Organized Crime in America – The Dark Side of the Immigrant’s Tale

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“It’s Fun To Be The Tough Guy”

I don’t know about you, but I love gangster movies. Not just “The Godfather” saga, but the old Jimmy Cagney, Edgar G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart ones like “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Public Enemy.” There’s just something about mobsters that fascinates.

A few months ago, I interviewed actor David Proval (Richie Aprile in “The Sopranos”) and asked him about this. Proval said, “The cowboy, the desperado these are American heroes. Jesse James, Al Capone these guys in a strange way are heroic. There’s a Robin-Hoodish bravado about them. They have an arrogance, and a masculinity. It’s fun to be the tough guy.”

Gangsters have become part of the American tableau to the point that Frank McCourt in his autobiography Angela’s Ashes talks of being teased on the playgrounds of Ireland because his family had lived in America for a time. “And when we tell them we came from America they want to know, Are ye gangsters or cowboys?”

But organized crime has been around probably as long as laws about property have been around. The Romans had collegia (singluar collegium, a group of individuals forming a legal person for business, social or religious purposes) some of which were criminal in nature. And we all know the Mafia is Italian (Sicilian actually, and there are at least three similar organizations in Italy: the Camorra of Naples, the Ndrangheta of Calabria and the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia)

So how did it get to be so American that Irish kids are picked on for being Yank gangsters in the Emerald Isle?

The Origins Of Gangsters In America

Coll gang
Image Source: Dead gangster

The story starts in Italy, and throughout most of history, Italy has been more of a geographic term than it has been an actual country. The Kingdom of Italy was finally established in 1871 (the same year Bismarck created the German Empire out of what had been several German states).

But that unification came at swordpoint, and war always creates refugees. “By 1870, there were about 25,000 Italian immigrants in America, many of them Northern Italian refugees from the wars that accompanied the Risorgimento—the struggle for Italian unification and independence from foreign rule. Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily. Today, Americans of Italian ancestry are the nation’s fifth-largest ethnic group.”

In 1900, poor peasants from Sicily had no education, let alone fluency in English, an understanding of American institutions or an appreciation for the idea that government could work for the people. They made an easy target for those who preferred extorting others to earning an honest living – enter La Mano Nera.

The Black Hand

Image Source: Gang Rule

Black Hand, or La Mano Nera in Italian, was a type of extortion racket. It was a method of extortion, not a criminal organization as such, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practiced it. The roots of the Black Hand can be traced to Sicily and throughout the rest of Kingdom of Naples as early as the 1750s.

However, the term as normally used in English specifically refers to the organization established by South Italian immigrants in the United States during the 1880s. A minority of the immigrants formed criminal syndicates, living alongside each other. By 1900, Black Hand operations were firmly established in the Italian-American communities of major cities including New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco. Although more successful immigrants were usually targeted, possibly as many as 90% of Italian immigrants in New York were threatened.

Image Source: Gang Rule

“Typical Black Hand tactics involved sending a letter to a victim threatening bodily harm, kidnapping, arson, or murder. The letter demanded a specified amount of money to be delivered to a specific place. It was decorated with threatening symbols like a smoking gun or hangman’s noose and signed with a hand imprinted in black ink; hence the name La Mano Nera (The Black Hand) which was readily adopted by the American press as ‘The Black Hand Society’.”

Image Source: Gang Rule

It is important to stress that these crooks were not really a threat to native-born Americans. They preyed on their own people. This is a pattern that repeats itself within other ethnic groups – the Russian, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Irish, the Mexican – most organized crime takes advantage of the immigrant not the host nation. Immigrants are vulnerable until they get established, and that takes time.

By the beginning of the 20th century, you had plenty of different gangs in different ethnic neighborhoods, but these aren’t the gangster we know today, not really. It took something else to turn the American Mafia into what we know today.

