Sonny Girard & Theresa Rosa
To understand the Twentieth Century’s rise and fall of what is known as "the mob" in this country, one has to begin in Thirteenth Century Sicily and look back. The location of the island, jutting out into the Mediterranean crossroad, made it a stopping point for armies and merchants moving east to west, like French and Spanish, even Vikings, west to east, like Greeks, and south to north, like Moors from Northern Africa. However, instead of stopping, each conquered the island and remained in control until being displaced by another invader.
Under those conditions, Sicilian people had no way of getting justice from authorities who, for the most part, didn’t even bother to learn the Italian dialect spoken on the island. The conquered natives were treated as conquerors had treated the vanquished since the beginning of time. Subjugated Sicilians were therefore forced to look to an underground government that understood their needs and the nuances of Sicilian life. That shadow government was called Mafia…or La Societa Onorata…The Honored Society. The legend of how that organization supposedly got its name on the first Night of the Sicilian Vespers, in 1283. The story is that one day, while a soon to be bride waited for her groom to fetch the priest from a village church, she was approached by a Bourbon Army Lieutenant, Pierre Drouet. The lieutenant, who was drunk at the time, tried to have his way with the girl, who resisted his advances. During the struggle, the bride-to-be fell, hit her head on a stone, and died. When word of the girl’s murder spread, enraged Sicilians began planning to finally reclaim their independence and rose up at the ringing of the Easter Vesper bells to drive the French from their land. The acronym of their shouts, Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anella…Death to the French is Italy’s cry…supposedly became the name of their sub-rosa government: MAFIA. Of course that is not entirely true, as Sicilians at that time would have never called themselves Italians, but it does point out the centuries-long existence of a criminal class that was accepted, respected, and often revered by the island’s residents. In her history of the Mafia, Octopus, Clair Sterling cites a variety of opinions on how the name began, most probably in the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century. Regardless of how it got its name, the Sicilian Mafia developed with "families" made up primarily by residents of a common area. Corleonese constituted one Family; those from Palermo another; Bagheria formed its own.
The development of other similar Mafia-type organizations in Southern Italy…Camorra in Campagna (includes Naples) and N’drangheta in Calabria…which suffered the same kind of invader governments for centuries, paralleled the Sicilian Mafia’s development, though they received much less international recognition and had different structures. In Calabria, for example, crime families were not built around a region, but a biological family. Sons, nephews, brothers-in-law formed "cosci" or families, that spread through the world like the ripples of a stone in a pond. That structure has lasted till today, and has left N’drangheta as the premier criminal organization in the world; relatives less likely to inform on each other than mere neighbors.
When the great wave of Southern Italian immigrants reached the United States in the early part of the Twentieth Century, they settled into the ghettos abandoned by the Irish who had escaped the Great Potato Famine of the 1850s, and who had now moved up in American society. Criminal gangs were nothing new in this country, even before the Irish immigration. The Irish, for example, had settled into Hell’s Kitchen and Mulberry Bend in New York City which had been inhabited by the lowest classes of British and Dutch settlers. Those gangs, with names like Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits, became predators upon their own people. They were street thugs, using violence to not only support their criminal activities but to support local politicians whose influence kept them out of prison and provided them with licenses to steal, maim, and murder as long as the thugs used their muscle to guarantee votes for the politicians. The most significant of the Irish gangs was the Five Points Gang, located at the foot of Mulberry Bend, where several blocks came together to form five points. That gang is extremely important historically because it was a transitional organization. By the time of the Southern Italian/Sicilian immigration in the Early 1900s, the gang, having lost many of the young, upwardly mobile Irish to better areas, chose as its leader Paolo Vaccarelli, an Italian immigrant who went under the name Paul Kelly to bridge the group’s old and the new ethnic makeup.
When Italians/Sicilians settled into those ghettos they found the same conditions they had left behind at the beginning of their hard journey. Whether or not those in charge were invaders or legitimate governors, the fact was that they did not speak the same language, looked at them with disdain, and would not or could not dispense justice to them. Immigrants turned to their traditional government: what they believed was the Mafia. Unlike their homeland, there were no organized Mafia families in the U.S. There were gangs and individual criminals using the frightening old symbol of a black hand on paper to extort protection money or kidnapping ransom, and pimping off females they lured from Sicily under the guise of wanting old country brides. The gangs, however, were the only justice Italian-speaking transplants had of any justice. They also preyed exclusively on their paisani, just like the Eastern European Jewish gangs did to their own countrymen, who had reached America’s shores simultaneously to the Italians and had settled into adjacent ghettos.
