Society - Legal
By: - at May 16, 2013

15 Fascinating Facts about the Mafia

Mafiosi Mario PuzoThe mafia has been a source for inspiration and fascination for over a century. It frequently appears in books and movies either as a driving source of the story or a way to add flavor to it. It has become as much a part of the American mythos as cowboys and Indians or Western Expansion. In stories, mafiosi are as often heroes (or at least anti-heroes) as they are villains. They are frequently romanticized, and their associated code of honor makes it easy to view them in a positive light.

1)  The Original Meaning of Mafia
Mafia Originate in SicilyPopular culture references lead us to believe that "mafia" means something like "family." While family plays a part in what the organization is, though, it isn't a direct translation of the word. The origin of the word "mafia" is just as shrouded in myth as the rest of the organization. There are two popular theories about the possible origin. They both date back to medieval Sicily.

The first theory is that the word comes from the 9th century when Sicily was ruled by the Arabs. In this theory, the word "mafia" is derived from an Arabic term referring to safety. It was used to refer to people who were seeking refuge from foreign invaders. A related theory put forth by Selwyn Raab is that mafia comes from a slang expression meaning "acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful." Various Arabic terms that may have been the origin of "mafia" are "marfud" (bravado), "mahyas" (boasting), "maha" (cave), and "mu'afa" (protection).

The second theory about the origin of the name is that it comes from a saying used during the French invasion of Sicily in 1282. The saying was "MorteAllaFrancia Italia Anela" which translates to "Death to France, Italy Begs." The acronym of this would have been "mafia." However, this seems like more fancy than truth. Most historians disregard this theory in favor of the Arabic slang terms.

2)  The Omertà
The OmertaOmertà translates to "manhood" and refers to the idea that a man should deal with his own problems. It became synonymous with the mafia's code of silence in the 19th century. The Omertà is a strict code that forbids mafiosi from betraying their fellows to authorities. The punishment for breaking the Omertà is death. Discretion is valued as secrecy is necessary for many mafia undertakings.

The values of the Omertà can clearly be seen in how the mafia is generally portrayed. Rather than brutish thugs, mafiosi are usually shown as practical gentlemen. This can be seen in the clothing they wear in films and art - usually suits or something that could pass for business casual attire. It is a look that could pass unnoticed in most any situation. And it implies that while a mafioso can get his hands dirty if needed, he's prefer to deal in a more civilized fashion.

Certain crimes are considered forbidden under Omertà as they draw too much attention to the mafia. Kidnapping is one of these. Theft is another. While these rules are occasionally violated, the repercussions can be harsh. In some families, the killing of prominent political figures is forbidden. This is for the same reason – to avoid drawing attention and repercussions to the family. Occasionally crimes such as adultery that can cause undo internal conflict are also banned.

3)  Protection Racketeering
Protection RacketeeringOne of the classic crimes associated with the mafia is protection racketeering. The basic concept is that a person (usually a business owner) enters into an agreement with the local mafia to protect himself against violence and thieves. The mafia makes it known that acts against the protected individual will be punished. It is much like having a private security firm without the niceties of the law limiting their available resources.

Protection racketeering is often painted as a benevolent crime. Except in cases of extortion, the only people getting hurt are those who seek to hurt in the first place. Who's going to complain when a thief gets beaten up and the property he stole is returned to its owner? More sinister aspects of protection racketeering see honest competitors threatened or forced out of business.

Protection rackets find their origin in the early history of the mafia. In the 1800s, groups formed to protect themselves against invaders and each other. These private armies were referred to as "mafie." They extended this protection to landowners in exchange for money. While extortion was part of this, it wasn't always necessary. Some landowners were happy to pay for reliable protection against foreign invaders.

4)  Government Goons

Sicily, Italy:

The mafia actually had an important part in the unification of Italy. Prior to 1815, the Italian peninsula was a collection of different city-states. Between 1815 and 1870, these states slowly joined together to form what we now know as Italy. Sicily became part of unified Italy in 1861. Unification wasn't peaceful. Crime and chaos were rampant on the island while the government sought to establish itself.

