Mafia - the history with Mario Puzo's Godfather in background

The development of Italian Mafia in America in context of both literature and movie

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2009

66 Pages



Nowadays the word ‘Mafia’ refers nearly all groups or gangs involved in organized crime. However, originally, Mafia meant an organized criminal organization of Italian, predominantly Sicilian, heritage. In fact, this word is a mere literary creation while the real name is ‘Cosa Nostra’ meaning ‘our thing’.

For many years the common understanding of the Mafia was strictly limited by argument on whether there even was a Mafia. In the recent decades that argument was more or less settled, and the principal argument remaining is whether or not organized crime and the Mafia are one and the same thing.1 According to Finckenauer:

To this end, this useful primer to the phenomenon quite rightly tarts with a simple question that begs a complex answer: what is organized crime? Sometimes, the mobsters are easy to identify, a collection of ne’er-do-wells with no visible source of income but owning flashy cars and homes; involved in the staples of organized criminality, whether trafficking drugs or infiltrating legitimate businesses. The old stereotypes, which were always something of a caricature, are becoming even less applicable in the modern world. Today’s “OC” could as easily be an apparently legitimate businessperson whose portfolio of interests ranges from the entirely “clean” through to overtly criminal, or who facilitates the activities of more conventional criminals.2

In part the confusion revolves around an understanding of the real nature of organized crime that existed since the earliest days of the nation and, indeed, earlier. It is worth remembering that, organized crime achieves its status not only by the fact of groups of practitioners, but also due to the fact that organized crime is syndicate crime in which certain activities are apportioned out to the various gangs and honored in the main by these gangs.

What is interesting, in the beginning and even till the 1950s, many people regarded the Mafia not as law-breaking criminals but as role-models and protectors of the weak and the poor, as the state offered no protection to the lower classes. The question arises, where from such interest and the phenomenon of ‘good-Mafia- attitude’ within the societies all over the world.

As it will be presented within the course of this paper, out of the numerous fiction books and movies, above all, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather from 1969 and obviously the film adaptation made by Francis Ford Coppola - were so successful that they deeply shaped a general understanding of the mafia in the United States and elsewhere.

The following thesis’ aim is to present the multiply faces of the Mafia, beginning with the history of the Sicilian Mafia as presented in Chapter One, through the vision of Mafia as rooted in the society thanks to The Godfather trilogy which is the subject of Chapter Two and finishing on the general idea of ‘pulp’ fiction and its development in the literary history.

In order to support the view of the author of this thesis that the cultural effects of the Mafia phenomenon are linked to the literary achievement of Mario Puzo, it was necessary to obtain numerous sources. The most helpful books were: The Encyclopedia of International Organized Crime by Carlo DeVito, The Mafia and Organized Crime of James Finckenauer and The Godfather and American culture : how the Corleones became “Our Gang” by Chris Messenger, amongst others. The other sources included several helpful websites administrated by the novelists as well as journalists, dealing on a daily basis with the subject of ‘Mafia’ in wide context.

It is the author’s sincere hope that the reading of the following thesis will be of some help in understanding the idea of the Mafia, its history, as well as the phenomenon of the Godfather’s influence on the society.

Chapter One The History Behind “Black Hand”

Mafia was a name given to a number of organized groups of Sicilian brigands in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Unlike the Camorra in Naples, the Mafia had no hierarchic organization; each group operated on its own.3

Historically, the Mafia originated in feudal times, when lords hired brigands to guard their estates in exchange for protection from the royal authority. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia: “the underlying assumption of the Mafia was that legal authorities were useless and that justice must be obtained directly, as in the vendetta.”4 Italian attempts to curtail the Mafia have suffered from political corruption and the assassination of judges.

Through emigration the organization spread to the United States (where it was sometimes called the Black Hand). It was and continues to be involved in many illegal operations such as trade in narcotics, gambling, prostitution, labor union racketeering as well as certain legal enterprises, such as trucking and construction, within the United States.

In November 1957, more than sixty of its alleged leaders were surprised at a secret meeting at Apalachin, N.Y. About one third of them were convicted of obstructing justice, but the convictions were reversed on appeal.5

Throughout its history as well as in recent years, the Mafia was linked with money-laundering and police corruption. The Columbia Encyclopedia states that: “While slowing its activities in extortion and racketeering in the 1980s and 90s, the contemporary Mafia has expanded into such white-collar criminal enterprises as fraud in health insurance, sales of prepaid telephone cards, and illegal stock market deals.”6

The Mafia controlled everything from the street corner drug trade to the highest levels of government. Glorified by movies and television, hunted by law enforcement officers, marked for death by their enemies, mobsters live violent and often brief lives. The Mafia at its core is about one thing - money. Still, there are secret rituals, complicated rules and tangled webs of family loyalty.

