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This page contains brief reviews of non-fiction works related to underworld and law enforcement history. Click on an entry in the author-title list below to read our review of that book. Within each review, you may click on the book image to visit that book's sale page on the Amazon.com website.
Mountain Mafia - Organized Crime in the Rockies by Betty L. Alt and Sandra K. Wells
This is a fast-moving, easy-to-read survey of Mafia history in Colorado, from the early 1900s gangs of the state's southern region through the Denver reign of the Smaldone family. Details are provided for the fledgling "Black Hand" period and a number of regional underworld feuds.
The authors, Betty L. Alt and Sandra K. Wells, deserve thanks for delving into this subject, so long neglected by crime historians.
The book is somewhat lacking in depth and context, however. The authors note that Colorado gangsters had strong connections to gangs elsewhere in the U.S. But this intriguing theme is not explored in detail. Beyond family ties, little time is spent discussing how the gangs formed and why some of them battled others. Additional attention could have been / should have been given to the various factors peculiar to southern Colorado that caused Mafia organizations to take root there.
The authors kindly provided notes and bibliography, but (alas) no index.
On its own merit, the book deserves no more than low-passing grade. However, the authors score extra credit for the uniqueness of their work. Hopefully, this pioneer effort will prompt other historians to examine the Trinidad, Pueblo and Denver, Colorado, underworlds, and to add color and perspective to this sketch by Alt and Wells.
The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosimo and the Ladies of the Levee by Arthur J. Bilek
Bilek delivers an authoritative look at pre-Prohibition Era Chicago. The reader watches in astonishment as a variety of well-intentioned crusades to clean up the Windy City's most notorious neighborhoods actually serve to encourage coordinated efforts among the purveyors of vice and give rise to vast criminal empires.
The author, a member of the Chicago Crime Commission's board of directors and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Loyola University, pays special attention to the waxing and waning influence of Colosimo and his criminal and political allies. And he explains the significance of Colosimo's divorce and remarriage, events that occurred just before his May 1920 assassination.
A few problem areas exist between the book's covers. I hoped for greater detail in discussions of the local Mafia, of the Unione Siciliana and of the genesis of the Colosimo-Torrio relationship. The book also would have benefited from a closer edit. But these are relatively small matters.
In The First Vice Lord we are treated to a generally well written and well thought out examination of the roots of the Prohibition Era Capone Outfit.
The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno: The Final Secrets of a Life in the Mafia by Bill Bonanno and Gary B. Abromovitz
Don't bother with this book. There are no significant new revelations or new admissions within its covers. There are a few minor details that I do not recall mentioned in other Bonanno works (some background of Angelo Caruso, for example), but these are inconsequential.
The early history of the American Mafia presented in The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno is a complete mess. Bonanno and his coauthor obviously did little to nothing in the way of research. Errors are abundant and apparent. Incorrect biographical information on famous gangsters across the country is presented:
Despite a pledge to finally come clean on the "family business," Bill Bonanno sticks to his earlier stories (generally silly and self-serving ones) about the Joe Bonanno "kidnapping," the crime family's resistance to drug trafficking, Joe's absence from Apalachin and other events. That nonsense combines with the inexcusably inaccurate rendition of Mafia history to produce a book that is not worth even the $9 price of admission.
The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno proves that, even in his grave, Bill Bonanno has not tired of taking our money for his malarkey.
A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno
Mr. Bonanno provides an insider's view of organized crime - particularly the variety imported from Sicily - in the United States. It is a subject on which he is a unique authority as the longtime head of one of the country's major crime "families" and a Castellammarese Sicilian immigrant. He also enlightens readers somewhat with regard to what he perceives to be Sicilian traditions and the concept of "honor."
Of course, Mr. Bonanno does not illuminate much of his own involvement in illegal enterprises, which is certainly extensive. The reader is forced to assume that the criminal activities described in great detail are ones Mr. Bonanno oversaw himself. A great many recognizable names are mentioned, but the boss took care not to seriously offend anyone who was still alive and kicking at the time the book was published.
His precautions, however, were insufficient to prevent the portions of his book dealing with the Mafia's ruling Commission from inspiring Rudolph Giuliani's landmark Commission RICO Case.
The book reaches back into the author's personal history from about the dawn of the 20th Century (some family history predates that) and the history of organized crime since the bootlegger wars of the Prohibition days. It advances into more modern times, though the recent information becomes sketchy.
As a first-hand account by an influential, long-time Mafia boss, this is a must-read for those deeply interested in the history of the American Mafia. But it may disappoint more casual readers. And some may find objectionable the author's insistence that his criminal activity has been "honorable," his often sexist and racist views and his tendency to flatter himself (a tendency that was apparently passed on to his son, who also wrote a glowing autobiographical account of his work in the "family").
Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend by Frenchy Brouillette and Matthew Randazzo V
Frenchy Brouillette's memoirs are a heaping helping of Cajun-style underworld history. Penned with coauthor Matthew Randazzo V, Mr. New Orleans is a personal guided tour through the Big Easy, with special attention paid to all that is sleazy and tawdry.
The book should not be mistaken for a volume of academic history. Though considerable research apparently was done on the New Orleans underworld, tales are presented with the goal of titillation rather than education. No discernible effort was made to find the verifiable details within the legends or to challenge the accuracy of sources.
The authors' stated intention was to "preserve the spirit and history of the near-extinct New Orleans outlaw and the shadowy black market society he inhabited," and that has been accomplished.
In a stream of obscenity-laced recollections, Brouillette describes his long career as a muscle-building, motorcycleriding agent of "fun." Whether a customer's idea of "fun" was liquor, drugs, woman, gambling or whatever, Frenchy, who benefited from a family connection to an important Louisiana politician, was able and willing to provide.
Brouillette claims to have associated with local Mafia boss Carlos Marcello and considers him a personal hero. He speaks of the notorious crime boss with frequency and familiarity and provides details of Marcello's relationship to his apparent crime boss predecessor Sylvestro "Silver Dollar Sam" Carollo.
Frenchy also spends a fair amount of time on the underworld connections to the Kennedy Assassinations. He links assassin Lee Harvey Oswald with the Marcello clan and moves on to blacken the reputation of crusading prosecutor Jim Garrison (not among Frenchy's favorite people). He charges that Garrison was far from the determined anti-mob public servant portrayed in the movie JFK and was actually corrupt, lazy, paid-pal of the local New Orleans underworld.
It will be difficult for many - perhaps impossible for some - to accept that a muscle-bound Crescent City pimp had access to the better known names in New Orleans government and entertainment and served as a confidant of a powerful mob boss. That's all really beside the point. Mr. New Orleans seeks to preserve an experience. Somehow gross exaggerations-even occasional fibs-seem to fit well within that experience.
Colorado's Carlino Brothers: A Bootlegging Empire
[Disclaimer: The author provided me with several revisions of Colorado's Carlino Brothers before publication. I contributed edit suggestions and provided a foreword to the book. - TH.]
A decade ago, Mountain Mafia: Organized Crime in the Rockies by Alt and Wells first put the Colorado underworld on the map. Now, author Sam Carlino has provided the map with important connections between Denver and Pueblo Italian-American racketeers and national organized crime leaders.
His just-released book, Colorado's Carlino Brothers: A Bootlegging Empire (The History Press), is at once an intimate family portrait and a detailed Mafia history. The author deftly tracks the development of the regional crime family before and through the Prohibition Era, revealing its proper place in the national scene, while providing personal insight into his ancestors, who were members and leaders of the organization. The author's unique perspective helps to fully develop and humanize the book's primary subjects, brothers Pete (the author's grandfather) and Sam, and reveals the often painful impact of their career choices on their extended families.
The book deals in depth with the career and murder of early Pueblo Mafia leader Pellegrino Scaglia, the long and violent Carlino-D'Anna rivalry, the successful infiltration of the Carlino operation by an undercover federal agent and the Denver police raid that exposed a budding regional bootlegging syndicate. It explores Pete Carlino's travels to Mafia home cities in the Midwest and the East in a seemingly desperate effort to strengthen his position at home. And it chronicles the tragic and bloody ends of the Carlino faction leaders.
But its most momentous revelation concerns a link between Pete Carlino and the powerful but short-lived New York City-based Mafia boss of bosses, Salvatore Maranzano.
