By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The Neapolitan camorra has had a longer history than any of the other mafias. Having its roots in Spain, it was preceded by the so-called Bella Società Riformata, which took form in Italy during the turbulent early 1800s.
Like all secret societies, the camorra is a closed sect, an organization of criminals that acts in the shadows. Differing from legitimate institutions, organized crime does not accumulate and store documents that can later be studied by historians. The internal workings of such criminal enterprises can only be revealed by various methods of penetration and the confessions of former members. Such sources, of necessity, produce a picture that is often hazy and fragmentary, with a mixture of fact and half-truths, fancy, and legendary accounts.
The legends that are told about the founding of the camorra invariably point to a Spanish origin. One Italian investigation, in the 1890s, on the slang and customs of the camorristi, carried out among inmates of the prison of Favignana, an island off the west coast of Sicily, uncovered a type of questionnaire that was used to judge recent arrivals. If a new inmate claimed to be a camorrista, he would be subjected to a series of questions to determine whether he was an affiliate, a common criminal, or worse yet, an undercover policeman.
The latter part of the questionnaire contained queries regarding the origins of the camorra:
Question: "Where did the Society come from?"
Correct answer: "Spain, Naples and Sicily."
Question: "And its origins?"
Correct answer: "Three gentlemen, on Spanish, one Neapolitan, the other Sicilian were playing cards. At the end of the game, the Spaniard helps himself to twenty percent of the winnings. He then declares, ‘I take this twenty-percent cut as my right and by law of the camorrista. I do that here, and I will do that any other place, and with reason, according to the criminal life."
Question: "How did the situation end?’
Correct answer: "It ended by the gentlemen coming to an agreement by founding the Society of the camorristi and recruiting others as affiliates."
Thus, according to the legend, a Spaniard founded the secret sect, with the objective to make a living by taking a percentage from gambling.
Another version of the emergence of the camorra was given to a captain of the carabinieri, Carlo Fabbroni, on 11 March 1911, by his informers. Fabbroni fixed the date of the founding of the secret society at 1654. There was a Spanish adventurer, Raimondo Gamur, who had fled to Naples from his native Saragozza. Arrested and confined in Castelcapuano, he made the acquaintance of his five Neapolitan cellmates.
Gamur related that in Spain crime was organized. No one acted alone; there was force and protection in numbers. All malefactors were co-involved in a criminal conspiracy that had its own code of conduct, a hierarchy of command and bosses. Gamer, according to this version, so inspired the Neapolitans that upon their release they went about putting into practice the "Spanish theory." The word "camorra" was said to be the Neapolitan dialect rendering of the surname "Gamur."
Shorn of the usual colorful details common to legends, such as the word camorra deriving from Gamur, this version has some reliable elements of probable fact. Many Italian criminologists are convinced that the camorra phenomenon arose in prisons. Even the other legends offer clues. What is central to the story of the three gentlemen is that the major source of funds of the camorra was from extorting gamblers. Moreover, the reference to the Sicilian gentleman constitutes an explicit reference to the mafia, a sister organization.
The Bella Società Riformata (Riformata means confederation) came to light in 1820. In December of that year men from the Naples’ twelve quarters convened in the church of Santa Caterina in Formiello. In that course of that solemn ceremony a new charter was agreed upon and a modern articulation of the secret society. The chief of the Bella Società Riformata had to be a native of the Porta Capuana quarter of the city, where many of the nefarious lived.
The central idea that gave life to the Society was borrowed from the usages of the aristocracy, the nobility. The history of that period, from 1820 to Italian Unification in 1860, was a series of political struggles, often with bloodshed, between the absolutism of the aristocracy and the middle classes, which had their own societies to protect and promote class interests.
Other fraternities came into existence throughout Italy. Masonry was imported from England and France. The Carboneria had been present in South Italy since 1807. The structure of the Bella Società Riformata (BSR) hierarchy borrowed from the Carboneria organization. At the summit of the BSR was the Gran Maestro (Great Teacher). A Maestro Esperto (Expert Teacher) had the task of interrogating and putting to the test those who sought to enroll. The neophytes consented to judgment while blindfolded, with one hand on a dagger and the other on a crucifix.
One member of the BSR recognized another by special symbols, various hand contacts and code words, which changed every six months. Punishment, including death, could befall those who were deemed liars or traitors.
While the other sects had sociopolitical programs (the Masons were generally philanthropic, the Carboneria securely patriotic), the BSR was apolitical and its agenda obviously unique. The BSR incorporated both the good and bad from the nobility, especially its arrogant egoism, its sense of privilege and its corrupting nature. The official hymn of the BSR makes the point: "We are realists. We are camorristi. We don’t give a fig for others."
The uniqueness of the BSR, as compared to the other movements of that period, can perhaps best be illustrated by the selection of meeting place. The Carboneria chose the splendor of the Spirito Santo church. The BSR, by contrast, convened at Santa Caterina, located in a neighborhood of common folk and many brothels, and where the public order was firmly under the control of unsavory elements.
