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Lt. Joe Petrosino, Trail-Blazing Fighter of Organized Crime 

Mulberry Bend

Hyphen-Italians

NYC

London

Hero's Send-Off for a Fallen NYCPD Officer

 

Crime Fighting Career - The Right Stuff of Heroes

 

Price His Family Paid - Willingly

 

A Few of the Cases that Made the News

 

Martyr to Justice and Civil Society

 

His Legacy

 

A Moving Tribute

 

Some Sources and Video Tributes

 

Hero's Send-Off for a Fallen NYCPD Officer

New York City declared the day Lieutenant Joe Petrosino was buried a holiday, so all those who wanted to pay their respects, could.  On April 12, 1909, over 250,000 people paid their respects to the fallen New York City Police Department Officer, who was killed in the line of duty, and who had an amazing 25 year career with the NYCPD.

They lined the streets from Old St. Patrick's Cathedral to Calvary Cemetery. They watched the procession of hearse, widow, relations, friends, colleagues, Police Units, Fire-Fighters, Italian-American Associations, Civic Groups, school children, and the Police Band playing Verdi's Requiem.  They stood for 5 and 1/2 hours.

They told reporters covering the event of Joe Petrosino's heroism and of how he'd touched their lives.  They stood together to show their disgust for the organized-crime cowards who had taken Joe Petrosino's life at the age of 48, leaving behind a grieving widow and a daughter only a few months old. 

Crime Fighting Career - The Right Stuff of Heroes

Joe Petrosino was born part of that 1% of us who has the rare combination of a great capacity for human empathy, and a capability of using force when necessary, when the other 99% would turn and run for their lives.  To put it bluntly, in these rare people, when faced with aggression, the 'pissed-off' response far out-weighs the 'piss-in-your-pants' response.  His rugby-player physique and strength served him well.

That rare combination is the stuff of heroes. The tough good-guy is the stuff of lore and every action hero story ever told.  But Joe Petrosino was the real thing.  And the people of New York City knew it, and they knew how lucky they were to have him on the streets protecting them.

Joe Petrosino was not only a tough cop, he was also a smart cop.  He recognized that crime-fighting required more than brute force and reacting to crimes committed.  Petrosino pioneered techniques that are considered standard-operating-procedure today in the fight against organized criminal gangs.

  • He set up the first Bomb-Squad in the U.S. to study the bombs used by the gangs to intimidate their extortion victims.  His team learned to traced the components and the bomb makers.
  • He set up the U.S.'s first Organized-Crime-Task-Force called the Italian Squad (later the Italian Legion), to study and infiltrate the gangs.  He had his team chart the organizations and trace all their connections, illegitimate and legitimate.  
  • He set out their strategy of disrupting the gangs' systems from all sides to make their operations unprofitable, relying on intra-agency cooperation, which was very rare in those days.  They worked closely with Customs and Immigration officers, and with the Treasury Department's Secret Service agents.
  • He stressed the need to put away the gang leaders for any crime they could link to them, from murder, to tax evasion, to jay-walking, to illegal immigrant status, all in an effort to disrupt the gang's growth and to promote in-fighting in the illegal organizations, which provided a steady stream of informants.
  • His group set up a vast network of informants, paid and un-paid.  He pioneered witness protection and intelligence-gathering programs to gain inside information into the crime groups. 
  • He stressed the need for infiltration of the organizations to gain first-hand information.  He was famous for having a closet full of disguises, everything from a newly arrived Italian immigrant outfit, to a priest, to a Hasidic Jew. 

Price His Family Paid - Willingly

Joe Petrosino first arrived in New York City in 1878.  His father moved the family from Padula, a small town in the province of Salerno, in southern Italy's region of Campania.  His father was a tailor and practiced his trade in America, providing for his family, even after his wife died of Small-Pox.  Joe Petrosino fought off Small-Pox and the facial scars from the disease only toughened his rough persona.

