The mobster story

The “mob” –often called “the Mafia” –achieved mythic status in America thanks to movies, books, and the FBI. No expert on the mafia, I have in mind a rather simplistic Mafia business model –how it came about, how it grew, how it exploited “niche marketing”. It’s origins are usually traced to mid-nineteenth Century Sicily.

Italian immigrant family arrives at Elis Island

The Statue of Liberty greeted new arrivals with a promise of liberty. Many new immigrants, frankly, needed help. Many spoke little or no English and had equally limited job prospects. Many had families to feed. The character, Tateh, in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime typifies a million stories. Ragtime paints the tragic picture of a promise broken.

The scene from “The Ragtime” (1981), a film by Milos Forman

One of the film’s most memorable scenes involved J. P. Morgan pontificating from a catwalk. Like today’s GOP politicians he was holding forth about the American Dream. As a sea of immigrants reached out to him, the catwalk creaked and then collapsed. A desperate throng was crushed as they sought their dreams.

The early settlers to USA

In some communities, in Sicily and in America, a godfather helped a new immigrant find a job or set up a business with small loans. He was often an advocate for the newly arrived. He offered them protection. At first, few regarded these men as criminals. They became, rather, role models and protectors. He filled the vaccum, offering protection when the “state” would not. Historian Paolo Pezzino wrote: “The Mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory…”

It was only the more odious practices that attracted the attention of government and prosecutors. Godfathers were shaking down small businesses, extorting money, collecting regular payments. No fair! Shaking down folk is the government’s job!

Let’s begin with the word mafia itself.  Although the exact origin of the word “mafia” is uncertain, some believe it originated in 1282 during the French invasion of Sicily and the saying, “Morte Alla Francia Italia Anela” (Death to the French is Italy’s Cry), or MAFIA.  Then, eventually the word “mafia” came to mean “manly”, in Sicily.

Another theory of the origin of “mafia” begins as early as the 9th century.  During that period, Sicily was ruled by Arab forces.  The original inhabitants were oppressed, and desperately tried to escape and find refuge.  In Arabic, the word “mafia” means, “refuge.”  Sicily was invaded by the Normans in the 11th century and its people were forced into labor and oppression once again.  Every invasion of Sicily, thereafter, (French invasion in the 12th century, Spanish in the 13th century, then Germans, Austrians, and Greeks) resulted in native tribes seeking refuge in the hills of the island.  The refugees eventually developed a secret society of unification intended to create a sense of family, based on Sicilian heritage.  The structure of the organization was built on the idea of family and had a strong hierarchical make up.  The “dons” were the family heads, in charge of the mafia in every village.  They had to report to the “don of dons”, who lived in Palermo, the capital of Sicily.

Calogero Vizzini funeral in 1954

 Members of the unified organization were required to take an initiation oath.  The oath included five basic principles, upon which the mafia was (and still is) based:

1. A code of silence – Never to “rat out” any mafia member.  Never to divulge any mafia secrets.  Even if they were threatened by torture or death.

2. Complete obedience to the boss – Obey the boss’s orders, no matter what.

3. Assistance – To provide any necessary assistance to any other respected or befriended mafia faction.

4. Vengeance – Any attacks on family members must be avenged. “An attack on one is an attack on all.”

5. Avoid contact with the authorities.

The mafia grew large and strong by the 19th century.  By then it had become a vast criminally oriented society.  They followed their own authority and rules and ignored any other form of order.  Joining the mafia was like joining a religion.  It was a commitment for life.  You could not retire from it (and this still holds true today.)  This was a serious “religion”, even for the very young mafia members.  They were taught basic uses of the sword, knife, and rope, in order to be able to murder their victims. It would be a very violent death to anyone who became an informant.

