Alex Hortis on the Mob and New York City

C. Alex Hortis spoke with us recently about his new book The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York.

We'd say that it certainly sets the benchmark for books about the early history of the Mafia in New York.

He answers with lucid reasoning based on fact festering questions long victimized by speculation.

Why for instance did the transitional handoff of the reins of organized crime stop with the Italians? Organized crime throughout history was dominated by different ethnicities -- the Irish, the Jews -- but once the Italians gained dominance, they formed an American Cosa Nostra and have controlled it ever since. No other ethnic group ever usurped the Mafia. Plenty of candidates were put forth by the media: the Jamaican Posses, the Russians, the Albanians. But the only true "mafia" in America is the Italian Mafia. Why is that? Hortis's answer is convincing. (Unless you've read his book, the answer you think is correct is more than likely not).

A fan of gangster films--the Godfather, Goodfellas, etc.--Hortis had pondered writing about the Mafia for years. As the book slowly brewed in his mind, he hit upon the formula he eventually followed: focus on original documents to write an early history of the Mafia in New York (including the gangs that eventually formed Cosa Nostra, then the Five Families, including key players), a time period mostly overlooked.

"The truth [about the Mafia] is more interesting than the mythology," he told Cosa Nostra News, adding "I wouldn't have written it without using primary sources."

For example, Hortis posits convincingly that the Castellammarese War is largely overblown by writers, and that Salvatore Maranzano was not the philosophizing Sicilian he portrayed himself to be; rather, he had more in common with a politician. Likewise, the fact sheet on Joe "the Boss" Masseria is not accurate; the man was not slovenly and stupid, as typically portrayed.

Hortis simply avoids some fictional anecdotes, such as the one about Lucky Luciano washing his hands in the mens' room in a Coney Island eatery while a spray of hot lead annihilated one boss of bosses.

The more immediate spark for Hortis's decision to write a book about organized crime was an opportunity he nabbed in the 1990s, when the Mafia was very much active and facing a systematic shredding by the Feds. He worked as a researcher for James B. Jacobs (now Chief Justice Warren E. Burger Professor of Constitutional Law and the Courts Director, Center for Research in Crime and Justice) while Jacobs was at work on Gotham Unbound: How New York City Was Liberated From the Grip of Organized Crime. The book is considered "the first comprehensive account of the ways in which the Cosa Nostra infiltrated key sectors of New York City's legitimate economic life and how this came over the years to be accepted as inevitable, in some cases even beneficial."

Gotham follows a clear format (which also inspired Hortis). The first part focuses on how organized crime infiltrated New York City's garment district, Fulton Fish Market, freight at JFK airport, construction, the Jacob Javits Convention Center, and the waste-hauling industry. The second half details efforts by law enforcement to create innovative regulatory strategies to combat the mob and dismantle its stronghold over these industries and institutions.

Hortis first considered writing a prequel to Jacob’s book. But then he found his own angle, partly from a personal passion. "I always wondered: how did it start? How did they take over so many important industries?"

Selwyn Raab's Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires seems to vie the most for the same shelf space as Hortis's The Mob and the City. But not really. While Raab provides a first-rate work of nonfiction on the five Mafia families of New York, he places the greater emphasis on what happened from roughly 1960 up until near the present. He gives short shrift to the early history of the mob in New York. This is apparent from a simple glance at the table of contents. For a book of around 750 pages, only the first 100 or so are devoted to early Mafia history in New York.

This is a glaring omission, which Hortis fixes; The Mob and The City could be viewed as a supplement to Raab's Five Families, focusing on events that took place in the decades leading up to Appalachin, which is when the book ends. Those decades -- when the Mafia infiltrated and then dominated organized crime --  have not been given the comprehensive focus that Hortis offers.

"They [the New York Mafia] were the most sophisticated crime gang in history. It is pretty remarkable when you think about it. These uneducated street thugs were running these relatively sophisticated rackets. The early history hasn't gotten enough attention. It falls between the cracks; the real journalists and historians don't view it as seriously. But it is part of the American story. The reverse fairy tale..."

There are certainly excellent books written from primary sources that focus on a specific organized crime figure or family -- but not many provide a detailed view of the early history of the Mafia in New York City, the void Hortis fills.

