Oliverio.
Click here to read about the unsolved murder of Dominic Sposeto.
Click here to read about the unsolved murder of Angelo Ferrari.


Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ “2 Italians Shot From Ambush; 1 Dead,” Waterloo Evening Courier, August 6, 1917.
  • ☛ “Blackhand [sic] Victim at State Capital,” Waterloo Evening Courier, July 22, 1919.
  • ☛ “Fear Vendetta Will Cause Another Death in Des Moines Case,” Waterloo Evening Courier, March 29, 1921.
  • ☛ “Italian Gardner Slain: Shot To Death By Young Man,” Des Moines News, July 22, 1919.
  • ☛ “Italian Is Victim of Mysterious Murder,” Waterloo Evening Courier, March 2, 1921.
  • ☛ Italian Killed, Girl Is Injured By Assassins,” Des Moines News, August 6, 1917.
  • ☛ “Murder of ‘King Of Little Italy’ Still Mystery,” Davenport Democrat and Leader, March 1, 1922.
  • ☛ “Two Italians Shot,” Muscatine Journal, August 6, 1917.

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