Basics of the Mob: A Beginner’s Guide (Part 2)

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Episode Intro:

Hello everybody and welcome to the second episode of my three-part series on the “Basics of the Mob.” I am your host, Jacob Stoops, and I’m a long-time history buff and mob aficionado.

Since there are a lot of new listeners, 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. 

The YouTube version of the podcast 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 quick callouts before we get into this episode. 

1) I want to thank everyone who has commented on the show thus far! I’m a one-man-army and this is a passion project of mine that does take a great deal of time to put together. So to get the number of views, listens, and comments that the show has thus far has been really rewarding. I’ve gotten some great reassurances that you’ve enjoyed the content and some really good constructive criticisms that are 100% valid. Side-fact: I’m from the midwest, and I 100% know I can’t pronounce some Italian names for shit! I’ll get better, but if you’re better than enunciating go easy on me. 🙂

2) After this level-setting episode series, I’ll be getting back to doing more gangster biographies in the upcoming weeks and months and my plan is still to focus on people that are lesser known. I’ve gotten a few great suggestions already and am building a schedule, so if you have someone you’d like to see covered you can simply leave a comment on YouTube or 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.

If you remember, some of my viewers had asked for a sort of primer episode on the American Mob, so I decided to do a “Basics of…” series to set the table for anyone not as well-versed as the hardcore mafia genre listeners that exist out there in pockets.

In Part 1, we covered the origins of the mafia, how the mafia came to America, the Black Hand, as well as How Prohibition really served to propel the development of the Mob forward. We ended with the mob really being on the precipice of The Castellammarese War (which is where we’ll pick up today).

So if you haven’t listened to Part 1, this episode will still be able to stand on its own merits, but if you want to start at the beginning including the origins of the American Mob, I’d definitely say cut over and listen to Part 1 first, and then come back to Part 2.

As for this episode, we’re going to start with The Castellammarese War, talk about the rules, regulations, and structure, discuss mob-related verbiage, and answer a few other things about the American Mob.

Based on the amount of material we have to get through, we’ll also be doing a Part 3 next week. I wasn’t initially sure how many parts this would end up being, but it’s looking as if it will be a 3-part series in the end.

Okay, so there is a TON of ground to cover, so let’s get started with Part 2….

What was the Castellammarese War? How did it lead to the formation of the modern American Mafia?

During the late 1920s, a bitter gang rivalry arose in New York between two primary factions. One faction was headed by Joseph “Joe the Boss” Masseria, who at the time was the most pre-eminent gangster in New York. The other factor was led by one Salvatore Maranzano, who along with every member of his clan hailed Castellammare del Golfo and who had been sent to New York in 1925 on orders from Vito Cascio Ferro in a bid to take over the Mafia in the United States.

Both groups were positioning themselves to take over-arching control over all underworld factions in order to consolidate their power.

As a result of this tension and as we covered in the Tommy Gagliano episode, the entire New York underworld was either at war or on the verge of it. Masseria and Maranzano were each attempting to take control of the underworld, each with the support of various street gangs and Mafia contingents. Early on, Masseria was the stronger of the two, but as time went on he began to lose key allies to death or defection and by late 1931 was nearly finished.

The war ended in 1931 when Salvatore Maranzano conspired with Masseria’s top soldier, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, to have Masseria killed. The result is that Maranzano emerged as the most powerful Mafia boss in the nation and became the first leader of the organization now dubbed “Cosa Nostra.” 

Side-fact: While the public refers to them as the Mafia, the mafia refers to itself as “Cosa Nostra” which roughly translates to ‘Out Thing’ or ‘This Thing of Ours’ in Italian. This originated as a way for them to identify other members and speak in code to each other without fear of law-enforcement scrutiny.

After the Masseria assassination, Maranzano worked with other gangsters to set up the modern-day mafia and put many of the foundational elements in place that became critical to the syndicate’s success through the 20th century. It’s at this time that he establishes the mob’s code of conduct, sets up the “family” divisions and structure, and enacts procedures for resolving disputes. This is also where the modern Five Families of New York City are established.

Side fact: The New York five families are called the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, Bonnano and Colombo families. However, they didn’t originally have those names. Those names only came into use at a later point in mob history.

When Maranzano established the families, they were called the Luciano, Scalise, Gagliano, Bonanno, and Profaci families with Maranzano himself serving as Capo di Tutti Capi or “Boss of Bosses.”

Unfortunately, it’s this power-move by Maranzano to name himself Boss of Bosses that ultimately leads to his downfall.

Just five months later, infuriated by the betrayal and old-school ways of Maranazano, as well as a murder-contract on his own head, Charles “Lucky” Luciano has Maranzano assassinated and becomes the new pre-eminant figure in the United States underworld.

After the Maranzano murder, Luciano kept the same five-family structure as practical but made a few key modifications. First, he got rid of the title of Boss of Bosses, though he was clearly considered first among equals. Second, he created The Commission in which each of the bosses of the five families, as well as a handful of other families around the country, would handle disputes between various families before things devolved into bloody gang wars. They establish at this time the National Syndicate, install the governing rules, with all major authority flowing back to the main Commision in New York. 

