American Mafia

This article is about the Italian-American criminal organization in the United States. For the criminal society in Sicily, see Sicilian Mafia. For other uses, see Mafia (disambiguation).
Italian-American Mafia
Founding location Origins in Sicily; founded in New Orleans and New York City
Years active Late 19th century–present
Territory United States; active in most parts of the country during its peak, currently active mainly in the Northeast, Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Las Vegas, and Florida; extensions in Canada
Ethnicity Full members (made men) are of Italian descent, other criminals of any ethnicity are employed as "associates".
Membership (est.) Around 1,200 Made Men and thousands of Associates
Criminal activities Racketeering, smuggling, fraud, counterfeiting, robbery, bribery, assault, money laundering, illegal gambling, loan sharking, human trafficking, weapons trafficking, drug trafficking, extortion, fencing, murder, prostitution, pornography, theft, arson
Allies Sicilian Mafia, Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, Jewish Mafia, Albanian Mafia, Polish Mob, Russian Mafia, Triads, Irish Mob, Yakuza, Hell's Angels, Bandidos, Outlaws, Pagans, Mongols, Warlocks, Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, various independent Italian-American street gangs and crime groups (such as South Brooklyn Boys)
Rivals Historically rivals of the Irish Mob

The American Mafia, often referred to as the Italian Mafia or Italian Mob[1][2][3] is an influential, highly organized Italian-American criminal society. The organization is often referred to by members as Cosa Nostra (Italian pronunciation: [kɔsa nɔstra], our thing). It originated and developed from the original "Mafia" or Cosa nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, though eventually encompassing other non-Sicilian Italian-American gangsters and organized crime groups of Italian origin in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada. The father of American organized crime is generally considered to be Sicilian-American criminal Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

The Mafia in the United States emerged in impoverished Italian immigrant neighborhoods in New York's East Harlem (or Italian Harlem), Lower East Side, and Brooklyn. It also emerged in other areas of the East Coast of the United States and several other major metropolitan areas (such as New Orleans[4]) during the late 19th century and early 20th Century following waves of Italian immigration, especially from Sicily and other regions of Southern Italy. It has its roots in the Sicilian Mafia, but is a separate organization in the United States. Neapolitan, Calabrian, and other Italian criminal groups in the U.S., as well as independent Italian-American criminals, eventually merged with Sicilian Mafiosi to create the modern pan-Italian Mafia in North America. Today, the American Mafia cooperates in various criminal activities with the Sicilian Mafia and other Italian organized crime groups, such as the Camorra in Naples, 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, and Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia. The most important unit of the American Mafia is that of a "family", as the various criminal organizations that make up the Mafia are known. Despite the name of "family" to describe the various units, they are not familial groupings.[5]

The Mafia is currently most active in the Northeastern U.S., especially in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New England, especially in Boston and Providence. To a lesser extent, it is also active in other areas of the U.S., especially in other Northeastern and Midwestern cities; including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland,[6] with smaller families, associates, and crews in places such as Florida, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, but, outside of New Orleans and Dallas, historically absent from the South and other areas of the U.S. without a significant Italian immigrant or Italian-American presence. It is also active in Canada, especially in Montreal and Toronto. There have been at least 26 cities around the United States with Cosa Nostra families, with many more offshoots, splinter groups, and associates in other cities. There are five main New York City Mafia families, known as the Five Families: the Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno, and Colombo families. At its peak, the Mafia dominated organized crime in the U.S. Each crime family operates independently, while nationwide coordination is provided by the Commission, which consists of the bosses of each of the strongest families.

Today, most of the Mafia's activities are contained to the Northeastern United States and Chicago, where they continue to dominate organized crime, despite the increasing numbers of other crime groups.[7][8]

Usage of the term Mafia

Further information: Sicilian Mafia § Etymology

The term Mafia was originally used in Italy by the media and law enforcement to describe criminal groups in Sicily. The origins of the term are debatable though most agree the term is derived from the word "Ma'afir" a term rooted in Arabic and meaning 'shelter' or 'place of refuge'. Like the Sicilian Mafia, the American Mafia did not use the term "Mafia" to describe itself. Neither group has a formal name and instead used the term cosa nostra (Italian for our thing) when referring to themselves. When Italian immigrants started forming organized crime groups in the United States, the American press borrowed the term Mafia from Italy and it became the predominant name used by law enforcement and the public.

