Historically speaking, New York City has certainly enjoyed its share of colorful criminal characters. Gambino. Castellano. Gotti. Luciano. These are Big Bosses that you know by name. But what about Giuseppe Morello? You ought to know him, because he was the most powerful Boss in the early days of the New York City Mafia. We’re talking capo di tutti capi. So look smart and listen up.Born in Corleone, Sicily in 1867, the Morello family eventually settled in what was then called Italian Harlem, around East 107th Street. Young Giuseppe was an enterprising sort, a charismatic leader, and in the early 1890’s he established a gang known as the Morello Mob (also sometimes referred to as the 107th Street Gang). In 1903, Giuseppe’s sister Salvatrice married the Sicilan Mafia Boss in Little Italy, a rough customer known as Ignazio “The Wolf” Lupo. And with that matrimonial union, one of the earliest and most powerful families of organized crime in New York City was born.Morello was infamous for having a one-fingered deformed right hand, and was known in the underworld as “The Clutch Hand,” sometimes “The Old Fox,” but also went by “Piddu” or Peter. But I’m pretty sure no one ever called him “Clutch Hand” to his face, as everyone was scared shitless of this man. And rightly so: he built his empire based on the merciless ordering of death sentences against everyone and anyone who dared oppose him. His horrible brother-in-law (“The Wolf,” remember?) was his main enforcer, and was responsible for more than sixty murders in a 10 year period. That’s a whole lot of bodies to hide, what’s a button man to do? Well, the Morello family would frequently employ the notorious “barrel murder system.” This system consisted of dumping dismembered corpses into large wood barrels, which would then be thrown into the sea, left on a random city street corner, abandoned in a back alley or shipped to nonexistent addresses in another city. That’s one way to keep your employees and customers in line.And speaking of customers, let’s talk about the Family business. They mostly stuck to the basics: extortion, loan sharking, Italian lottery, robbery and counterfeiting. But Morello was an innovative mobster; he was the first one to make a practice of making dirty money clean. He would run the illegally earned money through legal businesses (such as stores or restaurants) that were owned by the family, making them the first crime family to organize this kind of money laundering. They also introduced revolutionary ways of extorting small amounts of money every week from business owners in exchange for “protection”, as opposed to the theft of large amounts which might bankrupt them. There you go! He not only invented money laundering, he invented “protection.” So now you see how any so-called modern mobster truly owes a real debt of gratitude to Clutch Hand. And you know what they say about paying your debts to a gangster.
I love reading on the subway, and one of the more enjoyable aspects of my subway commute is checking out what my fellow New Yorkers happen to be reading. Admittedly, this was easier in the days before e-readers but I find with some good old fashioned nosiness you can still usually make out what folks are consuming. By employing this well-honed peripheral vision technique, last week I noticed two separate people reading Dennis Lehane’s recently published “Live By Night” and sensing a trend, I picked up a sample. By page 7, I ordered it.It is by turns a period noir, a mob thriller and an epic, though what I ultimately found it to be was compelling. I enjoy literature that is not easily digested and although by no means a shallow read, Live By Night is not deep. Where it succeeds, however, is in the rare art of being a terrific page-turner and it’s completely entertaining. The plot is tight, with well-rendered characters and sharp, believable dialogue. This novel cries out “I’m a movie!” like nothing I’ve read in recent memory (save for The Sisters Brothers, and I think that has been optioned already.) So, pick it up. Lehane is a good writer. Be entertained!