How was the Italian Mafia Established in the U.S.?

Films, books, TV series and even video games have narrated, and often celebrated, the story of the Italo-American Mafia. A story of violence, oppression, corruption at all levels of society, which swings between the two extremes of turning Mafia dons into folk heroes, and painting the entire Italo-American community as a criminal minority.

Both extremes are, of course, far from reality. And the origins of the Mafia in the late 19th century are particularly complex and seldom covered, with narratives tending to focus on the period during Prohibition and up to the present day. But the Mafia was around almost a half a century before Prohibition in the states. So how did they get their start? And who were the major players? Well, put on your cement shoes and let’s dive into it, shall we?

To begin with, any discussion of the Italo-American mafia first needs to travel back to the ‘old country’ and revisit the origin story of the two crime syndicates that would shape it: the Mafia and the Camorra.

Some interpretations of the ‘Mafia’ – both the word and the organisation – delve into mythical territory, tracing back its origins to obscure secret societies, or to the ‘Sicilian Vespers’, a massacre of French occupiers perpetrated by Sicilians in 1282. But let’s focus on the more likely, and recent, origin story instead.

In 1861, Sicily became part of the unified Kingdom of Italy, which did not alter much the daily living conditions of most Sicilians in the countryside, employed as farm labourers by large estate owners. The aristocrats spent little time in their properties, delegating their security to private guards, the ‘campieri’. [Cam pee er ee]

Around this same time, some impoverished peasants dropped the plough and picked up their guns, pursuing a life of crime. These newly formed gangs of bandits eventually joined forces with the ‘campieri’, with a common goal: becoming rich at the expense of their former employers. But, unlike ordinary criminals, they seldom directly robbed the land owners for vast amounts of money.

Instead, they first created a problem: a constant threat of violence, kidnapping or arson against their wealthy targets, their families, and their properties. They then offered a solution: if you pay us a steady amount of money, we will keep you, your family and your stuff free from harm! In other words: they had created a good-old protection racket.

Interesting fact here: the protection money extorted by the Mafia is called ‘pizzo’, or ‘beak’ in Sicilian. The term comes from the practice of offering a drink in exchange for services being rendered: when you drink, you wet your ‘beak’. And by 1868, this criminal use of the word was already being reported.

Speaking of words and the 1860s, the words ‘Mafia’ and ‘Mafiosi’ were also in use. But their connotation to describe the members of a criminal organisation only became widespread in 1863, thanks to the wildly popular play ‘The Mafiosi of Vicaria’.

The origin and meaning of the word ‘Mafia’ are still debated today. Most interpretations agree that the word may have Arabic roots, and that originally it meant a form of swagger or bravado. Otherwise it may have derived from the Arabic words for ‘meeting’ or ‘exemption from the law’.

Whatever the case there, in the mid- and late-1860s the mafia gangs, or ‘cosche’, [Coss Kay] grew in numbers and power, influencing, corrupting, penetrating – or even replacing – State authority. For example, when Sicilian landowners benefitted from a boom in demand in citrus fruit, they preferred to rely on the services of the Mafia to protect their business.

The largest and best organised gang to emerge in the period was ‘The Brotherhood’, formed in 1883 by the merger of two previously rival gangs. The Brotherhood formalised some rituals, practices and structures later common to the Sicilian Mafia as a whole. For example, members were initiated by pricking their fingers and squeezing drops of blood onto a religious image, which would then be burnt.

The Brotherhood also imposed a military-like organisation to its over 500 members. They were divided into squads of ten men – called a ‘decina’. [Day Chee Nah] Each was led by a ‘capo-decina’, capo meaning ‘boss’ or ‘head’. The ‘capo-decinas’ reported to a smaller number of underbosses. In turn, they were ruled by the Capo, the boss, the top dog, always flanked by a trusty adviser, the ‘consigliere’. [Con Seal Lee Err Ay]

Its 500 ‘brothers’ in the surrounding towns also devised codes to identify if some random stranger was a member of the Brotherhood or similar Mafia gang. For example, they reportedly initiated a conversation about having a toothache, to which the stranger replied that yes, he too had a toothache. The date in which the ailment had started corresponded to the date of initiation into the criminal outfit.

