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LO SAPAVI CHE? (DID YOU KNOW?) Joseph Petrosino: The NYPD’s little-known Italian-American hero

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Did you know that the only NYPD detective killed outside of the United States was an Italian American?

Between the 1880s and 1920s, many Italians emigrated from the Mezzogiorno, the southern part of Italy, due to unemployment, starvation and violence. After arriving in the new world, many Italians settled in New York City’s East Side tenements.

It was a challenge for them to find employment, due to their lack of skills. Generally, the lucky ones became day laborers and the rest became victims of the padroni system. These “padroni” charged a fee to find employment and lodging for these Italians, often in the most squalid conditions. Many of these tenements housed two or three families in one room.

Some of the immigrants eventually saved enough money to open small stores selling produce or newspapers and candy. But the padroni – who came to be called la mano nera or “the black hand” – demanded a percentage of the weekly revenue of the stores. If the demand was declined, often these mom-and-pop stores would be bombed to set an example for the rest of the neighborhood.

One of the early immigrants who came in the fi rst wave of Italians was Joseph Petrosino. He was born in Padua in 1860 and emigrated to the United States in 1873. His fi rst job was as a shoeshine boy on Mulberry Street in front of the police station. His favorite customers were policemen. This is where his dream began to join the NYPD. Petrosino was unique among the NYPD. He was the only offi cer who spoke Italian and was able to infiltrate “the black hand.”

His ability to solve many crimes due to his intelligence, guile and language expertise found the ear of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who promoted him to detective sergeant.

Crime against Italian Americans began to decrease under his leadership. He was next promoted to be the leader of an Italian Squad that focused primarily on la mano nera. Due to his perseverance and dedication to this cause, crimes against Italian Americans were reduced drastically. However, Petrosino was not satisfied with these results.

He wanted to work with the Italian government to help stop the mano nera scourge from creating to create havoc, hardship and violence for his fellow hardworking paisani.

Petrosino traveled incognito as Guglielmo de Simone, a merchant, arriving in Palermo on March 12, 1909. He was gunned down outside the Garibaldi Garden in the Piazza Marina, while walking to his hotel.

Giuseppe Petrosino’s coffin returned home to New York a month later, according a historical account published by the New York Daily News, which read in part: “In the streets of the lower East Side, a quarter-million sobbing Italians turned out to salute the passing coffin of the policeman who had freed so many of them from their Black Hand predators and made them all prouder Americans.”

Lou Thomas

Lou Thomas was born and raised in Philadelphia, in a family with origins in Abruzzo. He is a Temple graduate who has been teaching Italian for 20 years at all levels. He attained a master’s degree in teaching Italian from Rutgers University. The sounds of Vivaldi and Jovanotti fill his classroom. His favorite quote is Il vino e’ la poesia della terra.

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