Interestingly, Carl Sifakis, the author of The Mafia Encyclopedia states that: “In previous decades there had been a multi-pronged drive to deny the existence not only of the Mafia, but also, in some cases, of organized crime.”7 Italian-American groups denied the existence of the Mafia. Even J. Edgar Hoover and many other law officials did the same, and so did a number of scholars.

Naturally, the Mafiosi agreed with them. But by late 1986 all of these arguments came to an inevitable end. Lawyers of leading Mafiosi, brought to trial for being bosses of organized crime, went before juries and conceded that the Mafia did exist and that their clients might even have been members of it.

The aim of the first Chapter is to provide information about the important people and events that have shaped this not-so-secret society; it will also explain how people get into the Mafia, what the Mafia does and what law enforcement agencies have done to stop them throughout history.

1.1. The Brief History of Mafia Development

According to James Finckenauer, Clodius, who flourished during the decade 59-50 BCE in ancient Rome was perhaps the world’s very first “godfather” of organized crime.8

Clodius’s chief rival was another disreputable character and godfather-like figure, Milo. Milo’s fame was gained in the schools of the gladiators. Gangs of armed slaves accompanied him everywhere, and there were constant collisions between his gang and Clodius’.

If one moved ahead more than a thousand years, to the sixteenth century, there are more evidence of the long history of organized crime. For about three hundred years, from about 1500, the world suffered through the “golden age of piracy.”9 Piracy was a form of organized crime, involving hijacking, theft, black marketeering, corruption and political connections.

Going further, it is inevitable to come across the term ‘organized crime’, which for many people today, especially in the United States, is synonymous with the Mafia.

The current structure of the Mafia took centuries to develop. It all began on the island of Sicily. Although there are major organized crime groups from other parts of Italy, the Sicilian Mafia is generally considered to be the blueprint for all other Mafia organizations.

Several unique factors contributed to the development of organized crime on Sicily.:

The island is located at an easily accessible and strategically important place in the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, Sicily was invaded, conquered and occupied by hostile forces many times. This led to an overall distrust of central authority and codified legal systems. The family, rather than the state, became the focus of Sicilian life, and disputes were settled through a system in which punishment was dealt beyond the limits of the law.10

In the 19th century, the European feudal system finally collapsed in Sicily. With no real government or functioning authority of any kind, the island quickly descended into lawlessness. Certain landowners and other powerful men began to build reputations and eventually came to be seen as local leaders. They were known as capos.11 The capos used their power to extract tributes from farmers under their authority (much like the feudal lords before them). Their authority was enforced through the threat of violence. Their criminal activities were never reported, even by the victims, because of the fear of reprisal. This was the beginning of the Sicilian Mafia.

1.1.1. The Development of the Mafia

Several elements of Mafia life that have lasted for centuries first developed during the transition from a feudal to a modern form of government in Sicily. The phrase cosa nostra - ‘our way’ - was used to describe the lifestyle of a Mafioso in Sicily.12

The shroud of secrecy that surrounded Mafia activities in Sicily became known as omerta, the code of silence.13

Finckenauer explains:

These ideas of ‘men of honor’, silence or omerta, supporting ‘made’ members and their families when necessary, and especially of ‘wielding power through the systematic use of private violence’ distinguish the mafia and mafia-like structures from other kinds of organized crime.14

Mafia bosses used this code to protect themselves from the activities of the criminals below them in the organization. The practice of recruiting young boys into the Mafia, culminating with a final test, also stems from Sicily.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1. Location of Sicily15

In the early 1900s, organized crime had so thoroughly infiltrated Sicilian life

that it was virtually impossible to avoid contact with the Mafia. Dictator Benito Mussolini cracked down on the Mafia using harsh, often brutal methods. But when U.S. troops occupied Sicily during World War II, they mistook the many jailed criminals for political prisoners and not only set them free, but also appointed many of them as mayors and police chiefs. Before long, the Mafia had a firm grasp on Italy’s Christian Democrat party.16

In the postwar years, the various competing Sicilian families realized that their constant fighting was costing them money. They called a ceasefire and formed a group called the Cupola that would oversee the operations of all the families and approve all major enterprises and assassinations. A similar system would be put in place by the American families in the 1950s. While these committees did succeed in stifling gang wars for a time, they also left the bosses vulnerable to prosecution because with the Cupola in place, bosses personally approved murders.

