Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entry Jan. 2011


The Cop, the Don, and the Iron Prefect
 
Petrosino photoThe real life of New York City super-cop, Joseph Petrosino (photo), is at least as riveting as any fictional account of hero vs arch-villain; unfortunately, Petrosino's story ends in his foul murder at the hands of criminals. He does leave behind, however, an inspiring story of fighting for good and at least two displays that tell his story. One is the Joe Petrosino museum in the town of his birth, Padula, in the Campania region of Italy south of Naples; as well, there is a tribute to him on the premises of the New York City police precinct where he served as the first Italian-American immigrant to rise to a position of prominence with the NYPD.

Petrosino was born in 1861, emigrated to the US in about 1870, joined the police force in 1883, did well and in 1895 was promoted to detective sergeant in charge of the Homicide Division, making him the first Italian-American to lead that division. The police commissioner who promoted him was future US President, Teddy Roosevelt. For the next 14 years "Joe" was active in the fight against Mafia criminals, who were making their way illegally into the US and setting up their American "families" in NY. Petrosino was ideal as a liaison between the authorities and the largely non-English-speaking wave of first-generation Italian emigrants in New York. He also helped keep tabs on the nest of Italian anarchists residing in or near New York. Most importantly, he initiated or played an active role in campaigns against a shadier side of that same wave from southern Italy, the Mafia.

At the turn of the century Petrosino's path crosses that of the arch-villain, Vito Cascio Ferro, known as "don Vito" (b. 1863-d. 1942, 43 or 45, possibly in Pozzuoli, near Naples). He was a Cosa Nostra (Mafia) boss in Sicily who fled to the United states in September, 1901. If you read some accounts of him, they sound like descriptions of Robert de Niro as the dashing young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, part 2:
Don Vito brought the organization to its highest perfection without undue recourse to violence...Don Vito ruled and inspired fear mainly by the use of his great qualities and natural ascendancy...He was loved by all [and] he never refused a request for aid and dispensed millions in loans, gifts and general philanthropy.

(The Italians by Luigi Barzini)

Whatever his purported merits, don Vito was active in the US at least as a counterfeiter and in the illegal emigration racket and, as such, he was fair game for Petrosino, whose philosophy in handling the Mafia was to get them for anything; if not murder or extortion, make it double-parking and jaywalking; disrupt their lives and give us an excuse to deport them. As a result, because of the efforts of Joe Petrosino, don Vito arrived back in Sicily in September of 1904 where he resumed his activities of old —and bided his time, waiting for revenge.

Don Vito, though never convicted of Petrosino's murder (he had an alibi—imagine that!), is generally considered to have been the instigator behind that crime. Joe Petrosino was foolishly brave and traveled to Sicily on an investigation in March of 1909 even though he knew that they knew he was coming. In Palermo he followed an informant's tip and walked into an ambush where he was shot and killed. On Sunday, March 14, 1909, the New York Times ran a full seven-column feature on Petrosino's life, work, and death. It included a short comment by ex-president, Teddy Roosevelt. He was shaken when reporters broke the news to him. He said,  "...I cannot say anything except to express my deepest regrets. Petrosino was a great man and a good man. I knew him for years, and he did not know the name of fear. He was a man worth while. I regret most sincerely the death of a man such as 'Joe' Petrosino."

Back in Sicily, don Vito's life was not all that bad for a few years. He was tried and aquited, for lack of evidence, of charges having to with Petrosino's murder. So far, so good. Then, in 1926 Mussolini decided to bust up the Mafia. (Dictators are notorious for their lack of tolerance of private war-lords). The Duce appointed Cesare Mori (1871 – 1942), a cop with a reputation for being tough on crime; he was, as it turned out, at least as nasty as the Mafia. They called him the "Iron Prefect"; he is reported to have said that the only way to defeat the Mafia was to make people more afraid of the state than they were of the criminals. He invaded with military force Mafia strongholds on Sicily, not shying away from torturing suspects and even holding their wives and children hostage. It got results. It is fair to say that the Mafia in Italy was broken (at least until their return following WW2).

Don Vito was sent to prison for life in 1930. There is no reliable account of how the Don finished his days although there are a few versions. According to some sources (this one, La Patria, bene o male [Our Nation, for Better or Worse] by Carlo Fruttero and Massimo Gramellini, Mondaori, 2010) he was in the Pozzuoli prison near Naples in 1943 when the air-raid alarm sounded, The warden (unnamed in the book) evacuated prisoners to an air-raid shelter but conveniently "forgot" don Vito in his cell, where he was left to die at the age of 80 either of thirst and hunger or of a bomb falling on him. Again, according to the book, the warden supposedly kept a picture of Joe Petrosino on his desk in his office. That account is contradicted by some others, and I find that it smacks a bit too much of "poetic justice".

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