Thanks mostly to movies and television, the Mafia has been romanticized and glamorized. Historian Mike Dash isn’t interested in adding to that. Instead, his readable, revealing saga, The First Family, chronicles the birth and early days of an American institution.
Dozens of men and women figure prominently in this checkered history, so much so that Dash provides a rogues’ gallery for readers to keep up. (Note: you’ll need it.) Three people play prominent roles: Giuseppe “The Clutch Hand” Morello, a thug from Sicily—the real birthplace of the Mafia—who immigrates to New York City in 1894 and builds “the first family of organized crime in the United States.” Two lawmen give him perpetual trouble. One is Italian-born detective Joseph Petrosino, whose standing as “New York’s great expert on Italian crime” proves invaluable to the city but ultimately deadly to him. The other is William Flynn, head of the Secret Service’s New York bureau, whose dogged investigation into Morello’s counterfeiting operation marks the beginning of the end for “The Clutch Hand.”
There’s a lot to digest, but Dash (Batavia’s Graveyard) goes beyond offering a timeline with thugs. He describes the awful conditions in Sicily that created the Mafia, while examining the harsh lives of Italian immigrants in New York in the 1890s and early 20th century. Crime was a most appealing option, and since amateurs could be successful, there certainly was room for a professional outfit. Like any good entrepreneur, Morello saw a need and provided a service. He had a good run, but after his imprisonment in 1910, greed, infighting and bloodshed became increasingly common. Let’s just say that lots of people didn’t die from natural causes, including Morello in 1930.
Sexy, macho details aren’t prominent, but by eschewing those, Dash clearly shows the dark side of the plucky immigrant story. For Giuseppe Morello, the American Dream meant bringing the Mafia—his salvation—to America. Morello was a success story, just not the kind you learned about in school.
New Jersey writer Pete Croatto belongs to AAA, but not the Mafia.