A Martyr to Duty: Remembering Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino, the Original “Untouchable”
By Joe Avella, special to Buhner.com

The request to write an essay about Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino comes to me at an interesting time. As I write it is the Memorial Day weekend, a time when Americans observe, or certainly should be observing the heroism of those who answered their country’s call. It also comes on the heels of the announcement of the death of actor Robert Stack, immortalized in the minds of a generation of Americans, as Eliot Ness, the real-life hero who helped bring crime boss Al Capone to his knees.

For those of us who remember Stack as Eliot Ness, the Treasury Agent faced a different major criminal week after week in his dauntless television crusade against organized crime. After Capone’s conviction for income tax evasion, his squad was eventually disbanded. Ness then served with distinction as the Director of Security of the Cleveland Police Department, and ended his government service instructing servicemen about the dangers of venereal disease and closing up houses of prostitution during the Second World War. It took uncommon valor to go up against the Capone mob at the height of its powers in the corrupt Chicago of the time, or to go unarmed against machinegun-toting mobsters in Indiana. (For an interesting review of the fascinating and heroic life of Eliot Ness visit http://www.crimelibrary.com/ and read Marilyn Bardsley’s Eliot Ness: The Man and the Myth under “Cops and Criminals”. There was much more to Eliot Ness than the public at large knows. The purpose of this essay is to reacquaint people and in some cases to introduce others to another police officer who lived long before Eliot Ness and who went head to head on a daily basis with some of the most violent, sadistic murderers, arsonists, extortionists, bomb-throwers and top-echelon gangsters of his time. Not only did he go up against them face to face as Ness was featured doing week after week in mostly fictionalized adventures on television (not that he did not do so in real life), this police officer was born abroad, came to America as a boy, had the advantage of growing up in New York’s Little Italy just prior to the great wave of immigration that followed, worked in the community, spoke various dialects of the language and despised how the criminal element recently arrived among them was victimizing honest Italians who came to this country in utter poverty hoping for a better life for their children, a dream these criminals were destroying by preying upon them in the most brutal fashion. “Fate,” wrote crime reporter Frank Marshall White, a personal friend of the detective who covered many of his cases, “had sent him a stern task and he did not shirk it…” said White in his touching eulogy which appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine shortly after the detective’s death. He, too, should be a household name like Eliot Ness, but sadly he has been largely ignored in the country he adopted and loved as his own.

There are many legends and historically inaccurate facts that have been written about Joseph Petrosino, his life, his work, and his fatal mission to Palermo. One enduring error is the statement that he was the first Italian ever to reach the rank of detective or of Detective Lieutenant. If one pores over early microfilms of the NY Times as I have done, from its inception to the period just prior to Petrosino’s joining the police force, looking for crimes relating to the Italian community, one encounters earlier NYCPD detectives with Italian surnames, such as a Det. Perazzo. Most likely they were from the Northern Italy, as it would still be almost a generation before Southern Italians would join the force, Petrosino being an exception as his family emigrated from Padula just prior to the major flood of Italian immigrants from the “Mezzogiorno” i.e. Southern Italy and from Sicily. Whether he was the first or not is actually irrelevant; more telling is that he, along with Det. Antonio Vachris (real name Vacarezza of Genoese origin), who simultaneously headed the Italian Squad in Brooklyn were the most important and the most feared in terms of their impact on crimes being committed by Italians at the turn of the last century. Most of these malefactors were independent criminals cashing in on the Black Hand scare; some were actually members of independent “Black Hand” gangs; still, some others were more terrifying, belonging to the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia, both of which were establishing a foothold in New York City. The Mafia had in fact, already firmly established itself in other locales, especially New Orleans. Indeed, the first prominent American police officer to fall victim to the Mafia was the very Police Commissioner of the city, David Hennessey, although there is some suspicion that Hennessey may have been a corrupt cop and fell victim to the dangerous game of playing both sides against the middle.

There is also the physical stereotype of small, fat, Detective Petrosino, the “Detective in the Derby Hat” who as Italian journalist Arrigo Petacco mentioned in his excellent biography Joe Petrosino wore that particular style hat to hide his incipient baldness and compensate for his lack of height, however there are other pictures to be found of him in New York newspapers sporting a Fedora. While his exact height remains somewhat of a mystery from being “barely five feet tall” to being 5’2”, 5’3” all the way to 5’6” which would have made him of average height, he was well below the typical 6’ Irish or Jewish police officer of the time. (I know some may find this revealing, thinking the NYCPD was comprised of mostly Irish American policemen, but there were a number a Jewish uniformed officers at that time; one of them, David Schmittberger, called “The Boy Wonder” had actually risen to Inspector and was one of Petrosino’s superiors.) I do question the “fat” part of the description. Certainly, later photos of him in his mid-forties show an expansive waist, but earlier photos show a thickset man with incredibly wide shoulders, bull-like neck and expansive chest testimony to a short squat man with steel-like muscles. There exists a photo of Petrosino in the company of other detectives walking killer Tommaso Petto to the courthouse during the trial of the infamous Barrel Murder case. Petto had won prizes in Italy for his remarkable physique and was dubbed “The Ox” (“il Bue”) and sometimes “The Bull” by his fellow criminals. Next to Petrosino, he looked absolutely puny. “Bulldog Joe” as his men in the Italian Squad called him both for his physical build and his tenacity, certainly had to be immensely strong, as most of the criminals he faced, Italian or otherwise, towered over him, only to learn to their dismay, the speed and power of his fists. One Black gentleman named Washington who was present at his funeral mass in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral told a reporter he had come to pay his respects because years earlier, Washington had been attacked by three very large men, and the diminutive detective, then a foot patrolman, saved his life by taking on all three and rendering them unconscious. Moreover, neighborhood toughs constantly challenged him when he first started foot patrol until word got around he was not a man to be taken lightly.

