Feature Articles

April, 2010
Mafia Legend And Myth

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

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

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     The information we have on the mafia phenomenon has been distorted over time by a patina of legend, and that distortion can intrude on the simplest of conclusions.

     When truth and legend collide, the saying goes, print the legend; it's more interesting. Al Capone is considered the most important gangster of the 1920s. He remains a legend, the uber-mobster, brilliant and vicious. The archetype of a mob chief. In truth, Capone's effective rule over Chicago's leading gang lasted just three years; and during that time he was battling other gangs and fighting the law. A mob mastermind? Hardly. As Robert Lacy noted (Little Man, 1971) a good story is the mainstay when it comes to lawlessness: "The vast corpus of secondary literature on organized crime is shot through with inaccuracy and exaggeration. The challenge is to separate the truth from the tissue of hearsay and folklore and woven around it."

     What myth does is to saturate the air with statements that are neither true nor false but merely credible. Myths have their value. They are cherished too much to want to seek fact, or even assertions of historical doubt, to besmirch them. No good story is quite true. We want black or white when real life comes in shades of gray. Through repetition and for want of an appealing story mafia myth often hardens into mafia canon, the gospel truth that leaves scant room for further discussion. Facts and sourcing come to matter little.

     The underworld, though often overstated, is not a mythical construct. It consists of a heterogeneous set of persons, organizations and relations. There are terrorist groups, traffickers, forgers, gamblers, fences, robbers, all with actual or potential relationships with one another, if only because they are outsiders as well as differing significantly with those not in the underworld. Organized crime is only one part of that underworld, with the mafia-type organized-crime group having the reputation of being the most enduring and sophisticated form.

     The mafia could never have achieved wealth and power without the cooperation of scores of associates, those persons on the margins of criminality whose engagement, in one way or another, is essential to criminal success: lawyers, accountants, mob protectors, crooked cops, judges, businessmen, consumers: those who take a cut of a swag. The fact that the significance of these relationships tends to be overlooked leaves the impression that mobsters operate in a vacuum without the necessary complicity of legitimate institutions and individuals. It is such collaboration that if ignored gives to the mob an aura of invincibility. (To paraphrase Al Capone: All I do is supply the public with the booze they want.)

     Dwight Smith (The Mafia Mystique, 1975) argues, "The mafia is a figment of overactive and xenophobic imaginations. The public has been brainwashed by false stereotypes of immigrant gangsters that now congregate around the term 'mafia'." It is this imagery that has overwhelmed fact and blurred our vision of reality. The overzealous focus on Italoamerican criminals has lead to limitations on civil rights, unwarranted accusations, and assumptions and distorting generalizations applied in broadbrush fashion.

     Given the prime position to the Italoamerican criminal as the creator and supreme example of big-time crime has been subject to sporadic debate. Among the doubters is historian Sidney Zinn, who insists that the Kosher Nostra brain trust was the driving force in the invention of the New York crime family structure. He claims calumny, ethnic slander: "One of the great anti-Semitic libels of the American century is that Jewish gangsters were subservient to the mafia. The Italians ran the show. Jews were the supporting cast, mainly behind the scenes. The money changers in the temple of crime. You can't slice the baloney any thinner. Lucky Luciano a genius? He was a loser, a convicted pimp who died in exile in Italy. The myth is that Italians organized crime in America. No such thing. Luciano was created by Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman." (New York Daily News, December 3, 1998)

     Media fabrication plays a central role in the popular view of organized crime. Such repetition of stories often makes them seem true�they become authoritative and reference points despite whatever the authenticity. As a result, ethnicity is often informed by how we define criminal behavior and who are the actors, the traditional ones being Jewish, Irish, and Italian.

     Crime fiction enjoys sustaining popularity. There is an eager audience out there. Action is demanded�the viewer anticipates an experience beyond the mundane. Alfred Hitchcock, the famous British film director, put it succinctly, "Film is life with the boring parts left out."

     The spectacle of evildoers getting their just deserts for their deeds is intensely exciting and satisfying. Mafia stories serve as parable to convey a truth or a moral lesson. Retributive justice is an imperative. Great misdeeds must receive satisfactory punishment to put the world back in balance.

