Selwyn Raab’s ‘Five Families’: A History of the New York Mafia, Heavily Slanted Towards Recent Times

Selwyn Raab, Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of American’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires (London: Robson Books 2006) 

With Italian-American organized now surely in terminal decline, the time is ripe for a definitive history of the New York Mafia. Unfortunately, Selwyn Raab’s ‘Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires’ is not it.[1]

In particular, despite its length, it gives only cursory coverage to the early history of the New York Mafia. 

Instead, it is heavily weighted towards the recent history of the five families. 

This is perhaps unsurprising. After all, the author, Selwyn Raab is, by background, a journalist not an historian. 

Indeed, it is surely no coincidence that Raab’s history only starts to become in-depth at about the time he began covering the activities of the New York mob in real-time as reporter for The New York Times in 1974.

To give an idea of this bias I will cite page numbers. 

The book comprises over 700 pages, plus title pages, ‘Prologue’, ‘Introduction’, ‘Afterword’, ‘Epilogue’, two appendices, ‘Bibliography’ and ‘Index’, themselves comprising a further 100 or so pages. 

The first two chapters are introductory, and mostly cite examples of Mafia activities from the mid- to late twentieth century. 

The chronological narrative begins in in Chapter 3, titled ‘Roots’, which purports to cover both the origin of the New York Mafia and its prehistory. 

In doing so, Raab repeats uncritically the Sicilian Mafia’s own romantic foundation myth, claiming that the Mafia began during Sicily’s long history of foreign occupation as a form of  “self-preservation against perceived corrupt oppressors (p14). 

Indeed, even his supposedly “less romantic and more likelyetymology for the word ‘Mafia is that it derives from “a combined Sicilian-Arabic slang expression that means acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful” (p14). 

Actually, according to historian, John Dickie, rather than protecting the common people against corrupt oppression by outsiders, the Sicilian Mafia was itself corrupt, exploitative and oppression from the very beginning (see Dickie’s books, Costa Nostra and Blood Brotherhoods). 

Raab is vague on the precise origins of the Sicilian Mafia, but does insist that mafia cosche evolved “over hundreds of years” (p14).

This is, again, likely a Mafia myth. The Mafia, like the Freemasons (from whom its initiation rituals are, at least according to Dickie, likely borrowed), exaggerates its age to enhance its venerability and mystique.[2]

Of course, Raab’s text is a history of the New York Mafia. One can therefore overlook his inadequate treatment of its Sicilian prehistory. 

Unfortunately, his treatment of early Mafia activity in New York itself is barely better. 

Early turn-of-the-century New York Mafiosi like Giuseppe Morello and Lupo the Wolf are not even mentioned. Nor are their successors, the Terranova brothers. Neither is there any mention of the barrel murders, counterfeiting trial or Mafia-Camorra War

Even their nemesis, Italian-born NYPD officer, Joe Petrosino, murdered in Sicily while investigating the backgrounds of transplanted Mafiosi with a view to deportation, merits only a cursory two and a bit pages – something almost as derisory as the “bare, benchless concrete slab serv[ing] as a road divider and pedestrian-safety island” that ostensibly commemorates him in Lower Manhattan today (p19- 21). 

There are just nineteen pages in Raab’s chapter on the New York Mafia’s ‘Roots’. The next chapter is titled ‘The Castallammarese War’, and focuses upon the gang war of that name, which began in 1930, although the chapter begins with a discussion of the effects of the national Prohibition law that came into force in 1920. 

Therefore, since the Morello Family seems to have had its roots in the 1890s, that’s over twenty years of New York Mafia history (not to mention, according to Raab, some several centuries of Sicilian Mafia history) passed over in less than twenty pages. 

Readers interested in the origins of the five families, and indeed how there came to be five families in the first place, should look elsewhere. I would recommend instead Mike Dash’s The First Family, which uncovers the formerly forgotten history of the first New York Mafia family, the Morello family, the ancestor of today’s Genovese Family, arguably still the most powerful mafia family in America to this day. 

Although I have yet to read it, James Jacobs’ The Mob and the City also comes highly recommended in many quarters. 

Whereas Raab’s account of the first few decades of American Mafia history is particularly inadequate, the coverage of the next few decades of organized crime history, is barely better. 

Here, we get the familiar potted history of the New York Mafia with the each of the usual suspects – Luciano, Anastasia, Costello, Genovese – successively assuming center stage. 

