Feature Articles

April 2012
Camorra In The Mid-1800s

      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 camorra is the gift that Naples has made to Italy, some say, with bitterness and unjust irony. I say, instead, that one of the great benefits that Naples will receive from the unification of Italy [which occurred officially on 17 March 1861] will be precisely this, to see La camorra eradicated. Its influence is found throughout the Neapolitan province in the form of territorial secret societies that bend the law to their own arbitrary and fraudulent purposes. It is in the Neapolitan speech, it is in the affairs of everyday, it is in the air that citizens breathe." (Sante Martinelli, Naples Court of Appeals, 1863)

     It is the summer of 1865, you are a tourist entering Italy by ship at the port of Naples. Among the mass of workers on the docks you might notice a robust man attired in a bespoke style, someone who does not seem to fit in among the denizens of the docks. He is steely-eyed, holds himself erect, sports a fancy cap, a gold watch and other jewelry, and has the quiet air of supercilious command.

     You take notice: he pauses for moment at a vendor's open-air stall and with a deft movement of his hand accepts a few coins offered to him by the merchant. He continues his casual stroll. With the natural curiosity of a tourist in strange and exotic surroundings, you ask of the stall owner, "Who is that man?" "He is camorrista," is the whispered reply.

     The incident does not appear to be an isolated one. The shabbily-clothed porter handling your luggage also is slipping a few coppers to a similarly dressed man. "Who's he?" The porter dips his head, and mumbles, "Camorrista." The reply does not surprise you.

     Now you begin to single out such men. They blend into the throng of the crowded city. They are regulars at the teeming port, the markets, chatting with the street spaghetti vendors. Later in the day you see such suspects idling at the games-of-chance street tables, the railroad station, the narrow, choked narrow lanes of the proletariat neighborhoods, even at the gates of the city. The average Neapolitan has little change to spare, but it becomes obvious that the cumulative effect of this "street tax" over the course of a week, a month, a year, can come to a tidy sum, much more then necessary to keep body and soul together. And enough to sustain the camorra criminal conspiracy.

     What is the camorra? you ask yourself. What part does it play in the daily tumult of Naples? Asking gets you nowhere, mainly because you have only scratched the surface of the phenomenon. What you see and hear is confusing. Contradictory. Complicated. Opinionated. What you noticed were ordinary men of no notable distinction imposing themselves on an apparent vulnerable public. What is camorra cannot be witnessed. What is camorra is the abuse of influence and power ("leprosy" as some called it) that permeates the society. At all class levels, at the stock exchange, the banks, the ministries, the courts, among racketeering businessmen. It is favoritism-it is selling protection fortified by a hint of potential violence-it is the manipulation of the societal mechanisms for illicit gain.


     Salvatore De Crescenzo was the king of his criminal band. He came to the attention of the authorities in February of 1849 with three simultaneous crimes: illegal arms possession, resisting arrest, and the wounding of a law officer, Corporale Bronei. While imprisoned for his crimes, he wounded one inmate and killed another, Luigi Salvatori, on 14 July 1849, because Salvatori challenged De Crescenzo for the leadership position of the jailed camorristi.

     After serving five years, De Crescenzo was released in 1855 and returned to his camorra clan. Taken into custody again, he was interned in the Castel Capuano prison. Fearing reprisal from vengeful inmates, he was transferred to a prison in the region of Molise. Once back in Naples, he attacked one of his adversaries, De Mata, and was condemned to a six-month sentence. Back in Naples, in an attempt to integrate him into the community as a law-abiding citizen, De Crescenzo was given a post in the Guardina Cittadina (Civilian Guard). The experiment failed because his violent tendencies could not be contained. He was dismissed from his squad and shortly thereafter was given a life sentence for murder.

     Giovanni Pardi earned the reputation as an astute swindler who operated in the market of San Carlo all'Arena, where he would extort the fruit and legume vendors. With his partners, Michele Gatto and Niccola Frasca, he was arrested for theft, strong-arming of persons, violence toward officials, camorra-style extortions as well as criminal use of a sword, gaming house operator, criminal-activity middleman, theft and homicide. Pardi's camorristi participated in an interclan battle on the Piazza della Pigna Secca, on 11 January 1850, when the competing camorristi slashed at each other with swords over contested territory.

     Raffaello Carrera represented an evolved type of camorrista of that era. He developed a sophisticated extortion system, one that stressed racketeering techniques over overt violence. He achieved his ends by infiltrating the tobacco manufacturing business and creating alliances with both the owners and workers. He imposed a tribute of a carlino or two (the carlino, a small coin, was used in Naples before Italian unification), under the threat of impeding the production process. Carrera expanded his operations by stealing raw tobacco bundles and opening a clandestine cigar manufacturing plant. His success became a model for others in the coming years. With Italian unification, the camorra found itself in a new environment in which they were to make successful adjustments. The change in government turned out to be but a slight inconvenience.

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