"Mafia" properly refers to either the Sicilian or Italian-American Mafia. In modern usage, when referring to the Mafia, there may be several meanings, including a local area's Italian organized crime element, the Mafia family of a major city, the entire Mafia of the United States, or the original Sicilian Mafia. Widespread recognition of the word has led to its use in the names of other criminal organizations, such as the Jewish Mafia, Mexican Mafia, or Russian Mafia, as well as non-criminal organizations, such as John F. Kennedy's political team, referred to as the "Irish Mafia"[9] (not to be confused with the Irish Mob).

The press also coined the name "National Crime Syndicate" to refer to the entire network of U.S. organized crime, which includes the Jewish Mafia elements and the Italian-American Mafia. It was described as a confederation of mainly Italian and Jewish-American organized crime groups throughout the U.S., as revealed by the findings of a U.S. Senate Special Committee in the 1950s chaired by Estes Kefauver.


Origins: The Black Hand

The first published account of what became the Mafia in the United States dates to the spring of 1869. The New Orleans Times reported that the city's Second District had become overrun by "well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and disturbance of the city." Emigration from southern Italy to the Americas was primarily to Brazil and Argentina, and New Orleans had a heavy volume of port traffic to and from both locales.

Mafia groups in the United States first became influential in the New York City area, gradually progressing from small neighborhood operations in poor Italian ghettos to citywide and eventually national organizations. The Black Hand was a name given to an extortion method used in Italian neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century. It has been sometimes mistaken for the Mafia itself, which it is not. The Black Hand was a criminal society, but there were many small Black Hand gangs. Black Hand extortion was often (wrongly) viewed as the activity of a single organization because Black Hand criminals in Italian communities throughout the United States used the same methods of extortion.[10]

Giuseppe Morello was the first known Mafia member to immigrate to the United States.[6] He and six other Sicilians fled to New York after murdering eleven wealthy landowners, and the chancellor and a vice chancellor of a Sicilian province.[6] He was arrested in New Orleans in 1881 and extradited to Italy.[6]

New Orleans was also the site of the first Mafia incident in the United States that received both national and international attention.[6] On October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessy was murdered execution-style. It is still unclear whether Italian immigrants actually killed him, or whether it was a frame-up by nativists against the reviled underclass immigrants.[6] Hundreds of Sicilians were arrested on mostly baseless charges, and nineteen were eventually indicted for the murder. An acquittal followed, with rumors of bribed and intimidated witnesses.[6] On March 14, 1891, the outraged citizens of New Orleans organized a lynch mob after the acquittal, and proceeded to kill eleven of the nineteen defendants. Two were hanged, nine were shot, and the remaining eight escaped.[11][12][13]

From the 1890s to 1920 in New York City the Five Points Gang, founded by Paul Kelly, were very powerful in the Little Italy of the Lower East Side. They were often in conflict with the Jewish Eastmans of the same area. There was also an influential Mafia family in East Harlem. The Neapolitan Camorra was also very active in Brooklyn. In Chicago, the 19th Ward was an Italian neighborhood that became known as the "Bloody Nineteenth" due to the frequent violence in the ward, mostly as a result of Mafia activity, feuds, and vendettas.

Prohibition era

Al Capone's culturally-publicized violent rise to power in Chicago made him a criminally lasting figure of the prohibition era.

On January 17, 1920, Prohibition began in the United States with the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution making it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcohol. Despite these bans, there was still a very high demand for it from the public. This created an atmosphere that tolerated crime as a means to provide liquor to the public, even among the police and city politicians. Not explicitly related to Mafia involvement the murder rate during the Prohibition Era rose from 6.8 per 100,000 individuals to 9.7 and within the first three months proceeding the Eighteenth Amendment, a half of million dollars in bonded whiskey was stolen from government warehouses.[14] The profits that could be made from selling and distributing alcohol were worth the risk of punishment from the government, which had a difficult time enforcing prohibition. There were over 900,000 cases of liquor shipped to the borders of U.S. cities.[15] Criminal gangs and politicians saw the opportunity to make fortunes and began shipping larger quantities of alcohol to U.S. cities. The majority of the alcohol was imported from Canada,[16][17] the Caribbean, and the American Midwest where stills manufactured illegal alcohol.

In the early 1920s, fascist Benito Mussolini took control of Italy and waves of Italian immigrants fled to the United States. Sicilian Mafia members also fled to the United States, as Mussolini cracked down on Mafia activities in Italy.[18] Most Italian immigrants resided in tenement buildings. As a way to escape the poor lifestyle, some Italian immigrants chose to join the American Mafia.

