When Joe Met Joe

Our Family’s Encounter with The Black Hand, at the Turn of the 20th Century


Giuseppe Palisi, 31 years old, and his wife Josephine 22, had no idea what awaited them as they departed Messina, Sicily for a voyage to the New World, around 1900. Like other immigrant groups before them, Italians had heard stories of a new land of opportunity across the sea, where the streets were paved with gold. Of course, when the young couple arrived in America the reality that greeted them was far from the image they had dreamed of. After surviving the processing and examination ordeal of Ellis Island, many “lucky” new immigrants settled in the crowded tenements and slums of New York City’s lower Manhattan. Those who were not so lucky were turned away for health reasons, most commonly for having “pink eye” (conjunctivitis), caused by trachoma, a leading cause of blindness in those pre-antibiotic times, and returned to Italy.This was the case for Giuseppe Palisi. However, not to be deterred from his goal of becoming an American citizen, he ventured to Canada. After his illness was cured, he and Josephine entered the United States through the northern border. 

Giuseppe and Josephine began to eke out a living near New York’s Greenwich Village, in the vicinity of Washington Square, and started their family. Their first new arrival in their adopted country, Catherine, was born in 1903. A son, Thomas, was born soon after, followed by another son, Luca, in 1907. Their final child was my mother, Rose, born in 1912 – the year an iceberg sent the Titanic to the bottom of the sea. Mom used to joke that she was the original “Rose of Washington Square,” the title of the famous 1920’s tune. Giuseppe opened a fruit stand, and also shined shoes to supplement his income. As a child I only knew my grandfather as a gentil, 80+-year-old man with a crooked nose. He always asked me to sit on his “laps.” My mother would correct him: “Papa, it’s lap, not laps.” I asked my mother about his crooked nose. She told me that one day he got a smudge of shoe polish on a gentleman’s socks, and the “gentleman” kicked Giuseppe in the face, breaking his nose. 

Eventually, Giuseppe had managed to scrape enough money together to open a small grocery store in Greenwich Village, near Washington Square Park. Things were beginning to look up for the Palisi family, the beginning of the classic American Dream. Owning their own home would soon be within their reach!  One morning, as my grandfather was preparing the store for the day’s customers, a stranger walked in and handed him a piece of paper. Giuseppe’s hands trembled when he looked down and saw the dreaded image of the Black Hand drawn on the paper. The note contained detailed instructions to deliver a specific amount of money at a designated location by a certain date and time. It also included threats to murder or kidnap Giuseppe’s family, and bomb his store if he failed to comply. Recent killings and bombings in the area convinced him that this was not an empty bluff. The final instruction in the letter clearly stated, “Do not go to the police!” Giuseppe looked into the stranger’s cold, dark eyes, and wondered if his dreams of a new life in America were going to end in a bloody explosion.

In early 1905, the New York Police Commissioner, William McAdoo, had placed an Italian-speaking detective, Lt. Joseph Petrosino, in charge of a five-man group of Italian-speaking detectives, to combat the rash of killings and bombings committed by theBlack Hand, primarily against Italian immigrants. The group became known as The Italian Squad. My grandfather had heard about Joe Petrosino, so he defied the Black Hand’s orders, and decided to enlist his help. He went to the local police precinct and asked to speak with Detective Petrosino. The officer in charge ushered him into his office. Petrosino stood, and extended his hand.

In his strong Italian accent my grandfather said, “Excuse my English, Detective Petrosino. My name is Giuseppe Palisi. I own a small grocery store. The Black Hand gave me this letter.” He handed the crude piece of paper to the detective.

Before Petrosino read the note he smiled, and patted my grandfather on the shoulder. “Eh, I’m Giuseppe too. That’s Joe. We’re both Joe! I like you, Joe. It’s good to meet you. Don’t worry about your English. I’m gonna help you.” The detective read the letter, then told my grandfather to follow the instructions, but to put old newspaper in the package instead of money. Then, leave the package in the designated spot as instructed and go home. He would take care of the rest. 

