Joseph Petrosino

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Joseph Petrosino
Joe petrosino.jpg
Lt. Joe Petrosino, NYPD, Badge #285
Born (1860-08-30)August 30, 1860
Padula, Campania, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (now Italy)
Died March 12, 1909(1909-03-12) (aged 48)
Palermo, Sicily, Kingdom of Italy
Cause of death shot to death
Occupation Detective
Police officer
Spouse(s) Adelina Saulino
Children Adelina Petrosino Burke

Joseph "Joe" Petrosino (August 30, 1860 – March 12, 1909) was a New York City police officer who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime. Crime fighting techniques that Petrosino pioneered are still practiced by law enforcement agencies.

Early years and family[edit]

Petrosino was born Giuseppe Petrosino in Padula, a village in southern Italy. Joseph was sent with a young cousin (Antonio Puppolo) to live with his grandfather in New York. A streetcar accident took the life of the grandfather, and the two young cousins wound up in Orphans/Surrogates Court. Rather than send the children to the orphanage, the judge took them home to his own family, and provided for the boys until relatives in Italy could be contacted and arrangements made to bring over family members. In consequence, Joseph Petrosino and his cousin Anthony Puppolo lived with a "politically connected" Irish household for some time, and this opened up educational and employment avenues not always available to more recent immigrants, especially Italian ones.[1] In 1874, the balance of the Petrosino family immigrated to the United States.

Petrosino married the widow Adelina Saulino (1869−1957), with whom he had a daughter, Adelina Petrosino Burke (1908-2004), who gave birth to Susan Burke. Burke represents the Petrosino family at functions honoring the fallen NYPD hero.[2]


On October 19, 1883, he joined the NYPD.[1] He was the first Italian language speaker in the NYPD's history. At 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m), he had to get a waiver of the department's minimum height requirement. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who was a member of the council of police commissioners which governed the NYPD. Fluent in several Italian dialects, Petrosino was able to 'make' cases that other officers could not. His ability to solve crimes in the Italian community was such that whenever a serious crime took place in that area, his superiors would call out, "Send for the Dago!"[3]

On July 20, 1895,[1] Roosevelt promoted him to detective sergeant in charge of the department's Homicide Division. The pinnacle of his career came in December 1908[1] when he was promoted to lieutenant and placed in charge of the Italian Squad, an elite corps of Italian-American detectives assembled specifically to deal with the criminal activities of organizations like the Mafia, which Petrosino saw as a shame upon decent Italians and Italian Americans.

Lt. Joe Petrosino, NYPD, Badge #285

The Black Hand and Enrico Caruso[edit]

One notable case in Petrosino's stint with the Italian Squad involved the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who was performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He was being extorted by Black Hand gangsters who demanded money in exchange for his life. It was Petrosino, a lover of opera, who convinced Caruso to help him catch those behind the blackmail.[4]

Assassination of William McKinley[edit]

A second notable case in Petrosino's stint with the Italian Squad was his infiltration of an Italian-based anarchist organization that was suspected of ties with the King Umberto I assassination in 1900. During his mission, he discovered evidence that the organization intended to assassinate President William McKinley during his trip to Buffalo.[citation needed] Petrosino warned the Secret Service, but McKinley ignored the warning, even after Roosevelt, who had by this time become Vice-President of the United States, vouched for Petrosino's abilities. McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz during his visit to Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition on September 6, 1901.

Arrest of Cascio Ferro[edit]

Petrosino's investigations into Mafia activities led him to Vito Cascio Ferro, then a low ranking Black Hand affiliate. In 1903, Petrosino arrested him on suspicion of murder, but Cascio Ferro was acquitted. Ferro later returned to Sicily, where he progressed increasingly to the top rank of the Sicilian Mafia. Cascio Ferro was later suspected of Petrosino's murder.

Petrosino also investigated the infamous "Barrel Murders" case of 1903.


In 1909, Petrosino made plans to travel to Palermo, Sicily on a secret mission. A recently passed federal law 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 was armed with a long list of known Italian criminals who had taken up residence in the United States, and intended to get enough evidence of their criminal pasts to throw them out of the country once and for all. However, Theodore A. Bingham, Police Commissioner of New York, gave the story of Petrosino's mission to a New York newspaper while Petrosino was abroad.[5] On March 12, 1909, after arriving in Palermo, Petrosino was invited to a rendezvous in the city's Piazza Marina in order to receive information about the Mafia. While waiting for his "informant," Petrosino was shot to death.[6]

The day after Petrosino's shooting, the detective's Italian Branch received an anonymous letter stating that the New York Black Hand had arranged the murder. The letter named members of the Morello crime family: Joe Morello, Vincenzo Terranova, Ciro Terranova, Giuseppe Fontana, Ignazio Milone, and Pietro Inzarillo. Cascio Ferro worked with these men during his three-year tenure in New York, so their involvement is possible, but "We will probably never know for sure whether or not the letter was a hoax."[7] Vito Cascio Ferro was arrested for Petrosino's murder, but was released after an associate provided an alibi. Allegedly, he later (when convicted for murder) claimed that he had personally killed once "a gallant man, not an enemy."[8][9]

Palermo's police commissioner, Baldassare Ceola, listed five Sicilian suspects:[7]

