La Cosa Nostra: Secret Society

Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in American cinema is the closing scene in the

film “The Godfather” when Don Vito Corleone’s son Michael takes over his father’s position…

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and one of the most unforgettable moments, a severed horses’s head lies bloody in a man’s bed. It

is this tradition and brutality that characterizes the Mafia, a secret Sicilian society that lives and

functions just as much today on American soil as it did and does still in Italy.

To understand this organized crime, one must begin to understand how it came to be

organized in the first place. During the medieval times in Sicily, Arabs invaded the land and native

Sicilians fled and took refuge in the hills. Some of these refugees formed a secret society that gave

protection to the people in exchange for money. This group took their name, “Mafia” based on

the Arabic word for refuge. In America today, one can hear it also be called “La Cosa Nostra”, or

“This Thing of Ours.” In the 1700s,Wealthy people would receive a card with a black hand drawn

on and if they did not pay the money, they could expect murder, theft, and violence.

During the time Mussolini was ruling Italy, this secret society was under heavy persecution

and many fled to the United States. “Don (term for the boss or head of a Mafia family) Vito

Cascio Ferro fled to the United States in 1901 to escape arrest. He is known as the Father of

American Mafia.” (La Cosa Nostra) Many Italian immigrants came to the United States through

Ellis Island in New York, which is today the most important center of organized Mafia crime in the

United States. The new American Mafia came to power during the Prohibition by organizing the

sale of outlawed alcohol, but after Prohibition was revoked, the Mafia needed a new “racket.”

During the war, the Mafia got government issued ration stamps and sold them on the black market.

These days the Mafia is involved in running prostitution, unions, construction, and gambling.

New York, also called the “City that never sleeps,” houses the Five Families of New York.

These Families are highly influential and powerful crime families and each holds claim to certain

“rackets.” The Five Families are: Gambino, Bonano, Lucchese, Colombo, and Genovese. While

all people in the Mafia are required to maintain certain silence about the workings of the Family, a

code of silence called “Omerta,” different families come to be known for different things. The

Genovese family, for the most part, is low key, whereas the Gambino family is heard all over the

Carlo Gambino, the man who is the family namesake, never served a day of jailtime in his

life. He liked to keep low key, but many things are attributed to this family. Murder Inc., an

infamous group of talented, for-hire hitmen, was started by Albert Anastasia, member of the

Gambino family. While this was well publicized and talked about, perhaps the most publicized

and talked about Mafia happening recently was the John Gotti case. John Gotti, Don of the

Gambino family, was “ratted out” but one of his underlings, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.

Sammy, in return for this favor to the police, served only five years in jail for twenty murders.

However, this offense, breaking the “Omerta” is one of the worst possible things any member of

the Mafia could ever do. As Michael Corleone says to his wife Kay, “Don’t ask me about my

Everyone in the Mafia must learn many, many rules and live by all of them. Of most

importance is Omerta, as stated before, but many guidelines are set for way of life as well.

Members cannot show signs of weaknesses. Crying and wearing glasses are two such things.

Also, women are looked upon as inferior and a couple that is unable to produce sons is frowned

upon. Since power is very influential in how this business is run, members must know their place

because “someone always wants more, that’s how wars start.” (Anonymous)

Making reference to the movie “The Godfather” is highly practical as this movie, which

won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is highly accurate and professionally portrays the

American Mafia. In this film, the Five Families “go to the mattresses” over power, money, and

drugs. While wars like this do happen, they aren’t very common and the last one took place over

ten years ago. In this war there were not many casualties, but Families did lose territory.

This organized crime group is controlled by a hierarchy. At the very top of it all is the

Don, or Boss. Right below him is his Underboss and Consigliere. The Consigliere is a personal

advisor. Below them is the Caporegime, who are all in charge of manning certain areas; the

unions, docks, or “running numbers” (laundering money). Next come the soldiers, men

responsible for enforcing the rules and collecting things due to the Family. These men, the hitmen

and assassins, are often the ones that are stereotyped. Finally, at the bottom are associates.

Associates are not part of the Family, but they help when called in and are loyal to the Family.

Loyalty is very important to the Mafia, as are respect and power. Its these three things,

along with avarice, that unify all individuals in the Mafia. When asked what perks, if any, there

were to being in the Mafia, it was summed up by, “helping people, saving Mom and Pop

businesses from going under. Respect if you play by the rules, and the money’s good.”

Mafia today is quite different from that of days before. Families have lost a lot of power

and the chain of command, or hierarchy, is loose. Many of the older tradition Mafiosi are trying

to uphold old ways, but they keep “getting whacked” by younger, new tradition Mafiosi,

sometimes known as “Young Turks.” And any code of honor that once was glamorized in Mario

While this paper focused little on the actual crimes involved in Mafia life, it brought to the

reader a deeper understanding of the organization and motive behind these crimes. Since starting

in Sicily, the group has changed from one of protection for honor and family, to one of crime for

money, power, and family. Family, as you see, is still important today for Mafiosi in America as it

was in Sicily. “Say what you will about me, but don’t think it applies to my family.” (Godfather

II) The Mafia, a group of stylized criminals, exists as a hidden power in our world today and shall

remain to do so into the new millenium by controlling underground markets and making this world

The Godfather. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan.
Paramount, 1972.

The Godfather, Part II. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall. Paramount,
“La Cosa Nostra.” Online. World Wide Web. 4 June 1999. Available
La Vien, Douglas and Papa, Juliet . (1993) The Mafia Handbook. Penguin Books.

Machi, Mario. “Mario’s Mafia Page.” Online. World Wide Web. 4 June 1999. Available
Malta, J. Geoff. “The Godfather Trilogy.” Online. World Wide Web. 1 June 1999. Available
Wiseguy & Company, Inc. “Unofficial Homepage of the New York Mafia.” Online. World
Wide Web. 4 June 1999. Available

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La Cosa Nostra: Secret Society. (2018, Jun 10). Retrieved from