Of course, this propensity for using his fists has detracted from his reputation as a highly patient and painstaking greatly intuitive detective who had more arrests and convictions for murder than all of the other detectives in his bureau combined. Luigi Barzini, the author of The Italians, in another book, From Caesar to the Mafia: Persons, Places, Problems in Italian Life wrote that upon meeting the detective he felt he was more of a wrestler than detective perhaps helping to perpetuate the stereotype of a cop who beat the truth out of his suspects. The man was tough and fearless, but his most famous cases were the product of long hours of investigation. The case of which he was most proud involved saving the life of a man falsely accused of murder, a case solved just days prior to the man’s execution in the electric chair.

In any event, Joe Petrosino quickly became the most famous detective in New York City and even in his native Italy. He had, what today would be called “superstar celebrity” written all over him. In the years since his death, he has been the subject of two Hollywood movies, The Black Hand in which a character obviously based upon him, named Det. Louie Lorelli, played by the most famous “Italian” of his time, the splendid Irish-American actor J. Carroll Naish, and Pay or Die, which, if less sensational and if more true to the facts could have been as much a classic film as The Godfather with Ernest Borgnine’s dignified portrayal, however it was made to cash in quickly on the success of the earlier released Al Capone featuring  the late, gifted Rod Steiger. It also lacked the directing genius of Francis Ford Coppola and his familiarity with the nuances of the particular culture he was filming. Borgnine, in fact, whose real name is Ermes Borgnino, recalled Petrosino as one of his childhood heroes in a press release for the film. Italian television dedicated a miniseries to him based on Arrigo Petacco’s biography, and Frederick Nolan wrote two exciting novels featuring him. In the first, No Place To Be A Cop, Nolan introduces him as a minor figure in the action. In a subsequent work, Kill Petrosino!, the detective shares the limelight with his alleged killer, Don Vito Cascio Ferro. What is most unsatisfying to me about this excellent and thrilling book is the adulation paid to Don Vito, obviously the more interesting character from a literary point of view, and the utter denigration of Petrosino as a fool who can’t see the forest for the trees but whose belief in the existence of an organized crime society called the Mafia is vindicated by his own murder. The book portrays him as someone who made his reputation arresting small fry criminals but frustrated by the legal system and completely outfoxed by his much more intelligent foes in the Mafia he stumbles along blindly until his fatal trip to Sicily. Certainly from all accounts, Cascio Ferro, a man of undeniable charisma to those around him, and of great native intelligence and wisdom, may have very well been the greatest “Don” who ever lived. However, subsequent to his arrest in the Barrel Murder Case in 1901 as a lesser member of the Lupo/Morello gang (even though he may have in reality arrived from Sicily to assume the leadership), it was Don Vito who was sent scurrying for cover, fleeing New York, remaining in New Orleans and ultimately returning to Italy in 1904, his dream of becoming Capo di tutti i capi here forever thwarted by this persistent nemesis. When he left, he took a picture of Petrosino and kept it in his wallet. Supposedly he swore that he would kill Petrosino with his own hands but that may be apocryphal. As for dealing with small fry elements of organized crime, the humiliating manner of his arrest of Enrico “Erricone (Big Henry)” Alfano, shortly after his arrival in New York where he boasted he would personally eliminate Petrosino certainly disproves that notion. On April 17, 1907, Petrosino faced him down in front of a table of his fellow cut-throats, lifting him up by the nape of the neck and after announcing that he was arresting him on behalf of the Italian police, flung him bodily into two gunmen who had entered with their pistols drawn, knocking them to the ground. He then dragged Alfano through the streets of Little Italy refusing to let him stand until they arrived at Police Headquarters.  Alfano was the head of the Camorra, every bit as feared in Naples as was the Mafia in Sicily. “Big Henry” was deported soon afterwards. The Pelletieri brothers from Corleone, also names well known to crime historians of that era, were also treated to first hand introductions to the detective, as he arrested both and had one deported, but one of the most amazing stories of his courage involved his encounter with Ignazio Lupo. Lupo, called “Lupo the Wolf” because of the English translation of his surname (he also occasionally used his mother’s surname Saietta and is also referred to as “Lupo Saietta”), was perhaps the most feared mob enforcer in New York City at the time and connected to the “Murder Stable” at 323 E. 107th Street, where some 60 murder victims were buried. Together with his brother-in-law Giuseppe Morello, and Giuseppe Fontana, the alleged assassin of the Marquis Emanuele di Notarbartolo, these Corleonesi transplanted their organization in New York where it quickly took root. (It was Notarbartolo who uncovered the massive banking scandal in the Bank of Sicily at the end of the 19th century. In 1893, he was on a train heading for court where he was to testify against Raffaele Palizzuolo (sometimes referred to as Raffaele Palizzolo), the “King of the Mafia” in Palermo and deputy member of Sicily’s Parliament. On Palizzuolo’s orders, Fontana, together with Carlo Costantino stabbed this courageous Sicilian nobleman to death and threw his body onto the tracks. Lupo’s other colleagues in crime included dreaded criminals Vito Lo Duca, Antonino Passananti and the Terranova brothers, Morello’s half-brothers.  Lupo had sworn that he too would take care of this troublesome sbirro (flatfoot) and exterminate him. Unfortunately for Lupo, Petrosino got word of the threat. He encountered him in a store in Little Italy where the two exchanged words. Apparently Lupo called Petrosino a “son of a bitch”; not a very wise thing to say to a hot-tempered tough guy whose mother died when he was a child and taken quite literally by men of his generation and background. All of a sudden, according to eyewitnesses, Petrosino’s fist shot out and Lupo went flying. Petrosino punched Lupo onto the sidewalk and then proceeded to give him a brutal beating in the middle of the street, the classic case of a truly tough man all too willing to face down a bully who has more than met his match. The beating culminated with the detective picking up the heavy-set Lupo and tossing him head first into an ash can, at which point he turned to the crowd and asked, “Is this the coward you are all so afraid of? How tough does he look now?” The crowd looked on in disbelief. Lupo was far from a small fry; he was perhaps the most feared killer in the city.