In a step that may have helped permanently entrench the mafia in the new Italy, the government sought their help in the 1870s. Roman officials asked the mafia clans to help them deal with dangerous criminal bands. In exchange, the government would ignore the mafia's protection racket. In its own way, the government was signing up for protection services as well. The mafia took advantage of this supposedly temporary arrangement to establish its presence in Sicilian politics. Mafia clans quickly mastered the art of political corruption. Votes were often bought through bribery and intimidation. They remain a power to this day, though their influence is waning somewhat. While they don't have specific party affiliations, they do tend to avoid extreme ideologies such as fascism.

5)  The American Mafia and New Orleans

David C. Hennessy:
David C. Hennessy

The American mafia is traced back to New Orleans in the late 1800s. During this time, there was much emigration from southern Italy to Brazil and Argentina. New Orleans was an active port for travel to both locations. In 1869, the New Orleans Times ran an article reporting on the activities of "notorious Sicilian murderers." This was the first published report of mafia activity in the United States.

The first recorded incident was in 1890. The New Orleans Police Superintendent David C. Hennessy was murdered execution-style. Hundreds of Sicilians were arrested during the investigation. Nineteen were indicted for the murder and then acquitted. There were rumors of bribery and witness intimidation. New Orleans citizens formed a lynch mob which killed eleven of the defendants. This was the largest mass lynching in United States history. It has never been determined if the murder that started it all was actually the work of Sicilian immigrants. It is suspected the murder may have been the work of nativists aiming to frame the immigrants.

6)  The American Mafia and New York City
Concurrent with the events in New Orleans, the American mafia was making its appearance in New York City. Mafia groups initially formed in Italian ghettos. They grew gradually to citywide organizations. Many of these were referred to as "the Black Hand" for their extortion methods. The Black Hand was not a criminal organization itself, but rather the method used.

The power of the mafia in New York City continued to grow through the early 1900s. The Sicilian mafia became the Five Points Gang and was active in the Lower East Side. Other mafia families gained power in East Harlem and Brooklyn. There was some spread to other cities, like Chicago. However, it wasn't until Prohibition began in 1920 that the American mafia became a widespread national phenomenon.

7)  No Booze? No Problem.
Mafia Bootlegging AlcoholProhibition began on January 17, 1920 with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment. This made it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcohol. Enforcement was managed through the Volstead Act. Prohibition was the end result of the Temperance movement, which had existed in various forms since the 18th century. The idea behind it was that by making alcohol illegal, the well-known social problems related to alcoholism would vanish. This was, of course, not at all what happened.

Rather than give up alcohol cold turkey, those who liked to drink continued to drink. And because of that, they were now criminals. Of course, that didn't make much sense to the people involved. They weren't doing anything differently, after all. Rather than make people avoid alcohol, Prohibition made people more accepting of "harmless" criminal activity. It created an atmosphere of tolerance in which the mafia flourished. Everyone knew someone with a homemade still or where to go to get some bootleg booze. Corruption of law enforcement officials was widespread and many turned a blind eye (usually for a fee) to illegal smuggling activities.

Faced with the need for alcohol, the mafia began bootlegging. Liquor was smuggled in from Canada and the Caribbean. Illegal stills were set up throughout the country to manufacture alcohol. The profits that could be made during Prohibition were enormous. Over 900,000 cases of liquor were smuggled into the country. Mafia families quickly began competing for control over bootlegging operations. Their efforts started as early as 1921. The resulting wars were violent and helped embed the idea of the American mafia into the national psyche. The struggle between Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano for ultimate control over the American mafia is well documented. The names of mafia dons from this era stay with us to this day. Who hasn't heard of Al Capone or Lucky Luciano? Even outside of history, they are frequently co-opted for stories and legends.

8)  The Boss of All Bosses


"Capo di tutticapi" in Italian, or the "boss of all bosses," is the title given to supremely powerful mafia dons. In English, the title "the Godfather" is widely used as well. While the title was used earlier, it came into prominent use during Prohibition. Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano used the title during their efforts to take control of the many different mafia families. Maranzano was murdered in 1931 and Lucky Luciano created the Commission.

The Commission was an organization of the bosses of the Five Families in New York. It also included representatives from other cities such as Chicago and Kansas City. The men in The Commission were supposed to have equal say in mafia matters. None of them were titled boss of all bosses by the Commission, though media frequently used the term to identify the most powerful boss. Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese were some of the men referred to by this title. Joseph Bonanno followed them, then the Gambino crime family. In recent years, the term has fallen out of use. It is becoming more and more a thing of the past and part of the romanticization of the mafia.