Moreover, despite his ostensible focus on Italian-American organized crime, unlike the Mafia itself (which, though it has survived countless RICO prosecutions, which surely would never survive a class-action lawsuit for racial discrimination), non-Italians are not arbitrarily excluded from Raab’s account.

On the contrary, each of make their usual, almost obligatory, cameos—Bugsy Siegel assassinated in his  Vegas casino-hotel, Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles ‘accidentally’ falling from a sixth-floor window, and, of course, the shadowy and much-mythologized Meyer Lansky always lurking in the background like a familiar anti-Semitic conspiracy theory

It is not that Raab actually misses anything out, but rather that he doesn’t really add much. 

Instead, we get another regurgitation of the familiar Mafia history with which anyone who has had the misfortunate of reading any of the countless earlier popular histories of the American Mafia will be all too familiar. 

Then, after just 100 pages, we are already at the Appalachin meeting in 1957. 

That’s over fifty years of twentieth century American Mafia history condensed in less than 100 pages. More to the point, it’s over half the entire period of American Mafia history covered by Raab’s book (which was published in 2005) covered in less than a seventh of the total text. 

After a brief diversion, namely two chapters discussing supposed Mafia involvement in the Kennedy assassination, we are into the 1970s, and now Raab’s coverage becomes in-depth and authoritative. 

But, although this period may have marked the height of the mafia’s mystique, with blockbuster movies like the overrated Godfather’ trilogy glamourizing Italian-American organized crime like never before, it arguably also marked the beginning of the Mafia’s decline.[3]

Indeed, the mafia’s notoriety during this period may even have been a factor in its decline. After all, publicity and media infamy are, for a criminal organization, at best a mixed blessing.  

True, a media-cultivated aura of power and untouchability may discourage victims from running to the police, and also deter rival criminals from attempting to challenge mafia hegemony. 

However, criminal conspiracies operate best when they are outside the public eye, let alone the scrutinizing glare of the journalists, movie-makers, government and law enforcement. 

There is, after all, a reason why the Mafia is a secret society whose very existence is, at least in theory, a closely-guarded secret.

It is no accident, then, that those crime bosses who openly courted the limelight and revelled in their own notoriety did not enjoy long and successful careers. 

Prominent Italian American examples of criminals who made the mistake of openly courting press attention are John Gotti and Al Capone.[4]

Thus, John Gotti inevitably takes up more than his share of chapters in Raab’s book, just as, during his lifetime, he enjoyed more than his share of headlines in Raab’s own New York Times

The so-called ‘Dapper Don’ invariably made for good copy. 

However, courting the media is rarely a sensible way to run a crime empire. 

A famous adage of the marketing industry supposedly has it that all publicity is good publicity.

This may be true, or at least close to being true, in, say, the realm of rock or rap music, where controversy is often a principal selling point.

However, in the world of organized crime, almost the exact opposite could be said to be true. 

Thus, much of the press coverage of Gotti may have been flattering, even fawning, or at least perceived by Gotti as such. Certainly he himself often seemed to revel in his own infamy and also became something of a folk hero to some sections of the public. 

However, the more he became a folk hero by thumbing his nose at the authorities, the more of a threat he posed to those authorities, in part precisely because he had become something of a folk hero.

The result was that, although the press initially dubbed him ‘The Teflon Don’, because, supposedly, no charges would ever stick, Gotti actually enjoyed less than a decade of freedom as Gambino family boss before being convicted and imprisoned. 

By courting the limelight, he also invited the attention of, not just the media, but also of law enforcement and thereby ensured that his fifteen minutes of fame would immediately be followed by a lifetime of incarceration. 

A rather more sensible approach was perhaps that adopted by a lesser-known contemporary of and rival to Gotti, Genovese family boss Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante, who, far from courting publicity like Gotti, let ‘front bossFat Tony Salerno take the bulk of law enforcement heat, himself, for many years, largely passing under the radar. 

While fictional Mafia boss Tony Soprano spent the bulk of the television series in which he played the leading role attempting to conceal his visits to a psychiatrist from his Mafia colleagues, Gigante made sure his own (supposed) mental health difficulties were as public as possible, feigning mental illness for decades in order to avoid law enforcement attention. 

Nicknamed ‘The Oddfather’ by the press for his bizarre antics, he made sure to be regularly seen  walking the streets of Greenwich village in a bathrobe, was said to regularly check into psychiatric hospitals whenever law enforcement heat was getting too much.[5]

Wary of phone taps and bugs, Gigante also insisted that other members of the crime family of which he was head never mention him by name, but rather, if they had to refer to him, simply to point towards their chin or curl their fingers into the shape of a letter ‘c’. 

