There is no denying that New York City police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino was a fine cop — dedicated and brave. Yet, when Petrosino was murdered in Palermo, Sicily in 1909, he made some foolish mistakes that a more intelligent policeman might never have made.
Joseph Petrosino was born in 1860 in Padula, Campania, in the southern tip of Italy, near Naples. When he was a young child, his parents sent him to America, along with a young cousin named Antonio Puppolo, to live with his grandfather. Soon after Petrosino arrived in America, his grandfather was killed in an automobile accident. Petrosino and his cousin Puppolo were briefly sent to an orphanage. However, the judge, feeling sorry for the two young boys, took them into his own home, until Petrosino’s parents could come to America. While waiting for his parents to arrive in America (They arrived in America in 1874), Petrosino lived with a politically active Irish family. As a result, Petrosino was given an education, which made him more likely to obtain a good job in America, rather than the other poor Italian immigrants, who were arriving from Italy in droves.
Because of the judge’s connections, on October 19, 1883, Petrosino joined the New York City Police Department. Petrosino’s mentor was Police Inspector Alexander “Clubber” Williams. Williams took a liking to Petrosino, and Petrosino quickly moved up in the ranks of the New York City Police Department. His promotions were mostly the result of Petrosino’s hard work and dedication, and also because of the fact that he was Italian, and could speak the language. That made it possible for Petrosino to infiltrate the Italian immigrant crime factions, that were infiltrating New York City. In 1895, Petrosino was promoted to detective, and assigned to Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was populated by a large contingent of Italian immigrants.
The short, stocky, bull-necked, and barrel-chested Petrosino was a familiar sight on the streets of Little Italy. He was recognizable by his large head and a pockmarked face that never seem to smile. It was said that Petrosino’s strength was enormous, and that he was not adverse to beating up criminals, before and after he arrested them.
Petrosino first achieved prominence, when he investigated the infamous “Barrel Murder” of 1903. Although several men were bought the justice for killing a man named Benedetto Madonia (then stuffing him into a barrel and leaving him on the streets), Petrosino knew the man who ordered the murder was Joe Morello, the top ranking Mafia boss in New York City. Morello’s chief henchman was Ignazio Saietta, known on the streets as “Lupo the Wolf.” Both men were feared by the Italian immigrants, and the mere mention of their name would cause Italian immigrants to make the sign of the cross in trepidation.
Both Morello and Saietta were notorious counterfeiters, and they used several Italian immigrants to print up loads of two and five dollars bills. These denominations were the most common tender, used more than any other denomination. Saietta owned several grocery stores in downtown Manhattan. He used those grocery stores to export and import counterfeit money to and from Italy; the bills being stuffed into barrels of oil, or in crates of cheese. While this counterfeiting garnered some nice profits for Morello and Saietta, it did not satisfy their lust for blood. Both men decided to use The Black Hand extortion racket, whereby they would send sinister notes to Italian immigrants of some means, threatening them with death, if they did not pay the money demanded. An imprint of a “Black Band” was sinisterly placed at the bottom of each note.
One of the Italians being extorted by the Black Hand was famous opera singer Enrico Caruso. Caruso, was at first given an ultimatum to pay $2000 for his safety. Caruso, knowing the murderous reputation of the Black Hand, agreed to pay that amount. However, before he could pay, Caruso received another letter now demanding $15,000. Caruso immediately took the second letter to Petrosino. Petrosino told Caruso to make arrangements to drop the money off at a prearranged place. When two Italian/American men showed up to pick up the money, Petrosino arrested them on the spot.
Petrosino doggedly investigated Morello and Saietta. His perseverance finally paid off, when in 1901, acting through an informant, he uncovered the infamous “Murder Stables” located at 304, 108th Street in Harlem. Petrosino ordered his men to dig up the stables, and they found over 60 bodies buried there. Saietta was on record as the owner of the stables, but he said that he was only the landlord, and that the buried bodies with a work of his tenants, and not his responsibility. Saietta gave Petrosino several names that were listed as the tenants at 304, 108th Street. All of the surnames were Italian, but none of them could be traced to an actual living person, if they indeed existed at all.
In 1905, New York City Police Commissioner William McAdoo appointed Petrosino the head of the newly formed “Italian Squad.” Petrosino, with 27 dedicated men working under him, was able to thwart the Black Handers at almost every turn. From 1905 to 1909, Petrosino and his squad arrested several thousand Italian criminals. More than 500 Italians criminals were sent to prison, and thousands more were deported back to Italy. To show how effective Petrosino and his men were, in 1908 alone, there were 44 bombings, and 70 men arrested for those bombings. In addition, there were 424 Black Hand extortion complaints, and 214 arrests were made as a result of those complaints.
