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Why did a gangster culture develop in the USA in the 1920`s to the 1940`s ?
There were several different factors that contributed to the developing of a gangster culture and the organised crime in America. The interesting thing about this is that all of the factors just happened to appear at once, creating a perfect environment for the birth of a nation-wide, organised criminal power.
This criminal power could develop because the vicious increase in foreign immigrants during that time in America, which is probably the main reason. The Mafia also could develop in the US because of their really strict discipline, its organisation and hierarchy. Also important for the birth of this gangster culture was the prohibition, the fact that alcohol was illegal and the Mafia could produce it and sell it made it rich, but they had indeed other businesses too. The mighty Dons with their great gangs organised all these businesses and made the phenomenon Mafia in America in the 1920’s and 1940’s possible.
The organised criminal power:
First of all it need to be said what the Mafia is. The word Mafia means arrogance and presumption in Italian and refuge in Arabic, which refers to the origins of the Mafia as a society that fled to the hills of Italy to avoid attack. It is the word for a group of criminals who are sometimes linked together with a blood oath and who are not allowed to betray their secret.
The first time the word Mafia was mentioned was in the ninth century in Sicily. To this time the main purpose of the so-called Mafia was it to strengthen themselves against the Arabic and Norman forces which invaded their homeland in Sicily. These Arabic and Norman forces oppressed the native Sicilians so that they had to take refuge in the surrounding hills. The intention of the secret society in the hills was it to wake a strong sense of togetherness between all the native Sicilians and to unite every native against the invaders. They tried to create a sense of family which was well organised and had a strong hierarchical layout.
History of the vicious increase of foreigners:
The U.S. Mafia, or the “Black Hand” as it was known in the early period, began to develop in the 1800`s in the USA because of the vicious increase in foreign immigrants during that time in America. Three million Irish, three and a half million Jews and four million Italians immigrated to America. New York was the second biggest Italian city after Naples, one quarter of New York – more than half a million people – were Italian . Although many think the Mafia had their roots in New York and Chicago it actually has been traced in 26 major cities in America.
The new immigrants, bewildered by the new land, and it’s strange language, lived closely together in the Little Italy’s of New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other cities. The first time the Mafia was mentioned and therefore discovered in America was in New Orleans in the 1800ï¿½s. Police Chief David Hennesy discovered the existence of this growing gangster culture in the heart of the United States of America while he was investigating the murder of an Italian immigrant. One reason why the Mafia was able to establish itself was because they were by far the biggest ethnic group in America and they had strong and violent leaders or rather Dons.
Don Vito, Vito Cascio Ferro (1862-1945), was the first Sicilian Capo de Tutti Capi. He is believed to be the one man primarily responsible for establishing the communication between the Sicilian and U.S. Mafia. He had also an important role in 1924 when many Italian Mafia members came to the USA to avoid persecution in Sicily because Mussolini was determined to rid of the Mafia in Italy. This increased the numbers of members in the organisation and developed the gangster culture in the USA.
Discipline and Hierarchy:
It is quite interesting that the Mafia was able to establish itself so fast in America one important reason for this phenomenon was the discipline.
First of all every new mobster (member of the family) had to go through a ceremony, this ceremony was often compared to the baptism ceremony. This ceremony was really important for the mobster because at this day he became full member of La Cosa Nostra (our affair). The newcomer was told that the Mafia is a secret society and that there is just one way in and only one way out of it. You come in on your feet and you go out in a coffin. They were told that they have to kill even their own blood family when the mobster accepted everything he was told of the rules he must abide by.
These rules were the heart of the Mafia and one of the most important reasons why this gangster culture could develop in America. The most important rule in organised crime was the rule called the Omerta. The Omerta is a code of silence. A vow never to reveal any Mafia secrets or member under threat of torture or death. Another rule was the obedience rule. The obedience rule stated that the member must at all times be loyal to the boss or Don. A third law of the Mafia was the assistance to any befriended Mafia faction, no questions asked. A few others included, Avenge any attack on members of the family, because an attack on one was an attack on all, and the last rule was to avoid any and all contact with the authorities.
