Readers on The First Family

The First Family by Mike Dash


The First Family wasn't what I expected it to be, and that's a good thing. Rather than being yet another drop in an endless sea of books on the mob, Mike Dash's book manages to add some fresh elements to a hoary genre… Dash's combination of being a historian and a journalist makes him a formidable writer as he has not only the flair for writing, but never fails to document his sources. Best of all Dash strikes a balance between writing a book targeted for the mass market that still manages to satisfy the need for documentation.

‘Dash strips away the layers of rumor, hearsay, innuendo, and recycled errors that so many other writers take as gospel regarding the Mafia and seeks the straight up truth. He seeks the truth from the most reliable public records and then sets about building the story from there; the result is a captivating, direct, and honest story that is truly stranger than fiction. Set aside what you think you know about the Mafia and read this instead!
Todd B. Frary on

‘A sepia-toned, almost quaint version of the classic Mafia feud narrative — one where stilettos and horse carts take the place of machine guns and black sedans. And though the brutality depicted in The First Family will hardly come as a surprise to readers familiar with the genre, the period details keep the story fresh.’

‘By the third chapter, I was ready to take a vacation day from work to finish this book. He covered the mob in the 1800s! Nobody has written about that in such depth that I can name! Just when you thought you knew it all…

‘Growing up in a family with close ties to the Midwest families and even employment in the 50s-80s, I usually laugh at some books, knowing full well of and recognizing planted misinformation given to a journalist or reporter that usually writes these books. The Godfather was one of those books. Funny!

Not so with this one.

‘I'm proud to have this book in my hands. It is one I will read again as soon as I finish the last page (maybe today).

‘I cant thank the author and publisher enough.’
V.S. on

‘I think I was 8 or 9 or maybe 10 when I first saw Pay or Die with Ernest Borgnine. I remember it was on Million Dollar Movie (when they used to replay the same movie five nights in a row). It was my introduction to The Black Hand (what some originally called the mafia), and although I was rooting for the Italian Sergeant/Lieutenant Detective (Petrosino), I remember being intrigued by the criminals in the story (all essentially bullies) and wondering how they became so powerful? I was very naive, amici.

‘Fast forward thirty plus years when I’m living in Little Italy. Irony of ironies, I’m standing at a tiny triangular park off the corner of Kenmare and Spring between Cleveland Place and Lafayette Street waiting for someone to drop off money (the irony being I was one of the bad guys) and quickly getting irritated because the guy I’m waiting for is late, when I turn around and read the plaque attached to the fence (see above). Lieutenant Petrosino Park. No, there was no epiphany. I liked what I was doing at the time, especially the fazools, but it did make me wonder whether or not it was some cosmic sign.

‘Another dozen years pass (nearly 10 since I abandoned being a bad guy) and I pick up a book called The First Family by Mike Dash, a well-researched and meticulously laid out tome that offers those interested in the genesis of the Italian-American mob a detailed history of its main players and all the social, economic and political variables necessary for its growth and survival.

‘Dash touts a smallish man with a deformed hand, Giuseppe Morello, as the first Capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) in what was then the ghetto of Little Italy. Also known as The Clutch Hand, Morello hailed from the small and very impoverished town of Corleone, Sicilly (Si, amici, the same Corleone Mario Puzzo wrote about and Francis Ford Coppola made ubber famous in his iconic Godfather mob films). Already a member of the honored society in Sicilia, Morello came to New York and apparently made a few attempts at living a legit life. Between bad economic times and the way Italians were treated back in the day (forgetaboutit), he returned to old habits (counterfeiting—and not very good counterfeiting as one of his forged notes was described as having “11 misspellings”)—and after finding himself in trouble, fled to New Orleans, Louisiana (where other Sicilians had found refuge). After a few years of picking cotton (yep, you read it right), the Morello family gave up on the American dream via killing oneself and returned to New York where the Clutch Hand reformed his mob family exclusively with people from his home town of Corleone, Sicilly.

'The First Family provides individual stories of terror, extortion and revenge (Sicilian vendetta style), and, of course, murder (as is part of its subtitle) and those are as intriguing as the story of how poorly the police (back in the day) pursued the criminals of Little Italy and Italian Harlem, but it most accurately provides us with the harsh reality of what all ethnic criminal organizations/mobs ultimately do to their own people, especially when the pickings are most ripe (when they first immigrate to a new country). It was interesting to read how law enforcement back then also relied on informants within or close to the mobs to pursue arrests (but much more often than not, without convictions).

