14 April 2007

CSI: New York (1900-style)

On April 14, 1903, on Avenue D in New York City, a man's mutilated body was found, having been stuffed in a sugar barrel. While most of Atrocity Gods is fictional, I've integrated this murder as a springboard for the events in the book. The murder was directly related to the extortion group called The Black Hand, or La Mano Nera.

In Joe Petrosino by Arrigo Petacco (MacMillan, 1974), Pettaco details the NYPD's investigation into the murder. Petrosino was the NYPD's first Italian detective, and founded the Italian Squad, a special division of the NYPD that serviced the Italian community. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Italian community comprised more than a half a million, or one-fourth, of New York's population. At that time, there were thirty thousand policemen in the NYPD. Only eleven understood Italian.

[The American authorities] contented themselves with symbolically enclosing the Itallian ghetto inside a cordon sanitaire, leaving the minority of criminals free, or virtually free, to levy tribute on the vast majority of their compatriots. In short, let the Italians straighten things out for themselves; what mattered was to keep them from overflowing into the better parts of the city.
- Joe Petrosino by Arrigo Petacco
Since the body in the barrel was found in a predominately white part of the city, the big newspapers covered the investigation. The discovery made the front pages of The Sun, but it was pushed back to page 14 of Pulitzer's The World. In The New York Times, the murder received equal billing with a Vanderbilt wedding and a gust of wind that blew so hard past the Flatiron Building that it knocked a few women off their feet.

Even though the brutal killing might not have been high on the editors' news priority, the reporters did great jobs with their stories. It's interesting to see how journalism has changed in the past hundred years: in those days, the reporters were allowed to go into great detail, even about crime. Each of the papers mentioned differ slightly: one claims the murdered man was a Greek, another supposes he was Syrian or Polish, and only The World said early on that he was Italian or Sicilian. The articles lay out all the clues that the police found, too.

Check out The World's article and see for yourself.

The clues all came together for Petrosino and his men:
  • Established that a cigar butt found in the barrel (among other ashes and cigarettes) was an Italian Toscano cigar.
  • Examined the sawdust and determined that the barrel had been packed wth sweepings from the floor of a saloon, because the dust contained cigarettes and ashes.
  • The crucifix read, "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum", or "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", which pointed to Catholicism or Protestantism rather than Judaism.
  • The note was identified as being written in Italian.
  • The sugar barrel was marked "W. T.", and Petrosino established that it had come from a confectionary on Washington Street called Wallace & Towney. The confectionary supplied pastries to two saloons near the Italian district. One was a German Bierstube on Prince Street, and the other was The Star of Italy Bar on Elizabeth Street.

With all the clues in mind, Inspector Schmittberger and Detective Petrosino decided to visit The Star of Italy first.

"Petrosino recognized, sitting at the tables where they were playing cards, bottles of wine at hand, a great number of gangsters who in his view ought to have been thrown out of the country or into prison...He had noted on entering that the floor of the restaurant was covered with a layer of sawdust, which gave the customers full freedom to spit. It was precisely this sawdust that interested him most. Pretending to tie a loose shoelace, he bent down, scooped up a few pinches of sawdust and emptied them into his trouser cuff." ib.
Back at the Second District offices, Joe compared the sample of sawdust from The Star of Italy against the sawdust from the barrel and made a match. Soon after he made eight arrests, including Pietro Inzerello, the owner of The Star of Italy, who was a member of the Morello-Terranova gang. The police felt sure the murder was solved.

Two of the arrested men were Ignazio Lupo, known as "The Wolf" (pictured left) and Tomasso Petto. During the trial, it came out that the man accused of the actual murder, Tomasso Petto, turned out to be Giovanni Pecoraro. Because Pecoraro couldn't speak English and he'd had no access to a translator until the day of the trial, he could not prove the misidentification. The hearing was called a mistrial, and even though the police maintained that Lupo and crime boss Giuseppe Morello were directly responsible for the murder of Benedetto Madonia, they only did time for a lesser charge: counterfeiting.

The Barrel Murder and the investigation that followed made Police Commissioner McAdoo and the Board of Aldermen realize the need for judicial diplomats (who spoke the language and its various dialects) into the Italian quarters of the Lower East Side, East Harlem and Brooklyn.


Delia DeLeest said...

Totally fascinating! I LOVE reading about stuff like this. This is one of my favorite sites to visit: http://www.crimelibrary.com/gangsters_outlaws/index.html

I spend WAY too much time there...but it's all in the name of research. I get some great plot ideas.

DeborahBrent said...

It is this kind of research that makes a good story a compelling story.