Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino achieved great success in the fight against Italian and Sicilian organized criminal groups in the United States. When he attempted to take the fight to the Mafia's home island, he was assassinated.
On a visit to Palermo in western Sicily to gather information on the identities of mafiosi who might have fled to the U.S., Petrosino was shot in the head at a garden in the Piazza Marina on March 12, 1909. He was 48.
His visit to Sicily was supposed to have been a secret. But many sources agree that Police Commissioner Bingham released information about the trip through the New York Herald before Petrosino landed in Europe. Mafiosi in the U.S. were able to mobilize their Old World fellows to act against the lieutenant.
Many believe Vito Cascio Ferro, a Mafia leader on both sides of the Atlantic, organized and/or participated in the assassination. (An often retold story has Cascio Ferro excusing himself from a dinner party thrown by a local government official to do the deed. Cascio Ferro promptly returned to dinner afterward.) It is also known that several mafiosi traveled to Sicily just before the attack on Petrosino.
Petrosino joined the New York City police department in 1883, receiving an exemption from the height requirement from Capt. "Clubber" Williams. He rose through the ranks, reaching the detective sergeant level in 1895 under then-police commissioner (and later U.S. President) Theodore Roosevelt.
Petrosino would be considered brutal by today's standards. He did not hesitate to use threats and force to extract information from street thugs. While his tactics would be frowned upon by many today, they were appropriate for the time and highly effective. Petrosino was placed in charge of the Italian Squad, a group of Italian and Sicilian officers whose job was to check organized criminal activity in ethnic neighborhoods.
Petrosino's greatest successes came against transplanted Neapolitan criminals - those belonging to the Camorra. He was less fortunate in dealing with the Sicilian Mafiosi, but may have been on the verge of acquiring some very effective tools in the form of documentary evidence from Italian police agencies.
Among Petrosino's more noteworthy adventures were: saving Angelo Carbone from execution by extracting a murder confession from another man; deporting Camorra leaders Tony Strolle and Enrico Alfano; and identifying both the victim and the perpetrators of the infamous barrel murder in 1903 (though the ring leaders, which included Ignazio Lupo, Vito Cascio Ferro and Giuseppe Morello, managed to escape prosecution).
Many of Petrosino's cases were chronicled in a 1914 series of newspaper articles by A.R. Parkhurst under the title, "Perils of Petrosino." His career was also the subject of a number of pulp fiction volumes in the U.S. and Italy.