The untold story of America's top cop

Created date

October 6th, 2017
Detective Joseph Petrosino (far right) leads a Black Hand suspect to court.

Detective Joseph Petrosino (far right) leads a Black Hand suspect to court. 

Writer Stephan Talty first encountered the name Joseph Petrosino in a book about the Mafia. Although covered in just a handful of terse sentences, this little-known character in U.S. law enforcement history intrigued him.

As a journalist, Talty wanted to know more. He figured there had to be at least one good biography of the man who had waged war on arguably the deadliest secret society in American history.

So he went to the library and, shockingly, found nothing. The notion that so important a crime fighter existed in the historical record only as a few offhand remarks was unbelievable.

Petrosino’s life work deserved better, he thought. Thus was born the New York Times best-selling author’s next project, his latest book, The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

Twentieth-century tale

The story takes us back to the early twentieth century, when Italian immigrants were coming ashore at Ellis Island by the thousands. It was a time of tremendous growth in America, technologically, geographically, and culturally. 

A once-homogenous nation quickly evolved toward diversity, and Italians were largely responsible. They were the laborers and craftspeople who helped turn New York into a metropolis, the neighborhood businesses and entrepreneurs who proved that foreigners could come to the United States and succeed.

Yet, despite their achievements and contributions, they were the subject of prejudice within the popular American consciousness. 

A darker threat

They were encouraged to keep to their own kind. But it was among their own kind that they faced their biggest threat—a secret terror organization known as the Black Hand.

Highly organized and pervasive, the Black Hand was essentially the precursor to the Mafia—a group of thugs and powerful leaders who extorted money from law-abiding Italian-American citizens.

Beginning around 1906, a rash of victims received threats in the form of handwritten letters demanding large sums of money by a specified date. Those who didn’t pay suffered the consequences, which ranged from child abductions to bombings.

The Black Hand was soon synonymous with such tactics, and Italian-Americans were readily paying huge ransoms when targeted. The one man in the New York City Police Department willing and able to do anything about it was an Italian immigrant himself.

Born in Italy in 1860, Joseph Petrosino had been in the United States since he was 13. He spoke fluent English and Italian, was an assimilated American, a red-blooded New Yorker, and a respected policeman since 1883.

“Petrosino was an incredible guy,” says Talty. “He was a combination of Old World Italy and modern America: He listened to opera, loved Italian food, and, at the same time, proved that Italian immigrants could preserve their culture and embrace their new country.”

Petrosino was also a model police officer who wasn’t about to stand by and watch the Black Hand terrorize people into submission. 

Taking on a formidable mission

In 1908, after a great deal of appeals and resistance from inside the NYPD, he received permission to start a dedicated squad of Italian-American officers tasked with conquering the Black Hand.

Talty’s riveting account explores how Petrosino’s efforts altered the nation’s perception of Italian-Americans, and, furthermore, how his taskforce utilized cutting-edge investigative techniques.

“The Black Hand was very sophisticated, and Petrosino and his men were up to the challenge,” explains Talty. “They used handwriting analysis, disguises and undercover operations, and informants.”

In examining the many letters sent by the terror group, Petrosino had Black Hand suspects brought into the precincts to provide writing samples, which he would then compare to recent ransom notes. 

When Black Hand members switched to typewriters, Petrosino had them checked. In one case, the wily detective discovered a typewriter with a marked typographical flaw that he used to identify a letter’s source.

‘Sherlock Holmes of Italy’

“The press had dubbed Petrosino the Sherlock Holmes of Italy,” says Talty. “Americans and Italian immigrants respected him for his brilliant work, and this produced a positive change in the country’s perception of the Italian-American community.”

But Petrosino’s notoriety eventually caught up with him. 

In 1909, the famous detective headed to Italy in search of evidence against known Black Hand suspects who had immigrated to the United States. His highly publicized successes in nabbing members of the criminal organization made him a prime target. 

Petrosino’s luck ran out in Palermo, Sicily, where Black Hand henchmen murdered him. When his body arrived back home in New York City, throngs of Americans of all nationalities lined the streets to view his funeral procession. 

“Americans didn’t see an Italian immigrant in Petrosino,” says Talty. “They saw an American who did a great service to his community and to immigrants from his native country; he was the face of Italian America and the face of America in general.

“That’s what makes his story so compelling.”