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Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires
Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires
Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires
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Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires

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Genovese, Gambino, Bonnano, Colombo and Lucchese. For decades these Five Families ruled New York and built the American Mafia (or Cosa Nostra) into an underworld empire. Today, the Mafia is an endangered species, battered and beleaguered by aggressive investigators, incompetent leadership, betrayals and generational changes that produced violent and unreliable leaders and recruits. A twenty year assault against the five families in particular blossomed into the most successful law enforcement campaign of the last century.

Selwyn Raab's Five Families is the vivid story of the rise and fall of New York's premier dons from Lucky Luciano to Paul Castellano to John Gotti and more. The book also brings the reader right up to the possible resurgence of the Mafia as the FBI and local law enforcement agencies turn their attention to homeland security and away from organized crime.

LanguageEnglish
Release dateMay 13, 2014
ISBN9781429907989
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Author

Selwyn Raab

Since 1974, Selwyn Raab has been a reporter for The New York Times and has won dozens of awards for his coverage of the Mafia. He's appeared countless times on both local and national news shows and in documentaries about the Mafia for the History Channel and A&E. More than a newsman he is also something of a crusader, having played an important role in exposing fabricated testimony surrounding the conviction of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Raab is  the author of Justice in the Back Room which was the basis for the legendary "Kojak" television series and the very successful Mob Lawyer, which shed new light on who killed Jimmy Hoffa and JFK.

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Rating: 3.3854166666666665 out of 5 stars
3.5/5

96 ratings4 reviews

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  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    On topic all the way through, and encyclopedic in its scope
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    Started out great and has plenty of good information, but just gets seriously bogged down in the details and feels very repetitive and quite a drag. Couldn’t even finish it, I just got bored of it.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    A detailed account of the American history of the mafia. Good easy ride. intriguing I definitely recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interesting in the mafia.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Beginning with the Sicilian origins of the Mafia, Selwyn Raab explains how it spread from its New York origins to cities across America.Raab, a newspaper and television reporter with more than 40 years experience covering organized crime paints a realistic portrait of the Mafia. Avoiding glamorization, the author, who spent more than 25 years as a reporter with The New York Times, exposes the Mafia as a serious threat to honest citizens."The collective goal of the five families of New York was the pillaging of the nation's richest city and region," he writes. The five families--Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese--were responsible for corrupting labor unions to control waterfront commerce, garbage collection, the garment industry, and construction in New York. Later, they broadened their vistas to include the country, particularly Las Vegas, its most successful outside venture. Since September 11, 2001, the author says, the F.B.I. has been focused mainly on external threats, the author notes. This gives it room to regain some lost turf by moving into new avenues of crime. Exhaustive in its research and well-written, Five Families chronicles the tale of the rise and fall of New York’s premier dons: Lucky Luciano, Paul Castellano and John Gotti. To carry his tale, Raab interviewed prosecutors, law enforcement officers, Mafia members, informants, and "Mob lawyers." The result: anecdotes and inside information that reveal the true story of the Mafia and its influence.A masterpiece, this book will be considered a model of what great journalism should and can be.

    3 people found this helpful

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Five Families - Selwyn Raab

Prologue

They are alive, still looking for illegal jackpots, and reinventing their organizations.

Despite an unprecedented thirty-year crackdown by federal authorities, the American Mafia, although severely weakened nationally, has managed in the new millennium to retain several major strongholds and is improvising to cash in on new rackets. Since the first edition of Five Families was published in 2005, the Mob or Cosa Nostra not only has survived by regrouping but also has scored several surprising courtroom victories.

In another coup, the Mob has become a perennial favorite theme for the entertainment industry, inspiring Hollywood and television to glamorize its venal history and humanize feral leaders like John Gotti.

The Mafia was at the height of its power in the mid-1980s, with more than twenty criminal families, or borgatas, thriving from coast to coast. The 1980s also marked the onset of strategic federal and state law enforcement campaigns to dismantle the nationwide criminal network.

By 2016, many Mafia gangs, including long-entrenched ones in Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Tampa, and Southern California, had been virtually eliminated or weakened to the level of a handful of elderly has-beens. Remarkably, the Mafia’s venerable and strongest families survived in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other pockets in the Northeast.

The New York families are still a problem, but in most of the country the Cosa Nostra is no longer a priority for law enforcement, observes Jeffrey Sallet, the head of the FBI’s New Orleans office. Sallet was a key figure in drives that devastated New York’s Bonanno family in the early 2000s and later virtually eliminated the Mob’s Rhode Island branch.

Eric Seidel, a veteran anti-Mafia investigator in New York, acknowledges that the nation’s five most powerful and largest borgatas remain intact in the New York area. We greatly reduced their infiltration of labor unions, and control of huge honey pots, like garbage carting and the Fulton Fish Market, he says. Mafiosi, however, continue popping up in no-show, lucrative union jobs in construction, trucking, and waterfront industries, according to Seidel, who retired in 2016 as the chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Organized Crime Unit.

The current bosses and their soldiers are seemingly sustained by time-honored bread-and-butter rackets: illegal gambling; loan sharking; drug trafficking; and extortion of restaurants, nightclubs, and businesses. Moreover, Seidel and other authorities warn that the New York families are a significant presence in a relatively new billion-dollar enterprise—Internet gambling with credit cards and hard-to-trace overseas clearing houses in Costa Rica and elsewhere.

Internet gambling has been compared by some to the crack cocaine epidemic of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Richard Brown, the Queens, New York, district attorney, emphasizes. It is highly addictive.

Concrete evidence of the longevity of the New York and Northeast families was confirmed in the summer of 2016. FBI and local agents bagged forty-six alleged goodfellas on a litany of traditional rackets and modern digital crimes, ranging from loan sharking and extortion to Internet gambling, credit card skimming, and medical insurance frauds. Members of four New York City families along with the reputed Philadelphia Cosa Nostra boss, Joseph Skinny Joey Merlino, were accused of running a multimillion-dollar East Coast crime cooperative centered in the metropolitan New York area and extending from Massachusetts to Florida.

To ward off intensive scrutiny that bedeviled New York families in the past, investigators believe the new hierarchies have put a lid on whackings. No hits, no headlines, less pressure, says Seidel, noting that there has not been a notorious Mob slaying in the new century.

The emergence of a powerful Sicilian immigrant faction in New York, especially in the Gambino family, may be partly responsible for the murder moratorium. The Gambinos are essentially run now by its Sicilian wing, known as Zips, mobsters who are mainly immigrants from Sicily with close ties to crime families in Sicily and Italy, says Philip Scala, the former head of the FBI’s Gambino Squad. The Sicilians have apparently adopted the savage system long used by Italian Mafia families to deter defectors. Yes, there are fewer hits but squealers know that not only will they be targets, but their closest relatives will be blown up, Scala explains. Previously, the American Mafia exempted relatives, known as civilians, from retaliation because of a betrayal by a close family member.

