What is this Thing called Thing? A Very Brief History of The Mafia

By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.

"Many modern Sicilians prefer to live as parasites because the fast lane of crime has considerable attraction as a way of life." - Giovanni Falcone (1)

Tommaso Buscetta said there was no such thing as The Mafia. “It was,” he claimed, “a name conceived by the media.” He was a man of honor in The Honored Society.

Inducted as a young man in 1948 into the Porta Nuova clan in central Palermo, when he made that statement to the examining magistrate, Giovanni Falcone, he had served or been part of it for over forty years. It’s hard to believe he had spent more than half his life in an organization and did not know what it was called.

9492584267?profile=RESIZE_192XBuscetta’s (left) revelations made it possible to draw up a detailed organizational chart of a criminal organization which was based in and dominated the underworld of western Sicily. How it was constructed. The rankings. The management tree. Lot’s and lots of names. His testimony was the mother lode of the great Sicilian Maxi-Trial of the 1980s, which prosecuted almost 500 hundred alleged criminals and sent a lot of them to prison.

Many called him mad.

Gaetano Riina, younger brother of Salvatore, perhaps the most powerful Mafia boss ever, said of Buscetta: “He travelled everywhere. He saw the world and his brain exploded.” (2)

Grappling with the equivocality of something almost impossible to perceive will prove to be a constant source of frustration for the law and the chroniclers of organized crime. Exploding brains may be par for the course.

The first major defector from the Sicilian bad guys to the good guys in 1984, Buscetta was what Italians call a pentito, a penitent. A collaborator of justice. The first of hundreds to come out in Sicily over the years to follow. But not the very first. That may have been a man who emerged to tell law and order what was what, back in the nineteenth century.

His name was Salvatore D’Amico, and he revealed, in 1876, secrets about the Stoppaglieri of Monreale and the Fratuzzi of Bagheria. Two different criminal clans of many that had emerged over the years with names like Scurmi fitusi, Giardinieri, Oblonica, Fontana Nuova, Fratanzella. Fancy names for gangsters, thieves, and killers.

For his pains, D‘Amico is murdered, either stabbed or shot-gunned to death. Reports vary, but get the date right-March 5, 1878. (3)

His revelations and murder achieved nothing to unsettle the rhythm of Mafia operations across this part of Palermo province. That will come towards the end of the century when Ermanno Sangiorgi is appointed chief of police in Palermo and carries out an investigation over two years that reveals 8 cosche or clans, made up of 218 inducted men of honor, multiple murders and other crimes confirming beyond doubt that organized crime is flourishing in Western Sicily.

D‘Amico was followed by another one, who opened up almost fifty years later. Melchiorre Allegra, a doctor of medicine, was arrested by the police in 1937, and described his life in the Mafia. A member of the Pagliarelli clan under Ciccio Motiti, he outlines the structure of the Mafia of Palermo and Trapani provinces, and its rules almost fifty years before the Maxi-Trial.

Leonardo Vitale, who came in from the cold in 1973 and unloaded his tortured soul to the Palermo Flying Squad, preceded Buscetta by ten years, but no one believed him.

9492585265?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ten years before Buscetta, a man called Joseph Valachi (right), testified at a senate hearing on organized crime in Washington, D.C. that he belonged to a secret society called Cosa Nostra which roughly translates into Our Thing or This Thing of Ours.

So, we now have three different names for the same phenomena. In fact, four. To muddy the waters J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, which had essentially ignored Italian-American organized crime for thirty years, came out with a statement that he and his force had been observing them all along, although they knew them as La Causa Nostra. The name cropping up for the first time in an FBI report dated March 8, 1962, nineteen months before Valachi testified.

The term had in fact, been fed to the FBI by an informant as early as September 1961, and the bureau continued to be confused by the spelling and its meaning until the end of 1962 when they seemed to clarify the expression into La Cosa Nostra, based upon information from a Mafioso of San Jose, California. (4)

An odd title using the definite article to lead a possessive adjective. The Our Thing literally makes no sense.

And yet, in America, the expression, LCN, as an acronym, is still employed to this day; as ridiculous as it sounds, authorities continue using the term when referring to Mafia crime families.

Almost everything we know about the Mafia comes from the mouths of informants, who, for whatever reason, choose their own time to renounce and expose an organization that they had sworn never to reveal.