Law and order were in the family blood, and still is.  Joe Petrocino became a cop, and his brother became a Customs and Immigration official.  His brother's son became a New York City policeman.  

One of Joe's brothers returned to Padula to live in the family home, which is now a museum in Joe's honor, run by his great-nephew.  This proud relation also runs the International Joe Petrosino Association that annually presents an award to an Italian law-enforcement official who continues the organized-crime-fighting tradition of his illustrious uncle.  

Previous recipients of the 'Joe Petrosino Award' include these organized-crime-fighters, some of whom were also martyrs to the cause:

  • the late Judges (investigating-magistrates) Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino
  • the late General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa
  • the late Dr. Ninni Cassarà, Vice-Questore of the State Police in Palermo
  • Magistrate Giovanni Tinebra, Head of the Department of Prison Administration and formerly State’s Attorney for Caltanissetta, who headed the team that jailed the assassins of Mr. Falcone and Mr. Borsellino

Petrosino married late in life, well-aware his chosen career was not well-suited to family life.  Adelina was well-aware of the dangers too, but she married for love, and accommodated her life to live with her husband, despite the continual death threats.  

Adelina gave birth to their daughter, also named Adelina, only months before her husband's final, fatal mission.  The benefit organized to provide a financial cushion for the widow and orphan was ruined by organized-crime threats, and the organizer was murdered.  

Adelina Petrosino and her child were hounded out of New York City by her husband's criminal enemies.  But she lived to the age of 88, and was proudly buried next to her beloved husband in Calvary Cemetery.

A Few of the Cases that Made the News

  • Early in his career when a beat-policeman, Petrosino came to the rescue of a Mr. Washington who was being mugged by three thugs.  When the dust settled, Mr. Washington and Joe Petrosino were still standing.  The three thugs were beat to a pulp on the sidewalk, and under arrest.
  • Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt promoted Joe Petrosino to Detective Sergeant assigned to Homicide, the first Italian-American to reach that position (1895).  Petrosino developed a friendship with Roosevelt that lasted all his life long.  The tough-good-guys were two of a kind.
  • Convinced an innocent man, Angelo Carboni, was being sent to the electric chair, Petrosino tracked the real killer down through two countries and over four weeks, using disguises, impersonations, informants, and cunning police sense.  He saved the innocent Italian-immigrant from death, and sent the real killer down.
  • Under his command, the Italian Legion shut down an insurance scam that preyed on naive immigrants (1899).  They were convinced to sign onto life insurance, but the seller made himself the beneficially.  The innocent immigrant always died soon after. 
  • Amazingly, he infiltrated an Anarchist organization based in Italy that was responsible for the assassination of Italy's King Umberto.  Petrosino discovered U.S. President McKinley was one of the group's targets, and warned the Secret Service to have the President avoid Buffalo, New York.  But McKinley refused to accept the warning, despite his Vice President Teddy Roosevelt vouching for his friend Petrosino's police skills.  McKinley was assassinated soon after in Buffalo by an Anarchist, making Teddy Roosevelt President of the U.S. (1901).
  • He famously worked two so-called Barrel-Murder cases of note.  A gangland counterfeiter who had talked too much was brutally murdered and stuffed in a barrel (1902).  This case was linked to the more famous later case of another dead counterfeiter found in a barrel (1903) that led Petrosino to Vito Cascio Ferro, the newly arrived Sicilian mafia don who was working to organize the various Italian gangs (the Black Hand organizations) into one powerful crime group.  Petrosino chased Ferro across the country to New Orleans, but Ferro escaped to Sicily and later became the prime suspect behind the assassination of Joe Petrosino 6 years later.  Ferro kept a photo of Petrocino in his wallet and told all and sundry that he would one day kill his nemesis.
  • After numerous threats on the policeman's life, Petrosino gave a public beating (in self-defense, of course) to Ignazio Lupo, the Sicilian mafia's top killer (who buried most of the bodies at his family's stables in Harlem).  Petrosino beat Lupo to pulp and stuffed him head-first into an ash-barrel on a street in Little Italy before the shocked and amused Italian immigrants, who only moments before would have crossed themselves in fear at the name of Lupo.  Lupo never regained the standing he had before the beating, and was soon after sent down on counterfeiting charges.
  • His Italian Legion cut crime against Italian-immigrants by half, and succeeded in dismantling the Calabrian crime organization in NYC, and they deported it's don, Enrico Alfano, back to Italy (1907).  Petrosino famously dragged Alfano all the way from the man's apartment down the streets to the police station, so all would see what eventually happens to criminals in New York City.
  • His Legion broke up a giant prostitution ring run by the Sicilian mafia in NYC (1909).  Newly arrived Sicilian women were coerced into prostituting themselves to save their lives, or those of their relations in New York or back in Sicily.  Petrosino managed to put away all but one of the mobsters involved.