The Mafia took advantage of prohibition and began selling illegal alcohol. The profits from bootlegging far exceeded the traditional crimes of protection, extortion, gambling, and prostitution. Prohibition allowed Mafia families to make fortunes.[19][20][21] As prohibition continued, victorious factions went on to dominate organized crime in their respective cities, setting up the family structure of each city. Gangs hijacked each other's alcohol shipments, forcing rivals to pay them for "protection" to leave their operations alone, and armed guards almost invariably accompanied the caravans that delivered the liquor.[22][23]

In the 1920s, Italian Mafia families began waging wars for absolute control over lucrative bootlegging rackets. As the violence erupted, Italians fought Irish and Jewish ethnic gangs for control of bootlegging in their respective territories. In New York City, Frankie Yale waged war with the Irish American White Hand Gang. In Chicago, Al Capone and his family massacred the North Side Gang, another Irish American outfit.[20][24] In New York City, by the end of the 1920s, two factions of organized crime had emerged to fight for control of the criminal underworld, one led by Joe Masseria and the other by Salvatore Maranzano.[6] This caused the Castellammarese War, which led to Masseria's murder in 1931. Maranzano then divided New York City into five families.[6] Maranzano, the first leader of the American Mafia, established the code of conduct for the organization, set up the "family" divisions and structure, and established procedures for resolving disputes.[6] In an unprecedented move, Maranzano set himself up as boss of all bosses and required all families to pay tribute to him. This new role was received negatively, and Maranzano was murdered within six months on the orders of Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Luciano was a former Masseria underling who had switched sides to Maranzano and orchestrated the killing of Masseria.

After prohibition ended in 1933, organized crime groups were confronted with an impasse and needed other ways to maintain the high profits that they had acquired throughout the 1920s. The smarter of the organized crime groups expanded into other ventures, such as unions, construction, sanitation, and drug trafficking. On the other hand, those Mafia families that neglected the need to change eventually lost power and influence and were ultimately absorbed by other groups.[25]

The Commission

Further information: The Commission (mafia)
FBI chart of American Mafia bosses across the country in 1963.

As an alternative to the boss of all bosses, Luciano set up The Commission,[6] where the bosses of the most powerful families would have equal say and vote on important matters and solve disputes between families. This group ruled over the National Crime Syndicate and brought in an era of peace and prosperity for the American Mafia.[26] By mid-century, there were 26 official Commission-sanctioned Mafia crime families, each based in a different city (except for the Five Families which were all based in New York).[27] Each family operated independently from the others and generally had exclusive territory it controlled.[6] As opposed to the older generation of "Mustache Petes" such as Maranzano and Masseria, who usually worked only with fellow Italians, the "Young Turks" led by Luciano were more open to working with other groups, most notably the Jewish-American criminal syndicates to achieve greater profits. The Mafia thrived by following a strict set of rules that originated in Sicily that called for an organized hierarchical structure and a code of silence that forbade its members from cooperating with the police (Omertà). Failure to follow any of these rules was punishable by death.

The rise of power that the Mafia acquired during Prohibition would continue long after alcohol was made legal again. Criminal empires which had expanded on bootleg money would find other avenues to continue making large sums of money. When alcohol ceased to be prohibited in 1933, the Mafia diversified its money-making criminal activities to include (both old and new): illegal gambling operations, loan sharking, extortion, protection rackets, drug trafficking, fencing, and labor racketeering through control of labor unions. In the mid-20th century, the Mafia was reputed to have infiltrated many labor unions in the United States, most notably the Teamsters and International Longshoremen's Association.[6] This allowed crime families to make inroads into very profitable legitimate businesses such as construction, demolition, waste management, trucking, and in the waterfront and garment industry.[28] In addition they could raid the unions' health and pension funds, extort businesses with threats of a workers' strike and participate in bid rigging. In New York City, most construction projects could not be performed without the Five Families' approval. In the port and loading dock industries, the Mafia bribed union members to tip them off to valuable items being brought in. Mobsters would then steal these products and fence the stolen merchandise.