These precautions had law enforcement fooled for years, and it was long believed in law enforcement circles that Gigante was retired and the real boss was indeed front boss Tony Salerno. 

Largely as a result, Gigante enjoyed at least a decade and a half as Genovese boss before he too belatedly joined his erstwhile rival John Gotti behind bars. 

Of course, the secrecy with which mafiosi like Gigante took pains to veil their affairs presents a challenge, not just to law enforcement, but also to the historian. 

After all, criminals are, almost by definition, dishonest.[6]

Even those mafiosi who did break rank, and the code of omertà, by providing testimony to the authorities, or sometimes publishing memoirs and giving interviews on television (or, most recently, even starting their own youtube channels), are notoriously unreliable sources of information, being prone to both exaggerate their own role and importance in events, while also (rather contradictorily) minimizing their role in any serious prosecutable offences for which they have yet to serve time. 

Perhaps a more trustworthy source of information—or so one would hope—is law enforcement.  

Yet, relying on the latter as a source, Raab’s account inevitably ends up being as much a history of law enforcement efforts to bring the Mafiosi to justice as it is of the Mafia itself. 

Thus, for example, a whole chapter, entitled ‘The Birth of RICO’, is devoted to the development and passage into law of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or RICO Act of 1970

Indeed, amusingly, but not especially plausibly, Raab even suggests that the name of this act, or rather the acronym by which the Act, and prosecutions under it, became known may have been inspired by the once-famous final line of seminal 1930s Warner Brothers gangster movie, Little Ceasar, Raab reporting that George Robert Blakely, the lawyer largely responsible for the drafting of the Act: 

Refuses to explain the reason for the RICO acronym. But he is a crime-film buff and admits that one of his favorite movies is Little Caesar, a 1931 production loosely modeled on Al Capone’s life… Dying in an alley after a gun battle with the police, Little Caesar gasps one of Hollywood’s famous closing lines—also Blakey’s implied message to the Mob: ‘Mother of Mercy—is this the end of Rico?’” (p177). 

Of course, the passage into law of the RICO statute, as it turned out, was indeed a seminal event in American Mafia history, facilitating, as it did, the successful prosection and incarceration of countless Mafia bosses and other organized crime figures.

Nevertheless, in this chapter, and indeed elsewhere in the book, the five families themselves inevitably fade very much into the background, and Raab concentrates instead on the tactics of and conflicts among law enforcement themselves. 

Yet, in Raab’s defence such material is often no less interesting than the stories of mafiosi themselves. 

Indeed, one thing to emerge from portions of Raab’s narrative is that conflicts and turf wars between different branches, levels and layers of law enforcement—local, state and federal—were often as fiercely, if less bloodily, fought over as were territorial disputes among mafiosi themselves. 

After all, mafiosi rarely take the trouble to commit crimes in only the jurisdiction of a single police precinct. Therefore, the jurisdiction of different branches and levels of law enforcement frequently overlapped.  

Yet, such was the fear of police corruption and mafia infiltration, different branches of law enforcement rarely trusted one another enough to share intelligence with other branches of law enforcement, lest a confidential source, informant, undercover agent, phone tap, bug or wire be thereby compromised, let alone to allow a rival branch of law enforcement to take the lion’s share of the credit, and newspaper headlines, for bringing a high-profile mafia scalp to justice. 

In contrast, territorial disputes between crime families actually seem to have been surprisingly muted, and were usually ironed out through ‘sit-downs’ (i.e. effectively an appeal to arbitration by a higher authority) rather than resort to violence. 

Thus, despite its familiarity as a formulaic cliché of mafia movies from The Godfather onwards, there appears to have never actually been another war between rival Mafia families in New York after the Castallammarese War ended in 1931. 

Mafia wars did ocassionally occur—e.g. the Banana War, First, Second and Third Colombo Wars. However, these were all intra-family affairs, involving control over a single family, rather than conflict between different families.[7]

The Castallammarese War therefore stands as the New York Mafia equivalent of the First World War, with each of the nascent five family factions joined together in two grand coalitions, just as, before and during the World War One, the great powers (and a host of lesser powers) joined together in two grand alliances. 

However, whereas the First World War only promised to be the war to end all wars, the Castallammarese War actually has some claim to actually delivering on this promise, with the independent sovereignty of each of the five families thenceforth mutually respected in a sort of Westphalian Peace, or ‘Pax Mafiosa’ that lasted for the better part of a century. 

