Vito Cascio Ferro (January 22, 1862 - 1943), known as Don Vito, was a prominent Sicilian mafioso who also operated for a time in the United States, where he was a "pioneer" of sorts in the American Mafia. He was known for pioneering a new technique of extortion by the mafia within the Italian communities of Sicily and America where by businessmen would not be extorted for large sums of money at any given time that could possibly bankrupt them, instead they would be coerced into paying smaller sums on a regular basis that would not break them or put them out of business. This was known as the pizzu, named after the small beak of a bird and the mafia saying, to wet the beak as it applies to the extortion of money.
Cascio Ferro was born in Bisacquino in the province of Palermo and worked in his early adulthood as a revenue collector, which provided a cover for his protection racket. He traveled to New York City in 1901, where he became associated with the influential Morello crime family based in Harlem, New York. Don Vito helped the Morello's establish their extortion and counterfeiting rings through an old world extortion method known as "La Mano Nera" (The Black Hand). In 1909, he was arrested on suspicion of murder by New York police officer Giuseppe "Joe" Petrosino, a pioneer in fighting organized crime. Cascio Ferro was acquitted, however, and returned to Sicily, where he became increasingly involved with the Sicilian Mafia and politics. Petrosino was murdered in Sicily in 1909 while there on New York police business and allegedly Don Vito was his killer. Cascio Ferro was arrested for the murder but released after an associate provided an alibi; however, he later told other crime figures that he had killed Petrosino, a claim which helped him cement his position as capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses) of the Sicilian mafia throughout the 1910s and 20s.
Cascio Ferro was arrested sixty-nine times for various crimes but always acquitted. After his seventieth arrest, however, he was convicted by Benito Mussolini's Fascist prefect Cesare Mori in 1929 and sentenced to fifty years in prison on trumped up charges. There are many myths that surround Don Vito while he was imprisoned including that he lived in a decorative cell with a carpet and expensive furniture and ruled the prison. It is more than likely that Don Vito was shown the respect and admiration any high level mafiosi would be given in prison and he would have been sought out for council and advice, but during the reign of the fascists it is unlikely Cascio Ferro would have been allowed many, if any luxuries in prison. The most common story or rumor surrounding his death is that he died of natural causes in 1945 while serving his sentence, but Italian author Arrigo Petacco (Joe Petrosino, 1974) found evidence of Cascio Ferro's demise in the summer of 1943 and presented the findings in his book. Petacco states that Don Vito was left behind in his cell by fascist prison guards while other inmates were evacuated in advance of the Allied invasion of Sicily and that Cascio Ferro die in his cell of thirst.