The author uses some circumstantial evidence and a long-forgotten ("missing link") news source to build a convincing case for a connection between the two old-school "Mustache Pete" Mafiosi. For researchers of underworld history, this heightens the importance of the often overlooked Colorado underworld. It also adds greatly to the significance of the nearly simultaneous murders of Maranzano and Carlino, occurring 1,800 miles apart on September 10, 1931, and may be viewed as supportive of the legendary "Night of Sicilian Vespers" purge of Maranzano loyalists.
Carlino Bros. contains a wealth of photographs supporting its history text. These include family photos, gangland group shots, mug shots, news photos, scenics, document images and newspaper clippings.
The author's deep affection for the subjects of the work and his joy at having discovered their true stories - long-closeted skeletons and all - are evident in his selection of family images, in his commentary in the "Introduction," "Conclusion" and "Special Thanks" sections of the book, and certainly in his decision to share with the reader the often praised Carlino family recipe for spaghetti sauce.
Colorado's Carlino Brothers was released October 28, 2019, in 160-page paperback and Kindle editions.
Gangsters of Harlem: The Gritty Underworld of New York's Most Famous Neighborhood by Ron Chepesiuk
While I have some problems with this book's content and structure, overall, I liked it a lot. It is interesting reading and - at least in parts - a useful historical reference.
Breaking with my usual pattern, I'll discuss the book's negatives before its positives. My inspiration for the change is author Ron Chepesiuk's decision to put his weakest section first, a decision that nearly caused me to toss "Gangsters" aside by Page 25.
The book's opening, which deals with the Italian gangsters of East Harlem in the 1900s, contains some inaccuracies and makes some troubling assertions:
Despite these errors and others (which I suspect were the result of Chepesiuk's reliance on some slapped-together mass-market works), the tales of Morello, Lupo, Terranova and Gallucci certainly will appeal to the casual reader.
But why Chepesiuk decided to lead off his book with this stuff rather than use bits of it to backfill stories occuring later on remains a mystery.
Chepesiuk's division of his chapters into what appear to be arbitrary subsections - some no more than a paragraph or two in length - was bothersome. However, it probably benefits those readers who are intimidated by gray text and reassured by an abundance of places to stop reading and put the book down.
Now for the good news.
"Gangsters" starts moving with the Harlem Renaissance of the Jazz Age. Tales from this period are easily worth the price of admission. Chepesiuk explores colorful underworld characters like Dutch Schultz, "Mad Dog" Coll and Owen Madden, and renowned entertainers like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louie Armstrong. The reader is likely to be left wanting more from this exciting and culturally rich era (though some Milton Mezzrow material sounds like it was drawn from a drug-culture website or from Mezzrow's own notoriously unreliable autobiography and is very difficult to accept).
Chepesiuk finally hits his stride as he discusses the rise of the African American gangster in Harlem and the various underworld rackets, including the evolution of the drug trade's focus from heroin to marijuana to crack cocaine. He provides detailed biographies of the more noteworthy figures, like Bumpy Johnson and Queenie St. Clair, Frank "Black Caesar" Matthews, "Untouchable" Nicky Barnes, Pee Wee Kirkland and Frank "Super Fly" Lucas. At this point, the author seems more determined than he was earlier to set the historical record straight. He challenges some old legends and "Gangsters of Harlem" becomes a valuable resource.
On the whole, "Gangsters" is a well written and entertaining work. I do recommend it... from about Chapter 2 on.
Gangsters of Miami: True Tales of Mobsters, Gamblers, Hit Men, Con Men and Gang Bangers from the Magic City by Ron Chepesiuk
After examining the Gangsters of Harlem and the Black Gangsters of Chicago in rapid succession, journalist Ron Chepesiuk has turned his attention to the Gangsters of Miami.
This is another well written and comprehensive regional underworld history. In a fast-moving and readable narrative, Chepesiuk exposes the roots of organized crime in southern Florida, moves quickly through Prohibition and the rise of gambling, and settles in for a detailed discussion of the regional drug trade.
Like his first book (which featured a disappointing section on the early Mafia presence in East Harlem), Gangsters of Miami spends little time on the early stages of the Italian-American criminal syndicate in southern Florida. The author decides that the first extended visit by a big-time mobster to Miami was made by Al Capone in 1928, and a number of the book's early pages are filled with a simplistic retelling of Chicago gangland lore. The author surprisingly neglects the well publicized Miami arrests of New York-based Mafia chief Joe Masseria and his lieutenant Charlie Luciano in 1930.
Chepesiuk does note the investments of a number of Mafiosi in Miami-area rackets. And he touches on the related underworld histories of Tampa and Havana, Cuba.
The drug trade, involving Russian organized criminals, Cuban exiles and ethnic gangs from South and Central America, is the focus of much of Chepesiuk's attention. Like his other works, Gangsters of Miami is a must-have for those interested in the criminal history of the region.
Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers by Ron Chepesiuk
With his last book, Gangsters of Miami, still warm from the presses, prolific gangland historian Ron Chepesiuk has yet another volume hitting bookstore shelves. Unlike Chepesiuk's regional crime history surveys (he has tackled Harlem, Chicago and Miami, as well as the Cali Cartel of Colombia), this latest work fully develops a single subject.
Sergeant Smack chronicles the story of North Carolina's Leslie "Ike" Atkinson, an "army brat," adventurer, gambler and one of history's most original gangsters. Under the cover of the Vietnam War and through the use of the U.S. military infrastructure, Atkinson masterminded one of history's top-10 drug trafficking gangs.
Between 1968 and 1975, the network formed by Atkinson moved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of heroin from Thailand all the way to the East Coast of the United States. Drugs were then distributed through a network that eventually included the infamous Harlem crime bos s Frank "Superfly" Lucas (subject of the movie American Gangster).
As Chepesiuk tells Atkinson's story, he effectively explains how Frank Lucas acquired his supply of narcotics from overseas. Lucas formerly insisted that he cultivated suppliers on his own during trips to Asia.
The author also corrects a number of other errors introduced by Superfly and by the recent movie about his life. Though Atkinson is widely believed to have transported his heroin shipments from Asia within the coffins - or the actual corpses - of dead American servicemen (stories that seem to have originated with Frank Lucas himself), Chepesiuk insists there is no truth to that legend.
Author Ron Chepesiuk handles this complex story deftly, providing a useful history while revealing the inner motivations of the real people involved.
Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend by Christian Cipollini
Cipollini explores many of the legends associated with the Prohibition Era Mafia boss, including the origin of his "Lucky" nickname, the cause of his facial scars, the existence of the Big Six/Seven bootlegging group, Lucky's relationships with women, his conviction for compulsory prostitution and his contributions to the Allied war effort in World War II.
While Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend does not resolve many of the old Luciano stories, it does give them a thorough and reasonable discussion, referring to a wide range of source materials and the commentary of experts on the subject.
Cipollini slips up in a couple of important areas. Perhaps giving in to the same marketing pressures that have driven Luciano biographies toward undocumented and unjustifiable claims, he embraces a view of Luciano as an underworld revolutionary and as the founder of an entirely new, multi-ethnic and monolithic underworld syndicate Cipollini refers to as the "mob."
While Luciano did endorse a departure from the old boss of bosses leadership system and the establishment of a Commission to arbitrate disputes between crime families, the idea apparently did not originate with him, it was already widely accepted, and his support for it may have been merely a matter of self-preservation. (From 1928 to 1931, the years just before Luciano reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession, four men who had held the boss of bosses title - Salvatore D'Aquila, Giuseppe Morello, Giuseppe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano - all were assassinated. That Luciano resisted taking the seemingly cursed title for himself is less evidence of revolutionary character than it is evidence he was paying attention.)
Aside from that change in the U.S. Mafia's supreme arbiter, the structure of Mafia organized crime remained constant through Luciano's years in power.
Luciano surely deserves no credit at all for opening the criminal society to non-Sicilians. Calabrian and Neapolitan gangsters had been welcomed into Mafia organizations across the country for some time. While cooperative relationships with non-Italians existed during Luciano's time, such relationships can be found in the decades before Luciano's rise to power and cannot be construed as a revolutionary development.
Cipollini's "mob," described as a streamlined, multi-ethnic criminal organization directed by a panel of bosses (the author refers to this panel as another commission) including Luciano and non-Italians like Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, is an intriguing concept but it is closer to a conspiracy theory than it is to history. Evidence for the existence of such an organization is lacking, and continued competition among Mafia crime families and non-Mafia organizations appears to rule out this level of unity and coordination.
On the whole, Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend is an interesting and fairly illuminating discussion of Luciano tales. But our need for a definitive volume that can set the record straight on the legendary crime boss remains unsatisfied.
