By Dean Jobb
The words “mob” and “underworld” have become synonymous with the Mafia and Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit. But the history of organized crime is filled with a rogues’ gallery of underworld bosses, from Pacific Coast rumrunner Roy Olmstead to Shanghai vice kings Jack Riley and Joe Farren. Four new true crime books explore the dangerous, violent, and shadowy history of the mob in the U.S. and beyond.
Capone had his good-guy nemesis, federal agent Eliot Ness, and so did the Sicilian gangsters who blackmailed and terrorized Italian immigrants to America in the early 1900s. Known as The Black Hand after the dreaded symbol that emblazoned its extortion letters, this mob began by targeting newcomers to New York’s Little Italy about 1903 and spread, within a few years, to Italian enclaves in cities and towns across America.
Award-winning author Stephan Talty recounts the story of this dreaded organization in The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The detective is Joseph Petrosino, the first Italian-born police officer promoted to New York City’s detective bureau. Tough and streetwise, he had a photographic memory for the faces of crooks and a penchant for singing opera to himself as he patrolled the streets. Dubbed “the Italian Sherlock Holmes,” he pursued criminals with a relentlessness that impressed his first boss. “He didn’t know the name of fear,” observed the police commissioner and future president, Teddy Roosevelt.
Petrosino found a worthy adversary—his Moriarty, as Talty puts it, building on the Holmes analogy—in The Black Hand, the scourge of the millions of Italians who flooded into the United States between 1900 and 1915 in search of a better life. Many prospered only to face a campaign of extortion, threats, murder, kidnappings, and bombings launched by criminals in their midst. “Across deserts, rivers, seas,” claimed one journalist, “the long arm of the Black Hand reaches. In every State of the Union, its crushing grip may be felt.”
The Black Hand is a classic, against-the-odds story of good versus evil. Talty’s vivid storytelling and thorough research—he even discovered bizarre copycat threats against members of Congress and the Chicago Cubs baseball team—recreate a forgotten crime wave and bring to life a rule-breaking hero-cop on a mission to protect his countrymen. Petrosino was dispatched to Sicily in 1909 in an ill-advised attempt to cut off the flow of Black Hand operatives at its source. His one-man crusade, however, does not end well.
The “leeches” who “prey on their own countrymen,” as the Asbury Park Press described the Black Hand, brought organized crime to New Jersey in the early years of the twentieth century. But as in many other parts of the U.S., it was the windfall from selling illegal liquor during Prohibition that made mobs rich and powerful. The Jersey shoreline was a major entry point for smuggled booze, with Atlantic City said to be the clearinghouse for four of every ten bottles delivered to America’s speakeasies.
Scott M. Deitche, the author of eight books on organized crime, chronicles the state’s underworld from 1909 to the present day in Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey (Rowman & Littlefield). Two hit television shows, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, have cemented the state’s reputation as a hotbed of organized crime, with homegrown Irish, Jewish, and Italian gangs joined by mobsters forced out of New York City.
Garden State Gangland introduces a cast of real-life Jersey mobsters, from the suddenly famous Atlantic City powerbroker Enoch “Nucky” Johnson—the model for Boardwalk Empire’s menacing Nucky Thompson—to the lesser-known Abraham “Longy” Zwillman, who built a Newark-based fiefdom so vast he was often described as an East Coast version of Capone. The supporting cast includes gangsters with nicknames as colorful as Nucky’s—Puddy Hinkes, Ritchie the Boot, and Sam the Plumber. There’s even a mobster with the same name as Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis: Joseph “Newsboy” Moriarty ran a gambling operation in Jersey City.
Deitche, who has his own Jersey underworld connection—his grandfather did time in the 1970s for taking illegal sports bets in Perth Amboy—draws on newspaper coverage, FBI files, and wiretap evidence to identify the players and the corrupt politicians and police officers who allowed them to flourish. Despite a 2016 roundup of wise guys from several crime families, organized crime remains embedded in the state’s DNA. “Tony Soprano may have gone off the air,” notes a law enforcement official quoted in the book, “but the mob never did.”