Now, when Italian police forces are considered in opposition to the Mafia, they are often described as being incompetent, impotent or downright corrupt. While there was a certain level of corruption at high level, which we’ll address later, the police were far from hapless. For example, two years after the Brotherhood had been founded, in 1885, one fifth of its members had already been arrested and put on trial. The following year, Inspector Alongi [Alone gee] published the first comprehensive study on ‘The Mafia, in its factors and its manifestations’, which contained a key insight in the mind of the mafioso: ‘He makes himself seem naïve, stupidly attentive to what you are saying. He endures insults and slaps with patience. Then, the same evening, he shoots you.’

A notable case of such shenanigans was Marquis Emanuele Notarbartolo. In his capacity as director of the Bank of Sicily, the Marquis discovered that certain other members of the Board of Directors had ties to the Mafia, the most corrupt individual being Don Raffaele Palizzolo, a member of parliament. Notarbartolo denounced the situation in 1889, but Palizzolo’s friends in the Ministry of Commerce intercepted his reports and distributed them to the Board of Directors instead. As a result, the Marquis was forcibly retired in 1890. Three years later, Notarbartolo discovered that the Bank of Sicily was involved in a massive fraudulent operation, but before he could report it, he was stabbed to death on a train to Palermo on February the 1st, 1893.

The investigation into his death was led by Palermo’s Chief of Police, Ermanno Sangiorgi. In 1902, he finally succeeded in bringing to trial Don Palizzolo and one Giuseppe Fontana, as instigator and executor of the murder respectively.

Chief Sangiorgi gathered 503 witnesses to testify against them, and both culprits were found guilty. But six months later, the sentence was overturned: Don Palizzolo returned to Palermo, while Fontana emigrated to New York to resume his life of crime.

On this note, Sicily was one of the “chief exporters” of Italian nationals to the US, alongside the region of Campania and its capital, Naples. These areas could boast their local equivalent of the Mafia, which may be less known but is by no means less vicious: the Camorra.

Its origins are likewise murky and disputed. The first Camorra gangs may have originated from bands of Sardinian mercenaries, back in the 16th Century. Or they may have originated in the 1810s, when small groups of robbers and pimps started taking on a more formal, hierarchical structure. As for the name, the word ‘Camorra’ may be the contraction of a phrase meaning ‘boss of the morra’, where the ‘morra’ was a popular street game. Whatever the case, some time before the 1820s the term ‘Camorra’ came to indicate the act of extortion, and later the organisation itself.

And by the way, when we use the term ‘organisation’, we do so in a very loose way. Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, in fact, the Neapolitan Camorra has always been a decentralised body, with multiple clans elbowing for influence and power sometimes in the constrained environments of a single neighbourhood.

The ‘camorristi’ and the ‘mafiosi’ however had much in common: a business model initially centred around extortion, which later branched out in illegal smuggling and trafficking; and the use of initiation rituals. In the case of the Camorra, new members had to fight in a sort of codified duel, either with knife or pistol, which left them with visible scars – a mark of honour and belonging.

After 1861’s unification, Italian police cracked down on the Camorra, with the usual setbacks caused by political corruption experienced in Sicily. But local officers did score many successes, too, as alluded to, causing many prominent bosses to flee Naples and relocate to the US.

Across the Atlantic, members of the Mafia and the Camorra initially engaged in bitter feuds, before gradually joining forces into what would be called ‘American Mafia’.

This brings us to the new world.

In 1880 alone, more than 12,000 Italians were recorded entering the US. Ten years later, that number had more than quadrupled. And between 1903 and 1915, an annual average of 200,000 Italians resettled in the States.