Nolan also depicts him as a totally one-dimensional man obsessed with proving the existence of a criminal organization to the exasperation of his fellow officers who loathed him, a headline-grabbing publicity-hungry scoundrel, and a “user” who never shared the glory with those who helped him. This is not borne out by the newspaper accounts of the time or by the accounts of the officers who served with him. He was highly respected by his colleagues, never hid the fact that Secret Service Agent James Flynn was an important ally (he also collaborated with Flynn concerning the July 23, 1902 barrel murder of Brooklyn grocer Joe Catania and was well-known to the Secret Service for the undercover work he did on their behalf when he warned President McKinley to avoid large crowds and especially to avoid going to Buffalo where McKinley was in fact assassinated), and was always depicted as a common man who took on an uncommonly difficult task. He would ultimately be chosen to lead the “Italian Squad”, the only known secret police force in the history of the NYCPD, and is credited with creating the NYCPD Bomb Squad.

He was not the proverbial bull in the china shop, and quite aware of his mortality, stopped by Old St. Patrick’s cathedral every morning for absolution from his lifelong friend Monsignor Patrick LaValle. When asked why he was so visible among the criminal element that had sworn to kill him, he replied, “The quickest way to be assassinated is to hide.” Yet he knew he would be killed. Newly arrived criminals were taken outside of headquarters where Petrosino would be pointed out to them. Often they would walk up to him just to say hello. This happened on one occasion when he was with his brother Antonio, Det. Prospero Petrosino’s father. “Who was that?” asked Antonio who didn’t recognize the man. (Antonio, an immigration officer at Ellis Island, often conferred with his brother.) “I have no idea. Probably some new arrival who wanted to get a good look at me.” One day in a very somber mood he told Antonio: “To’, I know they’ll get me. It’s just a matter of time. But someone has to stand up to these bastards or they’ll grind our people into the Earth.” Prospero recalled how his uncle used to love to visit and get down on the floor and wrestle with his brother’s sons, flashing a smile few ever saw in public. Yet, despite his hatred of the predatory criminal, he had a tender side greatly unknown to the public. When his duties required him to arrest criminals, many of whom left their innocent families destitute, Petrosino would check up on them. One of them became one of his most important informers later on out of gratitude. When he solved the murder of poor Antonio Torsiello, an illiterate immigrant who relied on his amanuensis Antonio Strollo to find his long lost brother Vito in America, only to be robbed and murdered by Strollo, it was Petrosino and his squad who, unable to locate Vito, contributed money to avoid his being buried in Potter’s Field. He was a simple man investigating an enormously overwhelming number of crimes which required him to run in many directions; a man who refused to accept the possibility that the Mafia had taken root here until his investigation of the “Barrel Murder” when he realized he was facing the same group of Sicilian assassins involved in the notorious Notarbartolo affair prior to Petrosino’s death resulted in two of Italy’s most sensational Mafia trials in and the biggest prosecution of Mafiosi until the recent Falcone/Borsellino trials. (There were two other sensational trials involving organized crime in between these two, both taking palce in Viterbo, Italy,  the first being the 1911 trial of the aforesaid camorrista Enrico Alfano, and the other involving the 1951 trial of the alleged murderers of the notorious Salvatore “Il Bandito” Giuliano.)   Like Notarbartolo before him, and Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino after him, Petrosino too would become one of the Mafia’s “excellent cadavers” (some would call him the first “excellent cadaver” however I believe that dubious distinction was earned by Notarbartolo. One might also include Giuliano, who although a bandit, was also eliminated when the Mafia felt he was no longer useful and in fact, like Notarbartolo and Petrosino, had become a danger to its survival, an oft-used remedy involving bandits, as Gaia Servadio so excellently reports in her classic history, Mafioso). He certainly must have touched the heart of New York, because over 250,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession. That’s an amazing figure given the fact that he was a cop, an immigrant cop at that, and from an immigrant group highly despised by the general populace. Presently, Jack Morris of the Palmer Press, is preparing a background history for a screenplay as plans are in the works to produce a new film about the detective either in Hollywood or in Italy, so apparently there is a portion of the public whose fascination with a truly courageous hero has not waned in almost one hundred years since his murder. (If you wish to visit this site you can find it at www.thepalmerpress.com/petro_web1.html.)

