Feature Articles

September 2009
Dark Brotherhoods

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

     Before the Sicilian mafia system established a firm foothold in the 1880s, there existed earlier forms, the proto-mafias, a few of which became counter-mafias. Taken together, these delinquent societies are known as Tenebrosi Sodalizi (Dark Brotherhoods).

"Marsala tied my index finger of my right hand tightly with a string.  He pricked the finger with a pin. The blood dripped on the image of a female saint. He burned the image, divided it into two portions and gave me one. We ground up our portions in our hands and then threw the result into the air. As part of the ceremony I swore that I would remain a member of the Societ?a? that has as its capo Don Vito Vita, and its aim is to commit crimes against persons and property. I was told that the Societa? has affiliates in other towns, each town with its own capo, and if an affiliate does not carry out his assigned duties he would be judged by the Societa? and condemned to death. Then they taught me the mode of recognizing other affiliates." (Testimony from the police interrogation of Leo Pellegrino, from the village of Sciacca, Agrigento province, 15 March 1876. Cited in Le Mafie by Paolo Pezzino, 2003)

     There were many Dark Brotherhoods. To name a few: Fratuzzi di Bagheria, Scattialora di Sciacca, Scaglione di Castrogiovani, Fontana Nuova di Misilmeri, Fratellanza di Favara, and Zubbio di Villabate. All these associations existed in the 1870s. Some were particularly significant, including the powerful Stoppaglieri di Monreale.

     Examining the constitutions of these organizations and modi operandi in their respective territories, we find that they were alike in their criminal orientations. Several had reciprocal understandings, above all in maintaining rank solidarity. Yet, they were independent Brotherhoods that arose out of each village's history.

     Comparing the Stoppaglieri with the Oblonica, each had a tribunal. Similar also were the initiation ceremonies, mutual recognition code words and activities such as theft, extortion, vendettas, and interclan rivalries. All Brotherhoods took on a mix of village functions, some social and personal rather than criminal, including a welfare assistance service. The people looked to the Brotherhoods to take over those functions the state could not or would not provide.

     The Stoppaglieri were divided into sections, each with a capo. The Fratuzzi had squads of ten persons. The capos at the local levels depended on a provincial capo, a shadowy figure. Monthly sums were paid at each level, up the hierarchy of command. Blind obedience was the corner stone of the Fraternity; rule breakers were subject to harsh reactions. Hierarchically, the capotesta (headman) gave orders downward to the capidiecina, and they to the crew chiefs. The mediator in all disputes was the capotesta.  

     Recognition of one's own kind followed agreed upon coded conversational techniques. Each elicited information about the person's affiliation and fellow conspirators. Here is an example of one such give and take:

"Hello compare, do you have a cigar butt. I have a toothache."
"Yes, I have one."
"How is your brother? I understand he is sick."
"He was. Now he's better."
"And you have a Fratello Monaco?
"What's his name?"
"Fra? Gerolamo."

     Another encounter:

"Who is your god?"
"What do you do?"
"Everything, everywhere."
"When you were initiated who was present."
"Good people."
"Who was there?" (The correct response is to name the older men present at his initiation ceremony.)

     Although such encounters differed in substance from one Brotherhood to another, the process of eliciting information  (Who are you? To whom do you belong?) was understood throughout the island. It facilitated the recognition of those who shared the same underworld as well as keeping others from penetrating it.

     A similar structure is evident when a novice swears fidelity to his association´┐Żthe spilling of blood on a sacred image (e.g., the village patron saint); the burning and scattering of its ashes. The aforementioned string tied to the pricked finger denoted the strong tie with the other affiliates; the blood is that which a newcomer will shed to protect his co-conspirators; the sacred image stands in for the divinity; the scattered ashes signify that as you cannot reconstitute the burned paper, it is also impossible for the initiate to go back on his contracted obligations, to not belie a tradition. The person thus undergoes a complete resocialization of personality´┐Żthe old life is gone; the new begins and remains.

     In Monreale, a town on the  heights inland from Palermo, an artisan association called the Societa? degli Stoppaglieri or Stuppagghieri (meaning cork or plug; used as a pejorative by its adversaries), was founded by Giuseppe Palmeri of Nicosia.

     The Palermo area rural mafia had increased its power to such a degree that Palmeri decided to employ his Society as a counter-mafia to the threat, namely a clan called the Giardinieri (literally, those who cultivate gardens; farm laborers). The resulting conflict between these two territorial rivals represented, in the early 1870s, the first documented mafia-type war. The Society quickly transformed itself from an artisan club to a vicious criminal group hell-bent on territorial control through forceful suggestion, and if that did not work, violence with impunity, including the killing of policemen to intimidate the authorities, in order to solidify sovereignty.

     Omerta? was incorporated as the central pillar of mafiosita?. Silence was what men of honor valued most and became the exemplar of behavior essential to all affiliates. Traditional Sicilian culture contained the admonition that loose lips invite trouble. Note this ancient Sicilian proverb: "L'omu chi parra assai cu la so stissa vucca si disterra." ("The man who talks too much will ruin himself through his own mouth.")

     THE CORLEONE FRATUZZI.  In the late twenties the Fascist party leader and dictator Benito Mussolini decided to dismantle the mafia network in Sicily. He gave the task to Cesare Mori, who was told to use an "Iron Fist" to bring an end to this "cancer at the toe of Italy." Mafia towns were invaded and the arrests and convictions were numerous for both suspects and family members.

     On the 20th of December, 1926, at first light, the village of Corleone awakened to a state of siege. The police and the Reali Carabinieri blocked all roads so that no one could leave or enter. Armed with arrest warrants and the familial composition of every household, the police went door to door, seizing suspects, as they said, "By order of His Excellency, Prefect Cesare Mori, I declare you under arrest."

     The arrest list contained 150 names, but only about half were found at home. The others, forewarned, had fled to the nearby mountains or abroad to America. The detained men were shipped to the Palermo Uccciardone prison. Most were members of the "Gotha," that is, the Fratuzzi of Corleone. Prefect Mori also recognized that within the (innocuous sounding) local Circolo Agricolo, or Farmers' Club, was folded a gang element deemed "dangerous to the state." The Corleonesi were reputed to be one of the more powerful clans in the province, bloody-minded and complicit in many murders of which two were high-level officials.

     With the passage of time, some of the sentences were shortened. There was an amnesty and commutations. The decree of 5 December 1932 set free many of the prison inmates as well as those confined to offshore islands.

     Once back in Corleone the men feigned wholehearted support of the Fascist regime. The reality was quite different as the clans regrouped and went back to business as usual, and not always in secrecy. This brought about, during the years 1934 to 1939, another wave of repression, but of lesser intensity, which was not as all-encompassing or given the publicity or priority of the late twenties reign of terror.

     The Fratuzzi in Corleone were barely affected. The climate was so favorable that some of those who had fled Sicily returned. The Sodalizio had the advantage of influential supporters who looked after its interests. One protector was a powerful lawyer, Roberto Paternostro, who was well-connected in Palermo. When Mussolini visited Corleone in 20 August 1937, he was accorded a warm welcome by the populace, little realizing that things were not what they seemed.


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