Mafia in Havana: A Caribbean Mob Story by Enrique Cirules
Cirules' book contains abundant pro-Castro propaganda that is sure to offend many Americans. However, much of his flag-waving is easy to spot and just as easy to ignore.
When he's not applauding the communist revolution, Cirules provides some valuable history. If he fails in convincing the reader of decades of outright collusion between U.S. Intelligence and organized crime, he at least succeeds in establishing the shared motivations of the two groups and in documenting their cooperative effort to remove Fidel Castro from power.
Cirules uses Cuban government archives, U.S. documentation and interviews with Cubans who were personally acquainted with American and European mobsters on the island. He is generally able to use those different sources as checks and balances on each other.
Charlie Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many other big-name gangsters are featured.
Moving through the book is sometimes difficult. Passages often seem repetitive and some idiomatic expressions are jumbled. It isn't clear if these were problems with Cirules' writing style or if they were introduced in the translation to English, but it appears that the translation was done somewhat clumsily.
The value of this book to researchers is limited by its lack of an index and by its repeated use of questionable quotes attributed to Charlie Luciano (Those from "The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano"). Fortunately, "The Mafia in Havana" includes endnotes enabling us to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931 by David Critchley
This is a groundbreaking New York Mafia history reference work. Though not without a few errors (both of commission and omission), this book corrects many of the factual problems that have crept into Mafia histories through the past century and presents the most accurate picture yet of the early Sicilian-Italian underworld in New York.
The author examines every detail with a highly critical eye, assembling his history from vital records, police and prison records and court transcripts. He also puts fellow Mafia historians under the microscope, meticulously analyzing the flaws in their research and their reasoning. The text is enhanced by the addition of dozens of images, many of which are published here for the first time.
Researchers will be delighted to find that more than 100 of the book's 348 pages are dedicated to endnotes, bibliography and annotated index.
"Origin" is somewhat handicapped by the author's revisionist agenda, by his ivory-tower writing style and by its own misleading title and oppressive price tag. Casual readers will probably wish to steer clear. However, this is a must-have for any crime historian.
Just out in paperback, The Last Godfather: The Rise and Fall of Joey Massino by Simon Crittle is a fast-moving account of the rise and fall of Bonanno Family boss Joseph Massino.
Crittle presents the details of Massino's crimes, rackets and relationships and explains the power wielded by the man known as the "last godfather."
Crittle does a fair job of generating and maintaining reader excitement with a near-stream of consciousness writing style. That style, however, could be frustrating for readers looking for sequential history. One of the results of the author's oh-by-the-way and let-me-go-back-to tendencies is a book that frankly doesn't merit even the 256 pages it has been given. There is plenty of repetition (readers might get the impression that Massino was guilty of eighty murders rather than eight). Some excerpts of court testimony are provided. But a few of those fail to illustrate the author's points and come across as mere filler material.
For me, the book missed the mark by failing to provide more underworld context. Former Bonanno boss Philip Rastelli, for example, comes across as just another name and isn't given as much attention as the demolition of a couple of gas containers in Maspeth, Queens. While we are told that the Bonanno family is a vast criminal network with affiliate organizations in at least three nations, we are essentially shown just a handful of guys in a couple of old buildings on Long Island.
These omissions are not a problem for readers familiar with the mob, and Crittle's book seems to be intended as the latest installment in a series of journalistic accounts of the New York underworld, building on the still-warm bios of John Gotti.
However, the most frustrating lack of context occurs in the overall theme of the book. From the cover on, Crittle constantly repeats the "last godfather" and "last of the old world gangsters" theme (the mentions call to mind the similarly ridiculous titles of 1981's "The Last Mafioso" and 1988's "The Last Days of the Sicilians"). He doesn't fully explain how Massino was the "last" of anything at all or why we should be interested. Only in the final pages, after acknowledging that Massino already had been replaced by the time the book was written, does he finally come clean: "Time will only tell who'll be the next Last Godfather..."
The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder and The Birth of the American Mafia by Mike Dash
Here for the first time is a complete narrative history of the Morello Crime Family, the earliest documented Mafia organization in New York City.
It is a unique combination of thrilling storytelling and authoritative history. Building on four years of research into U.S. Secret Service archives, court transcripts, prison files and other sources, Dash tracks the history of the Giuseppe Morello's clan from its origins in Sicily, through early adventures in Louisiana and Texas, to the establishment of a Mafia empire based in New York City. The author also examines the sensational counterfeiting trial that brought an end to Morello's reign over the Mafia.
There is good reason to quarrel with Dash's choice of title and with his repeated discussion of that choice within the book. The Morello crime family came to life decades after earlier documented Mafia organizations in New Orleans. Dash's insistence that the Morello group was the earliest American Mafia organization to "survive" also seems indefensible, as there is little direct evidence for the group's existence beyond about 1915. Dash, himself, seems uncertain whether the Morello group evolved into the Lucchese crime family or the Genovese crime family. (This reviewer believes the Gambino crime family also can claim to be a direct descendant.)
While other small factual and logical problems spring up from time to time, The First Family is well constructed on a sturdy foundation of scholarly research. Those interested in Mafia nonfiction will find it difficult to put down.
We're Going to Win This Thing: The Shocking Frame-Up of a Mafia Crime Buster by Lin DeVecchio and Charles Brandt
We're Going to Win This Thing is billed as "the riveting front-page news story of an FBI agent falsely accused of ordering four mob hits." However, what this book mostly is in fact is a disturbing look inside the mind of an FBI informant-handler who spent too much of his career in a legal "Twilight Zone" and as a consequence may have lost touch with the fundamental principles of right and wrong. The book also provides a window into the shockingly dysfunctional relationships among federal law enforcement and local and federal prosecutors within New York City.
At its most basic, We're Going to Win This Thing is a law enforcement horror story - a nightmare for those who like to or need to imagine law enforcers and prosecutors wearing white hats and acting beyond reproach.
The charges against former FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio remain unproven in a court of law, and it appears they never will be proven in a court of law. So, under our judicial system, DeVecchio is innocent of those charges. That simply is a fact. To state or to imply anything else with regard to the legal charges is a violation of DeVecchio's rights and a betrayal of our core American values. On the other hand, readers of his book are bound to reach the conclusion that he is guilty of less formal offenses, including cooperation and friendship with organized criminals, engagement in petty personal vendettas, and an extreme arrogance that excuses otherwise unacceptable behavior as long as it is performed by DeVecchio himself.
We're Going to Win This Thing is a DeVecchio memoir, penned with the help of Charles Brandt (author of I Heard You Paint Houses). It has a few obvious purposes, including rehabilitating the former FBI agent's reputation, slinging mud at his personal enemies and acquiring the funds to pay off what must be an enormous legal bill. Whether it has helped with the attorney's tab is uncertain. The book does succeed in getting some mud on a number of people. But it fails miserably at putting the proverbial white hat back on DeVecchio's head.
Between his unconvincing denials and his relentless attacks, DeVecchio does provide a decent history of the Colombo Crime Family civil war and other Mob-related events of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. But the true worth of his book will be realized by those who are critical of the FBI's use of confidential informants.
John Dickie's Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) tracks the Mafia underworld back to Italian unification efforts in the 19th Century.
It explores the growing influence of the Sicilian criminal element and its flight overseas in the 1920s to escape Fascism.
Dickie notes the reestablishment of Mafia authority in Sicily following the Second World War and describes intergang friction on that island from the 1960s to the present day.
Dickie's work is the latest to illustrate England's fascination with the Sicilian Mafia. Though the book's jacket claims it is the "first English language history of the Cosa Nostra," readers of James Fentress's "Rebels and Mafiosi" (which certainly seemed to be in English when I read it a few years ago) will experience some deja vu.
The book appears to have been very well researched. The subject matter might be a bit too heavy for the casual reader, and Dickie does not help matters with his academic writing style. If you are fond of short sentences and are fearful of semicolons, this one's probably not for you. The book contains a helpful bibliography, a good index, sixteen pages of photographs and a few maps.
In Gangster City: The History of the New York Underworld 1900-1935 by Patrick Downey (Barricade Books, 2004), Downey sifted through New York's municipal archives in an effort to make sense of the city's criminal history.
That he undertook such a project is impressive in itself. That he delivered a coherent and readable book on such an enormous topic is amazing.
Gangster City deals with organized crime before, during and just after Prohibition. Without neglecting the popular Mafia characters of the period, Downey gives appropriate weight to other ethnic criminal organizations. "Legs" Diamond, "Mad Dog" Coll, "Killer" Madden and Monk Eastman take their rightful places in Big Apple organized crime history.
