Detective Pelosino Black Hand Victim

New York Tribune/March 14, 1909

Slain in Sicily While on Secret Mission

 Italian Sleuth’s Work to Go On with Even Greater Vigor—All Cities Asked to Help Local Police

Palermo Sicily. March 13. — Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, head of the Italian squad of the New York Police Department, was shot to death at 9 o’clock last evening under the shadow of the trees of Marina Square, in this city. Whether he was lured there or not is unknown, but it is believed that Petrosino, who during his stay in Sicily had been indefatigable in searching up the records of Sicilian criminals, had gone to the square in the hope of getting information which he considered of the utmost importance.

The identity of the assassins has not been disclosed, for they made their escape after having assured themselves of the death of the detective. Not the slightest trace of them has yet been discovered, but undoubtedly they were men who had reason to dread Petrosino’s presence in Italy, either because he was on their traces or on the tracks of fellow members of some of the secret organizations in America. Petrosino had managed to collect while here much evidence of the criminality of a large number of Italians who have taken refuge in the United States which would have given the American government the power to deport them. In a number of cases Petrosino had traced murder to their hands. His work will be largely destroyed by his death, as he had not had the time tor the opportunity to place much of his data on record.

His assassination was a most cold blooded one. He as attacked in the darkness at the corner of the deserted square by two men, who fired three shots at him. Petrosino, though mortally wounded, clung desperately to life and showed at the very last moment extraordinary courage and coolness. Though the blood was streaming from him and he could feel that death was near, he clung with one hand to the grating of a nearby window, He managed to draw his revolver and fire one shot and then fell to the ground. His bullet missed its mark, but the noise of the explosion attracted several persons. The first of these was a sailor from the warship Calabria, who as he ran up saw the detective dragging himself to his feet and grasping the iron bar with nerveless hand, but as the sailor reached him Petrosino fell again to the ground covered with blood, which was flowing from a desperate wound in the face. His eyes were still staring as, in a last effort to defend himself, he turned, revolver in hand, to where his as assailants had been. He was dead before the sailor and others who went to his assistance could raise his head.

A magistrate, who was informed of the assassination, went immediately to the spot and ordered the body searched for identification. The identity of the murdered man was at once disclosed. From papers found on him it seems that he had been gathering evidence with reference to Italian criminals in the United States. There were also notes concerning the Palermo members of the Black Hand. Several postal cards were found addressed to his wife, “Adelina Petrosino, No. 223 Lafayette Street, New York,” and a metal badge, No. 285.

From other papers found on the body it seems that Petrosino had made a tour of Sicily, and had given special attention to Trapani. The magistrate gave orders that the body be transported to Rotalli Cemetery, where a post-mortem was held.


The first official news of the assassination received by the police in this city came from William H. Bishop, the American consul at Palermo. The cable dispatch said:


Petrosino shot. Instantly killed in heart of city this evening. Assassin unknown. Dies a martyr.

BISHOP, Consul,

Palermo, Italy.


That “Joe” Petrosino had been shot and killed in the Fatherland was known early yesterday morning in “Little Italy.” Not in yeas has there been as much excitement there. Italians discussed the murder on corners and in the cafes, and while some showed sorrow there were others who gloated over the death of the Italian detective. In the little cafes where they eat spaghetti and drink Chianti nothing else was talked of last night, and as the “red ink” flowed faster and faster the tongues of some of the diners were loosened, but if one spoke too loudly of Petrosino and his foul killing he was hushed up by his steadier neighbor.

A stranger in one of the cafes last night was an unwelcome guest, for as soon as the news of Petrosino’s death reached here a swarm of detectives from the Central Office spread over the whole Italian district, delving into nooks and corners for some slip of the tongue that might tell who “got” “Joe” Petrosino.

Petrosino met his death only a few weeks after the killing of “Jack” Goldhammer, a side partner in the ferreting out of crime in this city. Yesterday the police were boiling over with anger.

Central Office detectives late last night arrested three Italians and lodged them in calles at Police Headquarters, all charged with carrying concealed weapons in violation of one of the sections of the Penaal Code, which makes the offence a felony.

The shooting of Petrosino in the land of his birth will not go unavenged. The Italian sleuth had no chance in his native country, where he was surrounded by spies of the societies that have worked their blackmailing schemes for years. He had no side partner to give a resounding rap of the nightstick on the pavement to tell him there was trouble in the air. He died alone, with no one to help him, in a country where his gold shield meant nothing.

