History Of Italian Mafia Essay, Research Paper
History of the Mafia
The origins of the secret society known as the Mafia are believed to be as old as the 9th century. During that period the island of Sicily was occupied by Arab forces. The original inhabitants were oppressed, and needed places of refuge to escape to. The word “Mafia” means “refuge” in Arabic. When the Normans invaded Sicily in the 11th century, the native tribes were once again oppressed and forced into labor on the large estates their rulers created. Once again, the only way to escape this fate was to seek refuge in the hills of the island. During every subsequent invasion of Sicily, the refuges established in earlier centuries were sought out again.
This secret society was at that time mostly intended to unify the natives against their enemies. Its intention was to create a sense of family based on ancestry and Sicilian heritage. This idea of family was carried through in the structure of the organization, which had a strongly hierarchical layout. At the head of the organization stood the dons, or chiefs, who were in charge of the Mafia chapters in every village. They in turn reported to the don of dons, who resided in the capital, Palermo. Members of the organization were required to take an oath upon initiation. This oath included the five basic principles on which the Mafia was, and to this day is, based:
– Omerta: A code of silence. A vow never to reveal any Mafia secrets or members under the threat of torture or death.
– Total obedience to the boss.
– Assistance to any befriended Mafia faction, no questions asked.
– Avenge any attack on members of the Family, because an attack on one is an attack on all.
– Avoid any and all contact with the authorities.
By the 19th century the Mafia had grown vast and strong and where it initially had been a small, partisan organization, it had turned into a large, criminally oriented society, ignoring all forms of authority except their own. At this time the most common form of extortion was the practice of handing out Black Hand notes, which had started in the 1700s. These notes, handed to wealthy citizens, were polite requests for an amount of money in return for protection. Of course, the only people that these victims needed protection against were the same criminals who handed them these notes. If the victims did not comply with these requests, they and their family could usually expect violence, kidnapping, bombings, and murder to be used agaisnt them as convincing arguments.
In 1876 Mafia Don Raffaele Palizzolo decided to run for political office and thereby infiltrate the government of Sicily with plans to manipulate it from the inside out. He succeeded by having voters vote under gunpoint and , once in office, arranged for his colleague, Don Crispi, to be elected as Prime Minister of Sicily. With this move the entire island came under Mafia control, and it was very easy to start funneling funds into Mafia hands.
Of course there was considerable opposition to these practices, mostly from the side of righteous politicians and the aristocracy. This opposition was usually met with violence. The most well known example of this was the case of Emanuel Notarbartolo, director of the Bank of Sicily. He had publically promised to rid the country of the Mafia once and for all, but when he was assassinated in 1893, his position was taken over by Don Palizzolo himself. When Notarbartolo’s son vowed to bring his father’s killers to justice he managed to get Palizzolo indicted, but the latter’s control of the government stretched so far that he was released. Witnesses had been unwilling to cooperated and even police documents had not been available to the court for review.
When people from all over Europe started moving to America to find new and better opportunities, many Mafia men saw their chance to escape prosecution in their home country. A direct result of this, of course, was that the Mafia organization was imported into the United States. During the late 1800s, Black Handers thrived in the Italian neighborhoods of America’s cities. At that time, the city of New Orleans was the largest Mafia base in this country.
During NO Police Chief David Hennessey’s investigation of the murder of an Italian immingrant and Mafia member, he slowly began learning more about a ’secret society’ that was operating in his city. After interviewing many Italian citizens, requesting cooperation of the Palermo police department, and a lengthy investigation, he believed he was ready to expose and destroy the Mafia organization in New Orleans. Before he was able to, however, the dons of the city had him assassinated.
A public outcry followed Hennessey’s elimination, and over a dozen people were charged with his murder. The people of NO had grown angry and scared, however, and in March 1891, a large group of citizens formed a vigilante group. They attacked the prison in which the suspects of the murder were being held, dragged them out onto the street, and lynched them. As a direct response to these rash actions, the Italian Ambassador demanded that the lynch mob themselves be brought to justice, and several Italian-American citizens organizations organized protests. Initially they got cold-shouldered by the American government, but eventually the matter was settled when President Harrison went before Congress to express his disapproval of the conduct of the people of NO, and awarded $25,000 to the families of the lynched men.
In the overall growth of the Mafia in the US, the NO lynchings did little to deter the Sicilian criminals from setting up new chapters all over the country. By the early 1900s every large city had its own Mafia chapter, most of which concentrated on protection rackets in the vein of the Black Handers. The dons soon expanded their options, however, by creating new rackets in areas such as prostitution, gambling, and, with the dawn of the Prohibition era in the 20s, bootlegging. This time is probably the most legendary in gangster history, with gangsters almost openly declaring their power and wealth. In cities all over the US the Mafia flourished. Al Capone in Chicago and Charles Luciano in New York (among others) amassed millions of dollars by selling alcohol and women and controlling every other aspect of crime imaginable.
Towards the end of this decade the first national crime syndicate came into existence under the guidance of Luciano. Supported by strong arm, Murder, Inc., the syndicate succeeded in bringing all the individual cities under one command. Of course, if a particular boss declined to pay his tribute to the Syndicate, he could be certain to be convinced in very unpleasant ways. Of all the bosses that served as Directors of the Board of the Syndicate, only Meyer Lansky would remain in criminal life in the US after World War II. All the others had either been successfully prosecuted and locked up, or murdered by rivals.
By this time the Mafia’s control spanned across almost all areas of business, and perhaps life, in America. Not only did the bosses control the criminal rackets, they also ventured out into legitimate businesses, partially to make more money, but mostly to launder the illegal millions coming in from their rackets. Benny Siegel had been the first to build a super-casino in Las Vegas, but was murdered before it became profitable. Within ten years of his death, however, Las Vegas had become the prime spot for gangster investments, with enormous amounts of cash flowing in from skimming the casinos.
The Mafia has since long had vast influence in the field of labor unions. This serves a number of purposes: it extends their control over legitimate businesses, it provides the opportunity to obtain and invest large amounts of money ‘legally’, and it increases the influence the Mafia boss has in political life. Jimmy Hoffa, former Teamsters union president, was probably the most famous corrupt union leader until he mysteriously disappeared in 1975.
The Mafia in the 90s is an immensely vast organization that continues to grow in power. The Syndicate started by Luciano and his contemporaries remains firmly in control over the larger part of organized crime in the US, while other parts of the world have experienced a large increase in organized criminal activity. Most notable among these new ’syndicates’ are the Colombian drug cartels that were started in the 70s, and the new crime cartels in Eastern Europe, started after the fall of Communism.