In my research for the BAD GUYS game (see sidebar of pages for a look at it) I mostly just used Wikipedia and gave actual history very short shrift. But, being interested right now in the show Boardwalk Empire, I have been reading some books about the early days of organized crime in America.
First, I read The First Family by Mike Dash. It tells the story of Giuseppe Morello, known as "The Clutch Hand" because of his deformed hand. He was from Corleone in Sicily and in some ways seems like the model for the Robert DeNiro sequences in Godfather II (the best part of all three of those movies, in my opinion). The book explains how Morello's gang evolved into the modern-day "Mafia," and discusses the history of the Mafia in Sicily and how it crossed the Atlantic to take root in the U.S.A. The book is full of great characters like Ignazio Lupo, Zeppo the Gimp, and other colorful personalities (all of them rather bad guys). I enjoyed reading about how the Mafia - and other organizations like it that are now not so well-known, like the Camorra) evolved and developed. One of the really cool characters is Flynn, a Secret Service agent who spent years trying to get at these guys, with varying levels of success. Another interesting figure is Joseph Petrosino, a New York cop who worked undercover against Italian gangs. He was assassinated in Italy when he went there to do some investigating. In short, this book is a great bit of journalism, well-documented but without the self-conscious footnotes of the academic.
Next, I read The Starker by Rose Keefe, and I think it's by far the more interesting of the two books. A review I read of this one was titled "Jews Behaving Badly," and that's exactly what this book is about. It mostly focuses on Big Jack Zelig (Zelig Lefkowitz) who is not well-known today but was a very important gang leader in his time. It's basically the story of Zelig's rise and fall and his involvement in the controversial Becker-Rosenthal case. I found Zelig to be a much more likable character than Morello. Zelig was a bad guy, don't get me wrong - he had a penchant for cutting people's faces into ribbons - but he didn't necessarily start off bad. One of my favorite sequences is how he botched his first assassination attempt by being unable to actually pull the trigger and kill someone. Luckily for fans of gangster stories, he got over it. But he was capable of a lot of compassion, and used to be very protective of new Jewish immigrants. I did not know how important Jews were to the history of organized crime in America, despite knowing names like Bugsy Siegel and Arnold Rothstein and whatnot. The book's title, by the way, is a Yiddish word meaning "strongman." Or something like that.
Anyway, I think my gangster fix is good for a while. I don't know why these evil bastards fascinate me. Probably because when you read their life stories, things don't seem so black-and-white, when it comes to morality. I think gangsters are celebrated in our pop culture because everyone fantasizes about breaking the rules and doing whatever they want. But the overall impression one gets the more gangster stories one reads is that crime does not pay. I can't think of a single person in either of these books that came to what I'd call a good end.