American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power

American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power

by Thomas Reppetto

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805077988
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/02/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 552,503
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

Thomas Reppetto is a former Chicago commander of detectives and has been the president of New York City's Citizens Crime Commission for more than twenty years. He is the author of NYPD: A City and Its Police (0-8050-6737-X), a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

American Mafia

A History of Its Rise to Power

By Thomas Reppetto

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2004 Thomas Reppetto
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-12559-0


"We Must Teach These People a Lesson": A Murder and Lynching in New Orleans

One drizzly night in October of 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was walking home late with his friend William O'Connor. Threats had been made against Hennessy, and O'Connor, the captain of a private guard force, had volunteered to accompany him. The chief didn't appear to be too worried, however. They still had a block to go when Hennessy urged O'Connor to split off toward his own nearby residence. Continuing on alone, the chief may have been too absorbed in thought to hear a teenage boy whistling across the street. The tune was "La Marcia Reale" — the Italian "Royal March." It was a signal to ambushers, who emerged from a shed and let loose a blast of shotgun pellets. Hennessy managed to fire his revolver three times before staggering to the steps of a nearby porch. Taken to a local hospital, he died the next day.

At the murder scene near the corner of Basin and Girod Streets, the police found four luparas. A double-barreled, sawed-off shotgun with a retractable stock, the lupara folded up like a jackknife and could be carried on a hook under a coat. It was known as a "Mafia gun," and Hennessy had been investigating a case that involved two families of Sicilians vying for a contract to unload ships. Captain O'Connor's testimony was even more damning: On hearing the shots he ran back to his friend and knelt down beside him. "Who gave it to you, Dave?" he asked.

"The dagos did it," Hennessy whispered back.

His assassination sparked a firestorm of anti-Italian feeling, which the city's reform mayor, Joseph Shakespeare, did nothing to restrain. "Heretofore, the scoundrels have confined their murderings among themselves," the mayor declared. Now they had claimed "their first American victim," and "we owe it to ourselves and to everything that we hold sacred in this life to see to it that this blow is the last. We must teach these people a lesson they will not forget for all times." While Hennessy's body lay in state at City Hall — in the very chamber where former Confederate president Jefferson Davis had reposed a year earlier — police swept the streets, on mayoral orders to "arrest every Italian you come across." Soon the jails held a hundred of them — "Sicilians," as one newspaper put it, "whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal natures." Other Italians were attacked by mobs or hid in their homes.

Mayor Shakespeare was understandably emotional about the loss of the police chief he had appointed two years earlier. He also had reason to be uneasy about the growing number of Italians in New Orleans, since they generally favored the Irish leaders who were his political opponents in the local Democratic Party. Whether through official laxity or (as some alleged) connivance, an eighteen-year-old boy who had delivered newspapers to Hennessy managed to slip into the jailhouse with a gun and wound one of the prisoners. "ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT OF ONE OF THE ACCUSED DAGOS," a local paper proclaimed. Many readers regretted that this act of vigilantism had not been more successful.

The case made national as well as local headlines. Across the country, newspapers warned of a sinister criminal organization whose members would strike down anyone attempting to enforce the law against them. In truth, the story revealed at least as much about the shortcomings of American law enforcement as it did about the power of the Italian-American underworld. It also showed how little anyone in or out of law enforcement understood an important new group of European immigrants. But then, not even many Europeans knew much about the out-of-the-way island that would, in time, be perceived as a major source of lawlessness and violence in the United States.

* * *

For centuries, Sicily had been governed — or misgoverned — by far-off foreigners: Arabs, French, Austrians, and Spaniards. From the early eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth, Sicily, along with Naples and Calabria on the mainland, fell under the dominion of the Spanish Bourbons — incompetent cousins of the family that had ruled France for two centuries. Contact between the Bourbon officers and ordinary citizens usually involved the collection of taxes or extortion of bribes, and the policy of most Sicilians toward the Bourbons was similar to what it had been toward their predecessors: avoid them as much as possible. In Sicily, as in southern Italy, people had long been taught not to rely on the law or government for assistance. ("The law courts are for fools," the saying went.) To report a grievance to the authorities was considered bad form — a violation of the code of omerta, which dictated that a real man maintains silence and secures his own justice, in his own way. If a life had been taken, the victim's kinsmen would "wash blood with blood."

