Excerpt # 4 – Murder and Mayhem in the Big Apple – From the Black Hand to Murder Incorporated


In early February 1909, New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham decided, that in addition to the “Italian Squad,” he would form a 14-man “Secret Service” branch of the New York City Police Department. Bingham appointed Petrosino as the leader of the Secret Service and gave him the directive to “crush the Black Hand and drive the anarchists from the city.”

However, the Secret Service was not so secret at all.

Days after the creation of the Secret Service squad, Police Commissioner Bingham directed Petrosino to travel to Palermo on the island of Sicily to gather documentation on Sicilian immigrants in the United States, who were wanted for serious crimes in their native land. The plan was to get the goods on these men, then deport them to Italy to stand trial for their crimes. Petrosino’s trip was supposed to be such a secret that his squad was told Petrosino was home sick with a serious illness.

However, on Feb. 20, 1909, just days before Petrosino was scheduled to depart for Italy aboard the liner Duca di Genova, the New York Herald published an article detailing Petrosino’s supposedly secret trip (the source of these leaks was later determined to be Police Commissioner Bingham himself).

Even though it was now common knowledge in New York City, and around the world, that Petrosino was traveling to Sicily in order to expedite the deportations of hundreds of Italian criminals in America, Petrosino foolishly thought the Sicilian Mafia, like the American Mafia, would never kill a policeman of Petrosino’s stature.

Leaving behind his wife and three-year-old daughter, Petrosino boarded the Duca di Genova, which was bound for Genoa, Italy ( in northern Italy – the opposite end from Sicily), using the alias “Simone Velletri.” He carried on board only two yellow suitcases.

At first, Petrosino, staying surreptitiously in first-class, locked himself in his room and had his meals delivered to him. But after a few days, Petrosino ventured topside and told the passengers he met that he was on his way to Italy to find a cure for a digestive discomfit.

However, since Petrosino’s face had been splashed often across the front pages of the New York City newspapers, it was almost impossible for him not to be recognized. One person who did recognize Petrosino was the ship’s purser, Carlo Longobardi. Petrosino begged Longobardi not to tell anyone on the ship about his true identity.

After a few days at sea, Petrosino ran into a shady character who called himself Francesco Delli Bovi. Petrosino thought he recognized this man, but not under the name Delli Bovi. When the ship docked in Genoa, Petrosino tried to follow Delli Bovi, but the mysterious man mysteriously disappeared.

Petrosino did not stay in Genoa, but instead he took the first train available to Rome. In Rome, Petrosino went directly to the United States Embassy to meet Ambassador Lloyd Griscom. The purpose of this meeting was for Petrosino to gather information about as many as 200 Italian criminals living in the United States, whom Petrosino wanted deported to Italy.

While Petrosino was in Rome, the Italian newspaper L’Araldo Italiano ran an article detailing Petrosino’s Italian excursion, saying that Petrosino’s final destination was Palermo, Sicily. This article, which only could have been leaked from inside the New York City Police Department, was rerun in several other European newspapers, the most notable of which was the New York Herald’s European edition.

While walking the streets of Rome, Petrosino bumped into two journalists with whom he had a passing acquaintance in New York City. Petrosino told the scribes that his trip was a secret, and he begged them not to write anything about him being in Italy. The men told Petrosino his visit was not so secret at all, and the story of his arrival in Italy had been in all the European newspapers, including that his final destination was Palermo.

This information spooked Petrosino and he decided not to travel directly to Palermo. Instead, he quietly boarded a train for Naples, which is in the southern part of Italy’s mainland. In Naples, Petrosino bribed the captain of a small ship to take him to Palermo.

On Feb. 28, when Petrosino arrived in Palermo, he was certain he had not been followed. However,  he was still oblivious to the fact it was not safe for him in a town teeming with cutthroat Mafiosos, who knew why he was there.

Petrosino – who should have had eyes in the back of his head in Palermo – strutted around town with a minimum of caution. Although he registered at the Hotel de France under the fictitious name of Guglielmo De Simone, Petrosino inexplicably opened a bank account under his own name at the Banca Commerciale. To compound his foolhardiness, Petrosino dined nightly at the Café Oreto and even told the waiters his real name. Petrosino foolishly figured that a famous police officer like Lieut. Joseph Petrosino was safe in the streets of Palermo – a town noted for its treachery.