In The Godfather (the novel, not the film), Michael Corleone quotes his father as claiming, had “the [five] Families had been running the State Department there would never have been World War II”, since they would have been smart enough to iron out their problems without resort to unnecessary bloodshed and economic expense. 

On the evidence of New York Mafia history as recounted by Raab in ‘The Five Families’, Don Corleone may, perhaps surprisingly, have had a point. 

Perhaps, then, our world leaders and statesmen could learn indeed something from lowlife criminals about the importance of avoiding the unnecessary bloodshed and expense of war. 

Honor Among Thieves – and Men of Honor? 

Another general conclusion that can be drawn from Raab’s history is that, if there is, as cliché contends, but little honor among thieves, there is seemingly scarcely any more honor even among self-styled ‘men of honor’. 

This is even true of the most influential figure in American Mafia history, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, described by Raab in one photo caption as “the visionary godfather and designer of the modern Mafia”, and elsewhere as “the Mafia’s visionary criminal genius”, who is even credited, in some tellings, with creating the Commission and even the five families themselves.[8]

Yet Luciano was a serial traitor. 

First, he betrayed his ostensible ally, Joe ‘The Boss’ Masseria, in the Castellammarese War, setting him up for assassination by his rival Salvatore Maranzano. Then, just a few months later, he betrayed and arranged the murder of Maranzano himself, leaving Luciano free to take the position of, if not capo di tutti capi, then at least the most powerful mafiosi in New York, and probably in America, if not the world. 

In this series of betrayals, Luciano set the pattern for the twentieth century mob. 

The key is to make sure that you betray what turns out to be the losing side, if only on account of your betrayal.

The powerful Gambino crime family provides a particularly good illustration of this. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century, staging an interal coup or arranging the assassination of the current incumbent seems to have been almost the accepted means of securing the succession.

Later, John Gotti famously became boss of the family by arranging the murder of his own boss, Paul Castellano, just as Castellano’s predecessor, the eponymous Carlo Gambino had himself allegedly been complicit in the murder of his own predecessor, Albert Anastasia, who was himself the main suspect in the murder of his own predecessor, Vincent Mangano

However, such treachery was by no means limited to the Gambinos. On the contrary, Joe Colombo became boss of the crime family now renamed in his honor by betraying his own boss Joe Magliocco (and Bonanno boss Joe Bonnano) to the bosses of the three other families whom he had been ordered by them to to kill. 

Meanwhile, one of Colombo’s successors, Carmine ‘The Snake’ Gigante, had also been at war with his own boss, Joe Profaci, in the First Colombo War, but then, in a further betrayal, switched allegiances, setting up his former allies, the Gallo brothers, for assassination by the Profaci leadership. For his trouble, Gigante earned himself the perhaps unflattering sobriquet of ‘The Snake’, but also ultimately the leadership of the crime family.

As for Luciano himself, not only was he a serial traitor, he was also guilty of what was, in Mafia eyes, an even more egregious and unpardonable transgression—namely, he was a police informer

Thus, during his trial for prostitution offences, Raab reveals: 

The most embarrassing moment for the proud Mafia don was Dewey’s disclosure that in 1923, when he was twenty-five, Luciano had evaded a narcotics arrest by informing on a dealer with a larger cache of drugs. 
‘You’re just a stool pigeon,’ Dewey belittled him. ‘Isn’t that it?’ 
‘I told them what I knew,’ a downcast Luciano replied” (p55). 

In this, Luciano was again to set a pattern that, later in the century, many other mafiosi would follow. 

Indeed, by the end of the century, the fabled Mafia code of omertà seems to have been, rather like its earlier ban on drug-dealing, almost as often honored in the breach as actually complied with, at least for mafiosi otherwise facing long spells of incarceration with little prospect of release.

At least since Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, who, being non- Italian, was not, of course, a ‘made man’, and who, at any rate, died under mysterious circumstances, none, to my recollection, ever paid the ultimate price for their betrayal. 

Instead, the main consequence of their breaking the code of omerta seems to have been reduced sentences, government protection under the witness protection program and an end to their Mafia careers.

Yet an end to their mafia careers rarely meant an end to their criminal careers, and few turncoat mafiosi seem to have gone straight, let alone been genuinely repentant.

The most famous case is that of Gambino underboss, and Gotti nemesis, Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano, then the highest-ranking New York mafiosi ever to become a cooperating witness, who helped put John Gotti and a score of other leading mafiosi behind bars with his testimony.