Favorite Among Policemen

Up at Police Headquarters, the news of the murder of the chief of the special secret detective squad was received at first with scoffing, then amazement and then anger. Not only at headquarters, but among the policemen all over the city, the same bitter anger and resentment was shown, for Petrosino was a great favorite among his brothers.

Petrosino’s death will mean a fiercer warfare on the Italian societies in this city which prey upon Italians and extor money from them by threatening letters. Lieutenant Petrosino met his end through his energy in hounding these criminals, but there will be others to take up the work where he left off. Deputy Commissioner Woods said yesterday: “The Police Department can give no information at all as to the purpose of Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino’s visit to Italy and to other places he had been in. This is a matter of detective work and will not stop because of the death of one man. It would be hard to overestimate the value of Lieutenant Petrosino’s work. Besides being a skilful detective, he was an honest, reliable, man and had the full respect of everyone. Devotion to duty and utter disregard of personal consequences have always been characteristic of him.

“It is hoped that the assassination of this faithful servant of New York City may bring home to people some idea of the seriousness of the Black Hand situation. Although the number of Black Hand crimes has been decreased about 50 percent in the last few months, it is impossible to make any radical move against these outlaws unless the Police Department can have the use of a secret service fund provided by the city, and unless congress will pass immigration laws which will keep criminals out and make it possible to put out any that may slip in. The immigration laws today, as far as they affect the entrance of criminals into this country are such a short way that they almost entirely fail in accomplishing the object intended. If we are going  to allow into this country men who by breeding and inheritance are accustomed to take the law into their own hands, we must expect them to keep up these tactics when they get here.”

Fault of Immigration System

Continuing further as an explanation to this statement the Deputy Commissioner had this to say: “The situation is this. The immigration laws do not keep the Black Handers out. These people are used to a very different legal system from ours. In Italy if a man commits a crime things go hard with him. Their laws differ from ours. Here they protect the rights of the individual. In Italy the laws are framed more for the protection of society. These fellows find that our laws do not hit them so vigorously as Italian laws. Therefore they come over here.”

It was persistently rumored around Police Headquarters that Petrosino’s mission to was not a voluntary one; that he went there much against his will. Deputy Police Commissioner Woods denied this vigorously.

“You can say as hard as you want to, officially, that Petrosino was very enthusiastic and hot on the job,” said Mr. Woods, when asked about this rumor.

Deputy Commissioner Woods wouldn’t say whether Petrosino was unaccompanied.

There was a report yesterday that Petrosino’s trip was not alone on business in connection with the New York Police Department, but that he was also in the service of the government to arrange a readjustment of the immigration laws.

Order Arrest of Black Handers

Upon the receipt of the news inspector McCafferty, at the head of the detective bureau, took steps to find out if the assassination was the result of a plot formed in this country. He ordered his men to arrest any Italian suspected of being a member of the Black Hand. Telegrams were also sent to heads of police departments in all of the large cities, asking that Black-Handers be arrested.

When the Board of Aldermen refused to give Commissioner Bingham money to maintain a secret service squad, three wealthy men came to the front. Petrosino was placed at the head of the squad There was information in Italy that was needed to get at the root of the Black Hand evil, and Petrosino was the man that General Bingham knew would succeed if anyone could, and he was sent abroad three months ago.

At Headquarters one of the detectives said yesterday: “None of us knew where “Joe” was going when he went away, but we could see, although he was a policeman first, last and all the time, that he had a premonition that he would never return. He remarked before he went that he feared he would never return to his wife and child, but in his grim way smiled as he said it. He had many enemies and was constantly in fear of his life, but it never interfered with his work. Why, I know that when he went home nights he never entered his hallway until he first flashed a pocket light in every corner. I don’t doubt in the least that “Joe” Petrosino was “framed” over there in Italy, and if a real investigation is ever made there will be developments that will be of a startling nature. It may be that he was followed when he went abroad, but then again no one knew that he was going away, and no one knew positively that he was there, unless he was betrayed by those in that country that he took into his confidence. Petrosino was too dangerous a man for the Italian criminals to allow to live. They threatened many times to “get him” and they kept their word.”

To Inspector McCafferty, head of the detective bureau, the news of the shooting of Petrosino was a great blow. McCafferty has worked with Petrosino, side by side, for many years, and when the detectives lined up yesterday morning they found McCafferty grim and determined. McCafferty paid a tribute to Petrosino for the great work he had done.

(Source: Chronicling America,