Basics of the Mob: A Beginner’s Guide (Part 1)

Listen to audio-version only:

Introduction

Hello everybody and welcome to the second episode of The Members Only Podcast. I am your host, Jacob Stoops, and I’m a long-time history buff and mob aficionado.

If you’re a new listener, let me give you the run-down of what this podcast is all about. 

Over the coming weeks and months, my goal is to tell the true-crime biographies of real-life mobsters and dive deep into the plots, sub-plots, and real facts behind Cosa Nostra, as well as popular mob films and television shows. 

If that is of interest to you, I’d love it if you’d Like and Subscribe to my YouTube channel to get the latest updates as new episodes are released!

Also, if you’re someone who’d rather listen to just the audio version, you can find my podcast on most podcasting platforms, but of course the main ones are Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Castbox, and Stitcher! I’ve got a few other submissions pending on some additional platforms, but the main ones should be covered. 

I will say that the YouTube version is going to have more rich content, images, videos, and of course my beautiful face, but if you’d rather hear me than see me – I 100% understand! You wouldn’t be the first person to have that opinion. 🙂 That being said, if you’d listen and share with your friends or family to help me get the word out, I’d be in your debt.

A few additional callouts before we get into this episode. 

1) I haven’t fully decided on the different levels of membership, but I have started a Patreon channel so that people can donate to the show. I’ll probably be splitting things out into 2-3 layers of membership, each level coming with its own benefits. I’m thinking of maybe a Soldier level, Caporegime, and Underboss with each layer having a higher level of benefit. Just be on the lookout for that – any donations will be put directly back into continuing to produce the show and/or potentially a charity. I haven’t decided just yet. So stay tuned.

2) I’ve created a merchandise store using a 3rd-party service called Teespring. So if you’d like to buy Members Only Podcast branding items, you can do so by visiting my website which is online at www.membersonlypodcast.com, with the link to my Teespring store being directly in the top-navigation labeled ‘Merch.’ Please note that the website is still a work in progress, but when you’re a one-man army like myself, these things take time. Again, similar to what I’ll be doing on Patreon, any money the store makes will be reinvested back into the show’s production costs as well as potentially a charity at some point in the future. As of now, the merchandise is simply Members Only Podcast branded-clothing, but my hope is to expand into other types of swag as well as to design some cool custom t-shirts. I’m planning to do a series with old gangster mugshots, so imagine a Lucky Luciano mugshot t-shirt coming down the pipe as that one will probably be first on my list.

3) I’ll be doing more gangster biographies in the upcoming weeks and months and my plan is to focus on people that are lesser known. If you have any suggestions at all on who I should cover, or want to get in touch with me to provide feedback or keep the conversation going, you can email the show at membersonlypodcastshow@gmail.com. That’s membersonlypodcastshow@gmail.com. I’ll be building a pretty robust schedule, so if you want your person to get in, send me an email and I’ll see what I can do.

Okay, so on to today’s show.

After releasing the first episode, I asked for feedback from a few of my friends and family members on what was good, what stunk, and what things I could do to make the show better. And boy did you guys not disappoint, so I’m hoping to take some of the constructive criticisms to make the show better.

The biggest thing that stood out was the need for a primer episode on the American Mob. While a certain percentage of my audience will be people who have a more extensive knowledge-based, some of my listeners are hearing some of the history and lingo for the first time. So in the first episode when I pretty much dove right into a highly-detailed and advanced story around the rise of Tommy Gagliano, my use of terms like “getting his button” and even things as basic as the names of the mob families kind of went over some of my listener’s heads.

So this episode will be geared at providing a high-level 101-style overview of the American mob dating back to its beginnings up to present time. We’ll also be covering the lingo and what certain things mean.

My hope is that we can kind of set the table some foundational info and then in the future anyone who needs a quick download to catch up on the basics can simply just refer back to this episode series. This way when we tackle some of the future episodes – which will get very advanced at times – it won’t go over your head as much.