There is an old Yorkshire (England) saying: There’s nowt so queer as folk.

The story of the Mafia is full of them. The bad ones, at least. Queer folk, that is. Differing from what we expect or usual, sometimes offensive, suspicious and not normal, but not in the sexual way, as it is more often used today.

Luckily for law enforcement, many of them, for whatever reasons, switched sides and exposed their knowledge of the secret world they had occupied, some since they were teenagers. Although their testimony was often clouded by their own agendas, the stories and information that emerged over the years matched. There were enough common denominators to help unravel the puzzle. What they were part of and how it developed is a much more complex problem.

It’s believed the history of the Mafia and the modern state of Italy emerged in the early 1860s like competing chrysalides, desperate to spread their wings and form governments. One for the people, and one very much against.

History is accurately documented with Giuseppe Garibaldi, leader of the revolution to unite Italy, not so much in the background of the criminal society developing across Sicily, which ironically, is where Garibaldi began his great march to free the Italian people and create the modern state we know today.

With the diaspora from Italy into America starting in the 19th century, about twenty years after Italy was born, many men of honor were moving across the Atlantic Ocean and setting up their bases in the United States, then Canada, although strangely, avoiding Central and South America.

Apart from a family that was based in Tunisia (5), there is no record of them developing anywhere else, including Australia, which became home to ‘Ndrangheta (a Mafia-type organization based in Calabria) cells from the early 1920s.

They settled in towns and cities with a large Italian population. This was their plankton in the early stages. They fed off people raised in fear of the law, then as they grew bigger and stronger, everyone was fair game. In Sicily, it may have been about power and control. In America, it was always about money.

We do not know for sure who were the first Mafiosi to set foot in America. According to well-known Mafia historian Tom Hunt, they were in Louisiana as early as 1869. And killing each other. Something they have always done with enthusiasm. (6)

They may well have been in this part of the southern states even earlier, at the beginning of the civil war. A newspaper reports the arrest of a gang of Sicilian immigrants on counterfeiting charges, a crime that would help bring down one of the biggest Mafia clans in New York fifty years later. (7)

If these were men of the Mafia, it pre-dates their official recognition in Sicily by several years.

To Sicilian Mafiosi, control of a village, a neighborhood, a district within a city was the principal aim. No one said it better than a chief prosecutor of Palermo:

“The true goal is power. The obscure evil of organisation chiefs is not the thirst for money, but the thirst for power. The most important fugitives could enjoy a luxurious life abroad until the end of their days. Instead, they remain in Palermo, hunted, in danger of being caught or being killed by internal dissidents, in order to prevent the loss of their territorial control and not run the risk of being deposed.” (8)

There are essentially two major schools of thought on the origin of the Sicilian Mafia. One involves the countryside and the other what historians called in the early to mid 19 century, “dangerous classes,” which describes disorderly, subversive and criminal groups, and which was the sinister double of the emerging working class. (9)

Western Scilly was a land of massive feudal estates, owned primarily by absentee landlords who managed them through men called gabellotti, who hired other men, often family, to control the peasants working the fields. These overseers converted working groups into criminal ones, often with strange, menacing names, and the Mafia was born.

The other theory believes these groupings emerged through the rebellion of the unification. As Garibaldi and his army left Sicily, the bands of street thugs that had attached to the campaign moved into more lucrative and longer lasting employment, extorting, thieving, cattle rustling and developing their most important skill, political corruption. Mainly based in and around Palermo, they eventually spread out into the province, then west and south over the years. These men were known as squadra della mafia. (10)

It’s considered the first confirmed official use of the word Mafia in Sicily, is found in a document drawn up in April 1865 by the Prefect of Palermo, Filippo Antonio Gualterio, to the Ministry of the Interior, in Rome, referring to a band of criminals. (11)

There was an earlier reference in 1838, by Pietro Cala Ulloa, a judge in Trapani, in a similar report to the minister of Justice of the Bourbonic Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples. In this document, he refers to partiti, sects which operate as “governments within the government.” Not using the actual word, but if it looks and walks and quacks like a duck, it probably is.

However, historian Paolo Pezzino claims reference to the Mafia dates back to 1800, and directly implicates elements of the working class in its membership and formation. (12)

Both scenarios work well, but as always, nothing is set in stone.

