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In Manhattan's Little Italy in 1909, a criminal causes a small girl to be seriously injured during a crowded Sicilian-American religious festival. The child's distressed mother accuses her husband of foolishly placing their daughter in danger, but when Lt. Joseph Petrosino, an Italian-American police officer, questions the father about the perpetrator, the frightened man refuses to speak. Joe has been trying to persuade the local victims of a group of extortionists known as La Mano Nera, or the Black Hand, to testify against the thugs, but the business owners who receive written warnings to "pay or die" are too distrustful of the police to cooperate. One day a baker known as Papa Saulino receives one of the dreaded warnings, which are identified by a drawing of a black hand dripping in blood, but his daughter Adelina's urgings that he report the incident fall on deaf ears. The extortionists, angered by Saulino's refusal to pay, destroy the bakery and lock him in the oven, and after he emerges from the hospital, the baker finally tells Joe about the note. Because Adelina is brutally attacked by two Black Hand men, however, Saulino soon withdraws the charges. During a visit with Adelina, Joe reveals his desire to become the first Italian captain on the New York police force and engages the pretty young woman to tutor him in preparation for the required literacy test. Next, Joe asks the New York police commissioner to give him an "Italian squad" of five or six plainclothesmen to patrol the city's Little Italy neighborhood. The commissioner balks at first, remarking that Italians do not seem to "catch on to our ways," but Joe assures him that if his people are freed from their fear of petty criminals, they will work hard to become Americans. Impressed, the commissioner quietly grants Joe's request. With Joe's detectives posing as members of the community, the squad is able to identify and convict a number of Black Hand criminals. One day, beloved Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso asks for protection, revealing that he, too, has received a Black Hand warning. Following Caruso's performance at the Metropolitan Opera that evening, Joe saves the singer from becoming the victim of a car bomb, but nonetheless the city's wealthier Italian-American citizens are convinced that Joe is too poorly educated to lead the squad, and demand his removal. The police commissioner defends Joe, who, despite Adelina's tutoring, fails his sixth academic test for the position of captain. Despondent, Joe ends his visits to Adelina, assuming she will marry her more successful student, the handsome young Johnny Viscardi. Following an attempt on Joe's life, however, Adelina proposes to Joe, and the two are wed. Later, after Joe persuades a jeweler to ignore a Black Hand demand for money, the jewelry shop is bombed, and the child of Black Hand lawyer Luigi Di Sarno is killed while gazing at trinkets through the window. Di Sarno hangs himself, but Joe and Johnny are able to locate the bomber, who reveals that the crime was commissioned by respected citizen Vito Zarillo. On hearing the word "Mafia" in connection with Zarillo, Joe begins to believe what he had earlier considered nonsense: that the Black Hand might be linked to the powerful Sicilian crime organization. He bids an emotional farewell to Adelina and Johnny and travels to Sicily to investigate. In Palermo, Joe learns by searching police records that many of New York's Black Handers, including Zarillo, are wanted for crimes in Italy. This information he sends home, but Joe decides to trust only himself with some shocking evidence that, as he writes to Johnny, confirms his worst fears about the Mafia's presence in the United States. On the night before he is to return home, Joe encounters Don Cesare, the leader of the Mafia, but before he can escape, one of Cesare's henchmen kills him. At Joe's funeral, Adelina sadly tells Johnny that although Joe thought he was ugly, "he was beautiful to me." Johnny hides when Zarillo enters and spits on Joe's body. He then arrests the criminal, whispering, "Joe, we got him."