The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931
by David Critchley
While the later history of the New York Mafia has received extensive attention, what has been conspicuously absent until now is an accurate and conversant review of the formative years of Mafia organizational growth. Critchley examines the Mafia recruitment process, relations with Mafias in Sicily, the role of non-Sicilians in New York's organized crime Families, kinship connections, the Black Hand, the impact of Prohibition, and allegations that a "new" Mafia was created in 1931. This book will interest historians, criminologists, and anyone fascinated by the American Mafia.
Superb history of the early Mafia in New York - June 29th, 2009
Why have historians overlooked the American Mafia? Given the Mafia’s influence on American cities in the twentieth century, the subject is ripe for fresh inquiry. But with the exception of James B. Jacobs, few academic writers have produced scholarly books documenting the Mafia in New York since Humbert Nelli and Alan Block in the early 1980s. The result is that the field has been ceded largely to shoddily-researched books and tabloid cable shows.
David Critchley’s The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931 does something rare in Mafia historiography: it treats the Mafia like any other historical subject. So, instead of rehashing myths, Critchley locates primary sources, builds arguments, and cites his sources. This is rare in a field where most books seem to be exempt from the standard rules of source citation.
Indeed, the quality of Critchley’s research is outstanding for any field of history. The book’s seventy-seven pages of endnotes provide a wealth of primary source evidence for readers and subsequent researchers. Critchley has unearthed a broad range of primary sources including: census records, FBI files, Secret Service reports, naturalization documents, obscure newspapers, personal memoirs, and trial transcripts. Critchley uses these sources to reconstruct the early years of the nascent Mafia.
The overarching theme of Critchley’s book is of a decentralized Mafia. Forget notions of an omniscient godfather issuing rigid orders to armies of soldiers. Critchley shows persuasively that during this early period “New York City’s Mafias were localized and diffuse in their processes and structure, and that ties to other U.S. Mafia groups were loosely defined and operationally devolved.” (p. 2). He urges readers to recognize “the diversity and modesty of scale and outcomes that characterized New York City’s Mafia in its formative years.” (p. 239).
The first half of the book (Chapters Two through Five) encompasses the 1890s through the 1910s, and focuses on documenting the earliest Italian crime syndicates. In Chapter Two, Critchley finds few connections between the Black Hand extortionists who terrorized Italian neighborhoods and the more sophisticated Mafias. To the contrary, Critchley points out that the Black Handers’s grotesque tactic of exploding bombs caused public outrage and undermined Mafia organizations.
Chapter Three details the fascinating history of the “First Family” of the New York Mafia: the Morello Family. Drawing on rich primary sources, Critchley reconstructs much of the history of the Morellos, a Sicilian syndicate whose main criminal enterprise was counterfeiting. Critchley shows that the Morello organization strongly resembled those existing in Sicily. Like the Sicilian cosches, the Morello Family was bound together by violence, kinship ties, and similar initiation ceremonies. However, the Morellos were relatively small, and not particularly successful. Their leaders were but one step removed from the street.
The strength of Chapters Four and Five is in showing the effect of interethnic differences on Italian syndicates during this early period. While Italian-Americans are now identified as a single ethnic group, Critchley demonstrates how regional differences between Sicilians and mainland Italians affected the Mafia’s development. For example, Chapter Four examines the mafioso involved in the 1914 murder of Barnett Baff, a prominent poultry dealer who had crossed an industry cartel. Critchley uses this event as a prism to show the various pathways through which Italians of different regions were recruited into the American Mafia.
Critchley’s most groundbreaking research is in Chapter Five, in which he documents Camorra syndicates based in Brooklyn. Until Critchley’s book, we knew little about these non-Sicilian groups. Using trial transcripts, Critchley shows how their members engaged in municipal corruption, clashed with the Morellos, and exercised some weak territorial control in Manhattan. Critchley explains that because their “organizational system permitted a free intermingling of members and bosses . . . [n]o ‘buffer’ function existed” (p. 126). As a result, they were decimated by criminal prosecutions.
The second half of the book (Chapters Six through Ten) covers the period from the 1920s through the early 1930s, and is more resolutely revisionist in its approach. Here, the book seems determined to refute almost everything written on the Mafia, and it sometimes gives short shrift to the full arguments of others. For example, in Chapter Six, Critchley makes a revisionist argument against Prohibition’s consolidating effects on Mafia enterprises and organization. While Critchley faults historian Nelli for reading the Chicago experience as centralizing the chain of command in syndicates (p. 140), Nelli himself recognized that the “scramble for bootlegging revenue was far more vicious and complex in New York than in any other American city.” Critchley also uncharacteristically ignores counterevidence from, among others, crime boss Joseph Bonanno, who stated that the violent competition at the beginning of Prohibition gave way to increasing consolidation, such that the Masseria Family became “the A&P of bootleggers” by the late 1920s.
This should not, however, detract from Critchley’s successful dismantling of other myths. In Chapter Seven, Critchley demolishes myths surrounding the internecine conflict known as the “Castellammare War” of 1930-31. Critchley shows that the origins of the conflict were more complicated than simply the personality flaws of Joe Masseria. Building on previous works, Critchley helps further discredit “the Purge myth,” which held that large Mafia armies engaged in mass killings on the streets.
Critchley’s most creative research comes in Chapter Eight which focuses on the Americanization of the Families. A common belief about the Castellammare War is that Charles “Lucky” Luciano and other young Americanized gangsters used the war to wipe out an older generation of Sicilian “Moustache Petes” and quickly take over Mafia leadership in 1931. Critchley uses genealogical records to show that the Mafia’s leaders were not markedly older than Luciano before and during the Castellammare War. He further shows that Sicilians continued to dominate the leadership of four of the five Families for years after the war. Critchley has, through innovative social history techniques, successfully debunked the myth that the Mafia’s leadership underwent a rapid Americanization in 1931.
Through the hard work of primary source research, Critchley has significantly advanced our understanding of the early years of the American Mafia. Provocative yet thoroughly sourced, Critchley’s book deserves to be widely read and debated by historians of the Mafia and organized crime generally.
 James B. Jacobs, Mobsters, Unions and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement (New York: NYU Press, 2006); James B. Jacobs, et. al., Gotham Unbound: How New York City Was Liberated from Organized Crime (New York: NYU Press, 2001); James B. Jacobs, et. al., Busting the Mob: United States v. Cosa Nostra (New York: NYU Press, 1994). Disclosure: I worked as a research assistant for Professor Jacobs on Gotham Unbound and co-authored an article with him.
 Alan Block, East Side-West Side: Organizing Crime in New York, 1930-1950(Cardiff: University College Cardiff Press, 1980); Humbert S. Nelli, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). Likewise, the best scholarly histories on Jewish organized crime were originally published in the early 1980s. Jenna Weissman Joselit, Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York Jewish Community, 1900-1940 (Bloomington: Indiana State University Press, 1983); Albert Fried, The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1980).
 Nelli, The Business of Crime, at p. 172.
 Joseph Bonanno, A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno (New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks 1983), at p. 84.
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