New York-based readers should enjoy Downey's second appendix. In it, he pinpoints the city locations of major underworld events. The book also features a decent index and sixteen pages of photographs. The book would have benefited from a couple of maps.
The Canary Sang but Couldn't Fly: The Fatal Fall of Abe Reles, the Mobster Who Shattered Murder, Inc.'s Code of Silence by Edmund Elmaleh
A complete telling of Abe Reles's life, his underworld career as a Murder Inc. assassin and his spectacular death, this book is also a study of the various investigations into Reles's supposed accidental drop from a hotel window and a careful examination of Reles-homicide theories.
The legendary snitch goes out the sixth-floor window of the Half Moon Hotel on Page 74, leaving Elmaleh plenty of time to critique the various views of that event. The author does so authoritatively. He dismisses the official view of the day and points an accusing finger at other underworld turncoats.
There is a somewhat disturbing inconsistency in Elmaleh's work. The author, who died in 2008 before this book was published, often referred to primary source material to tell the Reles story, However, on a number of occasions, he referenced popular published works, seemingly without making an effort to confirm story details. Frequently, these retellings are not accompanied by the critical analysis Elmaleh provides elsewhere.
The discussion of Reles's early career, including his relationship with Mafia big shot Albert Anastasia, is interesting reading, but deeper and more consistent research would have made it more valuable.
The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld by Tom Folsom
Employing a fast-paced, almost attention-deficit writing style, Folsom delivers a well researched and expertly crafted biography that allows readers to experience rather than merely observe the life of "Crazy Joey" Gallo and his siblings. The author jumpily connects real world incidents and fictional references, as he weaves compellingly through the rackets career of the Gallo brothers.
The book's dance-around style limits its usefulness as a Gallo reference work. However, The Mad Ones is an engrossing and entertaining voyage.
The Boston Mob Guide: Hitmen, Hoodlums and Hideouts by Beverly Ford and Stephanie Schorow
Authors Beverly Ford and Stephanie Schorow have assembled a quick-moving 160-page book that puts recently captured fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger into his historic and geographic context. In addition to Bulger and his underworld cronies in the infamous Winter Hill Gang, the authors examine the major players and events in the New England Mafia, as well as various Irish gangsters and other shady characters who have called the Boston region their home.
The authors, both accomplished Boston-area journalists, acknowledge that much of the local underworld history has been covered in other chronicles, biographies and even autobiographies and they suggest that their book be employed as a "scorecard to use while getting to know the players."
It actually is a good deal more than a mere scorecard. The Boston Mob Guide is a concise retelling of major Boston-area gangland occurrences in light of recent developments. It includes the life stories of the major underworld players and abundant black and white photographs of relevant people and places. All in all, it is an enjoyable and informative primer on Boston organized crime for a general readership market.
The Last Undercover: The True Story of an FBI Agent's Dangerous Dance with Evil by Bob Hamer
Hamer vividly describes the job of an undercover agent. He takes the reader through a host of assignments, illustrating the preparations, the dangers, the disappointments and the triumphs of the job. By the final pages, the reader feels as though he/she has personally experienced undercover work and dealt with the personalities on both sides of the law.
Unfortunately, the experience is less than exhilarating. At times it is terribly distasteful. The description of Hamer's efforts to reveal criminal behavior within an organization of adult male boy-lovers might not have been so objectionable if it hadn't been made into the central theme of the book. Much of Hamer's recurring, frank, boy-lover discussion is bound to offend the reader initially and possibly to bore the reader after the offense wears off.
Hamer spends the book repeatedly popping back and forth between the boy-lovers investigation and his other work. There is little rationale for all that popping around, and it gets annoying, particularly in areas when the other work is far more interesting.
Those expecting Donnie Brasco will be very disappointed. The author himself notes that he spent his career waiting for "that one great undercover assignment ... full of danger, excitement, and intrigue... That call would never come." Hamer did have some dangerous encounters with the underworld, but his discussions of them are brief and always give way to the continuing boy-lovers saga.
Mafia Son: The Scarpa Mob Family, the FBI, and a Story of Betrayal by Sandra Harmon
Harmon provides an intimate look at the Scarpa family and its long-term function as a link between organized crime and federal law enforcement. She details the underworld careers of Colombo crime family mobsters Greg Scarpa Sr. and Gregory Scarpa Jr., the amoral personal life of the elder Scarpa and his work as an informant for the FBI. The book is fast-moving, and many of its revelations are shocking.
In the book's Postscript chapter, Harmon describes herself as "someone who has gotten almost too close to this story." She is almost right in that assessment. Harmon was a participant in some of the events she describes, and she seems far too willing to go out on a limb in support of incredible claims made by Scarpa Jr. She does not directly discuss the antagonistic relationship between local and federal law enforcement in Brooklyn, but she repeatedly reveals bias for the Brooklyn district attorney's office and against the federal investigators and prosecutors.
Though a partisan account, Mafia Son still has much to offer as an exploration of the family and "professional" relationships of these career criminals.
The Mafia and the Machine: The Story of the Kansas City Mob by Frank Hayde
Author Frank Hayde left no stone unturned as he assembled a comprehensive and readable history of the Kansas City underworld. He neatly tied together generations of political shenanigans by the influential Pendergast political machine and numerous murders and illicit business ventures by the local Sicilian-Italian Mafia organization.
In telling just over a century's worth of history, Hayde did considerably more than merely hit the high points - the Union Station Massacre, point-shaving allegations against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Strawman case, and the shocking assassination of a political boss within a Democratic headquarters. Hayde also provided rich detail on little known events, such as the Election Day riots of the 1920s and 1930s and the River Quay war, without ever allowing his narrative to become bogged down.
The result is the most complete picture yet of the Kansas City underworld and of the mutualistic relationship between organized politics and organized crime.
Drawing from court testimony, interviews and law enforcement surveillance, Hayde was able to tell plenty of the history through the actual words of the people who made that history. The big names on the seedier side of Kansas City's last century are all to be found within the covers of The Mafia and the Machine: several generations of Pendergasts; loyal machine politician Guy Park; Mafia front men Johnny Lazia and Charlie Binaggio; mobsters Joseph "Scarface" DiGiovanni, James Balestrere, Tano Lococo, Tony Gizzo and the Civellas - "Uncle Nick," "Carl the Cork" and "Tony Ripe."
Crimefighters were not neglected. Hayde discussed the efforts of crusading journalists and grassroots organizations and those of investigative agencies from the Kansas City Police Department all the way to the federal bureaus commanded by Harry Anslinger and J. Edgar Hoover. U.S. President Harry Truman, an admitted product of the Pendergast Machine, was handled frankly and fairly by the author.
At the back of his book, Hayde kindly provided short biographies of the dozens of individuals who played a prominent role in Kansas City's underworld history. He also included a partial bibliography.
As thorough and well crafted as the book is, there are some missing elements. There is no index, and the Table of Contents' brief titles often provide little or no clue as to the subject or time period dealt with in individual chapters. Researchers on the topic of Kansas City organized crime could also be frustrated by the lack of notes and the incompleteness of the bibliography.
I have just one other critical observation: Hayde might have illuminated further the births of both the local political machine and the criminal society closely related to it by beginning his account at an earlier date. The State of Missouri was on the front lines of the American Civil War and was deeply divided over the issues of slavery, secession, and federal coercion of the South, factors known to have contributed to the rise of late 19th Century outlaw groups such as the James-Younger Gang. This greater context is lacking, as is a feel for how the founding of the Kansas City Mafia related to similar but earlier organizations in other regions. If Hayde had probed back into the political realities of the Civil War era and into the early evolution of the Sicilian criminal society in the U.S., he might have been in a better position to answer the natural question, "Why?"
As it stands, The Mafia and the Machine is solid history and interesting reading.
Al Capone and His American Boys: Memoirs of a Mobster's Wife by William J. Helmer
The latest book about the Capone organization is really not new. Well, not entirely new.
Much of Al Capone and his American Boys is drawn from a manuscript written in the 1930s by Georgette Winkeler, wife of Capone-affiliated gangster Gus Winkeler. Nearly released back then, the publisher decided it was "too hot" to publish and buried it.
A copy of the manuscript turned up six decades later in FBI files. Gangland historian William J. Helmer prepared the manuscript for publication and added a substantial amount of clarification and supporting documentation. The result is a detailed insider's history of Capone's specialassignment American Boys gang - Winkeler, Bob Carey, Ray Nugent, Fred Burke, Fred Goetz and Byron Bolton.