In return for this testimony, Gravano was to serve less than five years in prison, despite admitting involvement in as many as nineteen murders.

In defence of this exceptionally lenient sentence, Leo Glasser, the judge responsible for sentencing both Gravano and Gotti, naïvely insisted that Gravano’s craven treachery was “the bravest thing I have ever seen” and declared “there has never been a defendant of his stature in organized crime who has made the leap he has made from one social planet to another” (p449). 

In fact, however, just a few years after his release, Gravano was convicted of masterminding a multi-million-dollar ecstasy ring in Arizona, where the authorities had relocated him for his own protection. 

His status as a notorious mafia stoolie seems to have impeded his reentry into the crime world hardly at all. 

On the contrary, it seems to have been precisely his status as a famed former Gambino family underboss that recommended him to the starstruck young ecstasy trafficking crew who, having befriended his son, were only too happy to allow the infamous Sammy Gravano to assume leadership of the crime ring they themselves had established and built up. 

By the end of the century, only the secretive and close-knit Bonnano Family, long the only New York family still to restrict membership to those of full-Sicilian (not just Southern Italian) ancestry, could brag that they were, perhaps for this reason, the only New York family never to have had a fully-inducted member become a cooperating government witness.  

Yet even this claim, though technically true, was largely disingenuous. 

Indeed, the Bonannos had actually been expelled from the Commission for reportedly being on the verge of inducting undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone (alias ‘Donnie Brasco’) into the family just before his status as an undercover FBI agent and infiltrator had been revealed by the authorities.

Nevertheless, this did not stop Bonanno boss Joe Massino:

Proudly inform[ing] the new soldiers of the family’s unique record among all of the nation’s borgatas as the only American clan that had never spawned a stool pigeon or cooperative government witness” (p640).

It is therefore somewhat ironic that, in 2004, Massino himself who would become the first ever actual boss of a New York family to become a cooperating witness. 

Mafia Decline 

Besides its inadequate treatment of early New York Mafia history (see above), the other main reason that Raab’s ‘Five Families’ cannot be regarded as the definitive history of the New York Mafia is that Raab himself evidently doesn’t believe the story is over. On the contrary, in his subtitle, he predicts, and, in his Afterword, reports a ‘resurgence’.

The reason Raab wrongly predicts a Mafia revival is that he fails to understand the ultimate reason behind mafia malaise, attributing it primarily to law enforcement success: 

The combined federal and state campaigns were arguably the most successful anticrime expedition in American history. Over a span of two decades, twenty-four Mob families, once the best-organized and most affluent criminal associations in the nation, were virtually eliminated or seriously undermined” (p689). 

The real reason for Mafia decline is demographic. 

Italian-Americans no longer live in close-knit urban ghettos. Indeed, outside of Staten Island, few even live in New York City proper (i.e. the five boroughs). 

Italian Harlem has long previously transformed into Spanish Harlem and, beyond the tourist trap, restaurants and annual parade, there is now little of Italy left in what little remains of Manhattan’s Little Italy

Even Bensonhurst, perhaps the last neighborhood in New York to be strongly associated with Italian-Americans, was never really an urban ghetto, being neither deprived nor monoethnic, and is now majority nonwhite.[9]

Italian-Americans are now often middle-class, and the smart ambitious ones now aspire to be professionals and legitimate businessmen rather than criminals.

Indeed, I would argue that Italian-Americans no longer even still exist as a distinct demographic. They are now fully integrated into the American mainstream. 

Indeed, I suspect that, as with the infamous plastic paddy phenomenon with respect to Irish ancestry, few self-styled ‘Italian-Americans’ are even of 100% Italian ancestry. Thus, as far back as 1985, the New York Times reported: 

8 percent of Americans of Italian descent born before 1920 had mixed ancestry, but 70 percent of them born after 1970 were the children of intermarriage… Among Americans of Italian descent under the age of 30, 72 percent of men and 64 percent of women married someone with no Italian background” (Collins, The Family: A new look at intermarriage in the US, New York Times, Feb 11 1985). 

Thus, almost of necessity, the five families relaxed their traditional requirement for inductees to be of full-Italian ancestry, since otherwise so few Americans would be eligible. 

The Gambinos acting first, inducting, and eventually promoting to acting-boss, John Gotti’s son, Gotti Junior, at the behest of his father, despite the (part-) Russian, or possibly Russian-Jewish, ancestry of his mother (p462). 

Recently, Raab reports, in an attempt to restore discipline, the earlier requirement has been reimposed.  

