On the day of Joseph Petrosino’s funeral, the New York City mayor declared a public holiday. Everything shut down; a quarter-million people lined the streets to mourn his passing, as six black horses pulled his hearse in a procession from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the cemetery.
Many readers are now asking themselves: Who on earth was Petrosino? Little remembered today, he was a hero more than 100 years ago—the first Italian police detective sergeant in the U.S. and the face of the national crusade against an extortion-and-kidnapping crime wave perpetrated mostly by Italian criminals against law-abiding fellow immigrants. Author Stephan Talty focuses on that crisis, at its height from 1903 to 1914, in his exciting narrative The Black Hand.
The Black Hand, a loosely affiliated collection of criminal gangs, terrorized Italian immigrants by extorting businesses, kidnapping children for ransom, blowing up buildings and killing the uncooperative. Most victims were too frightened to seek help, and the police and politicians were largely uninterested until the problem spread into nonimmigrant neighborhoods. But Petrosino, an incorruptible, opera-loving tough guy, fought back with his “Italian Squad” of cops, who developed modern investigative techniques.
During this era, Italian Americans had to overcome vile discrimination by native-born Americans. Talty’s writing is wonderfully evocative in capturing the complex immigrant experience of hope, fear, pride and bewilderment. He doesn’t stray into current events, but the parallels with contemporary political concerns are unmistakable. The first law allowing the deportation of immigrants who have criminal records in their home countries was passed in 1907, in direct response to the Black Hand. The organization was finally stamped out—but Petrosino lost his life in the struggle.