Georgette's memoirs are captivating, revealing and well written. However, they are understandably not objective. She wrote from her biased memory. She obviously applied whitewash to her husband's participation in some of the most dramatic crimes of the Gangster Era. Helmer does not interfere in Georgette's minor whitewashing. However, he does step in with bracketed comments when Georgette strays significantly from the truth or omits critical data.
Helmer also spreads throughout the book a collection of his own informative features, providing the details of important events and personalities.
Al Capone and his American Boys is highly recommended for those interested in an insider's view of the major criminal events of the Gangster Era.
The Complete Public Enemy Almanac: New Facts and Features on the People, Places, and Events of the Gangsters and Outlaw Era, 1920-1940 by William J. Helmer and Rick Mattix
Authors William J. Helmer and Rick Mattix have produced an extensive and essential reference work on the Gangster Era (1920-1940).
The book breaks down criminal history into its component parts, dealing with characters and events through the use of individual biographical essays and sprawling chronologies. Every serious outlaw of the period - from Accardo, through Capone, Dillinger and McGurn, to Abner "Longie" Zwillman - is represented.
At the same time, the work ties elements together and probes more deeply into causes and effects through an impressive collection of articles on topics such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the Castellammarese War, criminal use of the Tommygun, the evolution of investigative techniques, early efforts toward bulletproofing...
The Almanac is amply illustrated with photos and other images, many of which have not been available before.
A treasure of information awaits those who dig to the back of the book. There will be found a collection of gangster quotes, including the last words of Dutch Schultz; gang membership lists; and a comprehensive, annotated bibliography of Gangster Era books, which itself is worth the price of admission.
Casual presentation and an often laid-back writing style provide comfortable cover for this work of genuine scholarship. But there is a negative aspect of that useful mask - a quick flip through the pages could leave an observer questioning the professionalism of the book.
Design elements surely would have benefited from closer attention. Much of the book is presented in a loose sans-serif type that seems out of place in a reference work. Tight, serif typestyles appear every now and then without explanation, serving only to highlight the informality of the rest of the text. Article backgrounds and borders are similarly inconsistent.
In addition, the nesting of multi-page articles within collections of biographical essays and long chronologies makes sequential reading difficult. (A name index of 37 three-column pages is available as a navigational tool.)
On the whole, these few negatives do not detract in any substantial way from the authors' achievement. The Complete Public Enemy Almanac is a must-have for crime historians and a useful and informative guide for the True Crime reader.
Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious Enforcer by Ronald Humble
If author Ronald Humble had limited himself to Chicago gangster Frank Nitti's life story, the result would have been an informative biography. But Humble strayed, getting himself and his book into trouble.
Humble got off on the wrong foot when he labeled Paul Kelly (Paolo Vaccarelli) an "Irish thug" on Page 4. He tripped in his description of Joe Valachi as the first Mafioso to break the code of omerta. And he stumbled in his discussions of the early Mafia Commission. Humble's book was bruised by his odd decision to delve into the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The book's subject, Nitti, ended his life decades before that assassination, just as JFK was taking command of PT-109 during World War II.
The author moved with somewhat greater skill and confidence through the details of Nitti's life and career. He looked briefly at Nitti's early family life and moved to the Enforcer's position within the Chicago-area underworld organization (the Outfit) of Al Capone.
Nitti was credited with planning many of Capone's signature events-perhaps too many for credibility's sake-such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the beating deaths of Scalise, Anselmi and Guinta, and the assassination of Brooklyn NY gang boss Frankie Yale.
Humble spent considerable time on Nitti's feud with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, and the author lent his support to the theory that Cermak's violent death in the presence of President-elect Franklin Roosevelt was not the near-miss of accepted history but a deliberate assassination of the Chicago mayor. As is the case with other Cermak conspiracy theories, Humble neglected to explain why Chicago gangsters had to target the Chicago mayor for assassination in Miami, Florida, in the presence of the president-elect and the Secret Service. (Surely better options were available.)
One of Humble's more difficult sells was his portrayal of Nitti as the "most media-glamorized gangster in history." Humble cited references to the gangster in "more television-series episodes and motion pictures than any other specific modern gangster." The figures might be accurate, but they are certainly inflated by the multiple episodes of the old Untouchables television drama, in which a Nitti caricature was the weekly villain.
In many sections, Frank Nitti: The Story of Chicago's Notorious Enforcer reads like a repetitive and largely unconvincing argument of the significance of its subject. That is unfortunate and unnecessary, because the Nitti history-often lost between sensational and sometimes irrelevant discussions-is far more interesting.
NEWS RELEASE: In his book on The Barrel Mystery, legendary crime-fighter William Flynn discussed what he viewed as the two great organized outlaw elements in American society: violent political radicals or "Reds" and a growing Sicilian underworld organization he knew as "The Black Hand." Flynn feared that the Red and the Black might someday combine to form "a mixed brand of terrorism... that would bring every decent citizen to shudder..."
The two elements did combine in the person of Charles Sberna. Son of a leftist radical who fled the U.S. to avoid punishment for orchestrating a series of bloody terrorist bombings, Sberna became the son-in-law of former U.S. Mafia boss of bosses Giuseppe Morello. Given that background and his own history of criminal and anti-social behavior, is it possible that Sberna was viewed with impartiality and a presumption of innocence when brought into court accused of killing a New York City police officer?
Sberna claimed to have had no role in the 1937 killing of Patrolman John H.A. Wilson or in the criminal activity related to that killing. Co-defendant Salvatore Gati admitted his own participation but insisted that Sberna was not present. Their jurors were unconvinced. Sberna and Gati were convicted of first-degree murder. Each took his turn in the Sing Sing Prison electric chair.
But there was something odd about the case: Sing Sing Warden Lewis Lawes had no doubt on the evening of January 5, 1939: He had just presided over the execution of an innocent man. The prison chaplain and many guards also felt that Sberna had been sent to his death unjustly.
Lawes made his feelings known in a published book a short time later. Syndicated Broadway columnist Walter Winchell called attention to flaws in the case against Sberna in the summer of 1939 and again early in 1942. According to Winchell, the government knew that District Attorney Thomas Dewey's office had sent an innocent man to the chair and was providing "hush money" payments to Sberna relatives. Since then, opponents of capital punishment have included Sberna's name in collections of those deemed "wrongly executed" and have used the case as a somewhat vague example of the possibility of death penalty error. Still, little is known about Sberna or the circumstances that led him to the electric chair.
The story is a complex and controversial one, involving celebrity attorneys, Mafia bosses, violent political radicals, media giants and ruthless establishment figures, all set in a period in which Americans sought stability and government-imposed order after years of political upheaval, economic depression and Prohibition Era lawlessness.
Wrongly Executed? - The Long-Forgotten Context of Charles Sberna's 1939 Electrocution, is now available in hardcover, paperback and two ebook formats (Kindle for Amazon Kindle devices and software, and Epub for Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo devices and Adobe Digital Editions software). For more information and purchase options, visit the book's website: mafiahistory.us/wronglyexecuted/.
NEWS RELEASE: The American Mafia was born in the Crescent City of the 19th Century and came of age with the 1891 betrayal and murder of gang organizer and financier Joseph P. Macheca, according to a just released Macheca biography.
Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon, co-authored by an organized crime historian and a Macheca family descendant, challenges the legends of the mob's earliest days and establishes the facts of the 1890 Hennessy assassination, the 1891 Crescent City lynchings and the underworld's kinship with corrupt political machines of the period. Building upon a decade of research, authors Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon stitch together the details of Macheca's life, interests, family and death. They tackle historical misrepresentations of Macheca as a foreign-born Mafioso, proving he was a native Louisianan, a Confederate patriot and a street warrior for the conservative Democratic cause, as well as a cunning and brutal gang leader.
"Joseph P. Macheca was a major force in the underworld of his day," Mr. Hunt explained. "But it is important to view his crimes in an appropriate context. Gilded Age New Orleans was very much a wild, frontier town. During our research, we often encountered situations in which no substantial difference could be found between the actions of respected community leaders and the actions of outlaws. On some occasions, the motives and methods of professional law enforcers were indistinguishable from those of lawbreakers.
"We believe Macheca, longing for acceptance from the local establishment, allowed political bosses to push him deeper and deeper into underworld conspiracies. When the bosses decided he had become more of a liability than an asset, they simply disposed of him."
Making use of archival records, published and unpublished histories, as well as Macheca family traditions, Deep Water exposes political corruption from antebellum Louisiana through the bloody Reconstruction Era, illustrates the squalor of 19th Century immigrant communities and details the various intrigues and underworld rackets of the period.