In America, the Mafia would come to be seen as a vast and many-tentacled organization whose power had reached across the ocean from the Old World to the New. But in Sicily the typical form of organization was the local band, or cosca, headed by a capo, or chief. (Not a don, which was a general term of respect in southern Italy.) The mafiosi of Sicily had much in common with the brigands of other depressed areas — Spain, Ireland, the Balkans, the Ukraine — where the struggle for existence was harsh and the government oppressive and corrupt. Sicily, described by Alexandre Dumas as "a paradise populated by demons," was especially violent, the western half of the island most of all. Eastern Sicily was comparatively peaceful. "Palermo is dangerous, Messina is safe," it was said. At the turn of the century, the homicide rate in Palermo was 29 per 100,000, and as high as 44 per 100,000 in some inland districts of the west. In Messina, the murder rate was only 8 per 100,000, not much higher than the contemporary New York City figure, which was about 5.

Buffeted by the sirocco, winds from the deserts of Africa, the climate of this violent western Sicily was hot and dusty. Mountains tended to isolate districts, and many dialects were spoken. Men from one area looked with suspicion on those from another, and even on members of other families living in the same village. The east had more industry and richer soil, and its landlords were more likely to live on their estates, or latifundas. In the west, upwards of two-thirds of the estates belonged to absentee owners. It was common practice for them to turn over the management of their land to a gabellotto, or overseer, who collected rents, keeping a portion for himself and forwarding the rest to the signor in Naples or Palermo. To enforce his orders and guard his estate, the gabellotto retained a crew of gunmen, many of them bandits on the side. A particularly ruthless gabellotto might even succeed in squeezing out the landlord and taking over an estate himself. Whether to maintain or resist control by the overseers, to avenge an insult or commit a crime, luparas and knives were used with great frequency.

In America, the Mafia would sometimes be portrayed as an ancient organization. This, too, was essentially a myth. In one generally discounted legend it arose out of the Sicilian vespers in 1282 when the natives rose up and massacred French garrisons, supposedly shouting "Morte alla Francia Italia anela (Death to the French is Italy's cry)" — a chant whose words form the acronym MAFIA. Sicilians of the time would not have considered themselves Italians or spoken the dialect in which the phrase is couched. Although organized thievery and brigandage had existed for centuries, the Mafia groups of the late 1800s most likely originated in response to Bourbon rule. The term itself was used loosely, to convey an attitude or way of life adopted by many Sicilians who had no ties to any criminal group. To be a "mafioso," one contemporary author wrote, meant to be a brave man.

Neither ancient nor vast, the actual Sicilian Mafia bore little resemblance to the image that Americans were forming. The Neapolitan camorra came closer. Tightly organized under a single "capo in testa," or head chief, and twelve district chiefs, the Camorra had functioned since the early 1800s as a guild of thieves, enforcers, and, when the occasion demanded, murderers. Its origins could be traced back to a venerable Spanish secret society mentioned in the sixteenth-century novels of Cervantes. The name was derived from the Spanish word for the cloak in which assassins draped themselves — it also meant a fistfight. In nineteenth-century Italy, it connoted someone looking for trouble. Camorrists, who strutted about wearing a multicolored sash, a red tie carelessly flung over their shoulder, and carrying a cane with brass rings, lived up to that description.

