The Murder of Joe Petrosino

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Giuseppe Petrosino, who Americanized his name to Joseph, was born in Padula, near Salerno, in 1860. His family emigrated to America in 1873. While shining shoes near police headquarters on Mulberry St., he conceived a desire to be a cop. The cops didn't want him, however. He was too short, too swarthy, spoke with an accent and wasn't Irish. So, in 1878, Joe Petrosino became a City street sweeper instead. He worked hard, winning promotion to foreman within a year. He drove his men hard, too.

In 1879, Petrosino got a break when Police Captain Alexander "Clubber" Williams was assigned to command the street cleaning department. Capt. Williams' nickname encapsulates his philosophy of law enforcement. According to Andy Logan, Williams began his career in the late 1860s by cleaning up Broadway and Houston St. He fought a pair of local toughs, beat them unconscious and threw them through the plate-glass window of the Florence Saloon. A half-dozen of their friends charged out the swinging doors. Williams met them alone, club in hand. He was the last man standing. Captain in 1871, later an inspector, Williams was brave, efficient, brutal and corrupt. Witnesses before an 1894 investigation into police graft claimed the Clubber was receiving $30,000 a year in protection money from one brothel alone. When asked to explain his 17-room Connecticut mansion and 53-foot yacht, Williams claimed he had made his fortune through real estate speculation in Japan.

He liked Petrosino's intelligence, toughness and industry. In 1883, the Clubber arranged Joe's appointment to the force, even though Petrosino was four inches below the required height. His knowledge of the Italian language and culture gave him an advantage over non-Italian detectives. In 1890, he became a detective; in 1895, Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant. By the turn of the century, due to careful media management, Petrosino was one of New York's best-known detectives: he had a way of tipping off reporters whenever he was about to do something newsworthy.

He was as rough as most cops of his time; as one alderman (quoted in Lardner and Reppetto's NYPD) put it, "he knocked out more teeth than a dentist." While he could dress and act like a typical detective, banging on doors and throwing suspects up against walls, he was more comfortable in disguise. He posed as a tunnel worker, a blind beggar, a gangster or an Italian peasant just off the boat. This allowed him to investigate freely, and also allowed others to talk to him without attracting suspicion. In this way he was able to infiltrate and expose many of the gangs that preyed on Italian immigrants.

Some Italian immigrants had belonged to criminal organizations back home. The Camorra, from Naples, had been radical guerillas during the early part of the 19th century. The Mafia, from Sicily, claims to have arisen in resistance to the French occupation during the Middle Ages. (The earliest known reference to the honored society, nevertheless, dates from the 1860s.) These secret societies had rituals as richly symbolic as Freemasonry. Lazy police reporters, who had initially labeled all Italian organized crime as the Black Hand (a method of operation rather than an organization), later called it the Mafia.

The first Mafia murder in New York, according to Lardner and Reppetto, may have occurred in 1857 when police officer Eugene Anderson was beaten to death by Mike Cancemi, later described by The New York Times as a "Mafia leader." During the 1890s, when the Italian government placed Sicily under martial law for two years, many Mafiosi emigrated to the United States. Perhaps New York's most influential Mafioso at the beginning of the 20th century was Ignazio Saietta, redundantly known as Lupo the Wolf, who had emigrated after murdering a man in his hometown. Lupo and his partner, Giuseppe Morello, were counterfeiters; they also ran a "murder factory" on E. 107th St. Some attribute as many as 60 killings to Lupo's gang.

One morning in April 1903, Frances Connors saw a dead man stuffed into a barrel at Ave. A and 11th St. The corpse had 18 stab wounds; also the throat had been slit; also the penis and testicles had been shoved into his mouth, suggesting that he had been a police informer. As the murderers could have quietly disposed of the body, its presence was meant as an encouragement to discretion. Petrosino traced the barrel to a firm of confectioners who had shipped it to an Italian cafe on Elizabeth St. believed to be a rendezvous for counterfeiters. Someone told Petrosino that the deceased had known Giuseppe De Priemo, an imprisoned counterfeiter. Petrosino found De Priemo in Sing Sing, where he identified a picture of the murder victim as Benditto Madonia, his brother-in-law. Some sources said De Priemo had sent Madonia to collect money owed him by Joe Morello, who refused to pay. The brother-in-law then unwisely threatened to go to the police. Others said Madonia had tried to establish a competitive counterfeiting ring.

An associate of the Lupo-Morello gang, one Tomas "the Ox" Petto, was suddenly spending a great deal of money. Finding this suspicious, the detectives decided to haul him in. When they grabbed him in the Prince Street Saloon, Tomas the Ox pulled a stiletto. Petrosino and his colleagues performed emergency dental work and, after the Ox hit the floor, found a second knife, a pistol and a pawn ticket in his pockets. The pawn ticket was for Madonia's watch.