One book that focuses on the formation of the Mafia in America overall is David Critchley's The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. It's written in dry academic prose and is filled with charts and tables. It is definitely worth reading for those of a more scholarly bent who want to know the nuts and bolts of how Italians emigrated to America and formed a new version of the Sicilian Mafia here in those four decades. 

Thomas Hunt's quarterly magazine Informer is worth subscribing to and devouring if the Mafia, including stories about the early history, is among your interests.

Hortis, in a concise, clearly written work, offers a detailed view of the various rackets the Mafia either created or took dominion of -- and then held onto. No organized crime group followed them; the only entity that ever wrestled them away from anything was American law enforcement.

Writing a book from primary sources (versus using other books) is no easy task. However, "I decided I was going to find primary sources written near the time [of the event described] or by people who were there at the time," Hortis said.

Combatting the various myths that have replaced the truth about the Mafia was among Hortis's chief goals.

"Take the myth of drugs, that it was the younger guys who started it," he said. "The Mafia was doing it since the 1930s. Tracing what happened is more interesting than the fairytale that they were against drugs."

He includes a chart of all Mafiosi who were arrested on drug trafficking charges. Just about every "old school" mobster you can think of was at one time or another pinched for drugs. They all were neck deep in the narcotics business. It's a proven fact, too, noted on arrest records that Hortis picked up and blew the dust off before reading.

"Corallo, Salerno, Lucchese -- as well as high level people in all the families, all had records."

Some may have difficulty believing certain myths are myths. "Some prefer the mythology," Hortis said.

Charles "Lucky" Luciano is generally named the chief architect of the American Mafia and is often viewed as its patron saint. Said Hortis: Luciano "is highly over rated. He did play a pivotal role – he helped to kill two [men who each served as a] boss of bosses. He helped kill Masseria and Maranzano," Hortis said.

"He had this martyr thing. too," Hortis said. Acknowledging that Tom Dewey's case against Luciano was "thin," he added: "[Luciano] is put away at a young age. Women thought he was attractive. He really was a nihilist -- 'I love women, l love living the good life' but he was also a sociopath.

"I think if he'd not been arrested [and put on trial and hit with a draconian prison sentence], which gives us all these images of him marching around," he never would have achieved the level of fame that he did, Hortis said. Then, during World War II, "he was let out of prison – overhyping his power at the docks. I think he was in the right place at the right time."

Tommy Lucchese played a more pivotal role than
Lucky Luciano in the formation of organized crime
 in New York City.

Hortis believes a contemporary of Luciano's played a more effective role in terms of establishing the Mafia's dominance in New York City. "Tommy Lucchese – an argument could be made he was more important. It wasn’t Bonanno; it was Lucchese who wanted to overthrow Masseria – he was 30, 31. He comes up under Gagliano – then he’s a boss in the 1950s through the 1960s. That's 37 years at the top of the Family."

"Lucchese was at the office" where Maranzano was murdered by Jewish hit men pretending to be IRS agents. "If you read the 1951 testimony at the Waterfront Commission," Lucchese testified that he arrived at the office before the murder. "He claims he didn't know who they were" -- of course. "But it was Lucchese who set up Maranzano."

Hortis was very interested in writing a full biography on Lucchese, but does not believe there is enough source material to write such a work in the manner he believes it should be written. "He’s more important than Luciano." Further, Hortis added, Lucchese and his crime family "were huge in narcotics." Prior to the Bonannos in the 1970s, it was the "Lucheses [who] were the dominant drug distributors."

"They processed the heroin in East Harlem. The 107th street mob. The FBN gave them that name because they didn't know who they were," Hortis said. The neighborhood was made up of six-story buildings with thousands of people living on one block. Still, "no one would talk to the police," Hortis added.

The hugely profitable narcotics business was a "double-win for the Mafia. The riskiest part is selling the drugs on the street.  In the beginning the Italians did sell it on the street. Then they sold to the black dealers. The Mafia doesn't have the exposure then. And the most profitable part is the wholesale."

