ⓘ Joseph Petrosino


ⓘ Joseph Petrosino

Joseph Petrosino was a New York City police officer who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime. Crime fighting techniques that Petrosino pioneered are still practiced by law enforcement agencies.


1. Early years and family

Petrosino was born in Padula, a comune in the province of Salerno, in the Southern Italian region of Campania. Joseph was sent with a young cousin Antonio Puppolo to live with his grandfather in New York City. A streetcar accident took the life of the grandfather, and the two young cousins wound up in orphans/surrogates court. Rather than send the children to the orphanage, the judge took them home to his own family, and provided for the boys until relatives in Italy could be contacted and arrangements made to bring over family members. In consequence, Joseph Petrosino and his cousin Anthony Puppolo lived with a "politically connected" Irish household for some time, and this opened educational and employment avenues not always available to more recent immigrants, especially Italian ones. In 1874, the remainder of the Petrosino family immigrated to the United States.

Petrosino married the widow Adelina Saulino 1869–1957, with whom he had a daughter, Adelina Petrosino Burke 1908–2004, who gave birth to Susan Burke. Burke represents the Petrosino family at functions honoring the fallen NYPD hero.


2. Career

On October 19, 1883, he joined the NYPD. He was the first Italian language speaker in the NYPDs history. At 5 feet 3 inches 1.60 m, he had to get a waiver of the departments minimum height requirement. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who was a member of the council of police commissioners which governed the NYPD. Fluent in several Italian dialects, Petrosino was able to make cases that other officers could not. His ability to solve crimes in the Italian community was such that whenever a serious crime took place in that area, his superiors would call out, "Send for the Dago!"

On July 20, 1895, Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant in charge of the departments Homicide Division. The pinnacle of his career came in December 1908 when he was promoted to lieutenant and placed in charge of the Italian Squad, an elite corps of Italian-American detectives assembled specifically to deal with the criminal activities of organizations like the Mafia, which Petrosino saw as a shame upon decent Italians and Italian Americans.


3. The Black Hand and Enrico Caruso

One notable case in Petrosinos stint with the Italian Squad involved the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who was performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He was being extorted by Black Hand gangsters who demanded money in exchange for his life. It was Petrosino, a lover of opera, who convinced Caruso to help him catch those behind the blackmail.


4. Assassination of William McKinley

A second notable case in Petrosinos stint with the Italian Squad was his infiltration of an Italian-based anarchist organization that was suspected of ties with the King Umberto I assassination in 1900. During his mission, he discovered evidence that the organization intended to assassinate President William McKinley during his trip to Buffalo, New York. Petrosino warned the Secret Service, but McKinley ignored the warning, even after Roosevelt, who had by this time become vice president of the United States, vouched for Petrosinos abilities. McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz during his visit to Buffalos Pan-American Exposition on September 6, 1901.


5. Arrest of Cascio Ferro

Petrosinos investigations into Mafia activities led him to Vito Cascio Ferro, then a low ranking Black Hand affiliate. In 1903, Petrosino arrested him on suspicion of murder, but Cascio Ferro was acquitted. Ferro later returned to Sicily, where he progressed increasingly to the top rank of the Sicilian Mafia. Cascio Ferro later was suspected of Petrosinos murder.

Petrosino also investigated the infamous "barrel murders" case of 1903.


6. Assassination

In 1909, Petrosino made plans to travel to Palermo, Sicily on a secret mission. A recently passed federal law allowed the U.S. government to deport any alien who had lived in the country for less than three years if that alien had been convicted of a crime in another country. Petrosino was armed with a long list of known Italian criminals who had taken up residence in the United States, and intended to get enough evidence of their criminal pasts to throw them out of the country once and for all. However, Theodore A. Bingham, police commissioner of New York, gave the story of Petrosinos mission to a New York newspaper while Petrosino was abroad. On March 12, 1909, after arriving in Palermo, Petrosino was invited to a rendezvous in the citys Piazza Marina in order to receive information about the Mafia. While waiting for his "informant", Petrosino was shot to death.

The day after Petrosinos shooting, the detectives Italian Branch received an anonymous letter stating that the New York Black Hand had arranged the murder. The letter named members of the Morello crime family: Joe Morello, Vincenzo Terranova, Ciro Terranova, Giuseppe Fontana, Ignazio Milone, and Pietro Inzarillo. Cascio Ferro worked with these men during his three-year tenure in New York, so their involvement is possible, but "We will probably never know for sure whether or not the letter was a hoax." Vito Cascio Ferro was arrested for Petrosinos murder, but was released after an associate provided an alibi. Allegedly, he later when convicted for murder claimed that he personally killed once "a gallant man, not an enemy."

Palermos police commissioner, Baldassare Ceola, listed five Sicilian suspects:

  • Giuseppe Fontana, previously involved with a murder in Sicily and Black Hand activities in New York
  • Pasquale Enea, links with the Black Hand in New York
  • Ignazio Milone, worked with Fontana in New York
  • Giovanni Pecoraro, links to Sicilian and New York crime, and Vito Cascio Ferro
  • Gioacchino Lima, previously charged with a murder, brother-in-law to Giuseppe Morello

Enrico Alfano had been linked to Petrosinos murder, when he began to run a gambling den in the basement of 108 Mulberry Street; Alfano became one of the primary underworld targets of Petrosino who believed he was a big player in the New York branch of the Camorra. On 17 April 1907, Petrosino and his agents raided the apartment at 108 Mulberry Street where Alfano was living and arrested him. The arrest caused a sensation in Naples.