Another major development since 2000 is the reshaping of the Mafia Commission. For more than seventy years, America’s Mafiosi relied on the Commission, its version of a board of directors, to establish national crime policies and omertà, the code of silence and conduct for soldiers. The commission also resolved territorial and financial disputes between families.

New York’s gangs, which dominated the Commission, no longer conduct formal sessions with representatives attending from each family, and in the past sometimes with delegates from other regions. To discourage surveillance by investigators who might spot gatherings of prominent members, Scala revealed that family bosses or emissaries now confer on a one-to-one basis. They have to keep the Commission alive to cope with various problems, including threats from other organized crime groups, like Russians or Albanians, he maintains. But no big meetings.

Every New York family was rattled by scores of racketeering convictions in recent decades. Their combined strength in numbers, however, has fallen only slightly since the FBI launched its campaign to dismantle the families and their illegal economic empires. From a highpoint of about 1,000 made men in the 1980s, law enforcement estimates that the five gangs can now muster a total of 700 to 800 made or inducted soldiers and capos. Additionally, each family counts on dozens of associates assembled from wannabes, prospective recruits, and confederates who work or cooperate in the rackets for personal gain. The Genovese and Gambino borgatas, as they have since the formation of the American Mafia in the early 1930s, remain the nation’s largest and most potent gangs, each with more than a hundred soldiers.

The Mob may attract new recruits, but experts are betting that a brain drain will eventually undermine the existing ranks. Demographics have eliminated large Italian-American neighborhoods in cities where for generations, the Mafia lifestyle of huge profits and respect attracted a steady supply of eager applicants. As Italian-Americans relocated to suburbs and the depravities of the Mafia and omertà were exposed, a life on the streets with the Mob lost its appeal.

Echoing the viewpoint of most investigators, Jeffrey Sallet believes the Mafia is relying on a diminished gene pool. They still get people, but the talent level has decreased across the board, he asserts. As further evidence, Sallet cites the sardonic opinion of Joseph Massino, the former Bonanno boss who became a cooperating government witness after being convicted on extensive racketeering and murder charges in 2004. Massino told us that guys he once considered errand boys were now running families, Sallet added.

Regardless of the government’s onslaught, the Justice Department recently suffered embarrassing courtroom defeats in headlined trials of allegedly active and former Mafia big shots.

John A. Gotti, the son of the legendary Gambino leader and his temporary successor, was tried four times on a slew of major racketeering counts between 2004 and 2009—although he insisted that he had quit the Mob and left the life. Prosecutors were stymied each time and compelled to drop the charges in 2010 after four hung juries refused to convict Gotti, known as Junior.

In Philadelphia, the government was similarly humbled in 2014 when racketeering cases collapsed with acquittals or hung juries against Joseph Uncle Joe Ligambi, the former acting chief of the local borgata and one of his alleged capos, Joseph Scoops Licata. Both walked happily out of the courtroom, free men.

And federal prosecutors boasted in 2014 that at long last they had nailed a ringleader in America’s largest cash robbery—$5 million plus $1 million in gems from a Lufthansa terminal at Kennedy Airport in 1978. Again, a jury disagreed. The sole defendant, a wizened eighty-year-old Vincent Asaro, identified as a former Bonanno capo by the FBI, was acquitted on all charges in 2015. Thus, almost a half-century of investigations culminated in total failure, without a single dollar of the loot recovered.

Another setback for anti-Mafia crusaders disrupted a lengthy investigation by New York City detectives and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Their main target was Nicholas Cigars Santora, identified by government agencies as a long-established powerful capo in the Bonanno family. The seventy-two-year-old Santora, confined to a wheelchair, was indicted on state charges of enterprise corruption (New York’s little RICO law). He was accused of overseeing an internet bookmaking ring, loan sharking, and illegally peddling prescription drugs.

The DA’s case relied on four hundred bugged conversations and testimony from two turncoats. In May 2016, a hung jury resulted in a mistrial. Defense lawyers argued that overzealous investigators, desperate for a big case, had manufactured misleading evidence. Vowing to retry Santora, prosecutors grudgingly acknowledged that the Bonanno family was far from dormant, describing Santora as part of the Old Guard mentoring new Cosa Nostra soldiers.

On a separate front, the Mafia’s seduction of movie and television productions is clearly evident in the millennium. While presenting the violence and mayhem generated by American mobsters, many films and TV programs often portray fictional and actual figures as unique, compelling characters bent on defying authority in the pursuit of the American dream: living well and becoming rich.

Almost every day, a movie or series, like the Godfather films, is available on TV, especially on cable networks. At the start of the century, HBO produced The Sopranos, a blockbuster hit about a fictional New Jersey Mafia gang. It ran for six seasons with reruns still being broadcast. Another HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, based on New York and Chicago gangsters exploiting Atlantic City as a bootlegging fortress during Prohibition, ran until 2014 with reruns available.

An intriguing version of the Mafia’s history, The Making of the Mob, became an eight-part series on the AMC network in 2015. (I participated as an analyst in the programs.) New segments were on the drawing board in 2016.

The popularity and interest in mobster barons and culture led CBS’s top-rated 60 Minutes to interviews with John Gotti Jr. in 2010 and 2015. Gotti emerged as a fairly sympathetic, reformed ex-boss, who tried to rationalize his father’s pernicious conduct as well as the factors behind his joining and deserting the Mob. Gotti also plugged a big-budget movie being planned about his father’s career, with John Travolta in the lead role of the late mobster. Cuddling a young son in his arms, Gotti even conducted a guided tour of his high-end Long Island home.

The memory of the late John Gotti Sr. continues to evoke respect and admiration from surviving mobsters and sympathizers. At the 2015 wedding of one of his grandsons, five hundred guests anted up $2.5 million in cash gifts. Quite a legacy from the Dapper Don to a descendant. And, in the public arena, in death the original John J. Gotti has emerged as an icon to countless Mafia devotees.

Introduction

Everyone I know in the New York area has brushed up against the American Mafia at one time or another. Most were unaware of it.

Over the greater part of the twentieth century and into the new millennium, the Mafia, aka the Cosa Nostra and the Mob, generated a toxic effect on the lives of all New Yorkers and untold millions of Americans from coast to coast, surreptitiously rifling our pockets and damaging our overall quality of life. Much of the nation unwittingly subsidized in myriad ways the nation’s five most powerful and traditional Cosa Nostra organized-crime gangs, all based in New York, who prefer the warmer title of families.

From their New York headquarters, the families collectively created a vast domain, establishing outposts along the East Coast and in plum spots in Florida, California, and elsewhere. One of their sweetest financial coups was pioneering the secret acquisitions of big-time casinos in Las Vegas, converting a drowsy desert town into an international gambling mecca.

