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History of Organized Crime in New York City

The role of a criminal element of the Italian emigration to the United States of America is well-known thanks to numerous films and books. The main reason of mass resettlement of inhabitants of the Apennines was extreme poverty in the southern regions of Italy. As a result, about “800 thousand Italians were compelled to leave the homeland and to look for a shelter overseas” (Davis 45).

At first immigrants preferred going not to the other hemisphere but to the next Tunisia. In a short period of time “about 100 thousand Italians got to Africa” (Catania, 84). However, brilliant plans of the Italian colonization collapsed, when Tunisia was captured by France. Instead of the African colony Italians created New York. The beginning mafiosi went there, too. Many of them came from “Corleone, a small town which is halfway between Palermo and Agrigento. There such mafiosi as brothers Morello, Ignazio Lupo, Nicola Terranova and Jack Dranya were born” (Downey 72).

The experience gained in Sicily appeared very useful to the criminal environment of New York. The methods of the Sicilian extortion were also applicable in the American racketeering, and the unity of the Sicilian clannishness did not give any access for the American police. At first mafiosi traded in port, gradually expanding a circle of their interests. The main law in the activity of the American mafia was “Prohibition” (Capeci 47).


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In the twenties alcohol smuggling turned the port recidivists into the criminals of the federal value. New York became the major activity center of the group of Charlie Ross (Lucky Luciano). This group joined Frank Costello (“Prime minister”), Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese. Meyer Lansky (Sukhovlyansky) also participated in this group. However, he did not become a full mafioso as he was neither a Sicilian, nor even an Italian. The purity of the ranks in New York was watched by the “godfathers” from Sicily. But the organization of the American mafia (“Cosa nostra”) also had differences. The main difference was that the system had a scale of ranks like any other serious organization. The mafia has the following descending hierarchy.

A godfather or a don is a boss of the family. He is well-informed of everything that occurs, receives information regularly about all members of the organization and their affairs. He himself does not participate in any activity, except important meetings and negotiations. He is chosen by caporegimes’ vote, or a “position” is inherited. He never gives instructions directly and very few people know him by sight.

An underboss is a don’s deputy whom he chooses himself. He usually runs actions of all capos. He is often a son or a close relative of the godfather. In case of death or arrest of the leader he takes all affairs on himself.

A consigliere is an adviser of the boss, serving truly and faithfully to a family. He gives a valuable advice, his opinion is asked before making serious decisions. ?onsigliere helps to resolve disputes and often transfers orders of the godfather. He can also represent him at official meetings. He usually has legal earnings, being a lawyer, a broker, etc.

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A caporegime, a capo or a captain of the soldiers, conducts one or several types of business in a certain area. Monthly he transfers a share of profit to the godfather, is “responsible for the actions of the wards and for the performance of various operations by them” (Arlacchi 15).

A soldier is the younger member of a group who has recently joined it according to the recommendation of one or several captains. Many have stayed in this position for years, and sometimes were killed quickly enough because of continuous wars between families. Roughly speaking, “soldiers are an expendable material” (Arlacchi 15).

 An associate or an accomplice is a person, who has proved his fidelity and utility to a family, but he is not ready to enter into it yet or does not have the right to do it (he is not an Italian, for example). It can be “a bribed official or a policeman or an intermediary during the sale of the weapons or drugs” (Arlacchi 15).

Each “capomafia” directed a group of “families” – “cosca”. In the process of mafia groups’ unification they sometimes needed the general management. Thus there were also general leaders who were called “capo di tutti capi” (“chiefs’chief”).

It is accepted to call the mafia’s code “the silence law” (Lyman 14). Literally “omerta” means “courage” and means ability to solve questions independently, namely – without participation of police and court.

The term “mafia” and a traditional idea of the mafioso as the “men in raincoats and hats” (Arlacchi 15) appeared thanks to natives of Sicily, who moved to New York in the nineteenth century and took the city  under control in the thirties of the twentieth century. About an origin of the word “mafia” a large number of disputes take place. The most popular belief in the word etymology is its Arab roots (“marfud” means in Arab “outcast”).

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So, the mafia comes to the USA. It is known that to the first Sicilian mafiosi who arrived to the USA, was Giuseppe Esposito, he was also accompanied by 6 more Sicilians. In 1881 he was arrested in New Orleans. 9 years later there was the first loud murder organized by the mafia in the USA — successful attempt to kill a police chief of New Orleans David Hennessey (Hennessey's last words were, “It was made by an Italian!” (Raab 84)). During next 10 years in New York the Sicilian mafia will organize “the Gang of Five Points” (Raab 84) – the first influential gangster group of the city which will take the area “Small Italy” under control. In parallel the gang “the Neapolitan Camorra” grows in Brooklyn.

