The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno: The Final Secrets of a Life in the Mafiaby Bill Bonanno, Gary B. Abromovitz
An eye-opening look at life—and death—inside the Mafia, The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno is a stunning document written by the son of notorious crime boss Joe Bonanno. Published at the author’s request after his death, The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno provides highly confidential secrets about the inner workings of La Cosa/em>/em>… See more details below
An eye-opening look at life—and death—inside the Mafia, The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno is a stunning document written by the son of notorious crime boss Joe Bonanno. Published at the author’s request after his death, The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno provides highly confidential secrets about the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra—offering a behind-closed-doors look at the secret Commission meetings of the ’30s through ’60s and clandestine details of the Mafia’s most venerable rituals, techniques, and indoctrination ceremonies…plus pages of never-before-seen photos. Bonanno’s Last Testament stands alongside Talese’s Honor Thy Father, Pileggi’s Wiseguys, Maas’s The Valachi Papers and Underboss, The Good Rat by Jimmy Breslin, and T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne as an essential work of contemporary crime history—a must-read for fans of The Sopranos and The Godfather.
The real story of Mafia life, from one who lived it.
Bonanno (Bound by Honor: A Mafioso's Story, 1999, etc.), the son of eminent Mafioso Joseph Bonanno and himself a long-serving consigliere to the family, sets the record straight about "this thing of ours," calling out Hollywood's inaccuracies about mob life and setting down the history of the mob from its inception in the feudal hills of Sicily to the organized gangsters that have long titillated the public imagination. The author asserts that the traditions and attitudes that would inform Mafia life in the United States originated in Sicily after centuries of invasions and disenfranchisement by legitimate governments, the attendant insularity, secretiveness and codes of honor serving as protection for a cheated and abused people. These traditions came along with the Sicilian immigrants who settled in America and served a similar purpose, offering a mechanism for dealing with a confusing and often hostile new society. Bonanno copiously details the original families that dominated organized crime in American cities, detailing the summit meetings of the Mafia's governing body and limning the well-known exploits of such famous gangsters as Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone, but his real brief is to dispel the myths about his way of life promulgated by popular culture. Bonanno's chief complaint is the perception of the Mafia as a rigidly hierarchical body dominated by all-powerful dons handing down orders from on high; in the author's view, participants in "his world" were largely autonomous, bound principally by shared attitudes and traditions. He is downright peevish on the issue, and his reminiscences are dryly actuarial and utterly without humor, making navigation of the many names, places and events a bit of a slog. Attempting to correct Hollywood myth-mongering, Bonanno swings too far in the other direction, rendering the exploits of shadowy, murdering criminals about as exciting as the minutes from an insurance convention.
A serious, informative look at the Mafia from the inside, but fatally lacking in zest.
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The Last Testament of Bill BonannoThe Final Secrets of a Life in the Mafia
By Bill Bonanno, Gary B. Abromovitz
Harper PaperbacksCopyright © 2011 Bill Bonanno, Gary B. Abromovitz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSicily: A History of Oppression
Society, when ruled by a regime bent on oppressing the
people for the benefit of those in power, is ripe for revolution.
Oppression spawns revenge, the need for protection,
and a group of men willing to fight.
Joe Bonanno, quoting Giuseppe Garibaldi,
leader of the unification of Italy
In Italian, the word paisano, or paesano, means countryman.
Our story begins in the home of my paesani: Sicily, the largest
island in the Mediterranean Sea.
The island's political history left its mark on Sicily's language
and customs as surely as it has on its familiar cuisine. This choice
piece of real estate, lying in the middle of the Mediterranean, has
lured every kind of invader to its shores since the mythical Cyclops.
With each invasion, another layer of hatred and mistrust of
outsiders was etched into the consciousness of its people. The
centuries of political turmoil and foreign rule created a free-floating
Sicilian distrust of governments and had the unintended effect of
strengthening the bonds within Sicilian families, binding them
together for protection against aggressors.
This explains why, historically, Sicilians have been ungovernable:
because they long ago learned to distrust and neutralize
written laws and govern themselves instead through their
own natural laws. Sicily is confusing and exasperating to anyone
but a Sicilian. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French, Normans,
Spanish, even the United States Army have all tried to understand
and govern Siciliansto cater to their needs and solve
their fundamental problems. Yet each of these powers has failed.
It is an art to be Sicilian. It is the art of building up power
to overcome competitors, rivals, or enemies by defending your
honor and maintaining your welfare, and that of your friends
at all times. If this concept sounds familiar to you, perhaps
that's because the same principles are used to govern countries,
institutions, and other organizations of "respectable" people.
Most Sicilians are bilingual, speaking both Italian and
the Sicilian language, known as Sicilianu. Sicilianu is no mere
derivative of Italian, but a distinct Romance language with
Greek, Latin, Arabic, Catalan, and Spanish influences. Dialects
of the language are also spoken in the southern and central
regions of Calabria and Puglia.