Meyer Lansky made inroads into the casino industry in Cuba during the 1930s while the Mafia was already involved in exporting Cuban sugar and rum.[29] When his friend Fulgencio Batista became president of Cuba in 1952, several Mafia bosses were able to make legitimate investments in legalized casinos. One estimate of the number of casinos mobsters owned was no less than 19.[29] However, when Batista was overthrown following the Cuban Revolution, his successor Fidel Castro banned U.S. investment in the country, putting an end to the Mafia's presence in Cuba.[29] Las Vegas was seen as an "open city" where any family can work. Once Nevada legalized gambling, mobsters were quick to take advantage and the casino industry became very popular in Las Vegas. Since the 1940s, Mafia families from New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Chicago had interests in Las Vegas casinos. They got loans from the Teamsters' pension fund, a union they effectively controlled, and used legitimate front men to build casinos.[30] When money came into the counting room, hired men skimmed cash before it was recorded, then delivered it to their respective bosses.[30] This money went unrecorded, but the amount is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Operating in the shadows, the Mafia faced little opposition from law enforcement. Local law enforcement agencies did not have the resources or knowledge to effectively combat organized crime committed by a secret society they were unaware existed.[28] Many people within police forces and courts were simply bribed, while witness intimidation was also common.[28] In 1951, a U.S. Senate committee called the Kefauver Hearings determined that a "sinister criminal organization" known as the Mafia operated in the nation.[6] Many suspected mobsters were subpoenaed for questioning, but few testified and none gave any meaningful information. In 1957, New York State Police uncovered a meeting and arrested major figures from around the country in Apalachin, New York. The event (dubbed the "Apalachin Meeting") forced the FBI to recognize organized crime as a serious problem in the United States and changed the way law enforcement investigated it.[6] In 1963, Joe Valachi became the first Mafia member to turn state's evidence, and provided detailed information of its inner workings and secrets. More importantly, he revealed Mafia's existence to the law, which enabled the Federal Bureau of Investigations to begin an aggressive assault on the Mafia's National Crime Syndicate.[31] Following Valachi's testimony, the Mafia could no longer operate completely in the shadows. The FBI put a lot more effort and resources into organized crime actives nationwide and created the Organized Crime Strike Force in various cities. However, while all this created more pressure on the Mafia, it did little to curb their criminal activities. Success was made by the beginning of the 1980s, when the FBI was able to rid Las Vegas casinos of Mafia control and made a determined effort to loosen the Mafia's strong hold on labor unions.

Mafia Involvement in the US Economy

By the late 1970s, the Mafia were involved in many industries,[6] including betting on college sports. Several Mafia members associated with the Lucchese crime family participated in a point shaving scandal involving Boston College basketball team. Rick Kuhn, Henry Hill, and others associated with the Lucchese crime family, manipulated the results of the games during the 19781979 basketball season. Through bribing and intimidating several members of the team, they ensured their bets on the point spread of each game would go in their favor.[32]

One of the most lucrative gains for the Mafia was through gas-tax fraud. They created schemes to keep the money that they owed in taxes after the sale of millions of dollars worth of wholesale petroleum. This allowed them to sell more gasoline at even lower prices. Michael Franzese, also known as the Yuppie Don, ran and organized a gas scandal and stole over $290 million in gasoline taxes before he was caught in 1985 by evading the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and shutting down the gas station before government officials could make him pay what he owed.[33][34]

Labor racketeering helped the Mafia control many industries from a macroeconomic scale. This tactic helped them grow in power and influence in many cities with big labor unions such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and many others. Many members of the Mafia were enlisted in unions and even became union executives. La Cosa Nostra was a Mafia group that rose to economic power through their heavy involvement in unions. The Mafia has controlled unions all over the U.S. to extort money and resources out of big business, with recent indictments of corruption involving the New Jersey Waterfront Union, the Concrete Workers Union, and the teamster union.[35]

Restaurants were yet another powerful means by which the Mafia could gain economic power. A large concentration of Mafia owned restaurants were in New York City. Not only were they the setting of many killings and important meetings, but they were also an effective means of smuggling of drugs and other illegal goods. From 1985 to 1987, Sicilian Mafiosi in the U.S. imported an estimated $1.65 billion worth of heroin through the Al Dente Pizzeria Chain, hiding the cargo in various food products.[36]

Moe Dalitz (third from the right) has gone down in history as a legendary mobster, a business genius, a city builder and a philanthropist.[37]

Another one of the areas of the economy that the Mafia was most influential was Las Vegas, Nevada, beginning just after World War II with the opening of the first gambling resort “The Flamingo”.[38] Many credit the Mafia with being a big part of the city's development in the mid 20th Century.[39] It was through millions of dollars in capital flowing into new casino resorts that laid the foundation for further economic growth. This capital didn’t come from one Mafia family alone, but many throughout the country seeking to gain even more power and wealth. Large profits from casinos, run as legitimate businesses, would help to finance many of the illegal activities of the Mafia from the 1950s into the 1980s.[40] In the 1950s more Mafia-financed casinos were constructed, such as the Stardust, Sahara, Tropicana, Desert Inn, and Riviera. Tourism in the city greatly increased through the 1960s and strengthened the local economy.

