Joe Petrosino Murder

by Jon Black

1909. A leading Italian New York policeman, who made it his mission to smash the Black Hand & Mafia gangs, is murdered in the line of duty.

Joseph Petrosino

Giuseppe Michele Pasquale Petrosino, born in Salerno, August 30th 1860, a past police informer, rose through the ranks of the NYPD after he joined in 1883. He became the leading Italian policeman in New York, fluent in every Italian dialect, and knowledgeable of underworld crimes. Petrosino realised that American Law was unable to deal with Italian crime in an effective way, so he gradually earned a name for himself by reverting to his own methods of dealing with criminals. He was said to have “worked tirelessly and without fear, hunting his criminals day and night, harassing their friends and family for information and frequenting their known hangouts.”

Petrosino was assigned to investigate the Italian underworld as early as 1890, and was promoted to a sergeant of detectives by the president of the Police Commission board, Theodore Roosevelt in 1895. His first mention in the New York press was for the arrest of some petty trouble makers in 1892.

In 1905, the Board of Aldermen of New York city agreed to the formation of a squad of exclusively Italian policemen. Petrosino set up an intelligence network within Little Italy. Using informers and spys he began to build up huge files against large underworld figures.

Petrosino requested Federal funding to help with the eradication of New Yorks gangs in 1905:

Unless the Federal Government comes to our aid New York will awaken some morning to one of the greatest catastrophes in history. You may think I am foolish making this statement, but these Black Hand blackmailers are growing bolder every day.

In a little while they will turn their attentions to the American people and pursue the same tactics and methods they now employ in dealing with the Italians. Not even in Italy does so bad a condition of affairs exist as in New York at the present day.

Only the national government can save this situation for us. As the law stands at present we are helpless to a great extent against these desperadoes. They know the penal code from end to end. I have information that there are not less than 30,000 members of the Camorra in this country, working under twelve leaders stationed in the principal cities.

In 1906, Theodore A. Bingham became Police Commissioner. He stated:

From this moment on, the goal of my life shall be to crush the ‘Black Hand’ and to destroy these vile foreign criminals who have come to disrupt the serenity of our peaceful land.

Commissioner Bingham fully supported the needs of the Italian branch, and within four months it grew from five members to twenty five, plus a second detachment of ten men in Brooklyn under the command of Antonio Vachris. Petrosino was promoted to Lieutenant, but he still harboured great frustration over the American courts inability to deport any captured criminals. Cases were dismissed on technicalities as quickly as Petrosino could arrest the criminals.

Secret Service Branch

In February 1908, Police Commissioner Bingham was asked of his plans to eradicate the Black Hand. He claimed his request for $25,000 to establish a secret detective service was turned down by the Aldermen. He also said the Lt. Petrosino and his squad were too well known in the Italian quarter to be of any assistance.

The Black Hand fear became such a problem that a special Italian branch of the police had to be formed. The New York Times ran this story on the new force :

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 extorsions in recent years.

Petrosino often spoke in an attempt to educate people about Black Hand crime;

There is only one thing that can wipe out the Black Hand, and that is the elimination of ignorance. The gangsters who are holding Little Italy in the grip of terror come chiefly from Sicily and Southern Italy, and they are primitive country robbers transplanted into cities. This is proved by their brutal methods. No American hold-up man would ever think of stopping somebody and slashing his face with a knife just to take his wallet. Probably he would threaten him with a pistol. No American criminal would blow up a man’s house or kill his children because he refused to pay fifty or a hundred dollars. The crimes that occur among the Italians here, are the same as those committed at one time by rural outlaws in Italy; and the victims, like the killers, come from the same ignorant class of people. In short we are dealing with banditry transplanted to the most modern city in the world.

Petrosino travelled to Italy in February 1909, in his notebook he carried the names of many Italian criminals including: Giuseppe Morello, Ignazio Lupo, Giuseppe Fontana, Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti. The idea was to collect their penal certificates to aid their extradition from the United States. He travelled to Palermo, via Rome and his home town of Padula, in Campania.

Petrosino thought his mission would be kept secret, but before he had even arrived in Italy his story was in the New York papers. On February 20th 1909, Police Commissioner Bingham was interviewed in the New York Times about the formation of the new secret police squad. When asked about Petrosino’s current location he answered “Why, he may be on the ocean bound for Europe for all I know.” Although it is claimed the details of Petrosino’s trip were leaked well before this in the foreign language press.

Sailing to Sicily around the same time as Petrosino, were Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti. Upon Costantino’s arrival he sent a telegram to Giuseppe Morello, 360 East 61 Street, New York: “I LoBaido work Fontana”. Other reports describe the telegram as saying “I’m still trying to buy wine from Fontana”.

The Italian detective bureau back in New York later reported that Costantino was a known member of the Black Hand keeping a store at 307 71st Street, and had left for Sicily on February 26th after withdrawing $6,000 from his bank.