As there is a TON to cover, we’ll be doing this in two shows.

So let’s get started with Part I….

Where did the American Mob come from?

Probably the first and most obvious question is, where did the American Mob come from?

The answer is Italy, and more specifically Sicily.

If you want to read more about the origins of the mafia, I highly recommend you read Selwyn Raab’s book “Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Empires” as it’s probably THE BEST and most comprehensive book ever written on the New York families.

Here’s a quick excerpt from the book on the origins of the Italian mafia:

“To the casual traveler, Sicily for centuries was an enchanted land, one of the most pleasant places on earth to live. It was comforting to be seduced by the island’s inordinately gracious people, sunny weather, alluring palm trees, and 

the delicate fragrance of its orange and lemon blossoms.”

“But those intoxicating, superficial impressions were largely a mirage. For over two thousand years, most of Sicily’s population endured tyranny and suppression under foreign conquerors and feudal overlords.”

“From ancient times until the mid-nineteenth century, the nine-thousand-square-mile island was

raided, invaded, and even traded-actually exchanged for other territories – by foreign rulers. Sicily’s strategic and vulnerable location, almost in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, close to southern Italy and North Africa, subjected it to an endless succession of occupation and oppression by Phoenicians, Greeks,Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, French,Spanish, Austrian, and finally hostile Italian armies.”

“Sicilians survived these occupations by developing a culture rooted in two basic concepts: contempt for and suspicion of governmental authorities; and tight-knit alliances with blood relatives and with fellow countrymen facing the same perils.”

“Analyzing the fundamental siege mentality of large numbers of Sicilians from the vantage point of the twentieth century, Luigi Barzini, in his book The Italians, observed: “They are taught in the cradle, or are born already knowing, that they must aid each other, side with their friends and fight the common enemy even when the friends are wrong and the enemies are right; each must defend his dignity at all costs and never allow the smallest slights and insults to unavenged; they must keep secrets, and always beware of official authorities and laws.”

“Over time, these historical and cultural underpinnings spawned furtive clans in Sicilian dialect, cosche, for self-preservation against perceived corrupt oppressors. Without the security of reliable public institutions to protect them or their property, the clans, which were mainly in the countryside, relied on stealth, compromise, and vendetta to extract private justice.”

“Eventually, the secret cosche became commonly labeled in Sicily by a single name: Mafia. Over hundreds of years, they evolved from guerrilla-like, disorganized bands for self-defense into greedy, terrifying gangs, whose basic concepts and guiding principles would extend, with profound influence, far across the seas to America.”

So this is where it all started. Eventually, mafia clans in Sicily grew in power after the unification of Italy in which Sicily became a part of Italy, and through a collaboration with the Catholic Church in Rome, became a force to be reckoned with and even a second government. From this Sicily became a bastion for the Mafia and remains there even today.”

Another excerpt from Five Families:

“After Italy’s unification, in Sicily the most prevalent image of the typical mafiosi was that of the unsparing enforcer with a lupara, a sawed-off shotgun, slung over his shoulder, eager to exact Mafia-style justice.”

“In the late nineteenth century, the strongest cosche sought to solidify their power and resist encroachments from rival families by adopting a new practice: the ritual of the loyalty blood oath of omertà. Once inducted, a new member considered himself in the select ranks of the onorato società, or honored society, and as a “Man of Honor” and “Man of Respect” he could mockingly boast, “The King of Italy might rule the island but men of my tradition govern it.””

“The ambivalent reverence and fear inspired by cach clan was epitomized by the Sicilian folklore authority and supernationalist Giuseppe Pitre: “Mafia is the force of the individual, intolerance toward the arrogance of others,” Pitre wrote misguidedly at the turn of the century. “Mafia unites the idea of beauty with superiority and valor in the best sense of the word, and sometimes more awareness of being a man, sureness of soul and audacity but never arrogance, never haughtiness.”

Why did the mob come to America?

