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

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9781400067220: The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia

Before the notorious Five Families who dominated U.S. organized crime for a bloody half century, there was the one-fingered criminal genius Giuseppe Morello–known as “The Clutch Hand”–and his lethal coterie of associates. In The First Family, historian, journalist, and New York Times bestselling author Mike Dash brings to life this little-known story, following the rise of the Mafia in America from the 1890s to the 1920s, from the lawless villages of Sicily to the streets of Little Italy. Using an impressive array of primary sources–hitherto untapped Secret Service archives, prison records, trial transcripts, and interviews with surviving family members–this is the first Mafia history that applies scholarly rigor to the story of the Morello syndicate and the birth of organized crime on these shores.

Progressing from small-time scams to counterfeiting rings to even bigger criminal enterprises, Giuseppe Morello exerted ruthless control of Italian neighborhoods in New York, and through adroit coordination with other Sicilian crime families, his Clutch Hand soon reached far beyond the Hudson River.

The men who battled Morello’s crews were themselves colorful and legendary figures, including William Flynn, a fearless Secret Service agent, and Lieutenant Detective Giuseppe “Joe” Petrosino of the New York Police Department’s elite Italian Squad, whose pursuit of the brutal gangs ultimately cost him his life.

Combining first-rate scholarship and pulse-quickening action, and set amid rustic Sicilian landscapes and the streets of old New York, The First Family is a groundbreaking account of the crucial period when the American criminal underworld exploded with violent fury across the nation.

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About the Author:

Mike Dash is a historian with an M.A. from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. from the University of London. A former professional journalist whose work has appeared in numerous national newspapers and magazines, Dash is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including Satan’s Circus, Thug, Batavia’s Graveyard, and Tulipomania. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One


The Barrel Mystery the room felt like the bottom of a grave. it was damp, low ceilinged, windowless, and—on this raw—boned New York night—as chilly and unwelcoming as a policeman’s stare.  

Outside, on Prince Street in the heart of Little Italy, a fine drizzle slanted down to puddle amid the piles of rotting garbage strewn along the edges of the road, leaving the cobbles treacherous and greasy. Inside, beneath a billboard advertising lager beer, a featureless, cheap workingmen’s saloon stretched deep into the bowels of a dingy tenement. At this late hour—it was past three on the morning of April 14, 1903—the tavern was shuttered up and silent. But in the shadows at the far end of the bar there stood a rough—hewn, tightly closed door. And in the room behind that door, Benedetto Madonia sat eating his last supper.  

The place was advertised as a spaghetti restaurant, but it was in truth an eating house of the most basic sort. An old stove squatted against one wall, belching fumes. Musty strings of garlic dangled from the walls, mingling their odor with the smell of boiling vegetables. The remaining fittings consisted of several rough, low tables, a handful of ancient chairs, and a rusting iron sink that jutted from a corner of the room. Gas lamps spewed out mustard light, and the naked floorboards had been scattered with cedar sawdust, which, at the end of a busy day, coagulated in a thick mix of spit, onion skins, and the butts of dark Italian cigars.  

Madonia dug hungrily into a stew of beans, beets, and potatoes, hearty peasant food from his home province of Palermo. He was a powerfully built man of average height, handsome after the fashion of the time, with a high forehead, chestnut eyes, and a wave of thick brown hair. A large mustache, carefully waxed until it tapered to points, offset the sharp slash of his Roman nose. He dressed better than most workingmen, wearing a suit, high collar, tie, and well—soled shoes—all signs of some prosperity. Exactly how he earned his money, though, was scarcely obvious. If asked, Madonia claimed to be a stonemason. But even a casual observer could see that this was a man unused to manual labor. His forty—three—year—old body had begun to sag, and his soft hands—neatly manicured—bore no trace of an ­artisan’s calluses.  

After a while the solitary diner, sated, thrust his bowl aside and glanced across the room to where a handful of companions lounged against one wall. Like him, they spoke Sicilian—a dialect so rich in words drawn from Spanish, Greek, and Arabic that it was scarcely intelligible, even to other Italians—and, like his, the jewelry and the clothes they wore were quite at odds with their supposed professions: laborer, farmer, clothes presser. Yet there was no mistaking the fact that Madonia was an outsider here. Immigrants though all those in the restaurant were, the others had become New Yorkers and now felt quite at home amid the teeming streets of the Italian colony. Madonia, on the other hand, had first come to Manhattan just a week ago and did not know the city. He found it disconcerting that he required an escort to find his way round Little Italy. Worse, he was growing increasingly alarmed at the way these men he barely knew muttered together in low voices, and spoke so elliptically that he could not grasp the meaning of their words.  

Madonia had little chance to grapple with this mystery. The Sicilian had barely finished his meal when, with a click that echoed loudly through the room, the solitary door into the restaurant swung open and a second group of men appeared. In the sickly flicker of the gaslight Madonia made out the face of one he knew: Tommaso Petto, an oval—faced hulk of muscle and menace whose broad chest, strong arms, and limited intelligence had won him the nickname of “the Ox.” Behind him, another figure lurked, silhouetted momentarily against one wall of the saloon. It was that of a man of slender build and middling height, his eyes twin drops of jet, like black holes bored into his skull. The newcomer’s face was expressionless and gaunt, his skin rough, his chin and cheeks unshaven. He wore his mustache ragged, like a ­brigand’s.  