As for the murder itself, much has been written about it and the circumstances surrounding it, a lot of it dramatic and much of it distorted. Nolan himself noted that Piazza Marina, in Palermo, the place where it took place, was once the execution site of the Inquisition, which is true, but has him assassinated at high noon, in full visibility of the public as a message and a warning. Undoubtedly, Nolan, a wonderfully gifted writer (and, if you can obtain a copy of any of his books [I got mine through E-bay], I highly recommend them to you) obviously read through most every contemporary account of the detective as I did, as I recognized much of the sources of his material, and was looking for the most dramatic setting for the climax of his wonderful novel, but Petrosino was murdered at night, with the fewest possible witnesses available, by gunmen who immediately fled the scene, allegedly Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti, who sailed from New York one day after Petrosino departed, specifically for the purpose of murdering him.

I agree with those who contend that Carlo Costantino was the bait used to set the fatal trap. Just prior to his fatal trip, Petrosino was seen in Washington D.C. where he allegedly met with Treasury Agents concerning a counterfeiting ring in Italy, which actually provided a good cover for the espionage activities which were the real motives for his trip. Costantino who seemed to be somewhat of a weasel, and involved in the “Barrel Murder” of Benedetto Madonnia, a homicide that was the end result of the Morello gang’s counterfeiting endeavors (apparently, Madonnia was killed over the way the monies were split; he was left out.) may have been pressured by the detective to turn informer to avoid being prosecuted on a new charge based upon forthcoming investigations. Unlike Cascio Ferro who had fled and about whom the detective knew little except that he seemed to be highly respected by his peers and that he had brought about a change in their methods during his brief sojourn, and Passananti who also seemed cut from the same cloth, Costantino appeared to be simply a thug along the lines of Lupo but with less intelligence.  He may have fed the detective some important tips, enough to at least gain his confidence, but always with the knowledge of his cronies, especially Don Vito. His departure from New York one day after Petrosino’s was so he could be in Palermo around the time of Petrosino’s arrival and that he may have proved useful to the detective in his investigations in Sicily by putting him in contact with other informers, always playing the “double agent”; his loyalty to the Mafia, however, never wavered and the man manipulating the strings from the very beginning, was Cascio Ferro. Petrosino, in one of his last letters to his wife, alluded to a “colleague” whose arrival he was eager for as he was “tired” of being in Italy alone. The NYPD vacillated between admitting no one was to meet him there and then saying someone was to take up his job of updating criminal dossiers.( Det. Prospero Petrosino always had his own, very different take on the entire matter of the identity of the real assassin and who this “colleague” really was.)  Petrosino may have sought to pressure him to help his investigations in other more beneficial ways, possibly by threatening to leak word around town (or possibly in Sicily) that Costantino was indeed an informer. By now, he knew that a bridge from New York to New Orleans to Kansas City to Palermo existed and that these were the key players. Unfortunately for Petrosino, Costantino was a smarter man than he had believed, and absolutely loyal to his Mafia oath and to Cascio Ferro who ordered him to keep the detective in his confidence even if it meant sacrificing some of their own lower level “soldiers” with prison time for the good of the family.]

