-by Michael Pierce
VINNITTA: THE BIRTH OF THE DETROIT MAFIA by Daniel Waugh. Published by LuLu Publishing Services, April 4, 2019.
My short list of great books about the Mafia in America is very short –
The Godfather by Mario Puzo;
The Valachi Papers by Peter Maas, and;
A Man of Honor by Joseph Bonanno.
I’ll be adding Vinnitta to that list.
Author Daniel Waugh has woven an intricate, true, and spellbinding story of the beginnings of the Mafia in Detroit, Michigan. In doing so, he has rescued a number of people from the dustbin of history.
He starts with the early 19th century beginnings of the Honorable Society in Sicily, quickly giving readers a basic understanding of the structure, and the reasons behind, the rise of the Mafia in Sicily. It was a struggle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in that country, with its early roots sunk deep into the struggle for land. These century old struggles and grudges criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean, beginning near the end the century and growing quickly through the ensuing decades.
Sicilians and Italians coming to America settled in growing, ethnicity based enclaves in various cities. The human element of these neighborhoods that was less inclined to obey the law, combined with a distrust of law enforcement that was rooted in the old country, helped criminal organizations to rise and coalesce fairly quickly.
By 1919, the Detroit Mafia was comprised of two powerful outfits, and they were at war. Mafiusu were sometimes being assassinated at a rate of two or more per day. Dozens were murdered, assassins were brought to trial. Victims whose life was quickly escaping via their blood flowing into the streets would often observe the tradition of umirta, refusing to name their killer or killers. All the trials resulted in a grand total of one conviction, the case for which was re-tried and the killer found innocent. It didn’t really matter, as the assassins themselves were eventually murdered by perceived friends or real enemies.
Killers were often brought in from other cities, bootleggers worked with organizations in other cities and, in these instances, one can quickly see how organized crime became so well organized. Things eventually evolved to the point that meetings of organizational leadership from Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Kansas City, and San Diego were rumored to be happening at various points around the country.
As the war In Detroit raged on fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, anyone, was caught in a web of violence and revenge that extended, at times, back to Sicily. It was a sad situation.
There are many things that I love about this book. Author Waugh has placed a short glossary of Sicilian terms at the beginning of the text. If you’re like me and you’re somewhat forgetful, this makes it quite convenient to refer back to for the meaning of the words as they’re sprinkled throughout the text.
Add to that the nearly 90 pages of very extensive endnotes. I’m a footnote and endnote nerd, so it makes it very convenient for me to hold the book in one hand, with my phone or laptop in the other, surfing the web for more information about people and places.
Daniel Waugh’s narrative skills make the book easy to read, and his historian’s eye for details is impeccable. Readers can feel the chill in the air, the thickness of the humidity, or see the look of terror in a victim’s eyes as he or she realizes they’re about to experience their last breaths of life. I could feel the rage and sorrow of a victim’s family as they mourned their losses or carried out their vinnitta.
Rich or poor, in the end they all occupy a 6x6x3 piece of ground. They all become equal. Time marches relentlessly on and, if you check the web today, you’ll see a lot of those same Sicilian names among the leadership of the Detroit Mafia in 2019. There’s nothing quite like carrying on a family tradition.
At the end of his text Daniel Waugh writes: “In chronicling this turbulent period, the author hopes to document the events and also the individuals themselves so they are not lost to history…It shall be up to the reader if I have succeeded.”
Mission accomplished, Mr Waugh.