  • Pasquale Enea, links with the Black Hand in New York
  • Giuseppe Fontana, previously involved with a murder in Sicily and Black Hand activities in New York
  • Gioacchino Lima, previously charged with a murder, brother-in-law to Giuseppe Morello
  • Ignazio Milone, worked with Fontana in New York
  • Giovanni Pecoraro, links to Sicilian and New York crime, and Vito Cascioferro

Author and historian Mike Dash identified the most likely assassins as Carlo Costantino and Antonio Passananti. Costantino and Passananti died in the late 1930s and in March 1969, respectively.[10][11] In 2014, 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."[12]


Funeral rites for Petrosino were performed in Palermo, after which his body was sent to New York aboard the English S/S Slavonia, arriving April 9. On April 12, 1909, funeral rites were again conducted in Old St. Patrick's (Manhattan) or St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, with over 200,000 people taking part in the funeral procession.[13] New York City declared the day of his burial a holiday to allow its citizens to pay their respects.[citation needed] A pillar topped with an elaborate bust, inaugurated a year after his death,[14] marks his gravesite in Queens, New York, Calvary Cemetery.[15] Multiple organized crime notables are also buried there, including members of the Morello crime family which he investigated, (e.g., Giuseppe "Peter" Morello (the Clutch Hand), Ignazio "Lupo the Wolf" Lupo (1877–1947), and the Terranova brothers (who rest in bare graves).[16]


On July 17, 1909, Baldassare Ceola was relieved of his position as the police commissioner of Palermo and, on the same day, Theodore Bingham stepped down as police commissioner of New York.[13]

Petrosino's widow (b. 1869) died in 1957.[citation needed]

In memoriam[edit]

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 the Lieutenant Detective 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.[19]
  • The Joe Petrosino Prize for Investigative Reporting (in Italian: Certosa di Padula Joe Petrosino Prize) was so named in his honor.[20]
  • 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. As of March 2013, its .85 Euro denomination is the correct one for postcards to the U.S.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

In film[edit]

In literature[edit]

  • British novelist Frederick Nolan has written two novels based on Petrosino's career with the NYPD: No Place to Be a Cop (1974)[citation needed] and Kill Petrosino! (1975).[citation needed]
  • Petrosino appears in Laurie Fabiano's immigrant novel, Elizabeth Street (2010).[citation needed]
  • The January/February 2010 issue of Playboy 7,000-word article "Petrosino vs. The Black Hand", written by novelist/screenwriter James Dalessandro. The article has since been purchased by the FX Channel/Fox 21 Studios for a 10-hour limited series, with Dalessandro and Bobby Moresco as writers and executive producers, along with producer Larry Jacobson.[citation needed]
  • In Joseph Mitchell's collection of his feature articles from the Thirties, My Ears Are Bent, Petrosino appears as "Louis Sittenberg, the famous New York detective who was killed on a trip to Italy to bring back a Black Hand agent." Whether Mitchell's informant was confused or Mitchell changed Petrosino's name for some reason is not known.

In television[edit]

  • Petrosino's story is discussed in the two-hour History Channel program Godfathers, which features commentary concerning his life by Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, and Bernard Kerik, former police commissioner of New York City.[22]
  • He has been the subject of two Italian television dramas: he was portrayed in Petrosino (Miniseries, 1972, directed by Daniele D'Anza) by Adolfo Celi; and in Joe Petrosino (TV-movie, 2006) by Beppe Fiorello.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Jackson, Kenneth T. (1995) The Encyclopedia of New York City. New York and London: Yale University Press
  2. ^ "Exhibit shows off mementos of a legendary NYC lawman, Lt. Joseph Petrosino". 
  3. ^ Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires. London: Robson Books, 2006. ISBN 1-86105-952-3. p. 19
  4. ^ Raab, p. 19-20.
  5. ^ Raab, p. 20.
  6. ^ "Joe Petrosino Murder", GangRule, retrieved October 16, 2010 
  7. ^ a b "Lt. Giuseppe "Joseph" Petrosino", American Organized Crime, Purcell, Mike, 2000, archived from the original on December 28, 2013, retrieved August 8, 2013 
  8. ^ Minna R. Breve Storia della Mafia. Rome, Riuniti.
  9. ^ Petacco A. Joe Petrosino, Milan, Mondadori 1972.
  10. ^ Dash, p. 16
  11. ^ Critchely, David (2008). Routledge Advances in American History, Volume 1. Routledge. ISBN 020388907X. 
  12. ^ Boss svela chi uccise Joe Petrosino – Cronaca –
  13. ^ a b "Joe Petrosino Murder", GangRule, retrieved 16 March 2013 
  14. ^ Unveil Petrosino Monument; Two Nation's Will Carry on His Work, Says Lieut. Enright, The New York Times, March 14, 1910
  15. ^ Dash, Epilogue p. 36
  16. ^ Dash, Epilogue p. 27
  17. ^ "Petrosino Square", Find A Park, City of New York Parks & Recreation, retrieved August 8, 2013 
  18. ^ Dash, p. 28
  19. ^ Dash, Mike (2009). The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-84737-173-7. 
  20. ^ Link to the prize description at
  21. ^ "Stamp in honor of Joe Petrosino". Retrieved 16 March 2013. 
  22. ^ "The Godfather and the Mafia in Popular Culture". Archived from the original on 2013-03-11. 
  23. ^ [Lista delle Fiction RAI – RAI Official Site.]

New York City Police Department
Preceded by
NYPD's Italian Squad
c. 1905-1909
Succeeded by
Michael Fiaschetti