"They used to say that the Mafia kept drug dealers out of the neighborhood. The idea that you could build a moat around the Italian neighborhood was a myth. It was really tragic what happened. Really cheap high-grade heroin floods into Harlem."

As for the book's format, Hortis divided it by topic. "What did they actually do to make money" was the ultimate question he wanted to answer and he does so by topic.

How does one research and write a book as detailed as Mob and the City?

"I'm an obsessive researcher," said Hortis. "If I want to write about drugs in the 1940s and 1950s – I read everything I can. A lot of it isn't useful. You look for the treasure houses. And you can buy books so cheaply.You can buy many of them for a dime on a website. You can have a library shipped to you. This saves me the time of going to the library. You can buy a lot at that price."

Still, researching his book required Hortis to travel all over the country. The University of Notre Dame, for example, houses a diary kept by Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) agent Max Roder. "The FBN is tracking the Mafia in the 1930s. Every single day, he wrote what he did. Names like 'Joe Valachi' start popping up in the 1940s. It says 'Joe Cago is moving a lot of heroin.'"

Hortis made some major discoveries about the 1957 Appalachin meeting, which was an emergency gathering prompted by the murder of Albert Anastasia. The previous year the bosses had met there as well -- and while driving home afterward Carmine Galante was pulled over for a traffic offense and then investigated, which opened wider the already glaring eyes of local state trooper Edgar D. Croswell, a very odd man, as Hortis noted, who'd already been investigating mobster Joe Barbara, at whose house the meetings were held; more on Croswell in our next installment.

Finding these golden nuggets required Hortis to journey to Albany, New York, where "you have 20 different state police officers writing their version of who they picked up. I always wanted to know exactly what happened. Who was there, where did they get caught." He noted around 15 boxes of research material in the Albany archives looked like they had not been touched since first filed away in the late 1950s.

"Joseph Barbara's housekeeper's testimony is there. She's as objective as you can get." One gangster who didn't run on that famous day in 1957 was Galante, who knew from his 1956 Appalachin pinch to stay in the house. He was identified by the housekeeper as one of the men who spent the night in Barbara's house. There were others, but the housekeeper could only identify Galante. This part is not in Hortis's book: He didn't believe the available research met the bar he'd set -- but he has a strong suspicion that both Stefano Magaddino and Tommy Luchese were also overnight guests.


  1. I don't know if you can say Luchese was more important than Luciano. I never agree with these either/or scenarios. You can say that Luchese was more street savvy or low key and didn't fall into the flash that Luciano fell into living in the Waldorf-Astoria and cavorting around town Gotti-style.
    As far as the mob, east harlem and drugs, there is a gem of a book called "The Undertow" written by a Manhattan social worker who was following the life of a young Italian-American juvenile delinquent during the 40's and 50's who was brought up in east harlem. The kid gives an account of the drug business in the neighborhood as he was a cutter (mixing the dope) in a sealed shut tenement apartment. He also gives an account of the red wings gang, which was the Italian American farm team for the mob back then, how they terrorized the recent Puerto Rican arrivals, mugging and brawling with them. Many who read that would be surprised to know that the Ricans were more or less prey during that time. More importantly, he gives an account of the soul of the neighborhood. I think many would be surprised to learn that although east harlem was predominantly Italian, it was more New York street than anything else, the Italian version of the Bowery Boys. A johnny come lately neighborhood like Bensonhurst would be nothing to compare to Pleasant Avenue and East Harlem. Guys did there time and it was a badge of honor to them. Jails back then were predominantly white. It's a rough gig for white guys these days to be locked up. Other good reads for a feel of the real old neighborhoods would be Jake LaMotta's Raging Bull or even Rocky Graziano's autobiography.

  2. Never heard of that book "The Undertow" - gonna check it out. I think Hortis is partly saying that Luciano's "career" was shortened because of Dewey; that Lucchese was on the street for a much longer period of time so he had more time to influence the mob. Also that the reason everyone in America knows Lucky Luciano may have more to do with the headlines-making Dewey prosecution than anything Luciano did internally regarding organized crime - just my take on what he said.

  3. No explanation need, Ed. You're an ace. The author's name of the book is Helen Parkhurst. I think you'll find it very informative.

  4. I'm reading this book just now, its excellent


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