Another evidence for the strong discipline in the Mafia was the hierarchical layout. The Mafia in America was organised like a “parliament” which was called the Commission. The Commission handled interfamily disputes and set general policy for La Cosa Nostra. It acted as more of a forum of Family Bosses than a board of directors. At the head of each family stood the Dons or Bosses they were the men with all of the power in the Family. They were giving orders, and the rest of the Family were expected to follow them without question. Next in line to the Dons were the Underbosses, who were second in command. He controlled the day-to-day operations of the Family. Followed by the Consigliere or counsellors. The consigliere acts as a “counsellor” or “advisor” to the boss.
He was directly under the boss in terms of the hierarchy, but he did not normally give orders. Fourth in the line was the so-called “Capo”. Capo is the short form for capodecina or caporegime and he was the leader of a “crew” or decina (literally, “group of ten”) of ten to fifteen soldiers. The Soldiers were the one’s who would enforce discipline over both members and non-members through the use of intimidation, assaults, and murder. And last were the men who did the really dirty work for the Mob, the Associates. They were not “made” guys, they just hang around with the crew. They often are willing to do anything to get “made”, and therefore handle a lot of hits.
Another fact that benefited the developing of he Mafia in the USA in the 1920ï¿½s and 1930ï¿½s was the prohibition. Prohibition basically means the legal forbidden production, transport and sale of alcoholic drinks in the USA between 1920 and 1933. With these laws the Mafia had a perfect base for its organised crime.
The government of England and the American Colonies tried since 1750, almost fruitless, to stop the excessive consumption of alcohol. In the twenties of the 19th century the average alcohol consumption of pure alcohol per person was about twenty seven litres per year.
The government saw a strong link between the alcohol consumption on the one hand and the rapidly growing criminality, poverty ,brutal force and the developing of great gangster culture on the other hand.
They therefore have seen the necessity for an alcohol prohibition. The first prohibition law was passed in 1851 in the state Main and prohibited the production and the sale of alcohol except for medical or technical purposes. With this law all alcoholic drinks with more than 0,5 percent alcohol were forbidden. Thirteen of the thirty-one states introduced similar laws around 1850. However, the means of alliance and states for the effective enforcement were completely inadequate to the Prohibition.
Follow of the national prohibition was that the Mafia made this prohibition useful to itself, they built black distillery in great extent to produce the alcohol, they smuggled it, they sold illegal through so-called bootleggers, they also sold it into Speakeasies (camouflaged Saloons) and they bribed the police the follow of all these illegal wheelings and dealings were a rapid increase of organised crime all over the USA .
To this time the developing of the American Mafia was on its peak. It was expanding like never before in the United States. The fact that a thing so many people wanted to have was illegal and easy to produce was almost perfect for the organised crime and the Mafia.
War of the women:
But in 1873 the spectacular “war of the women” broke out everywhere in the United States. They were protesting against the Saloons which were the places of the greatest alcohol consumption and in 1900 the woman found the Anti-Saloon-League of America (ASL) that performed great political influence in the following time. Until 1916 23 of the 48 states issued Anti-Saloon Laws for the closing of the Saloons and for the prohibition of the production of alcoholic drinks. These laws were not a disaster for the gangster culture but they already lost some money in their bootlegging business.
In the initial phase of the world economy crisis the prohibition opponents argued convincing, that that the prohibition disabled the increase of jobs and the income of taxes it also added the stagnation of the economy. In December 1933 the US congress with great majority discharged the 21st condition addition, with which the 18th addition, the Prohibition, was cancelled. The control of the alcohol consumption rested now on the individual states. Until 1966 every state had cancelled their prohibition laws.
That was bitter for the Mafia and the Dons, because they lost one of their most important businesses and had to look for other ways to make good money.