The Mustache Petes

Joe “the Boss” Masseria-Image Source: Find a grave

If you know “The Godfather Part II,” you heard the term “Mustache Pete.” This guys “were the members of the Sicilian Mafia who had come to New York City as adults in the early 1900s. The younger Sicilian-Americans who later formed the Five Families, unlike the old guard Mustache Petes, had made their bones in America.

The most prominent members of this group were Joe “the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano . The Mustache Petes wanted to maintain Sicilian criminal traditions in their new country, and were more interested in exploiting their fellow Italians rather than the public at large. To that end, they opposed their younger soldiers’ desire to work with the powerful Jewish and Irish gangs.”

Salvatore Maranzano-Image Source: National Geographic

That last part is important because it is a uniquely American situation. The old guys didn’t want to rock the boat because that’s how things were done in the old country, but the next generation saw the opportunities in America to expand their business by branching out and collaborating with other gangsters. And the biggest opportunity was handed to them when America declared alcohol not just illegal but unconstitutional. Prohibition made the mob.

The Alcohol Prohibition

Charles “Lucky” Luciano-Image Source: The real Tsm

In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution went into effect, and the legislation that supported it known as the Volstead Act was passed. This meant that the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was not just illegal but unconstitutional. It was still legal to drink it, but if you can’t make it, move it or sell it, how is anyone going to get any to drink?

Unfortunately for the Prohibitionists, the nation seems to have celebrated the Volstead Act with a good stiff drink. While alcohol consumption did decline slightly, a great many people more or less ignored the law. However, they had to engage in criminal activity to get their alcohol. It was a perfect market for organized crime, which until then had operated mostly in illegal gambling, prostitution, larceny and extortion. These were crimes that required no national organization; indeed, various ethnic groups had their own part of town that their own mob ran. Smuggling alcohol or making it in quantity required a much bigger and better mob. Whether is was running rum from the Caribbean, smuggling tequila and beer up from Mexico, rye and Scotch from Canada or whatever, a national network of gangsters was needed.

Image Source: Prohibition in Pictures

The Mustache Petes were slowing being replaced by mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano (born in Italy as Salvatore Lucania), Meyer Lansky (a Belorussian Jew) and Benjamin Siegal (born in Brooklyn, call him “Bugsy” to his face at your peril). These guys either came to America as kids or were born here. They made millions during Prohibition (when a million dollars was more like a billion is today), and they made connections all across America.

The Commission And The Five Families

Victims of the Castellammarese War-Image Source: National Crime Syndicate

During Prohibition, gang wars were pretty common. Arguments over who would supply what number of illegal bars and social clubs on which block were resolved by violence. The mob in those days was a collection of crime organizations and were overseen by a capo di tutti capi (head of heads, boss of bosses). When Masseria and Maranzano fought over that title (The Castellammarese War), Masseria got killed by Maranzano’s guys, and later Luciano and his guys murdered Maranzano.

Luciano then called a meeting of all the bosses, and announced that the title of capo di tutti capi was being retired. He realized that competition was bad for business. The mob families needed to cooperate, or at least, stop interfering with each other. The result was the establishment of The Commission, a committee of the heads of the Five Families of New York plus the Chicago Organization. It was actually the Board of Directors for Crime, Inc.

Image Source: Prohibition in pictures

“You would have a ruling committee that consisted of the heads of the Five Families, and the head of the Chicago Outfit, and it was a way of establishing a system to oversee all mob activities. It was the place where disputes would be settled and conflicts would be resolved amongst families.

“So for example, if a mob boss position became available for whatever reason (usually resulting from a hit), then The Commission would come together toccast votes on who should take over the opening position. They also held the power of accepting new members (which needed to be approved by all families), once approved this member could become a made man.

“Lucky was the chairman of the board of directors, and the other bosses that could each cast one vote on decision were made up of Vincent Mangano, Tommy Gagliano, Joseph Bonanno, Joe Profaci, Al Capone and Stefano Magaddino.”