Author and historian Mike Dash identified the most likely assassins as Carlo Costantino and Antonio Passananti. Costantino and Passananti died in the late 1930s and in March 1969, respectively. In 2014, during an unrelated investigation by Italian police, a descendant claimed that Paolo Palazzotto, a henchman of the Fontana crime ring of Palermo, was the actual killer, executing Cascio Ferros "hit."


7. Funeral

Funeral rites for Petrosino were performed in Palermo, after which his body was sent to New York aboard the English S/S Slavonia, arriving April 9. On April 12, 1909, funeral rites were conducted in St. Patricks Cathedral, with over 200.000 people taking part in the funeral procession. New York City declared the day of his burial a holiday to allow its citizens to pay their respects. A pillar topped with an elaborate bust, inaugurated a year after his death, marks his gravesite in Queens, New York, Calvary Cemetery. Multiple organized crime notables are buried there, including members of the Morello crime family which he investigated, e.g., Giuseppe "Peter" Morello the Clutch Hand, Ignazio "Lupo the Wolf" Lupo 1877–1947, and the Terranova brothers who rest in bare graves.


8. Aftermath

On July 17, 1909, Baldassare Ceola was relieved of his position as the police commissioner of Palermo, and on the same day, Theodore Bingham stepped down as police commissioner of New York.

Petrosinos widow b. 1869 died in 1957.


8.1. Aftermath In memoriam

  • In 1987, the name of a small triangular park in lower Manhattan was changed from Kenmare Square to Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Square in his honor. It is bounded by Cleveland Place and Lafayette and Kenmare streets, two blocks north of the old police headquarters at 240 Centre Street at the juncture of the Little Italy, Nolita, and SoHo neighborhoods.

There is also an exhibit dedicated to Petrosino in the Italian American Museum, located at 155 Mulberry Street in Manhattans Little Italy. The exhibit pays tribute to him by displaying unique memorabilia documenting his career. It includes photographs, a vintage 45 LP record, an original Black Hand letter, as well as both artwork and a comic book about his life. A plaster cast from the original 2014 bronze relief in Petrosino Square was donated to the museum by its creator, artist Carter Jones.

  • The Joe Petrosino Prize for Investigative Reporting in Italian: Certosa di Padula Joe Petrosino Prize was named in his honor.
  • In 2010, the Italian Post released a postage stamp to commemorate his 150th birthday.The stamp features Petrosinos picture with the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
  • On March 12, 2003, a small memorial an engraved brass plate on a pole was erected on Piazza Marina, Palermo in Petrosinos remembrance.


8.2. Aftermath In film

  • Three biographical films have been made of Petrosinos life, including: Sidney M. Goldins The Adventures of Lieutenant Petrosino 1912; Pay or Die 1960, starring Ernest Borgnine; and The Black Hand 1973, starring Lionel Stander.
  • The character of Lieutenant Louis Lorelli J. Carrol Naish in The Black Hand 1950, starring Gene Kelly, is modeled on Petrosino.

8.3. Aftermath In literature

  • Petrosino appears in Laurie Fabianos novel Elizabeth Street 2010.
  • The January/February 2010 issue of Playboy published the article "Petrosino vs. The Black Hand", written by novelist/screenwriter James Dalessandro.
  • British novelist Frederick Nolan has written two novels based on Petrosinos career with the NYPD: No Place to Be a Cop 1974 and Kill Petrosino! 1975.
  • In My Ears Are Bent, Joseph Mitchells collection of his feature articles from the 1930s, Petrosino appears as "Louis Sittenberg, the famous New York detective who was killed on a trip to Italy to bring back a Black Hand agent." Whether Mitchells informant was confused or Mitchell changed Petrosinos name for some reason is not known.
  • In 2017, American journalist Stephan Talty wrote The Black Hand, a non-fiction book based on Petrosinos life and career.

8.4. Aftermath In television

  • He has been the subject of two Italian television dramas: He was portrayed in Petrosino miniseries, 1972, directed by Daniele DAnza by Adolfo Celi and in Joe Petrosino TV movie, 2006 by Beppe Fiorello.
  • Petrosinos story is discussed in the two-hour History Channel program Godfathers, which features commentary by Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, and Bernard Kerik, former police commissioner of New York City.

  • Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Park is a New York City public park located in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City between 70th Street to the north, 71st
  • Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Square is small triangular park in lower Manhattan in New York City, bounded by Cleveland Place and Lafayette and Kenmare Streets
  • and organized crime investigator Petrosino Square, a park in lower Manhattan in New York City Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Park, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New
  • widely considered to have been responsible for the 1909 murder of Joseph Petrosino head of the New York City police department s Italian Squad. However
  • City police officer Joseph Petrosino a pioneer in the fight against organized crime in America. The film deals primarily with Petrosino and his Italian Squad s
  • July 29, 1960 was a prominent New York detective and succeeded Lt. Joseph Petrosino as head of the NYPD s Italian Squad He was born in Morolo, Italy
  • Standing between the American public and the Black Hand s lawlessness was Joseph Petrosino dubbed the Italian Sherlock Holmes he was a famously dogged and
  • perfume store, he is dubbed the Perfume Burglar by Chicago reporters. Joseph Petrosino arrests Neapolitan camorrista Enrico Costabili where he is later deported
  • predecessor, Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino was murdered in Sicily in 1909, and Vachris had to go to Palermo to retrieve Petrosino s list of Italian criminals
  • their white slavery organization. March 12 - New York police detective Joseph Petrosino is killed in Palermo, Sicily by Sicilian Mafia Don Vito Cascio Ferro
  • In the controversy that followed he issued a retraction. In 1909, Joseph Petrosino who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime, made plans
  • sentence. Charles Luciano is arrested for shoplifting. April 17 - Joseph Petrosino arrests Neapolitan camorrista Don Enrico Alfano while investigating