The Bootlegging business was not the only illegal business in which the Mafia was involved in. Another fact why the Mafia was so successful in organised crime was because they were so flexible and had many other businesses.
One of them was the Extortion of protection money which was already done in Sicily in the 1700ï¿½s. Pictures of a black hand (which was the sign for the Mafia in Sicily) were distributed to the wealthy. This was an unspoken request for an amount of money in return for protection. If the money wasn’t paid, the recipients could expect violence such as kidnappings, bombings, and murder. The methods did not change in the USA when the extorted business did not accept the assimilation to the family it had to fear terror. In cities were the Mafia was really present whole areas were extorted and did what the Don wanted them to do. The Black Hand fear became such a problem that a special Italian branch of the police had to be formed, this was essential as the immigrants did not trust the Irish/American law force, and the police had no understanding of Italian customs or behaviour.
A whole net of organised crime was over the towns were the Mafia was, they controlled the illegal business like bootlegging, extortion, machine gambling, bookmaking, loan sharking, labour racketeering and kidnapping but also legal businesses like food production,
they owned restaurants, they controlled the garbage disposal as well as the garment manufacturing, bars and taverns and Labour unions as well.
The Dons “owned” the cities with there businesses, they controlled everything that happened in “their towns” and ran the city in whatever way they felt. They and their gangs had a great part that the Mafia could develop in the US.
The strongest and therefore probably the most famous individuals in the history of the American Mafia were Vito Cascio Ferro (Don Vito), Charlie Luciano (Lucky Luciano), Joseph Bonano (Joey Bananas, Alphonse Capone (to his friends: “Snorky,” among some members of the press: “Scarface”). These handsome individuals were so powerful and influencing that they had a great part why the Mafia could establish itself in America in the 1920ï¿½s to the 1940ï¿½s.
Vito Cascio Ferro (1862- 1945):
Vito Cascio Ferro was responsible for the establishing the communication between the Sicilian and U.S. Mafia. Cascio Ferro came to New York in 1900, he already had established himself in Sicily where he commited kidnapping, extortion, arson, and threatening officials.
Ferroï¿½s activities in the U.S. are not clear, but he killed at least one man. This man, called Benedetto Madonia, had been trying to establish a counterfeiting ring in Don Vito’s territory without permission or authority of Don Vito. He was killed really brutally,he was cut in pieces and put into a barrel with his penis and testicles in his mouth. This showed how dangerous the Mafia was already in its early stages, as well as that the police could not really stop the uprising criminal society in the U.S. in the 1920ï¿½- 1940ï¿½s.
Don Vito fled to New Orleans before the police could ask him one question ,he spent time organising his own counterfeiting ring along with establishing a connection for heroin smuggling with Sicily. Again nobody could stop the establishment of Don Vito. Everything seemed to be alright till Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino(police officer), could give evidence for Vitoï¿½s illegal activities. These evidence forced him to return to Sicily where he quickly established himself as head of all Mafiosi. Again everything seemed to be alright till Lieutenant Petrosino once again appeared in his life. He came to sicily in 1909 to prove the connection between the U.S. and Sicilian mobs and hopefully to have some criminals extradited back to the U.S., including Cascio Ferro, but Petrosino soon was murdered in Sicily probably by Vito himself and two other gunmen. This story was never proved by evidence.
After the killing of Lieutenant Petrosino Don Vito became even more popular in both the Sicilian and U.S. underworlds this fact helped him to establish himself as a well respected businessman in Palermo. For a certain time everything worked well, Vito even began to send Mafiosi to the U.S. to help build a criminal empire there.
In 1921 Benito Mussolini came to power, one of his major aims were to destroy the strong Mafia organisation, Vito had established. Vito who had seen this coming had sent Salvatore Maranzano to the States to take over the crime empire there and to establish the Mafia in America even more. He actually planned to follow Marranzano and take over leadership himself but he never got the chance, because he was arrested in 1929. Vito Cascio Ferro was sentenced to life imprisonment. Vito Cascio Ferro established the Mafia in America, he also made sure that this criminal society had a future in the USA when he sent more Mafiosi to the States.