Mafiosi tried to replace official justice by their own, therefore the society criminalization in Sicily increased extremely. Even the government officials could not do without mafia support – in 1893 the former mayor of Palermo and the Sicily bank director, Emanuele Notarbartolo, was killed. In the late eighties of the nineteenth century the mafia successfully took positions of the Sicilian mayors and city secretaries of the henchmen. On the elections of 1895 the prime minister of Italy Francesco Crispi demanded openly from prefects of police to do their best for a victory of candidates from the governmental party. And the police force made all the efforts. First of all, on Sicily “the general Mirri went to Alcamo and got out from prison a well-known mafioso who had a great influence in his constituency” (Repetto 67).

The future Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando (one of the coauthors of the Versailles world) organized willingly banquets for members of mafia clans during his election campaign. The leaders of the mafioso were flattered, apparently, by attention of the influential officials. Even powerful Sicilian barons addressed for the help to the mafia more and more often.

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The interaction appeared favorable to both parties – the heads of the Families received positions and advantageous contracts from the authorities. Expanding their activity, the mafioso started to involve neighbors and friends as there were not enough relatives. However, for the observance of a domesticity principle a new member of the family participated in christening – the head of the mafia became “padrino” or a godfather (Jacobs 32). His usual title was “capo”.

“The governmental commission on investigation of moral and economic living conditions in the province of Palermo” (Jacobs 32) was formed. That is, the police had already known about the mafia, crimes were committed, of course, there were victims, but nobody complained of the mafia.

“The first who dared to oppose the mafia was doctor Galati. In the conflict to the criminal underworld he was involved when he inherited from his stepbrother a lemon grove in 4 hectares on the suburb of Palermo in 1872” (Finckenauer 76). Assorting affairs of the brother, Galati learned that his stepbrother had died of heart attack after obtaining some menacing letters. The watchman of the lemon grove Benedetto Carollo appeared to be the author of the letters. Doctor Galati dismissed the watchman and employed another one. After that a local mafiosi started to demand a return of the person to a former position. Galati refused. Then on July 2nd, 1874 the unknown man shot the watchman accepted to the place of ?arollo. Galati demanded Carollo's arrest, but instead of it the police arrested two absolutely unguilty people. The affair stopped, having hardly begun. Doctor Galati managed to open slightly a veil over secrets of the criminal group. He was the first who pointed to the communication between those who called themselves “people of honor” (Repetto 45), and a household term “mafia”.

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Galati's memorandum appeared on the table of the Minister of Internal Affairs of Italy Girolamo Cantelli. The information about a secret ritual of the mafia dedication was added to numerous details of the lemon grove affairs. By the way, the ritual of the reception in the mafia described in the memorandum has not been practically changed for hundred years: the figure of the sacred was washed in blood and then was burned.

One of the parliament deputies in 1876 described the situation in New York City, “Someone, having arrived for a while, can truly believe that New York is the most pleasant place in the world. But if you stay here a bit longer and start to read newspapers carefully and to listen to the news attentively, everything will gradually change. You will hear that a watchman of a garden was killed, because an owner employed not the one who was required. Another owner heard how the bullet flew by over his head. Another person, who founded medical schools in Palermo, was shot. Some people, who dominate here, do not want that the poorest classes use blessings of someone, capable to get influence on poor people. The violence acquires strange forms. The former priest, who became the leader of the criminals in a small town near Palermo, organizes ceremonies for the victims. After you hear a great many of such stories, the smell of blossoming lemons and oranges will turn into a stench of corpses for you” (Dash 67).

In the 1920’s the mafia was flourishing. It was favored by some factors such as the Prohibition and Benito Mussolini's fight against the Sicilian mafia that caused a mass immigration of the Sicilians in the USA. In New York in the 1920’s two mafia clans of Giuseppe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano turned to be the most influential families. As it often happens, two families did not share their domination and control of the Italian-American mafia that led to a three-year war "Castellammarese" (1929-1931). Maranzano's clan won, Salvatore became “the boss of bosses”, but he was murdered later by the conspirators headed by Lucky Luciano (a real name – Salvatore Lucania, “Lucky” is a nickname).

