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Woman writes history of Philadelphia mafia

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

By Tina Moore, The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- When a group of Philadelphia mobsters heard Celeste A. Morello was looking into the Mafia, they wanted to know who she was.

"I told them, 'Men in my family were made in Sicily. You're just first- and second-generation gangsters,' " she recalled.

Morello has been associating with the Mafia since she was a child and wasn't intimidated. Her uncle was a "made man," or an initiated member of the Mafia.

Morello has taken her personal knowledge of the Mafia, researched the origins of organized crime in Philadelphia and written a book titled "Before Bruno," referring to former Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno who lead the group during the 1960s and 1970s.

"There's never been a history written on Philadelphia's Mafia," said Morello, of Philadelphia.

Her book comes at a time when organized crime in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey is making headlines. Former Philadelphia boss Ralph Natale recently pleaded guilty to racketeering and murder, while also agreeing to testify against his reputed successor, Joseph Merlino. Merlino is currently jailed on charges of racketeering and murder.

Morello said she has interviewed members of the Mafia and their families, pored through FBI documents and court files and spent a total of nine years researching the book. She didn't look for emotional stories and only wanted the facts, she said.

"I kind of look at this almost like a cult. I think they are worthy of being studied and written about," she said. "I wanted to do it in a way that was scholarly."

The book doesn't gloss over the violence associated with the Mafia, however. In one passage, she tells the story, recounted from newspapers and police reports, of a revenge attack.

"Musky Zanghi, after all, was still living somewhere in or near Philadelphia and obviously still had revenge on his mind with relation to [Salvatore Sabella] and the Friends. In July of 1928, a car driving west on Christian Street stopped just after passing Passyunk Avenue and eyed the flour salesman talking in front of his office. 'Hay, Catania!' yelled one of the riders.

"George Catania, a Friend from Upper Darby, approached the vehicle at the same time that two automatic machine guns and two revolvers appeared to fire upon him. Making a graceful turn, Catania fell to a total of fifteen bullets that pierced through his body."

Mark Haller, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on the history of urban crime at Temple University, said the media take advantage of the public's thirst for stories about the mob. He teaches his students not to use the words "organized crime" or "mafia."

He says the influence of the Italian-Americans in crime has been exaggerated for two main reasons: federal investigators have looked into crime among Italian-Americans more than other groups and the media reported on the dramatic, often public, crime.

Morello, who has degrees in classical civilizations, art history, and sociology/criminology, wrote a previous book about Philadelphia's Italian Market and does tours of the area.

She said she has little respect for the guys running the Mafia in Philadelphia today, most of whom aren't from Sicily, she said. She warns people not to look at Mario Puzo's Godfather trilogy or its antagonist Don Corleone as a standard Mafia capo.

But even she can't deny that there are some similarities between art and life.

When some local men harassed her about her research, she said she called her cousins, who contacted some friends in New York.

"New York said, 'Lay off of her,' " Morello recalled.

She said she hasn't had any problems since.

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