Morello, Petto, Lupo and others, including one Vito Cascio Ferro, then newly arrived from Sicily, went along quietly. It was as if they knew that they would be released on bail. Petto and Cascio Ferro skipped and the witnesses changed their stories. The case faded away. Two years later, Petto was found dead of natural causes. To borrow a phrase from Jimmy Breslin, his heart had stopped beating when someone stuck a knife in it. Petrosino traced Cascio Ferro to New Orleans, where he slipped away.

In January 1905, Police Commissioner William McAdoo put Petrosino in charge of a five-man Italian squad. McAdoo's successor, General Theodore Bingham, expanded the squad to 25 men, renaming it the Italian Legion and promoting Petrosino to lieutenant.

In Sicily, Vito Cascio Ferro remains legendary as the greatest Mafia chieftain and the first Sicilian to be considered capo di tutti capi. He had been born in 1862 at Bisacquino, near Palermo, the son of illiterate peasants, and, at some point during the 1880s, ritually enrolled among the men of honor. Cascio Ferro entered the United States while concealing his criminal record, which had begun with an assault in 1894 and progressed through extortion, arson and menacing to the kidnapping of the Baroness di Valpetrosa in 1899. On his arrival into the United States in 1900, he moved in with his sister over a shop on 103rd St. His major contribution to American crime was the introduction of "wetting the beak," a form of extortion whereby protection money is extracted from businesses in small payments so as to provide steady cash flow without crippling the owners.

After returning to Sicily, he organized all crimes, from the largest deals down to chicken thefts. All criminals were more or less indexed in his memory; they were all licensed by him, could do nothing without the consent of the honored society, or incidentally, without giving the Mafia a cut. Even beggars had to contribute a regular percentage of their daily collections, just like other businessmen.

He brought the organization to near-perfection without excessive violence. As Luigi Barzini notes, "The Mafia leader who scatters corpses all over the island to achieve his goal is considered as inept as the statesman who had to wage aggressive wars." Like all great rulers, he worked hard and studied human nature. He possessed an immense dignity, enhanced by his tall, slender, elegantly tailored good looks. His long white beard gave him the appearance of an elder statesman, which is what he was. Being generous, he dispensed millions in loans, gifts and charity. Moreover, he personally redressed wrongs. His brutality was reserved for the stupid. Those who did not wet the beak found their shops or homes destroyed and farms burned. In his long life, he may have killed only one man, and not for money, but for honor.

In 1907, Congress enacted a law permitting the deportation of any alien found to have concealed a criminal
record. Two years later, Gen. Bingham secretly sent Petrosino to Italy with a list of 2000 names. While Petrosino was on the high seas, Bingham leaked news of the mission to the New York Herald, which published it in the Paris edition, whence the Italian press picked it up. Petrosino's impending visit and its purpose were known to the very Mafiosi he was investigating before his arrival.

Thus, his March 12 visit to Palermo would be very brief. Lupo the Wolf had asked Don Vito for a favor.

On the night of March 12, Don Vito excused himself from a dinner party at the home of a government official, a man who seems to have viewed him with the greatest respect, stepped into a carriage (some say that of his host) and was dropped off near Piazza Marina in the Tribunaria/Castellemare district.

A streetcar line ran along Piazza Marina in those days; cars stopped by the Giardini Garibaldi, a small garden with a fountain and an equestrian statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Liberator. Some say Petrosino was sitting on the fence that surrounds the garden. He may have been waiting for an informant or a trolley. Whatever. Don Vito walked up to him and shot him in the face. Later, the American consul reported two hired gunmen fired the shots. Still others say there were three. In any event, Petrosino was dead. The Don returned to the dinner party. When he was arrested four days later, his politician friend insisted Don Vito had been at his home when Petrosino was murdered. The Don was released without having denied involvement in the crime. Apparently, he had said nothing at all. A quarter-million New Yorkers lined the streets to honor Joe Petrosino when his body went to its final home.

By the early 1920s, Don Vito's power was greater than ever. Then a new prime minister rose to power in Rome. To Benito Mussolini, the Camorra and Mafia represented a power outside the state?outside his control. In 1925, he appointed Cesare Mori, a professional policeman, as Sicily's prefect of police. Mori waged relentless war on the honored society.

In 1929, Mori arrested Don Vito for murder. He had been arrested some 69 times and always acquitted. This time he had been framed. The old man remained silent during the sham trial. "Gentlemen," he said when it was over, "since you have been unable to find any evidence for the numerous crimes I did commit, you are reduced to condemning me for one I have not."

Don Vito easily established his authority over the Ucciardone prison, maintaining order and conducting the affairs of the Mafia as best as he could from his cell. Until a generation or so ago, one could still read a sentence he had carved on a wall inside the jail. "Prison, sickness, and necessity," it read, "reveal the real heart of a man." Occupying the cell in which Don Vito lived the last years of his life was always considered a great honor.

Today, Petrosino is memorialized by a litter-strewn, fenced-in plaza at Lafayette and Kenmare Sts., which a Parks Dept. sign identifies as Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino Square.

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