Vito Cascio Ferro, visited America in 1899, and returned to Sicily with the idea to organize crime in America on the old world model

The American branch of the mafia, named “La Costra Nostra” (LCN), is believed to have begun in 1893 when Don Vito Cascio Ferro fled to New York after the murder of banker Emanuele Notarbartolo, in Sicily.  More Mafioso fled to America during the 1920’s, when Mussolini attempted to exterminate the mafia in Sicily.  The mafia saw lucrative opportunities in the United States.  Thousands of gunmen and thieves came over.  They were joined by thousands of Italians and Sicilians who were looking for a better life in America.

By the early 1900’s every large city in the United States had its own mafia sanction.  They concentrated on protection rackets.  Soon they expanded by racketeering in other areas, such as gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging.  The Prohibition era (in the 20’s) is probably the most legendary era in gangster history.  Mafia members basically declared their power and wealth openly.  The mob flourished.  This began Al Capone’s reign, (as portrayed in the movie, The Untouchables.)  Alphonso Capone, “Scarface”, was a gangster in Chicago who amassed a fortune by selling alcohol and women.  He also controlled every possible aspect of crime.  Capone was sent to Alcatraz in 1931, not for various killings and breaking the 18th amendment, but for income tax evasion.

Alphonso Capone (January 17, 1899 – January 25, 1947)

When Capone was sent away, Chicago’s “gangster” image began to fade.  New York became the next big mafia city – the city for the next generation of gangsters.  Once prohibition ended, gangsters reorganized themselves in “syndicates” or organizations which controlled gambling and prostitution, the distribution of drugs and new forms of  “business.”

Charles “Lucky” Luciano (born Salvatore Lucania; November 24, 1897 – January 26, 1962)

After Capone’s time a new gangster surfaced, Salvatore Lucania, better known as, Charlie ‘Lucky” Luciano, or “Boss of the Bosses” (Cappo di tutti cappi.)  Unlike Capone, who only associated with Italians and Sicilians, Lucky Luciano was ethnically liberal.  He began to recruit Jews in his organization.  (Similar to the movie, Casino.)  Luciano was close to his partners Benjamin “Bugsey” Siegel and Meyer Lansky.  Bugsey Siegel built a super-casino in Las Vegas, but was murdered before it became profitable.  Within ten years of his death, Las Vegas became the major powerhouse for gangster dealings, investments, and skimmings.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (born Benjamin Siegelbaum; February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947)

Luciano’s gangs were always in conflict with the “pure Sicilian” gangs of Giuseppe Masseria, “Joe the Boss” (the first boss of what is now known as the Genovese family) and Salvatore Maranzano (head of the now Bonanno family), from the other side of New York.  Luciano finally defeated Masseria after many “mafia wars” known as the Castellammarese Wars.  Luciano took over Masseria’s organization and became a powerful boss.

Castellammarese war victim

Before Masseria died, he took a man named Carlo Gambino into his group.  When Masseria was killed, Gambino shifted power under Salvatore Maranzano.  However, it was a short stay for him.  Maranzano died, Joe Bonanno succeeded him, and Carlo Gambino decided to join a new commission, the “Young Turks.”  Gambino, along with his brothers-in-law Peter and Paul Castellano, became united with Vincent Mangano.  When Mangano mysteriously disappeared, Gambino pushed for an alliance (peace agreement) with Charlie Luciano and his associate Frank Costello.

Frank Costello (born Francesco Castiglia; January 26, 1891 – February 18, 1973)

After Mangano’s disappearance, Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia became the boss and appointed Carlo Gambino a boss, but no one took this seriously.  Gambino was, at that time, considered weak, taking put downs and ridicule from Anastasia.  No other mafia member would have taken the abuse.  Nobody thought of Gambino as a threat, at that time, which made it very easy for him to do unexpected things.

