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Organized Crime and American Power: A History
Michael Woodiwiss
Toronto & London: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
$35.00, 470 pages, ISBN 0-8020-8278-5.

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld
Herbert Asbury
New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2001.
$14.95, 370 pages, ISBN 1-56025-275-8.

Le Crime organisé à la ville et à l’écran
Romain Huret
Neuilly : Atlante, 2002.
15 euros, 258 pages, ISBN 2-912232-30-9.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Michael Woodiwiss is a senior lecturer in the School of History, Faculty of Humanities, at the University of the West of England, in Bristol. Organized Crime and American Power: A History is an impressively researched and somewhat original book, since Woodiwiss has chosen to understand the phrase “organized crime” as “systematic criminal activity for money or power”. Such an interestingly broad definition is notably opposed to the restricted definition usually adopted by US officials. As its title indicates, the book shows that “legal and criminal justice systems [have long shown] a great deal of latitude to certain kinds of organized criminal activity”.

In chapter I, “Old World Antecedents and the Rise of American Power”, Woodiwiss examines the precursors of today’s organized crime; he looks at ancient Rome, medieval European society and moves on to the nineteenth century, before studying the criminal aspects of the peopling of North America, including slavery. Empire building goes hand in hand with land theft, customs racketeering, and general corruption. The Civil War and the urbanization of America are no less connected to crime. Woodiwiss’s assertions are in no way naïve or exaggerated; as he writes, he does not “make the sweeping claim that such historical processes as early capitalism, European and American expansionism, and Atlantic slavery were in themselves organized crime”. He is no raving conspiracy theorist either (Joe Kennedy is nowhere to be found, and Jack appears on two pages only).

Chapter II, “Whitewash: Racism, Xenophobia, and the Origins of ‘Organized Crime’ in the Unites States”, is less general and concentrates on a strange omission: the South is not featured in most books on organized crime. Woodiwiss explains that racism is central in Southern organized crime (and in “mainstream American thinking in general”), dating back to the Civil War era: “secrecy oaths, intimidation, the killing of witnesses, death squads, corrupt networks, and illegal enterprise”. He looks at the way facts were distorted from the beginning, so that the xenophobic general public became convinced between the 1890s and the 1920s that foreign criminals, immigrants, were vastly more numerous and more threatening than white American criminals: the origin of Mafia mythology.

Chapter III, “Organized Crime and Corporate Power, 1865-1950” offers a study of the way American tycoons managed to concentrate power in industry and commerce, resorting to bribery and occasionally violence to appropriate national resources, smash up unions and annihilate competition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, US authorities made efforts to clean up industry and business, but this “did not lead to a diminution of corporate power and influence on American society, and in the long run made little impact on the extent and destructiveness of organized business crime”. The practices of legendary businessmen such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie are examined, as well as class conflicts, unions’ efforts, mining disasters, etc. The corruption linked to railroad construction makes particularly good reading (“watered stock” and suchlike), as well as the passages about the “myth of the Molly Maguires”, the culture of professionalism and industrial racketeering. Large-scale bribery and other types of corporate crime did well until the fifties, and “until the 1960s and 1970s few criminologists chose to risk their careers by stepping outside the prevailing pro-business consensus and exposing pervasive organized crime in business”.

Chapter IV, V, VI and VII are respectively entitled “America’s Moral Crusade and the Organization of Illegal Markets, 1789-1950”, “Organized Crime and the Dumbing of American Discourse, 1920 to the Present”, “Industrial and Corporate Racketeering, 1950 to the Present” and “Drugs: Private Enterprise and Government Bounty”. They are as far as I can judge as impeccably researched as the preceding chapters. Woodiwiss’s thematic slant seems appropriate and makes a not unpleasant change to the usual chronological approach. Chapter VIII, “American Power and the Dumbing of Global Discourse, 1945 to the Present”, begins with a reminder of the “new world order” after the war. Only the US had “become richer rather than poorer because of the war”, the war had accelerated the collapse of the old empires of France and Britain, and outside the USSR and its satellite states, the world was there for the taking: “American influence ensured that this unstable world was largely open to trade”. Woodiwiss then proceeds to gather indications of the complicity of American officials and corporations in international organized crime, before moving on to the hypocritical and useless Americanized international drug control policies. Basically, the idea is that in the past fifty years government officials have done little to put an end to those organized criminal activities that serve the interests of the US as far as foreign policy purposes are concerned. In spite of the US-led international anti-drug measures, marijuana, cocaine and heroin “remain relatively easy to produce, process, and sell in most places in the world […]”, writes Woodiwiss. Anyone with a modicum of street-smartness can verify this easily in any city in the western world: drug dealers are everywhere. “Traffickers have, of course, exploited the massive increase in demand for drugs over the past forty years, but public officials and professionals such as accountants, bankers, and lawyers have also profited greatly from the illegal trade.”