The fight against the Sicilian Mafia came to a head in the 1980s. Two very prominent government prosecutors who had done a lot of damage to the Mafia were assassinated in bombings. The public was outraged, and the government eventually responded with the so-called Maxi trial. More than 400 Mafioso were tried in a specially built bunker. Large cells in the back of the courtroom held the defendants, who would often scream and threaten witnesses as the trial went on. Ultimately, 338 were found guilty.

However, this was not enough to stamp out Sicily’s Mafia. In 1992, the Italian government sent 7,000 military troops to Sicily. They occupied the island until 1998. The Sicilian Mafia still exists today and is still active, but it is quieter and less violent.

1.1.2. American Mafia

The predominant view among Americans fits the stereotype that organized crime is synonymous with what they conceive of as the Italian “mafia,” meaning the Italian mafia in the United States, also known as La Cosa Nostra.17

In addition, Finckenauer claims that “The main sources of information are the popular media - television, movies, newspapers, and magazines. Some saw the movies in The Godfather series, or Goodfellas, or more recent films.”18 The American television show The Sopranos was and probably is especially influential. News coverage shaped the views of some people but only rarely does anyone have first-hand information. And almost as rare is someone who read a book - usually a novel - about organized crime.

Similarly, Letizia Paoli assumes that: “hardly any phenomenon since the Second World War has fascinated the American public more than the Italian mafia. Hundreds of books have been written on this topic, and dozens of movies have been made.”19 Some of these - above all, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather from 1969 and obviously the film adaptation made by Francis Ford Coppola - were so successful that they profoundly shaped a general understanding of the mafia in the United States and elsewhere. For many people the Italian American mafia is and behaves as it is recounted in these romanticizing novels and films.

What is the most important, is what research on organized crime in the United States indicated - meaning, that organized crime groups are and share the following common features:

- ideology (or lack of )
- structure/organized hierarchy
- continuity
- violence/use of force or the threat of force
- restricted membership/bonding
- illegal enterprises
- penetration of legitimate businesses
- corruption20

Sicilians and other Italians began immigrating to the United States in the 1800s, but a major wave of them arrived on American shores early in the twentieth century. While the vast majority of these people worked hard at building a new life for their families through legal means, some of them brought the ways of the Sicilian Mafia with them.

The first major Mafia incident occurred in New Orleans in the 1890s. A Sicilian crime family was pressured by the local chief of police - David Peter Hennessey, who was murdered at that time. When the mobsters were tried, they bribed witnesses and were acquitted.21 Consequently, an anti-Italian fervor erupted, and a lynch crowd went to the jailhouse. Sifakis depicts that happening in the following way:

Two days after the trial’s surprise ending, a great number of mass meetings and other protests fanned by outright bigotry were held. Ultimately, a mob of several thousands, headed by 60 leading citizens, marched on the jail. They had a death list composed of the 11 defendants against whom the evidence was the strongest.22

Obviously, the lynching did not kill the Mafia in New Orleans, although newspapers announced, “The Mafia Exterminated.” However, the affair did make an impression on Mafiosi.

Mafia families spread through the country in the first half of the 20th century, emanating from New York City, where five families took over control. For Peter Reuter the American Mafia emerged during Prohibition as “the wealthier and more violent successor to local city gangs involved in prostitution and gambling”23 as they sold illegal alcohol in speakeasies around the country, at the same time making sure that nobody was able to come in their way.:

Paying off the local beat cop provided a speakeasy, with its conspicuous and regular flow of traffic, little effective protection. Instead, it was necessary to guard against any cop who might be on that beat; the efficient solution was buying the whole department, if it was for sale. In many cities it was. Frequently, that also meant connections with urban political machines. While Al Capone's control of Chicago (though some scholars question Capone's Mafia membership) in the 1920s is the most notorious instance, almost 50 years later the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Hugh Addonizio, retained strong connections to the local Mafia family.24

Historians assume that the Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending. Moreover, their findings make the case against Prohibition much stronger.

