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Book Review: The Origin of Organized Crime in America – The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931 by David Critchley

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For those of us who peruse the Mafia forums, David Critchley is a familiar name. For over 30 years he has been amassing material about the Mafia in America, from his home in England. And for the last 10 years, he has been working on his magnum opus, a complete history of early organized crime in New York City. The project has finally been released. The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931 will certainly be an essential addition to any crime historian’s library.

The origin of the Mafia in America is certainly a topic that has been handled before, going back to the 1950s, and includes some seminal works like Stephen Fox’s Blood and Power. But the overwhelming majority of Mafia historical approaches often fall victim to less-than-truthful events and accounts that have become part of the American Mafia mythos. The main problem Critchley wanted to tackle was separating myth from fact, taking events and the overall concept of the Mafia’s origins and stripping away the layers to reveal the basis for the legends.

One of the pivotal events in Mafia history that has been given to fanciful conclusions and outlandish speculation was the Castellammare war, one of the more well-known gangland wars in the American underworld. Critchley re-evaluates the main players, and the real killings attributed to the war, versus those that were simply run-of-the-mill mob hits. He finally, once and for all smashes the myth of the Night of Sicilian Vespers, the mythical event where a new generation of mobsters supposedly killed off the reigning Moustache Pete’s, old world dons who ran the early Mafia. Critchley finds only two killings, as opposed to the purported 40 that took place in a single day. Origin also shows clearly that old-school Sicilian dons were in major ruling position through the 1960s.

Critchley also spends a great deal of time on the Neapolitan Camorra/Sicilian Mafia war that showed the intra-Italian ethnic divisions in early underworld gangs. It’s the most documented look ever at this little-known event, and paves the way for the full “integration” of Neapolitans, Sicilians, and Calabrians in later Mafia family structures.

Origin is written in a scholarly tone. This may initially put off the casual reader, more attuned to the street-level blood and guts of Mafia tomes. But in fact, the scholarly manner is really the only way this book can work the way its author intends. By choosing a pedagogically-influenced approach, Critchley brings the weight of his research down with full force. The writing is coupled with meticulous notes, a couple hundred per chapter. There are many interesting tidbits, that otherwise would divert the narrative, found in the Notes section.

Illustrations and photos are interspersed throughout the book. There are many photos that have never been seen before, from both the author’s personal collection as well as from relatives of mobsters featured in the book. Critchley also includes helpful charts showing, among other relationships, the business empire of the Gagliano family, and the leadership of the Masseria/Maranzano groups before and after the Castellammare War.

Critchley has succeeded in writing perhaps the most encompassing history of the Mafia’s development in America.  The Origin of Organized Crime in America is devoid of any delusions of Mafia grandeur, instead relying on meticulous research to finally reveal the framework of Italian organized crime in America.

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