Nick Pileggi, author of "Wiseguys"
My background is organized crime. There aren’t many crime fighters who I hold in high esteem. For most of my life they were corrupt, enabling those of us in the business of crime to operate with virtual impunity. When I couldn’t pay an accuser off to get out of an assault case, the judge took half the money we had offered the so-called victim (I call him that because he attacked me, then yelled cop after he’d gotten the worst of it) to drop the charges. In fact, after my first major adult arrest, my attorney showed up to bail me out. Instead of praising me for keeping my mouth shut, he berated me, calling me every synonym for idiot he could think of. Why, because, he said, the detective told him he had given me every hint he could that I could pay him off to let me go and I hadn’t responded. The truth was, I had been to busy waiting to roll with the punch if he slugged me to hear anything he said, and hadn’t had the experience yet of that scale of bribery. That’s just the way it was. Later, when the Knapp Commission scared most law enforcement to stop taking bribes, they cut the limbs we were on out from under us and walked away mostly unscathed. More recently, when the U.S. Attorneys and FBI Agents won victory after victory against mobsters, I gave more credit to the internal disintegration of the mob than to good police work. Without scumbags trading other people’s families and freedom for their crimes, how many cases would the Feds have successfully prosecuted?
However, there is one lawman from long ago that I’ve come to greatly admire; so much so that I’ve recently completed a screenplay based on his life. The name of the screenplay: "DAGO." His name: Giuseppe "Joe" Petrosino.
By the time the great wave of poor Southern Italian immigrants landed in New York at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Joe Petrosino had been there for nearly thirty years. He’d arrived in New York from Padula, Italy in 1873, at 13 years of age, at a time when a wealthier middle class of Italians, mostly from north of the Mezzogiorno, came to America to springboard their offspring to an even better life. Many were skilled workers or artisans, and tended to live in ethnically mixed areas as they moved up the American ladder, not in the ghettos abandoned by the second generation Irish as the later, poorer arrivals from Italy did. Joe’s father was a tailor and opened a Manhattan shop that became successful enough to comfortably support his family.
Young Giuseppe shined shoes outside Police Headquarters, where he developed a friendship with a Captain of Police. That friendship led to his getting a job as a "white winger" or street cleaner, which was controlled by the Police Department at the time. White wingers were named for the white uniforms they wore as they made their way through New York’s streets, picking up litter in with small brooms and dustpans and depositing in barrels on wheels that they dragged along. Later on, since crime in the Italian ghetto was out of control and the Police Department was made up of primarily German Jews and Irish, the Police Commissioner bent the 5’7" height minimum rule to admit the 5’3" Petrosino to the force. He quickly distinguished himself by his ability to solve crimes that English speaking law enforcement community couldn’t. He was quickly promoted to Sergeant by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Though his professional life moved forward, Petrosino’s personal life was virtually nonexistent. His insecurities about his looks, his station in life, and, later, a preoccupation with his work kept him from entering into any serious relationships. Danger was another factor that added to his lonely life. Constant threats of murder forced him to move from his parents’ apartment to a solitary one in order to protect them.
Petrosino’s style was rough. He regularly beat criminals, especially if he felt they would be released without punishment by the courts. On his first day as a detective he beat two men senseless who he caught assaulting a black man. When he found that one pimp he particularly detested was being deported back to Sicily, Petrosino got him alone in an office on Ellis Island, where the man was being held, and knocked out all his teeth with a ring of keys. His actions were picked up by the press, which saw him as a hero among an immigrant community they feared and believed was criminal in nature. He had no such support from the Tammany Hall politicos, who, more likely to take bribes from criminals than support their convictions, were a constant thorn in his side. Most Italian newspapers also denigrated him and his actions, probably because of their own connection to the community’s toughs. At that time, Southern Italian gangs preyed on their fellow immigrants only, since neither group could speak anything but their dialect from the old country. Gangsters, many using Black Hand symbols to strike fear into their paisani, couldn’t deal with English speaking groups. Italian victims’ inability to communicate with authorities kept them from getting protection or justice.
Petrosino was also an innovator in police procedure and methodology that has lasted far beyond his life. He was one of the first to make regular use of forensics in solving crimes. Things that were generally overlooked didn’t escape Petrosino’s eye. He would dig out bits of substance to determine points of origin of evidence and relations and background of a murder victim. One of his most famous cases took place in the early 1900s, when a body was found in the Italian immigrant section of New York, in a barrel of sawdust, cut up with the cadaver’s genitals in its mouth. Immediately, a call went out from the Police Commissioner, of, "Get me the Dago!" In what was labeled "The Body in the Barrel Case," merely by examining the barrel, its contents, and the possessions of the victim, Petrosino found both the location of the murder (a Sicilian café frequented by criminals) and a relative (a Sing Sing inmate serving time for counterfeiting) who supplied the perpetrators and motive for the murder. He also did a lot of undercover work to gather criminal intelligence in Italian communities in and out of New York City. He might pass as a construction hand, a bum, or a Hasidic Jew. His rate of crimes solved in Little Italy, where few police even spoke the language and had to deal with a wall of fearful silence, was especially high, though he was plagued by a turnaround court system that regularly had the criminals back on the street almost before they could post bail. Frustrated by the system, he begged to be sent to Sicily to investigate whether many of the criminals had warrants that he could use to deport them. Over a period of years he was turned down time and again, mostly because of budget considerations and a lack of understanding by politicians of the impact criminals were having on the Italian immigrant community.