Unquestionably, the gangs known as the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese crime families evolved into the reigning giants of the underworld. For decades, they alone possessed the authority and veto power to dominate many of the country’s other Mafia organizations, reducing some to virtual satellites.

New York—the Cosa Nostra’s crown jewel—supported them through indirect Mob taxes on the purchases of clothing and basic foods like vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat. They siphoned handsome illegal profits when drivers filled up at gasoline pumps. They controlled waterfront commerce in the country’s largest port. They preyed on our garbage, inflating the cost of discarding every piece of refuse from homes and work sites. They cashed in on a billion-dollar construction industry, extracting payoffs from major government and private projects, ranging from courthouses to suburban housing tracts, apartment complexes, hospitals, museums, and skyscrapers. They even profited from their arch law-enforcement enemies by squeezing kickbacks from the builders of new FBI offices, police headquarters, and prisons.

The human cost of the Mafia’s depredations and plunder is incalculable. Their chieftains were directly responsible for the widespread introduction of heroin into cities of the East and Midwest in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Other less organized criminal groups, witnessing the enormous profits spawned by drug trafficking, followed in their footsteps. But it was the Cosa Nostra’s greed for narcotics dollars that accelerated crime rates, law-enforcement corruption, and the erosion of inner-city neighborhoods in New York and throughout the United States.

*   *   *

My first journalistic collision with the Mafia arose from an unexpected quarter—New York City’s public school system. That introduction, however, reflected the Mob’s insidious influence in so many shadowy areas of big-city existence.

In the early 1960s, my assignment as a new reporter on a major newspaper, the old New York World-Telegram and The Sun, was the education beat. I normally wrote about issues like declining reading and mathematics test scores, attempts to unionize teachers, and racial integration disputes—until I was pulled away by a mini scandal concerning shoddy construction and renovations that were endangering the safety of thousands of students and teachers in their classrooms. There was stark evidence of crumbling roofs, walls, floors, electrical fire hazards, and one instance of sewage mixing with drinking water in a high school. All of these violations stemmed from inferior, substandard materials and installations provided for years by a small clique of companies.

Digging into the backgrounds of the building-trades companies unearthed an unwholesome pattern: many firms had unlisted or phantom investors who were connected to Mob families. Much of the low bidding competition for lucrative school jobs apparently had been rigged by the Mafia to balloon profits through a gimmick called changed orders.

School officials responsible for construction and contract oversight were fired or abruptly quit, and negligent contractors were banned from future school work. But not a single mafioso involved in the mess was indicted. The reason: officials retreated, saying there were no clear paper trails incriminating mobsters in money skimming; and no contractor had the courage to testify about the Mob’s role in the scandal. In short, the Mafia endangered thousands of children and escaped unscarred, with its loot untouched.

Later as an investigative newspaper and television reporter, I kept running across the Mafia’s fingerprints on numerous aspects of government, law enforcement, unions, and everyday life.

There were stories of mobsters introducing and overseeing heroin trafficking in Harlem. Without strong police interference, blue-collar neighborhoods were destabilized and turned into drug souks.

There was the ordeal of George Whitmore, a black teenager framed for a triple murder and wrongly imprisoned for years, with the help of rulings by a judge appointed through the support of Mafia bosses.

There was the exposure of perfectly fit mafiosi obtaining Disabled Driver permits that allowed them to park almost anywhere in the congested city. Their covert friends at police headquarters authorized the valuable permits.

There was the chronic intimidation of Fulton Fish Market merchants who were compelled to fork over protection payments to mobsters to avoid daily harassment of their business operations.

And, there were the uphill struggles of honest painters, carpenters, and teamsters, who were brutally assaulted when they spoke up at union meetings about mobsters taking over their locals and ripping off their welfare and pension funds.

It required little sagacity for a reporter to determine that, by the 1970s, the Mafia operated as a surrogate state in the New York metropolitan area, brazenly dominating vital businesses and imposing its farrago of invisible surcharges on everyone. In fact, the Mob’s economic surge in the second half of the century was astonishing. A government analysis estimated that, in the 1960s, the illicit profit of the nation’s twenty-odd Mafia families topped $7 billion annually, approximately the combined earnings of the ten largest industrial corporations in the country. The lion’s share of the illicit wealth was reaped by the most powerful segment of the Cosa Nostra conglomerate—the five New York gangs.

For much of the twentieth century New York’s municipal and law-enforcement authorities seemed indifferent to these criminal inroads. Questioned in the 1970s about the Mafia’s sway, officials privately conceded that previous attempts to dislodge them had been largely futile and there was no public outcry for similar meaningless crackdowns. Then, too, the authorities felt that the public largely tolerated mafiosi as unthreatening to the general population, viewing them as a loosely organized group engaged largely in nonviolent crimes like bookmaking and operating popular neighborhood gambling dens.

The apologists contended that strict regulatory enforcement of the wholesale food, construction, and garbage-carting industries might produce severe economic headaches. City Hall and many law-enforcement agencies tacitly subscribed to a laissez-faire accommodation with the Mob. Almost everyone in power was content so long as food supplies reached restaurants and supermarkets, construction projects were completed, and refuse was picked up on schedule. A consensus decreed that so long as there were no incessant complaints, there was no reason to stir up trouble about mobster involvement in producing basic necessities.

Far too long, the majority of media editors were of a similar mind with officialdom. They preferred reporting on the occasional sensational homicides or internecine Mob wars in place of costly long-range inquiries to document Cosa Nostra’s economic clout and its manipulation of municipal agencies. A sizable part of the media preferred glamorizing mobsters as an integral and colorful segment of New York’s chaotic texture. Despite their criminal records and suspected participation in multiple murders, John Gotti, Joey Gallo, and Joe Colombo were accorded celebrity status and often portrayed not as merciless killers but as maverick, antiestablishment folk heroes.

Indeed, a commonly recycled story by newspapers and television subtly praised the Mafia, citing its formidable presence for low street-crime rates in predominantly Italian-American sections. With predatory crime soaring, two Mafia strongholds, Manhattan’s Little Italy and Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, were presented as safe havens to live in. Unreported and underemphasized were the factors behind these statistics. Significantly, the gangsters relied on sympathetic neighborhood residents to alert them to the presence of probing law-enforcement agents and suspicious outsiders trying to encroach on their bastions. These watchdogs helped turn their neighborhoods into xenophobic enclaves, sometimes resulting in violence against strangers, especially African-Americans and Hispanics.

The legend about security in Mafia-tainted neighborhoods still prevails in the new century. A friend in the suburbs expressed his relief about his daughter’s move to New York because she had found an apartment in a safe part of the city—Little Italy—protected by local Mob guys.