Again, most likely for literary reasons, Nolan depicts Passananti as being unknown to Petrosino, whereas, in truth, the detective had arrested all three, Costantino, Passananti and Cascio Ferro in connection with the “Barrel Murder Case”. He could not have known, given his awesome workload at the time and the secrecy that still prevails in Sicily, of just how high Cascio Ferro had risen or of his intimacy with Raffaele Palizzuolo, who despite his sinking political fortunes, still wielded enormous power behind the scenes and was well-connected to every level of Sicilian society. Some contemporary accounts have witnesses stating they saw Petrosino speaking to two men who were gesticulating wildly when two other men came up running from behind and shot him as he turned upon hearing their footsteps. Other accounts have him being shot while urinating against the fence, so that his death would be even more humiliating. Petacco, who reviewed the autopsy report, indicates that the coroner believed he was shot at close range while facing his killers as he was backed up against the fence. Most likely, his attention was on his conversation with the two men who met him in the Caffe’ Oreto as his back was to the killers who waited in the shadows of the Garibaldi Garden in Piazza Marina and then ran up and fired away as they pushed him against the fence. One can only imagine what must have gone through his mind in that briefest of moments if his killers were indeed Costantino, Passananti and Cascio Ferro all of whom he would have recognized. He died immediately, the victim of four shots being fired at him: one which struck him in the throat exiting the nape of the neck, one which struck him in the right shoulder, and one, a massive wound to the right cheek (one cartridge was found in the lining of his overcoat). The last wound has been historically attributed to Don Vito Cascio Ferro who allegedly administered the coup de grace to his hated enemy; he admitted years later during his imprisonment that he had killed only one man, Petrosino, and that he did it “disinterestedly” simply as a matter of honor and because Petrosino was a courageous enemy who did not deserve to die at the hands of just any sicario (hit man). In yet another version, Barzini’s and later recounted by Petacco, Cascio Ferro drew up to him in a carriage, he and Petrosino engaged in a very brief conversation and then Don Vito executed him, leaving the scene and again, according to another legend, returning to festivities at the home of Dep. Domenico De Michele Ferrantelli, from which he had momentarily excused himself (so that he could dispose of Petrosino) and to which he returned “minutes” later to enjoy the company of the cream of Palermo’s society. All very interesting when one considers, if it were truly such a matter of personal honor between the head of the Sicilian Mafia and the lone man who had challenged its authority in its very den, Palermo, why is it that all accounts indicate two men entering the Café Oreto, where Petrosino was dining, (the same two men seen conversing with him before the assassins appeared) and eyewitness accounts speak of gunshots and two men fleeing the scene in darkness, although some reported hearing the click-clack of a horse drawn carriage speeding away in a nearby alley? Just where was Vito Cascio Ferro at the time of the murder? Did he indeed administer the final fatal wound or was he just orchestratring and observing from a safe distance? The carriage scenario is at odds with the reports of witnesses who claimed to have heard three shots fired simultaneously and then one lone shot, presumably Cascio Ferro’s. Petrosino certainly could not have been physically capable of engaging him in conversation, given the severity of the wounds, so if anything appears certain, Petrosino was mortally wounded and then Don Vito administered the "coup de grace". My own theory is that whomever the gunman was who fired the last bullet, it was done as the detective was clinging to the fence, dying of either the wound to his throat or to the face when the final shot was fired. This seems most consistent with the testimony of Italian sailor Alberto Cardella, the first witness to reach the scene who stated seeing a short thickset man stagger away from the fence and fall heavily to the ground which also accounts for the terrible contusion to Petrosino’s temple at first thought to be an additional bullet wound. (Prospero Petrosino told me that the bullets had been dum-dummed and dipped in garlic so that, even if they did not kill his uncle immediately, he would have subsequently died of blood poisoning. The autopsy report does not appear to have contained this finding, however, due to stormy seas, the coffin bearing his remains fell during the voyage home and split. When Antonio went to identify his brother’s body, he remarked that it had turned completely black.) Moreover, as Petacco points out, Burgio, the town where Ferrantelli lived was several hours distant from the murder scene by horse-drawn carriage, so his absence would have been a lot longer and obviously noticed by the Deputy’s guests, contrary to the legend. Of course, the legend is much more dramatic with the suave Don Vito momentarily excusing himself, dispatching this troublesome cop, “a natural enemy to all Sicilians”, and then returning to the cream of Sicilian society to enjoy their company. In such a dramatic confrontation, one would have expected the powerful Don to face his courageous foe eye to eye and then to boldly execute him in this great matter of honor. Certainly, Don Vito had another more selfish motive to take credit for the murder. By killing the most courageous enemy ever to challenge the Mafia at the time and exterminating him for his effrontery, Cascio Ferro certainly cemented his position as the most exalted Don in Mafia history. Still, no one else has ever challenged his assertion that he alone fired the fatal shot by claiming credit for Petrosino’s murder, although, according to Chandler, Enrico Alfano also claimed credit for “arranging” the killing. This is not altogether impossible. In 1908 shortly after Alfano was deported, and the same year Petrosino publicly beat up Lupo who had promised Cascio Ferro that he himself would kill Petrosino (which must have cost Lupo additional loss of face in Don Vito’s lessening opinion of him), the detective arrested Enrico Costabili, the head of the New York Camorra and also shot and had deported Giovanni Campanillo, another Camorrist, who was present in Palermo during Petrosino’s stay at what Chandler described as “…what amounted to a brotherhood convention…” In fact, 1908 was a banner year for Petrosino according to Chandler, who on page 118 of his Brothers in Blood states “Petrosino’s performance…was stunning. His one-man record surpassed the accomplishments of any Italian army, parliament, U.S. law enforcement officer, or Senate subcommittee before or since…”  

