Mafia/Organized Crime

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Mafia/Organized Crime

From the 1920s onward, the Mafia, and organized crime in general, have retained a hold on the popular imagination. Bank robbers, bootleggers, and Mafia dons have received considerable press, not all unfavorable. Cast as anti-heroes, fictional and real-life mobsters like Al Capone, Vito Corleone, and John Gotti have often been portrayed in a sympathetic light. Drawn with a romantic touch, literary and cinematic Mafiosi, in particular, have been depicted as honorable men, in their own fashion. Their luxurious life-styles have enabled them to serve as anti-Horatio Alger exemplars of the American Dream. The Mafia's appeal is often ambivalent, as exemplified by the fate that generally befalls even the greatest of the Dons. Nevertheless, it suggests the subversive potential that popular culture possesses: its ability to provoke, incite, or agitate, while challenging established verities.

Organized criminal groups have had a long history in American society. Among the most popular were outlaw bands that ran with the Reno brothers in Indiana or with Jesse James and Cole Younger, who operated out of Missouri, following the Civil War. Dime novels written in the latter stages of the nineteenth century, songs written by the likes of Woody Guthrie several decades later, and films starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, attested to the staying power of the outlaw image of Jesse and Frank James. The Mafia, author Stephen Fox contends, first emerged in New Orleans following the Civil War, headed by Joseph Macheca, whose parents were Sicilian immigrants. During the 1880s, control of Mafia operations in the city was taken over by Charles and Tony Matranga, who engaged in a power struggle with the Provenzano family.

Around the turn of the century, Irish, Jewish, and "native American" criminal societies still remained largely rooted in their own communities. In Chicago, syndicates controlled criminal activity, led by Mont Tennes's gambling ring and James "Big Jim" Colosimo's saloons and prostitution dens. In New York, police lieutenant Charles Becker wielded his vice squad to ensure protection payments. While no national organization had yet emerged, talk soon abounded of conspiratorial fixes of one kind or another. Such scuttlebutt thrived in the wake of the 1919 World Series, in which several members of the heavily favored Chicago White Sox cast their lot with gamblers to ensure Chicago's defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds. The "Big Fixer" was reputed to be New York gambler Arnold Rothstein, later immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

"He's a gambler," Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: "He's the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919."

"Fixed the World Series?" I repeated. The idea staggered me. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the singlemindedness of a burglar blowing a safe. "How did he happen to do that?" I asked after a minute.

"He just saw the opportunity."

"Why isn't he in jail?"

"They can't get him, old sport. He's a smart man."

A different kind of fix cropped up as the Volstead Act, which officially ushered in Prohibition, became effective on the morning of January 7, 1920. For the first time, illegal commodities began to be distributed on a nationwide basis, while the numbers of syndicates mushroomed. Smuggling, moon-shining, and bootlegging all thrived. Important too was Benito Mussolini's takeover of power in Italy, his efforts to reign in the Mafia, and the migration of Mafiosi—such as Joe Bonanno and Joe Profaci—to the United States. Major east coast syndicates—the "Big Seven"—were headed by underworld chieftains like Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Frank Costello, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and Meyer Lansky. Most, along with Al Capone and important syndicate figures from the Midwest, appeared in Atlantic City in 1929 to attend what some analysts refer to as organized crime's first national convention; others point to a 1928 meeting in Cleveland featuring mobsters from the East, South, and Midwest. Ties to political machines continued, with Italians, Poles, and other groups joining the Irish in establishing such connections. In Chicago, Capone performed that function for Italians and Sicilians. By the mid-1920s, Capone supplanted Johnny Torrio as the head of a vast syndicate. New York's top underworld figure was Giuseppe "The Boss" Masseria, who ran vice operations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In 1930, Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano battled for control of the Italian underworld. Maranzano agreed to end a crime war, provided that Masseria's lieutenants, Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, murdered their chieftain. Luciano then orchestrated the killing of Maranzano, who was demanding allegiance from family bosses nationwide. Subsequently, Luciano spearheaded policy, narcotic, and prostitution syndicates. With Prohibition's repeal, crime bosses also took control of several liquor dealerships.