Most of these immigrants came from Southern Italy and Sicily, and tended to settle in the various ‘Little Italies’ mushrooming in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans, among others. The majority of the newcomers were, of course, honest and hard working people in search of a new life for themselves and potentially their families.

But, as alluded to, amongst them lurked the proverbial rotten apples: Mafiosi and Camorristi on the run from the Italian police. These never-do-wells were in pursuit of new markets to export their chief, paradoxical product: the threat of violence followed by the offer of protection against said violence.

Even those who were not wanted by the law, because they had already served their sentence, had very good reasons to pack up and move to the Eastern Seaboard. You see, even when released from prison, Mafiosi were put under a strict Special Surveillance by Italian authorities, which forbade them from hanging out late at night and having a drink with their pals!

Now, you might wonder how such individuals with criminal history could immigrate away so easily. Well, often those same authorities were complicit in favouring the export of criminal gangs. Being all too happy to get rid of these undesirables, including the Italian authorities sometimes providing these individuals with false papers to help them with their relocation to anywhere else but Italy.

As for the first official records of these individuals’ criminal activities in the U.S., in 1878 The San Francisco Examiner reported about an extortion racket operated by a gang of Sicilians, calling themselves ‘La Maffia’.

San Francisco police eventually arrested four of these ‘Maffiosi’, who had made a killing – literally and figuratively – preying on other fellow Italians. This was a common aspect of the early Italo-American Mafia: they often chose their targets amongst Italian business owners, who were already acquainted with the harsh rules of the ‘pizzo’ game.

The next big case encountered by American law enforcement took place in 1881, when New Orleans detective David C. Hennessy was investigated a recent string of murders. Over the course of his investigation, Hennessy busted a gang of 75 Sicilians who specialised in kidnapping and extortion, and arrested their leader, one Giuseppe Esposito. [Joo Sepp Ay – not Joo Sepp ee ) ] This gentleman had fled Sicily after being involved in the kidnapping of a young English banker, John Forester Rose. And that’s where he was returned after Detective Hennessy extradited him. The Italian judiciary thus thanked him profusely and slapped Esposito with a hefty sentence after being convicted of 18 murders.

New Orleans, however, was not rid of the scourge. In 1888, Hennessy became Chief of Police, and like the legend he was, he continued to crack down on the local Mafia, by then embroiled in a vicious turf war to control the waterfront. In March of 1891, Hennessy was able to take one of the rival families to trial – the Provenzanos – but the bosses successfully appealed the sentence. Before they could be tried again, Hennessy was killed with a blast from the Mafia’s signature weapon: a sawn-off shotgun. The aftermath of this caused extreme tension between the U.S. and Italy, including talk of war between the two nations.

To begin with, the police reaction was draconian, leading to the indiscriminate arrest of hundreds of Italian immigrants. The initial round-up resulted in only 19 individuals being indicted, but those were eventually acquitted.

This did not sit well with lawyer William S. Parkerson, who incited the citizens of New Orleans into pursuing summary justice, stating, What protection or assurance of protection is there left us when the very head of our Police Department, our Chief of Police, is assassinated in our very midst by the Mafia Society and his assassins are turned loose on the community? Will every man here follow me and see the murder of Hennessy avenged? Are there men enough here to set aside the verdict of that infamous jury, every one of whom is a perjurer or a scoundrel?’

And so it was that a mob baying for blood stormed the jailhouse where some of the arrested men were still behind bars. They seized 11 of the indicted Italians, dragged them in the streets and lynched them.

At the time, Associated Press described the lynch mob as such: “It was not an unruly midnight mob. It was simply a sullen determined body of citizens who took into their own hands what justice had ignominiously failed to do.”

Future President Theodore Roosevelt, was also unfazed by the violence, commenting in a private letter: “Personally, I think it a rather good thing.”