'I can’t recount what the author offers in this very interesting book about the genesis of the American Mob because it would do a disservice to some very polished writing. The First Family is a very well documented account of what happened to Italian immigrants shoved into the ghetto called Little Italy; how some violently fought their way across the five points (the Gangs of New York Five Points) and eventually established what became a national coalition of organized crime. Me, I’m still fascinated with this stuff much the same way I’m fascinated by the American Civil War. It is an undeniable slice of Americana that remains intriguing. Dash makes no excuses for the ruthless Giuseppe Morello or any other form of organized crime. I used to, but that has more to do with what were personal insecurities than reality.

'More than worth the price of the investment, The First Family is a must read for anyone interested in organized crime, the economics of an immigrant underclass trying to survive in a capitalist society, immigration, law enforcement, Italian and/or American history. Knucksline's best non-fiction read of 2009 to date.’
Charlie Stella,

‘This was the biggest literary shocker I've had this year and truly a pleasant surprise. Mike Dash took an approach that was totally unexpected and is brilliant in its simplicity. Instead of amassing a compilation of so-called eye witness accounts--apocryphal accounts that inevitably change with each generation's retelling--he scoured the wealth of official material from those early days to create an actual historical account. By examining the police reports, courtroom testimonies, immigration documents, and family letters he was able to create a historically legitimate account of the early days of the mafia. Why didn't anyone think of that before?’
Dave Edmiston on

'While most Americans can name two or three famous Mafiosi, few have ever heard of Giuseppe Morella. Dash's vivid, fascinating account of his life and times may change that. Dash combed through century-old newspaper articles, police files, and court transcripts, and his extensive research shows on every page and sets the record straight on pre-Prohibition mob operations. The narrative brims with anecdotes and little-known facts, and Dash's animated, eloquent prose results in a convincing and powerful story. However, Dash doesn't soften the edges of this gritty, violent era: a few critics complained that the book was, at times, too gory.'

‘Mike Dash does not deal in speculation. He does not deal in retelling rumors, stories long since discredited, or stories that haven't been checked out. Mike Dash deals in facts.

‘Gripping, compelling and all too real, Dash has written the definitive early history of the American Mafia. This is essential reading for anyone interested in organized crime.’
Eric San Juan on

Casting aside long-established myths, Dash's extensive endnotes detailing the exhaustive research he's conducted into primary resources should make this the definitive history on the subject for some time to come. Highly recommended.
petermc on

'May just be the most definitive look at the start of the of Cosa Nostra... Almost everything touched on in the book is derived directly from court documents or police reports, in other words, the words you read are from the people who’ve seen. The accounts and stories themselves are so intriguing and entertaining that as you flip from page to page, you wonder why no-one has never touched on this era before.

'The title kicks off with a classic murder mystery that introduces Morello and one of the men who work tirelessly to fight against him, the Secret Service agent, William Flynn. All in all, numerous equally colorful characters come in and out of the story, and story opens into a fantastic period piece, and a tale of American history. Mike Dash delivers an absolute must read for any fan of the era, the mafia, or crime history itself.

'This story is wonderfully told, in intricate detail, well honed like the knife that slit Benedetto Madonia's throat in the opening pages. It is brilliantly eloquently written. To use the primary sources of the day was doubtless a daunting task for Mr. Dash, a task he took on with great relish and scored a stunning triumph, a tour de force of this little known era. The murders committed in this book seem to come one after another after another, from New York and Pennsylvania to Sicily. The subjects of this book, though shrouded in the murk of mystery, and obscured by a century of time past nevertheless come out as fascinating characters, ruthless, brutal, enterprising, and although their methods of moneymaking seem primitive by today's standards of mafia power, their tentacles of influence and control quite stunted in comparison to the later mob, nevertheless they are the true genesis of the American dream for Cosa Nostra. Every gang, just like every government and army have to have a tenuous start sometime and this was the tenuous though inexorable rise of the American Mafia. It is contained brilliantly in these pages, untold in such fashion before. It is a story that needs to be known by mafia and crime buffs as well as students of American and Italian history. Mike Dash has done a phenomenal job in bringing to light a dark and hithero almost unknown subject. This book is as excellently written a book on the Mafia as i have seen. More books about this subject should be written to the high standards of quality that The First Family has achieved. It is a tremendous work and i cannot recommend it highly enough. Absolutely fantastic.'
Michael Buck on

'Mike Dash can really write! From the opening pages I was hooked.'
Beverley B. on

'Mike Dash delivers a complex and exhaustively researched and documented view of the early development of the notoriously secretive Mafia. It's truly an unforgettable experience.'
iluvvideo on