Petrosino Murdered

On Friday, March 12th, 1909, Petrosino was shot and killed in Piazza Marina, Palermo. He left the restaurant in Cafe Oreto after being visited by two men, whilst standing outside he was shot at four times, two men were then seen running from the Piazza. Petrosino had become the first, and only, NYPD officer to be killed on foreign soil whilst on duty.

News of the killing spread fast, the story had broken in papers worldwide, a wave of Italian hatred travelled through New York. Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt said at the news of Petrosino’s killing:

I can’t say anything except to express my deepest regret. Petrosino was a great man, a good man. I knew him for years, and he did not know the name of fear. He was a man worth while. I regret most sincerely the death of such a man as Joe Petrosino.

Later in 1910, Antonio Comito was giving statements to the NY Secret Service in relation to his involvement in counterfeiting with the Morello gang. He told the following during one of his statements:

I also heard from time to time that they expected news of a certain Calabrian who was sent to Palermo, and that he left before Petrosino did. When news arrived that Petrosino was dead they were all elated, and consumed wine, and had a feast, shooting at bulls-eyes. Giglio, Uncle Vincent and Nick were jumping up and down in the air with glee.

In another statement, Comito claimed to have heard Ignazio Lupo say the following

The way it was planned, it never could have missed in Palermo. It is well he was fool enough to go there.

Baldassare Ceola, the police commissioner of Palermo drew a list of the Sicilian suspects.

  • Pasquale Enea, links with the Black Hand in New York.
  • Giuseppe Fontana, previously involved with a murder in Sicily and Black Hand actvities in New York.
  • Gioacchino Lima, previously charged with a murder, bother-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.

Those in America suspected of involvement were, Giuseppe Morello, Ignazio Lupo, Pietro Inzerillo and the Terranova brothers. Fifteen suspects were arrested across New York, including Inzerillo who was held on $5000 bail.

Under the recommendation of Joe Petrosino, Giuseppe De Primo had been deported back to Italy upon his release from Sing Sing in early 1909. The New York press claimed that De primo had sworn to kill Petrosino, causing him to become a suspect in the killing.

Ceola, eventually narrowed his list down to his prime suspects. Vito Cascioferro, Giovanni Pecoraro and Carlo Costantino were arrested on 3rd April, 1909. Among Cascioferro’s possessions were: a visiting card from “Vito LoBaido, Brooklyn”, hand written notes of defence prepared for two friends, both of whom had previous charges of counterfeiting, a photo showing Costantino, Morello, Cascioferro, Frank Aiello, Fontana and others. Cascioferro pleaded his innocence and provided a strong alibi for his whereabouts on the night of the killing.

In a later report, the police commissioner spoke of the questioning of Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti, the two men who had arrived at the same time as Petrosino. The report referred to the cable message sent to Giuseppe Morello in New York: ‘I LoBaido work Fontana’. The report claimed that LoBaido was a fictitious name used by Passananti. Costantino had been found with photographs of a New York shop under the name ‘PECORARO-LOBAIDO’. The report concluded that Carlo Costantino and Antonino Passananti were the likely perpetrators of the crime, with Vito Cascioferro the mastermind.

According to the book, “The Origin of Organized Crime in America” by David Critchely, which studied the Sicilian documentation on this case, Costantino and Passananti were seen together in the vicinity of the killing. They both gave contradictory accounts to the police, and Passananti disappeared soon after the killing.

The funeral rites for Petrosino were performed in Palermo. His body left for New York aboard the English S/S Slavonia reaching New York on 9th April. The funeral rites were again conducted in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with over 200,000 people taking part in the funeral procession.

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

Morello's revelations

In January 1911, almost one year after his imprisonment for counterfeiting, Giuseppe Morello was reported to have spoken to the Attorney representing the US authorities about the murder of Petrosino in the hope of shortening his sentence. No evidence has ever been found of this, even after the King’s Prosecutor requested the Chief of Police in Palermo to seek information from the Ministry for Internal Affairs after the story had been printed the US papers.

In July 1911, the Sicilian Court of Appeals released Cascioferro, Costantino and Passananti due to insufficient evidence.

The Reason?

During March 1910, a Secret Service informant named Mazzeo was in contact with John Lupo, brother of Ignazio. The informant reported that John Lupo had described to him the men that killed Petrosino, one being an oil dealer and the other a grocer funded by Ignazio Lupo. (Passananti ran a wholesale business that was suspected to be a branch store of Lupo’s own grocery network, and Costantino’s store was a known hangout for Black Hand criminals – see The Grocery Conspiracy)

On March 17th 1909, the New York Times printed a small, and seemingly insignificant, paragraph that mentioned witnesses seeing Petrosino beat Lupo in public. Later in 1910, informant Mazzeo reported back to the Secret Service that he had attended gang meeting in John Lupo’s Hoboken store. After the meeting was over, one of the men told Mazzeo that Petrosino had been killed for hitting and abusing Ignazio Lupo, and that Petrosino had had no right to do so.