Organized Crime and American Power is a book for anyone who wishes to lose what elements of naïveté remained in his appreciation of America as a superpower, without falling into the trap of “diabolization”. It is also a scholarly book that can be used in the context of university courses on the subject(s): as the title indicates, it tells as much about crime as it does about the US. Far from Godfather clichés, Organized Crime and American Power can actually inspire whoever might be, professionally speaking, in a position to combat crime.

Governments, whether individually or jointly, would have few problems combating organized crime if it really was dominated by a relatively small number of supercriminal organizations. They would eliminate the leadership of these organizations and that would be the end of the problem. However, as the Americans have found, orchestrating the downfall of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Tony Salerno, John Gotti, and the rest did not see the end of the messy reality of American gangsterism, let alone the much more pervasive, multifaceted, and nebulous problem of organized crime. [387]

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld is a classic. It was first published in 1928. Herbert Asbury (1891-1963), writing as an original historian and observer more than as a sociologist, psychologist or criminologist, examines a century of old-style “organized crime” and gangsterism in the various neighborhoods of New York. The book remains utterly fascinating to read. Plus ça change… gang wars are well documented, and strangely reminiscent of today’s gang warfare in New York or Los Angeles, although some of the narratives have a sort of endearing freshness about them that you wouldn’t find in a similar effort in the present day. The early gangs emerged in the nineteenth century in places like the Five Points or the Bowery, which saw the rise of colorful individuals like Bill the Butcher, and the combination of the material and Asbury’s style make his account as gripping as a thriller.

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld
has been used as the basis for a movie by Martin Scorsese, entitled Gangs of New York, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, which will be released in the US in December 2002. I hear Scorsese took a few liberties with the gangs’ history, notably as far as chronology is concerned, but it will be interesting to see what remains of Asbury in the movie; the much-circulated trailer is encouraging. The prolific Asbury is also the author, among dozens of books, of the famous Carry Nation (1929), and of Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld (1940). This leads me to the Agrégation / CAPES syllabus. These words might not mean much to our international readership; they designate, roughly, French post-BA competitive exams that among other advantages secure at least a teaching job in a secondary school. This year, one of the questions is “Organized Crime in Fact and on Film: United States, 1929-1951” (1951: Kefauver Hearings). Naturally, as gangsters didn’t suddenly spring up in 1929 (year of the Wall Street Crash and of the Valentine’s Day Massacre, year before the release in 1930 of Little Caesar, the first important movie on the curriculum), the students might be tempted to read The Gangs of New York. They might also be tempted to read Organized Crime and American Power: A History, for obvious reasons.

If they prefer to concentrate on solid bases, to begin with, I strongly recommend David E. Ruth’s Inventing the Public Enemy (1996), Annick Foucrier’s Les Gangsters et la société américaine (2001), and Le Crime organisé à la ville et à l’écran: Etats-Unis, 1929-1951, by Sophie Body-Gendrot, Francis Bordat and Divina Frau-Meigs (2001).

I also recommend Romain Huret’s Le Crime organisé à la ville et à l’écran: 1929-1951 (2002). This book is tailored for Agrégation and CAPES students: a historiographical introduction, followed by general aspects of organized crime in American cities, organized crime on American screens, and a thematic listing. Gangsters, violence, innocence, corruption, etc. Then come topographical tips (Chicago, New York, streets, nightclubs, jails…), a series of criminal figures (Al Capone, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, and all the others), and a series of screen criminal figures (notably James Cagney and Paul Muni). Huret concludes with a suitable filmography, an undersized chronology, an adequate bibliography, a very helpful glossary (containing words phrases like “doughboy” and “street Arab” not necessarily familiar to our French students) and an index.


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