These attitudes reflected the widespread discrimination towards Italian immigrants particularly at the time, a stance which appalled the Italian government, resulting in Italy breaking off diplomatic relations with the U.S. and putting a naval squadron on alert. As noted, there were even talks of actual war erupting. And here while you might the Italian navy threatening the U.S. Navy a bit laughable, back then, American naval personnel numbered just 9,247 officers and sailors after many years of down-sizing.

Defusing the situation, President Benjamin Harrison ultimately condemned the acts of the New Orleans lynch mob and did various things to help to smooth things over. For example, in April of 1892, he offered to pay an indemnity to the relatives of the victims. He further supported Congress in passing a resolution to institute a new holiday on October the 12th, which became a staple celebration for Italian communities, though arguably the most controversial American holiday today: Columbus Day.

This crisis, obviously, did nothing to stem the tide of criminal gangs crossing the pond. In 1901, Sicilian communities in New York saw the arrival of the most powerful mafioso to land in Little Italy yet, one Don Vito Cascio Ferro. [Cascio sounds like Cash aw]

Don Vito is often credited for first bringing to the US the concept of the ‘pizzo’, but as we had learned protection rackets had been in fashion since at least 1878. But his arrival coincides with the emergence of what appeared to be a sinister secret society particularly active in that kind of business: the ‘Mano Nera’ – the ‘Black Hand’. Or at least, that’s how the press depicted it.

To clarify: gangsters who practised extortion presented themselves as being members of this Black Hand society. But in actuality, there never was such a secret society with a well-defined set of members.

Any Mafia or Camorra gang, or even individual ‘entrepreneurs’ could appropriate the Black Hand branding to intimidate their victims. We could define it both as a method of extortion, or as a catch-all term encompassing all Italo-American criminals involved in the extortion business.

One of the first recorded cases concerning Black Hand letters involved a Brooklyn contractor, one Mr Capiello. On August 3rd 1903, he received a message stating: ‘If you don’t meet us at Seventy-second Street and Thirteenth Avenue, Brooklyn, tomorrow afternoon, your house will be dynamited and your family killed. The same fate awaits you in the event of your betraying our purposes to the police.’ Signed: The Black Hand.

Capiello must have filed it to spam, because two days later he received a follow-up letter: ‘You did not meet us as ordered in our first letter. If you still refuse to accede to our terms, but wish to preserve the lives of your family, you can do so by sacrificing your own life. Walk in Sixteenth Street, near Seventh Avenue, between the hours of four and five tonight. Beware of Mano Nera’.

In the end, Capiello handed over some $4,000 to the extortionists, more than $138,000 in 2023 value. However, when the ‘Black Handers’ made it clear that their final bill would have amounted to $100,000, almost $3.5 million in 2023 money, Capiello had had enough and spoke to the police, leading to the conviction of five racketeers of Neapolitan origin.

But like a game of whack-a-Don, more Black Hand chapters sprouted in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago. Black Hand gangs also appeared in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago.

Not every victim was like Capiello. Many business owners, recently arrived, did not speak English and generally distrusted authorities. Some preferred to simply pay and stay safe that way. Others decided to arm themselves and take law into their own hands. Honest Italians in Chicago even founded a self-defence organisation in late 1907, the White Hand Society, which garnered support from the Italian ambassador and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The White Hand declared ‘war without truce, war without quarter’ against the Black Hand Mafiosi.

For example, on December 9th 1907, White Handers engaged the Black Handers in a shoot-out in Pittsburgh. And by January 1908, the Chicago White Hand President, Mr Volini was able to declare that they had driven out of town ten of the worst mafiosi.

But the Black Handers would not yield, and on February the 28th, Volini received a death sentence: ‘The supreme council of the Black Hand has voted that you must die. You have not heeded our warnings in the past, but you must heed this. Your killing has been assigned and the man waits for you.’

That said, in the end, Volini was not killed, but White Hand supporters ultimately felt theirs was a losing battle against an ever growing criminal menace. They did not raise the White flag however, but simply decided it was time to rely on established authorities.