The unequivocal truth is the detective was murdered in a cowardly ambush in the cloak of darkness, which made me think of Prospero Petrosino’s conversation with me about dealing with these elements. Prospero fought organized crime on the New York waterfront, and his brother Jim Petrosino was one of Thomas Dewey’s top investigators as well as the detective who found the ransom money in Bruno Hauptmann’s garage in the Lindberg kidnapping case. “Every time I had to face down these guys one on one, they always punked out.” I had asked him why, as it seems certain, his uncle went out unarmed that fateful night. His answer was “As strange as it may seem to you not being a cop, sometimes you actually feel safer without a gun. I did it many times. My uncle did it many times too. One time he infiltrated a gang of Camorrists. At that time they used to wear hoods and cloaks like monks. He had an informer who was in the Camorra, who was built almost exactly as he was, (this is the individual I mentioned earlier) so he borrowed the cloak and attended a meeting in which his own murder was being planned. He went unarmed. He could have been murdered right then and there as he relied on a man who could have betrayed him. He felt he had to take the chance.” Thinking of the trust he had in this informer and the grave danger in which he put himself in that situation, I can understand how the fatal ambush was set up in Palermo. He had traveled there based on Cornell University Professor Jeremiah Jenks’ plan to set up an espionage ring in Sicily so that the NY Police would have information on the comings and goings in Palermo as well as those between Palermo and the U.S., specifically New Orleans and New York, a fatally flawed plan by a well-intentioned academic conversant with the criminal justice system and possibly with a knowledge of the Mafia derived through reading materials but obviously ignorant of the degree in which the Sicilian Mafia was entrenched in the real world that existed in Palermo . The plan was delivered to Thomas Bingham, the NYCPD Commissioner who then assigned Petrosino the difficult task of laying the groundwork for the spy network until a replacement arrived. Despite the prevalent notion that Petrosino was eager for the assignment, the fact is, he felt he was precisely the wrong man for the job because he was too well-known and had incurred the enmity of too many high-placed Mafiosi, including the aforementioned Palizzuolo, whom he had chased out of New York. Palizzuolo came on a fund-raising trip to raise money for his upcoming and ultimately unsuccessful electoral campaign in Sicily by giving speeches before various Italian and Italian-American groups and selling copies of patriot Silvio Pellico’s classic book Le mie prigioni. Petrosino, who became aware of his involvement in the Notarbartolo murder shadowed him, interrupted his meetings and eventually had a closed-door meeting with him. The “King of the Mafia” decided it was best to return to Palermo. Palizzuolo swore to Petrosino that if he ever set foot in Sicily he would never return home alive. Moreover, Petrosino who married late in life to a childless widow, Adelina (Saulino) Vinti in 1907, had recently become a father just before he received the order to sail to Italy. His daughter was two months old when he was murdered and never knew her father. He had no desire to leave this family, which came to him late in life, to venture to a city populated by repatriated criminals whom he was instrumental in deporting, and relatives of men he helped condemn to prison and to the electric chair, many of whom had sworn vengeance against him, but he felt obligated to follow his orders. Frank Marshall White called him a victim of “an exalted sense of duty.”(The night I met Prospero, I left my residence, then in Forest Hills, thinking to myself, my son just turned two months of age. I asked myself what would I be feeling now if instead of driving up to the Bronx to meet Prospero Petrosino I was sailing to Italy and ultimately to Sicily, the scourge of the Mafia on a mission to destroy its tentacles reaching to New York? I wanted to get some sense of what must have been going through the detective’s mind. In those days, in the NYCPD, you didn’t refuse an order. One thing I knew for sure: I did not possess Joe Petrosino’s courage. I could not have done it.) And so he went, learning in Padula, the small town of his birth outside of Naples, where he stopped for a few hours to visit his brother, that his “secret mission” had been published in the NY Herald and subsequently picked up by way of the Paris Herald by the Italian press. He immediately realized that he was now a walking target yet he still proceeded to Sicily.

