Book Review: Mafia: The Government’s Secret File On Organized Crime

If you are a writer and you’re currently working on a novel or a script about the Mafia in the late 50 or early 60s, you simply must include a character based on Usche Gelb.  Gelb was born in Austria in 1897 and apparently came to New York City when he was just a teenager.  Between 1913 and the 60s, he was arrested multiple times and charged with everything from disorderly conduct to felonious assault to perjury to federal narcotics conspiracy.  According to the FBI, despite not being Italian, he was a powerful figure in the Mafia and served as a liaison with various international drug cartels.  He also worked as a machinery salesman and as a florist.  He and his wife Ethel lived on West End Avenue and spent their summers at Tenaha Lake.  His nickname was King Gelb.

You might also want to include a character based on Joey Caesar (real name: Joseph Divarco), who owned a glassware distribution but who was secretly one of the top men in the Chicago Outfit.  Or maybe Sam Giacana, who took over Capone’s organization and eventually ended up getting murdered in his own kitchen.  Don’t forget Luigi Fratto, the crime boss of Des Moines, Iowa who was so confident in his position that he flashed a big grin for his mugshot.  And certainly, be sure to remember Joe Civello, who ran the Dallas mob and who had the look of a weary accountant whose only client was being audited.

All of these people (and more) are profiled in Mafia, a fascinating book that contains the over 800 organized crime dossiers that the Treasury Department put together in the late 50s and 60s.  Some of the gangsters profiled have familiar names.  Meyer Lansky, Mickey Cohen, Lucky Luciano, Johnny Rosselli, Carlos Marcello, Vito Genovese, and Joseph Valachi are all included.  Even more interesting to me, though, are the less well-known gangsters.  All of them were prominent within their organization but most of them managed to hide in the shadows of history.

For history nerds and true crime buffs, it makes for interesting reading.  Almost all of the men profiled in the book came from blue collar backgrounds.  Many of them were immigrants.  The great majority were from Italy but Germany, France, Austria, and the United Kingdom are all represented as well.  When they weren’t committing crimes, many of them worked as salesmen.  Some were truck drivers.  Many of them were union reps.  A large number either worked at or owned small taverns.  Many of them had been arrested for violent crimes but most of them also had families and vacation homes and everything else that was held up as being a part of the American dream in the 50s and 60s.  Most people probably wouldn’t give these men a second look but, secretly, they were among the most powerful people in their city and state.

It’s hard not to become fascinated with the people in this book.  Enough details are provided in the government’s sparse reports that you get a clue for who they were but enough is left vague to reward those of us with an active imagination.  Why, for instance, was John Daneillo nicknamed “Baldy” when his mugshot shows that he had a full of head of hair?  Who nicknamed him Baldy and did it have anything to do with his day job as a construction worker?  And why did Lucky Luciano give Patsey Matranga, an olive oil salesman who was a known narcotics smuggler despite having never been arrested once in his life, an old Oldsmobile?  Was it a sign of friendship or something else?  Maybe Luciano was just sick of looking at the car.  These are the type of questions that are raised by reading the dossiers within Mafia.  They’re just waiting for creative reader to answer them.

One response to “Book Review: Mafia: The Government’s Secret File On Organized Crime

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 8/1/22 — 8/7/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.