Kristofer Allerfeldt takes on the challenge of chronicling the origins and development of organized crime in the U.S. over a period of some 75 years, from the end of the Civil War to America’s entry into the Second World War. Organized Crime in the United States, 1865–1941 (McFarland) is an ambitious project, not least because the British scholar’s goal is to challenge what we think we know about the Mafia, Capone’s Outfit, and other American mobs.
What is organized crime? The term has been used to describe everything from bands of horse thieves and corrupt police officers to the Ku Klux Klan and the bureaucratic rot of New York’s Tammany Hall. One writer has suggested a logical but sweeping definition—any crime that is not disorganized. Allerfeldt opts for this big-picture approach, while demonstrating how sensational media accounts and the overblown claims of fear-mongering politicians and crime-fighters have inflated the scale of organized crime and the threat posed by mob activity.
The book offers a wealth of detail about underworld figures, from the ruthless, brutal Capone to Seattle policeman-turned-bootlegger Roy Olmstead, who discouraged his underlings from carrying weapons and believed “no amount of money was worth a human life.” Character and drama, however, take second place in this account, as the author focuses on weighing contradictory evidence and assessing the validity of competing theories. While the book is not light reading, it’s a valuable reference work and an up-to-date, authoritative overview of the early history—as well as the enduring mythology—of the American underworld.
As gangsters built empires in the U.S., an American expat and an Austrian-born nightclub impresario were consolidating their hold on the underworld of Shanghai’s International Settlement, a Depression-era magnet for crooks and fugitives from around the world. Shielded from Chinese rule, the Settlement became a haven for “the flotsam and jetsam,” writes award-winning crime author Paul French, “transient ne’er-do-wells and washed-up chancers, con men and female grifters.”
In City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai (Picador) French tells the story of this vice-fueled enclave through the rise and downfall of kingpins Jack Riley and Joe Farren. “Lucky Jack,” as Riley was known, was an escapee from a U.S. prison who controlled the city’s lucrative slot-machine operations. “Dapper” Joe Farren was a former ballroom dancer renowned for staging chorus lines that rivaled the Ziegfeld Follies. They teamed up and made a fortune from gambling and smuggling opium into the U.S. before the Japanese occupation at the onset of the Second World War ended their reign.
City of Devils is an engaging romp through the posh clubs and seedy dives of 1930s Shanghai. It’s written in a gritty, seen-it-all style worthy of a Hollywood noir, and French casts scenes in the present tense, creating an immediacy that enlivens and drives the narrative. “It was like living on the rim of a volcano,” an American journalist said of life in the city’s sin-soaked heyday, and the book captures the desperation and live-for-today atmosphere of a city—and its criminal underworld—facing impending doom.
French, who has lived and worked in Shanghai, interviewed descendants of some of the people he portrays and pored over archival records and newspaper accounts to flesh out the story. While the book “is based on real people and real events,” he confesses in a preface that “assumptions have been made.” Oddly, for a work of nonfiction, where and how often the line between fact and assumption has been crossed is unclear. There are no endnotes or other citations of specific sources, only French’s assurance that “I’ve done my utmost to adhere to historical accuracy.”
French faced the same challenges as other chroniclers of organized crime. Gangsters do their dirty work away from prying eyes; secret societies such as The Black Hand operate, of course, in secrecy. Surviving accounts and records may be incomplete or deliberately misleading, and insiders who go public have agendas to promote and axes to grind. If Riley and Farren were alive today, French notes, “I am sure they would have denied everything, just as they did at the time.” So too, no doubt, would Roy Olmstead, Longy Zwillman, and the extortionists Joseph Petrosino pursued all the way to Italy.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, Empire of Deception, tells the true story of 1920s Chicago con man Leo Koretz and his audacious Panamanian oil swindle. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb