By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The mafia was strictly a Sicilian phenomenon. There is a difference between mafia as a concept and gangsterism America-style. Not every racketeering conspiracy is the work of the mafia. Not every intimidation. Nor every crime wave. What some insist as mafia-inspired is nothing more than common crime. The profile of the American mobster is not a Sicilian import. It is native born.
"What Americans call ‘mafia’ never was an institution, an organization, a corporate body. This fallacy continues to receive the strongest acceptance not in the minds of ordinary people but in the minds of law-enforcement agents." (Joseph Bonanno, A Man of Honor, 1983)
"The mafia can be defined as an organization of power, with state characteristics, or an autonomous business class and separate from the state apparatus, where the state does not exist or the organs of the state are weak and inefficient. The spirit and mentality of the mafia are feudal and archaic, even though at times modern methods are employed. Mafia is a conservative force that inhibits political reform. It involves persons, from high and low social positions, who come together for motives of interest, of fear, of prestige, friends, friends of friends, collaborators, armed with instruments of persuasion." (Carlo Levi, L. Montevecchi, Nicola Tranfaglia, Il dovere dei tempi, 2005)
"The gangster Sicilian in America is not a mafioso of Sicily, but an offspring or derivation: he has adapted himself to the new government and, as always happens, has changed from what he was in his native land." (Virigilo Titone, Storia mafia e costume in Sicilia, 1964)
A crucial difference between Sicilian and American criminals was the mutually beneficial complicity between Sicilian mafiosi and others. Mafiosi had protectors, usually a respectable person, someone who would promote their interests in the legitimate community. Mafia capos allied themselves with political and judicial power, with those who were corruptible, and those who themselves had mafia sentiments at heart, in the process forming a viable system of patronage and self-promotion, which favored the few. As Giovanni Schiano observed, "There was as much difference between the mafia and an American crime syndicate as there would be between a friar and the Pope." (The Truth about the Mafia, 1962)
The earliest mention of the mafia in America goes back to the murder, in 1890, of the New Orleans police chief, David C. Hennessy. The term soon gained currency where Italoamerican crime occurred (most notably in New York) from that period onward.
The Kefauver Crime Committee hearings, in 1950, served to make the public, as a whole, mafia-conscious. The threat of a nationwide mafia conspiracy was further fueled by the November 1957 Apalachin meeting upstate in New York, which was defined by officials as a conference of the Mafia Grand Council. (In fact, many of the attendees were minor figures; and the gathering was too large to be that of an organized-crime commission. The agenda is unknown to this day.) The press coverage was vastly exaggerated, resulting in the belief of a vast criminal network inspired by a cabal of Sicilian Americans.
In addition, what quickly followed were the McClellan Racket Committee’s report in 1958, and the explosive, neatly-tailored and rehearsed testimony by mobster Joe Valachi, in October of 1963, who introduced to the world the new term for American organized crime, La Cosa Nostra, which pretty much solidified the matter. (See Peter Maas, The Valachi Papers, 1968)
"Most of what has been written about the mafia has been based on information supplied by agents of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. They have helped to build up the specter of a mafia and I think there is a very good reason why they do that…to justify their existence." (William J. Keating, member of the New York Crime Commission, 1958)
If American racketeers had tentacles in cities long enough to corrupt, intimidate, bribe, extort, and defeat attempts by law enforcement to corral them, why is it that so many were indicted, successfully prosecuted, and imprisoned?
Americans were led to believe that Italoamerican criminal masterminds were capable of "gnawing at the vitals of the nation." Not only were those thugs gnawing away, the Kefauver Crime Committee report gave them the potency of a "binder which ties together the two major criminal syndicates as well as numerous other criminal groups throughout the country." The members of this "secret conspiracy" were certainly both clever and diabolical, not to mention sinister, and "with ties in other nations." The report was curiously contradictory, noting that the "mafia was a loose-knot organization." If it were loose-knit, that is not mafia; it cannot be the "binder which ties together."
"For an international mafia to exist, there first would have to be a tight, disciplined, centralized organization in Sicily. Such an organization would be dangerous but at the same time easy to discover and destroy. This theory of an international mafia with headquarters in Sicily and branches in the United States is comforting and plausible. It helps explain mysterious events, accounts of strange loyalties and alliances, and sometimes justifies the impotence of the police." (From an article by Luigi Barzini in Harper’s, 1954)
While the Sicilian mafia was restricted to Sicilians, criminal activities in the United States were mixed ethnically. This included the Chicago Capone syndicate and the associates of Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano. The underworld contained men such as Moe Dalits, Maurice Kleinman and Thomas Jefferson McGuinty. We find Meyer and Jack Lansky as well as Frank Erickson, Dandy Phil Kastel, Murray Humphreys, and many more—all neither Sicilian nor Italian by birth or parentage.
To take a criminal association from an economically backward island like Sicily—with its turbulent history of violence, corruption and bad government—and transplant it to a progressive democracy like the United States struck many as fanciful. The environment that produced the mafia spirit in Sicily did not exist in America. The intimidation factor of an entire community bending to the will of a few men, necessary for mafia to flower, could not exist in America. To believe that Sicilian mafiosi could instruct and dictate to the more modern and urban American gangsters is to exhibit exceptional powers of imagination and a romantic inclination.
"There isn’t any one organization involved in crime, on such a wide basis as the mafia is supposed to exist.." (Italian News, Boston, September 5, 1958)
The term mafia has been used promiscuously and has been subjected to a great deal of indetermination. The Italian definition is specific and restricted to place and circumstance, that is, in the context of Italian society. The word has been lifted from that context and has been used to describe various criminalities in various nations. This has give rise to terms such as "mafia-like" to describe possible emerging true mafias. Mafia as culture, mafia as subculture (the underworld), or as association or as an enterprise composed of associations bound together by mutual interests with a commanding commission or cupola—all this lack f clarity in definition results in vagueness, a jumble of opinions and, above all, in mythmaking.
"Anyone who believes the mafia is a myth must be a mafia press agent." (The Murders, 1962, by Harry Auslinger, a former director of the Bureau of Narcotics)
If the motley crew that gathered at the alleged Grand Mafia Council in Apalachin, New York, in 1957, had the notion that together they were bigger than General Motors, then they were afflicted with a case of over-inflated egos and suffered delusions of supreme grandeur. Yet the government swallowed the bait and was easily trolled in.
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