With its roots in medieval Sicily, the Mafia began as a network of rural enforcers for an aristocratic ruling class. By the late 19th century, it had evolved into a criminal organization that kept de facto control of the political life and agricultural resources of the island’s poverty-stricken interior. In America, early mafiosi preyed on their own immigrant community, gradually attracting the attention of law enforcement. But the brazen 1909 murder of New York City Detective Joseph Petrosino, the nation’s first anti-Mafia investigator, demonstrated the power and reach of the mysterious Sicilian network as it joined America’s organized-crime mainstream.
Has any criminal collective been romanticized in popular culture as much as the Sicilian Mafia? It isn’t the only regional crime network in Italy; its rivals in the business of murder, smuggling, and theft there include the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Camorra of Naples. And it certainly isn’t America’s only ethnically organized crime syndicate, with Irish, Jewish, German and, more recently, Russian mobsters committing their share of corrupt mayhem over the years.
Bear in mind that a criminal gang thrives in a modern society either because of the indifference of civil authority, or with its tacit agreement. With its roots deep in Sicily’s feudal age, the Mafia first appeared as a rural criminal network in the mid-19th century, and then thrived internationally in the 20th precisely through a mix of official indifference and tacit approval.
Historically, the problem with Sicily was how to maintain order, and to exploit its people and resources, from a distance. Central to the Mediterranian world, the island was prized from ancient times to the dawn of the modern era, ruled by several empires of four distinct cultures. With a few notable exceptions, order through the ages was maintained with generous helpings of terror and violence.
The history of Sicilian cruelty stretches back millennia. Greek and Carthaginian city states fought over control of the island for three centuries before the Romans took nearly another hundred years to add it to their expanding empire in 146 B.C.E. After those 400 years of massacres, battles, and sieges, for the next five centuries Sicily was a slave state of vast wheat fields that fed the empire.
After Rome fell, the Goths, then Byzantine Greeks, changed nothing of that arrangement. In the mid-seventh century, invading Saracen Moors drove the latter from the island. The Arabic owners introduced citrus trees and sugarcane, and turned the island’s main city – which they called Balarm and is now known as Palermo – into a lush enclosure of villas, gardens, and waterways.
An Arabic inscription in Palermo's church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio reads "In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate." (Image Credit: Matias Süssen via Wikimedia)
But the highly cultured Arab emirs were too busy fighting each other to resist incursion by Norman raiders in 1056, the latest cadres of enterprising mercenaries who trooped down from northern France to become warlords of the Italian south.
The two centuries of Norman rule were something of a reprieve thanks to the tolerance exercised by the northern warlords. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews were free to worship as they pleased, and a new economy of trade, arts, and learning grew next to the traditional, systemic exploitation of Sicily’s peasants and agriculture.
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New Rulers, but the Same Old Rules
The Normans generally instituted the French feudal system of baronial estates that would survive their passing. Finally lacking male heirs, the Norman’s Sicilian kingdom was merged by marriage into the Holy Roman Empire, then taken by the Angevin French, who invaded in 1266. Meanwhile Arabic people joined the island’s broader population, bringing with them parts of their language that added to Sicily’s unique, quasi-Italian dialect.
Mu’afa, an Arabic word meaning protection, and Ma’afir, the tribal name of Palermo’s former rulers, are both seen as possible roots of the word that stands for an ancient strain of violence and corruption that still casts a shadow over Sicily and the rest of Italy: Mafia.
It first appears as the name of a Palermo group that led the bloody 1282 uprising against the despised Angevins. Over the course of six weeks, thousands of the French interlopers were massacred across the island. In the aftermath, the word mafiusu came to mean a swaggering, boastful, proud individual.
By the 16th century, Sicily had become a possession of the Spanish crown, ruled by the Bourbon dynasty for the next 300 years. Administered from mainland Naples, the island’s feudal system was unchanged. Order was maintained on the enormous baronial estates – none smaller than 5,000 acres – with private security forces.
“Guards and overseers,” wrote the anti-Mafia journalist Michele Pantaleone, “were always selected from men with an unusual criminal record, which made them particularly suitable for the job.”
Stronger in the western portion of the island, mafia bands had not yet coalesced into a single criminal project. Mafias for the wheat and olive farms of the island’s interior were distinct from the gangs that preyed on coastal citrus producers. After Sicily’s feudal system was abolished following an 1812 peasant uprising, land reform was further broadened after Garibaldi’s unification of Italy in 1864.
The word Mafia is mainly used by outsiders. Mafia insiders prefer the term Cosa Nostra, Italian for “our cause” or “our thing,” for their organization.
With the dividing of the great estates, the former feudal guards now extorted “protection” from the new smaller farms, and murdered with impunity anyone who presumed to oppose them. Killings, kidnappings, and theft were rampant. These were measures carried out by a state-within-the-state, by which Sicily’s traditional landowners accepted Mafia incursions as the price for maintaining the old order.
Ironically, Italian unification eventually unified the Mafia, granting it greater control over Sicilian politics that it used to grow into an international criminal network.