However, the 1960s was also when the Mafia’s influence in the Las Vegas economy began to dwindle.[38] The Nevada State government and Federal government had been working to weaken Mafia activity on the Strip. In 1969, the Nevada State Legislature passed a law that made it easier for corporations to own casinos. This brought new investors to the local economy to buy casinos from the mafia. The U.S. Congress passed the RICO Act a year later. This law gave more authority to law enforcement to pursue the mafia for its illegal activities. There was a sharp decline in the mob involvement in Las Vegas in the 1980s. Through the RICO law, many in the Mafia were convicted and imprisoned.[41]


When the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO Act) became federal law in 1970, it became a highly effective tool in prosecuting mobsters. It provides for extended criminal penalties for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization. Violation of the act is punishable by up to 20 years in prison per count, up to $25,000 in fines, and the violator must forfeit all properties attained while violating the RICO Act.[42] The RICO Act has proven to be a very powerful weapon, because it attacks the entire corrupt entity instead of individuals who can easily be replaced with other organized crime members.[6] Between 1981 and 1992, 23 bosses from around the country were convicted under the law while between 1981 and 1988, 13 underbosses and 43 captains were convicted.[28] Over 1000 crime family figures were convicted by 1990.[42] While this significantly crippled many Mafia families around the country, the most powerful families continued to dominate crime in their territories, even if the new laws put more mobsters in jail and made it harder to operate. With Sammy Gravano agreeing to cooperate with the FBI and turn state's evidence in 1991, he helped the FBI convict top Mafia leaders in New York. Although not the first Mafia member to testify against his peers, such a powerful mobster agreeing to do so set a precedent for waves of mobsters thereafter to break the code of silence to do the same; giving up information and testifying in exchange for immunity from prosecution for their crimes.[18][43] Aside from avoiding long prison stretches, the FBI could put mobsters in the United States Federal Witness Protection Program, changing their identities and supporting them financially for life. This led to dozens of mobsters testifying and providing information during the 1990s, which led to the imprisonment of hundreds of mobsters. As a result, the Mafia has seen a major decline in its power and influence in organized crime since the 1990s.

In the 21st century, the Mafia has continued to be involved in a broad spectrum of illegal activities. These include murder, extortion, corruption of public officials, gambling, infiltration of legitimate businesses, labor racketeering, loan sharking, tax fraud schemes and stock manipulation schemes.[44] Another factor contributing to the Mafia's downfall is the assimilation of Italian Americans, which left a shallower recruitment pool of new mobsters. Although the Mafia used to be nationwide, today most of its activities are confined to the Northeast and Chicago.[45] While other criminal organizations such as Russian Mafia, Chinese Triad, Mexican drug cartels and others have all grabbed a share of criminal activities, the Mafia continues to be the dominant criminal organization in these regions, partly due to its strict hierarchical structure.[45] Law enforcement is concerned with the possible resurgence of the Mafia as it regroups from the turmoil of the 1990s and the FBI and local law enforcement agencies focus more on homeland security and away from organized crime since the September 11 attacks.[46][47] In 2002 the FBI estimated that the Mafia earns $50–$90 billion a year.[48] To avoid FBI attention and prosecution, the modern Mafia also outsources a lot of its work to other criminal groups, such as motorcycle gangs.[45]


The American Mafia operates on a strict hierarchical structure. While similar to its Sicilian origins, the American Mafia's modern organizational structure was created by Salvatore Maranzano in 1931. All inducted members of the Mafia are called "made" men. This signifies that they are untouchable in the criminal underworld and any harm brought to them will be met with retaliation. With the exception of associates, all mobsters are "made" official members of a crime family. The three highest positions make up the administration. Below the administration, there are factions each headed by a caporegime (captain), who lead a crew of soldiers and associates. They report to the administration and can be seen as equivalent to managers in a business. When a boss makes a decision, he rarely issues orders directly to workers who would carry it out, but instead passed instructions down through the chain of command. This way, the higher levels of the organization are insulated from law enforcement attention if the lower level members who actually commit the crime should be captured or investigated. This provides what the intelligence community calls plausible deniability.

There are occasionally other positions in the family leadership. Frequently, ruling panels have been set up when a boss goes to jail to divide the responsibility of the family (these usually consist of three or five members). This also helps divert police attention from any one member. The family messenger and street boss were positions created by former Genovese family leader Vincent Gigante.

Jewish associate Meyer Lansky's (right) work with Lucky Luciano made him an important figure in developing the American Mafia.


The initiation ritual emerged from various sources, such as Roman Catholic confraternities and Masonic Lodges in mid-19th century Sicily[51] and has hardly changed to this day. The Chief of Police of Palermo in 1875 reported that the man of honor to be initiated would be led into the presence of a group of bosses and underbosses. One of these men would prick the initiate's arm or hand and tell him to smear the blood onto a sacred image, usually a saint. The oath of loyalty would be taken as the image was burned and scattered, thus symbolizing the annihilation of traitors. This was confirmed by the first pentito, Tommaso Buscetta.

