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Book Review: Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon

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Contrary to popular belief, New York City was not the birthplace of the American Mafia.  As students of organized crime history know, the real birthplace was New Orleans; but while the prevailing literature about the mob in the Big Easy has concentrated on the late 19th century, Deep Water takes the origin back to the Civil War.  As such, this is one of the more foundational organized crime books ever written. 

The book wraps the definitive era of American history in with the emergence of a new kind of criminal. Deep Water is ostensibly the story of the origins of the Mafia in America told through the trials of the Macheca family, fruit merchants in New Orleans.  The main character is J.P. Macheca, stepson of the Macheca patriarch and an intriguing figure from both a business and political sense – he spent nine months in the Confederate Army. 

Thomas Hunt brings the story alive through his rich attention to details.   You can practically smell the fetid air of the New Orleans waterfront. The one thread that ties the elements together is the rich familial history intertwined with the background history.  I think in teaming with Martha Macheca Sheldon, Hunt made a smart move.  Anecdotal family stories brings a dimension to the Macheca saga that you rarely get from a general Mafia book.  Not wanting to lavish too much praise on the author, but it’s always exciting to find a new way to approach a subject.

The opening half of the book takes the reader through mid 19th century New Orleans.  The Civil War, as seen through the eyes of this Southern melting pot, comes alive. From there, Hunt expertly parses out the Reconstruction policies and the ensuing political fallout in post-war New Orleans.  The last part of the book deals with the assassination of Police Chief David Hennessey and the ensuing legal proceedings and eventual vigilante killings of a number of Sicilians, including J.P. Macheca.  This section, having been written about before, takes a new life here, with an explanation that makes the lynching of the Sicilians more a calculated hit than a random act of mob violence.

If there is any criticism, it’s the lack of notes.  It’s evident from the references that Hunt dug deep for the story.  I would have liked to have seen where some specific pieces came from. 

Deep Water is a worthy addition to the organized crime canon and the greater body of books on Civil War-era America.

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About Scott Deitche

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

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