However, in the absence of a fresh infusion of zips fresh off the boat from Sicily (which Raab also anticipates: p703), this will only further dry up the supply of potential recruits, since so few native-born Americans now qualify as 100% Italian in ancestry.

Raab reports that the supposed Mafia revival has resulted from a reduction in FBI scrutiny, owing to: 

1) The perception that the Mafia threat is extinguished;

2) A change in FBI priorities post-9/11, with the FBI increasingly focusing on domestic terror at the expense of Mafia investigation.  

The lower public profile of the five families in recent years, Raab believes, only shows that Mafiosi have been slipping below the radar, quietly returning to their roots:  

Gambling and loan-sharking—the Mafia’s symbiotic bread-and-butter staples—appear to be unstoppable” (p692).[10]

But, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, sports betting is now legal throughout the New York Metropolitan area (i.e. in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut), and indeed most of the US, one of these two staples is now likely off the menu for the foreseeable future. 

Moreover, the big money is increasingly in narcotics, and, as Raab concedes, in contrast with their success in taking down the Mafia, the FBI’s “more costly half-century campaign against the narcotics scourge remains a Sisyphean failure” (p689). 

This has meant that non-Italian criminals have increasingly taken over the drug-trade, especially Latin-American cartels, who have taken over importation and wholesale, and black and Latino street gangs, who control most distribution at the street-level. 

In truth, the replacement of Italian-Americans in organized crime is only the latest in an ongoing process of  ethnic succession—in New York, the Italians had themselves replaced Jews, who had dominated organized crime in New York in the early twentieth century into the prohibition era, and who had themselves replaced the Irish gangs and political bosses of the nineteenth century (see Ianni, Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession Organized Crime). 

The future likely belongs to blacks and Hispanics. The belief that the latter are somehow incapable of operating with the same level of organization and sophistication as the Mafia is, not only racist, but also likely wrong. 

Indeed, the fact that, prior to recent times, the Mafia in particular, not organized crime in general, was a major FBI priority may even have acted as a form of racially-based ‘affirmative action for black and Hispanic criminals. 

Raab may be right that the shift in FBI priorities post-9/11 has permitted a resurgence of organized crime. Indeed, in truth, organized crime, like the drug problem that fuels it, never really went away.

However, there is no reason to anticipate any resurgence will come with an Italian surname or wearing a fedora and Italian suit.

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, since Italian-American crime is in terminal decline – not just in New York – the time is also ripe for a definitive history of Italian-American organized crime in general. Of course, Raab’s book does not purport to be a history Italian-American organized crime in general. It is a history only of the famed ‘five families’ operating in the New York metropolitan area, and hence only of Italian-American organized crime in this city. 
However, it does purport, in its subtitle, to be a history of ‘America’s most Powerful Mafia Empires’. Probably the only Italian-American crime syndicate (or at least predominantly Italian-American crime syndicate) outside of New York which had a claim to qualifying as one of ‘America’s most Powerful Mafia Empires’ during most of the twentieth century is the Chicago Outfit. The Chicago outfit, however, barely gets a mention in Raab’s mamouth book, and then only in passing.
Raab extends his gaze beyond the New York families to Mafia families based in other cities only during an extended, and probably misguided, discussion of the supposed role of the Mafia, in particular Florida boss, Santo Trafficante Jr., and New Orleans boss, Carlos ‘The Little Man’ Marcello, in the assassination of John F Kennedy.
However, even here, the Chicago Outfit receive short shrift, with infamous Chicago boss, Sam ‘Momo’ Giancana receiving only passing mention by Raab, even though he features as prominently in JFK conspiracy theories as either Trafficante and Morello.

[2] Of course, most mafiosi themselves likely believe this myth, just as many Freemasons probably themselves believe the exaggerated tales of their own venerability and spurious historical links to groups such as the Knights Templar. They are, in short, very much in thrall of their own mystique. This is among the reasons they are led to join the mafia in the first place. If claims of ancient origins were originally a myth cynically invented by mafiosi themselves, rather than presumed by outsiders, then modern mafiosi have certainly come to very much fall for their own propaganda.

