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 Café 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.