9)  The Godfather
The GodfatherThe film The Godfather is one of the best known gangster movies. It is considered one of the greatest American movies ever made. The Godfather has done much to ensure that the mafia remains part of the American mythos. It is based on a novel written by Mario Puzo, which was in turn based on pulp fiction novels and news articles about the mafia. The Godfather follows the fictional Corleone crime family.

The Corleone crime family was inspired by both the Borgias from Renaissance Italy and the Bonanno crime family. The Bonanno crime family is one of the Five Families that were part of the Commission. In the 1960s, Joseph Bonanno attempted to seize leadership of the Commission. His failure resulted in turmoil and infighting in the family. Ultimately, the Bonanno crime family was kicked off the Commission because of this. The Bonanno family was much in the media when Puzo was writing the Godfather.

10)  Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act
RICO ACTTraditionally, law enforcement has had a terrible time convicting mafiosi. By the 20th century, the mafia had nearly two hundred years of practiced organized secrecy to draw from. (Nearly a thousand if we go back to the earliest origins of the concept.) The values of discretion and the often gray nature of the crimes involved made prosecution difficult. Witnesses were often bribed or intimidated into going away. While it was clear to law enforcement that organized crime was a serious problem, it took years for methods of investigation to change and become truly effective.

In 1970, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act became federal law. The RICO act allowed leaders of organized crime to be prosecuted for the actions of their underlings. Violation of the RICO Act is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Since its enactment, the RICO Act has proven extremely useful. For example, between 1981 and 1992, 23 bosses, 13 underbosses, and 43 captains have been convicted under the RICO Act. Prior to the RICO Act, mafia bosses generally had to be tried for far less serious crimes.

11)  Al Capone and Tax Evasion
Al Capone and Tax EvasionAl Capone was a famous Chicago mafia boss. He was born in New York City in 1899. He joined the Five Points Gang. In 1923, he moved to Chicago where he was recruited by Johnny Torrio to take advantage of the opportunities provided by Prohibition. Capone grew in power in Chicago throughout the Prohibition era. He controlled large portions of the Chicago vice industries such as gambling and prostitution, as well as bootlegging. An estimated $100 million per year was earned. He had also thoroughly corrupted the local government. He rigged at least one mayoral election and controlled officials through bribery and blackmail.

The Bureau of Prohibition's investigation into Capone started in 1929. Agent Eliot Ness was attempting to find ways to convict Capone on Volstead Act violations. (The Volstead Act was the vehicle through which Prohibition was enforced.) However, the evidence was weak. Concurrent to this, Frank J. Wilson began an investigation of Capone for income tax evasion. Capone was indicted for income tax evasion and violations of the Volstead Act in 1931. The trial was long, and the Volstead Act violation charges were ultimately dropped. At the end of it, Capone was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for the income tax evasion charges. At the time, this was the longest tax evasion sentence ever given. Heavy fines were also issued. He was transferred to Alcatraz in 1934, and eventually paroled in 1939.

12)  Lucky Luciano
Lucky LucianoCharles Luciano was born Salvatore Lucania in LercaraFriddi, Sicily. He was born in 1897. His family immigrated to the United States in 1907 and settled in New York. Luciano dropped out of school at 14 and took a job delivering hats. However, he quickly turned to less respectable work. After winning $244 in a dice game, he quit his job. Shortly thereafter, he started his own gang. His first efforts were a protection racket for Jewish youth.

There are several theories as to how Luciano gained the nickname "Lucky." It may be a mispronunciation of his surname. It could also be a reference to one of several fortunate outcomes in his criminal career. Between 1916 and 1936, Luciana was arrested 25 times. The charges ranged from assault to blackmail and illegal gambling. He spent no time in prison. In 1920, he was severely beaten by three men because he refused to work for another mafia boss. His throat was also slashed. He survived.

Luciano became a powerful figure in the Masseiria organization during Prohibition. Masseira was the primary rival to Salvatore Maranzano during what came to be called the Castellammarese War. This battle for dominance over the nation's organized crime ended with Maranzano in charge and Masseira dead. After a lovely hash of betrayals and deaths, Maranzano's organization was broken. Luciano organized the Commission and became the unofficial leader of the organization.

