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The First Family by Mike Dash

His name was Giuseppe Morello.

He came to New York City in 1892 from Corleone, the town in western Sicily whose name Mario Puzo borrowed to create literature’s most famous Mafioso.

A half-century before The Godfather, he was the face of organized crime in America.

That’s the takeaway from The First Family, Mike Dash’s highly researched and smoothly written book on the origins of the Mafia in the United States.

Focusing primarily on New York City and using an infamous mob hit — the 1903 Barrel Murder — as the jumping-off point, the book, on one level, is a police procedural set against the backdrop of the Italian immigrant experience. Dash’s straightforward account — he accurately describes it as a “narrative history” — provides context for the birth of an American underworld institution, but he in no way glamorizes the gangsters who dominate his story.

Morello, shrewd, ruthless and calculating, emerges as the prototype of the ethnic crime boss, the sine qua non of New World Mafiosi.

Known as “Clutch” or “The Clutch Hand” because he had been born with a deformed right arm, Morello was, in the words of one investigator, “conscientiously and zealously bad”, an individual who “enjoyed” being a criminal.

The book’s entertaining narrative loses its pacing only in the final chapters when Dash appears in a rush to wrap up events and machine-guns a series of vignettes of the major players in the infamous Castellammare War, a conflict in the ‘30s that would include Morello’s assassination.

By contrast, it is the story of a 1903 mob murder, told in almost film noir style, that Dash effectively uses to launch The First Family.

The grisly discovery of the body of Benedetto Madonia stuffed in a barrel abandoned in Lower Manhattan in April 1903 first attracted law enforcement to the dealings of the Morello crime family. Relying on police files, federal reports and court records now more than a century old, Dash lets the story unfold while setting the stage with details about two of the city’s Italian enclaves at the time, one in Lower Manhattan and the other in East Harlem. The Barrel Murder was eventually tied to Morello’s counterfeiting operation, a lucrative enterprise built around fake $2 and $5 bills — this was, after all, 1903.

The same kind of dogged research allows Dash to write with panache and authority on Black Hand extortions; the shakedown of artichoke importers; gambling operations; and, believe it or not, horse rustling. Morello and his people had a hand in all of it.

“The truth was that Morello and his henchmen were parasites who terrorized their fellow countrymen, exploited the weak and dealt in fear,” writes Dash.

The family of a Sicilian-born doctor, for example, received several threatening letters from the “Black Hand” before Morello offered to solve the problem by paying the $100 the extortionists were demanding. It was a classic Mafia gambit. The ploy, still used in underworld circles today, is known as “create and solve”.

Morello, who had in fact sent the letters, was given free medical service in appreciation for his intervention. Before long, most of Morello’s family — in-laws, cousins, wife and children — were also being treated for free.

The good guys in the yarn include Secret Service agent William Flynn, the son of Irish immigrants, who was the point man in the counterfeiting investigations that provided so much of the background on Morello. Another top cop profiled in the book is New York City police officer Joseph Petrosino. The Italian-born crime fighter, who was promoted to detective by Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, was “one of the two or three most famous policemen in the city, and arguably the entire United States,” Dash writes.

Petrosino was named to head the Italian Squad, a precursor of today’s organized crime bureaus. Dash points out that in a police department with more than 4,000 members, there were only eight who spoke Italian. And in the kind of aside that both brings a smile and underscores Dash’s ability to use small details to make large points, he notes that one of the cops assigned to the detail was Hugh Cassidy.

This, he writes, “baffled newspaper reporters until it was discovered that the man had been born Ugo Cassidi and had Anglicized his name.”

Petrosino was a relentless investigator whose status and reputation provided a counterbalance to the ethnic stereotyping that plagued the Italian American community as immigrants from southern Italy poured into New York City. He was killed in 1909 while in Palermo, gathering information about mobsters who were migrating to New York.

While there has never been a clearcut answer to who was behind that assassination, Dash implies that “The Clutch Hand” had a reach that stretched back to his native land.

Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer George Anastasia covers organized crime and is the author of several books on the Mafia, including The Last Gangster, Blood and Honor, and Mobfather.

RATING 6 / 10
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