This brings us to the so-called First Families.

The first, large-scale police efforts against the Mafia were intertwined with the emergence of what would be the first large-scale family to sink its claws into American society: the Morello gang, also known as ‘Lupo-Morello’.

The gang originated back in Corleone, Sicily, with Giuseppe Morello, known as ‘clutch hand’, due to his one-fingered right hand which looked like a claw. Wanted for murder and counterfeiting, Morello fled to East Harlem, New York, in 1893. In the late 1890s, his half-sister married a delightful gentleman called Ignazio Saietta, [Inn ee ats yo] a violent extortionist known as ‘Lupo’ – the Wolf.

Morello recruited Lupo as his underboss, and completed the roster of his gang with his three half-brothers, ‘Vincent’, ‘Nick’ and ‘Artichoke King’. The Morello gang joined forces with the aforementioned Don Vito Cascio Ferro and set up a counterfeiting ring, which smuggled $5 bills printed in Sicily.

In 1903, one Benedetto Madonia, in charge of distributing the fake bills across the States, was suspected by ‘Clutch Hand’ of pocketing the earnings of the gang. And, whaddayaknow, Some time later, the corpse of an unknown man, stabbed 17 times, was found in a barrel near Little Italy, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His head had been almost cut off, and his dangly man bits had been stuffed into his mouth…

The NYPD put on the case their first ever detective of Italian origin, Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Petrosino. Petrosino believed he had seen the victim at the trial of a convicted counterfeiter and so went to interview the guy in Sing Sing prison. The counterfeiter recognised the victim: it was his brother-in-law. And his name was – you may have guessed – Benedetto Madonia – the man who had had the audacity to allegedly steal from ‘Clutch hand’.

Shortly before being murdered, Madonia had visited his brother-in-law in Sing Sing, alongside another enforcer known as ‘the Ox’. During the visit, Madonia was carrying, as usual, his distinctive pocket watch. Petrosino then noticed that the corpse showed no signs of a pocket watch, so he grilled all the pawn shops in Manhattan looking for it, until he struck gold when he discovered that the watch had been recently pawned off by a guy who matched the description of ‘the Ox’.

And so it was that Petrosino and his officers tracked down the Ox in a Saloon in Prince Street, but the questioning was cut short when the beefy enforcer attacked them with a knife, though Petrosino’s squad of Italian police officers ultimately managed to knock the Ox to the ground, arrest him, and brought him to trial.

As a strong man on the Morellos’ payroll, he was the likely culprit. But the case collapsed when the family of Madonia, the victim, refused to testify against him, likely due to intimidation.

However, officer Joe Petrosino felt he was clearly on the right track as when the investigation started, one of the leaders of the Morello gang, Don Vito Cascio Ferro, left New York, fleeing to New Orleans, and then back to Sicily.

Morello and his brother-in-law Lupo ‘the Wolf’ continued with their operations for a handful of years, but the US Secret Service, in charge of tracking down counterfeiters, was hot on their tracks and, in 1909, they busted the Morello gang, sentencing both boss and underboss to 30 years. Unfortunately, both Morello and the Wolf were paroled in 1920- perfect timing to benefit from Prohibition!

But what of the cop who had almost succeeded in busting the gang, as early as 1903? If there is a life story worthy of a movie, it should be his. Detective Sergeant Joe Petrosino, had risen from humble origins, first working for New York City administration as a sanitation worker. But after fulfilling his dream of joining the police department, he rose through the ranks, becoming the head of NYPD’s Italian Squad – an outfit championed by Teddy Roosevelt himself.

Besides his sleuthing in the notorious barrel murder case, Petrosino enjoyed several successes in his career. As early as 1902, he had arrested one Enrico Alfano, dubbed ‘Generalissimo of the Camorra’, following which the press hailed him as the ‘Italian Sherlock Holmes’. Apparently, following that arrest the Black Hand had condemned Petrosino to death.

