Joe Petrosino was a hero. In fact, he was a hero in two countries. And he was a martyr. His story is one of the fascinating historical anecdotes that I love to share with my public speaking audiences. He fearlessly fought the organized crime terrorists who brought fear to New York.
Lt. Joe Petrosino – First American Cop Killed Overseas in the Line of Duty
Lt. Joe Petrosino holds a unique distinction. He was the first American police officer killed in the line of duty outside of the USA.
Petrosino’s death is intriguing.
His life story is much more important and very unique.
Joe Petrosino came to this country as an immigrant from Italy. After making a huge impact as a New York City police detective, he returned to Sicily working a case. It was there he was murdered by the Mafia.
Fate Takes a Hand
Joe Petrosino was born in Italy in 1860. He and a cousin were sent to live with his grandfather in New York City. After his grandfather died in an accident, a compassionate judge decided not to send them to an orphanage. Instead, he took them home and raise them in his Irish-American household until arrangements could be made with the family back in Italy. By this twist of fate, Petrosino had the opportunity for better education, a more comfortable life, and important connections with the powerful Irish-American political community.
He joined the NYC police department at the age of 23. Petrosino quickly came to the attention of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. TR was on a crusade to battle crime and clean up the police department. A hard-working, honest and dedicated young officer like Petrosino was just what Commissioner Roosevelt was looking for. He took Petrosino under his wing. Roosevelt befriended him and served as a mentor. Petrosino’s rise in the department was as swift as his record was meritorious. In 1895, Joe Petrosino was named detective sergeant and became one of the youngest men ever to head the homicide division. In a department still dominated by Irish-Americans, he became the first Italian-American to hold the post. Once again, the “Detective with the Derby” built a superb record. He was tireless and fearless.
Fighting the Black Hand
The Black Hand – later called the Mafia – was a group of terrorists who preyed on the Italian immigrant community. They used extortion, blackmail, thievery and protection rackets to rob people who were scraping to get by. They backed up their vicious threats with murder, rape and assault. Realizing that the problem could not be contained by traditional police methods, Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino headed up a tough, effective squad that battled the Black Hand. Again and again, Joe Petrosino put his life on the line to protect the people of New York. In doing so, he “was a pioneer among Italian-Americans in policing, and among investigators everywhere as an expert on organized crime who … recognized its evils and who sacrificed his life trying to stop its reach into American life.” (NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley, 2009) He built a network of informers in Little Italy. Soon he had files on many of the Black Hand chieftains. Joe Petrosino pioneered the use of undercover detectives to fight the gangs.
The New York Times reported:
NEW SECRET SERVICE TO BATTLE ‘BLACK HAND’
Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham, finally has his Secret Service. It is a secret in every sense of the word, since no one at 300 Mulberry Street except Lieutenant Petrosino and Bingham himself knows its membership. Substantial funds for the maintenance of the Secret Squad have been made available to the Commissioner, but this is all he will say. He refuses to discuss their source, confining himself to the assurance that it is not public money. It is generally believed that the money was contributed by a number of prosperous Italian merchants and bankers across the city, aroused by the wave of extortions in recent years.
The Plot Against President McKinley
In 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by anarchists. Joe Petrosino and the Italian Squad infiltrated the anarchist gang and learned that they were planning to kill Pres. William McKinley in Buffalo. He informed the Secret Service, but they brushed him off. VP Theodore Roosevelt vouched for Joe Petrosino, but it made no difference. McKinley was murdered by an anarchist in Buffalo, despite the heroic efforts of Petrosino to save him.
The Plot Against Enrico Caruso
Frank Sinatra’s biographer noted that the Black Hand blackmailed many Italian American performers. Jimmy Durante, Mario Lanza, and Al Martino faced blackmail and physical harm from the Mafia. The legendary Enrico Caruso paid at first. But when the threats became more intense, he turned to Joe Petrosino. The Italian Squad was able to arrest the terrorists and end the threat against the great Caruso.
The Murder of Joe Petrosino
Petrosino went so far as to arrest Black Hand Don Vito Cascioferro on murder charges. The Don was acquitted and went back to Sicily, where he organized more Mafia crimes. Vito Cascioferro probably ordered the murder of Petrosino. Lt. Petrosino realized that New York could not defeat the Mafia without federal help. He petitioned Washington for assistance. He then cleverly plotted to have the leaders of the Black Hand arrested and deported. To do that, he had to prove they were criminals in Italy before they emigrated to the USA. Petrosino decided to go to Sicily to obtain the needed documents. He planned to travel under the utmost secrecy. However, the Police Commissioner stupidly revealed the plan to the press. Although Petrosino knew that his life would be in grave peril, he put duty above danger. Don Vito Cascioferro was quickly notified that the arch-nemesis of the Black Hand was on his way to Palermo. He wasted no time in laying a trap.
A secret “informant” contacted Joe Petrosino in Palermo, arranging a public meeting, ostensibly turn over secret information about the Mafia organization. While waiting in the Piazza Marina, Petrosino was ambushed and murdered. Italy proclaimed him a hero and a martyr.His funeral in New York City drew more than 200,00 mourners. The Black Hand took credit for the murder. His killers were never found.
Both Italy, which has issued stamps honoring Petrosino and produced two hit TV shows and three movies based on his life, and the USA, which has named parks in his memory,continue to honor the life of Lt. Joe Petrosino. There have been three American movies made about Petrosino, including a 1915 silent film and a 1960 crime drama, “Pay Or Die.” He is hailed for his courage and for high-end nearing techniques still in use to fight terrorism.
Joe Petrosino is a shining example of that selfless dedication to humanity. As the first American police officer killed in the line of duty in another country, he holds a distinctive place in history.
UPDATE! Joe Petrosino Murder Solved!
In June 2014, Italian police announced they had solved the case of the murder of Lt. Joe Petrosino! Click here to read the story!