The First Family: Mike's view

William Flynn
William Flynn, Chief of the New York
Bureau of the US Secret Service

Hundreds of books have been written about the Mafia, but this one is different from the rest. Its focus is the birth of the American branch of the fraternity during the years 1892–1930 — a period that has, to my astonishment, been almost entirely neglected until now. Few writers have ever asked how, exactly, the Mafia came into existence in the United States. The First Family does.

The vast majority of ‘Mafia books’ are also notoriously unreliable: compiled from rumour, hearsay, wild assumptions and the endlessly recycled errors of earlier authors. The First Family sets out to correct these faults. The book is painstakingly rooted in primary sources — not least the detailed records of the US Secret Service, the New York bureau of which was the only Federal, state or city agency to keep the earliest Mafiosi under systematic surveillance. This bureau’s daily reports covering the key years from 1899 to 1916 fill 59 huge volumes, each well over a thousand pages long, and between them they comprise by far the greatest trove of reliable information on the Mafia’s formative years; they form the bedrock on which my narrative has been erected. To my bafflement, I found no sign that any other writer on the subject has ever bothered to examine them.

The balance of the story has been drawn from other important but neglected records: more than ten thousand pages of century–old trial transcripts, the detailed confession of a key member of an important Mafia counterfeiting ring — which turned up in the Hoover Presidential Library, of all places — and the letters and personal memoirs of several participants, not least William Flynn, who was the chief of New York’s Secret Service bureau, with a single brief hiatus, from 1901 until 1917. Flynn’s recollections, which were serialised in various contemporary newspapers, have likewise escaped attention until now, and they have been supplemented with the copious daily coverage of crime provided by well over a dozen early twentieth century papers. Taken together, this material makes it possible to reconstruct the events of a century ago in often-minute detail.

The story that emerges differs in many vital respects from the sketchy accounts that have been offered hitherto. It has been years since I tackled a subject so polluted with misinformation. When I first began my research four years ago, I read that Giuseppe Morello, the first great boss of the New York Mafia, was born in 1870 – or, some said, in 1880. Contacting the registry office in his Sicilian hometown, Corleone, I discovered that the correct date was 2 May 1867 — a fact his own family seems to have been unaware of, since his gravestone bears the 1870 date. I read that Giuseppe had a brother, Antonio, who preceded him as boss in New York and who once shot dead the dreaded leader of the rival Camorra. The battered transcripts of Antonio Morello’s murder trial, rescued in the early 1980s from a skip and now archived in an obscure law library, showed that he was neither a member of the Mafia nor any relation to his more celebrated ‘brother’, also that the man he killed was a one–armed organ grinder with no criminal record who had crudely insulted his wife.

Since the story that emerged from my own years of research is frankly astonishing, I also want to make it clear that nothing of what follows is fiction or ‘imagined’ history. None of the conversations reported in these pages is invented; each was recalled, word for word, by one of the participants, or noted down by a newspaper reporter. As any historian should, I have listed my sources of information paragraph by paragraph, and line by line where necessary, and these can be verified in the book's endnotes.

The First Family, in short, is not a rehash of the cursory, inaccurate, invented tales you may have read before.

This is how it really happened.

Mike Dash, London, 2 March 2009