Throughout this era, organized crime had a hand in a host of entertainment venues. Gangsters controlled top nightclubs such as Chicago's Grand Terrace, Harlem's Cotton Club, and Kansas City jazz joints along Twelfth and Eighteen Streets; connected managers also shepherded musical greats like Duke Ellington and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Mobsters were likewise involved in the fight game, including boxing's most prestigious division before Joe Louis captured the heavyweight crown in 1937. Long afterwards, fixes, real and imagined, were hinted at throughout professional boxing, involving such luminaries as Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and Sonny Liston. The same held true for horse racing, with federal agents discovering in 1934 that over 300 horses had received narcotic injections to induce faster performances. Wielding his racing sheets and the Nationwide News Service that reported on developments at the tracks, Moe Annenberg became a powerful organized crime figure, before serving time for tax evasion. The New York Daily Mirror's gossip columnist Walter Winchell constantly received tidbits from mobsters like Capone and Frank Costello. Damon Runyon, William Randolph Hearst's top feature writer, penned tales like Guys and Dolls —eventually a Broadway and Hollywood smash—that portrayed mobsters as amiable in their own fashion. Entertainers prone to gambling, such as Joe E. Lewis, George Raft, and Milton Berle, became associated with connected figures.

In the early 1930s, as the Great Depression afflicted the American landscape, a series of well-received gangster films were released by Hollywood, some based on real-life events and underworld elements. Gangsters appeared in the guise of truck-drivers, slum kids, Italian immigrants, and stockyard laborers, in such films as Quick Millions and The Secret Six. The tales of Tommy Powers, played by Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy, Tony Camonte, starring Paul Muni in Scarface, and Rico, performed by Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, read like the rise and fall of organized crime figures. Tommy emerged from the Irish ghetto, determined to live by his wits and to have it all: expensive clothes, sleek cars, and penthouses. Tony, a Capone-like character, took over from his Torrio-styled boss, before his own human frailties doomed him. Rico ascended to the very top of the organized crime ladder, but was felled by hubris, "a figure out of a Greek epic tragedy," as Mordaunt Hall, a New York Times film critic, referred to him. The gangster film's early heyday was 1930-1932, but its impact lingered, as exemplified by its cynical, rapid-fire, topical quality, as well as its sharp dialogue and naturalistic approach. Gangsterism remained a popular genre, with over 900 such films purportedly made before 1970. Robinson and Cagney alone appeared in 29 and 16 gangster films, respectively.

While FBI director J. Edgar Hoover continued to deny the existence of organized crime, some of its top figures faced criminal indictments. In late 1931, Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison for tax evasion, a prosecution assisted by prominent Chicago businessmen; in public folklore, Elliot Ness and his "Untouchables," later immortalized in the television series of the same name, brought Capone down. Five years later, Luciano began serving a 30-50 year sentence, a conviction obtained by New York City district attorney Thomas E. Dewey. During that same period, legends regarding the crime-fighting prowess of the Bureau of Investigation—renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935—mushroomed, with Hoover receiving considerable positive press as the nation's "Number One G-Man." That reputation hardly resulted from the FBI's efforts in reigning in organized crime, but rather drew from tales of its agents's encounters with bank robbers like Charles "Baby Face" Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger.

Organized crime's reach widened, with a focus on gambling, labor racketeering, loan-shark operations, narcotics, and prostitution. Increasingly, profits garnered from such illegal activities were invested in legitimate or semi-legitimate businesses, including hotels, restaurants, and entertainment enterprises. In Louisiana, Florida, and Nevada, mobsters from back east set up plush gambling casinos. Costello and Dany Phil Kastel constructed the Beverly Club, just outside of New Orleans. In Miami Beach, Costello, Lansky, Siegel, and Joe Adonis financed the Colonial Inn, another gambling showcase. Throughout the Miami Beach area, Costello also took control of horse tracks, dog tracks, and bookie joints. He purchased real estate, bars, hotels, restaurants, a radio station, and other commercial enterprises. Capone's influence spread through the Midwest and on to Dallas, Texas, where the newly elected sheriff, Steve Guthrie, was promised an annual income of $150,000 to allow "clean" operations to thrive. These included "horse booking, slot machines, dice, numbers, everything." While Guthrie refused to go along, a Chicago hoodlum, Jacob Rubenstein—who referred to himself as Jack Ruby—remained in town. Las Vegas acquired still greater allure for mobsters, including Siegel, Lansky, and Capone. Among the hotels organized crime helped to establish were the Flamingo, the Desert Inn, the Thunderbird, the Sands, the Riviera, the Stardust, the Dunes, and the Tropicana.

