Showing posts with label Giuseppe Morello. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Giuseppe Morello. Show all posts

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

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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