By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The Sicilian mafia reached its zenith of power and political influence during the phase from the 1880s to the First World War. The Sicilian nobility and the politicians needed votes delivered and the mafia was the vehicle through which this was accomplished. In consequence, mafiosi and their affiliates infiltrated all levels, provincial and local, of the political scene. This Faustian bargain left the majority of Sicilians out in the cold.
In the elections of 1895 the Italian prime minister ordered his prefects and police to get out the vote for the party’s candidates using every means at their disposal. General Mirri went from Palermo to Alcamo to release a noted capo from prison because his family was essential for the election of a certain deputy. Vittorio Orlando, who would later become prime minister, pursued his electoral campaign by organizing a series of banquets in towns saturated by mafia clans that feasted and drank to the good health and success of "our honorable candidate."
If it is true that the so-called guanti gialli, the yellow gloves, meaning the barons and landlords, used the mafiosi for their own ends, it is equally true that the capomafias understood that they would gain much from the association. The powerbrokers were more likely not the politicians. They were the marionettes whose strings were being pulled by men like Don Vittorio Calò, the supreme capo of Monreale, a traditional mafia stronghold inland from Palermo. He directed the national deputy election for a personal friend, a baron, one of whose children had as his godfather Don Calò himself.
The mafia brought out the vote in the town and the provincial elections in Sicily not from patriotic zeal but to advance their own agendas. The mafia then forced a pact with the guanti gialli that was of reciprocal advantage. The barons and landowners with the mafia’s assistance would be elected to the parliament in Rome while the mafiosi would be awarded positions of authority at the local and provincial levels.
From the late 1880s many of the town mayors and town councilors were either "men of honor" or their supporters. By placing mafia loyalists in strategic positions two goals were accomplished: mafia power was able to sit on the back of the agricultural economy (the main economy in Sicily), and the "mafia kingdom" received a legitimization when clan representatives became the administrators of the island’s public institutions. The line between the mafia as a criminal organization and the functions that are normally the obligations of the State becomes blurred if not at the least partially obliterated.
In those days, the mayor had not only the usual political powers but was also a police functionary who answered directly to the minister of the interior. The mayor of a small country village in Sicily was in a position to hire guardie campestri (farm guards) and vigili urbani (policemen), and furnished to the prefetto, who was the provincial head and State representative in the province, regular communications regarding the state of affairs in the comune (town). One hundred years ago because of lack of roads the typical town existed more or less in glorious isolation. Few Sicilians ever visited Palermo or for that matter ever traveled to other villages a few miles distance. The provincialism of the rural folk, slow communications, and the lack of interest in the interior of Sicily by government officials were advantageous to gli zii and i compari, that is the capomafias, particularly in zones saturated by the mafia, like Monreale and Partinico, where the regno della mafia, the "kingdom of the mafia," held sway.
Historians have stressed that during the years 1880 to the early 1920s (after which comes the advent of fascism and Mussolini’s repression of the mafia) the mafioso is the same person: the one who is the mayor, the lawyer, the one who kills to demonstrate to clan members who is the undisputed boss and will not suffer la gente fastidiosa, those who make trouble, and he who organizes extortions and kidnappings. At this point the town becomes the property of the clan(s) where mafia domination reins supreme.
The State functions to collect taxes and to form and to direct the military and police institutions. In the mafia triangle of western Sicily, to quote a Sicilian saying, "Non si muove foglia che la mafia non voglia"—"You don’t move a leaf that the mafia does not want moved." In that triangle the state functions are weak if not co-opted by the mafia. The result was that of two authorities existing in the same space. The ruling classes of both the State, represented by Rome, and the Sicilian authorities, as represented by Palermo, granted to the mafia clans a working legitimacy to officially represent the people of rural Sicily. Just as the whole of the young nation of Italy was undergoing the painful process of learning the lessons of statecraft, so was Sicily during the four decades at the turn of the century undergoing the dynamics of social and political change as it sought to free itself from its traditional feudal past.
The important privileges granted to the clan members were restricted to the few. Men like Don Vittorio Calò, the renowned capomafia of Monreale, enjoyed the same prestige and perquisites as those of the local bishop. Everyone kissed the Don’s hand. A more typical capomafia or an affiliated farm manager could improve his social standing to the level of landed gentry or a baron. The other clan members lower down on the mafia social ladder, those who held the variety of farm jobs, remained where they were, not significantly above the traditional and infinite miseria (extreme poverty) that was the common lot of the landless peasants and the urban proletariat. So if mafia affiliation acted as a ladder of social mobility into the respected classes, that was true for only the select few.
In 1909, in the Piazza Marina of Palermo, the mafia gunned down Joe Petrosino, a New York police lieutenant, sent to Sicily to gather information on Italian-American gangsters who had returned to the island to evade American justice.
Lt. Petrosino "was charged with a mission and had first of all to obtain in Sicily a file of information and penal records concerning various Sicilian emigrants who [in America] appear to be, are directly shown to be, or are suspected of being authors of those numerous crimes that, because of a characteristic peculiar to all of them, are grouped together under the label of ‘Black Hand’: that is, robbery, abduction, threatening letters, bomb throwing, etc." (Indictment Section of the Palermo Court, July 22, 1911)
Joe Petrosino was the inspiration for the founding of the Italian Branch, later called the Italian Legion, established by the NYC Police Dept. In 1906, the Italian Branch had 25 men, plus a detachment of ten men in Brooklyn under the command of Sergeant Antonio Vachris. Petrosino was promoted to a lieutenancy, the first Italian to become an officer in an American police force. He became the most famous and the most hated cop in America. Joe was noted for his impressive arrest record, his passion for justice, and the free wielding of his nightstick.
