Book Review: The ltalian Squad – Started By Rampant Murders, Mired In Constant Accusations Of Prejudice – Doomed To Failure
Did you know that well before the FBI tried to stop the mafia in the United States, the local NYC police department was well aware of the issue, and tried to put a stop to it? How did they do this? They formed something called The Italian Squad.
The story begins in the early part of the 1900s. A police officer from New York went on a journey to Palermo in the southern part of Italy. He was seeking individuals who were members of what was at the time the infamous gang of the Black Hand. This was well before popular culture would rename it the Mafia.
At the time, the Black Hand was comprised of relatively few individuals, considering what it all would later grow into. But Joe Petrosino, the aforementioned police officer spending time in Italy, was seeking members of this gang who had committed crimes in America, then traveled across the ocean to escape prosecution.
The Italian government was as helpful as they were able to be, considering that these same criminal gangs also terrorized people in Italy. The goal was to find the criminals, with the help of Italian authorities, deport them back to the US, and try them for their crimes.
However, Petrosino did not take seriously enough the power that these criminal gangs already had in Italy, and he became their next victim. He was gunned down late at night by multiple strangers in a strange city, and he never accomplished his mission.
Shortly after his death, the Italian Squad was formed. Since many of the Italian immigrants in the US did not speak English, it was essential to have police officers that could communicate with them. Even more important, however, was to have officers who were members of the community, that the community could come to trust.
Unfortunately, Petrosino was not the first to fail in the mission to bring Italian Black Hand members to justice. There were others who followed the same trail, and met the same fate. It would appear that their entire mission was a failure, because very few of the criminals they were seeking were able to be brought back to the US for trial.
In the meantime, however, the activities of the gang members continued in America. What were these activities, you might ask?
Well, at that time it was a little different, but not that much. They ran gambling and prostitution, of course, but also intimidation of local business owners. How they intimidated them was quite sinister.
If a member of the community, such as one shop owner in the city, appeared to have come into money and failed to hide it, it was quite likely that their child would be kidnapped. This happened a great many times to many families, and was just as distressing as you might think. Most of the children thus kidnapped were not found, or their bodies were found.
There was one shop owner who had come into a little bit of money, not a lot for the time, and he bought a car for the family. This ostentatious show of wealth caught the eye of the Black Hand, and their six year old child was taken. Despite investigations, the child was not found alive.
Another case where a successful doctor’s child was stolen had a slightly happier ending, but it was not due to police work. The family paid the ransom, and their son, who had not been fed well for three weeks, was returned to them.
One partially successful case was that of Joseph Longo and Michael Rizzo, two young boys of about six who were playing together outside when they were kidnapped. The police were able to trace one of the children to a house in a poor part of the city, where Joseph Longo was found. He was the son of a businessman who had been so successful that he was able to purchase seven houses in the neighborhood. The boy who was taken with him was also found wandering around in the streets near where the other boy had been found. His captors were never found.
Due to the understanding most members of the Italian immigrant community had that the threats of the Black Hand were more than just threats, most cases where children were kidnapped resulted in ransom being paid. Very few wanted to take the chance that their child would be killed because they went to the police.
Mired In Controversy and Politics
You might wonder why you haven’t heard more about this relatively successful group of Italian police officers in the early 20th Century, but the reason is simple: politics.
Political power and influence were more important to many of those in charge of the police force than was stopping this criminal gang. Had the Italian Squad not been so mired in controversy, and had they not been disbanded in 1922, it is likely that our history would have been very, very different.
Imagine if the Italian Squad had been operating in full force when Prohibition came. There would have been a lot fewer speakeasies, because the police would have known about them from their contacts in the community and shut them down.
The mafia’s rise to power was very much a result of the lack of assistance from police officers who could speak the language of the community being terrorized. The 1980s might have been a different story as well, since many of those who committed the infamous crimes of that time would have already been in jail for other crimes. The people who were in the Black Hand and later the Mafia committed all kinds of crimes, from killing people to running gambling and prostitution, and all sorts of other crimes.
Had it not been for the Italian Squad, their activities would have increased much sooner, because the squad was at least moderately effective. But from the start, it was embroiled in politics.
Every time the governor would change, the police chief and other members of the political community would change as well. There were multiple occasions where this change meant that the Italian Squad was disbanded, its officers assigned to desk duty.
Then crime in the Italian immigrant community would become rampant, with no help whatsoever from the officers on the force who were not members of the community and could not speak the language. Then, the squad would be reformed, generally with the same officers at the helm.
While it was a meager effort, it was better than nothing, and the Italian Squad was able to take credit for many crimes that were solved and kidnapped children returned to their families unharmed. But the ultimate goal, which was to find the criminals who had run away from prosecution to Sicily or Italy, where they were from, never really panned out. There were a few successes in that vein, but for the most part, it did not happen.
The Italian Squad also seems to have brought into being the attitude toward the police with regard to the Black Hand that we see today toward the Mafia. This is to say, where the police officers or FBI officers, etc, speak to the media, write books, go on book tours, and become mini-celebrities in the larger community.
There was one person in particular who is mentioned in the conclusion of the book, who was able to continue to be in the eye of the media for many years.
Gun Control Laws At The Time Targeted Italian Immigrants, Though Later Applied To People Of Color As Well
The gun control law in New York that was recently struck down in the case NYSRPA v. Bruen, called The Sullivan Act, mandated that an individual had to prove that they had cause for carrying a concealed weapon in New York.
It was enacted in 1911, amid the rising anti-Italian sentiment, as well as the growth of crime among Italian-American immigrants at that time. This is the time that this book discussed, and demonstrated that this law was directed at Italian-Americans in the early 20th Century.
Similarly the anti-immigration law of 1924, while targeting many nationalities, was passed primarily as a result of the rising crime in the Italian-American communities that were then growing in New York. It was meant to stem the tide of immigration by Italian-Americans to the United States, particularly where individuals would leave and return to the US after going to Italy.
Many people would go back and forth from their home in America to their family in Italy, and then they would return again. This law was aimed at this group in particular, according to this author.
As the author concludes the book, “Frustrated as the detectives were by the often meager cooperation they received, they still served as a bridge for an alienated immigrant community. They helped people who were in the grip of traumatic events…who faced dire threats because their hard work had produced some material success. Petrosino, Vachris, Corrao, Fischetti, and the detectives who worked with them were willing to take great risks for them and many others like them. That is what made their work valuable and memorable.”