The world of organized crime is totally unlike any other journalistic beat, Accurate, documented data about the Mafia’s clandestine activities usually is difficult to verify. The five families never issue annual financial reports, nor do their bosses happily consent to incisive personality profiles. Over more than four decades, I compiled information piecemeal, combing through a variety of public and confidential records, court transcripts, real estate transactions, and files from federal and state law-enforcement agencies obtained through Freedom of Information laws.

There were also interviews with scores of active and former investigators, highlighted by the late Ralph Salerno, whose encyclopedic knowledge and documentation of the American Mafia remains unchallenged.

Then, too, there were the grim details of beleaguered workers resisting Mafia musclemen in control of their unions. Facts about labor rackets were gleaned with the aid of Herman Benson and James F. McNamara, two lifelong advocates of union reform, who could locate witnesses to mobster takeovers of their locals. Benson is a founder of the Association for Union Democracy, the principal national civic organization that aids activists battling corruption and organized-crime infiltration in the labor movement. McNamara, a former union organizer, became an expert consultant on labor racketeering for several law-enforcement agencies.

Persuading admitted mafiosi and their helpmates to talk candidly is never easy. I was fortunate in getting several to unravel the Mafia’s mysterious codes and culture and to elucidate the art of surviving in a volatile criminal environment.

One breakthrough in learning about contemporary Cosa Nostra lore and traditions came about obliquely in the early 1980s from a New York Times style rule. A mobster named Pellegrino Masselli was a central figure in a high-profile case about alleged Mafia profiteering from a New York City subway project and a mysterious murder. Most of the press delighted in referring to him by his underworld sobriquet, Butcher Boy. Because the Times prohibits the use of pejorative nicknames, my stories always referred to the gangster with an honorific: Mr. Masselli. Obviously unaware of newspaper etiquette, Masselli, out of the blue, telephoned a compliment for exhibiting proper respect to him in print. He also volunteered to be interviewed in his prison cell about the subway deal and the gangland slaying of his son.

That encounter initiated a relationship that lasted until Masselli’s death—from natural causes. Over five years, with the proviso that he would never be identified in new stories, Masselli offered tips on Mafia-related developments and enlightenment on ingrained Cosa Nostra customs. He was particularly revealing about the pathological mind-set of his fellow mobsters and how they judged one another’s conduct. Committing murder might be a horrific act for a normal person, but Masselli explained that a committed mafioso is unperturbed by violence. Moreover, he is applauded by his bosses and colleagues as long as the piece of work is done professionally and competently, even if a hit requires killing a good friend.

A lengthy on-the-record interview with another admitted mafioso, Anthony Accetturo, provided unique insight into a veteran Cosa Nostra’s experiences and thinking. A longtime capo, the head of a crew or unit in New Jersey, Accetturo, after being imprisoned for racketeering, agreed to be questioned and to reminisce freely about his Mob career and his dealings with important mafiosi.

Compelling information about the Mafia’s white-collar activities on Wall Street and other financial crimes came from a Cosa Nostra associate, or helper. Proclaiming himself rehabilitated, he described various schemes inaugurated to fleece investors when the Mafia capitalized on the 1990s stock market mania. His explanation for coming clean was a desire to appease his conscience and to prevent future suckers from being snared in organized-crime financial traps. Whatever his reasons, the information proved to be accurate. To protect him from retaliation, his identity must remain undisclosed.

In the last years of his life, Frank Ragano, a self-described Mob lawyer, offered an in-depth narrative of sordid legal and social relationships with prominent mobsters. Before he died, Ragano vowed to atone for ethical shortcomings that led him to defend the Cosa Nostra in court and behind the scenes. Belatedly, he acknowledged that ambition drove him to represent the Mafia as a fast track to wealth and recognition as an important attorney. He supplied unprecedented material on the personalities and machinations of his top clients, two powerful Southern bosses, Santo Trafficante and Carlos Marcello, and their contentious ally, teamsters’ union chief Jimmy Hoffa. He also knew intimate details of the Mob’s hatred and death wishes for President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.

These recent accounts by Mafia insiders and a legion of defectors, combined with a trove of intelligence reports from the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies, have contributed immensely to the history and comprehension of an underworld phenomenon. The collective goal of the five families of New York was the pillaging of the nation’s richest city and region. This is the saga of how they did it.

1

A Fiery Saint

If I betray my friends and our family, I and my soul will burn in hell like this saint.

As Tony Accetturo recited this grave oath, the holy picture in his hand perished in flames. A cluster of nodding, stone-faced men lined up to embrace him, kiss him on the cheek, and vigorously shake his hand, a collective gesture of solemn congratulations. For Accetturo, it was the most memorable moment of his life. The ceremony burnt into his soul; his prime ambition was fulfilled. He was now the newest member of an exclusive, secret coterie: he was a made man in the American Mafia.

Twenty years of faithful service, first as a stern loan-shark enforcer and later as a major earner, moneymaker, for important mobsters in New Jersey, had paid off bountifully for Accetturo. Earlier that afternoon, he intuitively grasped that this day would be significant. His orders were to rendezvous with Joe Abate, a reclusive figure who rarely met face-to-face with underlings, even though their lucrative extortion, gambling, and loan-sharking rackets enriched him. Abate, a sagacious capo in a borgata or brugard—Mafia slang for a criminal gang that is derived from the Sicilian word for a close-knit community or hamlet—supervised all operations in New Jersey for the Lucchese crime family.

Abate was waiting for Accetturo at a prearranged spot in the bustling Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. As a capo or captain, Abate was the impresario for more than one hundred gangsters, who illegally harvested millions of dollars every year for themselves and, as a tithe, sent a portion of their earnings to the administration, the Lucchese family leaders across the Hudson River in New York. Already in his mid-seventies, Abate bore no resemblance to a pensioner. Tall, lean, almost ramrod erect, he greeted Accetturo with a perfunctory handshake and walked briskly from the bus terminal.

On that June afternoon in 1976, there was little conversation as Accetturo, almost forty years younger than his capo, quickened his pace to keep in step with the energetic older man. Accetturo, a strapping, muscular two hundred pounds on a five-feet eight-inch frame, knew from a bitter encounter with Abate never to initiate small talk with him. Among New Jersey mafiosi, Joe Abate was a feared presence, a veteran combatant with an exalted aura. He had been a gunslinger for Al Capone in Chicago when Capone was America’s most notorious gangster in the 1920s. And in Abate’s presence, it was prudent to answer his questions directly and to carry out his commands without hesitation.

Several blocks from the bus terminal, at a clothing factory in Manhattan’s Garment Center, Abate introduced Accetturo to a grim-faced man who would drive them to another location. He was Andimo Tom Pappadio, an important soldier responsible for handling the Lucchese’s extensive labor extortions, bookmaking, and loan-sharking rackets in the Garment Center. Like the brief walk to the Garment District, the thirty-minute drive was a silent trip until they pulled up in front of a simple frame house. Unfamiliar with much of New York, Accetturo thought they were in the Bronx, the borough just north of Manhattan.