Italian/Sicilian gangs broke up into the more formal Mafia structure based on ethnic connection. Sicilians not only separated into sub-groups that would only admit Sicilians, but into smaller regional distinctive gangs from Palermo, or Corleone, or Castellamare that had followed them to New York’s Lower East Side, or East Harlem, or South Brooklyn. Each fought the other for area dominance and to continue old country prejudices and grudges. Many Sicilians would not even do business with Neapolitans or Calabrese, let alone Irishmen or Jews. While they were quick to kill non-Italian gangsters whose ambitions were at odds with their own, the greatest number of killings were caused by rivalries between those from different towns in Sicily. They remained local gangsters even as they traveled thousands of miles from Italy to America.
Prohibition changed all that. Suddenly, hoodlums who had earned most of their money from extortion, robbery, kidnappings, and other mayhem to that point were the ones willing to provide a thirsty America with booze, either smuggled into the country or produced in local stills. Gangs of every ethnic group jumped into the new business, and found a new reality. They were no longer bound to their own ethnic areas. Everyone wanted the services of bootleggers, from coast to coast, from the socially prominent to the homeless, from suburbs to exclusive areas and slums. Movie people, merchants, furriers, and police and politicians…especially police and politicians, who took booze and bribes to allow the bootleggers to operate. Gangsters were not an urban phenomenon anymore, they were national…and, thanks to Hollywood films and writers like Damon Runyon, heroes and celebrities.
It wasn’t just the direct profits from alcoholic beverages, which had a selling ration of as much as forty to one on investment (a twenty-five dollar investment at a time when men’s leather shoes sold for three dollars and workers slaved in factories for a weekly salary measured only in single dollars brought back one thousand), but ancillary benefits that would carry their criminal empires for nearly a century. To transport the whiskey and beer from shorelines where smuggled alcohol was unloaded or from speakeasy to speakeasy, gangsters needed trucks. Bootleggers’ ownership of fleets of vehicles to transport illegal alcohol led to ownership of legitimate trucking businesses and trucker union control once Prohibition ended. Warehouses mobsters had been forced to purchase to store their goods made them industrial landlords when their illegal business was Constitutionally eliminated. Owners of speakeasies became restaurant and bar owners. The world famous El Morocco began as a speakeasy. So did the equally well known Stork Club. Those who had arranged to import alcohol from overseas became legal distributors after Prohibition ended. The Kennedy Family still gets royalties on every imported bottle of Scotch brought into the United States because of a deal their bootlegger patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy arranged well before the end of Prohibition.
None of the financial gain put an end to the bickering and murdering that seemed to be a genetic part of mobsterdom. Key bosses, like Joe "The Boss" Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano still ordered murders of each other’s gang members, and continued to refuse to have dealings with non-Sicilians. Charles Luciano, a lieutenant of Joe Masseria’s was beaten, tortured, and left for dead when he refused to leave Masseria’s gang for Maranzano’s…his survival providing his new nickname: Lucky. Blood flowed in cities like Chicago and New York. Younger mobsters had been changed by America enough to be more driven by profit than ethnic divides. In a stunning revolution, after a meeting in Atlantic City by the young turks, headed by names like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, had more than sixty prominent "Moustache Petes," or old guard Sicilian mobsters murdered nationwide. That mass murder was accomplished between September 10th and 11th, 1931, and is known as the "Second Night of the Sicilian Vespers," the "First Night of the Sicilian Vespers" dating back to the Thirteenth Century, when Sicilians drove the Bourbon French from their land. Following that coup, a new order was instituted, with a Commission of the most important family leaders from around the country resolving problems before they turned bloody. Profits would be the most important thing. Though the primary structure was based on the old Unione Siciliano, an older fraternal organization, which had been open only to Sicilians, this new order was open almost exclusively to Sicilians, with a few Neapolitans and Calabrese thrown in. Doing business with any ethnic group was accepted and even encouraged. The American Melting Pot was full of money.