Charlie Luciano (1896 – 1962):
Charlie Luciano was born in Lercara Friddi, Sicily, on 11th November, 1896. His family moved to the United States in 1906 and they settled in New York. He began his criminal career by selling drugs when he was really young. In 1915 he was arrested in the possession of several kilos of heroin. When he came out of prison he again chose the criminal career. In 1920 he became a member of a Mafia gang, which had allready established itself in America. By 1925 Luciano criminal career was going really well, he became the Donï¿½s second hand, he directed bootlegging, prostitution and drug distribution. In 1929 a gang war broke out between Lucianoï¿½s Don and Salvatore Maranzano.
During this gang war Luciano was kidnapped by Maranzano’s men and was stabbed with an ice pick. His attackers thought he was dead and therefore left him. But he miraculously survived and was known from now on as Lucky Luciano. In April 1931, Luciano, Albert Anastasia and Bugsy Siegel, were involved in the murder of their Don, Joe Masseria. They now controlled the Mob Masseria had left and the business as well, so they therefore controlled one of the strongest Mafia gangs to this time. This was not enough power for Luciano, six months later he arranged the killing of Salvatore Maranzano with the help of Meyer Lansky. Luciano was now the most important criminal boss in New York and one reason why the Mafia could establish itself in the USA in the 1920ï¿½s – 1940ï¿½s.
But this was still not enough power for him and he therefore joined with Louis Lepke Buchalter, Abe Reles and Albert Anastasia to form Murder Incorporated which was an organisation that carried out executions for money.
This again showed how strong the Mafia already was, they found a killing organisation under the eyes of the American law. Everything went well for the American Mafia and Lucky Luciano till 1936 when he was sentenced for a life in prison for 30 years. But once again the Mafia in the US showed its strength, Luciano could continue controlling his criminal empire from prison.
In February, 1946, he was deported to Italy where he lived for a short time, but in 1947 he went to Cuba to control his criminal activities in the USA. The US were able to get rid of his activities when they sent him back to Italy again. He died of a heart attack in Naples on 26th January, 1962. Lucky Luciano was really important for the rise of the American Mafia because he unlike Maranzano, who tried to impose himself as the Emperor in an organisation modelled after the Roman Empire, Luciano organised a decentralised structure in which the major crime families divided up territories and spheres of activities and met, when necessary, to mediate differences between the various families. This served to prevent the all-out wars that had wracked the Mafia in the 1930’s while allowing organised crime to grow even richer and more entrenched in the United States of America. Charlie Luciano gained a lot of power when he killed two of the most powerful Donï¿½s in the USA, he also stopped the gang wars and reorganised the system how the Mafia worked.
Joseph Bonanno (1905 – 2002):
Joseph Bonanno became the boss of one of the most prominent crime families in the world, the Bonanno crime family. He began his career with extorting money from businesses and little crimes. In 1927 Salvatore Maranzano, who had been sent over by Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the Italian man who dreamed of Mafia control overseas, had arrived to meet up with Bonanno and others to bring the American Mafia under Don Vito’s control. Maranzano began a fight with the man who, until then, led Mafia activities in New York: Joe The Boss Masseria. The war between them became known as the Castellemarese War.
Several young Mafiosi’s were involved in this war, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and indeed Joseph Bonano, known as the young generation of mobsters. Lucky Luciano, Joe Bonanno and others were tired of the bloodshed, and fearful that all of this violence would draw too much attention from the authorities on their interests, set up a meeting which led to the creation of the crime Commission, and hits on Masseria, and Maranzano, marking the end of the era of the Mustache Petes. The Commission consisted of five Mafia families, and the Bonanno Mafia family was one of them. Bonanno took over what used to be mainly Maranzano’s faction.
This Commision was really important for the uprising of the Mafia because it made sure thet the families would not fight against each other.
