Joe Petrosino Murder

1909. Joe Pet­rosi­no of the NYPD, who made it his mis­sion to smash the Black Hand & Mafia gangs, is mur­dered in the line of duty.

Joe Petrosino

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.” - Theodore Roosevelt (1909)

Joseph Petrosino

Joseph Pet­rosi­no, born 1860, in Padu­la, south­ern Italy, trav­eled to Amer­i­ca as a boy. He joined the ranks of the NYPD on Octo­ber 9, 1883, hav­ing already worked as an informer for the depart­ment.1 Pet­rosi­no was known for his hard-hitting meth­ods, “what he accom­plished was by sheer hard work and cer­tain bull­dog tenac­i­ty, com­bined with a com­plete knowl­edge of the of the habits and man­ners of the Ital­ian crim­i­nal.”2

Pet­rosi­no was involved with count­less Black Hand cases, and with most high-profile Mafia cases of the era, includ­ing the cap­ture of Vito Cas­cio­fer­ro in 1902 and the Bar­rel Mur­der in 1903. He also appre­hend­ed the noto­ri­ous Camor­ra leader Enri­co Alfano, who occu­pied “a not dis­sim­i­lar place in Naples to Vito Cas­cio­fer­ro in the Sicil­ian Mafia.”3 Alfano was extra­dit­ed to Italy, where he was later sen­tenced to thir­ty years’ impris­on­ment fol­low­ing the much-publicized Camor­ra tri­als in Viter­bo.4

Under the watch of Police Com­mis­sion­er Theodore Roo­sevelt, Pet­rosi­no was pro­mot­ed to detec­tive and quick­ly reached detec­tive sergeant by the time Roo­sevelt left for Wash­ing­ton. In Sep­tem­ber 1904, he was placed in com­mand his own “Ital­ian Squad” of five plain-clothes detec­tives to sup­press crime in the Ital­ian dis­tricts.5 

In the first year of its exis­tence, the squad made 700 arrests.6 Fac­ing a surge in Black Hand crimes, Pet­rosi­no request­ed to increase the squad from five to thir­ty detec­tives, and gave the fol­low­ing dra­mat­ic state­ment: “Unless the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment comes to our aid, New York will awak­en some morn­ing to one of the great­est cat­a­stro­phes in its 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 atten­tion to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and pur­sue the same tac­tics and meth­ods they now employ in deal­ing with the Ital­ians. Not even in Italy does such a con­di­tion exist as in New York at the present day.”7

In Jan­u­ary 1906, Theodore Bing­ham, a retired Army brigadier gen­er­al from West Point Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my, was appoint­ed NY Police Com­mis­sion­er and expand­ed the Ital­ian Squad’s man­pow­er.8 He also rec­om­mend­ed the for­ma­tion of a secret branch of the Detec­tive Bureau recruit­ed from civil­ians, not­ing “every mem­ber of the Police Force in New York City is known to or quick­ly becomes known to the crim­i­nals of every class.”9 

The 1907 Immi­gra­tion Act made it pos­si­ble to deport for­eign crim­i­nals with­in three years of their arrival in the US, but its exe­cu­tion was prob­lem­at­ic. Any jail time that crim­i­nals spent in the US count­ed toward their three-year res­i­dence. A cen­sus of 990 alien con­victs showed 319 who had been con­vict­ed with­in the last three years, 58 per­cent of which were Black Han­ders inel­i­gi­ble for depor­ta­tion by the time of their release.10

Mission to Italy

Com­mis­sion­er Bing­ham start­ed a plan in Decem­ber 1908, to send Pet­rosi­no to south­ern Italy to gath­er evi­dence against Ital­ian crim­i­nals in Amer­i­ca. Deputy Com­mis­sion­er Arthur Woods wrote to the Depart­ment of State, “We do not want to make this a for­mal visit. We want to send Lt. Pet­rosi­no over rather on the quiet in order to get infor­ma­tion which takes for­ev­er if we ask for it offi­cial­ly, and which we find great dif­fi­cul­ty in get­ting at all when we try through pri­vate agents.”11

Pet­rosi­no left New York and sailed for Italy on Feb­ru­ary 9, 1909,12 but by the time he docked in Genoa on Feb­ru­ary 21, his where­abouts and mis­sion were already revealed in the Amer­i­can press. Com­mis­sion­er Bing­ham, who had bat­tled with city alder­men to fund a secret branch of the Detec­tive Bureau since 1906, had final­ly secured fund­ing via pri­vate dona­tions. He announced Pet­rosi­no as leader of the secret force but told the press that he had not seen him, “Why, he may be on the ocean, bound for Europe for all I know.” 13

Petrosino’s pres­ence in Italy had made the Ital­ian papers by the time he arrived in Paler­mo on Feb­ru­ary 28. After check­ing into Hotel de France on the Piaz­za Mari­na, he vis­it­ed the Amer­i­can con­sul, William Bish­op, and then set to work gath­er­ing evi­dence from the cour­t­house. On the evening of March 12, 1909, Pet­rosi­no was shot and killed while walk­ing through the Piaz­za Mari­na.14 