The Neapolitan jails were a traditional Camorra recruiting ground. Incarcerated members would invite a new inmate to perform a series of services for them. If he did well, he could expect to become a picciotti, or "young one," in a brigata upon his release. The picciotti who continued to impress his superiors might, in time, be asked to carry out a murder — the last step to full-fledged membership. A formal initiation ceremony followed, sometimes involving the drawing of blood or the swearing of an oath over a sword, a gun, or a holy picture; the novitiate would promise to obey the rules of the organization, protect its secrets, refrain from sex with another member's wife, and turn over a portion of the proceeds of his crimes. If he broke the code of silence or any other rule, he could expect to receive the kiss of death, and an assassin would be assigned to kill him, perhaps attaining his own membership in the process.

Rites and procedures of the Mafia varied according to time and place. In some parts of Sicily, entrance to a band was difficult, requiring a trial at arms with knives. Elsewhere, Mafia bands dispensed with such rituals. What was true of rural Girgenti on the south coast in the 1870s did not necessarily reflect the practices of urban Palermo on the north coast in 1900. But whether Camorra, Mafia, or the Calabrian Fibbia (Honored Society), all southern secret societies received covert support from a coterie of respectables. These businessmen, government officials, and nobles were known in Sicily as the alta (or high) Mafia, and in Naples as "the Camorra in kid gloves." The arrangements between respectables and criminals, and the use of the gabellotti as middlemen, provided a business model of crime that later would be emulated by some American gangsters.

In 1860, the Bourbons were finally overthrown, and Sicily and the dynasty's mainland possessions became part of the newly united Italy. Yet the bastions of power remained far off. Many Neapolitans and Sicilians had joined the revolution as members of Garibaldi's legion; nevertheless, the national Risorgimento brought no end to the miseria of the south. Rural peasants continued to live in one-room shacks with their animals; the lives of slum dwellers in the hovels of Naples and Palermo did not improve much, either. Sicilians — often referred to as "Africans" by the arrogant new officials from the north — continued to regard the government as an occupying force. Rather than establishing order, the replacement of one set of alien rulers by another and the introduction of a new legal code and peacetime military conscription further unsettled conditions in the south, giving rise to even more banditry.

In southern Italy, after 1860, the new government vacillated between ignoring and repressing the mala vita, or criminal classes. Under the tenets of Roman law, followed throughout continental Europe, Italy gave its police and courts far more power than England or the United States did. The government routinely used secret service agents to spy on citizens, and a tough militarized police force known as the carabinieri dealt with banditry and disorder on a large scale. The legal code strongly favored the prosecution, permitting the introduction of hearsay evidence and the defendant's prior record. Innocence was not presumed. As much as the legal process favored the state, even stronger measures were sometimes employed. If conditions got seriously out of hand, the government would declare martial law. In extreme cases, officials would put a price on a wanted man's head — paid on delivery of the severed head. In Sicily, peasants' cottages were occasionally burned with the occupants inside.

Often what set off anticrime drives were attacks on foreigners — the kidnapping of a tourist, for example. In 1877, a young Englishman named John Forester Rose, a member of a wealthy banking family, was seized by a Mafia chieftain named Leone. Holding Rose prisoner in a network of caves, Leone sent a politely phrased ransom note to the victim's family in England. He asked for five thousand pounds. Receiving no reply, Leone dispatched a more threatening follow-up message. The banking Roses understood that if they paid off too quickly, they might get a reputation as easy marks. The next letter from Leone arrived with one of the captive's ears enclosed. That stepped up the tempo of the negotiations, but the family continued to stand firm. It was only after a fourth letter with the other ear (followed, according to some accounts, by a fifth letter with a portion of his nose) that Rose's wife finally prevailed upon her family to pay the ransom.

The case brought disaster to the people of the district as well as the perpetrators of the crime. The embarrassed Italian government sent a large force of troops into the area to hunt down the kidnappers. Their modus operandi was to shoot and hang mafiosi and non-mafiosi alike until one of Leone's men, defying the code of omerta, betrayed his capo. Leone and his top lieutenant, Giuseppe Esposito, were captured, but they managed to escape from custody and fled the country. Esposito proceeded to New York and then to New Orleans.