The Ox stepped instinctively aside, allowing the slight figure to step into the room. As he did so, a spasm of anxiety ran through the other figures in the restaurant. This was their leader, and they showed him fearful deference. Not one of the half—dozen others present dared to return his gaze directly.  

Madonia himself was not immune to the terror that the black—eyed man inspired. The newcomer’s voice, when he spoke, was parched, his gestures undemonstrative and minimal. Above all, there was the disconcerting way he swathed the right side of his body in a voluminous brown shawl. The arm that he kept hidden was, Madonia knew, appallingly deformed. The forearm itself was stunted, no more than half the length of any normal ­man’s. Worse still, its hand was nothing but a claw. It lacked, from birth, the thumb and first four of its fingers. Only the little finger, useless on its own, remained, like the cruel joke of some uncaring deity. Black eyes’ name was Giuseppe Morello, but his maimed appendage had earned him the nickname “Clutch” or “the Clutch Hand.”  

Morello wasted little time on ceremony. A single gesture from his good left hand sufficed; two of the men who had been lounging along the wall jerked up and pinioned Madonia, each seizing an arm as they dragged the diner to his feet. Their prisoner struggled briefly but without effect; grasped none too gently by his wrists and shoulders, he had no chance of escape. To shout out was hopeless; the room was too far from the sidewalk for even a full—blown scream of terror to be audible. Half standing, half supported by his captors, he writhed helplessly as the black—eyed man approached.  

Exactly what passed between Madonia and the Clutch Hand is uncertain. There may have been a brief but angry conversation. Most likely the word nemico, enemy, was used. Perhaps Madonia, aware, far too late, of the lethal danger he was in, begged uselessly for mercy. If so, his words had no effect. Another gesture from the black—eyed man and the two associates restraining the prisoner dragged him swiftly across the floor toward the rusty sink. A rough hand seized Madonia by the hair, yanking his head back and exposing his throat. At this, a third man lunged forward wielding a stiletto—a thin—bladed dagger, honed to razor sharpness and some fourteen inches long. A ­second’s pause, to gauge angle and distance, and the blade was thrust home, sideways on, above the ­Adam’s apple.  

The blow was struck with such brutal strength that it pierced ­Madonia’s windpipe from front to back and continued on till it struck bone. The men holding the captive felt his frame collapse, limbs rubbery and unresponsive, as the weapon was withdrawn. Using all their strength, they hauled the dying man back to his feet as Petto the Ox stepped up, his own knife in his hand. A single sweeping slash from left to right, so fierce it cut right through ­Madonia’s thick three-­ply linen collar, severed both throat and jugular vein, all but beheading the prisoner.  

Shocking though this violence was, it was premeditated. As life left Madonia in gouts, the men gripping his arms forced his head over the sink so that each succeeding pulse of blood drummed against the iron and gurgled down into the drains. The little that escaped fell onto the ­victim’s clothes or was soaked up by the sawdust underfoot. None reached the floorboards to stain them and leave lasting evidence of the crime.  

It took a minute, maybe more, for the awful flow of blood to ebb. As it did, thick fingers reached around ­Madonia’s gashed neck and tied a square of gunnysack around his throat. The coarse fabric absorbed the dying trickle from the wounds as the corpse was doubled, lifted bodily, and carried to the center of the room. There other hands had dragged a barrel, three feet high, of the sort supplied by wholesalers to New ­York’s stores. A layer of muck and sawdust, scooped up from the floor, had been spread inside to absorb any remaining blood, and the dead ­man’s body was forced inside with uncaring savagery.  

One arm and a leg projected from the barrel, but that was immaterial; Morello and his men had no interest in concealing the body. ­Madonia’s corpse was meant to be discovered, and the savage wounds it bore were a deterrent. Still, there was no point in chancing premature detection. An old overcoat, its labels carefully removed, was spread over the protruding limbs and the barrel wrestled and maneuvered back into the saloon and thence through a door that opened onto an alley. A decrepit one-­horse covered wagon stood there, waiting in the darkness. Several of the Sicilians combined their strength and heaved their burden onto it; two men, hunched now in heavy cloaks, climbed on. And, with a creak of springs and clop of hooves, Benedetto Madonia embarked upon his final journey.  

An hour or so later, shortly after dawn, a cleaning woman by the name of Frances Connors left her apartment on the East Side and set off to the nearest bakery to buy rolls.  

Her neighborhood was desperately impoverished. ­Connors’s tenement stood between a failing livery stable, its business proclaimed in peeling paint, and a collapsing row of billboards buttressed with iron scrap. To her right, as she turned out of her apartment, the East River slopped a tide of stinking effluent against crumbling wharfs. To her left, a warehouse full of cackling poultry leaned hard against a facto...

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