So when we get to the late 19th century and early 20th century, the open-door immigration policies of the United States were particularly attractive for Italians, especially Sicilians peasants who were looking to escape the economic and social hardships of Sicily at the time.

It’s worth noting that between 1890 and 1920, approximately 4 million Italian and Sicilian immigrants came to the United States and as with any large ethnic migration, some of them were or would become criminals, and some were mafia members running from the law or fleeing vendettas.

And what do they do when they get here? They set up shop and bring their traditions and culture with them. And for Sicilians, part of that culture is deeply rooted in family and an almost clannish nature – all of which are hallmarks of the Sicilian mafia.

Side-fact: When you think of the mass immigration in the early 19th century, the first place most people think of is typically New York. However, the first documented cases of Mafia in the United States was actually in New Orleans around 1890, but we’ll do a story on that at another time.

The issue that most Italians would run into is that places like New York City and other big cities were not that much different from what they were fleeing, and quite honestly the conditions they arrived to were possibly worse. The streets of New York were most certainly not paved with gold, and Italians at the time faced systemic racism most specifically from Irish, there were no jobs, and the jobs that were available were back-breaking and the wages were too low to feed the average Italian family – which was typically very large. So the conditions were horrible, and Italians were not left with a lot of choices – it’s either engage in criminal activity or starve to death.

While most simply go into the low-wage labor force, many of the experienced criminals pick up where they left off in Sicily. And for some of the youths of the time, your Frank Costello’s, Lucky Luciano’s, Vito Genovese’s, they saw the poverty of their family on one hand, and the “men of respect” in the neighborhood making big money, wearing fancy clothing, and who did not seem like they had a job and they say to themselves, I want to do what they’re doing. To forego poverty, and live the high life.

So as a start many of them join street gangs.

According to NationalGangCenter.gov, “Gang emergence in the Northeast and Midwest was fueled by immigration and poverty, first by two waves of poor, largely white families from Europe. Seeking a better life, the early immigrant groups mainly settled in urban areas and formed communities to join each other in the economic struggle. Unfortunately, they had few marketable skills. Difficulties in finding work and a place to live and adjusting to urban life were equally common among the European immigrants. Anglo native-born Americans discriminated against these immigrants as well. Conflict was therefore imminent, and gangs grew in such environments.”

“The Five Points Gang was particularly influential, such that it is said to be “the most significant street gang to form in the United States, ever!” Its co-leader, Johnny Torrio, became a significant member of the Sicilian Mafia (La Cosa Nostra). He recruited street hoodlums from across New York City to the Five Points Gang, including a teenaged Brooklyn boy of Italian descent named Alphonse Capone, better known as Al Capone or “Scarface.” Capone became a member of the James Street Gang, which the Five Pointers considered a minor-league outfit. The Five Points Gang became the major league to many young street gangsters and a farm club for the Mafia.

The gang also specialized in supplying bodies to political entities, in keeping unsympathetic voters away from the election center. It was a symbiotic relationship; each group benefited from the influence of the other.”

In addition to the trend in gang membership as an education and breeding ground for young mafiosi, there is another trend that is happening around the same time. As more and more mafiosi begin setting up shop in America, we see a specific type of extortion begin to emerge in major cities which has often been referred to as the Black Hand.

What is the Black Hand?

The Black Hand, or La Mano Nera in Italian, was an early type of extortion racket that came to the United States along with the wave of Italian immigration in the late 19th century.

The hallmark tactics of the Black Hand involved sending a letter to a victim threatening bodily harm, kidnapping, arson, or murder with a demand of money to be delivered to a specific place. Black Hand letters were often decorated with threatening symbols such as a smoking gun, hangman’s noose, skull, or knife dripping with blood or piercing a human heart, and were frequently signed with a hand imprinted in thick black ink.

Probably the most famous case of Black Hand extortion was that of Enrico Caruso. Enrico Caruso was a very famous tenor at the time of his extortion and because the Black Handers knew he very obviously was well-paid, he was an easy target. 