[3] This is certainly the suggestion of Francis Ianni in Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime, who argues that the American Mafia was already ceding power to black and Hispanic organized crime by at least the 1970s. This view seems to have some substance. 
Early to mid-twentieth century black Harlem crime Bumpy Johnson, for all his infamy, was said to be very much subservient to the Italian mafia families. Indeed, in the 1920s, a white criminal like Owney Madden was able to run the famous Cotton Club, initially with a whites-only door policy, in the heart of black Harlem.
However, by the 1970s, Harlem was mostly a no-go area for whites, Italian-Americans very much included. Therefore, even if the Mafia had the upper-hand in any negotiations, they nevertheless had to delegate to blacks any criminal activities in black areas of the city.
Thus, Nicky Barnes, the major heroin distributer in Harlem, was said to buy his heroin from mafia importers and wholesalers, especially Crazy’ Joe Gallo, whom he was said to formed a relationship with while they were both in prison together. Similarly, unlike his portrayal in the movie American GangsterFrank Lucas also seems to have bought his heroin primarily through mafia wholesalers. However, he may also have had an indirect link to the Golden Triangle through his associate Ike Anderson, a serving soldier in the Vietnam War.
However, both Lucas and Barnes necessarily had their own crew of black dealers to distribute the drugs on the street. The first black criminal in New York to supposedly operate entirely independently of the Mafia in New York was said to have been Frank Matthews, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances while on parole.

[4] Intriguingly, Professor of Criminal Justice, Howard Abadinsky, in his textbook on organized crime, links the higher public profile adopted by Capone and Gotti to the fact that both trace their ancestry, not to Sicily, but rather to Naples, where the local Camorra have long cultivated a higher public profile, and a flashy style of dress and demeanor, than their Sicilian Mafia equivalents (Organized Crime, 4th Edition: p18).
Thus, historian John Dickie refers to a “longstanding difference between the public images of the two crime fraternities”: 

The soberly dressed Sicilian Mafioso has traditionally had a much lower public profile than the Camorrista. Mafiosi are so used to infiltrating the state and the ruling elite that they prefer to blend into the background rather than strike poses of defiance against the authorities. The authorities, after all, were often on their side. Camorista, by contrast, often played to an audience” (Mafia Republic: p248). 

Abadinsky concurs that: 

While even a capomafioso exuded an air of modesty in both dress and manner of speaking, the Camorrista was a flamboyant actor whose manner of walking and style of dress clearly marked him out as a member of the società” (Organized Crime, 4th Edition: p18). 

Adabinsky therefore tentatively observes: 

In the United States the public image of Italian-American organized crime figures with Neapolitan heritage has tended towards Camorra, while their Sicilian counterparts have usually been more subdued. Al Capone, for example, and, in more recent years, John Gotti, are both of Neapolitan heritage” (Organized Crime, 4th Edition: p18). 

However, while true, I cannot see how this could be anything other than a coincidence, since both Capone and Gotti were born and spent their entire lives in the USA, Gotti being fully two generations removed from the old country, and neither seem to have had parents or other close relatives who were involved in crime and could somehow have passed on this cultural influence from Naples – unless perhaps Abadinsky is proposing some sort of innate, heritable, racial difference between Neapolitans and Sicilians, which seems even more unlikely.

[5] Gigante is not the only organized crime boss accused of malingering. Neapolitan Camorra boss, Raffaele Cutolo, alias ‘The Professor’, also stood accused of faking mental illness. However, whereas Gigante did so in order to avoid prison, Cutolo, apart from eighteen months living on the run from the authorities after escaping, spent virtually the entirety of his career as a crime boss locked up, being periodically shuttled between psychiatric hospitals and prisons. 

[6] Actually, not all crimes necessarily involve dishonesty – e.g. crimes of passion, some crimes of violence. However, any mafiosa necessarily has to be dishonest, since otherwise he would admit his crimes to the authorities and hence not enjoy a long career. Indeed, the very code of omertà, though conceptualized as a code of honour, demands dishonesty, at least in one’s dealings with the authorities, since it forbids both informing to the authorities regarding the crimes of others, and admitting the existence of, or one’s membership of, the criminal fraternity itself. 

[7] On the other hand, if there was never outright war between families after the Castallammarese War, nevertheless bosses of some families did sometimes attempt to sponsor ‘regime change’ in other families, by deposing other bosses, both in New York and beyond. For example, as discussed above, Bonanno family boss Joe Bonnano, acting in concert with Joe Magliocco, the then-boss of what was then known as the Profaci family, supposedly conspired to assasinate the bosses of the other three New York families, only to have their scheme betrayed by the assigned assassin, Joe Colombo, who was then himself rewarded for his betrayal by being appointed as boss of the family that thenceforth came to be named after him.
Similarly, Genovese boss Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante and Lucchese boss Tony ‘Ducks’ Corallo together attempted unsuccessfully assassinate Gambino boss John Gotti as revenge for Gotti’s own unauthorised assassination of his predecessor, Paul Castellano, which they saw as a violation of Mafia rules, whereby the assassination of a boss was, at least in theory, only permissible with the prior consent and authority of the Commission. The attempted assassination, carried out by Vittorio ‘Little Vic’ Amuso and Anthony ‘Gaspipe’ Casso, themselves later to become boss and underboss of the Luccheses, resulted in the death of Gambino underboss, Frank DeCicco in a car bomb, but not Gotti himself.

