The first Mafia don's reign of terror

Before there was Al Capone, there was Giuseppe Morelli. Author Mike Dash talks about his legacy -- and his violence

Published August 19, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Book cover
Book cover

The Italian Mafia remains as carved into the American pop culture psyche as the westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. While genre classics like "The Sopranos" and "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" explored the sadistic side of gangster life, even those repellent portraits couldn’t destroy our romanticized notions. (In fact, they probably fed them.) The sagas of men like John Gotti and Al Capone still fascinate us and Hollywood, which has never shied away from turning  unrepentant criminals into dashing leading men. However, too often myths have become facts about the Mafia; few of us know the true history of America’s most famous crime families.

In his new book, "The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder and the Birth of the American Mafia," historian and bestselling author Mike Dash sets out to correct our misconceptions about the Mafia’s history in the U.S, tracing its roots back to turn-of-the-century New York (much earlier than the commonly cited 1930s). Dash’s chronicle focuses on the lengthy, sordid career of Giuseppe Morello, aka “The Clutch Hand,” a Sicilian immigrant who became America’s first true Mafia don.

Relying on previously underutilized Secret Service archives, Dash is able to paint a devastating picture of the Mafia’s reliance on brutal violence and frees us from any notion about the organization's supposed benevolence in protecting Italian immigrants. The heroes of his book aren’t the mobsters; they’re the dedicated lawmen smart enough to nab Morello and his gang.

Recently, Salon spoke with Dash about Morello’s legacy, Sicilian Mafia culture, and why the American-Italian mob will never regain the strength it once had.

Most people believe the Mafia started in America in the 1930s, but that is actually not the case. Your book starts much earlier, with Giuseppe Morello. Who was he?

Morello was the guy who essentially set up the Mafia in New York. There had been some stories of individual Mafioso arriving, but what Morello did that no one had done before was to actually set up a formally run Mafia family in the New York area and build that up into a quite significant criminal empire. He was able to do this because he was himself already an initiated member of the Mafia from a small Sicilian town called Corleone, which of course became famous later because it was the town where the family in Mario Puzo’s "The Godfather" came from. Morello had joined the Mafia there in the 1880s with his stepfather. So Morello had experience, he had knowledge on how to run rackets, how to run protection schemes and of course he had quite a large number of fellow immigrants from that town to call upon when he wanted to get a gang of thugs together. And he was able to do that quite successfully. He was also highly intelligent, which is something other criminals were not. In the material that you find on him in the Secret Service archives, they went to quite a lot of trouble trying to catch him and they were quite aware of how careful and cunning he was.

You suggest in the book that Morello wasn’t attracted so much to fame as to power. He seemed to have no problem remaining private if it meant the family became successful.

Yeah, that’s really important. The downfall of the Mafia over the last few decades coincides almost exactly with the beginning of these people seeing themselves as strange celebrities and relishing fame and notoriety and power. Morello was never into any of that. He wasn’t living a life in public. The history of organized crime teaches you that once you become a high-profile target, sooner or later you’re doomed. The government may tolerate organized crime to a certain extent in local areas. You see this in gambling rackets and during the prohibition period, alcohol, things that are tolerated by society though they’re technically illegal. Once you move beyond that and you have people who are openly forcing the government to recognize them as criminals, the government has to do something. And that’s really been the downfall of the modern Mafia in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Sicily.

What legacy has Morello’s crime family left, and how have they shaped the Mafia of today?

I think you can look at two specific things. First, the reason the book is called "The First Family" is that although there were Mafia-like figures in America before Morello, particularly in New Orleans, they didn’t survive. The Morello family did survive -- and merged with what became known as the Genovese crime family, which is still active in New York. It was the precursor to a lot of organized crime. The second thing is that the things Morello was involved in organizing were quite revolutionary and innovative for their time. He was the first person we know for certain to set up protection rackets in New York. He ran a racket in the vegetable wholesale market where he made importers of artichokes into New York pay a certain amount to him or there would be trouble. And that is something that still continues today. He was also quite innovative in money laundering and with the cash he made from his illegal enterprises, he would set up a large number of people running businesses, like cobblers and grocery stores. They also moved to real estate scams. Though it had happened on a small scale before, it was organized in a much more systemic way by the Morello family and continues today.