As the story goes, Caruso received a Black Hand letter on which was drawn a black hand and dagger, demanding $2,000. Obviously fearing for his safety, he decided to pay. The problem was, this didn’t alleviate the problem. Once it became public knowledge that he’d paid off the Black Hand, he received “’a stack of threatening letters a foot high,’ including another from the same gang for $15,000.” To finally resolve the issue, he reported the incident to the police who arranged for him to drop off the money at a prearranged spot, and when the Black Handers picked up the ransom, the police arrested them.

Another case of Black Hand extortion was that of Pasquale Pati. An excellent article from Gangrule.com details the story:

“In January 1908, a bomb blew open the front of an Italian Bank ‘Pasquale Pati & Son’ at 238 — 240 Elizabeth Street. Pati was the most successful Italian banker in New York, with his business capitalised at $500,000. 

The bank had the unusual trick of displaying piles of money behind their secured windows as proof of their ability to pay depositors. The son, Salvatore Pati, who was in the bank at the time of the bombing, managed to secure the money whilst the bomb throwers escaped into the crowds on Elizabeth Street. 

The bomb was not an attempt at robbery, but a warning from the Black Hand after Pati had publicly announced he would not fall for their attempts at extortion. After the explosion, nervous depositors began to withdraw their money, and in the next four weeks over $400,000 in deposits were removed.

On 6th March, 1908, three armed men entered the bank, but escaped empty handed when Pati shot one the men who later died in hospital. Pati began to receive more death threats, including one note that said he would be cut-up like the victim of the ‘Barrel Murder’ several years ago.

Pati was forced to close the bank, just two weeks later, after he learned a group of men had attempted to set fire to his family home in Brooklyn. He pinned a note to the front of the bank reading:

“The clientele of the this bank be calm and trustworthy, as the banker, Pasquale Pati, has long been obliged to absent himself to protect his existence and family. He has been molested and threatened and will be back soon. He possesses 45 houses and $100,000 life insurance and has bonds of $15,000 with the State of New York”

A crowd ‘that packed Elizabeth Street from Houston to Prince Street’ began to rush towards the next largest Italian bank, F. Acritelli & Son, 239 Elizabeth Street, which was then also forced to close. A police guard was provided for both banks.

Three days later, after Pati had not reappeared, the director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce was appointed receiver of the bank by the United States Circuit Court. Pati, who had built his business over seventeen years, starting as a cobbler before moving into grocery and real estate was a ruined man.”

In terms of the big screen, you can see a reasonable characterization of the Black Hand in Godfather II with the character Don Fanucci, whose story is also told in the novel.

Of course in the movie, Vito witnesses Fanucci threatening and extorting Italians in his neighborhood and even loses his job due to Fanucci’s demands. In the end, Vito kills Fanucci and takes over the neighborhood in his place.

The myth of the Black Hand spread through the Italian neighborhoods of America which instilled a strong fear in the communities. Any mention of The Black Hand would cause people to cross themselves with the hope of protection.

By 1915, the Black Hand types of extortion tactics began to decline, but was quickly replaced four years later by another racket – one that would blaze a direct path to the formation of the modern mob.

What key event was most critical to the formation of the modern American Mafia?

On October 28, 1919 the United States Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s override of the National Prohibition Act. 

Known as the Volstead Act (H.R. 6810), after Judiciary Chairman Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, this law was introduced by the House to implement the Prohibition Amendment by defining the process and procedures for banning alcoholic beverages, as well as their production and distribution.

Let me give you a quick overview on why the Volstead Act was created.  

By the turn of the 20th century, temperance societies were prevalent in the United States. Concerned citizens had begun warning others about the effects of alcohol nearly 100 years earlier. And at the time, these groups had attained a high degree of political clout – enough to get this type of a law passed.

The temperance movement at the time was primarily driven by groups of women who viewed alcohol as a destroyer of families and marriages. They believed men would often spend their money on alcohol, leaving women with no money to provide for their children. 