The largest city in the South was a natural destination for Italians. New Orleans had been a terminus for Italian fruit ships since before the Civil War, and descriptions of the city had been carried back to the mother country by sailors and merchants who, by and large, preferred its climate to the colder and less predictable weather of Boston or New York. New Orleans had a Latin Catholic culture derived from the time of Spanish and French rule. With its yearly round of carnivals and feast days, its relaxed attitude toward vice, and its crooked streets and open markets, the city did not seem drastically different from Naples or Palermo. The sugar, cotton, and rice plantations of Louisiana resembled the latifundas of the southern Italian gentry. Even the local diseases — yellow fever, cholera, and malaria — were familiar.

Before the Civil War, several thousand Italians lived in New Orleans. By 1890, estimates of the Italian population ran as high as 25,000, or 10 percent of the city, though the official census listed only half that number. Italians "have found here so much that encourages them," an editorial writer for the New Orleans Picayune commented, "that we must look for constantly increasing immigration." For Sicilians, the first stop was "Little Palermo" — a crowded slum adjacent to the waterfront. But Italians could be found in the best as well as the worst neighborhoods, owning businesses and real estate, and serving on boards and in the local government.

For over a decade before Esposito arrived in 1880, New Orleans residents had believed the Mafia operated in the city, but the local culture of violence and lawlessness went back much further — in fact, to the founding of New Orleans in 1718. The original French and Spanish inhabitants often settled their differences with guns or swords, and many of the Americans who poured in after the War of 1812 adopted similar habits. Anyone with pretensions to gentility made sure to polish his fencing and shooting skills. In 1862, the city was captured by Union forces who imposed a harsh rule that continued through Reconstruction, fomenting more unrest. Italian immigrants were just one subgroup in a city long renowned for its gangs, mobs, riots, duels, and assassinations. Only a small minority of Italians became involved in crime, and of those only a few had actually belonged to groups like the Mafia — though many more found it advantageous to claim such associations, the better to instill fear in their victims.

Esposito came from a lower-middle-class family and was fairly well educated. He adopted a new identity, calling himself Vicenzo Rubello, bought a sailboat, and played at being an oyster fisherman. Beyond these modest gestures, however, Esposito showed little concern for his anonymity. Short, swarthy, and powerfully built, he had a distinctive knife scar between his eyebrows which he made no effort to conceal. He walked the streets of Little Palermo with an attention-getting swagger, and took care that all he encountered — all the Italians, at any rate — knew they were dealing with a Sicilian bandit leader. Esposito even flew a pennant with the name of his former chief, Leone, on the prow of his little boat — a gesture that meant nothing to the local authorities but made Sicilians more respectful.


Excerpted from American Mafia by Thomas Reppetto. Copyright © 2004 Thomas Reppetto. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: "The Most Secret and Terrible Organization in the World"ix
1."We Must Teach These People a Lesson": A Murder and Lynching in New Orleans1
2.A Place in the Sun: Italian Gangs of New York18
3.Italian Squads and American Carabinieri: Law Enforcement Wars on the Mafia36
4.Diamond Jim: Overlord of the Underworld54
5.In the Footsteps of Petrosino: Big Mike75
6.Prohibition: The Mobs Strike a Bonanza91
7.The "Get Capone" Drive: Print the Legend111
8.Lucky: The Rise and Rise of Charlie Luciano132
9.The Commission: The Mobs Go National148
10.Racket-Busting: The Dewey Days162
11.The Feds: Assessing the Menace of the Mafia181
12.Overreaching: Hollywood and Detroit198
13.The Prime Minister215
14.New Worlds to Conquer: Postwar Expansion234
15.TV's Greatest Hits: Senator Kefauver Presents the Mafia251
Epilogue: The Decline of the American Mafia270

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