Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Genesis of Organized Crime

The Mafia is one of those organizations that Hollywood and the media have turned into a household name. Its current public face is the fictional Tony Soprano. The closing years of the nineteenth century and the dawning of the twentieth were the halcyon days of Giuseppe Morello, who was known to cop and criminal alike as ‘the Clutch Hand’ because of a deformed arm. The nickname could just as well have derived from his talent for seizing any opportunity to make crime pay.

Mike Dash has written an engrossing account of Morello’s ascendancy from the dusty streets of his native Corleone, Sicily to the saloons and tenements of New York, where he became the much-feared boss of the Italian-dominated rackets. He counterfeited American and Canadian currency, masterminded insurance scams, and unleashed Black Hand terror on his frightened countrymen, all the while building and strengthening a gang that became the first organized crime family. Morello’s vicious rule encompassed some of the most sensational examples of mob violence in the city’s history, such as the Barrel Murder of 1903 and the Masseria-Maranzano war of Sicilian succession. The ageing Clutch Hand served as advisor to Joe ‘the Boss’ Masseria in the latter conflict, and was killed by Maranzano gunmen in August 1930.

As with his previous books, Dash focuses on primary sources, such as the records of the U.S. Secret Service (which tracked Morello during his counterfeiting days) and the memoirs of its New York bureau chief, William Flynn, who pursued the Clutch Hand’s gang as doggedly as another legendary mob-buster, NYPD Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino (whose war with the Mafia and brutal murder are both covered in detail). Chilling anecdotes mingle with archival evidence to tell a story that rivals the best crime fiction.

“The First Family” is one of the finest accounts of the Mafia’s shady and bloody beginnings. Those who enjoyed this book are advised to also read Thomas Hunt and Martha Machecha Sheldon’s “Deep Water”, which is a similarly authoritative and original treatment of the 1890 assassination of New Orleans police chief David Hennessy, which was America’s first widely publicized Mafia hit.