The most striking features of Sicilian history in liberal Italy (1861–1922) are the development of the Mafia, peasant unrest, and the great migration to America. These three phenomena coalesced with peculiar dramatic unity in the 1890s in an ill-fated peasant movement known as the Sicilian Fasci (Leagues).
Most Sicilian peasants were outsiders in liberal Italy. They lacked the right to vote because they were poor and illiterate. (Suffrage was limited to property holders and those who could read and write.) They lacked market opportunities because the main source of employment, wheat farming, was dominated by the owners of vast estates (latifondi). Sicily became a social tinderbox in the early 1890s, when the national government granted radical freedoms—the rights to strike and to emigrate—without enacting suffrage and land reform to make peasants stakeholders in society.
The leagues' rise occurred between 1892 and 1893, during Giovanni Giolitti's first tenure as prime minister, a brief period when government tolerated an independent labor movement in the south. A handful of charismatic Sicilian socialists—among them Bernardino Verro in Corleone (heart-land of latifondi and the Mafia)—rapidly founded the leagues, a federation of scores of workers' and peasants' associations. Impatient with the caution of artisans and workers in the coastal cities, the socialists made a strategic turn to the peasantry in the agrotowns of Sicily's harsh interior in 1893, sparking a four-month strike over agrarian contracts on the latifondi—modern Italy's first great peasant strike. Corleone quickly became the strategic center of the peasant movement and the epicenter of the strike wave thanks to Verro's charisma and hard-nosed choices, including alliances with mafiosi.
On the eve of the strike, Verro accepted overtures from a Mafia group in Corleone, I Fratuzzi (Little Brothers) and became a member in order to give the strike teeth and protect himself from harm. He then placed several mafiosi, including a capomafia (the president of I Fratuzzi), on the Corleone league's executive committee. Concurrently, Verro recruited prominent mafiosi, notably Vito Cascio Ferro and Nunzio Giaimo, to senior positions in leagues in other towns.
Attorney General Giuseppe Sensales captured the logic of the situation: "The leaders of the Leagues, in order to induce the landowners to yield, decided to strike. However, this expedient, which works whenever there are strike funds, war chests for supporting the strikers, could not deliver any results in Sicily, where the peasants lack such means. Therefore [the Leagues] tried to achieve their aim by means of intimidation and material violence. And so one witnessed arson, destruction of property, dispersion of manure, and similar crimes" (p. 313). These crimes were committed with impunity thanks to collusion with mafiosi and the attendant omertà (code of silence). More broadly, the alliance with mafiosi made the leagues' threats credible. A Sicilian proverb of the period states, "If he can take what you have, give him what he wants."
If local mafia groups gave the leagues sharper teeth, the leagues gave broader structure to the mafia, which before then had been a very loosely integrated phenomenon. Palermo police commissioner Lucchesi observed that "crime has reached alarming levels, and I firmly believe that this state of affairs derives indeed from the Leagues' baleful action, for the underworld and the mafia have thereby become regimented and thus more effective at imposing themselves and in assuring impunity for perpetrators" (quoted in Alcorn 1999, pp. 272–273).
Authorities in Sicily, disoriented by the unprecedented unrest and hamstrung by omertà, had persistent difficulty in figuring out the movement's true aims. After nerve-wracking twists and turns in the strike, government mediation produced a compromise settlement, which soon collapsed because of overbidding by the leagues, which demanded "written acts of submission" from landowners. Faced with a challenge to their status on top of wage concessions, landowners responded with a lockout, despite widespread vandalism. Many peasants, probably a majority in the strike centers, were left without tenancies when the planting season ended in late November. At the same time, Giolitti's government fell, finally overtaken by a festering bank scandal.
In mid-December, during the transition to Francesco Crispi's new strongman government, the leagues lost control of the peasant movement as wildfires of protest against the dazio consumo—a despised excise tax on food and drink, levied at points of entry to the agrotowns—emerged in towns surrounding Palermo. The chaotic rebellion spread to the latifondo zone and beyond in late December. In a fateful shift from conflict with landowners over agrarian contracts to direct conflict with the state over taxes, crowds burned down tax-collection stations, pillaged government offices, and stoned troops, who in several instances fired upon demonstrators, killing scores. In January 1894, Crispi, unable to devise a peaceful solution, imposed martial law in Sicily and suppressed the leagues. Mafioso Nunzio Giaimo attempted to launch an insurrection, but repression and reaction held sway. Crispi tried to compensate the peasantry in two ways. First he proposed a land reform bill that went nowhere in the parliament of property holders, then he attempted a conquest of Ethiopia in 1896, partly in the hope of satisfying the peasantry's land hunger through colonial emigration, but he suffered humiliating military defeat.
The peasantry, left to its own devices by the leagues' defeat and by Crispi's failures, turned to emigration. Among the first to leave Corleone for America were mafiosi involved with the leagues. Vito Cascio Ferro, perhaps the most prominent mafioso in the movement, managed to pressure authorities in Palermo to put him in charge of granting emigration permits in the district of Corleone. Revolutionary mafiosi became pioneers and intermediaries of emigration, which quickly accelerated through the mechanisms of chain migration and became a flood at the turn of the century.
Alcorn, John. Social Strife in Sicily, 1892–1894: The Rise and Fall of Peasant Leagues on the Latifondo before the Great Emigration. New York, 1999.
——. "Revolutionary Mafiosi: Voice and Exit in the 1890s." In L'associazionismo a Corleone: Un'inchiesta storica e sociologica, edited by Paolo Viola and Titti Morello. Palermo, 2004. Archival documents, transcribed and annotated, pp. 1–93.
Renda, Francesco. I Fasci siciliani, 1892–94. Turin, 1977.
Rizzo, Rosanna. "Bernardino Verro: Luci e ombre di un dirigente contadino." In L'associazionismo a Corleone: Un'inchiesta storica e sociologica, edited by Paolo Viola and Titti Morello. Palermo, 2004.
Romano, Salvatore Francesco. Storia dei Fasci siciliani. Bari, Italy, 1959.
Sensales, Giuseppe. "Appunti sui Fasci dei Lavoratori." 1893. In Fasci dei lavoratori (Saggi e Documenti), by Massimo S. Ganci, 291–381. Caltanissetta-Rome, 1977.