In 1936, Luciano was arrested for compulsory prostitution. He was tried as part of a massive prostitution ring. He was convicted of 62 counts of compulsory prostitution and sentenced to 50 years in state prison. There is considerable doubt as to the veracity of his involvement in prostitution, but appeals to the case were unsuccessful. He was finally freed after assisting in the U.S. war effort in Sicily during World War II. In 1946 he was deported to Italy.

13)  Federal Witness Protection
WITSECThe Federal Witness Protection Program (WITSEC) was established in 1970. It is part of the Organized Crime Control Act. It allows the federal government to provide protection and relocation services for witnesses and potential witnesses in cases involved organized crime or other serious offenses. WITSEC was important to enabling prosecution of mafia bosses. Without it witnesses could not be certain they would survive testifying. Combined with promises of immunity from prosecution, WITSEC has led many mafia members to break their code of silence.

During the 1990s, dozens of mobsters testified and provided information which led to the conviction and imprisonment of hundreds more. Since then, the mafia has been in decline. Other criminal organizations have moved in to fill some of the vacuum. The mafia remains the dominate force in United States organized crime, but there has been an overall decline. This is in part due to the reassurance WITSEC provides for those who do testify against the mafia.

The first breach in WITSEC security happened in 2009. This was nearly 40 years after it was initially established. U.S. marshal John T. Ambrose leaked information to the Chicago mob about a former hitman who was in WITSEC. Ambrose received a four year prison sentence for his crime.

14)  Hodge-Podge Initiation Rituals
Masonic initiation ritualTo become a full member of the mafia, an aspirant has to pass an initiation ritual. These rituals differ from family to family, but have some things in common. They all involve significant rituals, oaths, blood, and an agreement to follow the rules of the mafia. This ritual can be dated back to 1877 in Sicily, though it probably is older than that.

The ritual aspect of the ceremony takes inspiration from Masonic rituals and the Catholic Church. The second probably can be dated to the Sicilian mafia's involvement in protecting Church interests immediately following the unification of Italy. Part of the ritual is being baptized again. Oaths of family and brotherhood are sworn. A finger is pricked (supposedly the trigger finger) to symbolize being part of the family. Some versions of the ceremony involve burning a picture of a saint. The initiation is done after the aspirant has completed any other requirements to become a made man. This is generally a contract killing, though prior to the 1980s the individual's involvement could be periphery. Other requirements to become a made man include ethnicity, though this has been somewhat relaxed. Rather than full Italian descent, many families now allow those with Italian heritage on only one side to become made men.

15)  Salvatore Maranzano and the Castellammarese War

Joe Masseria:
Joe Masseria

Salvatore Maranzano was born in 1886 in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. He became involved with the Sicilian mafia after studying to become a priest. He was one of the early mafia bosses in the United States. He immigrated to the United States as an adult shortly after the start of World War I and settled in Brooklyn. There he built both a legitimate real estate business and a bootlegging operation. He expanded his criminal activities to include prostitution and smuggling. The success of his organization was greatly aided by the advent of Prohibition.

In 1930, Maranzano declared war on his chief rival, Joe Masseria. At the time, Masseria was considered the boss of all bosses. The war was called the Castellammarese War after Maranzano's place of birth. The precise cause for the start of the war is hard to pinpoint, however tensions had been building throughout the Prohibition era. Both sides frequently hijacked each other's alcohol and there was marked tension between the old guard (which included Maranzano) and the younger generation. Loyalties shifted rapidly between sides as different points of tension shifted.

Most sources consider the opening of the war to be at the hands of Masseria's faction. Masseria ordered the murder of Gaetano Reina in 1930 with the intent of protecting several of his secret allies. The Reina family reacted by putting their support behind Maranzano. The war rapidly shifted in favor of Maranzano. On April 15, 1931 Masseiria was killed and Maranzano declared himself the new boss of all bosses. This was short lived. Just six months later, he was killed in his Manhattan office.

The mafia has made a lasting impact on the American landscape. This can be seen in movies such as The Godfather, Scarface, and the Untouchables. There are dozens of films, television shows, and notable books that draw inspiration from rituals, organization, and actions of mafia families and members. Even when they aren't in the starring roles, mafia members and associates often play supporting roles in detective novels and period fiction. The mix of ruthlessness and honor is an alluring combination for anyone trying to give a character life. It's no wonder they are such a fixture in American culture.





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