You write numerous times in the book that the Mafia preyed on other Italians in areas like Italian Harlem and Little Italy in New York City. So if they preyed on them and exploited them, why were the Mafia so respected and why has American pop culture come to treat them like heroes?

I find that quite distracting in a way. Particularly as a result of the “Godfather” movies, it has become common to see the Mafia as protecting the Italian communities and immigrants. And I think a lot of later criminal generations have come to believe that themselves. But the simple fact is that the people who were coming in didn’t speak English -- the criminals, that is. They didn’t have any real way of establishing or maintaining any sort of control over American institutions, and so they had no choice but to exploit and prey on their own people. There’s very little evidence in the early period (the period before 1920) that other Italian immigrants felt anything but fear for them. The idea that there was some sort of respect going on is a later alteration.

But in the early years of the Morello family’s lives, they did develop slightly more subtle ways of making money. The very earliest method was known as Black Hand extortion, where you would simply find somebody who had a fair amount of money and threaten to kill him and his family or destroy his property or home or shop if he didn’t hand over a very large sum -- hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars -- which was a lot of money back then. But this was a one-time thing. You couldn’t keep going back or you’d clean them out. The technique the Morello family developed, which is still used today, was taking smaller amounts of money on a more regular basis. And this is where the whole idea of protection comes from -- the idea that in exchange for giving the Mafia this small amount of money you’re protected against someone else interfering with your business. The sad truth is that the real thing you’re being protected against is the Mafia attacking you, your business, your car or your family.

You call Morello and his family "parasites who terrorized their fellow countrymen, exploited the weak and dealt in fear," yet interestingly, as long as they committed crimes within their own communities, the police generally left them alone, correct?

Yes, the police in that period had very, very few Italian patrolmen and detectives at all. There were maybe only half a dozen Italian speakers in the New York police force around 1900, and that was at a time when there were 4,000 policemen in the five boroughs. It was difficult for the police to deal with Italian crime and the tendency was to ignore it unless it was high-profile. If you kept your activities to a lower level, as Morello did for the most part, you were protected against most everything except the activity of other gangs. Eventually, in 1906, the police created an Italian squad to deal with this crime because of an outburst of dynamite and high-profile crimes that couldn’t be ignored. Before that, it was really pretty much every man for himself, and of course that helped Morello tremendously. It was a very encouraging climate for organized crime, and it was a major failing in the history of the NYPD.

To play devil’s advocate here, there is a certain part of Morello’s story that is the rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger American tale. He came as an American immigrant and worked his way up to success. How much of a difference do you see between the ways the Mafia made money and the same type of greed and corruption that was occurring in the political administrations and the police forces of the time? Why is the Mafia so much worse?

You have a fair point. There’s a continuum of evil. You cross the line when you start killing people on a regular basis in order to make your money. And Morello and his family very much crossed that line and 60 people, at least, were murdered as a result of the Morello’s activities over a 10- or 15-year period. But you are right that the police, the politicians, Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party were steeped in corruption and weren’t above using violence to achieve their ends. If you can make a living legitimately, there’s a tendency to want to do so. It’s less dangerous, less risky. Morello, his brothers, his son, and a brother-in-law were all killed in a 20-year period. So it was a very lethal activity they were engaged in.

If you look at the Morello family today -- one of the people who helped me with the book was Morello’s great grandson. He’s an accountant on Long Island. Now the family has emerged as, you say, the American dream because they stayed, they made good, they’ve gone legitimate now. They’re fully functioning, contributing members of American society and that’s something that’s true of most organized crime families. Even among modern-day Mafioso you see an unwillingness to bring sons into that activity because it’s dirty, dangerous work and it’s often quite short-lived.

Two of the major operatives chronicled in your book who worked against Morello were a New York detective named Joe Petrosino and William Flynn at the Secret Service. But neither is well-known compared to Eliot Ness and his attempt to catch Al Capone. Why do you think Petrosino and Flynn, who did a lot to counteract the Mafia, have been so overlooked?