Much has been made of Bingham’s statement and alleged betrayal of Petrosino, which allegedly resulted in being replaced as Police Commissioner (in fact, he became involved in a political scandal that was the basis for his undoing) but I for one believe his statement that he had mentioned this mission strictly off the record to a reporter who betrayed his confidence, and strongly doubt any collusion on his part with the Mafia in setting Petrosino up. (Remember, in the days when New York City had a plethora of daily newspapers and the competition was extremely keen a scoop like this was extremely valuable.) More telling was the fact that Bingham had to establish the necessary protocol for Petrosino’s visit, allegedly to study the effect of New Immigration Laws and to engender more cooperation between the police forces of Italy and the United States. He also had to arrange the necessary access to government officials in Italy, one of them being Giovanni Giolitti (Former Treasury Secretary, Prime Minister, and Minister of the Interior, replacing in his first term in that office, Sicilian Francesco Crispi, whose tenure in government was in large part due to his constituency in Sicily whose responsibility to vote to keep him in power was entrusted to the “friends of the friends”), the very same Giovanni Giolitti who had given both Petrosino and Vachris gold watches inscribed with the gratitude of the Italian government for the work they were doing in bringing Italian criminals to justice, the very same Giovanni Giolitti whose tenure in Italian government was described by Italian historian Renato Candida in his Storia della Mafia (History of the Mafia) and later cited by Petacco, as the rise of the “Golden Age of the Mafia” and historian Giovanni Salvemini who called his administration “The Prime Ministry of the Underworld” as quoted in Pitkin and Cordasco’s monumental work The Black Hand, published by Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, New Jersey, one of the most thoroughly researched books ever published on the subject. If Raffaele Palizzuolo and Vito Cascio Ferro wanted to know about Petrosino’s arrival and to have him followed, as they did, they didn’t need Bingham’s assistance. They knew of Petrosino’s arrival and subsequent journey every step of the way. As David Leon Chandler notes in his excellent work Brothers in Blood, published by EP Dutton, Petrosino wrote to his wife Adelina that he was being “followed everywhere” and later sent her a telegram from Noto, Sicily stating “It is very uncomfortable to be here alone.” In this respect, Nolan’s chilling account of Petrosino’s fateful trip from the time he set foot on Sicilian soil, is, as unpleasant as it may be to the reader, probably absolutely correct in every detail. The same is true regarding the way the fatal trap was set. My only difference with Nolan is that he sees Petrosino as a moth coming to the flame. I see him as a man caught in a web from which he cannot extricate himself, as he sees his worse fears realized from his investigation. Apparently he already had enough information in his possession to, if not to completely destroy organized crime in America, certainly to stunt its growth for a very long time. As Petacco sadly concluded, it was simply too big a job for one man pitted alone against the entire might of an all-powerful unseen enemy. There are other heretofore-unknown elements about his trip that I cannot reveal here as I have been assisting Jack Morris somewhat in the preparation of his background for the screenplay of this new film and do not want to steal his thunder, should he or the screenwriters decide to avail themselves of this information. His murder did, however, result in the removal of Baldassare Ceola, the Questore (Police Commissioner) of Palermo, whose earnest and diligent investigation of the crime very quickly solved Petrosino’s murder in just less than three weeks but the case was (and unfortunately as still is the case in many such prosecutions in Sicily) dismissed for “lack of evidence”. I imagine it is kind of difficult to get people to testify in a trial in which the most famous detective in the world at the time is murdered with complete impunity by the very people he was investigating. (A number of bodies were found immediately subsequent to Petrosino’s murders, and the assumption was made that some of them, known to police, had actually taken money from him to turn informer, because he was uncovering information largely unknown to the police themselves and was seriously threatening criminal interests in Palermo. He apparently also had uncovered information that could have only come from people very high up and connected to the criminal justice system in Palermo. There also seems to have been in place a terrorist campaign here in America against police investigating the Mafia as attempts were made on the lives of officers investigating organized crime in different cities; moreover, as Pitkin and Cordasco indicate, Pioggio Puccio, a personal friend of Petrosino who helped arrange the funeral and benefit for the detective’s widow was murdered a few weeks later. The benefit turned out to be a bust because of threats being sent to performers and donors, and his widow and infant daughter were forced to leave Manhattan due to threats against their lives.) Ceola’s investigation was extremely far-reaching and thorough and most uncomfortable to the very people whose interests were so threatened by Petrosino’s arrival. The unfortunate Ceola, who became embroiled within a short period in two of the most sensational assassinations in Italy of his time, that of King Umberto I of Italy by Gaetano Bresci, an Italian anarchist who traveled from Paterson, New Jersey to murder the monarch in 1901, and the 1909 Petrosino murder, was recalled to Rome, relieved of his duties in Palermo and “retired with honor” in “gratitude” for the excellent job he performed. (Arrigo Petacco, Petrosino’s biographer wrote an excellent book about the King Umberto assassination titled “L’anarchico che venne dall’America: La storia di Gaetano Bresci e del complotto per uccidere Umberto I”(The Anarchist Who Came From America: The Story of Gaetano Bresci and the Plot to Assassinate Umberto I”) and I highly recommend it; however, to my knowledge it is only available in Italian, as is, I believe another related work “Il prefetto di ferro” (“The Iron Prefect”) Petacco’s biography of Cesare Mori, the Prefect assigned to Sicily who drove the Mafia underground during the Fascist era and was responsible for the fall of Don Vito Cascio Ferro.) [See http://www.arrigopetacco.net/ for more information, however the website is in Italian.]