Inside a drab living room, several men unknown to Accetturo were waiting and one of them introduced himself as Tony Corallo. Accetturo knew that in the insular planet of the Mafia, this unsmiling, short, stocky man in his sixties was widely recognized by another name, Tony Ducks. And he keenly understood what that name represented. Antonio Corallo, whose nickname originated from a lifetime of evading arrests and subpoenas, was the boss of the entire Lucchese family. The small group of men were gathered in the living room for one reason: a secret ceremony that would transform Accetturo into a Man of Honor, a full-fledged made man.

Tony Accetturo was aware that the books, membership rosters in New York’s five Mafia families, had been closed for twenty years. Recently, whispers abounded that the rolls finally were being reopened for deserving people. Accetturo had agonized over his future, eager to end his long apprenticeship with coveted membership as a soldier.

Making your bones, the Mafia euphemism for passing its entrance examination, requires participating in a violent crime—often murder—or becoming a big earner for the family. Accetturo was confident that he had made his bones with high marks in both categories.

Accetturo had heard older men drop hints about the ritual of getting made. He had a vague idea that it involved incantation of ancient oaths of loyalty, sworn over a gun, a knife, a saint’s picture, and validated by bloodletting through a cut trigger finger. Yet when his ceremony was over, Accetturo was surprised and slightly disappointed by its brevity.

Without preamble, Tony Ducks rose from his chair in the living room, said, Let’s get started, and then bluntly told Accetturo that he was the boss of the family. Accetturo was handed a picture of a saint on a square piece of paper, told to burn it with a match, and to repeat the oath Corallo somberly intoned: If I betray my friends and our family, I and my soul will burn in hell like this saint.

Despite the abruptness and informality of the rite, Accetturo glowed inwardly with enthusiasm at its meaningfulness. I was bursting with excitement. It was the greatest honor of my life. They set me apart from ordinary people. I was in a secret society that I was aching to be part of since I was a kid, from the time I was a teenager.

Soon afterward, returning to his haunts in New Jersey, Accetturo learned from older made men, who could now talk openly with him because he had attained prized membership, the reason for the brusque initiation. Abate and other overseers in the Lucchese family thought so highly of his accomplishments and behavior that the trappings used to inculcate ordinary recruits were deemed unnecessary. He already knew the ground rules and was considered far superior and more knowledgeable of the Mafia’s code of conduct than most new soldiers. There was no question that he was suited for the life.

Over the next two decades, Accetturo would himself witness and learn from his underworld cronies how a more typical induction was performed by the American Mafia in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The ritual, modeled on secret practices with religious undertones begun by the Mafia in Sicily as far back as the nineteenth century, was intended to mark the vital passage from wannabe, an associate in the crime family, a mere striver without prestige, to a restricted rank with extraordinary dividends and extraordinary obligations.

While the liturgy was roughly similar throughout the country, in the New York area, the American Mafia’s acknowledged capital, a rigid formula prevailed among its five long-established gangs. The candidate had to be sponsored by the capo he would work for and personally cleared by the ultimate leader, the family representante, or boss. The final exam was the submission of the proposed soldier’s identity to the leaders of the other four borgatas for vetting to determine if there were any black marks or negative information against him. To maintain the fixed sizes and strength of the families and to prevent unauthorized expansions, a prospective member could only be added to replace a dead mafioso in his borgata.

Although probably surmising that his induction loomed, the recruit was never specifically told what was in store or the date he would be straightened out, promoted. On short notice he was instructed to get dressed, meaning wear a suit and tie, for an unspecified assignment. Made members picked up and escorted the initiate to the ordination. Driving to the site, a process known as cleaning or dry cleaning, was often employed to evade possible law-enforcement surveillance. The passengers might switch cars in public garages. They also drove aimlessly for as long as half an hour and then squared blocks, driving slowly with abrupt sharp turns, or reversed directions to shake investigators who might be tailing them on routine surveillance.

The special precautions were intended to conceal the meeting place from prying eyes, mainly because the family’s boss and other high-ranking leaders would be in attendance and protecting them from law-enforcement snoops was a paramount consideration.

Unlike the ceremony he conducted for Accetturo, at most inductions Tony Ducks Corallo officiated with greater pomp and formality. Do you know why you are here? he would ask at the outset, and the candidate was expected to reply untruthfully, No. This charade was enacted because the induction was presumed to be a closely guarded secret to prevent leaks to law-enforcement investigators and outsiders about the identities of the family’s leaders and its members.

Continuing, Tony Ducks explained, You are going to be part of this family. Do you have any objections to that?

Another member of the group circling the ceremonial table would then use a needle, knife, or safety pin to prick the candidate’s trigger finger, dropping blood over a picture of a saint. As the candidate held the bloody image aloft, someone put a match to it, and Tony Ducks directed the new member to repeat, May I burn, may my soul burn like this paper, if I betray anyone in this family or anyone in this room.

After scattering the ashes of the saint’s holy picture, Corallo or one of his lieutenants warned the newly made man that henceforth the borgata’s needs—including committing murders—came before any other obligation in his life. The initiate no longer owed allegiance to God, country, wife, children, or close relatives, only to the crime family. Decrees from the boss, who ruled as the family’s father, must instantly be obeyed, even if it meant neglecting a dying child.

At the ceremony for Tommy Ricciardi, a longtime sidekick of Accetturo’s, Tony Ducks and his henchmen carefully enumerated the family and the Mafia’s inviolable rules and protocol. The foremost principle was omertà, the code of silence that forbade the slightest cooperation with law enforcement, or more ominously, informing, ratting on anyone in the underworld.

A new button man, or soldier, remained under the direct control of the capo who recommended his membership. All illegal activities the soldier engaged in and even his legal businesses were put on record or registered with the family through his capo so that the organization could profit from these projects and utilize them for planning crimes and deals. Booty from legal and illegal activities was shared with the soldier’s capo; a percentage, depending on the mood of the boss, was funneled to him as a sign of respect and was used also for the borgata’s needs and overhead costs.

In business or social matters, only a made man from the Lucchese family and other borgatas could be introduced to other mafiosi as an amico nostro, a friend of ours. Others associated or working with the Mob were referred to simply as a friend, or my friend, as a cautionary signal that the third man was not made and no Mafia secrets should be discussed in his presence.

And the awesome word Mafia was banished from the group’s vocabulary. Its use, even in private conversations, was forbidden because it could be considered incriminating evidence at trials if overheard by prosecution witnesses or detected by investigators through electronic eavesdropping. Instead, if an organizational name had to be mentioned, the more innocent sounding Cosa Nostra, Our Thing, or the initials C.N. were used.

