Location: Corner of Lafayette and Kenmare streets
Status: NYC Park
Crammed into a small triangular plot of land in SoHo, Lieutenant Joe Petrosino Square pays homage to one of the most intrepid cops in NYPD History. In the course of his career, Petrosino would go from street sweeper to NYPD Lieutenant only to be cut down by assassin’s bullets on the streets of Palermo.
Crime Sweeper: The White Wings
Born Giuseppe Petrosino in 1860, the detective got his start with the New York Police Department in an unusual way, sweeping streets. In those days, street cleaners or whitewings, as they were known, fell under the command of the New York’s Metropolitan Police Department.
Petrosino scrubbed the bloody streets of the tenderloin district, a rowdy neighborhood populated by brothels and casinos. The raucous quarter was commanded by police inspector Alexander “Clubber” Williams, a famous brawler who earned his nickname as a beat cop in the Five Points. Clubber once bragged:
“There is more law in the end of a policeman’s nightstick than in a decision of the Supreme Court.”
Sensing Petrosino’s linguistic skills, Williams put the Italian street sweeper to work as a special assistant in tenderloin cases involving Italians. At age of 23, the 5’7” Petrosino became the shortest patrolman on the force, a favor that came courtesy of Williams, who forced the Police Board to wave the height regulations.
On the Trail of The Back Hand
By 1890, Petrosino moved up to the investigation section, policing the crime wave sweeping little Italy. Dubbed the Black Hand or La Mana Nero by the papers because of the distinct extortion letters signed with a black handprint, Black Hand gangsters specialized in kidnapping, extortion and bombings.
The newspapers failed to realize that the Black Hand was actually a myth dreamed up by a New York Tribune reporter. The papers could not have imagined that the real culprit behind these crimes was a secret criminal society known as the Mafia, a term unknown at the time.
Prince of the Black Hand:
Giuseppe “The Clutch Hand” Morello:
Ruled by a cutthroat mustachioed scoundrel with a deformed hand, Giuseppe “Peter” Morello ruled New York’s first crime family, an organization that would one day be absorbed by Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese. Morello made his bones in the old country as an assassin, counterfeiter and kidnapper before fleeing to America to avoid murder charges.
Petrosino and Teddy Roosevelt
While Morello sailed across the Atlantic, Petrosino carved out a name for himself in the NYPD. By 1890, he moved up to the investigation section. A master of disguise, the young sleuth possessed an array of costumes.
Petrosino’s antics amused Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and the pair became instant friends. A shrewd politician, Roosevelt realized that the influx of Italians would further his political base if he had his own inside man. For this reason, Teddy promoted Petrosino to Sergeant Detective, the first Italian-American to attain that rank.
Uncovering the Mafia: The Italian Squad
By 1903, there were more Italians in New York than there were in Rome. Collectively the Italian population was 1/4 of the entire city, however, only eleven police officers spoke Italian.
After a rash of tenement bombings, the NYPD formed the Italian Squad. The five-man band included Maurise Bonil, Peter Dondero, George Silva, John Lagomarsini, and Ugo Cassidi. The great grandfather of the NYPD Bomb Squad, the Italian Squad specialized in bomb disposal.
Meanwhile, it seemed that every Italian thug with a scrap of paper and a pen was turning to Black Hand extortion while true Mafioso, like Giuseppe Morello, worked to solidify their criminal empires. Upon arriving in America, Morello enlisted the help of a savage enforcer, Ignacio Lupo “the Wolf”, and Don Vito Cascioferro, an unusual Mafioso by all accounts. Ferro started life as an anarchist who took part in uprisings, protests, and political assassinations in Sicily and later served as president of the Fasci of Bisaquino.
The Death of Joe Petrosino
Petrosino quickly became the bane of the Morello Crime Family. After Cracking the Barrel Murder, Pertrosino issued an arrest warrant for Cascioferro, who fled to Sicily. In 1909, Lt. Petrosino traveled over 4,000 miles to Palermo to uncover the secrets of the Mafia. It would be the detective’s undoing. Cascioferro’s assassins caught up with Petrosino murdering him on the Piazza Marina.