Exhibit shows off mementos of a legendary NYC lawman, Lt. Joseph Petrosino

BY John Lauinger

November 8th 2009

A century after his heroic death, the life of NYPD Lt. Joseph Petrosino remains one of the greatest immigrant tales New York City has ever known.

As a young boy, nearly straight off the boat, Petrosino shined shoes outside NYPD headquarters. He became a fearless police investigator who hounded early New York mafiosos, and was murdered in 1909 at the age of 49 while tailing gangsters in Italy.

And yet, for all his grit, gallantry and guts, time has dulled the memory of the famed Italian-American crimefighter.

But the NYPD Museum in lower Manhattan has brought Petrosino's legend to life through a new exhibit based on a bevy of never-before-seen artifacts that were preserved by his widow.

For decades, the vast collection of original documents, photographs and letters was buried in boxes in the Petrosino home - until a Queens filmmaker and museum officials brought them to light.

"It was a museum locked away," said NYPD Museum Executive Director Julie Bose.

"As a museum person, this is something you dream about - to be able to find this treasure trove of artifacts that tell this unbelievable story."

Petrosino's murder left his widow, Adelina, mourning her husband's death while struggling to raise the couple's infant daughter, also named Adelina.

Fearing the Black Hand, she quit Little Italy, moving to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with family. There, the widow meticulously preserved anything and everything associated with her husband, packing items away in boxes, trunks and closets in the family's new home, said Petrosino's granddaughter, Susan Burke.

"My grandmother and my mother were pack rats - they never threw out a thing," said Burke, who discovered the enormity of the collection when she sold the home in 2006, following her mother's death two years earlier.

The artifacts told Petrosino's story - from his arrival in America as a boy in 1872, to his crime-fighting exploits, to the hero's reception that followed his death.

The collection included old photographs, Petrosino's detective diaries, more than 500 original documents and letters from then-President William McKinley and future President and then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt.

It also featured a chilling death threat Petrosino received from the Black Hand, the loose association of Italian mobsters he tenaciously investigated.

Two years after Burke sold the family's Bay Ridge home, Burke was contacted by Anthony Giacchino, 40, a documentary filmmaker from Astoria, Queens, who was researching a yet-to-be-aired film on the famed detective.

Giacchino began cataloguing and organizing the artifacts - a task he was still engaged in when Bose contacted him this summer while researching an exhibit to mark the centennial of Petrosino's assassination.

Collaboration between Giacchino and Bose and her staff produced the exhibit, which is based almost entirely on Adelina Petrosino's collection. It opened at the museum late last month, and has generated so much interest that it will likely travel overseas when it concludes March 31, Bose said.

After viewing the exhibit at its opening, Burke said simply: "It would have made my grandmother and my mother proud."