By March 7, after meeting several times with Mr. Bishop of the American Consul in Palermo, Petrosino had accumulated more than 100 more penal certificates for wanted criminals in Sicily; making his total tally of Italian men he wanted deported from the United States to Italy at more than 300.

On March 6, Petrosino met Baldassare Ceola, the Commissioner of Police in Palermo. Ceola was unimpressed with Petrosino’s competence.  

In a letter to the prefect of Palermo, Ceola wrote, “I saw at once that Lieut. Petrosino, to his disadvantage, was not a man of excessive education.”

Ceola also felt that Petrosino was imprudent, since Petrosino turned down the services of a police bodyguard. Also, Mr. Bishop of the American Consul forbade Petrosino to take a trip into the interior of Sicily, but Petrosino told Mr. Bishop he was afraid of nothing.

Back in New York City, Joe Morello and Ignazio Saietta were getting daily reports on Petrosino’s activities from their moles in Palermo. While in New York City, Petrosino was almost untouchable, because, as Saietta told Morello, “Damn detective. The devil guards himself too thoroughly. When he walks it is with a loaded revolver in his hand covered by a pocket and two policemen without their blue coats walk near him eyeing everyone.”

Both Mafiosos knew that in Palermo, Petrosino was a sitting duck for anyone brave enough to pull a trigger.

While Petrosino was still on board the Duca di Genova, thinking two moves ahead of Petrosino, Morello and Saietta sent two of their best killers – Carlo Constantino and Antonio Passananti – to Palermo to await Petrosino’s arrival. In Palermo, the two men hooked up with the top Mafioso in Sicily: a brutal thug named Don Vito Cascio Ferro. Cascio Ferro had a personal bone to pick with Petrosino, since in 1903, due to extreme pressure put on Cascio Ferro by Petrosino’s quest to find the killers in the “Barrel Murder,” the head Mafioso was forced to flee New York City and hurry back to Sicily.

On the rainy Friday night of March 12, 1909, Petrosino went to have his nightly dinner at the Café Oreto. He was wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella. Petrosino took his customary table with his back to the wall, so that he could see anyone who entered the restaurant.

According to the waiters present, Petrosino was in the middle of his meal when two men came into the restaurant and marched to Petrosino’s table. These two men had a heated conversation with Petrosino, who did not rise from his chair, but instead dismissed the two men with an angry wave of his hand. After the men exited the restaurant, Petrosino threw three lira on the table and then quickly followed the men outside.

At 8:50 p.m., Petrosino was talking with the two men in the piazza of the Garibaldi Garden, when people nearby heard five shots ring out. When a passerby arrived soon afterwards, he found Petrosino dead, with bullet holes in his cheek, his throat, and in the back of his head. Petrosino’s revolver was held tightly in his hand, with two chambers empty.

Petrosino had documents in his pockets with names and information on several Sicilian criminals. There was also a postcard addressed to his wife, which said, “A kiss for you and my little girl, who has spent three months far from her daddy.”

Police reports said that three men were involved in Petrosino’s murder; one of whom was alleged to be Don Vito Cascio Ferro himself. When questioned later by the police, Cascio Ferro had an airtight alibi. He said at the time of Petrosino’s murder he was dining at the home of a Sicilian member of the Italian Parliament and there were several honorable witnesses who could verify this fact.

However, a report was delivered to the police saying that Cascio Ferro had slipped away during dinner and was gone long enough to participate in Petrosino’s murder. This report also said Cascio Ferro then slipped back to the dinner party, without anyone noticing he had been absent.

Unfortunately, this report could not be corroborated.

Immediately after Petrosino’s murder, the police offered a 10,000 lira award (around $2,000 – a kingly sum at the time) for information leading to the arrest of Petrosino’s assassins. However, the local Mafia circulated word in the streets of Palermo that any snitches would receive the same treatment as Petrosino. As a result, no one was ever arrested for the murder of New York City Police Lieut. Joseph Petrosino.




2 Responses to “Excerpt # 4 – Murder and Mayhem in the Big Apple – From the Black Hand to Murder Incorporated”

  1. gary gambill Says:

    would be interested in learning whether Don Vito had an illiegimate son and what happened to him

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