Deep Water has been positively received by experts in Louisiana history and criminal research. Peter Dale Scott, crime historian and author of numerous works including Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, said, "[Deep Water] will force a reassessment of a famous event in the history of American organized crime." Louisiana historian Julie Eshelman-Lee described Deep Water as a "brilliant work" and a "wonderful contribution to Louisiana... history." Crime researcher and author Rick Mattix said Deep Water "shows a marvelous objectivity."
Deep Water's first edition was published in hardcover and paperback by iUniverse, an affiliate of Barnes & Noble. The book's second edition was published in paperback by Createspace, and is also available in Kindle and PDF electronic formats. For information visit the book's website: jpmacheca.blogspot.com.
DiCarlo: Buffalo's First Family of Crime, in two volumes by Thomas Hunt and Michael A. Tona
BUFFALO, New York, August 9, 2013 - The crime family of western New York was not at all a Magaddino-monolith as it is often portrayed. The Buffalo branch of that organization predated notorious Mafia boss Stefano Magaddino's arrival in the region by decades, frequently resisted his control and eventually threw off his leadership to briefly restore the older DiCarlo-Pieri underworld dynasty, according to the local coauthor of DiCarlo: Buffalo's First Family of Crime.
Michael A. Tona, a lifelong western New York resident who has dedicated more than thirty-five years to the research of the DiCarlo family and the regional underworld, believes DiCarlo's life story is the key to understanding the history of the western New York Mafia.
"Joseph DiCarlo and the Buffalo Mob came into this world at about the same time and left it at about the same time," says Tona. "Sharing the same father (Buffalo's earliest known crime boss Giuseppe DiCarlo), we could consider them brothers, influenced by the same people, events and heritage, and occasionally experiencing a degree of sibling rivalry."
Tona recalls meeting DiCarlo several times in the 1970s at Santasiero's Restaurant, where the Buffalo Crime Family's elder statesman held court at the table by the phone. Generally tongue-tied on those occasions, young Tona took little of value from those meetings aside from the inspiration to learn all he could about DiCarlo and the roots of Buffalo organized crime.
DiCarlo has earned early endorsements from true crime authors. Scott Deitche, whose published books include Rogue Mobster, The Silent Don and Cigar City Mafia, calls it "one of the best-researched mob biographies I've read." Deitche notes that the authors dig "deep into the interlocking web of crime family cooperation across the United States and show how Joe DiCarlo played a pivotal role in elevating the Mafia to the dominant organized crime group in America." Patrick Downey, author of Legs Diamond: Gangster, Gangster City and Bad Seeds in the Big Apple, says DiCarlo is "an exciting and highly detailed work on the birth and evolution of organized crime in upstate New York." Downey praises the work as "comprehensive and carefully researched," as well as "highly readable."
In two volumes, Tona and coauthor Thomas Hunt chronicle a century of DiCarlo family history and related developments in the American Mafia organized crime network. Their work is built upon documents from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including the Buffalo Police Department and the Cleveland Police Department; personal interviews; court and prison records; many hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles; family history records from the United States and Italy; dozens of published works; and documents and reports from numerous government sources. DiCarlo's first volume covers a period from about 1900 through 1937. The second volume focuses on 1938 through 1984 but also includes an epilogue describing events as recent as 2012. Both volumes include photographs, extensive endnotes, bibliographies and indexes.
DiCarlo is available in hardcover, trade paperback and e-book formats for Kindle and Nook / iBooks devices. Additional information can be obtained through www.buffalomob.com.
Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement by James B. Jacobs
James B. Jacobs writes clearly and with authority on the criminal exploitation of the American labor movement. His book goes beyond a mere survey of the history of labor racketeering to explore the issue from every conceivable angle. It looks at the various criminal methods employed; the depth of Mafia penetration into some of the larger American unions; as well as the efforts of law enforcement, legitimate union organizers and anti-mob dissidents. Prosecutors' successful uses of RICO weaponry are detailed, as are the deficiencies in RICO processes.
Of particular interest to readers of Mafia titles, Jacobs provides concise explanations for the ways organized criminals insinuate themselves into and extract money from labor unions. He follows up with actual historical examples.
Jacobs' writing style is scholarly but not beyond the reach of a casual reader. However, the subject matter does eventually drift away from mainstream interests, as Jacobs engages a target audience likely comprised of lawyers, legislators and grad students in fairly technical discussion. That audience, in addition to the more dedicated underworld historians, will appreciate the many endnotes and the healthy bibliography.
The Violent Years: Prohibition and the Detroit Mobs by Paul R. Kavieff (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2001).
Historian/engineer Paul R. Kavieff handles his complex topic capably and professionally, providing us with a window into an active and influential Detroit underworld often neglected by other writers. The author of "The Purple Gang" broadens his focus for this, his second book, to explain in detail the activities and interrelationships of the Detroit area's significant Prohibition Era criminal organizations.
He discusses the warring factions of the Sicilian Mafia, as well as Polish and Irish ethnic gangs and the predominantly Jewish Purple Gang. He suggests credible causes for underworld conflicts, such as the Giannola-Vitale war, and shares the specifics of gang crimes and underworld hits.
Kavieff is not at all stingy with facts, but he still writes efficiently and keeps the story moving quickly - possibly a tad too quickly for a casual reader. The book weighs in at just about 200 pages of easy-to-read type.
The Violent Years is a must-read for organized crime historians and those interested in the Motor City's past.
Mafia: Inside the Dark Heart: The Rise and Fall of the Sicilian Mafia by A.G.D. Maran
A.G.D. Maran's Mafia: Inside the Dark Heart sheds no new light on its primary subject - the history of the secret criminal society in its native land - and it does even worse when it crosses the Atlantic to explore the genesis of the Mafia in the United States.
Maran's simplistic view of the American Mafia seems to be based upon myths and misinterpretations. He suggests, for example, that early New Orleans Mafia patron Joseph Macheca was an immigrant (he was born in Louisiana), who ran riverboat casinos (not even close). The author's discussions of the 1890 assassination of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy and the 1891 anti-Mafia lynchings include aspects of pure fantasy. In Maran's version, Hennessy obtains ownership of a brothel in exchange for supporting the Provenzano underworld faction, the New Orleans lynch mob kills two Italian bystanders, the lynchings receive "universal approval," and Sicilian underworld survivors all flee to New York City!
Maran misplaces the 1903 New York barrel murder in 1908, sets back the date of the televised Valachi hearings by an entire decade, decides that the New York Mafia was unimportant before Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano organized it in the 1930s, and announces that the first bosses of the five New York families were Charlie Luciano, Vito Genovese, Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci and Carlo Gambino! And he does all of those things by Page 110 in a narrative that runs some 385 pages.
Two other worthwhile books have received little more than regional attention. They are the two volumes of Celeste A. Morello's Philadelphia history:
Book 1 of the set, which deals with the period 1880-1931, was released in 1999. Book 2, 1931-1946, hit the shelves a couple of years later.
As a crime historian, I treasure these books. As a reader, however, I was a bit disappointed. Morello appears to be a far better historian/researcher than she is a writer. She apparently had difficulty weaving an overabundance of facts into a coherent story. Accounts of underworld incidents often interrupt other accounts or character descriptions.
While those aspects of the books diminish the reading experience somewhat, they barely put a dent in the author's overall achievement. Morello seems to have a rare understanding of the Sicilian psyche and illustrates the importance of old-country rivalries in making sense of underworld conflicts.
Due to her willingness to tap into records neglected by other researchers, to her critical eye, and to her grasp of Sicilian tradition, the two volumes of Before Bruno contain a wealth of information that won't be found elsewhere.
Lucky Luciano: The Real and the Fake Gangster by Tim Newark
In Lucky Luciano: The Real and the Fake Gangster, author Tim Newark set out to dispel myths and "tell the true story of the legendary gangster..." It was an enormous undertaking, and the author deserves our appreciation for tackling a historical record so contaminated by decades of misinterpretations, exaggerations and outright lies. Unfortunately, Newark's book fell a bit short of its goal and may have provided additional support for some inaccurate underworld legends.
Probably the greatest obstacle to a complete and accurate understanding of Luciano and related subjects is the 1975 book, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano written by Martin A. Gosch and Richard Hammer.
In his book, Newark repeatedly tackled Last Testament, but he did not entirely dismiss it as a source. At some points, he actually defended it.