Piazza Marina, Palermo
Piazza Marina, Palermo


The Paler­mo Police Com­mis­sion­er Bal­das­sare Ceola began his inves­ti­ga­tion of the killing with three groups of poten­tial suspects: 

  1. Sicil­ian Mafiosi who sought to pre­serve their access to the US;
  2. Black Hand crim­i­nals in Amer­i­ca who feared depor­ta­tion; and
  3. already deport­ed under­world fig­ures, like Paolo Palaz­zot­to, who want­ed revenge

Ceola wrote “Petrosino’s arrival in Paler­mo, fright­ened too many peo­ple and threat­ened too many inter­ests. For this rea­son, a reg­u­lar inter­na­tion­al coali­tion was orga­nized against him.”15

Ceola, the NYPD and the Secret Ser­vice received thou­sands of tips from peo­ple claim­ing to know the iden­ti­ty of Petrosino’s killer. One let­ter sent from Brook­lyn named Carlo Costan­ti­no and Anto­nio Pas­sanan­ti as the killers work­ing under the orders of Paolo Orlan­do, chief of the Castel­lam­mare­si Mafia in Brook­lyn.16 Costan­ti­no and Pas­sanan­ti were report­ed to have vis­it­ed Vito Cas­cio­fer­ro and were seen in Piaz­za Mari­na on the day of killing.17 Just three months before Petrosino’s killing, both Costan­ti­no and Pas­sanan­ti had been part of a large bank­rupt­cy con­spir­a­cy in New York involv­ing Ignazio Lupo and other gro­cers, and were noted to have left the city short­ly after the press broke the story of Pet­rosi­no head­ing for Italy.18

Ceola con­clud­ed that Cas­cio­fer­ro was the “brains” of the con­spir­a­cy assist­ed by Costan­ti­no and Pas­sanan­ti, with Giuseppe Morel­lo being the insti­ga­tor. He also named thir­teen col­lab­o­ra­tors, who had aided with the set-up of the killing and the escape of the assas­sins. How­ev­er, all sus­pects in the case were even­tu­al­ly released due to lack of evi­dence.19

Ceola’s report men­tioned Ignazio Lupo as a sus­pect, since depor­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings had been start­ed against him just months before Petrosino’s killing.20 In 1910, a Secret Ser­vice infor­mant recalled a com­ment from Ignazio Lupo’s broth­er Gio­van­ni: “How did you like the Pet­rosi­no affair, no one knows now, and no one will know.” Gio­van­ni described two killers as con­nect­ed to the gro­cery busi­ness, one estab­lished by Ignazio Lupo, “nei­ther of them are known to the police and were never sus­pect­ed.”21 

Petrosino's funeral in NYC
Petrosino's funeral parade in NYC

A month later, the same infor­mant attend­ed a meet­ing held in the store of Gio­van­ni Lupo, who was like­ly the inter­im boss of the gang fol­low­ing his brother’s impris­on­ment.22 After the meet­ing, the infor­mant walked to the ferry accom­pa­nied by a gang mem­ber who dis­cussed the Pet­rosi­no mur­der with him: “Pet­rosi­no was killed because he had slapped Lupo and heaped per­son­al abuse on him … not because he was detec­tive and had to do his duty, but because he had no right to strike Lupo.23 That expla­na­tion was backed up by wit­ness accounts print­ed in the New York Times, alleg­ing Pet­rosi­no had gone to Lupo’s Mott Street store in late 1908 and struck him, knock­ing Lupo to the floor.24

Antonio Vachris

Anto­nio Vachris of the Ital­ian Squad took up the dan­ger­ous mis­sion of com­plet­ing Petrosino’s work. He trav­eled to Sici­ly and returned with the names of over 500 Ital­ian ex-convicts.25 In May 1911, Police Com­mis­sion­er Waldo dis­band­ed the Brook­lyn Ital­ian Squad and reduced the Man­hat­tan branch to just four men. Vachris told a Kings Coun­ty grand jury that the clo­sure would prac­ti­cal­ly undo all the squad’s work done in Sici­ly. Soon after that tes­ti­mo­ny, he was trans­fered to precinct duty in the Bronx – a three-hour jour­ney from his home. His request to retire from the force was denied for a year until the Supreme Court ordered Com­mis­sion­er Waldo to allow him to leave. 26

Antonio Vachris
Antonio Vachris

Vachris was ques­tioned by the press at the time of his retire­ment. “Is it not true that Ital­ian crimes have dimin­ished in a great mea­sure of late in New York City?” Vachris was asked. “Dimin­ished? Why, it is worse than ever. The kid­nap­ping of chil­dren is going on week­ly. Noth­ing is said about it. With­in the last six months there have been three or four cases. No arrests are made. It is the same with bomb throw­ings. They are being done on the East Side at the rate of two a week. Nobody pays any atten­tion to them now.” 