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Lucky Luciano (1897-1962) was a women's crumpet and also the most organized leader of the mafia groups (Cunnings 43).  Luciano was born on Sicily, but similarly to many other mafiosi, his family soon moved to America in search for the better life. He worked as an assistant in a hat workshop, he loved expensive cigars and smart suits. He tried to spend a beautiful life in a casino where he won $200 for the first time. Then he became a distributor of drugs: Luciano did not like to drag bags as everyone did in his poor area — packages with cocaine were not so heavy. For the first time he was sentenced to prison for these crimes at an early age. Lucky began his formation as a gangster with recruitment of girls for his owner’s brothel. The business was simple and quite pleasant for the performer. “Later, 68 enlisted girls and his mistresses would decide to revenge the Sicilian macho — they would give evidences in court against him. But it would be later” (Cunnings 43).

The gangster became the “brain” of almost all New York mafia in the twenties (Cunnings 43). As the real leader he created “Murder Incorporated” that meant a corporation of murderers which united the most different groups for the first time: from drug dealers and prostitutes to robbers and murderers. In the same way, orderly and silently, he killed his owner and received all power and authority among the mafia.

“Unlike quick-tempered Capone, Lucky was reputed as a “mollycoddle” and a real fop, he liked to live in a grand style, surrounding himself with beauties, with the most known writers and politicians visiting him” (Critchley 23). The nickname “Lucky” he received because of the natural resourcefulness: “two chargers missed him, he was potted but remained alive” (Critchley 24). The Irish gangsters left him cut up and crippled to hang head over heels in one of the thrown houses in New York for a day — and all the same he remained alive. He was put in prison for half a century which is called “the American Siberia”, and nevertheless, soon he left, thanks to that he could help the American authorities with the investigation against Mussolini's army. Lucky Luciano died of cardiac arrest at the Neapolitan airport in 1962. He was going to fly to the director who wanted to shoot the film about a legendary life of a legendary “Lucky”.

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Lucky Luciano should be considered as the founder of the so-called “Commission” (1931), the purpose of which was a prevention of cruel gangster wars.  The “Commission” was a Sicilian invention: the heads of the mafia clans gather and solve truly global problems of the mafia activity in the USA. From the first days 7 people took part in the commission. Among them there were both Al Capone and 5 bosses from New York — the leaders of the legendary “Five families”.

Five Families

In New York since the thirtieth of the 20th century and till now all criminal activity has been carried out by five largest “families”. They are “families” Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, Colombo and Bonanno. “They received the names from the surnames of their ruling bosses whose names were made public in 1959 when the police arrested the mafia informant  Joe Valachi (he managed to live till 1971 and died a natural death in spite of the fact that the Genovese family appointed an award for his head)” (Arlacchi 13).

The Genovese Family

The founders were Lucky Luciano and Joe Masseria. The family received a nickname “Rolls Roys in the mafia” (Arlacchi 14). The person who has given the surname to the family— VitoGenovese, he became a boss in 1957. Vito considered himself as the strongest boss of New York, but was easily eliminated by the Gambino family: having stayed in power for 2 years he was sentenced to prison for 15 years for the drug sale and died in prison in 1969. Today's boss of the clan Genovese is Daniel Leo who governed the family from prison (his term expired in January, 2011) (Arlacchi 14). The family Genovese became a prototype of the family of Corleone from the film “Godfather”. The family’s activities are racket, partnership in crimes, money laundering, usury, murders, prostitution, drug traffic.

The Gambino's Family

Salvatore De Akila, holding a position of the boss of the bosses up to the death in 1928, was the first boss of the Family. In 1957 Carlo Gambino came to the power, the period of his management lasted till 1976.

Carlo “Don Carlo” Gambino (1902-1976) was the head of the criminal world of America, the most respected mafioso of all times and peoples. Carlo Gambino had luck to be already born in a mafia family on Sicily. Being a child he looked at murders and robberies. At the age of 19 he started to kill and became an insider in the group. A bit later he immigrated to America where he worked as a bootlegger, a driver and a performer of all dirty affairs for criminal groups. Despite his modesty and his character of the person who was ready to “turn the other cheek”, Carlo Gambino possessed cold-bloodedness which allowed him to become the boss of the strongest mafia family of New York. In 1931 Gambino held a position of caporegime in Mangano's family (caporegime is one of the most influential mafiosi in each family, he submits directly to the boss of the family or his deputies).Having agreed with one mafioso about death of another, he killed both. Gambino deprived of lives more than 200 people. For the next 20 years he has been eliminating enemies and competitors easily, and being in power extended the family’s influence on the huge area.

Carlo died of heart attack in the house in Long Island in 1976. “There were more than 2000 people on his funeral, including many known politicians, judges and policemen. Such a magnificent tribute would be pleasant to Gambino” (Downey 17).

Scientists and members of the criminal groups mean the word “mafia” as a directly Sicilian criminal world. It is called also “Cosa nostra” that can be translated as “our business” (Raab 56).