Newark was similarly inconsistent in the standards he applied to Luciano stories. Matters as inconsequential as the boss's "Lucky" nickname seemed to get more thoughtful consideration than other more weighty subjects, such as Luciano's reported involvement in European drug smuggling, his rumored relationship with actress Thelma Todd and a narcotics-related plot against Chicago boss Frank Nitti. By discussing these matters without exposing them to the same testing as others, it seems that Newark's book has, at least in part, disseminated rather than dispelled Luciano myths.
On the plus side, Newark did a fine job describing Luciano's relationship with U.S. Naval Intelligence during World War II. He rightly gave Luciano little credit for Allied successes in Sicily. (These are subjects dealt with in Newark's earlier book, Mafia Allies.) He also did an excellent job documenting Luciano's trial for compulsory prostitution and followed Luciano during his Italian exile and during his brief time in pre-Castro Cuba. Newark made a worthy effort to determine the truth behind the Mafia boss's nickname and facial scar.
The author also disputed the image of Luciano as a leader of revolutionary change in the early 1930s American Mafia. There was no great change in the way the Mafia did business after Luciano's rise to power and there was no significant change in underworld personnel or leadership, despite the lingering legend of forty or so assassinations late in 1931. The replacement of the old boss of bosses rule in the Mafia with an arbitration board known as the Commission was an idea that sprang from other sources.
While U.S. intelligence believed that the exiled Luciano was coordinating worldwide narcotics trafficking, Newark noted that the combination of a high public profile and a diminished underworld clout probably prevented Luciano from serving in such a role.
Newark's suggestion that Luciano may have served as a Cold Warrior in Italy was an interesting one. (Conspiracy theorists may find this suggestion an excellent jumping off point for CIA-underworld connections.)
As we have known for some time, Tim Newark is a good writer and a capable and resourceful researcher. In portions of Lucky Luciano: The Real and the Fake Gangster, he also proves that he has a critical mind. Frustratingly, he elected not to use that valuable resource all the time.
Mafia Allies: The True Story of America's Secret Alliance with the Mob in World War II by Tim Newark
Author Tim Newark establishes himself as an authority on military-underworld cooperation during the Second World War and on the historical context of that unholy alliance.
The excited interest he generates during his well documented discussion of mob-Navy collaboration to secure Atlantic coastal waters and docks fizzles out somewhat as the story moves overseas. While Newark is able to document U.S. and British desires to embrace the Old World Mafia while breaching Hitler's Fortress Europe, the author seems less certain of himself in this area. He relates some accounts of Mafia complicity with Allied forces but then admits his own doubts about them. Newark's myth-busting conclusion is well grounded in fact but anticlimactic.
A couple of caveats:
- First, the casual reader might be disturbed by the frequency of blockquotes in the text. (Many contain useful insights. But some others are distractions.)
- Second, hardcore mob historians are certain to be disturbed by Newark's frequent citations of the suspect "Last Testament of Lucky Luciano." Quotes from that work add to the color of "Mafia Allies" but subtract a bit from its credibility.
Overall, this book is well organized and well executed. It is a solid offering on the subject.
Open City: True Story of the KC Crime Family 1900-1950 by William Ouseley
Ouseley does a competent job outlining KC Mafia history to 1950. The major players, criminals and political bosses, are all discussed, and the significant historical events are described in detail. However, his limited writing ability, a lack of consideration for fellow historians and his sketchy awareness of Mafia history outside of Missouri cause problems for readers.
The author deserves credit for attempting to trace the evolution of organized crime to the region's very early history and for spending time on the mysterious Nick Gentile, whose memoirs provide glimpses of early Mafia history in the U.S. This sort of thing was lacking in Frank Hayde's otherwise excellent "The Mafia and the Machine." But Ouseley does not weave the early history into a coherent narrative. Criminal activity in the early 1900s is presented as isolated incidents. The author fails to find causal links or common themes and so does not justify the inclusion of the material in his book.
The writing throughout is not up to par. There are many examples of poor structure and countless typos, which distract the reader and erode confidence in the author. (The reader cannot make it through the Table of Contents before encountering an error.) There are also a few factual errors in discussions of organized crime history beyond the confines of Kansas City.
Most disturbing for crime historians is the book's tiny and very general bibliography. It isn't possible that Ouseley wrote this book based upon the presented sources alone. His refusal to document his findings makes the original material within the book's covers virtually useless to historians.
Another glaring problem with Open City is the scope of the book. Ouseley, a federal agent who investigated organized crime in the region, certainly had access to abundant information on the KC Mob in more recent years. His decision to focus on the 1900-1950 period is a curious one. Perhaps Ouseley intends this book to be Volume 1 of a continuing history.
Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business: Shocking Declassified Details from the FBI's Greatest Undercover Operation and a Bloody Timeline of the Fall of the Mafia by Joe Pistone with Richard Woodley (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2007).
Two decades after wowing us with Donnie Brasco-related revelations, former undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone returns to tie up some loose ends.
I must admit I was skeptical that Pistone could find enough loose ends in the Donnie Brasco story to fill another book. However, while there is some repetition, the ex-agent provides enough new information to keep us very interested. And, frankly, the repetitive parts are quite entertaining - Donnie Brasco's thrilling adventures are worth recalling.
The first portion of the book is basically a summary of the Donnie Brasco deep-undercover experience with many of the gaps filled in. Some details apparently had to be kept secret until court cases had been processed. Pistone also takes the opportunity to correct some impressions created by the movie based on his bestseller. He takes issue with some of the sentimental and self-critical Johnny Depp moments in the film.
"I never experienced any doubt, uncertainty, or reservation," he writes. "I did not make Lefty [Ruggiero] a Mafia gangster... Lefty and his Mafia underground nation is America's enemy. I was an American FBI agent... In the end, I was proud to bring Lefty to justice, and I'm even more proud of the devastating short- and long-term effects on the Mafia that people have credited, in part, to my work."
Pistone recalls for us the criminal activities ("unauthorized by the Bureau") he engaged in while undercover as "Donnie," an associate of the Colombo and Bonanno Crime Families. His admitted crimes include a murder conspiracy, hijacking and a number of other offenses. But Pistone admits he would have gone further in order to protect himself.
Underworld associates like Brasco might be called upon by Mafia superiors to perform gang "hits." Pistone decided that, if confronted with a situation in which he had to kill an underworld character or face the certain wrath of the mob, "...the wiseguy would go. I knew the FBI would not stand behind me on something like that. Well, let me call it what it is - murder in the first degree."
The situation nearly came up in 1981, first in the murder of the Three Capos (when Bonanno bigshot Joseph Massino nixed Brasco's participation) and then as Brasco was assigned by Bonanno caporegime "Sonny Black" Napolitano to assassinate Bruno Indelicato. Indelicato went into hiding, and Pistone was pulled from his assignment before the nightmare scenario had a chance to develop.
The rest of the book is devoted to Pistone's post-Brasco experiences as a courtroom witness against the Mafia. Working with prosecutors, like then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani of New York, he participated in some blockbuster trials, including the Bonanno Family case, the Pizza Connection, the Mafia Commission case, the conviction of Bonanno boss "Big Joey" Massino, and the Mafia Cops trial of 2006.
Pistone's description of the trials is anything but bland. He provides compelling and often gory detail, while recounting the defeats of the mob through the past 25 years.
Pistone has a different co-author for "Unfinished Business," former Delaware prosecutor Charles Brandt who wrote "I Heard You Paint Houses." However, the writing style - using casual phrasing and rhythms that would be at home in city street corner conversations - remains uniquely Pistone.
This is an informative and entertaining book.
Some long-overdue comments on Rick Porrello's The Rise and Fall of the Cleveland Mafia: Corn Sugar and Blood.
This isn't the most impressive-looking OC book, and New York/Chicago/LA snobs are likely to dismiss Cleveland as no more than a mob backwater. But "you can't judge a book by its cover," and Ohio was certainly one of the more important regions for American Mafia development.
One other thing is undeniably true - Rick Porrello can tell a story. This carefully researched 1995 book deals capably and at length with Cleveland-area underworld rackets and conflicts from just before the start of Prohibition through the 1970s. It succinctly (just over 200 pages) chronicles the long mob histories of the Porrello and Lonardo clans.
My two minor quarrels with this effort are that the author was apparently not interested in Ohio mob developments before the arrival of his ancestors and the Lonardos and that the apparent underworld feud between the two rival clans seems to have been given a quick coat of whitewash.
