Joe Petrosino Remains the Toughest Cop in NYC History

Petrosino was a champion of the people, feared by the mafia, whose legend lives on today.

The following article, written by Jay Maeder, appears on

NYPD mob cop Joe Petrosino: The Italian-American crime fighter who battled the Black Hand

After a time it became just a matter of course for the more established southern Italian hoodlums to walk their newly arrived countrymen to a point near Police Headquarters and point out to them the short, squat, derby-hatted detective, so that in the future they might recognize him on sight and accord him wide berth. Petrosino was his name, Joseph Petrosino, and he was out to get every one of them. He was fearless, Petrosino was; he would stomp into a basement and collar two desperate killers at a time and march both of them off to the electric chair by the scruffs of their necks, and the room could be full of armed men and nobody would dream of drawing on him. Of Joseph Petrosino it was most wise to beware.

It wasn’t merely that he was a cop. With Petrosino, the sworn duty was a matter of private honor. Giuseppe Petrosino had been born in Salerno, and he had come to the New World as a youth, and he had shined shoes and he had sold newspapers and he had gone to school and bettered himself, and then he had become New York’s first Italian policeman, a man deeply trusted by the city’s immigrant families, a man looked up to by children in the street.

Leonardo DiCaprio Set to Play Hero Cop Joe Petrosino 

And now, every day, he had to watch as the cheapest dregs of Naples and Sicily got off the boat and scuttled into the corners of the murderous Italian underworld, thieves and cut-throats and bone crushers come to prey upon their own kind, come now from the old country’s mafia and Camorra to make all the city think that Italians were nothing but unwashed criminal rodents.

He was personally affronted by this. He was mortified. It was not now just a job, ridding his America of such vermin. Giuseppe Petrosino had been shamed.

There had been fewer than 20,000 Italians in New York when Petrosino arrived on these shores in the mid-1870s; by 1909 there were more than half a million, most of them deplorably crushed together in the tenements of the lower East Side and East Harlem, and they lived every day of their lives fearing that somehow they would come to the attention of the terrible Black Hand. Continue reading at

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