Jonathan Yardley

Jonathan Yardley Reviews 'The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia' by Mike Dash

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 16, 2009


Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia

By Mike Dash

Random House. 375 pp. $27

Giuseppe Morello is almost entirely unknown today, but Mike Dash's vivid account of his life and crimes leaves no doubt that this would be a far different country -- and in all likelihood a far better one -- had he not emigrated here from Sicily in 1892. Known as "The Clutch Hand," "Little Finger" and "One Finger Jack" because of the "appallingly deformed" right hand with which he was born, he was in his mid-20s by the time he got to New York. And though he seems to have made an effort of sorts to earn a legitimate wage, by the turn of the century he was deep into criminal activity and remained there until his murder in 1930.

Morello -- not Vito Genovese, not Al Capone, not Lucky Luciano, not any of those creeps who paraded before the Senate's Kefauver Committee which investigated organized crime in the early 1950s -- was the true father of the American Mafia. Dash leaves no doubt about that. A British historian and journalist whose capacity for research appears to be limitless, Dash has dug into tons of material and emerged with a work of popular history -- written in lively, lucid prose, with a strong narrative line and a wealth of anecdote, much of it gory -- that seems likely to be the definitive work on its subject for years to come. It proves conclusively that the received wisdom about the American Mafia -- that it arose in response to the rich opportunities for corruption presented by Prohibition -- is simply wrong. The Mafia had existed here for at least a quarter-century before then, and thus was in position to capitalize spectacularly as control of the vastly profitable alcohol industry transferred from legitimate businesses to the underworld.

Morello came from Corleone in Sicily -- yes, the same Corleone from which Mario Puzo took the famous surname of the Godfather and his family -- and got his training in crime as a youth in the local "Fratuzzi," or "brotherhood," in which his stepfather was a prominent member. "The reasons for Morello's rapid rise within the ranks of the Fratuzzi remain unknown," Dash writes, "but they can be inferred. The Clutch Hand had his stepfather to teach him. He was a fine organizer, cunning, and ruthless to a degree always valued by the Mafia, as his years in the United States would show. He was also literate -- by no means a common accomplishment in the Sicilian interior -- and unusually intelligent."

Eventually, Morello became active in counterfeiting, was found out by the Sicilian police and sentenced to "six years and forty-five days in solitary confinement," a waste of judicial effort since "by the time the verdict was pronounced, Morello and his family had been in the United States for well over a year." They had joined an Italian community in New York of some 150,000 people, many of them in Little Italy on the Lower East Side, though the Morellos soon set up shop in East Harlem. "Italian crooks" already had learned "just how lucrative organized crime could be in several American cities," especially through the operation of extortion rings and their handmaiden, protection. With the latter the Mafiosi tried to pass themselves off as "benefactors, even defenders of the poor," but Dash gets it right: "Morello and his henchmen were parasites who terrorized their fellow countrymen, exploited the weak, and dealt in fear."

The Mafiosi who came to the United States in the late 19th century "were not sent there by their superiors as part of any worked-out plan to expand the influence of the fraternity," but "traveled as private citizens, and if they did continue to pursue a life of crime, it was because the mala vita offered them the best prospect of a good living." They gradually organized, but into different and often hostile groups. Murder was commonplace as a means of enforcement and intimidation -- Dash opens the book with an account of a particularly grisly case in 1903 that focused New York's attention on the rising mob -- and Morello was as cold-blooded a killer as the city has ever known, but he was especially "cunning in distancing himself from his criminal activities," and the trigger almost always was pulled by someone else.

Two men were the mob's most prominent opponents. Joseph Petrosino, a detective who at the time was one of the few Italians on the police force, fought the Mafia almost single-handedly, gaining enough success to become "one of the two or three most famous policemen in the city, and arguably in the entire United States," though he came to an unhappy (and of course violent) end on an ill-advised mission to Sicily in 1909. William Flynn was the head of the New York office of the Secret Service, which in those days was primarily responsible for rooting out "counterfeiters and forged bills." Thanks to his "energetic leadership, the agency's New York office [became] everything that the NYPD might have been but was not: efficient, discreet, and above all extraordinarily persistent." In 1910 he nailed Morello and more than 30 confederates on charges related to "the most ambitious counterfeiting scheme the Secret Service had encountered in its fifty-year history."

Morello and Company went to federal prison for years, but not long enough. Morello was paroled in February 1920, after a decade in the Atlanta penitentiary. He returned to a changed Mafia scene in New York, in which "new bosses had emerged to challenge the old order," and he could "not slide easily back into his role as boss of bosses, or even boss for that matter." Instead, he attached himself to a new boss, Joe Masseria, serving him as "adviser and chief strategist -- as counselor, or consigliere in the language of the Mafia." Masseria was "ambitious and ruthless . . . strong and cunning, violent," but not unduly intelligent. Morello served as Masseria's brains until his own murder in 1930 in yet another phase of the Mafia's endless internal warfare.

By the early 1930s the Mafia, rich off its Prohibition earnings, was beginning to change, "from the first generation of Mafiosi to a new and modern Mafia, one able to dominate organized crime in the United States, and not just its Italian neighborhoods, for decades." It was in this new Mafia that the likes of Luciano thrived -- he "was shrewd and ruthless, but more of a businessman than he was a man of action and far from a traditionalist when it came to the vexing question of sharing money and power with non-Sicilians" -- and this was the Mafia that inspired the romanticizing of the mob, most famously and brilliantly in the "Godfather" movies. We are reminded by Mike Dash's first-rate book, though, that there is nothing pretty or civilized about organized crime, that its bloody origins are the key to its true character.

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