Is There A Mafia?

Copyright 2002

The most basic question confronting the American Mafia historian is: "Does an American Mafia exist?" In our post-Valachi age, when books, movies and television shows about the Mafia are everywhere, it may seem a silly question. But it is important for the historian to acknowledge that there is some debate on the issue. Despite the weight of evidence, some continue to insist that "Mafia" is a figment of law enforcement imagination or an ethnic slur or a paranoid delusion of some xenophobes.

There have even been some significant published works contesting the existence of an American Mafia and the appropriateness of the Mafia terminology in discussions of organized crime. Schiavo's "The Truth About the Mafia" and Albini's "The American Mafia" can be counted among the skeptical volumes.)

Joe Valachi

In light of the revelations of Valachi, Gentile, Bonanno, Gravano and other mob informants, Schiavo's work may seem particularly ridiculous. "The Mafia is dead..." he wrote in 1962. "All that is left of it... is the name, which some thugs appropriate to give themselves importance and awe the ignorant people, with the unwitting complicity of reporters and politicians who toss the word around with utter recklessness." But, as defensive, whiny and illogical as his arguments were, Schiavo still has his followers.

There was also a political movement in the early 1970s, claiming to represent Italian-American interests, which denied the existence of the Mafia in the United States and challenged government agencies to rid themselves of the ethnic bias behind their belief in such an organization. (Interestingly, the instigator of that movement, Joe Colombo, is known to us today as a Mafia boss and a member of the national crime syndicate's ruling Commission.)

What is the Mafia?

If we are to determine whether an American Mafia exists, it is important for us to decide what "Mafia" means and then to see if that term is appropriately applied to some layer of American society.

At its most basic, the word "mafia" conveys to the Sicilian and Italian a sense of freedom of spirit and sophisticated style and grace.

At its most basic, the word "mafia" conveys to the Sicilian and Italian a sense of freedom of spirit and sophisticated style and grace. There are numerous insufficient explanations for how the term came to be applied to the secret criminal society - a close relation to and possible outgrowth of the Italian Camorra - which came to life on the Mediterranean island of Sicily.

In one often cited explanation, the title of Mafia is derived from the first letters of each word in "Morte alla Francia Italia anela" (Death to French, Italy cries). This statement was allegedly made during a 1282 rebellion in Palermo against French occupiers. The problems with this account are many. If the reader will grant me a few minutes, I would like to settle this particular issue before moving on.

In the first place, the reference to "Italia" is all wrong. Italy was regarded at the time as a geographic feature - a peninsula - not a nation. The peninsula was divided up into numerous individual states, many controlled by other European nations. The use of "Italy" in a rallying cry seems not to have occurred until the unification efforts of the 1800s. The Sicilian Vespers revolt of 1282 might have included a rallying cry to "Sicily" or - more likely - to "Palermo," but mentioning "Italy" would have been nonsensical.

The reference to "Francia" is similarly inappropriate. The Sicilians and southern Italians of the time were certainly aware that they were occupied not by "France" at all, but by "Anjou." The Second House of Anjou, apparently no relation to the First House which dominated sections of France and much of Britain many years earlier, was given the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1266 by the pope. The Angevins controlled those areas as well as Anjou and Provence in France, but did not rule France itself. They did not consider themselves French and were not considered by others to be French. For a Sicilian opposed to Angevin occupation to declare "Death to the French" would have represented a vast widening of the conflict ahead of him.

If you subsitute Angevin for Francia and Palermo for Italia in the rebellious sentence quoted above, you will find that abbreviating it yields nothing even close to "Mafia."

Giuseppe Mazzini

Another account of the term's creation insists that it was an abbreviation for a revolutionary command from Giuseppe Mazzini to wreak havoc across the Sicilian countryside around 1850. Mazzini was known to be affiliated with a number of secret societies and to have founded some. But it seems far more likely that he fit his command to the existing term "Mafia" rather than fashioned the term from his command.

In any event, the Mafia organization within Sicily that can be traced at least as far back as the 1800s and perhaps all the way back to the 1200s (or earlier) has certain well-defined characteristics:

- An initiation rite into the Sicilian brotherhood involves fire and the spilling and combining of blood by the initiate and a member. The completion of the initiation may require a murder to be performed.

-Members are sworn to secrecy upon penalty of death.

-Omerta, or a determined non-cooperation with governmental authority, is adopted as a personal code of morality.

-A feudal hierarchical system is used with connections between members often referred to in family terms: "uncle," "father," etc.

-The personal execution of a vendetta is the means for resolving disputes.

In addition to those characteristics, the Mafia in Sicily has existed and continues to exist by criminal activity. And, in its most benevolent manifestation, the Mafia provides leadership and aid to Sicilians who are in need, particularly those facing hostile or uncooperative governmental institutions.

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