Later, in 1908, following a bombing campaign against Italian-owned banks, Petrosino’s squad arrested the Black Hand’s principal bomb-maker and raided a saloon on East 11th Street, which served as headquarters. That same year, New York was visited by an Italian politician, someone we already met: Don Raffaele Palizzolo, the corrupt MP as previously mentioned tried for the assassination of Marquis Notarbartolo. Palizzolo was welcomed by the Italian community, and hailed as an enemy of the Black Hand. Petrosino, however, saw through his BS, and shadowed him closely during this visit.

Petrosino’s presence apparently prevented Palizzolo from conducting some shady business. The upset politician, upon leaving New York shouted at the police officer: “If you ever come to Palermo, God help you!”

The Italo-American detective indeed was planning a trip to Palermo. His belief was that the only way to defeat the Mafia was to destroy it at the source, and so he organised what was supposed to be a secret mission to Sicily.

And so it was that Joe Petrosino arrived in Palermo via steamer on February the 28th, 1909. To his horror, however, he discovered that the New York Times had published a story about his covert operation, and the article had been picked up and translated by the Italian press. His face was on the papers, and now every mafioso and their dog knew that a top cop from New York was in town and on their case and knew what he looked like.

To maintain a level of anonymity, Petrosino checked into a hotel under an assumed name and arranged a secret meeting with the US consul, William H. Bishop. Next, Petrosino set to work, searching criminal records at Palermo’s Palace of Justice. A few days later, on March the 11th, the detective recorded in his journal: ‘Have already met criminals who recognized me from New York. I am on dangerous ground.’

The next day, he wrote down a name you should all be familiar with by now: Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the Mafia top cat who had partnered with the Morello gang.

That very evening, March 12, 1909, Petrosino dined in a Palermo cafe, before heading out to Piazza Marina, a square in the city centre. Minutes later, two assassins approached the Italian Sherlock Holmes and shot him. The detective managed to fire back, before slumping lifeless to the ground.

Petrosino’s funeral in New York was attended by some 250,000 people. Meanwhile, the criminals identifying themselves as ‘the Black Hand’ immediately ramped up their activities, including the man who had organised Petrosino’s funeral being shot and killed. Shop owners and merchants also began receiving ominous messages to the tune of “Petrosino is dead, but the Black Hand still lives.”

Back in Palermo, US Consul Mr Bishop appeared to be the only one interested in solving Petrosino’s murder. He pressured local authorities to look into Don Vito, eventually resulting in his arrest. The Don was a very, very likely suspect, but he had the tightest of alibis: in the evening of the assassination, he had been dining with a member of parliament, who vouched for Vito Cascio Ferro’s innocence.

Regardless of who had pulled the trigger, with Petrosino out of the way, the Morello gang had relatively free reign.

Now, you may remember that by 1909 Morello and his underboss ‘the Wolf’ were behind bars. With Don Vito in Sicily, the reins of the ‘family’ had gone to Morello’s half-brothers: Vincent, Nick and ‘Artichoke King’. Under them, the gang continued to thrive, recruiting members who would later become household names of American Mafia lore: people like ‘Joe the Boss’ Masseria, ‘Lucky’ Luciano and ‘Prime Minister’ Costello.

The rule of the Morello’s over Manhattan, however, was far from uncontested, with gangsters of Neapolitan origin making hundreds of thousands of dollars with their prostitution and gambling rings.

By 1912, the ‘King of Little Italy’ was one such Neapolitan, called Giosue Gallucci. [Joe Soo Ay Gal ooch ee] On September the 2nd, Gallucci’s bodyguard was shot dead while playing cards, and the police arrested one ‘Gimp’ Prisco for the deed. The Gimp walked free, but on December the 12th, he in turn was killed with a bullet fired by Gallucci’s nephew, John Russomano. Russomano successfully argued he had shot in self-defence, and was ultimately released.

The endless carousel of vendettas had already started spinning.