How about mur­ders among Ital­ians?” the vet­er­an detec­tive was asked. “More than ever. Mur­ders among Ital­ians are of week­ly occur­rence and the records will show that I am right. There are about twenty-five Ital­ian detec­tives sprin­kled through the city, but they are not work­ing as a unit any longer and they can­not accom­plish much. They are for the most part faith­ful men, but the sys­tem of ser­vice has been so changed that their work is futile.27

At the time of Petrosino’s death the Ital­ian Squad had made an impres­sive 3,557 arrests with a 36 per­cent con­vic­tion rate.28 

The tire­less work of Joseph Pet­rosi­no, who lost his life pur­su­ing the likes of Lupo and Morel­lo, is remem­bered today in the US by a park in Man­hat­tan near the loca­tion where Pet­rosi­no made his home. The NYPD Colum­bia Asso­ci­a­tion presents an annu­al award in his name. In Italy, the Pet­rosi­no home in Padu­la is now a muse­um ded­i­cat­ed to telling his life story, and a plaque hon­our­ing Pet­rosi­no stands in Piaz­za Mari­na close the spot where he was killed in 1909.


1Petac­co, Arri­go (1974) Joe Pet­rosi­no. New York: Macmil­lan Pub­lish­ing Co. 34 – 38
Policeman’s Record and His­to­ry of Arrests. Joseph Pet­rosi­no. 1896
The Stan­dard Union. Brook­lyn (Sep 13, 19049
2White, Frank Mar­shall (1909). A Man who was Unafraid. Harper’s Week­ly. Vol.53 Part 1. New York: Harper’s Mag­a­zine Co. 350
3Critch­ley, David (2009) The Ori­gin of Orga­nized Crime in Amer­i­ca: The New York City Mafia, 1891 – 1931. New York: Rout­ledge. 106
4New York Tri­bune (Jul 9, 19121
5Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 39
McAdoo, William (1906) Guard­ing a Great City. New York: Harp­er & Bros. 154
6White, Frank Mar­shall (1907). New York’s Secret Police. Harper’s Week­ly. Vol.51 Part 1. New York: Harper’s Mag­a­zine Co. 350
7The Bemid­ji Daily Pio­neer (Oct 19, 1905) 1
The Boston Globe (Oct 19, 19057
8Brook­lyn Times Union (Dec 20, 1906) 2
The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Dec 91910
9New York Police Depart­ment. Annu­al Report 1906. 22 & 1907. 24
10White, Frank Mar­shall (1909). How the Unit­ed States Fos­ters the Black Hand. The Out­look v.93495
11NARA. RG59. Gen­er­al Records of the Depart­ment of State, 17632002. Numer­i­cal Files, 8/19061910. Numer­i­cal File 13495 – 13497. M862. Roll 845.
White, Frank Mar­shall (1909). The Black Hand in Con­trol in Ital­ian New York. The Out­look v.104. 861
12Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 118
13New York Police Depart­ment. Annu­al Report 1906. 22 & 1907. 24
The Sun (Feb 7, 1908) 2
The New York Times (Feb 20, 1909) 2
Nor­wich Bul­letin (Feb 20, 1909) 1
The Sun (Feb 20, 19093
14Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 146 – 149
15Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 165
16Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 169
Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. The Informer. May 2014. Thomas Hunt. 52
17Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 151 – 152
18Black, Jon (2014). The Gro­cery Con­spir­a­cy.
New York Evening Telegram (Apr 6, 19091
19Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 170 – 174181
20Arri­go. Joe Pet­rosi­no. 172
NARA. Record Group 59: Gen­er­al Records of the Depart­ment of State, 17632002. 1906 – 1910. Numer­i­cal File: 16606 – 16649/25. Roll 968. p 928.
21U.S. Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion (here­after referred to as NARA), RG 87, Daily Reports of Agents, (here­after referred to as DRA). William J. Flynn. Vol. 29 (Mar 221910
22Warn­er, San­ti­no, Van‘t Riet. Early New York Mafia An Alter­na­tive The­o­ry. 38
23NARA, RG 87, DRA. William J. Flynn. Vol. 29 (Apr 151910
24The New York Times (Mar 17, 1909)
Asheville Cit­i­zen Times (Nov 20, 1909)
Press and Sun Bul­letin (Nov 181909
25NARA. RG59. Gen­er­al Records of the Depart­ment of State, 17632002. 19061910. Numer­i­cal File 13495 – 13497. M862. Roll 845
26The Brook­lyn Cit­i­zen (Jun 22, 1911)
Brook­lyn Times Union (Jun 30, 1911)
The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Sep 301912
27The Brook­lyn Daily Eagle (Oct 22, 19122
28White, Frank Mar­shall. (1910) Against the Black Hand. Collier’s. Vol.45. 19