Despite any knowledge the recruit might possess at the time of his initiation, he was nevertheless formally instructed about the composition and powers of the family hierarchy. At the summit, the boss set policies as to what crimes and rackets the family would engage in and appointed and removed capos and other high-ranking leaders.

Like an imperial caesar, the boss’s most terrifying arbitrary authority was deciding who lived and died. Murders inside the family for internal reasons or the elimination of anyone outside the borgata could be sanctioned only by him.

Usually present at induction ceremonies were the underboss, the second-in-command, who assisted in running the family’s day-to-day business, and the consigliere, the counselor and adviser on family matters and on relations and disputes with other Mafia groups.

At Lucchese inductions, the identities of the bosses of New York’s four other large Mafia families (Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno, and Colombo) and a smaller one (DeCavalcante) based in New Jersey were disclosed to the new soldier. This confidential information came with the admonition that if another family boss was encountered he should be accorded the utmost respect.

Finally, several New York families concluded their ceremony with a ticada, Italian for tie-in or a tack-up. To demonstrate the internal solidarity of their secret organization, all witnesses and the new member clasped hands to unite in what the boss declared the unbreakable knot of brotherhood.

Alphonso D’Arco’s big day in the Lucchese family was August 23, 1982. He was instructed to get dressed, you’re going somewhere by his capo, picked up at a street corner in Manhattan’s Little Italy section, and like Tony Accetturo driven to a modest home in the Bronx. Four other candidates sat in the parlor, waiting to be summoned into another room, a kitchen. When D’Arco’s turn came, he was introduced to Tony Ducks Corallo and other members of the administration seated around a table.

Do you know why you’re here? one of the men asked, and D’Arco dutifully replied, No.

You’re going to be part of this family, the man continued. If you’re asked to kill somebody, would you do it?

D’Arco nodded his assent and then his trigger finger was pricked and the saint’s picture burned. One of the men surrounding the table removed a towel that covered a gun and a knife lying on the table. You live by the gun and the knife and you die by the gun and knife if you betray anyone in this room, the speaker said somberly. Finally, D’Arco repeated a version of the Mafia’s holy oath: If I betray my friends and my family, may my soul burn in hell like this saint.

Later, when the ceremony for all of the recruits was completed, Ducks Corallo rose and asked everyone to attaccata, to tack or tie up by holding hands. La fata di questa famiglia sono aperti, Corallo announced, meaning the affairs of this family are open. He then lectured his new soldiers on basic principles, precepts etched in D’Arco’s memory.

We were told not to deal in narcotics, counterfeit money, or stolen stocks and bonds, to respect the families or other members and not to fool around with other members’ wives or daughters. If any disputes arise that you and members cannot resolve, you must go to your captain. You do not put your hands on other family members. You are to maintain yourself with respect at all times. When your captain calls, no matter what time or day or night, you must respond immediately. This family comes before your own family. Above all, you do not discuss anything about this family with members of other families. If you do not abide by these rules, you will be killed.

Another unbreakable rule was imposed by Corallo: police and other law-enforcement agents could never be whacked, killed.

Whatever happened here tonight is never to be talked about, Corallo warned. Instructing the group to once more tack up, he finished in Italian: La fata di questa famiglia sono chiuso. (The affairs of this family are now closed.)

The afternoon event ended on a nonalcoholic, sober note with coffee, simple snacks, and pastry offered the men before the old hands and freshly minted mobsters dispersed in small groups.

D’Arco would learn that Corallo banned involvement in narcotics and counterfeiting and stealing stocks and bonds because these were federal offenses and meant heavy prison time. Corallo, like other Mob leaders, had good reasons to prevent hits on law-enforcement personnel. Murdering a cop, an investigator, or a prosecutor would unleash the fury of the law against the Mob and make normal business hazardous. Furthermore, the rule was aimed at maintaining strict discipline and preventing rash, unauthorized acts by hotheaded troops.

The day after the induction ceremony, D’Arco was the guest of honor at a select dinner with other crew members, given by his capo. It was an occasion for him and the twenty-odd members of his crew to be introduced to one another as equals. D’Arco’s new companions laughingly explained to him what would have occurred if he had refused at the Bronx ceremony to accept membership in the borgata: He would have been killed on the spot. His refusal would have been proof that he was an agent or an informer trying to infiltrate the family.

In the early days of his membership, more Cosa Nostra customs and rules were passed on to him by older soldiers. Some shibboleths were strange, particularly those concerning grooming and wardrobe. New York’s Mob leaders frowned on soldiers growing mustaches or wearing fabrics containing the color red. Mustaches were considered ostentatious and red was looked upon as too flashy by the conservatively dressed hierarchs. Inexplicably, some Mob big shots also believed that red garments were favored by rats, squealers.

Although they were always under the thumb of a capo and the administration’s kingpins, there were enormous potential benefits for loyal, ambitious soldiers like Al D’Arco and Tony Accetturo. A made man automatically had greater respect, prestige, and money-making opportunities. For starters, he was entitled to a larger share of the loot from his criminal activities than had been doled out to him as a wannabe or an associate, someone who works or cooperates with the family. And the newcomer became eligible for a cut of the profits from other family-controlled rackets.

Another gift to a soldier was the authority to organize and exploit his own wannabes in illegal activities. Most associates aspired to become made men, but only those of Sicilian or Italian ancestry were eligible. At one time, nearly all the families would induct only men whose mother and father were Italian. Eventually, the requirement was eased: as long as the father’s roots were Italian an applicant was eligible. Regardless of his value to the borgata, an associate without Italian heritage—even if he served as a hit man committing murders on demand or was a major earner—could never gain admission. A non-Italian might be highly respected but would never be acknowledged as equal to the lowest-ranking mafioso.

Equally important, as long as a soldier complied with the Mafia’s code of conduct, the family’s financial and legal connections were available. If he got into a jam and was arrested, the family paid for expensive legal talent. If a made man wound up in prison, the borgata’s family administration or his capo were expected to support his wife and children.

For loyalty and service to the family in a violent, dangerous environment, there was yet another vital bequest: a life insurance policy. A made man could be killed only on the orders of his boss and only for a serious infraction of a Mafia rule. Others who worked for a borgata or who were involved in deals with mafiosi lacked comparable protection. They could be whacked or maimed at the whim of a made man if a conflict arose between them. A soldier had the added security of knowing that other criminals who suspected or were aware of his connections feared injuring or insulting him; the lethal retaliatory power of the organization was well known in the underworld.

Joining the Mafia in the mid and late twentieth century was arduous and hazardous, but there was no shortage of applicants; and for recruits like Tony Accetturo, full membership glittered as a prize with outstanding financial rewards.

2

Tumac’s Tale

Anthony Accetturo’s attachment to the Mafia’s code of honor was a passport to underworld glory and respect. It eventually brought him a high rank in the Mob’s upper echelons and turned him into a multimillionaire.