Murder of Albert Anastasia

In 1957, a man named Vito Genovese approached Gambino about getting rid of Anastasia.  This would give Gambino top spot.  Fed up with Anastasia, Gambino did away with him.  However, he could not stop there.  Genovese was power hungry.  He wanted to rule all the families.  He became ruthless and over-zealous.  Gambino knew he had to put a stop to him before he got totally out of hand.  Together with his new allies, Luciano and Costello, Gambino set up Genovese in a narcotics scheme that landed him in prison, sentenced to fifteen years.

Carlo Gambino (August 24, 1902 – October 15, 1976)

Gambino continued to avoid the F.B.I. and C.I.A.  Every time they tried to deport him or put him on trial he would have a heart attack or somehow end up in the hospital.  It was an ingenious plan!

On the other side of New York, the Bonanno family didn’t have much luck avoiding the authorities.  Bonanno member Philip “Rusty” Rastelli succeeded Carmine Galanto as boss.  Two of Rastelli’s top men were Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano and Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero.  They were portrayed in the movie, Donnie Brasco, which was based on the true story of undercover F.B.I. agent, Joe Pistone (“Donnie Brasco”.)  Crimes committed by “Sonny Black” and “Lefty Guns” were exposed.  “Sonny Black” disappeared and “Lefty” went to prison.

Benjamin Ruggiero (April 19, 1926 – November 24, 1994)

During the early 1970’s, Joseph Colombo, head of the Profaci family, began bringing unwanted national attention to the mob and those associated with it, by starting the Italian American Civil Rights League (IACRL).  Carlo Gambino confronted Colombo and asked him to stop the rallies because of the media attention it was developing.  Colombo refused.  As the story goes, Colombo actually spit in Gambino’s face.  This infuriated Gambino.  He approached the Gallo brothers (Joe and Larry) to do away with Colombo.  He wanted them to kill him at a nationally covered IACRL rally, in order to express what will happen if you cross Gambino, and to ironically exhibit the association of violence and the Italian-American heritage – the very heritage that Colombo was supporting through rallies. It was vengeance and punishment for disrespecting a don.

“Crazy Joe” Gallo

At the end of his life, Gambino appointed Paul Castellano as the new head of the family.  Castellano was greedy and was disliked.  This caused conflict amongst Gambino’s men. Castellano walked around more like a banker than a mobster.  Gambino thought it was a good idea to move the family into legitimate business, away from the streets.  In 1985, Castellano was killed by another young Turk, John Gotti, (a disciple of Dellacrose, boss under Anastasia who was skipped over when Anastasia was ousted by Gambino.)  Gotti was as loud and media exposed as anyone the mafia had seen since Albert Anastasia.

John Joseph Gotti, Jr. (October 27, 1940 – June 10, 2002)

John Gotti was known as the “Teflon Don” for his three separate trial acquittals in the late 80’s.  Finally, in 1991, the F.B.I. indicted Gotti, his underboss – Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, and Frankie Locascio on racketeering and murder conspiracy charges.

Salvatore Sammy “The Bull” Gravano

Gravano shocked everyone when he broke the omertà and testified against Gotti.  Gravano was placed into witness protection and served less than five years.  John Gotti is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Illinois.  His son, John Gotti Jr., is currently acting as boss of the Gambino crime family.  However, a RICO case has been developed against him.

John Gotti Jr

The story of mafia in USA may sound a bit confusing.  Maybe this will clear things up:  There are currently five families in the New York City outfit of La Costra Nostra (LCN).  They are:  Gambino, Genovese, Colombo, Bonanno, and Luchese.

Mafia family structure

The Commission – National ruling body of “La Costra Nostra”.  Usually has 9 to 12 bosses.

Capo Crimini – Boss or “don”.  Head of a particular family.

Consigliere – advisor or family counselor.

Capo Bastone or Sotto Capo – the “underboss”, second in command.

Contabile – financial advisor.

Caporegime – heads a faction of about 10 foot soldiers.

Sgarrista – foot soldier (carries out the usual “business” of the mafia).

Giovane d’honore – mafia associate, mostly non-italian, non-sicilian.

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