Sicilian is no longer the first language of present-day Sicilians,
especially among the young. With the advent of television
and the predominance of Italian in the schools, Sicilian
has become a second language. In its time, however, it had an
important influence on the Maltese language of the island of
Malta, which was originally a part of the Kingdom of Sicily
until a residence on the island was granted to the Knights of
Malta by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (as King of Sicily)
and sanctioned by Pope Clement VII.
The Sovereign Military Order of Saint John of Jerusalem
of Rhodes and of Malta, known as the Sovereign Military
Order of Malta, or the Knights of Malta for short, traces its
beginnings to about 1040 A.D. It is a humanitarian order that
dates back to the Crusades. The Knights were originally
recruited to protect commerce from robbers who preyed on
merchants doing business between the Italian city of Amalfi and
the Holy Land. In 1565, the Knights of Malta heroically
defended Malta against Turkish attacks. Without their steadfast
courage and bravery, all of Europe would have been engulfed
in the Turkish Empire. Today, the Order exchanges ambassadors
with sixty governments. It has more than a thousand
Knights in thirty-nine national associations throughout the
world, continuing to espouse charity, reverence for God, and
high principles of life. On January 21, 2000, during the week
celebrating my father's ninety-fifth birthday, he and I had the
honor of being inducted into the Order.
The story of the mafiosi is really about peopleabout the
people of Sicily, about the threats they faced, what they did
Joe Bonanno being inducted into the Order of the Knights of
Malta of Saint John of Jerusalem on January 21, 2000. From left
to right: me, Dr. Jim Laws, Supreme Commander of the Knights of
Malta of Saint John of Jerusalem, my father (seated), and a priest
to counter them, and why. To understand this story, one must
study their motives, their conduct, and the effect of that conduct
on people both within and outside our world.
For centuries, the island of Sicily faced almost constant
threat from foreign peoples looking to overrun and rule their
country. To counter this threat, Sicilian men gathered to form
non-organized, secret alliancesthe groups that would eventually
evolve into what is commonly known today as the Mafia.
Among these first mafiosi was a group of men who banded
together in 1185 to form a secret society called the Vendicatori
("the Avengers"), formed to avenge popular wrongs and abuses
of power in Sicily.
About a hundred years later, in 1282, when the people of
Palermo rebelled against French rule one evening just after the
beginning of Vespers, a secret society known as the Vespri
Siciliani (Sicilian Vespers) emergeda group whose existence,
some believe, would give birth to the very word Mafia.
I should point out that, in our world, the word Mafia was
never used. We understood the concept of mafiosi to refer to men
with a shared ideology and lifestyle based on tradition, not a
criminal organization. In twentieth-century America, novelists,
crime writers, filmmakers, and U.S. law enforcement officials
found it useful to promote the idea that the group they called the
Mafia was a dedicated, active criminal organization. In truth,
the Sicilian mafiosi were men who shared a philosophy of life
that we call cosa nostra ("our thing") bound by certain core
beliefs: that we must aid one another, be true to our friends against
all enemies, defend our dignity and that of our friends against
all threats, and never let trespasses go unavenged.
This perspective has its roots in a series of stories that can
be traced back to ancient Sicily.
In 1282, while the island was under French rule, legend
has it that a French soldier attacked and raped a young
Sicilian girl walking with her mother on their way to Easter
Sunday Vespers. The mother, unable to defend her daughter,
ran through the streets of Palermo screaming Ma fia! Ma fia!
("My daughter! My daughter!") until she reached the nearest
chiazza (piazza), where some young men of Palermo had
gathered, including her daughter's fiancée. The men rushed to
the young girl's aid. The fiancée pulled out his dagger, stuck
it in the heart of the soldier, and then slit the soldier's throat
from ear to ear. The people of Palermo, fighting mad, rebelled;
they slaughtered every Frenchman in the city they could find,
including civilians, and expelled the French from the island.
As the legend goes, the Sicilians identified Frenchmen by their
inability to pronounce the Sicilian word ceci (chickpeas). This
uprising became known as the Sicilian Vespers, and was later
celebrated in an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, first performed
under the French title Les Vêpres Siciliennes in Paris in 1855 and
the following year under the Italian title Giovanna di Guzman
at La Scala opera house in Milan, attaining its final name, I
Vespri Siciliani, in 1861.
Another tradition maintains that the motto of the Sicilian
Vespers insurrection was Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela, or
"Death to France, Italy Cries!" when the French were thrown
out of Sicily, thus liberating the island from occupation of the
French soldiers bent on raping Sicilian women and their daughters.