To add injury to insult, Petrosino, after he heard that Saietta had been personally involved in several black hand murder’s, confronted Saietta in Saietta’s Little Italy grocery store. The New York Times reported, “Petrosino walked up to Lupo and said something in a low voice. Then the detective’s fist shot out and Lupo fell to the floor. Petrosino, according to several eyewitnesses, gave Lupo a severe beating.”
Saietta’s humiliation was the first step in the Black Hand’s elimination of Joseph Petrosino. Raising a glass of wine, Saietta told an associate concerning Petrosino, “He has ruined many. Here’s a drink to our success here, and the hope of debt to him. It is a pity that it must be done stealthily – that he cannot first be made to suffer as he has made so many others suffer. But he guards his hide so well that it will have to be done quickly.”
On February 20, 1909 New York City police Commissioner Theodore Bingham decided to disband the Italian Squad and instead create a “Secret Service” branch of the New York City Police Department. Petrosino was appointed the head of the Secret Service, and was given 14 men, with the directive to “Crush the Black Hand and drive anarchists out of the city.”
Soon after, Police Commissioner Bingham sent Petrosino to Palermo, Sicily, to gather information about Italian immigrants in New York City who should be deported back to Italy, because of the crimes they committed while back in their homeland. This mission by Petrosino was supposed to be so secretive, that his fellow officers were told Petrosino was home sick. Inexplicably, as soon as Petrosino departed for Italy, an article appeared in the New York Herald, announcing Petrosino’s supposedly secret trip.
Leaving his wife and three-year-old daughter behind, Petrosino traveled aboard the liner Duca di Genova in first class, under the alias Simone Velletri. Petrosino carried only two yellow suitcases with him. To throw people off the track who might know of Petrosino’s intentions, the destination of the ship was Genoa, Italy. On the first two days of his voyage, not to come in contact with the other passengers, Petrosino stood alone in his room. When Petrosino finally appeared topside, he told his fellow passengers that he was going to Italy to find a cure for a digestive discomfit. Yet, Petrosino’s face was in the New York City papers so often, it was impossible for him not to be recognized. One person who did recognize Petrosino was the ship’s purser Carlo Longobardi. Petrosino begged Longobardi not to tell anyone on the ship who Petrosino really was.
There was another mysterious man aboard the ship, who made Petrosino’s acquaintance. This man called himself Francesco Delli Bovi. When the ship docked in Genoa, Delli Bovi got off the ship with Petrosino. Delli Bovi vanished without a trace, and it was later determined that his only purpose on the ship was to shadow Petrosino.
Upon arriving in Genoa, Petrosino took the first train available to Rome. In Rome, Petrosino stood at the Hotel Inghilterra. On his first morning there, Petrosino traveled to the United States Embassy to meet Ambassador Lloyd Griscom. The purpose of this meeting was for Petrosino to gather information on over 2000 Italian criminals, now living in New York City, that Petrosino wanted to deported back to Italy.
Petrosino felt safe in Rome, but he would not have felt so safe if he had known that Italian-American newspaper L’Araldo Italiano had run a story detailing Petrosino’s Italian trip, saying that his final destination would be Sicily. The information for this newspaper article could only have come from inside the New York City Police Department. This story was picked up by several other newspapers, the most important of which was the New York Herald’s European edition. Petrosino finally realized his intentions were now public, when he met two Italian-American newspapermen, whom he had known from New York City, in front of the Press Club on the Piazza San Silvestro. Petrosino told the two newspaper men that his trip was supposed to be a secret, and he implored them not to tell anyone of his arrival.
The two newspaper men agreed, and even offered to show Petrosino the local sites of interest. While he was strolling in Rome with the two newspapermen, Petrosino spotted a poorly dressed man staring at him. Petrosino told the scribes “I know that man.” But Petrosino could not remember where he had seen this man’s face before. Petrosino followed the man at a safe distance to a nearby post office. At the post office, Petrosino saw the man write a telegram. When the man approached the counter to send the telegram, Petrosino got close enough to hear the man say that the telegram was going to Sicily.
Being suspicious that he was now being tailed, Petrosino decided not to travel to Palermo directly. Instead, he took a train to Naples. In Naples, Petrosino paid the owner of a small ship to take him to Palermo. Petrosino arrived in Palermo on February 28, secure in the feeling that he had not been followed.
