The First Family (Reviews, May 25) is Mike Dash's account of Giuseppe Morello, the first American Mafia don.
Why isn't Morello's story more widely known?
He's a shadowy figure because he operated well before the Mafia became a media obsession or a hot topic for screenwriters. Morello set up the first New York crime family around 1902 or 1903, he was imprisoned in 1910, and he was murdered in 1930. It wasn't until the late 1950s that the FBI so much as acknowledged that the Mafia existed, and not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that it entered popular consciousness. Morello was doing something nobody had done before and doing it very successfully.
How did the culture of Sicily—where Morello grew up—help give rise to the Mafia?
Sicily—particularly in the hinterlands, in places such as Corleone—was a place where the authorities were only barely in control. Landowners used mafiosi as enforcers to keep their peasants scared and under control. Morello was a mafioso in Corleone for years before he immigrated to America. There was plenty of Italian crime in [New York City] when Morello arrived in 1892, but it was all small-scale. Morello was better organized and more ruthless than his rivals. Secret Service Agent William Flynn estimated Morello had at least 60 men killed in the course of his career.
What debt does today's real and fictional mob owe to Morello?
The first family still exists, in a sense. After Morello's death in 1930, its members were divided up among the other New York Mafia gangs, but predominantly found themselves members of what became the Genovese family. More than that, Morello and his men were the first to introduce many of the rackets that the Mafia still uses to make money today. For instance, artichokes were the major Mafia racket before 1920. The Morellos creamed off $25 for each carload of artichokes coming into New York, threatening wholesalers with violence. As late as 2000, the mob was still raking off a percentage on the sale of every artichoke in the five boroughs.
How does Agent Flynn's pursuit of Morello compare with Eliot Ness's campaign to catch Al Capone?
Flynn is a seriously underrated figure. He headed the New York bureau of the Secret Service from 1900 until 1917 and spent eight years pursuing the Morello family. In 1910 the gang had about 120 or 130 members and associates, and Flynn managed to convict almost 70 of them, including almost all the bosses. That's an astonishing achievement.... Flynn had a lot of Ness's patience, but his methods were more direct. He brought Morello down by proving that he was responsible for injecting $100,000 of counterfeit currency into the U.S. economy. Flynn didn't have to rely on accountancy tricks to get his man.