Personal law enforcement success, like single-handedly rescuing the kidnapped thirteen year old daughter of an extortion plot victim by sliding down a rope thrown through a skylight, brought not only more adulation from the American press and continued derision from the Italian newspapers, but numerous death threats. He made important enemies like "Lupo The Wolf" and Vito Cascio Ferro, who would later become one of history’s most important Sicilian Mafia dons, and who carried Petrosino’s photo with him as a reminder of his vow to personally kill the detective by his own hand. Ferro’s and Petrosino’s lives intertwined in a way that would eventually bring a fatal confrontation for one or the other.
Petrosino also made powerful friends, including Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who, as New York Police Commissioner, had promoted Petrosino to Detective Sergeant. Further appointments made him New York City’s first Italian Detective Lieutenant and the head of what was labeled "The Italian Squad," made up of Italian police who would be able to communicate with immigrant victims and identify criminal elements in their area.
In the early part of the Twentieth Century, before Lucky Luciano and pals had put the "organized" into "organized crime," Italian ghettos were plagued by four major crime problems: anarchism, Black Hand extortion, prostitution (Sicilian hoodlums would write to the old country saying they needed a wife, then beat the supposed bride when she arrived and pimp her off), and counterfeiting. During one months-long undercover investigation while on loan to the U.S. Secret Service, Petrosino, under an assumed name, worked as a tunnel digger and lived in a rooming house with suspected anarchists in New Jersey. During that time he discovered that there was a plan to assassinate President McKinley. Anarchists had already murdered King Umberto, of Italy. Joe notified Vice President Roosevelt, who arranged a face to face meeting with the President at the White House. McKinley refused to take Petrosino’s information seriously, stating that anarchist assassinations happened overseas, but not in the U.S., and that in general people loved him. Why, if Americans didn’t like the job he was doing, they could always vote him out of office. There was no need in this country to murder any President, he insisted. President McKinley was later assassinated by an anarchist while giving a speech in Upstate New York. Petrosino sadly attended the funeral for the President, but remained a close friend and supporter of Theodore Roosevelt throughout his Presidency.
He also became a friend of legendary opera singer, Enrico Caruso, when the latter became the victim of a Black Hand extortion plot. Caruso, fearing for his life, reached out for Petrosino. The detective supplied bodyguards for Caruso while he investigated the plot. Eventually, he found the conspirators, put the fear of death into them, and had them deported back to Italy.
In spite of all his high profile exploits, the body in the barrel became Petrosino’s signature case. The Jewish Commissioner at the time was so ignorant of not only Italian culture, but his own, that he believed "INRI" on the victim’s crucifix indicated some secret organization or cult killing. Petrosino discovered the murder was part of a counterfeit money deal. His experience in working with the Secret Service on counterfeit investigations helped him track down the conspirators, which included his sworn enemies, Lupo The Wolf and Vito Cascio Ferro. Arrests were made, but bail was made while Petrosino was off chasing another criminal who had fled the city. By the time Petrosino returned, Vito Cascio Ferro had disappeared, on his way back to Sicily, and the man believed to be the actual murderer, Tomasso Petto, had substituted a look alike for himself at the re-arrest if the crew and had also run away.
Joe Petrosino was not just a gung-ho crime fighter, but a man of justice. When he found that a man had been sentenced to die in the electric chair for a murder he hadn’t committed, he found out who the real murderer was and tracked the man all over the country and Nova Scotia as the latter moved from place to place in an effort not to be discovered, at least until the wrongly accuse man had been disposed of and the case officially closed. The chase ended with Petrosino delivering the real killer to authorities a week before the innocent man’s execution. The detective also wound up with pneumonia as a result of terrible weather in Nova Scotia and other cities during his efforts to right the wrong.
In 1908 Joe Petrosino finally married. Thirty-seven year old Adelina was a childless widow who worked in her family’s restaurant, and within a year of their wedding bore him a daughter. It was the high point of Petrosino’s life, as he’d hurry home each day to marvel in his infant offspring. He cut back on his work hours to spend time cuddling the infant in his arms. At that same time, the investigative trip to Sicily he no longer wanted suddenly materialized. Three months after his daughter was born, the dutiful Petrosino departed under an assumed name on a supposedly secret mission to discover those warrants and to pay informers to supply him with ongoing information once he returned home.
