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The Trailblazing NYPD Detective Murdered by the Mafia in Sicily

The "Italian Sherlock Holmes" was actually an American battling the Black Hand, an early Mafia group that terrorized immigrants when cops looked the other way.

by Seth Ferranti
Apr 25 2017, 5:08pm

As ethnic tensions boiled over in New York City in the early 1900s, a young detective was tasked with battling the Black Hand, an early predecessor to La Cosa Nostra, or what most of us know as the Mafia. An organization that valued Omertà and some other attributes of Mafia-dom later glamorized in pop culture, the Black Hand was uniquely brutal and initially preyed mostly on its members' own kind. At least when they committed their bombings, larceny, extortion, and kidnappings in the ghettos of the city's Italian immigrant working class, law enforcement seemingly paid the group—which often sent threatening letters with its namesake symbol to victims—no mind.

But Joseph Petrosino, one of the first Italian American detectives in the NYPD, eventually mounted a personal crusade against the group terrorizing his people. The trailblazing cop was later killed while on assignment in Sicily in 1909, hoping to wipe out the problem at its source. But he came home to a hero's funeral—and a changed city. In his new book, The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History, out Tuesday, author Stephan Talty tells Petrosino's story, and how even as he battled organized crime, he faced off against ugly prejudice that has defined American life.

We talked with the author to find out why people's conceptions about who combated the Mafia are often mistaken, how the Black Hand was a part of daily existence for many Italian immigrants, and what this tale of law enforcement neglecting the plight of others means right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: There's often an assumption that the Mafia was all-encompassing or somehow endemic in Italian immigrant culture. But we learn very quickly in the book that this isn't the case, and who the victims often were.
Stephan Talty: What surprised me is that our ideas about how America combated the early Italian underworld are completely wrong. The perception is that the FBI and other law enforcement groups became aware of Italian criminals and then went to work infiltrating and prosecuting them. But in 1904, when the Black Hand first became widely known, the FBI didn't even exist. Police in cities like New York and Chicago often left Italian ghettoes alone; they barely enforced the law in places like Mulberry Bend. There was a great deal of fear and panic about the tremendous numbers of Italian immigrants pouring into our cities, and the traditions—Omertà, secret societies, vengeance pacts—that Americans believed they carried with them.

So Italians were left to fend for themselves. When Joseph Petrosino appealed in the New York Times for the Secret Service to join him in a war on the group, he was told that if Italian Americans wanted protection, they would have to pay standard rates for a private detective agency. It was outrageous—these people were paying taxes, digging our subway tunnels, building our aqueducts so we could have clean water! That line from The Godfather—"They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls"—accurately reflects how many people in power saw Italians in those years.

Talk a bit about Petrosino—is the "Sherlock Holmes" moniker really apt?
He had a sixth grade education but a near-photographic memory. He could remember the faces and names of literally thousands of criminals. He loved opera and hummed operettas as he walked. He was completely honest in an era when most cops were on the take.

If you were making any kind of money in Chicago or LA or New Orleans in 1906, you could expect to get a letter threatening you with death or the loss of your children.

But Petrosino had a dark side. He could be very violent, as was typical for cops of the era, though there was a difference with Petrosino. He fought suspects whom he thought were guilty and were likely to get off scot-free, because of the general apathy about Italian crime. His body was covered with scars from his street battles. He received hundreds and hundreds of death threats, but he never stopped. That kind of courage, I think, is special.

Italian immigrants and their descendants have been fighting Mafia stereotypes for about a century now. How did Petrosino respond to the problem back then?
Petrosino is so interesting because he was torn. He was thoroughly Italian in the way he dressed, the food he ate, the music he loved. But he'd fallen in love with America. He had that almost hopeless love for the country that many immigrants who come from dysfunctional places have. Every opportunity he got, he would praise Italians to the press as decent, hardworking people who loved their children and would make terrific citizens. He wanted his people to have good government and futures in this country, but the Black Hand and the panic it stirred up was standing in the way of that.