There is this traveller from Scotland who might throw a monkey wrench into things.

Everything we read tells us the Mafia begins in Western Sicily in the 19th century. But what if it did not? What if it is already in existence in Eastern Sicily a hundred years before?

9492586086?profile=RESIZE_180x180Antonino Calderone (left), an underboss, claimed that the first Mafia cosca, or clan, in the east of Sicily, emerges in the 1920s in Catania. He omits Messina, fifty miles to the north. (ibid Arlacchi.)

Patrick Brydone, a Scottish traveller and author, visited the islands of Malta and Sicily in 1770. On his return, he published his recollections in 1773, which is so well received, it went through many editions, between ten and twenty.

9492586058?profile=RESIZE_400xHe had made friends with the Prince of Villafranca, the governor of Messina, who arranges for two escorts to accompany Brydon (right) on his journey. They refer to themselves as uomini d‘honore, men of honor. Just as Buscetta will almost two hundred years later. As he travels, Brydon “encounters, with great amazement, a mafia ante litteram:”

Literally before the term existed.

He is the first known person to produce a detailed account of an organization he calls, with irony, The Honorable Confraternity that almost one hundred years later might be referred to as the mafia. (13)

Was this the beginning, or simply another frustrating thread unwinding from a blanket of confusion that has bothered and beguiled generations of scholars and law investigators?

Buscetta was sworn into his Honored Society in a ritual that has been recounted by other members in both Sicily and The United States hundreds of times-the same pricking of finger, spilling of blood onto an image of a saint, swearing of oath- but nothing written, everything passed along by word of mouth.

They grouped in what they call a cosca. There is a boss and an underboss, and a counsellor and soldiers led by captains. All very military except everyone is equal. The soldiers choose their boss and he organizes the rest. They transported the structure to America, and it repeats itself across the country.

Everything stitched up by a vow of silence. Omerta, they say.

An entire world taught by speech and gesture. Renato Guttuso, the famous Sicilian artist, said, “In Naples they use a 1000 words to explain what they say in Palermo with a look.”

In the world of the Mafia, even that is an overstatement.

Buscetta claimed, “Members of Cosa Nostra communicate best saying nothing-no words at all, just a gesture, a look, a wink. Also, nothing in writing: no lists, certificates, receipts. In my world, no one ever asks anything; but if someone wants to, he can make you understand with just a sentence, a movement of the head, a smile… even with silence.” (14) and (ibid Falcone)

Participants in the Sicilian anti-mafia process grapple constantly with ambiguity as they seek to confront an institution whose contours are partly unknown and where regional, national, and international political leaders tolerate and often abetted those whose descend into murder and mayhem. (15)

Today, there are about 3000 made men and associates operating in the United States, the greatest number in the New York and New Jersey area. Many of the Mafia families disclosed to the Senate Crime Committee, referred to as the Valachi Hearings in 1963, have disappeared. Of the twenty-two examined, fifteen are history. (16)

In Sicily it’s estimated that about 5000 made men and associates operate across over 200 families in 80 mandementi, a group of three or more families, although in rural areas sometimes only one on one. (17)

This figure has changed little in the past twenty years, unlike in America, which has seen a steady drop in membership.

On a per capita basis, the American version is declining to the point of extinction, whereas in Sicily it remains a major criminal phenomenon. As they lose men, they recruit them. This thing of ours has a footprint that seems endless.

Although Giovanni Falcone believed otherwise. He claimed, “The Mafia isn’t invincible; it’s a human fact and like all human facts, it has a beginning and an ending.”

“It is very probable that today’s mafia is the weakest in its history,” says Salvatore Lupo, a professor of contemporary history at Palermo University and a renowned expert in the history of Italy’s Cosa Nostra.” (18)

And yet? What are those 5000 men doing with their time? Playing football. Watching the girls go by?

Another famous Yorkshire saying is: There’s many a slip twixt cup and the lip. Never count your chickens before they hatch.

The mythology surrounding the world of the Mafia is vast. (19) Not unlike the universe, it seems an endless mystery.

Although we will never really know what it’s called and where its source is, this much is certain:

This thing came like a pandemic, seemingly out of nowhere, and we have yet to find the vaccine.