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After the Second World War the mafia in Italy returned to a former way of business management. Soon there was a new product for sale which allowed “Cosa nostra” to earn a lot of money in the USA: drugs (generally heroin) which were delivered to the country by the ships from Turkey, Vietnam and other places where the drugs were grown up or made.

Since 2008 the Family has been directed by Daniel Marino, Bartolomeo Vernache and John Gambino — a distant relative of Carlo Gambino. The list of criminal activity of the Gambino family is not allocated among the similar lists of the other four families. Money is earned on everything from prostitution to racketeering and narcotraffic.

The Lucchese Family

Since the beginning of the 1920’s the family has been created by Gaetano Reina's efforts. After his death in 1930 his business was continued by the other Gaetano, Galliano by surname, who remained in power till 1953. The person who has given to the family his surname — Gaetano “Tommie” Lucchese.  “Tommie” Lucchese became the third head of the family together with Gaetano's name. He helped to achieve Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese their leadership in the families. Together with Carlo, Gaetano had taken the “Commission” under control by 1962 (their children arranged a rather magnificent wedding last year). Since 1987 the family has been headed by Vittorio Amuzo, and the “Commission” has consisted of three caporegime: Anyelo Milyor, Joseph Dinapoli and Matthew Madonna.

The Colombo Family

This family has existed since 1930, since this year and up to 1962 the boss of the family was Joe Profachi. In spite of the fact that Joseph Colombo became a boss only in 1962 (getting Carlo Gambino's blessing), the family was called by his surname, instead of by surname Profachi. Joe Colombo actually withdrew from business in 1971 when three bullets hit him in the head, but he remained alive. Colombo lived the following 7 years in a coma in a condition which his accomplice Joe Gallo characterized as “vegetable” (Davis 56).

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Today the boss of the Colombo family is Carmine Persico who is serving for life a sentence (a term of 139 years) for extortion, murders and racketeering. The so-called “acting” boss is Andrew Russo as Persico is staying in prison (Jacobs 18).

The Bonanno Family

It was founded in the 1920’s, the first boss was Cola Skiro. In 1930 Salvatore Maransano replaced him. After Lucky Luciano's plot and creation the Commission by the family Joe Bonanno directed till 1964.

In the 1960’s the family endured the Civil war (which news dealers christened “Banana Split” or “Banana War”). The commission decided to discharge Joe Bonanno of the power and to put a caporegime Gaspar DiGregorio on his place. One part supported Bonanno (Loyalists), the second was, certainly, against him. The war appeared bloody and long, DiGregorio's removal of the boss position by the Commission did not help. A new boss Paul Skiakka did not cope with violence in the divided family. The war stopped in 1968 when the disappearing Joe Bonanno got a heart attack and resolved to withdraw from business. He lived till the age of 97 and died in 2002. From 1981 to 2004 the family did not participate in the Commission because of a row of “unacceptable crimes” (Davis 56). Today the place of the boss of the family remains vacant, but it is expected that it will be occupied by Vincent Asaro.

 “Five families” supervise all New York agglomeration today, including even the North of New Jersey. They conduct their affairs outside of the state too, for example, in Las Vegas, the Southern Florida or in Connecticut. 

“Five New York families” is a unique phenomenon in the organized crime history in the world. It is one of the most influential gangster structures on a planet, created by immigrants (the majority of each family still remain Italian Americans), with a developed accurate hierarchy and strict traditions, having taken roots since the nineteenth century. “Mafia” prospers despite continuous arrests and loud trials, and it means that its history proceeds at our times.

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In 1990 Little Italy became the witness of John Gotti’s arrest – the last boss of the well-known clan Gambino. The Golden Age of the history of the Italian mafia in the USA ended. Since then the house number 247 on Mulberry Street where Gotti was arrested, has been sealed up by the New York police. But it still remains one of the most expensive objects of Manhattan. It is rather on the contrary: brokers in real estate are ready to pay fabulous money for the house. As “here, drinking a cup of aromatic espresso the well-known Carlo Gambino discussed his dark affairs, accepting accomplices in the club which he called in honor of Edgar Poe's favorite poem – “Raven” (Cummings 34).

Today survived “ravens” moved in closer apartments in the federal prisons of the USA thanks to long-term efforts of FBI and police. Free “ravens” were compelled to move away, giving way to Asian and Colombian mafias. The well-known Italian quarter in New York was almost absorbed by China-Town.

Tourists do not suspect that today only very old men remain from former inhabitants in Little Italy, those who did not wish to leave familiar spots and employees of the Italian cafes and restaurants on legendary Mulberry Street. And, nevertheless, the Italian quarter still remains the same world famous sight of New York, as well as the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building or Wall Street.



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