In 1915 a criminal gang began operating in the camp. It was reported that this gang was called the Black Hand Society. The Black Hand Society was formed in 1911 in Serbia. The Black Hand Society wanted an independent Serbian nation free from Austrian control and was responsible for the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand that was the catalyst for Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia which ignited World War One.
The term ‘The Black Hand’ has also been used by other criminal organised crime gangs such as the Italian mafia in America and Australia from the 1910s. From the evidence it appears the Black Hand gang operating at Holsworthy were a group of petty criminals led by Portman.
Portman was a sailor based in Melbourne who had been interned at Langwarrin, Victoria before being transferred to Holsworthy Camp on October 1915 when the trouble began. It appears from the evidence that Portman was a no more than a petty criminal who sought to set up an organised crime gang in the camp, enlisting other ne’er-do-well internees as members of the gang.
The Black Hand gang terrorised the other internees extorting money and services and sought to control the camp community. The Camp Committee responsible for the internal policing of the camp population appeared to be unable or unwilling to reign them in or provide the names of the ring leaders to the Camp Commandant Colonel Sands. On the 19th April Portman was killed by the other internees.
The Black Hand gang were responsible for severely injuring and extorting money from many of the internees from November 1915 to April 1916. It appears that the Camp Committee had become infiltrated by the Black Hand gang and the camp organisation had become corrupted. The Committee refused to assist an inquiry held by Colonel Sands who sought to deal with the situation.
On 18th April 1916 a general uprising took place among the camp population and the key members of the Black Hand gang were rounded up, beaten and thrown over the main gate of the compound. A crowd gathered at the gate yelling in English ‘these two men of the Black Hand Society have got what they deserved and there are more to come’. Colonel Sands and a group of police went into the crowd who were armed with home made batons and clubs, but no attempt was made to injure the police. Shortly after there was a ‘rush of Germans all over the compound’ who were looking for the other four main members of the Back Hand gang. Colonel Sands could have prevented this vigilante action ‘by shooting a great number of prisoners, which would not have been justified as the Germans intentions, although brutal, were to rid themselves of this criminal element in the camp’. After a few minutes four men were dragged down covered in blood and thrown over the main gate where they were picked up by the camp guards and taken to the camp hospital.
Fourteen other Black Hand members were later arrested and thrown into the camp gaol and after that the Camp quietened down to the usual routine.
From the evidence given at the Coronial Inquest into the death of Portman in Sydney on the 10th of May 1916 it is clear there was no political motive behind the Black Hand gang and extortion and stand over tactics was its main objective.