A hit, or murder, of a "made" man had to be approved by the leadership of his family, or retaliatory hits would be made, possibly inciting a war. In a state of war, families would "go to the mattresses"—an Italian phrase which roughly meant to go into battle.[52]

Mafia rules and customs

When the boss decides to let a member into the family one will be part of a ceremony, involving the drawing of blood, swearing an oath over a gun or holy picture, and obeying the rules of the organization. In New York City, the Mafia created customs and traditions which the members have to follow. If one breaks any of the rules they can be killed by another member of the family and usually the murder is committed by the people closest to that person.[53][54]

  1. "Omertà" – is the oath or "code of silence", never talk to the authorities.
  2. "Ethnicity" – only men of Italian descent are allowed to become full members (made men). Associates, partners, allies etc. have no ethnic limits.
  3. "Family secrets" – members are not allowed to talk about family business to non-members.
  4. "Blood for blood" – if a family member is killed by another member, no one can commit murder in revenge unless the boss gives permission.
  5. "No fighting among members" – from fist fights to knife fights.
  6. "Tribute" – every month; members must pay the boss; also giving the boss a cut on any side deals.
  7. "Adultery" – members are not allowed to commit adultery with another family member's wife.
  8. "No facial hair" – members were not allowed to grow mustaches; part of the Mustache Pete way.[55][56]

Homosexuality is reportedly incompatible with the American Mafia code of conduct. In 1992, John D'Amato, acting boss of the DeCavalcante family, was killed when the family learned of his sexual relationships with other men.[57]

Symbolism in murders

List of Mafia families

The following is a list of all the 25 Mafia families that have been active in the U.S. Note that some families have members and associates working in other regions as well. The organization is not limited to these regions.

"Don Vito" Genovese became leader of the Genovese crime family. Genovese served as mentor to the future boss of the Genovese crime family Vincent "Chin" Gigante.[62]

Cooperation with the U.S. government

During World War II

U.S. Naval Intelligence entered into an agreement with Lucky Luciano to gain his assistance in keeping the New York waterfront free from saboteurs after the destruction of the SS Normandie.[63] This spectacular disaster convinced both sides to talk seriously about protecting the United States' East Coast on the afternoon of February 9, 1942. While it was in the process of being converted into a troopship, the luxury ocean liner, Normandie, mysteriously burst into flames with 1,500 sailors and civilians on board. All but one escaped, but 128 were injured and by the next day the ship was a smoking hulk. In his report, twelve years later, William B. Herlands, Commissioner of Investigation, made the case for the US government talking to top criminals, stating "The Intelligence authorities were greatly concerned with the problems of sabotage and espionage ... Suspicions were rife with respect to the leaking of information about convoy movements. The Normandie, which was being converted to war use as the Navy auxiliary Lafayette, had burned at the pier in the North River, New York City. Sabotage was suspected."[64]

Plots to assassinate Fidel Castro

In August 1960, Colonel Sheffield Edwards, director of the Office of Security of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), proposed the assassination of Cuban head of state Fidel Castro by Mafia assassins. Between August 1960 and April 1961, the CIA, with the help of the Mafia, pursued a series of plots to poison or shoot Castro.[65] Those allegedly involved included Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante, Jr., and John Roselli.[66]

Recovery of murdered Mississippi civil rights workers

In 2007, Linda Schiro testified in an unrelated court case that her late boyfriend, Gregory Scarpa, a capo in the Colombo family, had been recruited by the FBI to help find the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Mississippi in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan. She said that she had been with Scarpa in Mississippi at the time and had witnessed him being given a gun, and later a cash payment, by FBI agents. She testified that Scarpa had threatened a Klansman by placing a gun in the Klansman's mouth, forcing the Klansman to reveal the location of the bodies. Similar stories of Mafia involvement in recovering the bodies had been circulating for years, and had been previously published in the New York Daily News, but had never before been introduced in court.[67][68]

Law enforcement and the Mafia

In several Mafia families, killing a state authority is forbidden due to the possibility of extreme police retaliation. In some rare strict cases, conspiring to commit such a murder is punishable by death. Jewish mobster and Mafia associate Dutch Schultz was reportedly killed by his Italian peers out of fear that he would carry out a plan to kill New York City prosecutor Thomas Dewey and thus bring unprecedented police attention to the Mafia. However, the Mafia has carried out hits on law enforcement, especially in its earlier history. New York police officer Joe Petrosino was shot by Sicilian mobsters while on duty in Sicily. A statue of him was later erected across the street from a Lucchese hangout.[69]