Joe Bonnano, who was an original boss, shares from his autobiography A Man of Honor, 

“Once again, the leaders of my world realigned and repositioned themselves according to the new political reality. Charlie Lucky’s star was on the rise. Stefano’s star seemed undiminished, and perhaps even enhanced. Scalise’s star fell. Scalise had been too close a supporter of Maranzano. With Lucky’s rise to power, Scalise became a liability to his Family, which didn’t want to antagonize the powerful Luciano and his cohorts. Scalise was replaced as Father by Vincent Mangano. Therefore, the five New York Fathers were Luciano, Gagliano, Profaci, Mangano and me. I was a newborn star.”

So there you have it, in 1931 Charly “Lucky” established the five families which are Luciano, Gagliano, Profaci, Mangano and Bonnano.

It’s worth noting that Lucky often receives most of the credit for the structure and success, and his innovations were certainly critical to what the American mob became, but it’s really Salvatore Maranzano who developed the idea and set the structure in place that Lucky and the original bosses were able to build upon.

The families themselves evolve over time and some even take on new names: Luciano becomes the Genovese family, the Gagliano family becomes the Lucchese family, the Mangano’s became the Gambinos, the Profaci family becomes the Colombo’s and only the Bonnano family retains the original name from its boss in 1931.

Are there mob families outside of New York City?

Yes, there are mafia families across the entire country – even still today. 

While some have gone defunct since the forming of the families in 1931, at one time there were up to 26 individual families in various cities and states.

In 1963, there were documented to be established families or mob contingents in Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, Pueblo, San Francisco, San Jose, Scranton, St. Louis, Tampa, Tucson, and Youngtown.

Why are there 5 families in New York City?

While New York City isn’t geographically large, it has historically been the center of the universe for the American Mob. In fact, Joe Bonnano in his book ‘Man of Honor’ liked to refer to it as “The Volcano.”

The reason that five families took hold in New York is simple. Historically, due to immigration and other economic and social factors, New York City has been both a hub for wiseguys and a hub for world commerce. 

In the Big Apple, there is quite simply a higher concentration of available rackets and a larger number of wiseguys available to work those rackets than in other cities who may be geographically larger, but are economically and ethnically smaller for various reasons.

Even today, New York City has the largest population in the United States with almost double the next closest, so it does make sense.

What type of organizational structure was set in place when the families formed in 1931? What are the various ranks within an American mob family?

Okay, first let’s touch on the ranks. The organization of an individual mafia family is very hierarchical and actually quite similar to a pyramid scheme. Some might call it the ultimate pyramid scheme. The money flows up. Think Amway, but where they will kill you.

The structure as it stands even today was originally put in place by Salvatore Maranzano and remained as a practical way of doing business when Charlie Luciano eventually took over in 1931. Maranzano himself was a student of history and fascinated by the Romans, and so took the inspiration for his setup directly from the configuration of old Roman legions, which were highly organized, hierarchical, and contained very clear delineations for various levels and roles. That’s more of a side-note on where the structure came from. 

Here’s how a mafia family layouts out:

For each family, you Boss (or Godfather) who is the leader of the organization and responsible for the family’s overall direction and policy decisions. Most bosses in New York and a few other regions throughout the U.S. sit on The Commission which is basically the national ruling panel.

After the Boss, you have the Underboss who is essentially the 2nd in command of the family. This is the 2nd highest attainable role in any Crime Family.

The 3rd-ranked member of most families is the Consigliere (or Counselor) whose role is to advise the boss directly. Typically, the consigliere exists slightly outside of the hierarchy and their role is almost completely at the discretion of each Family’s Boss. Sometimes they have people reporting to them, sometimes not. It kind of depends on how the Boss wants to use them. In some cases, the Consigliere role is a figure-head role, while in others it’s a very serious position with a high degree of autonomy and respect.

Under the administration, you have a group of made members called Caporegimes, also called Capos or Captains. Each captain runs a crew of soldiers and associates. Crews can range from 10-30 individuals depending on the size of the family. The capos can be equated to VP’s if you were looking at it like a traditional business organization. They are the very important middle layer between Boss-level and your soldier level that makes the organization really go!

A Soldier is the lowest-ranking type of made man, but they are very powerful in their own right. Being “made” means you’ve been initiated and are in the inner circle and belong to a Crime Family. These are the work-horses of the mob and are often responsible for handling the day-to-day activities and crimes.

In order to be inducted or “made,” there are a few well known boxes that a prospective member must check:

  1. You must be of Italian descent — It used to be that both parents had to be Italian, but now it’s just your father must be Italian.
  2. You must have either killed for the family, or have been a big earner, or both — the requirement of killing for the family is something that isn’t always followed nowadays, but at the beginning that proviso was taken a lot more seriously as it showed a certain commitment to the lifestyle and tied a person to the family through blood so to speak. Nowadays the requirement leans more heavily towards being able to make money for the family.  