During World War II and its aftermath, the federal government's response to organized crime proved highly contradictory. In 1945, Dewey, now serving as governor of New York, commuted Luciano's sentence, allegedly because the mob boss had helped to prevent sabotage on the docks. Then in 1950, Estes Kefauver, chairman of the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in the United States, began holding public hearings throughout the land. Reliance on the Fifth Amendment—"I decline to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me"—hardly served the organized figures well. Televised hearings, watched by an estimated 30 million viewers, captured mobsters like Costello, now head of the family previously spearheaded by Genovese and Luciano, and his unsteady hands. The Kefauver committee reported dealings between Costello and top New York City politicians, including former district attorney and mayor William O'Dwyer. Costello was convicted of contempt of Congress and tax evasion. Writing in The Nation in early 1957, Sidney Lens discussed the overall makeup of organized crime: "It is a loose federation, highly centralized in some respects (such as dealing out 'justice' to its traitors), but decentralized in execution of business ventures…. It is certainly not a membership organization. It is more of a loosely-knit force with tens of thousands of 'fellow-travelers."'

Talk of a more elaborate crime structure soon developed. A police raid in Apalachin, New York, in November 1957, resulted in the holding of Genovese, Joe Bonanno, Carlo Gambino, and several other syndicate big-shots. Promises of deportations and tax examinations proved illusory, but a conspiracy trial began in May 1959 involving many of the participants at the Apalachin gathering. The issue of ethnicity was not far from the surface as indicated by a Newsweek analysis: "Actually, the old Mafia, with its blood feuds and black hands, has changed. It no longer is the Murder, Inc., division that enforced mob discipline … The nation's crime syndicates are not directed by a sort of underworld holding company. The group doesn't call itself the Mafia, but others do, because most of the top executives are Sicilians and other southern Italians." The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations headed by John McClellan explored organized crime's ties to labor organizations, particularly the Teamsters; John F. Kennedy was a member of the subcommittee, while his younger brother Robert served as chief counsel. Discussion of the Mafia appeared more frequently in popular publications, while academic explorations of the subject heightened. The Enemy Within, written by Robert F. Kennedy, was published in 1960, relating his involvement with McClellan's subcommittee while focusing on Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. In 1963, Joseph Valachi, testifying before McClellan's subcommittee, traced the evolution of organized crime—which he referred to as the Cosa Nostra—while focusing on developments in New York City. Valachi also discussed the Apalachin meeting, reputedly held by the Mafia's Grand Council or the Commission of the Cosa Nostra, thus seemingly verifying organized crime's existence. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, talk of organized crime involvement proliferated, including participation by Louisiana don Carlos Marcello.

Following Valachi's testimony, media interest in the Mafia immediately heightened once more, and a firestorm arose regarding publication of The Valachi Papers. Charges that ethnic groups—particularly Italians and Jews—were being slandered arose, and 22 publishers turned down Maas's book before Putnam agreed to print it in 1969. It proved to be a bestseller, as did another book published that year: Mario Puzo's The Godfather. In contrast to Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled approach, Puzo devised a businessman protagonist who ran any number of illegal enterprises. Simply put, Puzo's heroic anti-hero controlled a Mafia organization, and he did so relying on longstanding relationships and family—blood—ties. Puzo's approach involved returning to earlier characterizations of organized crime as ethnically-driven. Shaped by a distinctive Italianness, The Godfather also employed, as Dwight C. Smith, Jr. noted, the word "Mafia" scores of times, "mafioso" eleven times, and "cosa nostra" twice. The Godfather traced Vito Corleone's rise to organized crime preeminence, and the syndicate's subsequent takeover by his son Michael, the reluctant new Don, who proved to be as ruthless as his father. Reviewers perceived the book to be about "America's most powerful and least understood subculture, the Mafia." Fred Cook insisted that "if anyone wants to know about the power of the Mafia … Mario Puzo's brawling, irresistible tale brings the reality home more vividly and realistically than the drier stuff of fact ever can…. The Godfather is deeply imbedded in reality." But most important, Smith argued, was why The Godfather resonated so fully. "Its success was a matter of timing. The public was ripe for a book that would demonstrate the 'reality' of the twenty-year campaign of the law-enforcement community to depict organized crime as an evil, alien, conspiratorial entity comprised of Italians bearing the 'Mafia' label."