While Petrosino was on the ship to his first stop, Rome, on his way to Sicily, his mission was leaked to the press by a Police Department superior. His cover blown, Petrosino continued on to Palermo, where he incurred opposition from the authorities as well as danger from Mafiosi. He refused police bodyguards because he didn’t trust them. One night a man approached him as he ate in a small restaurant near the hotel he was staying at. He hurriedly left for a local train station’s piazza, where he was shot to death. A gun and his derby lay by his bloody body. Legend has it that Don Vito Cascio Ferro, who had become the most powerful Mafioso in Sicily after having been run out of the United States by Petrosino’s relentless pursuit, had been told of his nemesis’ location. He dispatched someone to lure Petrosino to the deserted station with a promise of information. At the appointed time, he left a dinner party with top Palermo politicians, went to the piazza, murdered Petrosino himself, and returned to the dinner. Joe Petrosino had only gotten to spend three months with his precious daughter before being dispatched to Sicily, where he died.
The reaction to Petrosino’s death in the U.S. was pure outrage. Calls were made by newspapers and politicians to deport all Italians, overlooking the fact that Joe Petrosino was himself of Italian descent. Joe’s coffin arrived in New York by ship from Sicily nearly a month after his murder. His funeral procession, begun at St. Patrick’s Church on Mott Street after a Mass by Joe’s old friend, Bishop Lavalle, drew more than 250,000 mourners following from Lower Manhattan’s narrow streets uptown to Fifth Avenue, keeping other movement in the city to a crawl. To this day, Lt. Detective Joseph Petrosino is the only American detective ever killed overseas in the line of duty, and is remembered in Lower Manhattan with a statue of him that stands guard in a tiny park that bears his name, and is just steps from the old police headquarters on Grand and Baxter Streets.
Though Giuseppe "Joe" Petrosino fought the forerunners of my friends and associates, his name is forever linked with organized crime, and, due to his exploits in defense of a victimized Italian immigrant community, he is a figure deserving of admiration…even by me.
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Other Features by this author:
R.I.P. ~ Bill Bonanno
Bill Bonanno did not choose a mob life; his father chose it for him.
"When We Were Kings"
A contemplative look back at the good old days of mobdom, brought on by the half century anniversary of the infamous Appalachian Convention.
Lansky and Miami
Outside of Las Vegas, there is probably no city in the United States that owes more of its development to the mob than Miami.
Arrivederci, Little Italy
The current demise of Little Italy can only be compared to the decades-long downward plunge of Atlantic City and Miami before their rebirths. Little Italy will have no such rebirth.
"Turning Mob Myths, From the Inside and Out, Inside-Out"
Some myths have been so ingrained in the public consciousness that gangsters themselves now believe them.
Why So Many Rats Today?
I asked a friend how many men who had testified against the mob since Joe Valachi had been caught up with and killed? He said, "None."
Good Friends Who Did Dumb Things
In the course of my life in the streets, I have had some friends, who did some really dumb things that resulted in their deaths.
To Mob Wannabes:
As someone who lived most of my life in organized crime, trust me, guys, there’s nothing left to wannabe.
Fooled you, huh? You thought I was talking about illegals crossing the Mexican border.
The Best True Mob Story
In the case of traditional organized crime, you're watching American history unfold.
Sonny Girard, a former mobster, decided to have his protagonist be caught between three agencies: the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence), the FBI, and…you guessed it…the mob.
SONNY GIRARD BIOGRAPHY:
Though born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Girard spent most of his formative years in the Red Hook and Navy Yard sections of South Brooklyn. Making little use of an IQ of close to 150, he instead chose to follow the path of the only people in that desperately poor neighborhood who seemed to have money: "wiseguys."
By the time a three-and-a-half year undercover operation by New York’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, targeted at Sonny Girard, was culminated with the arrest of seventeen, Girard was characterized by the New York Post as "…a middle echelon member" of one of New York’s five mob families. As a result of the arrest, Girard was sentenced to three years in State Prison, which he served to maximum time in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Downstate, and Arthurkill.
In 1985, Sonny Girard was convicted of racketeering, under the RICO statute, by Rudolph Giuliani’s office, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. During that term, which he also served maximum time on, Girard became interested in writing. Along with another inmate, who had sold a manuscript to a major publisher, Girard helped form a fiction writers’ workshop. It was during that time that Girard completed his first novel, BLOOD OF OUR FATHERS (Pocket/Simon & Schuster, hardcover, June, 1991; softcover, May, 1992).
Due to his experience in and ability to communicate about organized crime, the author has been in demand from various television shows and newspapers as an expert on various crimes, including organized crime activities. He recently appeared on Fox Network’s "National Enquirer T.V.," to analyze the authenticity of HBO’s hit show "Sopranos," Fox News Channel’s "The Edge," with Paula Zahn, to discuss John Gotti’s legacy, and "The O’Reilly Factor," regarding the disappearance of Chandra Levy, and ABC’s "Politically Incorrect," with Bill Maher, for "Mob Week." He was also called in to consult with the screenwriter of record on "Mickey Blue Eyes," starring Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and James Caan. Italy’s RAI T.V. has done a biographical piece on Girard, as have Italian national newspapers "Corriere Della Sera" and "Il Tempo."
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