[8] In truth, Luciano seems to have invented neither the five families nor the commission. According to Mike Dash in his excellent The First Family, the Commission, under the earlier name ‘the Council’, actually existed long before Luciano came to prominance. 
As for the five families, surely if Luciano, or indeed Maranzano before him (as other versions relate), were to invent afresh the structure of the New York Mafia in a ‘top down’ process, they would surely have created a more unitarycentralized structure in order to maximize their own power and control as overall boss of bosses, rather than devolving power to the bosses of the individual families, who themselves issued orders to capos and soldiers.
As I have discussed previously, the power of the so-called National Commission was, to draw an analogy with international relations, largely intergovernmental rather than federal, let alone unitary or centralized, in its powers. Its power lay in its perverse perceived ‘legitimacy among mafiosi. As Stalin is said to have contemptuously remarked of the Pope, the Commision commanded no divisions (nor any ‘crews’, capos or soldiers) of its own.
In reality, Maranzano and Luciano surely at most merely give formal recognition to factions which long predated the Castallammarese War and its aftermath and whose independent power demanded recognition. Indeed, the Commission, was even initially said to have included non-Italians such as Dutch Schultz, if only because the power of the Bronx beer baron simply demanded his inclusion if the Commission were to be effective in regulated organized crime in New York.

[9] Raab, for his part, anticipates that Mafia rackets will increasingly, like Italian-Americans themselves, migrate to the suburbs: 

A strategic shift could be exploiting new territories. Although big cities continue to be glittering attractions, there are signs that the Mafia, following demographic trends, is deploying more vigorously in suburbs. There, the families might encounter police less prepared to resist them than federal and big-city investigators. ‘Organized crime goes where the money is, and there’s money and increasing opportunities in the suburbs,’ Howard Abadinsky, the historian, observes. Strong suburban fiefs have already been established by the New York, Chicago, and Detroit families” (p707). 

However, organized crime tends to thrive in poor close-knit communities in deprived areas who lack a trust in the police and authorities and are hence unwilling to turn to the latter for protection. If the Mafia attempts to make inroads in the cities, it will likely come up against assimilated, middle-class Americans only too willing to turn the to police to protection. In short, there is a reason why organized crime has largely been absent in such areas.

[9] Although he wrote ‘Five Families’ several years before the legalization of sports betting in most of America, New York City included, Raab seems to anticipate that legalization will have little if any effect on Mafia revenue from illegal sports books, writing: 

Sensible gamblers will always prefer wagering with the Mob rather than with state-authorized Off-Track Betting parlors and lotteries. Bets on baseball, football, and basketball games placed with a bookie have a 50 percent chance of winning, without the penalty of being taxed, while the typical state lottery is considered a pipe dream because the chance of winning is infinitesimal” (p694). 

It is, of course, true that lotteries, almost by definition, involve long odds and little realistic chance of winning. However, the same was also true of the illegal numbers rackets that were a highly lucrative source of income for predominantly black ‘policy kings’ (and queens) in early twentieth century America. Indeed, this racket was so lucrative so eventually major white organized crime figures like Dutch Schultz in New York and Sam Guancana in Chicago sought to take it over.
Yet, if winning a state lottery is indeed a ‘pipe dream’, the same is not true of legalized sports betting. On the contrary, here, the odds are as good as in illegal Mafia-controlled sports betting, and, given the legal regulation, prospective gamblers will probably be more confident that they are not likely to be ripped off by the bookies.
Thus, in most jurisdications where off-track sports betting is legal and subject to few legal restrictions, there is little if any market for illegal sports betting. Hence the legalization of sports betting in most of America will likely mean that sports betting is no longer controlled by organized crime, let alone the Mafia, just as the end of Prohibition in 1933 similarly similarly led to the decline in the the market for moonshine and bootleg alcohol.

One thought on “Selwyn Raab’s ‘Five Families’: A History of the New York Mafia, Heavily Slanted Towards Recent Times

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