Kefauver Committee

In 1951, a U.S. Senate special committee, chaired by Democratic Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, determined that a "sinister criminal organization" known as the Mafia operated around the United States. The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce (known as the "Kefauver Hearings"), televised nationwide, captured the attention of the American people and forced the FBI to recognize the existence of organized crime. In 1953, the FBI initiated the "Top Hoodlum Program". The purpose of the program was to have agents collect information on the mobsters in their territories and report it regularly to Washington to maintain a centralized collection of intelligence on racketeers.[70]

Apalachin Meeting

Main article: Apalachin Meeting

In 1957, the New York State Police uncovered a meeting of major American Cosa Nostra figures from around the country in the small upstate New York town of Apalachin (near Binghamton, New York). This gathering has become known as the "Apalachin Meeting". Many of the attendees were arrested, and this event was the catalyst that changed the way law enforcement battled organized crime.

The establishment of the United States Organized Crime Strike Force facilitated efforts to prosecute members of the Mafia. The Strike Force was established in the 1960s through a joint congressional effort led by Robert Kennedy. It was under the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Labor. It was later disbanded at the national level, but continues at the state and local level today. It was responsible for investigating and eventually helping to bring down high-level Mafiosi such as Joseph Aiuppa of the Chicago Outfit, Anthony Salerno of the Genovese crime family of New York and Paul Castellano of the Gambino Family. Also, the Strike Force eliminated much of the organized crime in the Teamsters across the country.

Valachi hearings

Main article: Valachi hearings

In 1963, Joe Valachi became the first American Cosa Nostra member to provide a detailed look at the inside of the organization. Having been recruited by FBI special agents, and testifying before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations, Valachi exposed the name, structure, power bases, codes, swearing-in ceremony, and members of this organization. All of this had been secret up to this point.


The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO Act), passed as part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, made it a crime to belong to an organization that performed illegal acts. The witness protection program was also enhanced by the same legislation. Frequent use of the act began during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Charges of racketeering were successfully pressed against scores of mobsters, including three of New York's Godfathers, Anthony Corallo, Carmine Persico and Philip Rastelli during the Mafia Commission Trial in 1985. Others like Anthony 'Fat Tony' Salerno, was thought of as the Genovese Godfather but was only a front-boss while Gambino boss Paul Castellano was murdered before the trial began. The act continues to be used to great effect today and has hurt the Mob severely.

2011 indictments

On January 20, 2011, the United States Justice Department issued 16 indictments against Northeast American Mafia families resulting in 127 charged defendants[71] and more than 110 arrests.[72] The charges included murder, murder conspiracy, loansharking, arson, robbery, narcotics trafficking, extortion, illegal gambling and labor racketeering. It has been described as the largest operation against the Mafia in U.S. history.[73] Families that have been affected included the Five Families of New York as well as the DeCavalcante crime family of New Jersey and Patriarca crime family of New England.[74]

In popular culture

The Mafia has provided the setting, characters, and themes for many well-regarded films and television shows, as well as novels and games. Additionally, members of the music industry have adopted Mafia monikers.


The American Mafia has been popularized in video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, The Godfather: The Game, The Godfather II, L.A. Noire, and the Mafia series. Although they are usually dangerous antagonists (or allies, depending on the story) sometimes they are portrayed in a less serious fashion, having comedic dialogue, accidentally committing suicide and even being victims of a more powerful organization or force, such as in Max Payne, The Darkness or the Batman Arkham series.


Many Mafia films have been produced in cinema history. Early gangster films depicting organized crime in the United States include The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932), the latter loosely based on the story of Al Capone.[75]

Following such events as the Kefauver hearings and Joseph Valachi's testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, public awareness of the inner workings of mafia organizations grew, in turn inspiring more and more movies depicting (life in) organized crime and its infamous criminals, such as 1951's The Enforcer, a fictional account of Murder, Inc.. Eliot Ness' memoir The Untouchables inspired a television-series of the same name a few years later. Its pilot episode was later marketed as a stand-alone movie called "The Scarface Mob" and dealt with Ness's crusade to put Al Capone (played by Neville Brand) in prison. Rod Steiger was the first to play Capone in a U.S. theatrical film in 1959's Al Capone, which was followed in the 1960s by a few more films based on true mafia-related stories, such as Murder, Inc. and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which Jack Nicholson played an uncredited role as a hitman.

