Joe Petrosino was an immigrant who believed in the American dream and worked up the ranks in the NYPD, becoming the first Italian detective and redefining the position, with many calling him the 'Italian Sherlock Holmes.” He led the special task force called the Italian Squad, which was hellbent on defeating the secret society known as the Black Hand as well as the mafia.
In March 1909 while on a secret mission in Palermo, Sicily, he was murdered. Over 100 years later, his death remains unsolved. His brave detective work and how he transformed the NYPD shows that his legacy still looms large.
A New America
The 1800s saw change in America as scores of immigrants arrived from Europe, including the Irish, Germans and eventually Italians, as the young nation struggled to keep itself together amidst the Civil War, the end of slavery, the assassination of a president and Reconstruction. Many immigrants arrived at New York's Ellis Island.
In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants arrived on America's shores in droves, with many of them ending up in major cities like Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York City.
The Tired and the Poor
Typical Italian families arriving in America didn't have much aside from the clothes on their back and what they could fit into a pillowcase. These were the tired and the poor all yearning for freedom.
Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to celebrate America's centennial in 1876. It features a figure of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty who holds a torch above her head with her right hand, and in her left hand carries a tabula ansata inscribed JULY IV MDCCLXXVI, which translates to July 4, 1776. She also features a broken chain and shackle at her feet as she walks forward, commemorating the national abolition of slavery following the Civil War. The statue became an icon of freedom and of the United States, being subsequently seen as a symbol of welcome to immigrants arriving by sea.
Upon arrival to New York Harbor from Europe, this was the typical first view of the new world for many immigrants.
Off the Boats
How immigrants coming off the ships to America often looked if they had a little bit of money to their name.
A Lynching in New Orleans
Italian immigrants faced lynching in the South, primarily in Louisiana, as the city of New Orleans at the time was home to more Italian immigrants than any other Southern state, according to the History Channel. Between 1884 and 1924, nearly 300,000 Italian immigrants, most of them Sicilian, moved to New Orleans, earning the French Quarter the nickname “Little Palermo,” according to the History Channel.
New Orleans was also home to one of the largest mass lynchings in American history, when 11 Italian men were hanged in 1891 after a cop was killed. Citizens believed it was done by Italians using so-called mob justice, as they killed the men without any evidence of their guilt, according to the History Channel.
Boy From Padula
Among the huddled masses yearning for a better life was Joseph Petrosino, who arrived in America as a little boy from Padula, Italy, to live with his grandfather and cousin.
It was NYPD's Clubber Williams who recognized Petrosino's potenial and brought him on the police force to help with crimes in the Italian communities.
While working as a shoe shiner in front of NYPD headquarters, Joseph Petrosino would ultimately get a job working for the NYC Department of Sanitation, which in those days was run by the NYPD. Petrosino would soon go from cleaning the streets to cleaning up the streets, according to historian and "Italian Squad" author Paul Moses.
Because he was fluent in many Italian dialects, Petrosino aided the police by working undercover as an informer. He officially joined the police department in 1883, and in 1895, then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt personally promoted Petrosino to Sergeant of Detectives.
Throughout his career, Petrosino was close friends and a confidant of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Black Hand
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian immigrants who were making a decent wage or finding ways to set up their own stores started getting threatening letters in the mail. Some of these letters were written in Italian, some in English, but all threatened to kidnap the recipients’ children or blow up their business if they didn’t hand over a large sum of money. All the letters were signed with the same insignia, which would later be known as the "Black Hand.”
Members of the Black Hand
Pictured here are members of the Black Hand, many of whom were arrested and convicted for various crimes.
Geoff Schumacher, vice president of Exhibitions and Programs at the Mob Museum, tells Inside Edition Digital how the Black Hand operated:
“The Black Hand was basically an extortion racket. It was individuals or small groups of men, who were of Italian descent, many of them immigrants from Italy, from Sicily and Southern Italy. And they came to the United States. They came to New York and other cities, and they engaged in the sort of back and forth with individuals, in which they were trying to make money or trying to get money,” Schumacher says. “This was very fearful. People were afraid. Or a businessman might be defiant and ignore the letter, in which case he ran the risk of the business being burned down. And this happened. These guys would actually act on it. It was not a bluff.”
A wanted poster from the NYPD shows how Black Hand members would kidnap and extort Italian immigrants.
As children of Italian immigrants began getting kidnapped in broad daylight and women started getting attacked at night, the NYPD and the press could no longer ignore what was happening. It reached fever pitch when famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and his family became the target of the Black Hand.
The Italian Squad
“In 1904, in response to a pretty bad round of bombings and kidnappings, the police department started a unit, a small unit of Italian-speaking detectives under Joseph Petrosino. That was the official name was the Italian Squad, sometimes called the Italian Bureau of the Police Department,” Paul Moses says. “They had a number of officers in precincts, detectives in precincts that had large Italian populations who were supposed to cooperate with it. So that became the nucleus of this Italian squad, and it was designed to crack down on crime in the Italian community, and I think served a particular role in being a bridge to a community that was very isolated from the police department.”