The words Mafia, Honored Society and Cosa Nostra are used frequently by writers when trying to describe Italian or Italian-American Organized crime. Joe Valachi was allegedly the first Mafioso in America to mention the term Cosa Nostra in public, although whether the expression was widely accepted across the United States’ crime families is open to debate.

For example, Valachi’s crime family, the Genovese, was referred to in the New York underworld as “The West Side,” indicating its initial base in lower west-side Manhattan. In Chicago, they call it “The Syndicate,” and in Providence, they knew it as “The Store.” The mob in Philadelphia called itself “The Organization,” and Buffalo was referred to as “The Arm.” However, both Buscetta and Calderone and many of the informants to follow them use the term Cosa Nostra.

Crime historians believe the expression is widely held now in Sicily to have originated on the island and transported to America.

9499380672?profile=RESIZE_400xJoseph Bonanno (right) who headed his own crime family in New York from 1931 until 1966, remembers in his biography, how he first heard the term when another mob boss, Vincenzo Mangano, originally from Palermo, head of what is now called the Gambino Crime Family, used it talking about life in general, although almost certainly referring to the criminal aspect. (20)

Francis Ianni, an anthropologist of some renown, who spent several years researching the New York crime families, apparently with their cooperation, has the ultimate opinion:

“The Sicilian Mafia is actually a collection of independent Mafia (local gangs) and not an organization that could have made a decision to export Mafia to the United States for criminal or any other purposes. Italian- American Mafia leaders did, however, bring the cultural attitude of the mafia with them, and it affected their relationship to organized crime in America It’s thought that for a short period (1925- 1930) the American Mafia did in fact resemble a Sicilian Mafia. But after that period, Italian- American involvement in organized crime has been molded by a unique combination of Italian and American cultural values and social conditions. As acculturation proceeds, the relative weight of American as contrasted to Italian values will continue to increase”(21)

The final word however, is not necessarily the right one.

If Edward Gibbon, the famous English historian, was right, and “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies and the misfortunes of mankind,” the events that shaped and moulded the Mafia, reflect it, like a full moon in water.

1) Falcone, Giovanni, Padovani, Marcelle, Cose di Cosa Nostra: Milan, Rizzoli. 1991.

2) Bolzoni, Attilio. White Shotgun: Milan. RCS Libri S.p.A. 2008.

3) Barzini, Luigi. Gli italiani Virtu erizi di un popolo, BUR saggi, Novembre 2008.

4) The American Mafia website and contributor Edmond Valin.

5) Arlacchi,Pino. Men of Dishonour: London, William Morris, 1993.

6) Hunt, Thomas and Sheldon, Martha Macheca, Deep Water: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (August 18, 2010)

7) New Orleans True Delta. June 18, 1861.

8) Scarpinato, Roberto. Anatomy of a regime. Palermo. 1992.

9) Chevalier, Louis and Jellineck, Frank. Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes: New York, Howard Fertig, 1973.

10) Loschiavo, Giuseppe Guido, Centro Anni Di Mafia: Rome, V. Bianoco, 1964.

11) The text has been published in De Vecchi di Val Cismon (1935-43, p.208-15).

12) Pezzino, Paolo. Una Certa Reciprocata Di Favori: Milan. F. Angeli, 1990.

13) Brydone, Patrick. A tour through Sicily and Malta in a series of letters to William Beckford: London, Cadell and Davies, 1806.

14) Testimony of Tommaso Buscetta. Organized Crime: 25 Years after Valachi. Senate Hearing, April, 1988.

15) Schneider, Jane C. And Peter T. Reversible Destiny: Los Angeles. University of California Press, 2003.

16) BBC News March 14, 2019. Report by Toby Lockhurst.

17) DIA (Anti Mafia Investigation Department) 1 Semestre 2020 Results and Activities achieved.

18) The Guardian.com September 22, 2019.

19) Diego Gambetta: European Journal of Sociology. Volume 32. No. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

20) Bonanno, Joseph and Lalli, Sergio. A Man of Honor: New York, Simon and Schuster, 1983.

21) Ianni, Francis. Family Business: New York. Regal Safe Foundation, 1972.

Get the latest on organized crime and the Mafia at Gangsters Inc.'s news section.

Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.

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