83 years ago on this day, prohibition ended in the United States. During the years when it was illegal to sell alcohol, a crime syndicate was born whose tentacles still stretch to the present day.
Prohibition is the setting for Virginia Tech's Ed Falco's new book. "Toughs" is the fictionalized, real life story of one of the first drive by shooting on record. The result of the gangland feuds that characterized prohibition. His new book has awful resonance with gangland drive-bys today.
In his new book, called, “Toughs” Ed Falco keeps to many of the facts of a real life tragedy. A young gangster, Vince, also known as Mad Dog Coll accidently killed a five year old boy who’d been playing in the street in a botched attempt to take out his gangland competition.
"By the time we pick up with him, just about everybody in the world is trying to kill this kid and he’s 22 years old. The police are looking for him, and the police commissioner, Mulroney, issues a shoot to kill order. Lucky Luciano and the combine, Al Capone, they’re all trying to kill him."
To a story already painfully real, Falco introduces fictional characters like Loretto Jones, another young tough facing choices about whether to join a crime family or create an actual family of his own.
"Loreto as a character is someone torn between a quick route to riches and fame and the stability of a family, which would require diligent labor with smaller rewards, in terms of material rewards but greater emotional security; this conflict between domesticity and wildness, between the security of family and the danger of criminal life."
In the story, Loreto Jones had grown up with Mad Dog Coll in an orphanage. And in this passage from the book, we find him roaming the streets of upper Manhattan.
"Loretto leaned against a lamp post as children swarmed over the streets, escaping the heat of cold water flats. Children shouted and called to each other in English while their mothers and fathers, aunts uncles, sitting on stoops, congregating in doorways leaning out of windows or over fire escapes, spoke among themselves in Italian. Though Loreto had grown up among Italians, could speak the language a little himself and make out the gist of the conversation, his own ethnic heritage was indeterminate. But by the time he was 13, the Jews, the Italians, the Irish and the Poles had all claimed him. His skin was neither the olive dark hue typical of Italians, nor the fair pale of the Irish. In his dark, blue eyes, every ethnic population saw its most handsome relatives and ancestors. At 5’ll” he wasn’t too tall or too short for any ethnicity, though the Irish argued he was too tall to be Italian.”
Falco explains why he kept Loreto’s ethnicity vague.
"I had hoped that I would avoid labeling any particular ethnicity as particularly prone to criminality. My point was that those areas those ghettos in NY at the turn of the century were breeding grounds for criminals. Any body who grew up in there was going to be influenced by the criminal element, so I liked him being unknown in terms of his ethnic origin. It’s the environment that shapes the criminal not the ethnicity."
Falco explores a question that still resonates today wherever there is senseless violence that someone thought was important enough to commit, despite the consequences.
"This notion that anything is acceptable in defense of one’s family. And that others outside the family are expendable if necessary. It’s a very dangerous notion but a very human notion, one based on our tribal nature. We protect our own. But ethically, it’s a very slippery kind of moral place to be. So it’s a very interesting question and one that I only try to explore but that I don’t have an easy answer to."
Ed Falco’s new book is called, “Toughs” published by Unbridled Books. You can find out more about Ed Falco on his website.