Will we ever know Petrosino’s real killers? That’s an open question. As I have mentioned, most credit Vito Cascio Ferro, along with Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti as the accompanying hit men, although some have suggested Giuseppe Giunta, a recent arrival at the time from New Orleans as a possible triggerman. I have my own theory about who he was based upon what was revealed to me by Prospero Petrosino, although I have no doubt that the trap was laid by Cascio Ferro, a brilliant one in which Petrosino, who apparently had great faith in the informer he was supposed to meet that very night when the two “unknown” gentleman approached him as he was finishing dinner in the Caffe’ Oreto, a popular hangout frequented by Cascio Ferro and other Mafiosi, and whom, after a brief conversation in which they showed great deference to him, he waived off indicating he would join them momentarily. That he had realized he was in even greater danger than he anticipated is obvious. That he had learned of the absolute power of the Mafia in Sicily and how it was present in all levels of Palermo society is apparent in his last communications with Bingham and with his family. That this one particular criminal, Vito Cascio Ferro, who for some reason put him on his guard in New York as a “cut above the others” had indeed risen very far in the Mafia hierarchy must have alarmed him because in his papers on the night of his murder was found his notepad on which he wrote in pencil, somewhat hastily, “Vito Cascio Ferro… desperate criminal.”  What was the source of Cascio Ferro’s “desperation”? Some have speculated that it was Vito Cascio Ferro himself whom Joe Petrosino had arranged to meet, perhaps to make some deal in exchange for necessary information; no one can know for sure. Certainly, Petrosino’s instincts over 25 years of dealing with the most dangerous of criminals must have put him on guard, yet, whatever the reason for the meeting, it must have been extremely compelling for him to meet this person, and he must have felt confident in his safety to have gone out unarmed. Then again, was the detective resigned to the realization that he would not leave Palermo alive and leaving the name of his probable killer as a clue?

Detecive Mike Fiaschetti, Petrosino’s protégé who would later assume command of the Italian Squad following its initial disbanding and subsequent revival, had a different take in his book You Gotta Be Rough (later reprinted in England under the title The Man they Couldn’t Escape) journeyed to Naples, Calabria and Sicily in search of the camorrist murderer Papaccio and actually lived while undercover with a band of camorristi. While there he decided to follow in his mentor’s footseteps and get criminal records of other Black Hand criminals wanted by the New York Police. He also investigated Petrosino’s murder in the hope of arresting the gunman who had killed his close and dear friend. According to Fiaschetti, a messenger went to Petrosino telling him a stool pigeon had very important information for him. Obviously, the man couldn’t be seen in the restaurant (Fiaschetti says Petrosino was in the Minerva Hotel, whereas, in all other accounts he was dining in the Caffé’ Oreto) and so Petrosino went out unarmed to meet with him, and as Fiaschetti recounts:”Petrosino suspected nothing. It was natural for an informer not to want to call on him in the hotel. Petrosino came out and stood talking to the decoy man. The assassin was lurking nearby and stepped up behind him.” (p. 278) Fiaschetti’s information, according to him, came from an Italian nobleman who actually saw the murder from a window in his palace, and watched the detective crumple to the sidewalk and the gunman escape. This information is very close to the information I was told by Prospero Petrosino, who no doubt was aware of Fiaschetti’s account and who told me that an eyewitness had contacted the Petrosino family about the actual murder.

Fiaschetti also mentions the gunman  (according to his account and Prospero Petrosino’s account, there was only one gunman) was a man called the Schiffizano, because he was involved in the selling of blood of slaughtered animals. [While some readers may wonder what this is about, it is likely that the blood was purchased for certain southern Italian delicacies such as blood sausage and blood pudding (sanguinaccio)] The man was supposedly of very bad and violent character and had two brothers involved in crime in America who were also the objects of Petrosino’s investigation into the police records in Sicily. If we put this information together with what Petacco has written, one cannot wonder if the actual gunman was one Giovanni Ruisi, who was involved in the butcher business in Palermo and was one of the men originally arrested by Baldassare Ceola for the detective’s murder. Even more interesting is the fact that Fiaschetti said the Schiffizano had actually came to America after Petrosino’s murder and at the time Fiaschetti had retired, was still living there. According to Petacco, Ruisi fled to Algiers and to Tunis after the murder and then reentered New York (he had been there in 1908) as part of the Italian underworld, only to return to Italy in 1935 where he remained until his death. Fiaschetti was never able to learn the Schiffizano’s  name but one has to wonder if indeed the Schiffizano and Giovanni Ruisi were one and the same. We will never know. To this day Petrosino remains the only NYC Police Officer ever killed in the line of duty on foreign soil.

In closing, I would like to relate a story told to me by Prospero Petrosino, the night I first met him. “Perry” as he was called, had a summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey. There was an elderly woman who lived on the same street and every time she saw him she would walk over to him and kiss his hand. One day he asked her why she did this. “When I was a child,” she informed him, “I had been kidnapped by the Black Hand. I was kept in a room by a man and a woman. The woman used to come in to feed me and wash me. One night, as I was in bed, I saw the skylight being lifted and a rope came down. All of a sudden a man climbed down the rope. As I looked up in terror, he motioned to me with his finger over his lips not to scream. When he reached the floor, he showed me his badge, whispered to me he was detective Petrosino, caressed me, told me not to be afraid and made me hide under the bed. When my kidnappers turned on the light and entered the room, he arrested them. Every time I kiss your hand it is my way of saying thank you to your uncle.”

So compelling a story of gratitude perhaps explains the interest in the life and work of this detective that has endured almost one hundred years after his murder and obviously illustrates the basis of respect that succeeding generations still pay his memory. This being the end of the weekend of Memorial Day it is somewhat fitting we pause and reflect upon the debt we pay to another American hero fallen in a different type of war.


    N.B. The title of this essay was taken from a commemorative postcard issued at the time of the detective’s death and which I believe captures the essence of the man and his crusade to protect America against the pernicious spread of organized crime.

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