Martyr to Justice and Civil Society

On March 12, 1909, Joe Petrosino was lured by an informant to an ambush.  He was shot dead in a square in Palermo, Sicily.  

Petrosino was in Sicily on orders from the NYC Police Chief, to uncover information that would allow for the deportation of hundreds of organized crime foot-soldiers from New York City back to Italy.  

He was well on his way to accomplishing his task, which is the direct reason he was killed, as were, later, several of his colleagues who continued the work.  

It was later determined that the NYC Police Chief, through incompetence, put Petrosino in danger by sending him on such an exposed mission, and compounded that danger by detailing it to the press beforehand.

His Legacy

Joe Petrosino's story did not die with him.  He became a martyr to the cause of justice and a civil societyHis story lives on to this day in family tales handed down, to books, the NYCPD museum, articles, a park in New York City, awards, and films.

Newspapers were one of the principle sources of popular entertainment as well as the news in those days-before-television, and the newspapers recognized the star they had in Joe Petrosino.  Crime reporters were assigned to cover his arrests.  His photo and quotes graced the covers of papers for practically his whole career as a policeman.  

After his death, stories of his crime-fighting career were published in serial form in the papers, written by the famous reformer Reverend A. R. Pankhurst, entitled 'The Perils of Petrosino'.  These formed the basis of a famous series of comics in Italy, that made the name of Joe Petrosino even more famous in Italy than in the U.S.

Joe Petrosino's story was the subject of one of the first feature length films (silent) ever produced in the U.S., 'The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino' from 1912.  His story has been the subject of numerous other films since, and the most recent was a production for the Italian state television (the RAI).  Their summary of their two-part miniseries is a summary of Lt. Petrosino's life (I've translated it to English from the original Italian):

"Joe Petrosino, An Italian Hero:

Joe Petrosino arrived in New York with his family in 1873.  The Italians are part of the latest wave of immigrants to arrive in America, and are among the most derelict.  They are the fateful victims of a criminal violence that is born within their own community.

Joe's father is a tailor, and like all the artisans in Little Italy he is a approached for protection money, and to survive, he gives in and pays the sum.  Joe hates this.  Joe has other ambitions.  He wants to learn English, become a U.S. citizen, but most of all, he wants to become a policeman.

In those days the Police Department is controlled by the Irish immigrants, and even to imagine an Italian in uniform is a distant dream.  Running the entire Department is a controller who will later become President of the United States:  Theodore Roosevelt.  Joe is stubborn.  He sets up shop as a shoeshine-man right outside Police Headquarters, befriends the police officers, and then submits his application to become a policeman.  It is promptly dismissed, but Joe resubmits it.

In the meanwhile, Vito Cascio Ferro, a small criminal boss who arrived in America at the same time as Joe, from Sicily, is growing in power in the extortion racket.  Joe is the only small businessman Vito doesn't extort because, perhaps, in some way, Cascio Ferro feels that it may well be Joe who will block his criminal career.

