Giuseppe Petrosino was a New York Mafia-busting policeman who was murdered March 12, 1909 in Sicily during what was supposed to be a top secret, undercover fact-finding mission. An informant asked for a meeting at the piazza in Palermo and, while waiting, Petrosino was shot to death. The rendezvous was a trap.
The Petrosino family emigrated to the U.S. from Padula, a village of 5,000 people in the Campania region of southern Italy. Petrosino worked first as a street sweeper in the sanitation department, which in the 19th century was run by the police department. This enabled him to eventually be hired by the force, an unusual accomplishment for a diminutive man of five-foot-three. His fluency in several Italian dialects and his ability to solve crimes got him promoted to sergeant of detectives. His mastery of dialects and disguises further promoted him to lieutenant, in charge of an elite corps of Italian detectives dealing with criminal activities of underground organizations including the Black Hand.
His notable cases included a shake-down of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso who was performing at the Metropolitan Opera House. Thugs demanded money in exchange for his life and Petrosino helped catch the criminals.
Petrosino infiltrated an anarchist organization that intended to assassinate President William McKinley during his trip to Buffalo. Petrosino notified the Secret Service but McKinley ignored the warning and was assassinated during his September 6, 1901 visit to Buffalo.
His investigations led to the arrest of a ranking Black Hand member in 1903 who was acquitted of murder and returned to Sicily where he achieved the top rank in the Sicilian underworld. It is suspected that this person, Cascio Ferro, may have been involved in Petrosino’s murder in Sicily. Ferro was never charged but later, in a different case, was reported to have said he “once killed a gallant man.”
Upon his death, Petrosino probably became the most celebrated officer in the history of the New York Police Department. It was an official day off from work, citywide, and more than 200,000 people lined the streets to witness the procession from Little Italy to the Queens cemetery where he was buried. A pillar topped with an elaborate bust marks his gravesite. In 2009, a park in New York’s Little Italy was dedicated and named Lt. Joseph Petrosino Park.