Paramount Pictures released the film The Brotherhood starring Kirk Douglas as a mafia don, which was a financial flop. Nevertheless, Paramount's production chief Robert Evans subsidized the completion of a Mario Puzo novel with similar themes and plot elements, and bought the screen rights before completion.[76] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather became a huge success, both critically and financially (it won the Best Picture Oscar and for a year was the highest-grossing film ever made). It immediately inspired other mafia-related films, including a direct sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), also (partly) based on Puzo's novel, and yet another big winner at the Academy Awards, as well as films based on real Mafiosi like Honor Thy Father and Lucky Luciano (both in 1973) and Lepke and Capone (both in 1975). An ambitious 13-part miniseries by NBC called The Gangster Chronicles based on the rise of many major crime bosses of the 1920s and 1930s, aired in 1981.[77]

The many Mafia-related convictions in the 1980s resulted in widespread demystification of organized crime, a sentiment which has been present in Mafia movies ever since. A high-profile movie version of The Untouchables focused primarily on the law enforcement's efforts to bring down Al Capone; Martin Scorsese's films, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) were based on true stories and further deglamorized Mafia life. Similar approaches were used in the made-for-TV film Witness to the Mob (1998) and Donnie Brasco (1997). Sidney Lumet's Find Me Guilty specifically dealt with a (real life) Mafia trial. There was also room for mafia comedies like Prizzi's Honor (1985), Oscar (1991), Bullets over Broadway (1994), Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), Analyze This (1999) and its sequel Analyze That (2002), and Shark Tale (2004).

Many more biographical features have been made throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including Mobsters (1990), Bugsy (1991), Gotti (1996), Hoodlum (1997), Lansky (TV-film, 1999), Boss of Bosses (TV-film, 2001).

American Mafiosi also appear in supporting roles in other films, such as Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Married to the Mob (1988), "Dick Tracy"(1990), A Bronx Tale (1993), True Romance (1993), Carlito's Way (1993), Road to Perdition (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Departed (2006), Smokin' Aces (2006), American Gangster (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), and Gangster Squad (2013).


Numerous music industry members have adopted Mafia-related monikers, such as Irv Gotti, hip hop and R&B record producer and founder of Murder Inc. Records record label; Three Six Mafia, a Southern hip hop group from Memphis, Kebo Gotti, a Southern rapper from Atlanta; Juan Gotti, a Mexican American rapper; Mwata Mitchell, "Gotti" of the rap duo Boo & Gotti; Yo Gotti, a Southern rapper from Memphis; 808 Mafia, a southern hip hop production group; Junior M.A.F.I.A., a East Coast hip hop group that was led by the The Notorious B.I.G., and West Coast rapper Kurupt who uses the alias Young Gotti frequently. Others include the Memphis Mafia, a group of associates of Elvis Presley from 1954 until he died, the Tejano band La Mafia, the Romanian rap group B.U.G. Mafia (or simply Mafia), which released the album Mafia in 1995. Black Label Society also released an album with that title in 2005. In 2011, music group Pomplamoose released the song 'Bust Your Knee Caps' about the Godfather's daughter's boyfriend, who wants out of the family.


The Mafia is also the topic of many popular novels, most notably in the works of author Mario Puzo, which include The Godfather, The Sicilian (1984), The Last Don (1997), and Omertà (2000), as well as James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet (first editions published 1987–1992) and Underworld USA Trilogy (first editions published 1995–2009).

Author Don Pendleton and his best-selling series of original novels The Executioner, revolved around Mack Bolan's one-man war against the Mafia. The first book, War Against the Mafia, was published in 1969, and the 38th book, Satan’s Sabbath in 1980.

Television series

While many TV shows like The Untouchables (1959–1963), Crime Story (1986–1988), and Wiseguy (1987–1990) have told fictional accounts of the Mafia, by far the most popular TV series has been HBO's The Sopranos (1999–2007). The show, set in Northern New Jersey, portrays fictional New Jersey Mafia boss Tony Soprano, the DiMeo crime family he heads, and its close affiliation with the Brooklyn-based Lupertazzi crime family of the New York Mafia. HBO followed up this hit series with the 1920s-setting period drama Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014), based in Atlantic City. Based on the life of Enoch L. Johnson, it portrays several early-era Mafia members in supporting roles. Other TV series featuring Mafiosi include Mob City (2013) and Gotham (2014–present).

Many television shows have mafia-related characters. Monty Python's Flying Circus character Luigi Vercotti, the Sons of Anarchy's Cacuzza Crime Family, and The Simpsons character Fat Tony are notable examples.

See also


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Further reading

External links

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