So that’s the last layer of initiated members. After that, you still have people connected and doing things for the crime families.

The next level down the pyramid is an “associate.” An associate is someone who is working on behalf of the family, but who is not an initiated “made” member. Associates are people who are “on record” with the family – meaning they work specifically for the family – but are just not a member and do not have the privileges of even the lowest-ranking made man (for the most part). 

Associates can range for non-Italians who run the gamut of low-level to very high-functioning and almost as respected as actual Made Men or Capos. Some examples of very high-level associates who were highly respected by the mob but simply not “made” would be Meyer Lansky, Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke, or Joe Watts. These are guys that didn’t have the status, but were essentially functioning in a very high-level capacity – just without any official titles.

Associates can also be part of other criminal organizations. Over history, Jewish mobsters have been prominent, and more recently Russians, Albanians, Greek, and other non-Italian gangs have been associated with various crime families.

And the most important layer of Associates are those of Italian heritage who are sort of auditing to become made one day. Before you enter the crime family, you must first exist as an associate of the family and prove your worth before you can be made. Associates who meet the basic requirements to be made are put through a sort of twisted apprenticeship before getting inducted that can last as little as a year or can take as long as 20-25 years in some cases before an associate is officially “made.”

Probably the last layer of the pyramid involves people who are “connected,” meaning they have various connections within the underworld but aren’t officially tied to a family. If someone is an independent hoodlum, it’s highly likely that they will eventually come under the thumb of a family depending on where they’re operating, but it’s not always the case. Typically what will happen is someone will begin their life of crime, attract the notice of the local wiseguys, and eventually one of the wiseguys will put in a “claim” to make the connected hood an associate, or member, of their crew. This will ensure that any criminal activities that the hood is partaking in will have a percentage kicked up the line to the family.

Okay, so that’s the basic structure of a Mafia Crime family. It’s worth noting that the crime families had a fixed number of members allowed in 1931 with new members only being initiated to replenish the ranks. This was an effort to ensure that no family grew too large so as to keep peace, balance, and an equitable distribution of profits between families.

What are the basic rules, codes of conduct & general requirements for all members of the mob?

Now let’s talk about the basic rules. As mentioned, these rules were set in place in 1931 during the official formation of the modern families. 

To be a member of the mafia comes with rules and stipulations. These rules, which were originally meant to be secret, have come out over the years through informers and have been somewhat perpetuated both accurately or inaccurately by pop culture, movies, TV, and even documentaries and internet shows.

The rules are really meant to ensure that the organization remained secret and that those within the organization clearly understood the code of conduct and the penalties associated with breaking said rules. In short, these rules are what keeps everyone in line, because the penalty for breaking them is death.

There is a documented case in recent history where actual physical evidence of the “rules” was found. In 2007, a Sicilian Mafia boss named Salvatore Lo Piccolo had his home raided by the Italian police and in the process of the arrest they found a list of “rules” written down on paper. This list is commonly referred to as “The 10 Commandments of the Mafia.”

It’s a bit apples-to-oranges as this is specific to Sicily and the American mob is a separate organization altogether, but honestly it’s not far off from the rules and regulations that you’ll hear be made public by former members and informants.

So let’s start at the top:

  • No-one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
  • Never look at the wives of friends.
  • Never be seen with cops.
  • Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
  • Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife’s about to give birth.
  • Appointments must absolutely be respected.
  • Wives must be treated with respect.
  • When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.
  • Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.
  • People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.

A few other rules that have been popularized over the years:

  • You must pledge to uphold Omertà, the code of silence, when facing questioning by authorities or outsiders – even if it means death or imprisonment
  • You do not share family secrets with outsiders (anyone who isn’t made)
  • Murders must always be approved by the Boss
  • Deal drugs and die
  • Made men should never raise a hand to each other
  • Made members can not engage in homosexual activity – In 1992, John D’Amato, acting boss of the DeCavalcante family, was killed when he was suspected of engaging in homosexual activity.

To be honest, these rules always make me think of the “Pirate’s Code.” If you’ve ever seen Pirates of the Caribbean you’ll know what I’m talking about. Throughout the whole movie you have various characters citing these supposed rules for being a pirate and it’s finally Geoffry Rush’s character Captain Barbosa as he’s about to break one of the rules that says “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules…”

And that in essence is kind of what the mafia’s rules are. They offer basic structure, but you will always be able to find evidence of people breaking the rules, bending them for their own gains, or selectively enforcing them. In the end, there’s really not much honor among thieves.

Okay, so that’s enough for the slang terms and that’s all for Part 2 of the Basics of the Mob series. If you have any questions or if there is a slang term that I didn’t cover off on, please let me know in the comments below.

We’re going to finish it up next week with a Part 3 and then we’ll be getting back into Mobster Biographies and we’ll be covering the original Gambino boss, Vincent Mangano.

If you enjoyed this episode, please Like and Subscribe on YouTube! I’d love to hear from you and you’ve been awesome so far about dropping your comments. If you would be so kind, 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!

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