Image Source: Haiku deck


When Prohibition ended in 1933, the mob lost its market in alcohol, but laws against other drugs meant that there was still contraband that the mob could provide (and opiates are easier to smuggle than bulky alcohol). And much of the damage that had been done could not be undone. The mob had built a national network, and had more than enough money to buy whatever they needed to continue to operate.

After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the American Mafia moved beyond bootlegging and entrenched itself in a range of illegal ventures, from drug trafficking to loan-sharking, while also infiltrating labor unions and legitimate businesses such as construction, waterfront commerce and the New York garment industry. By the mid-20th century, there were 24 known crime families operating in cities across the country, comprised of some 5,000 “made,” or inducted, members and thousands of associates.”

During the Second World War, the mafia was actually helpful to the American war effort. Lucky Luciano was in jail, but he helped the Navy with Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. He was even pardoned as a result. The mafia also helped hunt down Nazi spies on the New York Waterfront.

The FBI’s Blind Eye

Image Source: Getty Images

During all of this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was largely missing in action. Its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, was pretty good at catching crooks like John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Machine-Gun Kelly, but these guys were simply bankrobbers with automatic weapons. They are lone wolves, not part of a wolfpack.

Hoover’s big concern throughout this career was not the mafia but the global communist conspiracy. Today, that sounds ridiculous, but the US went through a few periods of unhealthy paranoia about bomb throwing revolutionaries trying to destroy the fabric of our nation. He would rather investigate dangerous thinkers like Charlie Chaplin than mobsters like Dutch Schultz, who wanted to kill New York State Attorney General Thomas Dewey. While the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s was named after Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy (McCarthyism), Hoover agreed with him as did millions of US citizens.

“During this period of anti-Communist fervor, Hoover had been blind to the existence of a national crime syndicate even though a 1950s Congressional investigating body led by Sen. Estes Kefauver had produced a mountain of evidence proving this fact.

“After the nationally televised Kefauver hearings, Hoover still insisted that there was no such thing as the Mafia and as a consequence there was a period of consolidation of the criminal organisation and a period of growth for Mafia “families” in every major city across the United States.

Hoover’s unwillingness to take on the mafia (he didn’t really get going on it until the 1960s) has been a matter of some speculation. Some have noted that he was very much a man who believed that the states were the first line of defense in the fight against crime and that the FBI’s role was not that of taking on what the states could do better. According to this line of reasoning, he thought the Mustache Petes were the problem, and the local sheriff was the solution.

Hoover and lover Anthony Summer-Image Source: Petro Times

Less charitably, there are rumors (and have been for decades) that Hoover was a homosexual and that his second in command Clyde Tolson was his lover.

“Anthony Summers, in his book Official and Confidential, claimed Hoover deliberately refused to crack down on organized crime because he was being blackmailed by the Mafia for living a secret life as a homosexual. Summers believes that Hoover was blackmailed after powerful Mafia boss Meyer Lansky, an associate of Frank Costello, obtained photographs of the FBI boss in a compromising position with his friend and top aide, Clyde Tolson. Summers’s “proof” about Hoover’s homosexuality comes from a number of witnesses who told him that they had seen such photographs. Former members of the Mafia or Mafia associates told of how Lansky pressured the FBI director into leaving the criminal organization alone.”

Regardless of why, the FBI came late to the game, and that let the mob flourish from Prohibition onwards. When that changed, the mafia found itself in trouble it couldn’t buy or extort its way out of.

Decline of the Mafia in America

Carlo Gambino, mafia boss of the Gambino family-Image Source: Republica

There is still a Mafia in America, but it isn’t what it used to be. It lost a huge potential market when Castro took over Cuba, resulting in the loss of casino revenue and money from related vices. In Las Vegas, which became a gambling Mecca thanks to Bugsy Siegel more than anyone, the arrival of corporations to run the casinos in the 1970s and 1980s ended the mob’s control. Gangs from Latin America moved in with cocaine and marijuana and cut into the traditional mafia’s rackets. The 1990s saw the arrival of the Russian gangsters, who did likewise.