The great Sicilian novelist Giuseppi di Lampedusa presents a portrait of the new-style mafiosi in his masterpiece of historical fiction, The Leopard. In it, Don Calogero Sedara has accumulated a new fortune by buying up the land of the declining aristocracy. The deeply ambitious Sedara, a rural town mayor, has a beautiful daughter who attracts the attention of a penniless count. The count’s uncle, Don Fabritzio Corbera, is a prince whose shrinking estate borders Sedara’s land, and now must decide if his noble nephew can marry the mafioso’s daughter.
(Image courtesy of Miguel Virkkunen Carvahlo, via Wikimedia)
Without using the word Mafia, Lampedusa highlights the cloud of corruption surrounding Sedara: his conveniently murdered father-in-law, his obvious rigging of a local election, the unaccountable way his enormous fortune grew so quickly. The realistic, world-weary prince, himself smitten with the mafioso’s daughter, agrees to the match. In his mind, though, the aging aristocrat compares accepting Sedara as an in-law to chewing and swallowing a toad.
How Bandits Become Heroes
A repressed populace will often bestow a status to outlaws as heroic rebels against hated authority. The best known example is Robin Hood, subject of early tales and folk ballads of the English peasantry. Robin’s gang redistributed wealth and presented a challenge to an evil sheriff and tyrannical prince.
This process was repeated in 20th century rural America when violent, Depression-era bandits like the team of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd were mythologized as defenders of working people ruined by bloodsucking banks.
In the four decades before 1920 when southern Italians, Sicilians especially, were despised second-class citizens in the United States, any one of them who commanded respect while flouting authority was easily seen as a defender of the weak and marginalized. And so mafosi gained a shallow American glamour.
But it is an entirely different matter when, as in turn-of-the-century Sicily, the crooks are the de facto authorities, happy to rob, and kidnap, and kill, if necessary, rich and poor alike. Criminal violence was one of several factors that drove young Sicilian men from the island to new lives in the industrialized Italian north and, in huge numbers, to the United States.
In one example, from 1887, the son of a rural olive oil dealer left his home on horseback one day and was never seen again. It was said that he drowned attempting to cross a river (the dead horse was found downstream), but his father’s trade would have been a logical extortion target, and vanished bodies were a mafia specialty. Accidental witnesses to remote crimes were also known to disappear. Whatever the case, the missing boy’s two older brothers left for America, never to return. Twelve years later, they brought their parents and sister to Buffalo, New York, which is how the girl who became my grandmother came to the United States.
Old Trouble In a New Land
By the early 20th century, as part of the southern Italian diaspora in the United States, Mafia gangs were established in eastern cities, especially in New York’s Little Italy. For years, city law enforcement ignored them – at first because officials didn’t care what happened in a poor, clannish subculture that was nearly impossible for outsiders to communicate with, much less infiltrate.
These first New York “families” carried on illegal activities established in the old country: extortion, kidnapping, theft, and murder of rivals. As Italians assimilated into American society, the “Black Hand,” as these gangs were collectively known, was soon understood as a threat to honest citizens.
NYPD Detective Joseph Petrosino
(Image credit: Wikimedia)
The first significant inroads against the Mafia in America were the virtually single-handed work of the New York Police Department’s first Italo-American officer, Joseph Petrosino. Born in Salerno in 1860, Petrosino was sent to New York as a boy. Following the death of his Italian guardian, Petrosino lived in the home of a city judge, awakening an interest in law enforcement.
Fluent in several Italian dialects, Petrosino joined the force in 1883 and immediately went after Italian criminals preying on their own community. In 1895, he was promoted to detective sergeant by Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and given a mandate to pursue mafiosi. He set up a network of informants, infiltrated gangs, kept files on known malefactors, and fought to have them deported.
In 1908, Petrosino was made a lieutenant and head of a special squad of undercover Italo-American police detectives specifically detailed to jail Mafia members. He was blunt about the threat they posed: “The crimes that occur among the Italians here, are the same as those committed at one time by rural outlaws in Italy; and the victims, like the killers, come from the same ignorant class of people. In short we are dealing with banditry transplanted to the most modern city in the world.”
By now Petrosino’s exploits made him something of a celebrity, too well-known for undercover work. In early 1909, Petrosino went to Palermo with a list of New York mafiosi, hoping to gather prison documents to aid in deportation proceedings. On his first night in the city, he was shot to death in a central square. A mafioso whom Petrosino had deported from New York was arrested. He was found not guilty at trial after a Palermo city councilman provided an alibi. Years later, the suspect privately confessed to the killing.
Asked to comment on Petrosino’s murder, President Theodore Roosevelt said: “I can’t say anything except to express my deepest regret. Petrosino was a great man, a good man. I knew him for years, and he did not know the name of fear.”
Petrosino’s funeral procession drew 250,000 mourners. That a hero New York City cop was murdered with impunity while on a secret official assignment underscored the threat and power of what had evolved into an international criminal enterprise. The political and economic turmoil of the next few decades would prove to be very good for the mafia’s bottom line.
Read Joe Gioia's 'The Mafia, Part 2'