It was Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Bailroad, not Al Capone, who is famous for saying when questioned about the legality of one of his business operations, “Law! What do I care about law? Hain’t I got the power?”25

And consequently, their power during this period grew radically, and inevitable wars between the families broke out. For some historians, there was an epidemic of Mafia violence in the early 1930s - bosses and the Mafia members were assassinated regularly, with few bosses ruling their families for more than a few months before they got killed. For example, the Luchese family went through three or four bosses in 1930 alone.26

In the middle of these fights was a famous mobster named Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Luciano attained a position of great power throughout La Cosa Nostra, and he supported an idea that was spreading, gaining popularity for some time - the formation of a multi-family commission that would approve Mafia activities nationwide.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 2 . Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano27

1.1.3. The Commission

According to The Mafia Encyclopedia:

[…]the idea of a commission was pressed on the Sicilian Mafia by two members of the American Mafia— Lucky Luciano and “a gentleman named Bonanno coming from the United States in 1957.” Buscetta said Luciano and Joe Bonanno had told their Italian counterparts that such a commission was valuable to resolve disputes between the crime families, 20 in Palermo alone, throughout the island.28

A meeting in Chicago cemented the formation of a multi-family Mafia committee. The seven-member Commission was initially made up of bosses from the five New York families along with Al Capone from Chicago and Stefano Maggaddino of the Buffalo family. The Commission members acted like senators for other families, bringing their concerns to the attention of the rest of the Commission. For example, the families in cities on the west coast were almost all represented by the Chicago boss.29

Large scale money-making activities, as well as murders and kidnappings, had to be approved by the Commission. Commission membership was determined at national Mafia meetings that were held every five years. One of these meetings was the scene of a famous event in Mafia history - the Apalachin Raid. As it was mentioned above, on 14th November 1957, bosses (dons) from across the country met at a tiny town in New York State, near the Pennsylvania border.30 A suspicious state trooper led the raid and brought 58 mobsters into the spotlight - and in many cases, brought them to trial. While the raid struck a serious blow to the Mafia, it had a more profound effect. The American public could no longer deny that the Mafia existed.

Since its formation, the Commission shrank - some families lost the power and no longer send representatives. Today, it is rumored to still exist, but mainly on the east coast, and it is nowhere near as powerful as it was in Lucky Luciano’s day.

1.1.4. Vegas and the Mafia

La Cosa Nostra was always involved in gambling, from numbers games to sports betting. They operated luxurious, illegal casinos through the United States, bribing local police officers to look the other way. When Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, mobsters were not the first ones to see the opportunity.31 The famous Strip was already developing, and a few fancy hotel/casinos were already in place by the time the Mafia arrived. When they did arrive, it was not the usual suspects. Instead, many of the early Vegas casinos were financed by Jewish mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 4. Mug shot of Meyer Lansky

It cost a lot of money to build casinos, and these men offered shady loans to prospective developers. Some of these loans happened out in the open, with the mob- controlled Teamsters union using its pension fund to finance casino and hotel construction projects.32 This stopped in 1975, when federal officials took notice.

Casinos generate huge profits on their own, so it didn't take much creativity on the part of the wise guys to figure out a way to get their cut. They skimmed cash from casinos they partly owned or simply extorted payoffs from casino managers. Many mob bosses were ‘business partners’ with casino owners, whether the owners wanted them as partners or not.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 3. Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel’s ‘real class joint’- The Flamingo33

Since the 1970s, the government was very strict about keeping the mob out of the Vegas casinos. Today, it is believed that the major casinos are not influenced by the Mafia, and any hint of an organized crime connection is enough for a casino to lose its gambling license.

1.2. The Structure of La Cosa Nostra:

It was not until 1963 that evidence was produced that supported the notion that organized crime operated as a hierarchical structure. Senator John McClellan held public hearings during this period at which the government introduced the first ‘insider’ in organized crime. His name was Joseph Valachi, then serving a prison sentence, who agreed to testify as part of a deal to avoid a possible death sentence for a murder he committed while in prison. Valachi’s testimony became the basis for the hierarchical model of organized crime.34

It is interesting however, that: “La Cosa Nostra, as it was initially and mistakenly labeled by U.S. government agencies, hence the popular acronym LCN”35 as the most lasting and successful Italian American mafia association shows many analogies with its southern Italian counterparts, particularly the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. This is not surprising, as it was already noted, the American Cosa Nostra originally stemmed from the Sicilian mafia, though it was a completely independent organization since at least the 1930s.

