La Cosa Nostra: The Sicilian Mafia in America | History Hit

La Cosa Nostra: The Sicilian Mafia in America

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Italian-American mobsters in Chicago.
Image Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Sicilian Mafia dates back to the 19th century, operating as an organised crime syndicate which frequently descended into brutality and violence in order to protect their own interests and clear potential competition.

In 1881, Giuseppe Esposito, the first known member of the Sicilian Mafia, emigrated to the United States. Having carried out the murders of several high-profile figures in Sicily, he was quickly arrested and extradited.

However, this marked the beginning of the Sicilian Mafia’s operations in America, the extent of which would only be discovered 70 years later.

Here’s a brief overview of La Cosa Nostra (which literally translates as ‘our thing’) and their operations in the United States.

Beginnings

The Mafia was a largely Sicilian phenomenon, a spawn of the feudal system and a country used to private armies enforcing the will of local nobility and bigwigs. Once this system was largely abolished, a rapid rise in the number of property owners, a lack of law enforcement and increasing banditry became a toxic problem.

People turned to external arbitrators, enforcers and protectors in order to mete out justice and help them, and thus the Mafia was born. However, Sicily was relatively small and there was only so much territory and so many things to fight over. The Sicilian mafioso began to branch out, making connections with the Camorra in Naples and emigrating to both North and South America.

New Orleans

New Orleans was the city of choice for mafioso emigrating: many did so out of fear for their lives, often after having committed a crime which put them at risk of harm from other gangs. In 1890, a New Orleans Police Superintendent was brutally murdered after getting mixed up in the business of the Matranga family. Hundreds of Sicilian emigrants were arrested for the crime, and 19 were indicted for the murder. They were all acquitted.

The citizens of New Orleans were furious, organising a lynch mob in retaliation which killed 11 of the 19 defendants. This episode is said to have convinced the Mafia to avoid killing any further law enforcement officers wherever possible as the backlash was greater than they had expected.

New York

The 2 biggest America-Sicilian crime gangs were based in New York, those of Joseph Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Maranzano eventually emerged as the most powerful, and effectively became the leader of the organisation now known as La Cosa Nostra, establishing a code of conduct, the business’ structure (including the various families) and laying out procedures for settling disputes.

It was around this point, in the early 1930s, that the Genovese and Gambino families emerged as the two leading powerhouses of La Cosa Nostra. Unsurprisingly, Maranzano didn’t last long at the top: he was murdered by Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, the boss of the Genovese family.

Mugshot of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, 1936.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / New York Police Department.

The Commission

Luciano quickly set up the ‘Commission’, made up of bosses from the 7 major families, to rule the activities of La Cosa Nostra, deeming it better for power to be shared equally than risk constant power plays (although these weren’t entirely avoided).

Luciano’s tenure was relatively short-lived: he was arrested and imprisoned for operating a prostitution ring in 1936. On his release, 10 years later, he was deported. Rather than retiring quietly, he became an important point of liaison between the original Sicilian Mafia and the American Cosa Nostra.

Frank Costello, whom many believe inspired the character of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, ended up as acting boss of Cosa Nostra, leading the organisation for nearly 20 years until he was forced to relinquish control to the Genovese family.

Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying before the Kefauver Committee investigating organized crime, 1951.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

Discovery

For the most part, La Cosa Nostra’s activities were underground: law enforcement certainly wasn’t aware of the extent of the families’ reach and involvement in organised crime in New York. It was only in 1957, when the New York Police Department stumbled across a meeting of the bosses of La Cosa Nostra in a small town in upstate New York, that they realised how far the Mafia’s influence extended.

In 1962 the police finally cut a deal with a member of La Cosa Nostra. Joseph Valachi was sentenced to life for murder, and he eventually testified against the organisation, giving the FBI details of its structure, power base, codes and members.

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Valachi’s testimony was invaluable but it did little to stop La Cosa Nostra’s operations. As time progressed, the hierarchy and structures changed within the organisation, but the Genovese family remained one of the most powerful families in organized crime, dabbling in everything from murder to racketeering.

Over time, more widespread knowledge of La Cosa Nostra’s existence, and an understanding of how the organisation operated, allowed law enforcement to make more arrests and to infiltrate the families.

An ongoing battle

America’s fight against organised crime and mafia bosses remains ongoing. The Genovese family remains dominant on the east coast and has found ways to adapt to the changing world. Their recent activities have predominantly focused on mortgage fraud and illegal gambling, exploiting the trends and loopholes available in the 21st century.

Sarah Roller

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