STRATFORD—At five-foot-three, he was one of the most fearsome men on the New York City police force. He was a master of disguise known as the Italian Sherlock Holmes. And he was dauntless in his singlehanded fight against organized crime.
Lt. Joseph Petrosino was the first Italian detective in a predominantly Irish police force, who for more than 20 years took on the notorious Black Hand, a criminal organization that preyed on Italian immigrants in New York at the turn of the century. By the time he was promoted to lieutenant, he was in charge of the “Italian Squad,” a team of six detectives committed to the fight against the underworld during the Gilded Age. During their first year on the streets, they cut the Black Hand crimes in half.
Even though Petrosino had only a sixth-grade education, he became the friend of men like President Teddy Roosevelt and opera singer Enrico Caruso, and when he died at 48 from an assassin’s bullet while undercover in Sicily, his funeral procession through New York brought out more than 200,000 people.
James Carmody of Stratford, a member of St. Mark Church and English teacher at New York’s Information Technology High School, spent more than a decade researching and writing a historical novel about Petrosino titled, “The Giant Killer,” based on the life and exploits of the most renowned Italian-American law officer in the city’s history.
The book, which was published by Pocol Press and is available on Amazon, begins on January 5, 1905 when one of the worst blizzards in history paralyzed the city. A bomb set off in a barber shop leaves one man dead and in the weeks that follow, there is a series of bombings as Petrosino pursues his investigation. One of the lead suspects in the case is a Major League ballplayer on the New York Giants, who are in a pennant race.
Carmody says he was intrigued by the brilliant detective, who used modern forensic techniques at the turn of the 19th century. He was known to be a fearless law officer who had a photographic memory and often went undercover disguised as a ragpicker, priest or laborer. Because of his height, he wore lifts in his shoes and a derby hat to make himself appear taller. (The department waived the height requirement when he joined the force.)
“I read about Petrosino in my research on New York and I was drawn to his integrity,” Carmody said. ‘He was a devout Catholic and a daily communicant. He was also committed to the Italian community at a time when Italians were afraid to go to the police because members of the Black Hand were extorting them.”
Petrosino often worked alone in his war against criminals who terrorized Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he often found it difficult to get victims to tell their stories because they feared reprisals, which could include bombings, harm to their children, arson, kidnappings and murder.
Giuseppe Petrosino was born in 1860 in Padula, Italy and came to America at 13 to live with his grandfather. His first jobs in New York were as a boot black and “White Wing” street sweeper, Carmody said. Then, at 23 he became the first officer to speak Italian on a police force of 30,000 men. Eventually, he became friends with Teddy Roosevelt, who was on the council of police commissioners and later became president of the United States.
Petrosino is widely remembered for the cases he cracked, including the sensational “Barrel Murders,” in which the bodies of victims were stuffed inside barrels and left on the street as a sign by the Black Hand. He also helped Enrico Caruso when the singer was being threatened with extortion, Carmody said. Caruso was so afraid he would be shot during a performance that a gun used in an opera performance was routinely checked to ensure no one had slipped in real bullets.
Carmody began research for the novel in 2007, when he was awarded a fellowship by the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library. His work took him to the library for ten summers, to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Italian-American Museum and the Mark Twain House in Hartford. The novel includes many historical events, from the pennant race that led to the 1905 World Series between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Athletics to Mark Twain’s 70th birthday celebration and the tragic train derailment on the Ninth Avenue Elevated on September 11, 1905 which left 13 dead and 50 injured.
Last year, Carmody was honored for his work by being invited to march in the Columbus Day parade with the Joseph Petrosino historical society along with two descendants of the detective.
Lt. Petrosino was murdered on March 12, 1909, while on a secret assignment in Sicily. His funeral procession through Little Italy and Manhattan brought out more mourners than the funeral for President William McKinley in 1901. Petrosino is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, the same place where Carmody’s parents lie. His grave is marked by a pillar that has an ornate bust of him.
“Joe Petrosino is a heroic example for the rest of us,” Carmody said. “He was a model citizen and an individual who defied criminal organizations, and he helped immigrants in the Italian community when there was no one else for them.”
By Joe Pisani