The organizational structure of the BSR had two sections: the Società Maggiore and the Società Minore, as did the Carboneria. Its ritual of initiation was a sort of grotesque parody of the Carboneria. The Società Minore ceremony, reserved for entering youth, was quite bloody. The BSR members, each wielding a dagger, circled the aspirant. A coin was placed on the floor. At a signal, the members stabbed at the coin while the initiate attempted to retrieve it. Hands were slashed, but the test for courage and tenacity was completed. The new members entered the exclusive Society as giovanotti onorati, honored youths. Knowing of the initiation rite, when the police arrested a suspect the right hand would be checked for evidence of savage scaring to determine whether he could be charged as a camorrista.
After the giovanotto onorato served his apprenticeship he was eligible to be promoted to the inner ranks of the Società Maggiore. The formal ceremony took place in a darkened room. By the light of a single candle, the candidate sat at a table on which lay a dagger, a loaded pistol and a glass of poisoned wine. A barber/physician drew blood from his hand with the dagger. He then extended the hand to his comrades and swore to obey the orders of the capo and not reveal the secrets of the BSR. Pointing the pistol to his temple while lifting the wine glass to his lips, he swore to kill himself if he received the order to do so. At this point the capo took the pistol, fired it into the air and smashed the glass to the floor. The youth knelt. The capo, putting his hand on the youth’s head, pronounced the final words, "You are now a man!" It was understood that to speak the name of the BSR chief at any time meant death.
The streets of Naples in the first half of the 1800s were infamous for their utter disorder, images of extreme poverty, merry making and filth—a picture that was far from picturesque. Dissolute persons stretched out on the pavements. Street vendors hawked a variety of merchandise. Street urchins in rags roamed about, specializing in the theft of handkerchiefs. There were tattoo artists, barbers, street kitchens selling penny plates of steaming spaghetti from boiling cauldrons—all of them competing in an atmosphere of the unwashed and the constant din of the multitude.
It was among this multitude that the BSR found its opportunities. The streets of Naples contained men who invited gullible passersby from the provinces to try their hand at games of chance. By tradition, these open-air gambling operations were "protected" by the camorristi. They took their twenty-percent off the top. The gamblers had a cheerful demeanor; they accepted without complaint paying the price to remain in business and not be hassled by anyone.
On a regular schedule the extortion collectors would stroll from one table to another taking the tax with ceremonious courtesy. If a new table had been set up, the camorrista would say to the man, "Excuse me, have you made the necessary arrangements?" If the answer was ‘Yes,’ the response was, "You are in good hands." If ‘No,’ from that moment on the gambler was in the clutches of those greedy hands.
The BSR extortion racket was widespread, touching a score of jobs: baggage handlers at the port, hotel clerks, carriage drivers, street vendors, even common thieves, whose pickings were usually modest. The list was as long as the lengthy shadow the camorra cast over that ancient Greek/Roman city on the bay.
The members of the BSR functioned as arbiters and middlemen. They kept the peace. They settled disputes between sellers and buyers, renters and owners, creditors and debtors, workers and employers, all for a consideration. And, most of all, they intervened in questions of honor, which otherwise would come to a bad end, given the importance of questions of honor and the "lose of face" sentiment among Neapolitans. A seduction was a delicate subject to be treated seriously. In order to "save family face," and prevent the aggrieved father (or oldest brother) from acting in haste, the middleman had to trod a diplomatic path between the two parties. Immediate nuptials were one solution.
In these and other disputes the formal judicial system either did not suffice or was ignored. Foreign rulers came and went, but the more personal and traditional relationships to family, neighborhood and class were what counted. There was little trust in the state mechanism; bureaucrats were seen as corrupt and not serving the best interests of the populace. Camorrista justice at the local level among likeminded persons was considered a better, if only, option. Those who hesitated to settle or were quarrelsome or were so rash as to resort to a magistrate for relief risked confronting the stiletto, the weapon of choice to settle matters. The BSR was a government within a government, and in some neighborhoods it trumped the legitimate government to the extent that the authorities would not enter neighborhoods where the camorra hold sway.
The BSR had its own tribunes called Mamme, which meted out internal justice. Gran Mamma was the superior tribune, with the characteristics of a court of appeals or a court of assize (civil or criminal court). There were ten appeals courts that had regional jurisdiction.
The camorristi could resolve individual issues as they saw fit. But when the issue had implications for the entire organization, as in a disgraceful action accompanied by an official accusation, the case had to be reviewed by the BSR district magistrate.
The supreme court was composed of the mammasantissima (the very holy mother), who sat as president, a court clerk, four or five members acting as judges and defense lawyers, and a few members of the Società Minore as guards. (The police succeeded in invading one session in February of 1822, rescuing a certain Giovanni Esposito, who was about to be found guilty by the Gran Mamma of murdering a district capo while in a fit of rage.)
If the sentence was death, the executioners were chosen from the giovanotti onorati by drawing lots. Lesser punishments included a reduction or suspension of the share of money, public humiliation in the form of a slap, scolding or beating, a razor slash on the cheek, even the smearing of human feces on the face. In capital offenses, the condemned would suffer a fatal dagger in the chest, or in the worst case, in the groin.
In the early days the word camorra had a much more general use. It was not restricted only to Neapolitan criminality. Rather, camorra was in Italy synonymous with organized crime. The 1893 edition of the Rigutini and Fanfani dictionary of spoken Italian had this definition of camorra: "A secret association in Italy, especially in the Italian South, with the intention of procuring by any illicit means favors or earnings for those who are members." Today, the term refers specifically to criminal clans originating in the region of Campania, where Naples is located.
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