four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
By: 
Mike Dash
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0

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

A-The First FamilyBritish historian and journalist Mike Dash, a former editor of the Fortean Times, has written several critically acclaimed works of popular history, including Tulipomania and Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny.

The Topic: Behind the blood-spattered stories of Joe Bonanno and Charles "Lucky" Luciano lies the long-forgotten legacy of Giuseppe "The Clutch Hand" Morello. A Sicilian immigrant, he was initiated early into the local "Fratuzzi"—which paved the way for a lucrative life of crime and his rise to the top of New York’s burgeoning Mafia in the late 19th century. Arriving in America in 1892, the ruthless and calculating Morello extorted money in protection rackets, traded in counterfeit currency, murdered rivals, spent 10 years in the Atlanta Penitentiary, and ultimately died in a brutal shootout in 1930. Dash uses Morello’s story to explore the Italian immigrant experience, the evolution of the American Mafia, and the U.S. government’s early attempts to fight it.
Random House. 375 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781400067220

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Dash is a terrific historical researcher and storyteller, as anyone knows who has read Tulipomania, about the 17th century speculative bubble (perhaps the world’s first) over tulip bulbs, or Batavia’s Graveyard, a thumping great tale of human savagery in the South Seas. With The First Family, another commendable combination of careful documentation and stirring narrative, he extends his string of successes in chronicling the origins of the American Mafia." Roger K. Miller

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"A huge plus in the volume is the inclusion, at the beginning, of a ‘Rogues’ Gallery,’ a list of all the players, major and minor, perps, cops and victims, in the mob’s growth and the law’s counter-efforts. The narrative keeps you reading, but sometimes a name shows up that gives you pause; a quick peek at the rogues’ gallery clears up confusion." John J. Monaghan Jr.

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Jonathan Yardley

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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 1930s that would include Morello’s assassination." George Anastasia

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"His book is impressive but so unrelenting in its description of gore that I often felt queasy. … The First Family provides well-researched history for readers fascinated, and even repulsed, by organized crime." Steve Weinberg

Critical Summary

While most Americans can name two or three famous Mafiosi, few have ever heard of Giuseppe Morella. Dash’s vivid, fascinating account of his life and times may change that. Dash combed through century-old newspaper articles, police files, and court transcripts, and his extensive research shows on every page and sets the record straight on pre-Prohibition mob operations. The narrative brims with anecdotes and little-known facts, and Dash’s animated, eloquent prose results in a convincing and powerful story. However, Dash doesn’t soften the edges of this gritty, violent era: a few critics complained that the book was, at times, too gory. The First Family is nevertheless a valuable contribution to our understanding of this uniquely American institution.