The Mafia’s origins can be traced back to the 9th century, when Sicilians sought refuge from Arab occupation. The term “Mafia” derives from an Arabic word meaning refuge. During the Norman invasion of Sicily in the 11th century, locals once again faced enslavement and sought shelter in the island’s hills. These hill refuges were constantly pursued during subsequent invasions, leading to the formation of groups that fought against their enemies. These groups aimed to establish a sense of ancestry and heritage, which served as the foundation for their organization.
At the apex of this hierarchical structure were chiefs known as “dons,” who led Mafia groups in various villages. Ultimately, they answered to the supreme don based in Palermo, Sicily’s capital city. To join the Mafia, individuals had to take an oath that remains relevant even today:
A pledge to never disclose any secrets or members of the Mafia, even under the possibility of torture or death.
Always lend a hand to fellow members of the Mafia.
Seek revenge for assaults against family members, as every sheep is an integral part of our flock.
Avoid contact with law enforcement officials and other government authorities who enforce discipline.
In the 19th century, the Mafia developed into a prominent criminal organization, establishing its own system of governance. Exploiting an existing practice known as the Black Hand notes, which originated in the 1700s, the Mafia would distribute these threatening messages to extort money from individuals. These notes were given to people as a demand for payment in exchange for protection, albeit from the very criminals who issued them. Victims were left with no choice but to comply and surrender their money, as failure to do so would result in their families becoming targets of violence, abduction, bombings, or even homicide.
In 1876, Don Raffaele Pazzolo pursued a political career in order to infiltrate the Sicilian government with the Mafia. He ultimately achieved his objective by forcing voters to cast their votes at gunpoint. Capitalizing on his newfound power, he ensured that Sin Cripso became the Prime Minister of Sicily. Consequently, Mafia influence took hold over Sicily, leading to strife with honest politicians and resulting in widespread violence. One notable victim of these circumstances was Emanuel Notarbartolo, the director of Sicilian banks, who made a promise to eliminate the Mafia from the nation entirely. Unfortunately, in 1893, he was assassinated and replaced by Don Palizzolo. When Notarbartolo’s son sought justice for his father’s murder, he successfully had Palizzolo indicted. Nonetheless, witnesses refused to cooperate, and police reports were withheld from the court.
When Europeans migrated to America in search of new opportunities, the Mafia groups seized the chance to escape law enforcement in their once-controlled territory. This marked the arrival of the Mafia organization in America, recognizing the potential just like other settlers. Mafia members flourished in Italian neighborhoods in major American cities, with New Orleans serving as their primary stronghold. The investigation into the murder of an Italian immigrant and Mafia member by New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy gradually exposed him to the workings of the Mafia society. He interviewed Italian citizens and sought assistance from the Palermo police department, in an effort to dismantle the Mafia organization in New Orleans. However, the city’s Dons orchestrated his assassination.
In response to Hennessey’s elimination, a backlash from the public resulted in over a dozen individuals facing charges for his murder. The residents of NO became angry and fearful, prompting the formation of a vigilante group consisting of numerous citizens in March 1891. This group stormed the prison where the murder suspects were imprisoned, forcibly removed them onto the street, and proceeded to carry out a lynching. The Italian Ambassador reacted to these impulsive actions by demanding that the lynch mob themselves be held accountable. Italian-American citizens organizations organized protests, initially receiving little support from the American government. However, the issue was eventually resolved when President Harrison addressed Congress, expressing his disapproval of the conduct exhibited by the people of NO and granting $25,000 to the families of the lynched men.
Despite the NO lynchings, the growth of the Mafia in the US was not halted as Sicilian criminals continued to establish new chapters across the country. By the early 1900s, each major city had its own Mafia chapter, primarily focused on protection rackets similar to the Black Handers. However, the dons soon diversified their operations by getting involved in prostitution, gambling, and bootlegging during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. This period is commonly regarded as the most legendary in gangster history, marked by gangsters openly flaunting their power and wealth. The Mafia thrived in cities throughout the US, with figures like Al Capone in Chicago and Charles Luciano in New York accumulating fortunes through the sale of alcohol, exploitation of women, and control over various other criminal activities.
In the late decade, a national crime syndicate was established under Luciano’s guidance. This syndicate, supported by Murder, Inc., managed to unite all the individual cities under one command. If a boss refused to pay tribute to the Syndicate, they would face unfavorable consequences. Among the directors of the Syndicate, only Meyer Lansky would continue his criminal activities in the US after World War II. The remaining directors either faced successful prosecution and imprisonment or were killed by their rivals.
The Mafia’s influence extended to nearly every aspect of business and life in America. In addition to overseeing criminal activities, the bosses also expanded their involvement into legal enterprises, mainly for the purpose of laundering the illegal proceeds from their operations. Benny Siegel made history as the first person to construct a mega-casino in Las Vegas, although he was killed before it could generate profits. Nevertheless, within a decade after his death, Las Vegas had transformed into a preferred destination for gangsters seeking to invest their substantial profits obtained through skimming the casinos.
The Mafia has a long history of involvement in labor unions, serving multiple purposes. This involvement allows them to extend their control over legitimate businesses and offers opportunities for significant financial gains through legal means. Additionally, it boosts the political influence of Mafia bosses. A notable example of a corrupt union leader is Jimmy Hoffa, who was the former president of the Teamsters union. However, his whereabouts have remained unknown since he disappeared in 1975.
During the 90s, the Mafia has been experiencing a resurgence after a decline in the 80s. Luciano and his “associates” continue to dominate organized crime in the United States. Furthermore, other areas have also seen an increase in criminal activity, especially with Colombian drug cartels gaining significant prominence in the 70s.