At first the Black Hand stayed local, targeting fellow immigrants, but they eventually cast their net wider, right?
Yes, at first it was Italian bakers, tavern owners, laborers. If you were making any kind of money in Chicago or LA or New Orleans in 1906, you could expect to get a letter threatening you with death or the loss of your children. But then opportunists saw how successful this kind of crime was, and it began spreading rapidly: society matrons, industrialists, millionaires, members of the Chicago Cubs, all began getting Black Hand letters. Many of these weren't legit—they were sent by guys who saw a chance at quick riches—but some of them were.

Can you talk a bit about how the Black Hand used the press to their advantage, and how immigrants were described in the media?
What's interesting is that the Black Hand was seen as this medieval throwback, but the things that made them really successful were modern ones. The newspapers competed against one another to print the most salacious details, and their stories spread across the country in a matter of days. The highly efficient US mail system was vital in sending threatening letters. And the reason all these immigrants were in the country was the Industrial Revolution—we needed immigrants to build the infrastructure that would make America great in the first place.

The parallels with today are obvious. Every immigrant group that comes here has been accused of having divided loyalties. For the Irish, it was the pope. John F. Kennedy had to give a major speech during his 1960 campaign saying that he wouldn't be taking orders from the Vatican. For the Italians, it was criminal overlords. For Muslims, it's their religion. There's this idea that they don't love this country the way that "we" do. That's been proven false again and again, but many people refuse to see it.

The daily grind of Italian American immigrant life can fall by the wayside here, but it seems like it was as rough as almost any existence in 20th-century America.
Their lives were often brutal. One in five Italians who came here during that era were maimed or killed on the job. When the Black Hand craze struck, some immigrants were driven out of midwestern towns at the point of a gun and their homes were burned behind them. This was also because they would work for less than their "white" fellow citizens. They were hated and feared. And then the Black Hand painted them as these super-violent conspirators who'd come to destroy the Republic. It was cruel.

Could you live in Little Italy back then and avoid these guys—mind your own business?
It's hard to believe today, but they were almost omnipresent. One editor of an Italian newspaper estimated that 90 percent of working people were being preyed upon by the Black Hand. There were buildings with their fronts blown out, men patrolling in front of their homes with shotguns, children looking out the windows because their parents were afraid they'd be kidnapped on the way to school. It was a battle zone, reminiscent of Lebanon in its bad old days.

How did Petrosino end up in Sicily?
Many of the Black Hand members started their crime careers in places like Palermo. If they were being sought by the police, they'd hop on a steamship to America and resume their extortion and assaults here. It was an escape valve. Petrosino sailed to Sicily to stop the flow of criminals to America, but what he found was a Mafia culture far more entrenched and universal than anything he'd seen back home.

Is it as obvious as bigotry, the failure of most cops besides Petrosino to target these guys victimizing New Yorkers?
It was simple prejudice; it was ignorance and fear. There was a belief that the Italians were incorrigible, that they'd be ruled by criminals no matter how much you invested in protecting them. In addition, many police forces like the NYPD were largely Irish, and the Italians were competing for Irish jobs, so why help them?

What's interesting are the effects you see today. Why do you come across so few Italian names in the South? One reason is that these states demanded that the federal government not send Sicilians to their cities and farms, which desperately needed them. The headlines about the Black Hand had made them afraid, and the dark-complected Sicilians were suspect to begin with. So the panic even affected the demographics of the country, which I didn't know until I started researching the book.

I was surprised to learn Petrosino was viewed as almost an Uncle Tom type in some corners. What gives?
Italians had a traumatic relationship with their own rulers. They expected the government and the police to be venal, so when Petrosino joined the NYPD, some saw him as a traitor, someone who was putting his own ambition above the lives of his people. He never expressed the pain this caused, but I believe it haunted him. He dealt with it by working harder, sleeping on his desk, and cracking the heads of more Black Hand members. It was war, and he accepted it as such.

Learn more about Stephan Talty's new book here.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.