PETROSINO, JUST WOULDN'T STOP, SO VITO CASCIO FERRO ENDED IT.
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
In New York, Giuseppe "Joe" Petrosino, is considered a hero. Here in New York we have Petrosino Square, which is named after the infamous cop, who took on the early form of the mafia called "The Black Hand." While history will look back on Petrosino as a man who gave his life for going after criminals, the fact is Petrosino's past is NOT exactly clean. In fact, many people knew that Petrosino beat victims, planted evidence on perps, and was on the take.
Guiseppe Petrosino born in 1860, the province of Salerno, and as a kid was sent to America(New York City) with his cousin Antonio Puppolo, to live with their grandfather. Shortly after they arrived in New York City, the grandfather was killed in a tragic street car accident, which forced the two young boys into foster care. The judge overseeing the case didn't want the boys to be split up and sent to orphanages, so he took both boys into his home to raise them as his own until the Petrosino's could arrive from Italy to either collect the boys or take care of them. The judge was of Irish decent, and was a heavily politically backed judge. Due to the judge's power and political power, the boys were able to find jobs and get education that was not afforded to immigrants, especially Italians.
In 1874, the Petrosino's would arrive from Italy and collect their boys. October of 1893, Petrosino through the judge's contacts would join the NYPD. What made Petrosino special for the NYPD is that he could speak all Italian dialects. He was the first NYPD member that could speak Italian fluently. At 5'3 he could not pass the minimum requirements for the NYPD and used the judge again, to push his paperwork through. At the time, Teddy Roosevelt who was a member of the council of police commissioners which governed the NYPD became close friends of Petrosino. Due to Petrosino's ability to speak several dialects he was able to solve cases others weren't, at least that's the perspective of the NYPD. What is little talked about, is how he bullied his own people, would routinely crack the head of Italians who refused to talk, or give an inch, and he terrified his own people. While in that day and time, it was mainly the Irish on the police force who could straddle the line between decency and debauchery, Petrosino was no different. While many could talk within their communities, Petrosino wielded his nightstick like an axe on victims. It has long been talked about in circles than many of the crimes that Petrosino "solved" were in fact coerced by violence or threat of violence. With his conviction and arrest rates skyrocketing, he would be promoted by Teddy Roosevelt in 1895 to detective sergeant in charge of the department's Homicide Division.
It would business as usual until December of 1908, when he was named lieutenant, then head of the Italian Squad. The Italian Squad was specifically designed to go after Italians, and specifically criminal Italians, which included the MAFIA, or BLACK HAND. Petrosino felt that an Italian who was breaking the law was scum, and needed to be arrested and deported, but at the same time had zero hesitance in cracking the skulls of anyone he thought was up to no good.
At the time, The Black Hand had begun to move into New York and were attempting to shake down Enrico Caruso, who was a very popular tenor. While Caruso was playing at the Metropolitan Opera House, members of The Black Hand, arrived and basically shook down Caruso, who then ran to Petrosino for help. It never really went to far as Caruso was terrified, but it didn't stop Petrosino from cracking heads to get more information.
Years later as Roosevelt had become the Vice President, Petrosino came into some information that President William McKinley during a trip to Buffalo, New York. Petrosino was able to find out that an anarchist group tied to King Umberto I, was going to kill McKinley. Petrosino ran to Roosevelt, explaining the situation but not how he found out. Petrosino would have a meeting with the secret service, to explain the details, and McKinley wasn't phased by the threat, because Petrosino refused to explain where he got the information. McKinley would be assassinated by Leon Czolgosz during his visit to Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition on September 6, 1901.
As Pretosino continued to harass Italians, he would specifically target Vito Cascio Ferro, who at the time was a low ranking member of The Black Hand in New York City. In 1903 he would arrest Cascio Ferro on murder charges but Cascio Ferro would be acquitted for lack of evidence. It would be the first case, where Petrosino was called into question for his tactics and overbearing belief that Cascio Ferro who had never been convicted or accused of a crime prior. Cascio Ferro was irate, and felt that Petrosino was no better then the Irish cops on the beat who were beating the piss out of Italians for fun and amusement. Cascio Ferro would leave New York, and head back to Sicily where he would become the boss of bosses, and never forgot Petrosino.
Petrosino couldn't leave Cascio Ferro alone, especially after the investigation of the barrel murders. In 1909 he left for Italy. A new US federal law, stated; 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 left with a list of names to go after in Sicily. His intention was to get dirt, and information on his list, so that he could throw them out of the United States if they ever showed up. The plan was to be kept quiet but a few weeks before he left, newspaper articles let loose on Petrosino. The secret wasn't so very secret. Once Petrosino landed in Rome he was tailed by members of the mafia.
March 12, 1909 Petrosino arrived in Sicily. He was invited to a gathering in Piazza Marina which was a historic area flanked by the Girabaldi Garden, in the center of Palermo. The gathering was so that he could acquire information about the mafia. As Petrosino was standing waiting for his mole's two men walked up and shot in him in the face multilple times. Petrosino died on the spot. A day after the hit, the Italian Squad back in New York got information stating that The Black Hand had arranged for the hit on Petrosino. The information they received stated that the Morello Crime Family, including Joe Morello, Ciro Terranova, Vincent Terranova, Joe Fontana, Pete Inzerillo, Ignazio Milone, all had something to do with the murder as well, perhaps being complicit in sharing information with Vito Cascio Ferro who had tight bonds with the Morello faction when he was in New York City. Cascio Ferro would be arrested for the murder of Petrosino, but he had an alibi, and was let go. The case would go unsolved in until 2014 when 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 Ferro's "hit."
Cascio Ferro ordered the murder of Petrosino, not just because he wouldn't leave him alone, but at how he treated Italian American's in general. While he didn't want his business messed with, he was further agitated that the so called "HERO" was a brute, and insanely cruel to his own people.
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 Manhattan's 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.
On March 12, 2003, a small memorial (an engraved brass plate on a pole) was erected on Piazza Marina, Palermo in Petrosino's remembrance.
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 Petrosino's picture with the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
While Petrosino, is often remembered as a hero, we cannot ignore some of the more disgusting things he did as a law enforcement officer. While he gave his life for duty, he also horrifically abused his own community, and many others in pursuit of his own justice. He finally met his match in Cascio Ferro, and the rest is history.