While the first two cinematic-versions of The Godfather proved to be huge commercial and artistic successes, the return of the gangster genre had not awaited Puzo's best-selling novel. Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967, and portrayed Depression-era bank-robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, played by a radiant Faye Dunaway and the dashing Warren Beaty, in a heroic light. However, the box-office smashes that Godfathers I and II proved to be, in addition to Francis Ford Coppolla's receipt of best Oscars for film direction in 1972 and 1974, resulted in a new spate of gangster films like The Untouchables and GoodFellas.

Also appearing, in books and on film, were the memoirs of organized crime figures, including those of Joe Bonanno, Jimmy the Weasel Fratianno, Willie Sutton, and others. Before 1980, only Valachi and Fratianno had reneged on the Mafia code of silence or omerta ; Gay Talese's 1971 book, Honor Thy Father, had benefited from a series of interviews undertaken with Joe Bonanno's son Bill, a crime figure in his own right. Now, an increasing number of figures did so, including Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, one-time lieutenant of the Gambino crime family, and other high ranking members of various families.

From the 1970s onward, organized crime spread its tentacles still further, delving into child prostitution, banking, and environmental schemes. Reports indicated, however, that the Mafia's influence had lessened, thanks to defections by key players-turned government witnesses, deadly internecine squabbles, and concerted prosecutorial action by local and federal officials. Newer bands of organized criminals emerged, including outlaw motorcycle groups, black gangs, and new immigrant groups. The bikers specialized in synthetic drugs popular during the period, including speed, PCP, and LSD. At the same time, black hoodlums shifted from gambling to drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Southeast Asian, Caribbean, South American, and Eastern European groups, among others, also became involved in the sale of narcotics and arms. All appeared in cinematic guise as foils for top stars like Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Harrison Ford, and Michael Douglas.

—Robert C. Cottrell

Further Reading:

Albini, Joseph L. The American Mafia: Genesis of a Legend. New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971.

Blumenthal, Ralph. Last Days of the Sicilians: The FBI's War against the Mafia. New York, Pocket Books, 1989.

Bonavolonta, Jules, and Brian Duffy. The Good Guys: How We Turned the FBI 'Round—and Finally Broke the Mob. New York, Simon and Schuster Trade, 1995.

Breslin, Jimmy. The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight. New York, Little Brown, 1997.

Davis, John H. Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Crime Family. New York, Harper Collins, 1993.

Fox, Stephen. Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth-Century America. New York, William Morrow, 1989.

Hess, Henner. Mafia and Mafiosi: Origin, Power, and Myth. New York, New York University Press, 1998.

Homer, Frederic D. Guns and Garlic: Myths and Realities of Organized Crime. West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue University Press, 1974.

Jacobs, James B., Jay Worthington, and Christopher Panarella. Busting the Mob: United States v. Cosa Nostra. New York, New York University Press, 1996.

Maas, Peter, ed. The Valachi Papers. New York, Bantam Books, 1968.

Mintz, Steven, and Randy Roberts. Hollywood's America: United States History through Its Films. St. James, New York, Brandywine Press, 1996.

Ryan, Patrick J., and George E. Rush. Understanding Organized Crime in Global Perspective: A Reader. Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications, 1997.

Smith, Dwight C., Jr. The Mafia Mystique. New York, Basic Books, 1975.

Talese, Gay. Honor Thy Father. New York, World Publishing, 1971.