Joe loves Adelina, the daughter of a restaurateur.  And Adelina loves Joe.  But her father gives her in marriage to a rich businessman.  Joe is devastated.  But he does not give up, as he never does his entire life.  In 1883 Joe manages to finally break the Police Department taboo when he becomes an Italian-American policeman.  His career is lighting fast because of his genius and his courage.

To tackle the criminals in the Italian ghetto, Joe experiments with a new type of investigating:  infiltration by disguise.  It works wonders.  He also learns that creating a file with data on all the criminals, helps determine their connections within the criminal organization.  Joe identifies the gang's organizational structure, and all their cover operations.  His police operations are perfect and the criminal world begins to fear this Italian-American policeman.  The press begins to build him into a popular hero.  Roosevelt promotes him to First Sergeant, then Detective, and finally Lieutenant.

In the end, Joe manages to create the jewel of his career:  a police unit made up of only Italian-American policemen, that is dedicated to fighting crime within the Italian community.  His final objective is Cascio Ferro.  But the duel goes on for many years.  It is a duel made up of deaths and ambushes during which Joe proves that managing all the new crime that goes under the sign of the Mano Nero, or Black Hand, is Cascio Ferro.  Eventually, Joe gets Cascio Ferro deported back to Italy.

When Adelina's husband dies, her dreams of life with her love, Joe, are realized with her marriage to Joe, a marriage that is attended by photographers and journalists.  A present even arrives from Roosevelt, now President of the United States.  A baby arrives, too, a little girl, the first and only child Joe Petrosino will ever have.

But at the same time, Joe's most extreme challenge arrives, too.  It is this challenge that takes him on a secret mission to Sicily, on the heels of Cascio Ferro and the ties that bind the mafia in Sicily to the Black Hand in New York.  It's the last investigation for Joe.  He's discovered.  The evening of March 12, 1909, Joe is betrayed and shot dead on a Palermo street.  300,000 people attend his funeral in America.  It's the funeral of a soldier and a hero."  (Source:  Rai Fiction Joe Petrosino Page)

I was recently contacted by Hollywood film producer Ken Aguado, who is interested in perhaps bringing the story of Lt. Petrosino to the big screen.  Mr. Aguado produced, among other films, the gritty Salton Sea.  The idea of a gritty, realistic portrayal of Lt. Petrosino's story is very appealing.  Interestingly, the hyphenated-Italian actor Anthony LaPaglia was in Salton Sea.  Mr. LaPaglia's always impressed me with his ability to portray intensity and compassion on screen, in men of action and, at times, violence.  I could really picture him as Lt. Petrosino in his final years.  He even has Joe Petrosino's powerful physique.  I wish Mr. Aguado luck with his plans, since Lt. Petrosino's heroic story of his defense of civil society is a story that deserves to be told again, and again, and again.

A Moving Tribute

Far and away the most moving tribute to Joe Petrosino is, in my humble opinion, the one on The Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc site.  The reflections left by other officers and admirers show how one man can make a difference, and inspire others, even when his life is cut short by cowards.  I found this simple message left by a fellow officer the most poignant: 

"Rest in peace Brother Joseph, you are a true hero and will never be forgotten."

Amen to that.

 

Lieutenant Joe Petrosino, NYCPD

Born 1861  -  Died 1909, age 48

 

Some sources and Video Tributes

Some sources for further reading:

 

Joe Avella's article 'A Martyr to Duty'.

Ercole Joseph Gaudioso's article 'The Detective in the Derby"

 

YouTube Tributes:

 

This one is in Italian, summarizing Lt. Petrosino's career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one is the first of three parts, explaining the Mafia background that Lt. Petrosino was up against.  Then it discusses many of his cases that became famous, including one rescuing opera star Caruso from extortionists.  It is in Italian with English subtitles (of varying quality).  While the music is often at odds with the content, the subject matter is detailed and wide-reaching.  The two other parts use material from a dramatization done for Italian television.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visit my New York City in 1900 Page and my Mulberry Street Page.

 

 

Please visit Candida Martinelli's Writing Website and the first book in her Young-Adult Historical Mystery Series