Superthief: A Master Burglar, the Mafia, and the Biggest Bank Heist in U.S. History by Rick Porrello is the highly engaging and very readable life story of master burglar/drug trafficker Phillip Christopher.
Through the frequent use of the first-person, author Rick Porrello provides a look inside the mind of a professional criminal. We are treated to the details of Christopher's life -- from his Catholic, blue-collar upbringing in the Collinwood district of Cleveland, Ohio, through his spectacular criminal successes and equally spectacular blunders, to his declining years as an easy target of state and federal law enforcement -- in what is purported to be Christopher's own words.
We share Christopher's real-life experiences in family, business, underworld and prison situations. His lengthy and continuing rollercoaster ride through the criminal justice system is particularly educational. Christopher seems to have encountered every unfair advantage and unfair disadvantage built into that system.
Due to its frank handling of its subject matter, I suspect this book will cause those who have invested in electronic security systems to lose quite a bit of sleep. The thwarting of alarms, the acquisition of secret allies among security company employees and within local police departments and the prying open of safes and vaults are all discussed in detail. Porrello-Christopher stop just short of providing a primer for aspiring safe-crackers. The various elements of the 1972 burglary at the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, the biggest bank heist in U.S. history, are expertly rendered.
Those are the book's positives, but unfortunately they are not the whole story. While I enjoyed Superthief and remain a Rick Porrello fan, there are some noticeable flaws in the book.
For one, it is difficult to accept many of Christopher's statements as fact. Examples: his Robin Hood-like escapades as a child thief, botched jobs that were always someone else's fault and the high esteem in which mob bosses, union leaders and even prison personnel universally held him. Porrello provides little obvious help as we strive to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is rare corroboration in the form of a quote from a girlfriend or a law enforcement officer, but Christopher's story appears to have been left pretty much just as he told it.
Another problem stems from Porrello's inclusion of the word "Mafia" in the title. Phillip Christopher was never a "made" guy, and the Mafia has a very small, supporting role in the book. Some of the more interesting Mafia episodes of the time/place are tossed in as asides, though Christopher had nothing to do with them. The Mafia remains off in the distance and out of focus.
Though Christopher spent a lifetime living this story and Porrello spent five years writing it, what lies between the front and back covers seems thin and could have been better crafted. A bit of narration in the middle chapters could have helped drive home the importance of the Laguna Niguel heist. The reader is liable to plow right through it, judging it to be a disappointment. Insight also is lacking. While we are thrust inside Christopher's mind, we find little in the way of illumination there. He committed burglaries, he repeatedly tells us, because he wanted a lot of money. (Willie Sutton reborn.) We're dragged along into deceit, infidelity and murder without knowing why. We readers are left in the uncomfortable position of being within the mind of a person we cannot understand and do not like.
At the bottom line, this is a good story, entertaining and informative, requiring minimal effort and investment from the reader. It should someday become an exciting movie. However, it falls far short of its considerable potential as a window into the mind of a career criminal.
The Case Against Lucky Luciano: New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial by Ellen Poulsen (Little Neck, NY: Clinton Cook, 2007).
Finally something new and interesting for the Luciano shelf! The Case Against Lucky Luciano is certainly not another rehashed biography of the oft-discussed crime boss. Expertly written, carefully researched and well considered, it is a detailed analysis of the vice trial that finally put Luciano behind bars.
This work reveals the methods used by racketeers, including Luciano and his close underworld allies, to organize and monopolize prostitution in the New York City region. In addition, it sheds new light on the actions of law enforcement and personnel from Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey's office, some of whom employed exploitive methods similar to those used by the racketeers when dealing with the female witnesses in the case. Finally, it also provides a frank look at the witnesses themselves - prostitutes, madams, drug addicts.
Author Ellen Poulsen (who also wrote Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang) probes deeply into the lives and careers of such personalities as "Cokey Flo" Brown, Jennie "the Factory" Fischer and Peggy "Wild" Ventimiglia. While discussing the profound mistreatment of the female subjects, Poulsen keeps her distance and avoids becoming judgmental or preachy. Her objectivity actually serves the subject far better, allowing the numerous offenses against the women to accumulate and develop into condemnation within the mind of the reader.
There is also plenty in this book about Luciano, himself, and about colleagues like "Socks" Lanza and "Tommy the Bull" Pennochio. Poulsen explores the working relationships between the gangsters and some of Luciano's later wartime partnership with the United States government.
The book itself is well designed. It has an eye-catching cover, an easy-on-the-eyes type and plenty of photographs. Researchers will also be happy to find endnotes and a bibliography. The book also features 12 pages of index, though this could have been more helpful with subentries for the often referred to subjects. (The Luciano entry, for example, references 113 out of the possible 246 pages in the book.)
Flaws in this work are few. But some comments unrelated to the trial seem casually researched and very out of place. At one point, Poulsen engages in a summary of American Mafia history and quickly dismisses the traditional (but undocumented) belief that an organization known as Unione Siciliana operated in New York. Poulsen says the organization never existed in New York, and to defend her position, she cites a vague "consensus by experts." She also blankly states that Johnny Torrio and Al Capone conspired on the Chicago murder of Jim Colosimo, a terribly abrupt end for an underworld mystery that has lingered through many decades.
It probably would have been better to ignore these peripheral matters. In her core subject matter, Poulsen is on much firmer ground and is far more thoughtful of her steps.
The Case Against Lucky Luciano is recommended for those curious about Depression Era organized crime, the plight of the women who - willingly or not - became involved with it, or the careers of Mafia bigshot Charlie Luciano and Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey.
Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia by Thomas Reppetto
Reppetto follows up American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power with this survey of post-Apalachin Mob history. Once again, he does a good job summarizing a massive subject, moving from the Apalachin conclave revelations through the exposures of underworld influence in Las Vegas gambling and the Teamsters union to the breakups of international drug conspiracies and the Mafia Commission. Reppetto writes with authority and in a fast-paced style, made necessary by the vastness of his subject.
While this is a fine introductory level primer on the past half-century of American Mafia history, it holds little of value to those better acquainted with Mafia history and it generally leaves less of an impression on the reader than its prequel.
Part of the problem seems to be Reppetto's repeated loss of focus. The thesis of "Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia," expressed in that title and in the book's introduction, is that law enforcement has had successes against organized crime over the past 50 years. But that message is undetectable through several chapters of the book. Its absence in the book's final pages is particularly bothersome, as Reppetto allocates that space to recommendations for greater Mob (not law enforcement) success in the future. It is possible that the book wasn't initially written with that "Bringing Down the Mob" thesis in mind. Readers would be better off ignoring it and approaching this as "American Mafia - Book 2."
Reading is also complicated by some story backtracking, but such things must be expected when a broad and multifaceted subject is dealt with in 300 pages.
All things considered, "Bringing Down the Mob" is a suitable companion volume for Reppetto's earlier work and a good reference for newcomers to the subject.
The Milwaukee Mafia: Mobsters in the Heartland by Gavin Schmitt
Gavin Schmitt's The Milwaukee Mafia is entertaining history and an important scholarly contribution. It is a long overdue assessment of the substantial role of Milwaukee underworld figures in the evolution of American organized crime.
The author provides generous detail while shuffling at a moderate pace through the underworld events of nearly a century. Though Milwaukee's organized crime history includes less mob violence than some larger U.S. cities, there are plenty of gangland murders to discuss. Schmitt handles these with frankness and attention to detail. He regularly suggests reasonable explanations for criminal acts that remain officially unsolved.
Schmitt expands on the better known underworld stories relating to underworld leaders like the Guardalabenes, Aliotos and Zarcones and places those stories in their appropriate historic context.
Through Schmitt's book, Milwaukee emerges as a full partner in an international Sicilian criminal network. The city's strong organized crime ties to Chicago are explored in depth, and Schmitt notes that the rise of Capone's Outfit and the demise of the Sicilian Aiello clan in the Windy City heightened the importance of Milwaukee as a base for the more traditional Sicilian Mafiosi of the region. The author also pursues underworld and bloodline connections from Milwaukee to such places as Kansas City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh...
Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot
This is a unique look at the Kennedys from within the Kennedy camp. We witness the major events of our era through the eyes of Robert Kennedy and the close-knit "band of brothers."
While this book doesn't settle the issue of the John Kennedy Assassination, it establishes who the Kennedy clan and its allies felt was responsible. RFK firmly believed "they" killed his brother. Whatever the reader's opinion of the event, it is interesting to view RFK's life and career as products of that belief.
I was impressed both with the level of research and with the writing style. Though a great deal of information was presented, Brothers moved along very quickly.