Hiding in Plain Sight
Joe Petrosino leads the Italian Squad in the streets of New York without disguise.
Petrosino would use disguises like fake mustaches and blue-collar clothing in order to blend in to help solve some of the crimes of the Black Hand. Petrosino and his men in the Italian Squad would become the nation’s first undercover detectives, earning their leader the nickname, “The Italian Sherlock Holmes.”
Creating the Bomb Squad
Schumacher also says that it “was Petrosino who created the bomb squad for NYPD, the first-ever bomb squad in America. And today, it's still operating, obviously. And so, he was really involved, he and his team were involved in learning about the techniques of and how to investigate bombings.”
Petrosino found himself at a crossroads: He needed to take down the Black Hand as well as stop the mafia from gaining traction in America, while making sure hard-working Italian immigrants were treated with dignity and respect.
Getting the Criminals Before They Get a Chance
In 1909, Petrosino and the NYPD’s top brass concocted an idea for the cunning detective to go overseas and gather intel on Italian criminals in order to prevent them from entering America.
While the plan proved decent in theory, it would be anything but.
Petrosino in Palermo
Petrosino’s plan to go to Italy and Sicily was supposed to be classified. Only top NYPD members and the Italian Squad were to know about his travels abroad. However, word leaked out to the press and newspapers ran with the story that the fearless crime fighter was overseas.
As word got out that the world’s most-famous living detective was in Sicily, members of Palermo’s infamous underworld got some ideas.
Letter to His Wife
While away in Italy, Joe Petrosino would write to his wife, Adelina, who was back home in New York City with their infant daughter, Adelina.
After having dinner in Palermo on March 9, 1909, Petrosino went for a walk and was approached by two men, according to reports. One of them pulled a gun and shot and killed the detective. The two assailants fled the scene and were never found.
Joseph Petrosino was 48 years old when he was killed. He was survived by his wife and baby girl.
Petrosino’s funeral was flooded with a sea of humanity, as 200,000 people tried to pack in St. Patrick's Cathedral. All of them later walked in a procession from Manhattan to his grave at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
His death is the only murder in NYPD history to have occurred overseas. Despite his high-profile murder, it has never been solved.
Following the death of Petrosino, the Italian Squad continued under the guidance of Antonio Vachris.
“The man who really picked up the ball was Lieutenant Anthony [Antonio] Vachris, and he actually went to Italy to complete the mission on which Petrosino was murdered,” Paul Moses says. “Within a year after Petrosino died as this enormous hero, the whole city is mourning him and tens of thousands of people turn out for his funeral. We put saints up on pedestals, but we ignore them. That's what happened. The Italian Squad was getting short shrift, cut back, and ultimately canceled on and off through 1922 when it ended. So the squad ran into a lot of political difficulty.”
The Italian Squad was over just at the dawn of the Roaring '20s and Prohibition. As bootleggers and members of organized crime families began making and selling liquor illegally, the help of the Italian Squad could have put an end to criminals running amok in cities across the country.
Authorities would bust up speakeasys as well as people making their own alcohol and dump the booze.
Life on Display
Petrosino’s legacy is on display at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.
“It was the biggest crime story in America at that time, and along with the rise of the Mafia, it's a story that is complex," Schumacher says.
"It has to do with immigration and how immigrants were treated when they came to America. It has to do with how police departments developed at that time. They needed a lot of reform. They needed a lot of work to become the professional organizations that they often are today. This was a time before the federal government played much of a role in law enforcement in America, and you see Petrosino as this innovator, this pioneer in bringing a level of integrity and innovation to policing, that should not be ignored and should be celebrated, really,” continues Schumacher.
The Mob Museum
“The Mob Museum is a museum dedicated to telling the story of organized crime in America and also, how law enforcement responded to organized crime in America,” Schumacher says.
“We are not interested in glorifying mobsters. We are interested in telling their story, which we think is something that is important. It's something you don't learn about in your high school history classes or even your college history classes necessarily. But there's a lot of intersections between organized crime and mainstream history," explains Schumacher. "I think the Petrosino story, it really sets the tone for the museum in this way. We're seeing this story about the Black Hand and the earliest stages of the Mafia in America, through the lens of Petrosino, through the lens of law enforcement at this time in America.”
The Fall of the Black Hand
As for the Black Hand, many of its members were sent to trial and convicted in the famous Black Hand trials of the early 1910s. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and then Prohibition, the Black Hand began to weaken and eventually dim. On display at the Mob Museum are headlines of how the Black Hand fell.
The Right Side
“In theory, Petrosino could have been a little looser with his morals, and he could have gone the mafia route. He probably would've been a really good enforcer for the Mafia,” Schumacher says. “He was super tough and fearless and all of that stuff. But fortunately, he took the other route and became tough and fearless and smart on the side of the law. And there were many others like him.”
Final Resting Place
Joe Petrosino's grave in Calvary Cemetery, in Queens, New York.
Joe Petrosino's great-grand nephew, Joseph (left), and his son, Joseph Jr. (right), in front of Joe Petrosino Square in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan.