Introduction to the history of U.S. organized crime

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Introduction: The Sicilian adjective "mafiusu" (Italian "mafioso," possibly derived from Arabic) has traditionally been used to describe men who exhibit bold independence, gallantry and swagger. The term evolved over time, becoming a noun and referring to a member of a secret network of men who eagerly took the law into their own hands. By the second half of the 19th Century, official law enforcement in Sicily recognized "Mafia" as the name of that network. Mafia was described as a powerful, historic (in legend, dating as far back as the Sicilian Vespers rebellion of 1282) and widespread conspiracy that served as a sort of shadow government in the western portion of the island. This official recognition appeared related to violent rivalries between underworld sects and cooperation of some of the warring elements with official agencies. It was said that Mafia, once a secret fraternal order similar in composition and republican objectives to Freemasonry, had degenerated into a largely criminal society while retaining the trappings of an honorable ancient order.

In this period, some Mafia organizations established colonies in the continents of the Western Hemisphere, bringing Old World policies, allegiances and rivalries with them. Branch offices sprang up in American cities, such as New Orleans, San Francisco and New York. For a time, these maintained close relationships with their home-office Sicilian cities, and members of the Sicilian fraternity were recognized as "mafiusi" by U.S. groups.

As Sicilian immigrants moved into various U.S. locations in search of opportunity, the underworld agents of their Old Country hometowns followed. In many cases, mafiosi provided new Sicilian-Americans with employment, housing, banking, grocery and transportation services, but established costly and coercive monopolies over those needed services. In addition, mafiosi monopolized vice enterprises, and some engaged in the "Black Hand" racket of obtaining payments through threatened violence and/or acts of kidnapping, bombing and murder.

By about 1900, the growing and spreading U.S. Mafia organizations established a system for resolving disputes among them and elected a single capo dei capi (boss of the bosses) to oversee that system. This may be viewed as the birth of a distinct "American Mafia" network, though strong connections remained to the parent organizations across the Atlantic.

Regional consolidation of rival Sicilian-American Mafia organizations occurred, often in a bloody fashion, forming larger, hierarchical "crime families" (which local members referred to by such names as "mob," "outfit," "cosa nostra," "combination," "partnership,"... Similar Neapolitan and Calabrian underworld organizations were absorbed, and alliances were formed with non-Italian criminal groups.

The consolidation/alliance process accelerated in the Prohibition Era, as there were enormous cash incentives for streamlining criminal enterprises focused on illegal liquor sales and for eliminating bootlegging competitors. The process completed with the end of the Mafia's 1930-1931 Castellammarese War, the acceptance of coherent and uniformly constituted organized crime families in U.S. cities and the subsequent adoption of the Commission, a representative form of dispute resolution that replaced the tyranny of the capo dei capi.

As the Commission took shape, the American Mafia reportedly declared itself entirely separate from its Sicilian precursors. Some historians and law enforcement officials marked this separation by referring to the independent U.S. organization by a different name. (Oddly, one of the suggested names was "Unione Siciliana," the title of an old Sicilian fraternity in the U.S. Midwest.) Under J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation settled on "La Cosa Nostra" (abbreviated "LCN") as its preferred term.

While targeted by local U.S. law enforcement since the late 19th Century and by federal law enforcement agencies since the mid-20th Century, elements of the American Mafia linger to this day.


This website attempts to uncover the important individuals, events and locations in the history of the American Mafia, to dispel the false legends that have risen about that history, to offer plausible explanations for lingering mysteries and to direct interested readers to valuable resources.

The site includes feature articles on interesting events, trends and personalities (most of these articles include source citations); collections of underworld slang and nicknames; biographies of important crime figures, lawmen and informants; discussions of crime family leadership successions; maps of often-mentioned locations; timelines of Mafia-related events; links to government document collections and other informative online sites; reviews of crime history books; as well as a site search feature, an extensive bibliography, a discussion forum and a blog that chronicles site changes.