His early life, however, did not augur success in any field. One of six children born to immigrant Sicilian parents, Accetturo grew up in the 1940s and early ’50s in Orange, a scruffy blue-collar suburb of Newark, New Jersey. His father, Angelo, a butcher and the owner of Accetturo’s Meat Market, tried unsuccessfully to interest Tony in his legitimate trade. The youngster preferred perfecting his talents in pool halls.

He had no interest in education, becoming a chronic truant after the sixth grade, and his parents, who placed little value on traditional education, consented to an early departure from school when he was sixteen. Barely out of his teens, the boy was sent to live with relatives in Newark, where he established himself as a fearsome scrapper in an Italian-American street gang of fifty to sixty young roughnecks. At sixteen, his reputation was enshrined when he brandished a crutch to batter an opponent unconscious, earning him the nickname Tumac. The name, based on the rugged caveman hero played by Victor Mature in a 1940 movie, One Million B.C., delighted the young Accetturo, and he adopted it as a lifelong sobriquet.

When not brawling, Accetturo largely supported himself by popping, breaking open and stealing coins from jukeboxes and cigarette-vending machines, unleashing a small-time crime wave that disturbed neighborhood merchants, and more important, a local big shot, Anthony Ham Delasco. A former professional boxer, Delasco summoned the teenager for a disciplinary lecture. From street talk and from his own observations of the deep respect accorded Delasco in the neighborhood, Accetturo knew he was encountering a substantial made man. Those machines belong to me, Delasco said menacingly. I want this bullshit to stop.

Delasco also saw potential in the aggressive seventeen-year-old and gave him a $75-a-week job. The teenager’s duties were to assist in running Delasco’s numbers, an illegal lottery gambling game, and using his brawn to collect debts and payments in his shylocking, loan-sharking operations.

Accetturo readily signed on and the wily mobster soon curbed his acolyte’s independent streak while teaching him an elementary Mafia lesson. Go get me an ice cream, Delasco one day ordered Accetturo as the young man stood with a group of admiring friends on a street corner. The embarrassed Accetturo knew he would be demeaned in front of his pals if he acted as an errand boy. But understanding that Delasco was testing his obedience, he bought his boss the ice cream.

I knew that if I wanted to stay with Ham and learn from him, he had to have absolute control over me, Accetturo explained. He had to break me and I took the bit in my mouth.

Accetturo became a prize pupil for Delasco and later for other mafiosi who replaced Delasco after his death. Tumac’s only slip-up as a wannabe occurred when he delivered a package stuffed with cash to Joe Abate, the austere capo. It was Abate’s monthly share of the proceeds from the Lucchese family’s Newark branch, and he was sitting alone in a parked car awaiting his payoff.

Eager to ingratiate himself with Abate, whom he had not previously met, young Accetturo remarked how honored he was to be in his presence. Abate icily ordered him out of the car and sped off. Three hours later, Accetturo was blisteringly reprimanded by an older mobster, Lenny Pizzolata, whom Abate had called.

Who the fuck are you to start a conversation with Joe Abate? Pizzolata barked. If you want to stay alive, never mention his name and speak only when you are spoken to.

Except for that single mistake, during the 1950s and ’60s Accetturo advanced smoothly in the borgata. He dramatically proved his mettle in the late ’60s when Newark’s African-American population increased sharply and black criminals began forcefully taking over numbers territories from white bookies. Bolstered by Accetturo and his handpicked gang of armed goons, the Lucchese faction held on to its stake in the numbers games. Police intelligence officials determined that Accetturo had smashed attempted incursions into Lucchese domains by a gang of militant Black Panthers. Although no homicide charges were brought, the police suspected that Accetturo’s unit was responsible for several murders committed to maintain Mafia dominance.

In 1979 the seventy-seven-year-old Abate was slowing down and went into semiretirement. Ducks Corallo did not hesitate to anoint Accetturo as his New Jersey capo, promoting Tumac over older soldiers who earlier had been his tutors. Accetturo quickly demonstrated his administrative skills. He enlarged the family’s traditional gambling, loan-sharking, and narcotics-trafficking schemes and began dabbling in labor racketeering. Through strong-arm tactics, the New Jersey crew gained control of corrupt union officials, clearing the way for the milking of employee welfare funds and threatening companies with Mob-enforced work stoppages unless payoffs were supplied for labor peace.

The new capo expanded the family’s operations to Florida, where he nurtured similar criminal ventures in the Miami area and, as a sideline, fixed horse races. Accetturo’s underworld successes allowed him to invest and become a partner in seemingly legitimate real estate, insurance, equipment rental, and other enterprises in New Jersey, Florida, and North Carolina. He maintained homes in each of the three states and planned to retire in North Carolina, where he posed as a respectable businessman.

His fortune grew so immense that he boasted of having stashed about $7 million in one-thousand-dollar bills, gems, gold, and rare coins as an emergency nest egg, in a safe concealed in a vault behind a bathroom vanity cabinet. While the riches flowed in, Accetturo thrived in the shadows, a relatively obscure mafioso, his name and importance largely unknown except to a handful of New Jersey law-enforcement experts on organized crime.

When sporadic problems with the law arose, Tumac could afford costly legal talent to get him suspended sentences or jail terms of only a few months for serious felonies. He had the money and the contacts for a $100,000 bribe to a juror to win acquittals for himself and twenty members of his New Jersey crew tried on racketeering charges. On another occasion, his stable of lawyers obtained a dismissal on charges against him of intimidating a vital witness in an assault case. In Florida a thorny conspiracy indictment was overcome by finding psychiatrists who classified him as mentally unfit to stand trial. The diagnosis of presenile dementia, early Alzheimer’s disease, was a total fraud. I slipped and banged my head in the shower and the Alzheimer’s went away, he told friends, grinning unabashedly.

For almost four decades, the Mafia—the Cosa Nostra—with its sordid deals, violence, and murders, was an existence Accetturo accepted and cherished. He considered a Mafia life so admirable and worthwhile that he welcomed one of his two sons into the fold as a made man in his crew.

Engraved in his mind was the day he held the flaming picture of a saint in his hand, swearing eternal allegiance to the borgata that embraced him. Even before his induction, he understood that the most unforgivable transgression a made man could commit was violating omertà, the code of silence. The penalty for informing was usually a bullet in the back of the apostate’s head, and Accetturo never doubted that such executions were deserved.

But after a lifetime of loyalty, Tumac, the renowned, dreaded capo, the quintessential Mafia success, renounced omertà and other principles he once lived by. He became a traitor. To prosecutors, to investigators, he disclosed criminal secrets from decades of intrigue. His words exposed dozens of mobsters who had followed and obeyed him as their trusted commander. Moreover, his defection symbolized an unprecedented malaise afflicting the Cosa Nostra. Omertà and the other maxims that for seventy years had shielded Accetturo and other self-appointed Men of Honor were being undermined by relentless internal and external forces.