Bonanno did not like violent conflicts, he therefore ruled his family with fairness, and in addition to his to gambling and other rackets, focused his attention on more legitimate ventures such as the clothing industry, and funeral businesses. Bonanno established himself on the West Coast, particularly California, and Arizona, and other countries such as Cuba, and Canada which again shows the great influence of Bonanno and the American Mafia to this time.
Joseph Bonanno was never convicted of a serious crime. He was once fined $450 and was jailed for terms of 8 and 14 months for contempt of court for refusing to answer questions but he never had been to prison any longer then 14 months. He was really important for the uprising Mafia society because he got rid of the old generation mobster, he also set up the Commision to calm the gang wars down and took over a great crime empire of Salvatore Moranzano, which made him one of the most powerful Donï¿½s of the Mafia history.
Alphonse Capone (1899 – 1947):
Al Capone, how he was also called, is probably the most famous Mafia Boss in the history of the American Mafia. He was born in New York and was the fourth oldest of nine children. He was known as a brutal Neapolitan mobster from the younger generation, who became a powerful force in the Sicilian-American Mafia and is therefore important for the question why the Mafia could rise in America. He is probably so well known because he was as an organisational and motivational genius who served as one of the architects of the nation-wide criminal Syndicate.
Al Capone’s philosophy was that laws only applied to people who had enough money to live by them. He grew up in the slums of Brooklyn & received the nickname “Scarface” as the result of a knife wound. He was a fearsome enforcer for Five Points leader Johnny Torrio.
Johnny Torrio stablished himself in Chicago’s Colosimo gang Capone quickly rose to the top of the Colosimo crime empire, which thanks to Torrio and Capone, included bootleg liquor among its enterprises. Capones real time came after Torrio narrowly escaped death on Jan. 24, 1925 and left the whole gang with all its businesses to Capone.
Capone organised the syndicate with a plan to make crime in Chicago and throughout the United States run like a business monopoly. Through violence Capone became king of the Chicago underworld, “The Master Criminal.” With his methods he established a $110-million-a-year empire out of bootleg liquor, gambling, prostitution & labor rackets. The police tried several times to imprison him but too many businesses were tied to legal ones and too many officials, politicians and policeman were bribed by Capone.
After a series of wars against other Mafia gangs a new national Syndicate was set up which was another step to establish the American Mafia even more. But he could enjoy the new underworld just for about a month. At the end of October in 1931 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion. He already suffered from syphilis and in jail it was getting worse . He managed to leave prison and was never again involved in underworld affairs. He died in 1947 as maybe the greatest Mafia Boss the world has ever seen. His ability to co-ordinate, managing and motivate people made him one of the most powerful Mafia individuals and he had a great deal why the Mafia could establish itself in America.
The Mafia in the 1920’s – 1940’s was so powerful that the Don’s and their gangs could do what ever they wanted to do. It is questionable if the individuals of the Mafia were just more powerful and the circumstances too perfect for the growth of the Mafia, or if the Police and the politicians in America were just too weak. What I can say for sure is that throughout history the Mafia was probably the system which was better organised than every government and more powerful than every other gangster culture this world has ever seen because many things that came together by chance which made America a perfect ground for the growth of a gangster culture.
One of the most important reasons was the vicious increase in foreign immigrants during that time in America, it flooded some of the most mighty Don’s in American history to the USA and gave these Don’s the Mob they needed. Another thing was that these Don’s were able to keep a really strict discipline, organisation and hierarchy. Also important for the birth of this gangster culture was the prohibition, the fact that alcohol was illegal and the Mafia could produce it and sell it made it rich, but they had indeed other businesses too. The mighty Dons with their great gangs organised all these businesses and made the phenomenon Mafia in America in the 1920’s and 1940’s possible.
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MAFIA /St. Martin’s Press (1978)
True Crime: Mafia /Time-Life Books (1993)
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American Mafia: A History of its Rise to Power /Henry Holt and Company (2004)
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