Weakened but still lethal, the American Mafia lives on

On Books

December 21, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

I wrote my first news article about the Mafia in 1959 as a green Federal Courts reporter for the late, lamented City News Bureau of Chicago. That smudged-purple Mimeograph copy, shuttled to the city's four daily newspapers by underground pneumatic tubes, has long since been lost, but I believe it was related to a grand jury Fifth-Amendment plea by Jimmy ("The Monk") Allegretti, a top lieutenant of Tony Accardo. It has been followed by thousands of news stories, columns and editorials of mine on the mob, all written with fascination.

I have not been alone. Millions of words have been published, including scores of books, both fact and fiction. The latest is the impressive American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power, by Thomas Reppetto (Henry Holt, 352 pages, $26).

Reppetto for more than two decades has been president of the Citizens Crime Commission, a private watchdog organization in New York City. Before that, he rose to commander of detectives in the Chicago police department. He co-authored NYPD: A City and Its Police.

Reppetto presents his history chronologically, from the beginnings of the U.S.-based Mafia in New Orleans in the 1880s through the airing of national organized crime before the Senate committee chaired by Tennessee's Estes Kefauver in 1950 and 1951. That investigation surprised both law enforcement and the public and galvanized awareness of organized crime. It led to the killing of witnesses and gangster suicides around the country. From his introduction, titled "The Most Secret and Terrible Organization in the World" -- a quote from a 1903 Secret Service chief -- to his epilogue, "The Decline of the American Mafia," he proceeds in a scholarly but readily readable manner.

The subject is sensational, but the work is never sensationalistic. It would be near impossible to avoid colorful accounts when writing of a culture that included such players as Tony the Hat, Duffy the Goat, Mad Dog Coll and Roxy Vanilla as well as luminaries like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Dutch Shultz, Lucky Luciano.

As those names emphasize, though the Mob originated from roots in Sicilian and Neapolitan Black Hand and Camorra crime guilds, it was also well-populated in the United States with Irishmen, Poles and Jews.

Reppetto declares that his own father, at the end of World War I, "entered the bootlegging industry," and although he "was never a member of what Chicagoans called the 'Syndicate' or the 'Outfit,' [he] was nevertheless required to do business with them." In my experience, the fiercest and most effective local and federal police and prosecuting foes of the mob have been U.S.-born Italian-Americans, passionately driven by a rage ignited by taunts that branded any and all boys with Italian names as crime-tainted. Perhaps the most effective of these is Rudolph Giuliani who as U.S. attorney, Reppetto reports, jailed "the five family heads in New York and many of their subordinates."

Throughout the book, running in thematic counterpoint to the story of the mob, is the history of law enforcement, especially at the federal level. Prohibition began in early 1920, and a gold mine -- a nation of gold mines -- opened for organized crime. Woefully little in the way of dollars or personnel was added to law enforcement. Underpaid cops and federal agents got rich from bribes along with the hoodlums who took over the booze trade.

The FBI, as is well known, long operated under an insistent policy of J. Edgar Hoover's that declared that there was no such thing as the Mafia or systematic organized crime. Reppetto lays that to Hoover's fear that to take on the mob directly would expose the bureau to being corrupted, as many or most others were. Ultimately, of course, the FBI became committed to breaking the mob.

Reppetto gives Chicago heavily detailed treatment, especially in the early 1900s. He treats New York with even greater attention. But he also delves seriously into the histories of Nevada, Los Angeles (where the mob gained enormous influence in the movie business), New Orleans, Kansas City, Detroit (where they were entangled with the Ford Motor Co.), Cuba, Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia and in New England.

Several dozen of the book's stories could be related here, but I'll settle for one, in New York: "In the summer of 1912 Lieutenant Charles Becker, who headed a police squad operating out of the commissioner's office, was accused of ordering the murder of a gambler who was squealing to the district attorney's office about the system of police payoffs. The affair was long on drama and would dominate the headlines for the next couple of years. Lieutenant Becker was sentenced to the electric chair; Mayor Gaynor dropped dead; the police commissioner was fired; and the Tammany organized-crime czar Tim Sullivan went insane, escaped from his keepers, and was run over by a train. ... Even worse, from Tammany's standpoint, was the installation of reform administration in New York City Hall and the state capitol in Albany."

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