The amendment worked at first: liquor consumption dropped, arrests for drunkenness fell, and the price for illegal alcohol rose higher than the average worker could afford. Alcohol consumption dropped by 30 percent and the United States Brewers’ Association admitted that the consumption of hard liquor was off 50 percent during Prohibition.

However, these statistics were not reflective of the growing disobedience toward the law and law enforcement within larger American society. The intensity of the temperance advocates was matched only by the inventiveness of those who wanted to keep drinking. 

Enforcing Prohibition proved to be extremely difficult and not only that, many in law enforcement were themselves disobedient towards prohibition. 

As a result, a black market for the illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant, and the national government did not have the means or desire to try to enforce every border, lake, river, and speakeasy in America. By 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.

The demand for alcohol was outweighing (and out-winning) the demand for sobriety.

And who were some of the primary beneficiaries of this law – gangsters. Seeing the amount of money to be made by supplying the nation’s thirst, most prominent gangsters of the time became bootleggers which resulted in them quickly becoming millionaires.

What ensues throughout the 1920’s is honestly murder and mayhem, bodies in the streets, as bootleg turf wars kick up between various factions trying to service the demand. This includes Italians, as well as Jewish and Irish gangsters.

These bootleg wars are where the Hollywood image of the Tommy-Gun wielding gangster pulling drive-bys in their 1920s Ford Packard stem from – only it wasn’t just the movies, it was real life.

The most notable gangland incident during Prohibition occurred in Chicago on February 14, 2929 and is famously referred to as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

From an excellent History.com article on the subject:

“The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre shocked the world on February 14, 1929, when Chicago’s North Side erupted in gang violence. Gang warfare ruled the streets of Chicago during the late 1920s, as chief gangster Al Capone sought to consolidate control by eliminating his rivals in the illegal trades of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. This rash of gang violence reached its bloody climax in a garage on the city’s North Side on February 14, 1929, when seven men associated with the Irish gangster George “Bugs” Moran, one of Capone’s longtime enemies, were shot to death by several men dressed as policemen. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as it was known, remains an unsolved crime and was never officially linked to Capone, but he was generally considered to have been responsible for the murders.”

So a few things are happening here during the 1920’s.

Number one, most gangsters are receiving – at a very young age nonetheless – a Master-Class in how to run and scale businesses. This entrepreneurial experience will come in handy in the 1930s and 1940s as they scale their operations into other types of mob rackets. 

Number two, we see a shift in the balance of power from politicians and the establishment to the underworld. The local and national politicians that had previously had all the money, power, and leverage to control local gangsters are now subservient to bootleggers and mafiosi. The new millionaire status created by Prohibition allowed gangsters to turn the tables from a monetary standpoint which led to bribes and large-scale political corruption that didn’t really start to get cleaned up until the 1980s.

What’s even more interesting here is that most mobsters come from poverty and because of the times often didn’t finish traditional school – instead hitting the streets or starting to work at an early age to support what were typically large families.With their experience, many could have been CEOs of legitimate companies, but due to choice and circumstance became criminals.

The Volstead Act remained in effect until the passage of the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933.

And of course underneath it all, as the violence had reached a zenith, you have the Castellammarese War in New York City. This is the seminole event that can most directly be tied to the founding of the American mob.

Okay, so that’s it for Part 1. Next episode we’ll release into Part 2 where we’ll dive into more questions and discuss some of the mafia-slang terminology.

If you enjoyed this episode, please Like and Subscribe on YouTube! I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Also, please rate the podcast on Apple to help the show grow and take a peek at the merch store available on our website, www.membersonlypodcast.com.

Until next time, grazie!

References

Books:

  • Raab, Selwyn. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Empires. Macmillan. 2005.
  • Dash, Mike. The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia. Random House. 2009.
  • Bonnano, Joseph. A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno. St. Martin’s Publishing Group. 1984.

Websites:

Join the discussion

1 comment