The Mafia: The First 100 Years

Forget about it! With a healthy desire to re-watch The Godfather trilogy, this blog post examines one of the many works written on the infamous American Mafia. Co-authored by William Balsamo and George Carpozi Jr, The Mafia: The First 100 Years (1997) attempts to elucidate the history of this underground organisation from its founding in Sicily in the late nineteenth century to its leading role in organised crime in the United States at the end of the twentieth.

The Booksellers Ltd on Twitter: "2. and George Carpozi Jr draw on two  decades of research to tell the true story of the most mythical and  misunderstood criminal organisation in history. #themafia #

I have always been amused by how these mob guys termed themselves ‘men of honour’ and spoke often of loyalty, whilst in their actions displaying absolutely zero honour or loyalty at any time…..both in the movies and especially in reality. Even from the beginning, their aim was to leech off their fellow Italian immigrants in the United States, running protection rackets and intimidating any who dared to oppose them. Equally, I think part of the reason why it’s so difficult to empathise with any of these men when they were killed was because they were all as ruthless as each other. They showed no mercy and in return were shown none themselves. Many who organised hits were supposed friends who sat down to dinner with those about to be assassinated…..what the authors term ‘an ancient tradition of the Honoured Society: fill the man with the best of food. But don’t overdo it. You must leave room for the bullets’.

This book is written in a very informal and even unusual fashion. While it’s a very interesting and easy to read work, it sells itself as an in depth history of the mob in the United States, but instead reads like lots of stories and events revolving around mobster feuds. It is almost written like a novel or work of fiction. There is very little contextual or historic information to give the reader a background to the formation of the Mafia and how it came to be. Instead, this work launches straight into the early gang wars between Irish and Italian criminals in the United States…..what became known as the Ginzo-Mick Wars. The Italian faction was led by Frankie Yale, described as ‘a robbing hood with an appeal that turned him into Robin Hood who gave the people something in return for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had extorted from them’. Yale was gunned down in 1928.

Boardwalk Empire Season 5: The Real Frankie Yale | Den of Geek
Frankie Yale, leader of the Italian faction

Another strange aspect of this book is the detailed accounts of conversations and banter in meetings between these guys, even though the authors were obviously not there to know what was said, and they don’t provide any information on who their source may be. Again this is another way in which this work reads more like fiction than fact. The authors also like to have their characters speak in what seems like a mafia movie way…..there’s a lot of offing or rubbing out people, fatal doses of lead poisoning, going on the lam and asses getting fixed. Not to mention plenty capeesh and canaries and hits.

Wild Bill Lovett - Brooklyn's White Hand Gang Boss - The Irish Mob
Wild Bill Lovett, leader of the Irish faction

The image above is of Wild Bill Lovett, leader of the Irish gang in their war with the Italians in 1920s Brooklyn. Interestingly (at least for a Kerryman), Lovett was born in North Kerry just a few miles from where I grew up, before emigrating to the USA with his family in the 1900s. After serving on the Western Front during World War 1, he returned to Brooklyn and joined the White Hand Gang. Lovett took control of the gang in 1920 but was assassinated in 1923 after a serious drinking session when someone planted a meat cleaver in his skull…..yeah that’ll do it alright.

Throughout this work we meet a multitude of interesting and notorious characters, and in true Mafia movie style, they all have fantastic (and gloriously non-PC) names. There’s Augie the Wop, Two Knives Altierri, Lucky Luciano, Pug McCarthy, Irish Eyes Duggan, Glass Eye Pelicano, Joe Jelly, Johnny Silk Stocking, Crazy Joey Gallo, Wally the Squint, Joe Bananas, and my personal favourite – Harry ‘The Fart’ O’Toole, so called due to his love of baked beans and his subsequent gas emission issues.

Another very funny reference comes when the authors talk about Murder Incorporated (Inc.), a group of ruthless killers for hire. In Sicily, what would become known as the Mafia in America was originally called Cosa Nostra…..which literally means Our Thing. Because Murder Inc’s members were predominantly Jewish, they were christened the Kosher Nostra……which was quite witty from a group of raving psychopaths.

Murder Incorporated: 10 Fascinating and Disturbing Things You Didn't Know  About the Mafia's Death Squad
Assassination of Murder Inc leader Albert Anastasia in New York in 1957

There’s some very interesting vignettes of mob life throughout this book, such as how boss Joe Bonanno was an innovator due to the fact that he created the ‘bunk-bed coffin’ to get rid of those killed by the mob! Owning a funeral home, he would place the victim in a separate compartment underneath the actual person who was being buried, and in so doing ‘improved dramatically on the long-established practice of burying victims of hits in concrete or littering streets and empty lots with their corpses’. Joe you old entrepreneur! Or the genius who decided to have an affair with the wife of Vito Genovese, head of one of the New York families and one of the most powerful mobsters in America!! Needless to say that lad had an unpleasant end.

In reality this work is far from perfect. Unusually for a book that proclaims itself to be a detailed history of the mafia in the United States, it spends over 250 of its 460 odd pages examining the first half of the 1920s. There is a major focus on the aforementioned Ginzo-Mick Wars of 1920-1925, but the authors seem to rush through the rest of the twentieth century. As previously mentioned, it gives very little background information on the creation and growth of organised crime, and definitely would not be considered ‘academically rigorous’ enough to make it onto the bibliography of any thesis! There are also a number of typos and even some factual errors. For example, the authors state that Paul Castellano, the so-called Boss of Bosses or head of the American Mafia, was feeling the pressure of US Attorney Rudy Giuliani’s onslaught against organised crime by early 1986. Which is quite something given that Castellano was gunned down in New York City in December 1985 by John Gotti who wanted to take control of the Gambino crime family. Men of honour indeed.

Ultimately however, despite its flaws, this book is still a very interesting and enjoyable read, particularly as a starting point for someone who may want to learn more about organised crime in the USA, the background to some of the feuds depicted on screen, or most importantly the spawning of millions of Mafia baby memes.

Baby Godfather: Image Gallery (List View) | Know Your Meme
Mafia Baby Humpty Dumpty -

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