My father was one of the quarter million New Yorkers who lined the streets on April 12, 1909, to watch the funeral procession pass by, bearing the remains of one of New York’s finest to their final resting place. (A NYC police sergeant sought to recruit my father at the time when the Italian Branch was being formed to do detective work in the immigrant Italian South Bronx. He declined the offer.)
Few Americans would recognize the name Joe Petrosino today or know of the part he played in American organized crime. But he has not been completely forgotten. A NYC school is named in Petrosino’s honor: P.S. 70 The Lt. Joe Petrosino School, Long Island City, NY. And in Italy there is The Joe Petrosino International Association in Padula, a mountain village in the province of Salerno. It was in Padula that Joe was born on August 30, 1860. He arrived with his father in NYC as a lad in 1873, two decades before the era of Italian mass migration to the United States.
Don Vito Cascio-Ferro, who figures prominently in the mafia chronicles of that era, was accused of the Petrosino homicide. A man of a particularly violent slant, Don Vito had both motive and opportunity. And he also had an airtight alibi. A national deputy of Palermo testified on Don Vito’s behalf, swearing that at the very hour of the shooting the two friends were enjoying a multi-course dinner at his home. If true, some have suggested that Don Vito, who had lived in America and wanted Petrosino dead, might have excused himself from the table between courses long enough to exact vengeance. In any event, Don Vito was mostly likely the mandante, that is, the contract for the hit was his. Don Vito’s acquittal for lack of evidence was typical; the political ties that such men had with the guanti gialli were powerful bargaining chips.
From 1901 to 1909, the Sicilian Triangle of mafia domination in western Sicily (bounded by Palermo in the north, Trapani in the west and Agrigento in the south) produced 5,084 homicides. The annual average for Palermo was 250, Caltanissetta was 130, Trapani 100, and 140 for Agrigento. Since in Italy during the same decade the yearly average was 2500 homicides, the Sicilian provinces ruled by the mafia (less than one-half of Sicily), furnished almost a third in all of Italy. The national rate from 1906 to 1910 was 9.93 per 100,000 inhabitants, while in Palermo the rate was 39.53, Caltanissetta had 39.23, Agrigento with 34.04, and 26.73 for Trapani.
Without doubt most of the homicides in the first decade of the 1900s were the work of the Sicilian mafia. Of interest is that the mafia triangle had rates of homicide connected to theft and hijacking lower than the national rates. The highest were in the province of Naples. The mafia, it appears, by its presence might have kept certain criminal activities in check.
Those years produced many governmental investigations of the "Sicilian Problem." Public opinion viewed the mafia as a unique product of Sicily, stemming from a culture and a people quite at variance when compared with the other Italian regions. Such opinions are of long standing and continue to exist today.
One report stated that the mafia was "an instinctive, brutal and interested solidarity, that unites together to the detriment of the State, of the law and all institutions, that does not live from normal employment, but rather from violence, deceit and intimidation."
Two investigators who were held in high esteem in 1876 concluded that the mafia was "an extralegal " phenomenon, not negatively viewed by Sicilians because it was based on the sentiment of value for the individual, a spirit independent and removed from compliance with authority and the law, where power emanates from force and violence.
Some saw the origins and causes of the criminal mafia as a product of Sicily’s hot African-like climate as well as the native Arabs that founded communities within the Sicilian Triangle after their ouster from Palermo by the Norman invaders a thousand years ago. At turn of the last century it was popular to refer to race as a causative factor for both good and bad. The razza sicula, the Sicilian race, by heredity was considered innately asocial, authentically criminal, a throwback to earlier less civilized human forms, and thus, in evolutionary terms, with a simpler and less developed brain capacity.
These negative portraits did not amuse many Sicilians. They argued that it was necessary to distinguish between una mafia maligna, an evil mafia, criminal and exploitative, and una mafia benigna, a benevolent fellowship, one at the disposition of the people.
To understand the Sicilian people, a look at the history of the island is essential, they stressed. Life in Sicily was seen as un inferno, a living hell, where there was violence at every turn, and arrogant people full of a sense of entitlement and superiority. In this hell rose this honorable society as a protective mechanism, not in and of itself dedicated to delinquency, but born of necessity in order to survive in that kind of world.
The mafia was able to maintain the myth of a community-spirited style of life and comportment. That is, mafiosi presented themselves as uomini d’onore, men of impeccable integrity. When in fact this carefully constructed myth hid what was called l’agguato mafioso, the ambush mafioso, a dastardly and cowardly fellow, who strikes at those who are not adept at protecting themselves or their property.
One hundred years ago Italy was still a young country and Sicily was the most backward of the Italian regions. It became clear to Sicilians early on that the new government was ignoring their plight, paying more attention in developing the northern provinces while leaving the south to languish in dreadful circumstances. There was as a result no love lost between Sicily and Italy. Italy never considered Sicily as anything but a mere province, in the colonial sense, an extension of Africa. As a result there was never in Sicily a consensus of support for the State, a State that was summed up by the islanders in starkly revealing proverbs such as the following.
Guvernu taliano veru bbuttanuna—"The Italian government is a truly celebrated whore."
La forca è pri lu poviru, la giustiza pri lu fissa—"The gallows is for the poor, justice for the fool."
Cu avi dinari e amicizia teni ‘nculu la giustiza—"He who has money and friends holds justice in contempt."
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