Friday, June 26, 2015

Tracing the Roots of the American Mafia

The inchoate beginnings of the Mafia in the United States at the turn of the century cannot be nailed down to one moment, but the incident that Mike Dash uses to demonstrate its public arrival is an apt one: the "Barrel Murder" of April 14, 1903. Giuseppe Morello - nicknamed the "Clutch" or "the Clutch Hand" for the maimed right arm and one-fingered hand with which he wreaked terrible violence - and his henchmen stabbed and sliced a rival to death, stuffed him into a barrel and left him on the street to be found.

That incident catches most of the elements that were to become associated with Mafia activity in subsequent years: rivalry over illegal activityAmerican Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power, extortion, intimidation, protection and other rackets (such as kidnapping) and vendettas. And, most of all, murder. Rarely was there any middle ground; the way to deal with competition was to kill its operators.

In the earliest days, gangs (or "families") were concentrated in New York City. At first they preyed, as in Sicily, on their own, demanding "protection" money from Italian merchants or controlling Italian-run businesses such as ice and coal distribution.

Crime paid. By 1908, the Clutch Hand's influence had spread through New York's five boroughs. Three years later, he was considered the boss of bosses of the entire fledgling American Mafia. But there are always hammers waiting to whack the nail that sticks up. Dash covers in great, and sometimes gruesome, detail the rival Mafiosi who rose up to challenge Morello. Most of the names are obscure, though as we get closer to the 1930s familiar ones appear, such as Joe Bonanno, Joe Valachi and Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

Hammers were wielded by the good guys, too, the most prominent among them being William Flynn, chief of the New York office of the Secret Service, and Joseph Petrosino, a member of the police Italian Squad. Both had success in investigating, prosecuting and imprisoning Morello and others.

Slowly, crime that had been "Italian" became more "Americanized" as Mafiosi such as Luciano chose to work with non-Sicilians and even non-Italians. Luciano, an equal-opportunity murderer, hired two Jewish hoods to kill a rival, Salvatore Maranzano, in 1931. But until the 1920s, organized crime was relatively small potatoes. With Prohibition came gang wars worthy of the name and gangsters whose reputations still resound, like Dutch Schultz and Al Capone, the latter of whom made so much money in the Midwest "that his influence could be felt in Manhattan." And the "industry" was, in a sense, a gift from the U.S. government.

Thanks to Roger K. Miller

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed reading your blog! Please check out a favorite blog of mine - Professor Leonard Birdsong, a law professor located in Orlando, Florida. He has many great Chicago stories!! http://birdsongslaw.com/

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