Giuseppe Dosi has gone down in history as Italy’s greatest detective, a master of disguise who went undercover to solve the thorniest of crimes and did us the great courtesy of taking pictures of himself in his many disguises. He even had a little postcard-sized contact sheet of a dozen pictures made to give to people. Famous in Italian police circles for his pioneering efforts, Dosi is getting wider attention thanks to the publication of a new biography, the airing of a new documentary about him and the digitization of some his papers, now in the Museum of the Liberation of Rome.
Born in 1891, he had tried his hand at the theater in his youth and even though his stage career was stillborn, he put his love of performance and many other considerable talents into his job as a detective. He wore disguises to alter his appearance, changed his voice, his walk, even his gender when drag was called for. He had at least 17 confirmed disguises — two priests (one foreign, one Italian), a Galician banker, a German doctor, a Yugoslavian merchant, a nihilist, a Czech World War I veteran with a bum leg — and five fully fleshed identities complete with fake documents and background stories.
His enthusiastic embrace of disguises and creating characters in police investigations, known as “fregolismo detectivistico,” (“detectival transformism”) after the actor Leopoldo Fregoli who was so adept at transforming into diverse characters on stage that his last name became a neologism for chameleon-like quick changes. His impersonation of the Czech guy with a limp completely fooled poet and would-be dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio, who in 1922 had mysteriously “fallen” (been thrown?) out of a window. Dosi went undercover to find out what had happened, a politically sensitive investigation since D’Annunzio’s greatest rival and enemy was one Benito Mussolini, who later that year would march on Rome with his Blackshirts and be appointed the new Prime Minister of Italy. Dosi’s detecting discovered that D’Annunzio had indeed been pushed, not by a political assassin, but by his volatile mistress. The case was quietly closed. He did manage to copy 10 sexually explicit letters D’Annunzio wrote to said mistress before he got out of Dodge, though. The poet called him a “dirty cop” when he found out the limping Czech was really an undercover Roman.
In actual fact he was the polar opposite of a dirty cop. Dosi was a man of resolute integrity, fearless in pursuit of the truth, even when his bosses would have preferred he look the other way, and he paid a very high price for it. In 1927, he took on a case that had bedevilled Rome since 1924. It was a horrific series of crimes, the rape of seven little girls and the murder of five of them, the youngest just three years old. The rapes and murders were breathlessly reported by the sensationalistic press and the city was in turmoil. Mussolini himself, who saw the failure to solve these crimes as an embarrassment because it made it seem like his strident law-and-order party could not deliver on its promises, pressured Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini to arrest someone on the double.
So the police found someone. Sure, Gino Girolimoni didn’t match the description of a tall, middle-aged man with a bristling mustache and an imperfect command of the Italian language — he was average height, in his 30s, clean-shaven and a native Roman — but the mild-mannered photographer and mediator for the destitute in legal cases was a warm body, and between riled up public opinion and Mussolini breathing down their neck, that was enough for the cops. They ginned up some blatantly fake evidence and arrested him in 1927.
It was not enough for Giuseppe Dosi. He knew the evidence against Girolimoni was flimsy and was convinced the real murderer was still out there. He reopened the case, over the objections of his superiors, and quickly zeroed in a more likely suspect: a British Anglican priest named Ralph Lyonel Brydges who had gotten caught molesting a girl in Canada before he moved to Rome. In April of 1928, Dosi got a search warrant for Brydges’ room and found a note in a diary referencing the location of one of the murders, newspaper clippings about the crimes and handkerchiefs identical to the ones used to strangle the little girls. Brydges had friends in high places, however, and diplomatic interference from Britain and Canada (his wife was the daughter of a very prominent Toronto politician) kept him out of jail. He was briefly committed for observation to the insane asylum Santa Maria della Pietà only to be released and flee the country.
With the case against Girolimoni in shambles, charges against him were quietly dropped. Every newspaper in the country had splashed his name and face on their front pages as the “Monster of Rome” when he was arrested. His release was covered in a few cursory articles in the middle of the paper. He could no longer make a decent living because everyone thought he was a child rapist and murderer. He died in 1961, penniless and alone. Only a handful of friends showed up to his funeral. Dosi was one of them.
So now the authorities no longer had their patsy to execute for crimes he didn’t commit, and the only other suspect was far out of reach. Mussolini, who in 1925 after Dosi foiled an assassination plot against him had sung his praises and recommended him for a promotion to whatever role he preferred, was deeply displeased by Dosi’s dogged persistence. Dosi’s police bosses, already antsy about him exposing their corruption and lies setting up poor Girolimoni, also felt the pressure from the top to curb their man’s hubris.
First they fired him. Then they just cut to the chase and arrested him. He was imprisoned in Regina Coeli, a truly scary jail in Rome which during the Fascist period was replete with political prisoners. In case that wasn’t extreme enough, they moved him to Santa Maria della Pietà where the police detective spent 17 months forcibly detained in the same psychiatric facility where Brydges, a certain child molester and possible serial child murderer, had spent a few nights. He was finally released in January 1941.
Before the end of the war, his great courage and initiative would perform another historic service. On June 4th, 1944, Allied troops under General Mark Clark liberated Rome. The Nazi occupiers beat a hasty retreat and a mob assembled at the notorious SS torture prison on Via Tasso to free any political prisoners and Jews who hadn’t been murdered by the Nazis on the way out the door. The Germans had set their papers on fire in the attempt to cover their tracks, as was their wont, and when the mob freed the prisoners, they tossed bunches of records out the window in a sort of riot of de-Nazifying the place.
Dosi, who lived on a neighboring street, showed up with a cart and took it upon himself to enter the burning building and save all the surviving records. He turned them over to the Allied Command who wisely saw this guy was a badass and appointed him special investigator of the Counter Intelligence Corp. His testimony and those records he single-handedly saved from the flames, including the list of 75 Jews taken from Regina Coeli to their deaths in the monstrous Ardeatine massacre, would be crucial in the prosecution of numerous Nazi war criminals. In November of 1946, he rejoined the police force as director of the Central Office of International Police.
Over the course of his long and storied career, Dosi put his great energy, dedication and diverse interests into areas of policework that are now standard but were newfangled in his day. He wrote essays on scientific policing, was a vocal advocate for women police officers, promoted photographing and fingerprinting arrestees, the preservation of cultural patrimony and cross-border law enforcement. Not only did he help found the Italian branch of INTERPOL, he coined the name, originally as a telegraphic address for the organization that soon stuck. He retired in 1956 with the title of Chief Inspector General. He wrote several books about his detective work and lived a long life, dying in 1981 at the age of 90.