Kelly, Ko-Lin Chin and Schatzberg assume that:

Like the blind men who attempted to identify the elephant, the outcome of efforts to model organized crime invariably reflects the perspective of the investigator. Economists model it in terms of economic factors. Government investigators model organized crime as a hierarchical, government-like enterprise. Social scientists view it as a social phenomenon.36

For the purpose of this thesis the author will tackle the hierarchical model of the Mafia as a government-like enterprise. ‘Hierarchical’ is defined in the dictionary as: “a group of persons or things arranged in order of rank or grade.”

Carl Sifakis depicts the hierarchy within the Mafia in the following way:

The idea was that eventually the mobs would simply wither away. Overlooked in this so-called strategy was that a boss is just a boss, an underboss is just an underboss, a consigliere just a consigliere. Mob guys can be described many ways. Many are illiterate, downright stupid, have no sense of conscience, or are murderous, but above all they are ambitious. It does not matter how many of them fall to the wayside under attack from the law or from other mobsters. The supply for bosses down to capos is without end, and the race to the top is clearly Darwinian. The real power of the mobs are the wise guys and soldiers, even those who do not qualify as superbrains. They are shooters, the final arbiter in the Mafia, and they understand their own power. They know how to resurrect powers that are lost. They can do whatever the job demands. They have the Mafia “gift” for exercising the process of corruption and influencing and convincing people with promises that may never be delivered or by lecturing a victim while holding him feet-first out a high window.37

Valachi claimed this organization arose out of a gangland war in New York City during the early 1930s. The main stake in this so-called Castellammaresse War, which was said to have lasted fourteen months. He described the organizational structure, established after this gangland war, as consisting of “the individual bosses of the individual families, and then we had an underboss, and then we had what we call a caporegime which is a lieutenant, and then we have what we call soldiers.”38

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 4. The Mafia ‘Family Tree’39


1 Finckenauer, James, The Mafia and Organized Crime. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007), p. 4.

2 Ibid., p. ix.

3 “Mafia”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 29890.

4 Ibid.

5 DeVito Carlo, The Encyclopedia of International Organized Crime. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), p. 74.

6 “ Mafia”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 29890.

7 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia, (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), p. ix.

8 Finckenauer, James, O., The Mafia and Organized Crime. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007), p. 1.

9 Ibid. p. 2.

10 Grabianowski, Ed, How the Mafia Works. (2009) online (2009-08-23)

11 Cosa Nostra - the History of Sicilian Mafia, p. 106.

12 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), pp. 124-125.

13 Ibid. p. 342.

14 Finckenauer, James, The Mafia and Organized Crime. p. 18.


16 Dickie John, Cosa Nostra - the History of Sicilian Mafia. (New York, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 271.

17 Finckenauer, James, The Mafia and Organized Crime. (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007), p. 3. 7

18 Ibid.

19 Paoli, Letizia, Mafia Brotherhood, p. 12

20 Finckenauer, James, The Mafia and Organized Crime. p. 5.

21 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), pp. 330-331.

22 Ibid. p. 331.

23 Reuter, Peter, The Decline of the American Mafia. “Public Interest”. Issue: 120 (The National Affairs, Inc., 1995), p. 89+ .

24 Ibid.

25 It was Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Bailroad, famous for saying when questioned about the legality of one of his business operations, quotes in Shannon, p. 69

26 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia. p. 276.

27 Mug shot of Luciano:

28 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia. p. 291.

29 Ibid. p. 114.

30 DeVito Carlo, The Encyclopedia of International Organized Crime. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005), p. 74.

31 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia. p. 288.

32 Finckenauer, James, The Mafia and Organized Crime. p. 135.

33 60-years/

34 Kelly, Robert J., Chin, Ko-Lin, Schatzberg, Rufus (eds.), Handbook of Organized Crime in the United States, (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 79.

35 Paoli, Letizia, Mafia Brotherhood, p. 4.

36 Kelly, Robert J., Chin, Ko-Lin, Schatzberg, Rufus (eds.), Handbook of Organized Crime in the United States, (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 78.

37 Sifakis, Carl, The Mafia Encyclopedia. p. iv.

38 Kelly, Robert J., Chin, Ko-Lin, Schatzberg, Rufus (eds.), Handbook of Organized Crime in the United States, (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 79.

39 Grabianowski, Ed, How the Mafia Works. (2009) online (2009-09-23)

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Mafia - the history with Mario Puzo's Godfather in background
The development of Italian Mafia in America in context of both literature and movie
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Mafia, Puzo, Godfather, history, America, crime, books, movies
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MA Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2009, Mafia - the history with Mario Puzo's Godfather in background, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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