The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia

by Mike Dash, Random House

Giuseppe Morello, nicknamed the “Clutch Hand” thanks to a deformed arm tipped with a claw, rises from street thug to America’s first capo dei capi. His chief opponent, William Flynn, New York Secret Service chief, uses his understaffed bureau to define the new scourge arising from Morello’s low-rent counterfeiting scams. On the front lines, NYPD detective Joseph Petrosino, a dumpy undercover operator, pushes his luck, goes to Palermo for antiMafia evidence and is offed there. The author, Brit historian Mike Dash, has an ax to grind: Why is scholarship about the mob’s American launch so meager? But his wide-ranging diligence— poring over 50 volumes worth of underutilized Secret Service reports, which track developing Mafia activities between 1899 and 1916, and thousands of pages of trial transcripts, letters and so forth—redresses that. Dash’s crisp prose and imaginative use of sources yields riveting details—engrossing dialogue, the number and position of wounds in a murder victim, how many greasy counterfeit bills larded with misspellings Morello’s minions were manufacturing and passing—that create novelistic scenes and tensions. But it’s all true.


Originally published in the December 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.