It’s surprising, isn’t it? I really can’t answer it. Obviously, a large part of it is that time has passed, but especially in the case of Flynn, working with the Secret Service, he had to be fairly discreet. He was also clever enough to realize that a lot of what he needed to do in terms of detective work required secrecy. So it was only by going to the Secret Service Archives in Washington and reading the reports that you realize what was going on and very little of that has been written about before. Flynn was very successful, though, more successful than any other law enforcement officer working against the Mafia until the 1980s. Which is incredible. Seventy years. He had agents working inside the Mafia by 1911. He managed to actually arrest and convict Morello himself in 1910 and those sort of achievements just weren’t repeated until the 1970s and '80s. He really deserves to be a lot better known than he is, and I have a great deal of respect for his abilities and the techniques that he used. If the book can contribute to that, I’ll be quite happy because he was a remarkable guy.

Petrosino ended up being murdered by the Mafia, because he didn’t do things in the same way that Flynn did. He did things by himself. He didn’t take the right number of precautions. He exposed himself and his method to Mafia retribution. So they had him killed in Palermo, Sicily, in 1909 and he’s still the only American police officer to die in the line of duty outside the United States. So, again, that sort of underlines the quality of what Flynn was doing. Of course, what Flynn was doing was by no means risk-free. The Mafia hatched plans to kill him and have his kids kidnapped. It’s a tribute to him that he was able to avoid that.

In the wake of prohibition, Morello’s racket switched from counterfeiting to alcohol. Why was prohibition such a financial boon for the members of the Mafia?

It made one of the most popular pastimes in the country illegal, and that meant that licit forces could no longer supply the demand for alcohol. But, of course, the amount of alcohol consumed didn’t change at all. In fact it probably went up as a result of prohibition. The only way for this demand to be met was by criminals bringing in or manufacturing their own alcohol.

Prohibition was really the making of organized crime throughout America. Virtually all types of organized crime, all ethnicities got involved in it because it was very lucrative. You’re talking about a multibillion-dollar industry. And the public didn’t support the banning of alcohol. Hence, it again becomes a relatively safe crime. The police would often look the other way. They liked to drink as much as anybody else. There was very little in active law enforcement to deal with prohibition apart from a small federal agency. It made it a safe business. The only thing unsafe about it was that there were so many criminals getting involved in alcohol that they were inevitably fighting each other. And they fought, quite literally, with machine guns. And this is really where the Morello family started to take significant casualties in the 1920s as a result of these wars, as did a lot of other crime families. That was the downside. But the upside was the huge amount of money available relatively easily.

What is the current state of the Mafia, and how has it changed since the time of Morello?

It’s past its peak, there’s no question about that. It has become too well-known, too notorious. Once a bunch of people know what’s going on, whom to target, who’s making money, who’s giving the orders, it becomes very hard to run a secret criminal organization efficiently. Between the 1970s and now, the Mafia went through that whole spectrum of increased public awareness, increased attempt to deal with it and obviously, among the five crime families involved in New York, the leadership of all of them has been decimated and were repeatedly jailed for long periods of time. You end up with a much weakened group run by people who are less experienced and who are less able to control its own people. Largely as a result of the RICO statutes that brought in much, much heavier sentences. It became harder for Mafia bosses to control their men and to get them to keep their mouths shut and not do deals with the authorities. That’s something that’s been a huge problem for them.

Up until 9/11, there was a widespread belief that the Mafia was on its last legs. What’s happened since then is the reordering of priorities. The FBI in particular has been retargeted to deal with terrorist threats and that’s allowed the Mafia to make a small recovery. So since 2001, there’s been a slight resurgence in Mafia power but, of course, it’s never going to be the same as it was before because it lost so many of its senior leadership and the social organization it had has been largely shattered by the RICO statutes. And also because it faces a lot more competition than it used to by other equally or more ruthless ethnic organized crime -- the Russian mafia, the Mexican mafia, everyone seems to have a mafia and in many cases they’re just as willing or more to kill than the Mafia itself. It's definitely past its peak, but in no case is it in imminent danger of disappearing altogether. And the legend will go on. 

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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