Born on August 30, 1860, in Padula, a town in the province of Salerno, Campania region, Giuseppe "Joe" Petrosino was a legendary New York City police officer who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime.
Joe’s father, Prospero, was a tailor who married Maria Giovanna Mugno after his first wife, Maria Giuseppa Arato, died leaving him with two sons, Michele and Antonio. Prospero and Maria Giuseppa had three children: Caterina Maria Paolina, Joe, and Vincenzo.
Poverty was rampant so Joe and his cousin, Antonio Puppolo, were sent to live with their grandfather in New York. But the old man died after a streetcar accident and the two young cousins were sent to 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.
When he was 13 years old, his family emigrated to the United States, and he went to live with them in Little Italy. He tried to help by selling newspapers, shining shoes, doing any menial job available until October 19, 1883, when he joined the police department, badge 285.
He had helped the police before: the big wave of Italian immigrants brought a lot of criminals who were escaping justice. Policemen were mostly of Irish, English and German descent, it was impossible for them to understand the dialects and customs of the new immigrants. Joe understood all dialects and he was not afraid of the thugs: five feet and three inches tall, with incredibly wide shoulders and steel-like muscles, he despised the new gangs that were making life miserable for the Italians in New York. Soon he became friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who was police commissioner of New York City at the time. On July 20, 1895, Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant in charge of the department's Homicide Division, making him the first Italian-American to lead this division.
Petrosino married the widow Adelina Saulino (1869-1957), with whom he had a daughter also named Adelina (1908-2004). In December 1908, 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 organized criminals. Under his leadership, several thousand arrests were made, and more than 500 offenders were sent to prison. Crimes against Italian-Americans dropped by fifty percent. Joe Petrosino quickly became the most famous detective in New York City.
On January 6, 1908, he said to a reporter from The New York Times: "First, it must be understood that there is no big central organization of criminals called the 'black hand'. What we call 'Black Hand' is simply an organization of ignorant and unscrupulous immigrants who have put themselves under the leadership of a man who is a little more intelligent than they are and was probably a bandit or a criminal in Italy. There may be five and there are may be a dozen in the band, and there may be a dozen different bands working in the city at the same time. They have no connection with each other, and are in all probability bitter enemies and warring against each other. The idea that there is a big criminal club in the city called the 'Black Hand' is all a myth. It has grown out of the custom of the newspapers of calling every crime committed by an Italian a 'Black Hand' outrage."
His investigations into Sicilian mafia activities led him to Don Vito Cascio Ferro. Cascio Ferro is the one who brought the extortion practice of "continuing protection" in exchange for protection money (pizzo) from Sicily to the United States. "You have to skim the cream off the milk without breaking the bottle," he summarized the system. "Don't throw people into bankruptcy with ridiculous demands for money. Offer them protection instead, help them to make their business prosperous, and not only will they be happy to pay but they'll kiss your hands out of gratitude." In 1903, Petrosino arrested him for his involvement with the Barrel Murder, but Cascio Ferro was acquitted. He later returned to Italy, where he became one of the most important member of the Sicilian mafia.
In 1909, Joe made plans to travel to Palermo on a top secret mission. However, because of the incompetence of Theodore A. Bingham, New York's police commissioner, the New York Herald published the story on February 20, 1909, just days before his departure. Aware of the danger, Joe Petrosino headed to Palermo as planned. “The quickest way to be assassinated is to hide” he used to say.
On March 12, 1909, after arriving in Palermo, Petrosino received a message from someone claiming to be an informant, asking the detective to meet him in the city's Piazza Marina. It was a trap. He was shot to death.
Vito Cascio Ferro was arrested for Petrosino's murder but was released after an associate provided an alibi. This was very common: organized crime has always been connected to corrupted politicians, bankers, judges, especially in Italy. That is its strength. Cascio Ferro later claimed to other crime figures that he had killed Joe Petrosino, and this helped propel him into the position of capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses). He died in prison in 1943 after being arrested in 1927 and charged with a murder he probably did not commit.
Funeral rites for Petrosino were performed in Palermo, after which his body was sent to New York. On April 12, 1909, funeral rites were again conducted in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, 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 marks his gravesite in Queens, New York's Calvary Cemetery. Adelina, Joe's widow died in 1957.
The New York Times