This false sense of security caused Petrosino to make several deadly blunders. Although he took a false name at the hotel he stood at in Palermo, Petrosino opened a bank account under his own name at the Banca Commerciale. Petrosino felt so comfortable that he was not being watched, he gave his real name to the waiters who served him at Café Oreto, where he dined nightly. Probably his worst mistake of all was that instead of carrying his gun, he left it in his hotel room hidden in his suitcase.
By March 7, Petrosino had accumulated more than 300 penal certificates that would ensure the deportation of many Italian criminals now living in New York City. Wary of crooked policeman in Palermo, Petrosino finally met with the Commissioner of Police Baldassare Ceola on March 6. Ceola said later that he was not impressed with Petrosino’s competence. In a letter to the prefect of Palermo, Ceola said, “I saw at once that Lieutenant Petrosino, to his disadvantage, was not a man of excessive education.” Ceola also felt that Petrosino was also not very prudent, since when Ceola offered Petrosino the services of a bodyguard, Petrosino refused the offer.
Back in New York City, Morello and Saietta were plotting Petrosino’s demise. In New York City, Petrosino was a hard man to kill, because, as Saietta told Morrelo, “Damn detective. The devil guards himself too thoroughly. When he walks it is with a loaded revolver in his hand covered by a pocket, and two policeman without their blue coats walk near him eyeing everyone.”
Morello and Saietta knew that in Palermo things would be very different. They had several friends living in Palermo willing to do dirty work for them. And most importantly, Petrosino had little protection from the local law enforcement, because he reused their assistance, due to his mistrust of their intentions.
Morello sent two of his best killers, Carlo Constantino and Antonio Passananti, to Palermo to track down Petrosino. There they met with the most feared Mafia boss in all of Italy, Don Vito Cascio Ferro. Cascio Ferro had a vendetta against Petrosino too, because in 1902 when Cascio Ferro traveled to New York City to expand his criminal empire, he was forced to flee back to Italy because of heavy pressure from Petrosino.
On Friday night, March 12, 1909, Petrosino went to have his nightly dinner at the Café Oreto. It was raining out and Petrosino was wearing a raincoat, and carrying an umbrella. Petrosino took his usual table, with his back to the wall, so he could see anyone approaching him. According to the waiters, Petrosino was in the middle of his meal, when two strange men strode to his table. These men spoke to Petrosino for only a few moments. Petrosino did not invite them to sit down with him, and he dismissed them with an angry wave of his hand. As soon as the men left the restaurant, Petrosino put three lire on the table for his dinner, and hurried after the two men.
At 8:50 PM, Petrosino was standing in the piazza of the Garibaldi Garden, when three shots rang out. When a passerby arrived a few seconds later, he found Petrosino dead, with bullet holes in his right shoulder, his cheek, and his throat. The throat wound had been the fatal one. In Petrosino’s pocket was found a postcard addressed to his wife, which said, “A kiss for you and my little girl, who has spent three months far from her daddy.”
Reports later said that three men were involved in Petrosino’s murder. Beside the two men who confronted Petrosino at the Café Oreto, the third man was believed to be Don Vito Cascio Ferro himself. When questioned by the police, Cascio Ferro said he was having dinner at the home at a Sicilian member of the Italian Parliament at the time of Petrosino’s death. However, there were reports that Cascio Ferro had slipped quietly away during dinner, long enough to take part in Petrosino’s murder, then slip back to the dinner party, before anyone was the wiser.
The killing of Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino sent tremors throughout the streets of New York City. Immediately, Police Commissioner Bingham was fired, because of the leak inside the police department, which led to the stories in the newspapers detailing Petrosino’s travel to Italy. It is estimated that, because of Petrosino’s demise, thousands of Italian criminals were not deported back to Italy, and they continued to terrorize the streets of New York City for decades to come.
It took three weeks for Petrosino’s embalmed body to return to New York City. The funeral mass was on April 9, at the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street, near Houston Street. The day had been declared a public holiday, and over 20,000 people gathered in the streets to watch the hearse, carrying Petrosino’s body, ride from the church to Calvary Cemetery in Queens. The hearse was accompanied by 1000 policeman 2000 schoolchildren and uniformed representatives from 60 Italian associations.
Several films have been made based on the life of Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino. They included a silent movie made in 1912 called “The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino.” In 1960, Ernest Borgnine portrayed Petrosino in the film, “Pay or Die.” And Lionel Stander also played Petrosino in the 1973 movie, “The Black Hand.”