According to this legend, the first letter of each word in
that phrase later gave rise to the acronym M.A.F.I.A. Either
way, it's ironic that the government and the American public
have come to see the word Mafia as synonymous with a
despicable criminal organizationwhen its origins, in the story
of the Sicilian Vespers, have a historically honorable meaning.
Yet a third story insists that the name was derived from a
common word used in the Borgo section of Palermo by street
peddlers advertising their brooms for sale. Scupi da mafia! the
vendors would cry out. Haju chiddi mafiusi veruu! ("Brooms
that can't be beat! I have the real stuff!") The phrase came
to connote beauty, charm, or excellence, and also to evoke a
sense of superiority, bravery, or the feeling of boldness associated
with being a manthough never with arrogance or
The first organized group of men known as Mafia is
believed to have been the Beati Paoli (Blessed Pauls), a secret
confraternity whose lair was hidden under the Piazza Beati
Paoli in the capital city of Palermo. It is located in a dingy
square within a few minutes' stroll of the Biblioteca Regionale
and the magnificent opera house Teatro Massimo (the location
of the famous opera scene in the movie The Godfather,
Part III), bookended by the Baroque church of Santa Maria
di Gesù and a four-hundred-year-old convent. The site still
exists today, although a visit there may not be what it seems:
On arrival, one expects to be enlightened, but in keeping with
secretive Sicily, all one finds there is more antiquity. Beneath
the stones, most Sicilians believe, lies a citadelthe hidden
stronghold of Sicily's avenging monks. The piazza's real focal
point is not what one sees, but what one does not see.
The Beati Paoli, a lay fraternity, is believed to have been
composed of men of all walks of life belonging to the congregation
of San Francisco di Paola. There has been some speculation
that the Beati Paoli were dedicated to protesting the excesses of
the inquisition in Sicily as early as the 1600s, but Sicilian folklore
dates its impact on Sicilian society and culture only back to
around 1861, the time of the unification of Italy. They opposed
blatant abuse of authority and saw themselves as agents of both
political and social justice. They were the alternative to what
they considered the lack of justice and fairness and the corruption
in Sicilian societyand took it as their mission to correct
the wrongs brought about by oppressive rulers.
The Beati Paoli avenged women who were wronged, and
chastised and punished corrupt officials. According to legend,
the group would meet in the labyrinth of rooms beneath the
Piazza Beati Paoli, hear the evidence of wrongdoing, and
render their verdicts. Then, at the stroke of midnight, they would
venture forth, dressed as monks in black-hooded Franciscan
cloaks, to administer their sentences.
Although direct links between the Beati Paoli and what's
known today as the Mafia have been suggested in books, stage
plays, and sociological studies, too little is known to establish a
definite historical connection. But there are interesting parallels
between the two.
Later, when our way of life emerged in Palermo, it was
focused on a secret society we called La Mano Fraterna (the
Brotherly Hand). This group adopted elaborate secrecy
requirements and embraced mysterious rites inherited from the
A prospective member of the Brotherly Hand would have
to pass through a "novitiate" period of instruction before
being qualified for "baptism." When the right to baptism was
achieved, the candidate was taken to a secret meeting place,
seated in a room surrounded by the other members of the
group, and asked to take the Oath of Loyalty before the other
members in front of a wooden image of a saint. A senior member
of the group would take the extended hand of the inductee,
prick his finger with a needle, and drip some of the flowing
blood on the image of the saint, while reciting a time-honored
oath that committed the initiate to an "inviolable" mandate for
the rest of his life.
In a similar vein, southern Italy fostered such groups as
the Camorra and the Mano Negro (Black Hand) during the
nineteenth century. These non-Sicilian groups were formed
to accommodate local situations. The Camorra, at its inception,
consisted of a loose confederation of local clans or gangs
that practiced theft and extortion and sold "protection," but it
evolved into a more organized syndicate to fight the injustices
of the reigning government.
The Black Hand is among the most famous groups
commonly associated with the Mafia in the public imaginationbut
that is another myth. The Black Hand actually had its origins in
ancient Spain and reappeared at the beginning of the twentieth
century in the Balkans. History clearly shows it developed
exclusively into a band of extortionists who adopted the Black Hand
symbol and name. An early FBI report claims that the Black
Hand symbol was invented by an Italian newspaperman covering
a bomb extortion case in Italy. Apparently, a threatening note was
found with the identifying mark of a black-inked handprint. But
the Camorra and the Black Hand never existed in Sicily; they had
nothing to do with what Americans call the Mafia. In the Mario
Puzo novel The Godfather and in the film The Godfather, Part II,
you may recall, the man in white called Fanucci, in the scenes set
in 1900, was feared as the local purveyor of the Black Hand.
Fanucci was nothing more than an extortionist preying on his own
Excerpted from The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno by Bill Bonanno, Gary B. Abromovitz Copyright © 2011 by Bill Bonanno, Gary B. Abromovitz. Excerpted by permission of Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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