Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia

Author Mike Dash makes lavish claims at the beginning of "The First Family," noting that "hundreds of books have been written about the Mafia, but this one is different from the rest. focus is the birth of the American branch of the fraternity during the years between 1892 and 1930 — a period that has, to my astonishment, been almost entirely neglected." That neglect means readers of Mafia books are usually uncertain why the United States of America ended up as the stronghold of a violent Sicilian brotherhood that terrorized entire urban areas.

For many years, I reported about organized crime, especially the activities of Sicilian Americans. That meant reading lots of books as background for my reporting. The glamorization of murder, the treatment of Mafia bosses as twisted heroes with catchy nicknames, the failure to explain how Sicilian-American crime syndicates operated in ways similar to Fortune 500 corporations, used to enrage me.

It's a shame Dash's book was unavailable to me back then. Like so many researchers, I have learned that the past is prologue. Dash has conducted painstaking research about the past of the Mafia, in Sicily and, beginning during the 1890s, across the United States. Dash's book does venture into matters previously unknown to me.

Before Dash's research, the "knowledge" spreading throughout American society — often due to popular-culture iterations such as "The Godfather" — came from sources so vague that many media consumers believed the mobsters were Italian American, rather than Sicilian American. The distinction is deeply important to those of Italian descent, and meaningful to an accurate history of organized crime.

Dash, a British academic historian/popular journalist, seems to have learned about every immigrant Sicilian mobster, every murder committed by them, every scheme to extort money from law-abiding Americans. His book is impressive, but so unrelenting in its description of gore that I often felt queasy.

When Dash occasionally gives the gore a rest, he relates little-known stories, not only about the criminals, but also about law-enforcement officers determined to alleviate the violence while resisting tempting bribes from Mafia leaders.

Among the memorable protagonists are Giuseppe Morello, founder of the first Mafia family to rule the New York City crime scene. Born in Corleone, Sicily, during 1867, he arrived in the United States during 1892. Although already an experienced, ruthless criminal, Morello mostly avoided prison time because he insulated himself well from the dirty deeds. Police and prosecutors finally made criminal charges stick, leading to Morello's imprisonment from 1910 to 1920. But even while imprisoned, Morello managed to direct criminal activity. He could not be halted by government authorities. It took a rival Mafia organization to silence Morello — via a 1930 murder.

On the law-enforcement side, Dash provides an especially rich word portrait of William Flynn, a New York City native who directed that city's branch of the U.S. Secret Service. Flynn pursued members of the Morello family relentlessly, even managing to infiltrate the seemingly impregnable Mafia inner circle.

The rest of the cast is huge. But because Dash provides a detailed, well-organized cast of characters at the front of the book, readers can erase lingering confusion quickly.

"The First Family" provides well-researched history for readers fascinated, and even repulsed, by organized crime.

Thanks to Steve Weinberg - the author of eight nonfiction books, most recently "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller," just published in paperback.

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