It was late on a cold, windy, winter night as Giuseppe placed the package next to a particular rock in a deserted Washington Square Park.  He started to walk away, but his curiosity got the better of him. Instead of leaving as Detective Petrosino had instructed, he hid behind a nearby tree to see what would happen. Several minutes later, the pickup man came to retrieve the package. Petrosino jumped out from his own hiding place and began to beat up the mafioso with a series of brutal punches and kicks. Finally, when he had the man on the ground, he stood over him, grabbed the lapels of his coat and shook him, shouting in his bloodied face, “The Palisi family are my friends! If you ever bother them again, you’ll get a worse beating than this!” On purpose, he let the terrified man run away so he could report back to his gang. My grandfather never heard from The Black Hand again.

As the years passed, the story of the fight got bigger and more elaborate. By the time I heard it, the two men were sliding across the ice in the moonlight as they fought a lengthy battle. I thought the beating itself was an exaggerated story. However, one night while watching an episode of America’s Greatest Detectives on a cable TV show, I learned that beating up mafia hoodlums really was Petrosino’s preferred method of administering immediate justice. 

On a sad note, Detective Petrosino was assassinated by the Sicilian Mafia in Palermo, Sicily – the birthplace of the Mafia, in March, 1909, when a New York newspaper leaked information about his trip overseas to conduct an investigation about Italian criminals fleeing justice and settling in America. However, the story of Detective Joseph Petrosino does not end there!  His proud legacy lives on.  The Italian Squad, which he led, was eventually disbanded but evolved into what is now the NYPD Intelligence Division. He is also credited with creating the NYPD Bomb Squad, and the Canine Squad, both of which are active today. 

Several years ago, I received an invitation to my friend Michael Vecchione’s birthday party. Mike is retired Chief of the Rackets Division in the Kings County (Brooklyn) District Attorney’s Office. One name on the RSVP list caught my eye: Joseph Petrosino! I asked Mike if there was any connection. Turns out Joe is the grand-nephew of the famous detective, and continued his uncle’s crime fighting tradition by working as an Assistant District Attorney in the Kings County (Brooklyn, NY) DA’s office, until he retired in 2011. At the party I gave him a summary of this story for his family’s scrapbook, written by my daughter, Laura, for a high school class project about family history. So, like my grandfather, I also had the pleasure of “Meeting Joe.” 

And one additional footnote: Joe’s son, Joseph Petrosino, the famous detective’s great-grandnephew, continues the family’s proud legacy. He is a detective with the NYPD, currently assigned to the NYPD Intelligence Division.

Family’s Photos Below

A proud Giuseppe Palisi (58 years old) seated at left with his wife, Josephine (49), next to her family, the Belsitos. Their daughter, Catherine, stands behind her father on her wedding day in 1927. 

Next to Catherine, is her new husband, Louis Donato, my mother, Rose, her cousin Frances Belsito, brothers Thomas and Luca, and two other unidentified women. Seated next to Josephine is her brother, Father Belsito, who traveled from Sicily to officiate at his niece’s wedding. Far right, Josephine’s other brother, Lucas Belsito, his wife (also named Josephine), and their son, Luke.

Note the slight curve of Giuseppe’s nose, courtesy of a “gentleman’s” kick years earlier.  

Author Paul Mila, at 9 years old, sitting on his grandfather’s lap (“laps”) in 1956 when Giuseppe was 87.

For additional information about Detective Joseph Petrosino and The Black Hand, visit: http://mafiahistory.us/a015/f_italsquad.html

© Paul Mila www.milabooks.com 

Childrens books & mystery/adventure novels.

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Paul Mila has expanded his horizons from Brooklyn to Baja, and beyond. In 2002, he traded in his corporate suit for a wetsuit and now devotes his time to writing, scuba diving, underwater photography, and speaking to groups about ocean conservation. He has enjoyed photographing and diving with Caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas, humpback whales in the Dominican Republic and Tonga, gray whales in Mexico’s Baja lagoons, great white sharks at Guadalupe Island, Mexico, and a wide variety of sea life around the world, including his favorite dive location: Cozumel, Mexico, and his home waters of Long Island, New York.