The main weapon though that has all but wiped out the mafia is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act . Passed in 1970, “It allows prosecution and civil penalties for racketeering activity performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Such activity may include illegal gambling, bribery, kidnapping, murder, money laundering, counterfeiting, embezzlement, drug trafficking, slavery, and a host of other unsavory business practices.

To convict a defendant under RICO, the government must prove that the defendant engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity and that the defendant directly invested in, maintained an interest in, or participated in a criminal enterprise affecting interstate or foreign commerce. The law has been used to prosecute members of the mafia, the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, and Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, among many others.

“The maximum punishment for an individual on a single RICO charge is imprisonment for twenty years (life if any of the predicate acts charged, such as murder, would permit such a punishment), and a fine of $250,000 or twice the proceeds of the offense. In addition, RICO revived the punishment of forfeiture of property, which before 1970 had been little used in American criminal law.

John Gotti-Image Source: Robert Rosamilio

RICO imposes, as a mandatory penalty, a judgment of forfeiture to the United States government not only of any proceeds or property derived from the proceeds of the crime, but also of any interest the defendant holds in the enterprise, or any property of any kind that provides a source of influence over the enterprise. The latter provisions, rooted in the statute’s original purpose of preventing criminal control of legitimate business, aim not only to punish the offender, but also to deny continuing power over an enterprise to anyone who has corrupted it to criminal ends.”

So, mobsters who used to take a four-year stint in jail and then come out to enjoy their ill-gotten gains were faced with a new reality. After doing almost all of 20 years (because RICO is a federal offense and there is no parole in the federal penal system, only small reductions for good behavior), the crook comes out to an empty bank account.

The result was the end of “omerta” the mob’s code of silence. Suddenly, soldiers and capos who were looking at 20 years in jail would flip, testify against their colleagues. The Witness Protection Program would give them a new name, a new identity, a new life, and their associates would go away. The race was on to see who would flip first.

“The first major RICO indictment came in 1985, with the heads of three New York families and five other top level Mafiosi eventually convicted. It took nearly two decades, but the heads of all five New York families were jailed simultaneously in 2003.”

Basically, the quality of gangster has declined as the old guard dies or gets jailed. Don’t take my word for it. I cite my neighbor John Gotti (he’s buried in the cemetery across the street from where I live), he was head of the Gambino family before he died in federal prison.

“Back in January 1990, a government bug caught no less an expert than Gambino boss John Gotti wondering if the next generation of mobsters was equal to their forebears.’Where are we gonna find them, these kind of guys?’ Gotti asked. ‘I’m not being a pessimist. It’s getting tougher, not easier’!”

“During the same conversation, Gotti questioned the resumes of a half-dozen candidates for made man: ‘I want guys that have done more than killing’.”

Organized Crime Has Not Died; It Has Evolved

However, it may not be so much a case of the mafia dying out, but rather that organized crime is evolving.

The Mustache Petes were replaced by the Commission. The Commission hasn’t met since the 1980s it seems, but there are still the families, and they are still working. “The Gambino family collected $230 million in fraudulent credit card fees linked to pornographic Web sites. Another crooked plan grossed more than $420 million when calls made to ‘free’ phone services triggered unauthorized monthly fees on victims’ phone bills.” Who needs to whack a guy with a tommy gun when you can just click on a few keys and steal more money than Tony Soprano could ever imagine?

The gangster of the 1920s and 1930s is gone, so are the cars with running boards and the bootleg whiskey. But the image of the guy in a $2,000 silk suit, spats and a fedora carrying a violin case that holds a submachine gun remains. And he probably always will. It goes back to what my interview with Proval; “It’s fun to be the tough guy.”

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