As the twenty-first century dawned, the Cosa Nostra was imperiled as never before. During the previous century the Mafia had forged a unique and almost unassailable criminal organization in America. And much of its frightening power arose from an arcane legacy transported to urban America from provincial Sicily.

3

Roots

To the casual traveler, Sicily for centuries was an enchanted land, one of the most pleasant places on earth to live. It was comforting to be seduced by the island’s inordinately gracious people, sunny weather, alluring palm trees, and the delicate fragrance of its orange and lemon blossoms.

But those intoxicating, superficial impressions were largely a mirage. For over two thousand years, most of Sicily’s population endured tyranny and suppression under foreign conquerors and feudal overlords. From ancient times until the mid-nineteenth century, the nine-thousand-square-mile island was raided, invaded, and even traded—actually exchanged for other territories—by foreign rulers. Sicily’s strategic and vulnerable location, almost in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, close to southern Italy and North Africa, subjected it to an endless succession of occupation and oppression by Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, French, Spanish, Austrian, and finally hostile Italian armies.

Sicilians survived these occupations by developing a culture rooted in two basic concepts: contempt for and suspicion of governmental authorities; and tight-knit alliances with blood relatives and with fellow countrymen facing the same perils.

Analyzing the fundamental siege mentality of large numbers of Sicilians from the vantage point of the twentieth century, Luigi Barzini, in his book The Italians, observed: They are taught in the cradle, or are born already knowing, that they must aid each other, side with their friends and fight the common enemy even when the friends are wrong and the enemies are right; each must defend his dignity at all costs and never allow the smallest slights and insults to go unavenged; they must keep secrets, and always beware of official authorities and laws.

Over time, these historical and cultural underpinnings spawned furtive clans, in Sicilian dialect, cosche, for self-preservation against perceived corrupt oppressors. Without the security of reliable public institutions to protect them or their property, the clans, which were mainly in the countryside, relied on stealth, compromise, and vendetta to extract private justice.

Eventually, the secret cosche became commonly labeled in Sicily by a single name: Mafia. Over hundreds of years, they evolved from guerrilla-like, disorganized bands for self-defense into greedy, terrifying gangs, whose basic concepts and guiding principles would extend, with profound influence, far across the seas to America.

Like much of the Sicilian Mafia’s roots, the origin of its name is cloaked in folklore and mystique. A romantic legend maintains that the name was born in the late thirteenth century during an uprising against French Angevin forces in Palermo, Sicily’s main city. According to this tale, a Sicilian woman died resisting rape by a French soldier and, in revenge, her fiancé slaughtered the attacker. The fanciful episode supposedly sparked the creation of a rebellious, acronymic slogan from the first letter of each word: Morte alla Francia Italia anela (Death to France is Italy’s cry). A revolt against the French occupation army in 1282 was called the Sicilian Vespers, because the signal for resistance was the ringing of church bells for evening prayers.

A less romantic and more likely derivation of the name Mafia is a combined Sicilian-Arabic slang expression that means acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful. Until the nineteenth century, the appellation mafioso, a Mafia member, had wide currency in Sicily as a noncriminal, resolute man with congenital distrust of centralized authority.

A mafioso did not invoke State or law in his private quarrels, but made himself respected and safe by winning a reputation for toughness and courage, and settled his differences by fighting, the English historian Eric J. Hobsbawm noted. "He recognized no obligation except those of the code of honor or omertà (manliness), whose chief article forbade giving information to public authorities."

To a nineteenth-century Sicilian with a cultural heritage of centuries of danger and oppression, true manhood was said to consist of an independent arrogance in which a man kept silent in the event of a crime. The Sicilian reserved the right of personal vendetta, vengeance, for offenses committed against himself and his relatives.

Mafia clans never functioned under a united, centralized command for the entire island. They sprung up as regional bands organized primarily to protect specific local interests from foreign aggressors and intruders from other regions of Sicily. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, mafiosi were portrayed by some writers as patriotic partisans who had defended and upheld the island’s hallowed traditions. The clans were also called families, with the leader of each referred to as padrino, father, or as the capo di famiglia, the autocratic chief of the family who arbitrated disputes and controversies in his extended group.

In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi, a military hero of the Risorgimento, the movement to unify Italy, landed in Sicily with a thousand volunteer fighters immortalized as Red Shirts for their distinctive military attire. Aided by popular support on the island, Garibaldi easily defeated the troops of the King of the Two Sicilies, and the last Spanish Bourbon monarch was deposed.

Among the rebels who rallied to Garibaldi’s army and his call for social justice were about two thousand roughhewn farmers from the countryside who, as economic conditions warranted, alternated between working the fields and holing up in caves as bandits. Symbolizing the respect afforded to these part-time peasants and part-time brigands, they were glorified by Garibaldi as his Squadri della Mafia, Mafia squadron.

A year after Garibaldi’s landing and lightning military victory, Sicily—an area about the size of Vermont—was incorporated as a province into the newly formed state of Italy. In 1863 a play appeared in Sicily titled I Mafiosi della Vicaria, translated in English as Heroes of the Penitentiary. The mafiosi in the drama were oppressed but valiant patriots and prisoners who showed their physical audacity in knife duels. The play toured Sicily and Italy and the performances were instrumental in introducing the words Mafia and mafiosi into the common language of Italy. An Italian dictionary from 1868 defined mafia in noncriminal terms as denoting bravado.

Within a decade, however, liberation and the removal of the old pillars of authority brought widespread disorder and rampant crime to the island. These conditions created fertile prospects for the best-organized Mafia cosche, which could mobilize small private watchdog armies. They took advantage of the turmoil and the judicial and governmental vacuums by turning to subtle forms of criminal activities. During a period of little law or order, the cosche demanded systematic payments from wealthy landholders and businessmen to safeguard their properties from vandals and to protect them and their relatives from abductions and ransom demands.

Oddly, to restore a semblance of law and order, the new national government in the 1870s enlisted the clans to help capture the most violent non-Mafia bandits. These roving marauders were terrorizing the island and were viewed as a criminal epidemic, threatening public safety and Sicily’s economic stability.

As a reward for the Mafia’s aid, the nascent government in Rome secretly pledged that the cosche could continue without interference their own refined style of plunder and economic domination over sections of Sicily. The Rome officials, mainly from north and central Italy, were unfamiliar with the nuances of Sicilian culture and viewed the private deal as an expedient compromise. Overconfident, they believed the Mafia leaders would serve as temporary middlemen between themselves and the island’s population, and would help to maintain order until the young constitutional monarchy gained the strength to impose its own will.

The arrangement, however, gave a virtual license and a new impetus to Mafia families. The strongest clans were in northwestern Sicily near Palermo; they began functioning openly and more brazenly, without any thought of relinquishing their privileged positions.

Italy’s unification and

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