Mob Mentality: A Brief History of The Mafia

Last week Trevor McDonald attempted the impossible; to shed light on the current state of the Mafia in America without taking into account the complex history of the organisation. The show, rather self-explanatorily titled ‘The Mafia with Trevor McDonald’ largely failed as an exercise, but that is perhaps more to do with the direction that was taken within the programme itself.

McDonald could have made an interesting exposition of the history of the mob from Sicily to America, tracking the rise in the late 19th century to its more recent fall from grace. Instead, however, it became a rather banal two hours of watching what felt like the same five minute interview over and over again, feeling like a circle of Dante’s infamous inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter beyond the first five minutes, it gets no better.

It did, however, get me thinking about the cultural power of the Mafia, and how little we actually know about the inner workings of the gang. Sure, we have The Godfather, The Sopranos and Goodfellas as our pop-culture reference points but how accurate are they really? So I thought it would be a good excuse to dive into the history of the group, from its origins in Sicily to its more famous American cousin. In order to give a brief background to this, I am going to ignore the offshoots that have appropriated the name mafia in other countries such as Russia and China, and focus solely on the rise and fall of the organised crime unit that began in Italy and slowly planted its roots across the Atlantic.

The Italian Origins

So how did it all come about? Myths abound about where the Mafia came from, but it all probably started a lot more recently than you think. Despite various sources claiming it comes from the times of Arabic occupation of Sicily and the feudal system that was created because of that, actual evidence of the Mafia’s activities cannot be traced until the mid 1800s, just after the forced unification of Italy by Garibaldi.

According to John Dickie’s excellent book ‘Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia‘ the now eponymous crime organisation actually began in a somewhat unexpected place; the citrus groves of the Italian island. According to Dickie, by ‘the mid-1880s an astonishing 2.5 million cases of Italian citrus fruit arrived in New York each year, most of them from Palermo’.

This burgeoning industry required an incredible amount of start-up capital, but could make you rich if you spent your money right. This, however, created the ideal setting for the mob to hone their now famous intimidation tactics. To quote Dickie again:

‘As well as being investment intensive, lemon trees are also highly vulnerable. Even a short interruption to water supplies can be devastating. Vandalism, whether directed at the trees or the fruit, is a constant risk. It was the combination of vulnerability and high profit that created the perfect environment for the mafia’s protection rackets.’

So, the most famous criminal fraternity in the world has its roots in intimidating extremely wealthy lemon farmers in the late 19th century. Hardly the first image that springs to mind when you hear the word mafioso now is it?

Of course, the Cosa Nostra has moved on a little since those days, and we are principally aware of it because of the pop-culture influence it had during the late 70s through to the late 90s. From Scarface (loosely based on Al Capone) to The Sopranas, we are lucky to an abundance of riches in mob figures taking over our screens, but of course these principally focus on the American arm of the infamous mob, so how exactly did what started as a small but successful profiteering racket manage to make the leap across and ultimately have such a huge influence on the organised crime of the world’s most powerful democracy?

The Transatlantic Leap

The short and honest answer is basically immigration. From the 1870s onwards, America, and particularly New York, saw huge waves of immigration from Italy, some of whom were inevitably ‘men of honour’ who had had some exposure to the Mafia lifestyle in Sicily. This led to the establishment of the prototype for the American arm of the mob, the Five Points Gang, by Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli. This gang would be the making of some of the most famous names in Mafia folklore, from Al Capone to Charles Luciano, and was the foundation upon which the pyramids would later be built.

Luciano got his start in the Five Points Gang
Luciano got his start in the Five Points Gang

The American Mafia’s true period of success, however, came during America’s bizarre experiment with the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. A fresh wave of Italians showed up, fleeing Mussolini’s Italy, and joined forces with their Mafia brethren that were already settled in the States. Together they created a huge industry of illegal alcohol production and bootlegging, and established themselves as the most powerful organised crime network in the country, finally overpowering their Irish-American rivals in a long-running battle that ended in Capone ordering the now notorious Valentine’s day massacre in 1929. This marked the beginning of Mafia domination that was to last decades.

For 50 years following Prohibition, the mafia had a hand in most industries of which you could think. After alcohol was made legal once more in 1933, they had to branch out into more traditional money making roots in order to keep the healthy profits they had accrued in those years, and they began getting involved with things as wide ranging as construction and drug trafficking to go along with their traditional racketeering, and thus they were cemented as easily the most successful crime syndicate in the country.

The Fall

The mafias true power, though, came from its mix of intimidation and influence, which allowed its code of silence, the famous omertà, to remain functional. Part of the success of the American Mafia was that anyone that was caught committing illegal activity knew they had a better chance serving their time  in prison than they had if they broke the code. Traitors were murdered in cold blood, while those who co-operated with the families’ wishes found key witnesses in their cases disappearing or refusing to testify, while those who did end up in jail always had their families looked after while they were away.

However, this could only last so long before the police began to offer better deals than even the Mafia could offer, and everything came crashing down in 1992 with the conviction of ‘Teflon Don’ John Gotti, head of New York’s Gambino crime family. Gotti had previously been acquitted in a number of high profile trials, hence his name – nobody could make anything stick to him.

The Teflon Don before his conviction
The Teflon Don before his conviction

This all changed in 1992, when Gotti’s former underboss Sammy Gravano agreed to testify against him, based on the fact that Gotti was looking to blame the family’s violent nature on Gravano. The FBI offered him protection to pin it on Gotti, with whom the blame lay, and the rest, as they say, is history. The illusion was shattered, and since then an increasing number of pentiti (former mafia men turned informants) emerged from the woodwork and undermined the power of the organisation by showing the authorities how it all worked.

This isn’t to say the Mafia has disappeared of course, only that now they hold significantly less sway than they once did, but they are still certainly alive and well, if perhaps not in the way we think of them in the movies. One thing McDonald’s documentary did do was shatter that illusion. Most men he interviewed were street level thugs in hoodies, hardly the suit wearing, fedora-tipping, gun-toting mobsters of our imaginations.

So there we have it, a very brief history of the development of the mafia from Sicily to the present day. It is far from comprehensive, of course, but I can only hope that it provides some context to any of you who saw the ITV documentary, or indeed have a passing interest in the subject. There are a number of fascinating longer histories of the subject out there, and the works of Mario Puzo are an excellent introduction to the genre, but if you want a more scholarly approach then I would certainly recommend John Dickie as a starting point, who himself gives an extensive bibliography of works worth reading on the subject for those interested in further reading.

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