Using its new national power, both in reputation and finances, newly organized crime reached new heights. As the Meyer Lansky character portrayed by Lee Strasberg in "Godfather II" told audiences, "We’re bigger than U.S. Steel." It was during that era that Las Vegas was born, with millions of mob dollars invested in the Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel, and Havana became the greatest adult playground in the world due to huge amounts of bribes paid to President Batista and his cronies; when the Teamsters Union became king of the road and began using their pension fund millions to finance newer and bigger hotels in Vegas; and when everything from garbage collection, to juke box distribution, to construction projects large and small, to linen supplies for restaurants, to garment unions and the production companies under their thumbs, to illegal gambling…to all the ancillary businesses connected to those already mentioned…became mob cash cows. All those businesses and the earning power they provided kept traditional organized crime going far beyond what, based on observation of earlier mobs like the Irish, might have been its normal demise. In fact, as time went on, despite the money and associated power, non-Italian/Sicilian mobs faded into the sunset. Those other ethnic mobs saw crime as a vehicle to take them from poverty to affluence, and, once they had achieved it, discouraged their offspring from following in their footsteps. Scions of Jewish, Irish, or other mobsters went to college and established legitimate careers. They were often told, "I do this so you don’t have to." For example, Max "The Jew" Schrager, the father of Ian Schrager, current owner of the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles and the Delano in Miami, as well as other hotels in between, was a top numbers banker in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The philosophy of Italian mobsters, on the other hand, was that their organization, known, among other things, as Cosa Nostra, was to be handed down to their sons, and, in turn, their sons, due to their criminal tradition going back as far as the 13th Century. That, of course, doesn’t mean every Italian mobster followed that stereotype pattern. Former mob boss, Joe Colombo, encouraged his sons to stick to legitimate businesses, like his real estate company or funeral home, Prospero of Bensonhurst. Even Al Capone realized that mobdom in America was doomed. In the forthcoming biography of New York gangster, James "Jimmy Nap" Napoli, Big Al lectures a young Jimmy Nap before sending him out to assassinate lawman Elliot Ness. "They did it so that we could be anything we wanna be. That’s why mothers and fathers break their backs. So their kids won’t have to. But you gotta seize the opportunity with both hands and make the most of it. Some kids are born into wealth. Their fathers are lawyers, doctors, congressmen. They got those footsteps to follow into. Other kids are born into poverty. Those kids gotta do whatever they gotta do. They gotta fight their way outta the streets."
The thing that traditional organized crime figures failed to take into account was that, unlike Sicily, Calabria, or Campagnia, America was not ruled by invaders, and newer generations were more influenced by American culture than by their family’s history. The next generations of Italians spoke the same language as the system that controlled the country. Instead of being subjugated, they were treated as part of the fabric of America and adapted its values. Once success moved mobsters out of tough ghettos and into upper middle class suburban areas where they were not under the daily scrutiny of their bosses and didn’t need anyone to survive day to day, they struggled with keeping their traditional cultural identity of loyalty to their mob brothers and the American "Me Generation." . They wore sweat suits instead of suits and ties; they listened to rap instead of Jimmy Roselli. They also saw that rats like Henry Hill and "Sammy The Bull" Gravano went on television, sold books, had movies made about them…and, most of all, were NEVER PUNISHED BY THE MOB. The word "wiseguy" was never meant to be "dumbguys." Why should they go to prison when one or more of their co-defendants would walk? The Age of the Rat began, which began the process of the mob’s disintegration that would have started decades before if events had progressed on a normal track. It has gone beyond what might have happened in the 1930s, 1940s, or certainly 1950s, when the mob might have normally have dissolved, reaching the highest levels of mobdom. While there would have been a generational desertion of mob membership, it is unlikely that bosses like Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, or Carlo Gambino would ever have become government witnesses like current former mob executives Ralph Natale (Philadelphia), Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso (New York/ Lucchese), or Joe Massino (New York/Bonnano).
Laws also changed. No longer could they count of fear keeping victims quiet or bribes getting them out of trouble. The R.I.C.O. Act (Racketeering and Influence of Corrupt Organizations) took crimes that carried maximum sentences of five years per count and upped that figure to twenty. The "spoke theory," of every spoke in the wheel, or minor member of a mob family, being as important as every other subjected gamblers to the same sentences as drug dealers or murderers. In his book, former mob boss Joe Bonanno outlined a Commission of organized crime leaders around the country who settled arguments and set policy for all its underlings. That confession led United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudy Giuliani, to initiate a criminal case, under the R.I.C.O. Act, charging the alleged bosses (it was later proven that Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno was NOT the head of the Genovese Family, as he was convicted of being) of New York’s five traditional organized crime families as Commission members of a criminal organization, commonly known as LCN, or La Cosa Nostra. Each was convicted and sentenced to more than one hundred years in federal prison. Bouncing off Giuliani’s success in the Commission Case, federal authorities brought more charges and convicted more top mobsters in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Chicago. More recently, in early 2008, sixty-two alleged members of the Gambino Crime Family were arrested both in the United States and Italy.
There is no more national strength.
Traditional organized crime families are well on the way toward total dissolution, as they probably would have six or seven decades ago. Gangsters’ demise was only interrupted by passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, or, as it is more commonly known, "Prohibition." That Amendment changed America for a time, but changed generations of traditional organized crime for more than half a century. It is only now that those affects are disappearing and the mob as we knew it is becoming extinct. There is a 1908 photograph of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show performing in a parking lot of an industrial park in Brooklyn, New York. That photograph marked the end of the historical period known as the Wild West. Today’s technologically advanced media’s presentation of films like "Goodfellas" and television shows like "Sopranos" parallel Buffalo Bill’s show as traditional organized crime in America is relegated to be judged exclusively as history.