In February 1913 Russomano’s bodyguard was shot dead, with the likely shooter being a friend of ‘The Gimp’ Prisco. This man was called Amadio Buonomo, which ironically in Italian translates as ‘God-lover Good Man’


Mr God-lover Good Man was in turn shot dead, supposedly muttering a prediction as he exhaled his last breath: “I knew they would get me, but my friends will get them… this feud will go on until all of them are wiped out of existence.”

So, to recap, this feud was between Gallucci the King of Little Italy on one side, and whoever had first murdered his bodyguard. The instigators of that killing initially appeared to be the gang of the Del Gaudio brothers. Logically enough, one of them was promptly killed by the Gallucci gang. Or was he?

Here it’s where it gets complicated. It appears that the entire feud had actually been orchestrated by the Morello gang, who had set the other two families at each other’s throats to weaken them.

The Mafia war culminated on May the 7th, 1915, when four men burst into a coffee shop and peppered Gallucci and his son with bullets. Both men were dead by the following morning.

The gang had been decapitated, the King of Little Italy was dead, and three new rulers were next in line to inherit his realm of gambling and prostitution: Vincent, Nick, and the Artichoke King, regents of the Morello gang.

And so it was that the three Morellos were poised to take over Manhattan. Towards this end, their next target was Joe DeMarco, active in East Harlem. DeMarco was first shot in the neck, but he survived the attempt. Some time later, two men with sawn-off shotguns had another go, but DeMarco, clearly made of kevlar, somehow survived again. The bullet-resistant boss initially resumed operations in Mulberry Street, Brooklyn, but the Morellos eventually killed both him and his brother.

The three ‘regents’ of the Morello gang were now becoming too big, too dangerous for another large Neapolitan syndicate, the Navy Street Gang.

And so it was that on September the 7th 1916, one of the three bosses, ‘Nick’, was shot dead while on his way to talks with the Navy Street camorristi. And on October 5th, the Navy Street struck again, murdering one of the Morellos’ chief enforcers. But the remaining leaders, Vincent and ‘Artichoke King’ did not back down, executing two Navy Street leaders in November of 1916.

The final blow to the Navy Street Gang was dealt by the police. One of their members, one Ralph ‘the Barber’, felt betrayed when his boss refused to help out when he was on the lam. In retaliation, ‘the Barber’ went to the police and turned informant, turning in many of the Neapolitan leaders.

And so it was that at the end of 1917, through some murders and a little help from the police, the Morellos emerged victorious from the first Mafia-Camorra war fought on American soil.

From here, the story of the Mafia becomes a little more well-known and even more widespread. On this note, in the 1920s and 1930s the Mafia would continue to prosper, propelled by three important factors. First: prohibition. An ill-conceived measure which unlocked a new business model for the mob, making their previous activities seem downright unprofitable. Second: the law enforcement agency perhaps best equipped to bringing the mob to justice … would not. We are, of course, talking about the Department of Justice’ Bureau of Investigation, known as the BoI and later the FBI. Its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, preferred to focus on bank robbers, murderers and kidnappers, NOT affiliated to organised crime. This was part of his strategy to ensure consistently high conviction rates for criminals arrested by his agents. Hoover knew that Mafia trials too often ended in acquittals due to lack of witnesses willing to come forward, and thus discouraged his Bureau from going after the Mafia, dismissing it as not being a federal priority.

And the Third factor contributing to the mafia explosion in the U.S. was the major crack down on Sicilian Mafia conducted by Italian law enforcement. In May of 1924, Mussolini himself gave full powers to lawman Cesare Mori, nicknamed ‘The Iron Prefect’, to destroy the Mafia. With a combination of cunning, military-like tactics and heavy-handedness, the Iron Prefect humiliated the Dons, arresting hundreds of Mafiosi and forced many bosses to flee to the States, swelling the ranks of the American mob.

Unfortunately, as it had been the case in the past, the defeat of the Mafia monster in one location, only caused it to emerge stronger somewhere else.

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