     Organized-crime tales serve specific political and cultural agendas. They reaffirm certain beliefs and values while discrediting others. Such narratives emerged in the late 1800s and have remained standard fare. (The gangland films of the thirties are examples.) Roughneck thugs have been imprinted in the popular imagination, penetrating the nation's mindset.

     Why do we love such blockbusters as The Godfather? Mafia expert Peter Maas explains: "The Godfather" saga contains everything that concerns and excites us: family, romance, betrayal, power, lust, greed, legitimacy, and, yes, salvation." (New York Times, September 9, 1990) One might add the glorification (dare we add also envy?) of men who live as they choose without the constraints of convention�an urbanized version of the lone horseman in the Old West.

       Money is important to mobsters. It is a strong impulse and defines personality. And not only mobsters. As an old Sicilian saying goes, "The mafia is inside of each of us." Karl Marx, the father of communist ideology, said it best (in 1844): "With money, I am no longer bound by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy myself the most beautiful women. Therefore, I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness�its deterrent power is nullified by money. I, in my character and as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with 24 feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is the possessor."

     Mafia as seen through a prism has many facets and thus many interpretations. It depends on what part of the beast you are touching. Mafia is one thing to the justice system, another to politicians, a third to reformers, a fourth to mass media, a fifth to organized-crime specialists, and, not to be dismissed, a sixth to the mobsters themselves.

     The first five perspectives place gangsters in an unfavorable light. They are immoral, egotistic, anti-social, treacherous, unremorseless parasites who live in the shadows, unfit to exist among decent folk. They carry themselves with a touch of romantic entitlement, a splash of daring-do and an air of exceptionalism. It is this last characterization that was the original meaning of the Sicilian term mafiusu.

     To give flavor and substance to the way they see themselves, a few quotes will suffice.

"As a wiseguy you can lie, you can cheat, you can steal, you can kill people�legitimately. You can do any goddamn thing you want, and nobody can say anything about it. Who wouldn't want to be a wiseguy."  --Lefty Reggiero (Nicholas Pileggi. Wiseguy, 1985)

"Everybody is missing the point about why people join the mafia. It's not about the money. It's about being 'made' and being involved in something better than boring daily existence that most of the world's population lives."

"Mystique. That's it. It's being criminal nobility. It's knowing that you are part of a society that only selected individuals have joined.." (

"You see, everyone wants to be a gangster. Once you empower them, touch that place in their ego that wants to be an animal." �Anthony Fiato (John L. Smith. The Animal in Hollywood, 1998)

"Instead of the dull job and meager income for which he was equipped, Mickey Cohen became a mobster and enjoyed bright lights, easy money, easy women. Gangsters loved their work and enjoyed reminiscing about it. 'It wasn't that I craved  for anything,' said a Chicago gangster looking back, 'it was more the excitement than anything else. It was more fun getting the apple than it was eating it.'" (Stephen Fox. Blood and Power, 1989)

"Despite the violence and the crime, there was a beauty about belonging to a traditional organized crime crew. There was respect, glamour in the non-glamorous neighborhoods, discipline with the confines of the family and camaraderie. There was a time  when I couldn't go to a restaurant, car dealership, or a clothing store that I didn't recognize a fellow mobster, even when I didn't know them well; maybe just recognized him. There was a handshake or a hug, maybe a drink sent over, maybe a joke among men, maybe the beginning of a deal.  For us, it was a beautiful thing." �Sonny Girard, 2008 (Mob Blog 34)

     The outsider's view, as contrasted with the insider quotes above, is less charitable, especially in regard to the notions of "honorable men" and the "honor system." They are considered the most dangerous of myths because they serve to rationalize, as well as disguise under the veil of respectability, what is otherwise despicable behavior. As to the mafioso being brave and generous, he has a totally opposite character. "He shoots to the shoulder, by treachery, when he is secure to have total control of the victim," to quote one mafia observer.

     "Mafia honor" has the functions of encouraging recruitment, securing unit solidarity, and giving the public the false impression of an elitist fraternal organization with noble and ancient traditions. The cover of "honor" maintains legitimacy internal to the criminal group and a language that defines itself to the external world. Mafiosità is a pose, a front, that will crumble before a stronger force: To quote the same mafia observer, "The mafioso has arrogance and boldness, an exaggerated sense of self, at least until the right and severe application of the law will reach him."

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