30 August 2016

Joe Petrosino - New York crime fighter

Campanian immigrant a key figure in war against Mafia

Joe Petrosinno, the New York cop from Campania who wanted to protect the good name of Italians
Joe Petrosino, the New York cop from Campania
who wanted to protect the good name of Italians
Joe Petrosino, a New York police officer who dedicated his life to fighting organised crime, was born Giuseppe Petrosino in Padula, a southern Italian town on the border of Campania and Basilicata, on this day in 1860.

The son of a tailor, Prospero Petrosino, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 12.  The family lived in subsidised accommodation in Mulberry Street, part of the area now known as Little Italy on the Lower East Side towards Brooklyn Bridge, where around half a million Italian immigrants lived in the second half of the 19th century.

Giuseppe took any job he could to help the family, at first as a newspaper boy and then shining shoes outside the police headquarters on Mulberry Street, where he would dream of becoming a police officer himself.

In 1878, by then fluent in English and known to everyone as Joe, Petrosino became an American citizen but it took him five years and repeated applications to realise his dream of joining the police. At 5ft 3ins he was technically too short to meet the criteria for an officer but after the police began to use him as an informant it was decided he could be of use in the fight against Italian organised crime. He was the first Italian-speaking officer in the history of the New York Police Department.

His career progressed partly because of his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, the future president, who was then a police commissioner in New York.  Noting his success in solving crimes involving Italians, Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant in the Homicide Division, after which Petrosino was hand-picked to lead a newly-formed Italian Squad, comprising Italian-American detectives.

Enrico Caruso, victim of  a blackmail attempt foiled by Petrosino
Enrico Caruso, victim of  a blackmail
attempt foiled by Petrosino
The Italian Squad was set up specifically to fight against the rise of criminal organisations such as the Mafia and it appealed to Petrosino, who saw the Mafia as bringing shame to decent Italian-Americans. By the time of his appointment to the new division, in 1908, the Italian immigrant population of Manhattan and Brooklyn had grown to more than a million, living mainly in Little Italy, East Harlem and Williamsburg.

Petrosino achieved notable successes in hampering Mafia activities, often working undercover. Famously, he tracked down and arrested mobsters attached to the so-called Black Hand who were attempting to blackmail the Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, while he was performing at the Metropolitan Opera House.

In 1907 he married Adelina Saulino, the daughter of the owner of a restaurant he frequented, with whom he rented an apartment in Lafayette Street, just one block away from his childhood home in Mulberry Street.  They had a daughter in 1908.

The marriage was shortlived, although for tragic reasons.  Despatched on a secret mission to Sicily in 1909, armed with a list of New York criminals with links to the island, Petrosino was to gather evidence aimed at facilitating the deportation under new legislation of Italians with criminal convictions in their own country.

However, soon after Petrosino had set sail, Theodore A Bingham, who had succeeded Roosevelt as police commissioner, gave an interview to the New York Herald in which he discussed the officer's mission, which as a result was no longer so secret.

Petrosino's ship docked in Genoa, after which he stopped off in Milan, Bologna and Rome before paying a visit to his brother, Vincenzo, in Padula, en route to Sicily.

Petrosino's hearse paraded through New York
Petrosino's hearse paraded through New York
Soon after he arrived in Palermo, Petrosino received a message from somebody claiming to have information that would be helpful to him and arranged to meet them in the city's Piazza della Marina. It was a trap.  While waiting for his supposed informant, Petrosino was hit by three bullets from the gun of a Mafia assassin and died on the spot.

A funeral took place in Palermo, after which Petrosino's body was returned to New York and another ceremony took place at St Patrick's Cathedral in Mott Street, which runs parallel with Mulberry Street in Little Italy, after which a procession of 200,000 people followed the coffin to the Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

No one was convicted of Petrosino's killing, although Vito Cascio Ferro, one of his targets for arrest, was detained, only to be released when an associate came forward with an alibi. More than a century later, a descendant under investigation by the Italian police confessed that it was known within the family that Vito Cascio Ferro had ordered his murder.

Travel tip:

Padula, which is situated just outside the beautiful Cilento National Park in Campania, is a small community of just over 5,200 people about 100km south of Salerno, notable for the Padula Charterhouse - Certosa di Padula in Italian - the largest monastery in Italy with a physical area of some 51,500 square metres (12.7 acres) and 320 rooms.

One of the entrances to the Certosa di Padula
One of the entrances to the Certosa di Padula
Travel tip:

The majestic Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park extends from the Tyrhennian coast to the feet of the Campania-Lucania Apennines. It includes coastal and mountain areas which play host to an abundance of wild life but there is also a rich cultural history, notably the Greek ruins at Velia and Paestum. 

More reading:

(Photo of Certosa di Padula by Enrico Viceconte CC BY-SA 2.0)


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