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Feature Articles


January 2008
Mafia As Seen By
Various Observers

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

     Over the history of the mafia numerous opinions have been offered about the phenomenon, both by those on the inside and outside. Some are official versions, some hastily formed, others self-serving, yet all are telling in myriad ways. They give a glimpse, however narrow, at what is behind the cloak of secrecy and silence and go well beyond the simplistic myths that feed the imagination of its awesome presence, its endurance, the diabolical brilliance of its capos. There are more questions and suspicions than answers. Is it no more than a system of honor masking common criminology, or a less than positive statement about the society in which it is embedded? Myths obfuscate, myths titillate, myths exaggerate: Mafia means big bucks; mafia is invincible; mafia is a festering cancer on the body politic; its reach is great. Or is it nothing more than rhetoric to provoke fear of personal harm, an adventurous romantic flouting of societal standards, contempt for convention, a refusal to submit to established authority? Perhaps as obvious as an exclusive boys’ club with the juvenile trappings of blood oaths, midnight initiations with the hocus pocus of ancient incantations, and death before dishonor proclamations? Some aver mafia as a ride on the wild side, without the fetters of moral constraint—an escape from the mind-numbing grind of daily life (only suckers work). As one insider put it, "Who wouldn’t want to be a wiseguy?" Wannabes would concur.

     What follows are selected quotations from several perspectives on organized crime and gangsters, both American and Italian.

"His [Charles Lucky Luciano’s] social outlook is essentially childish, in that it is dominated by recklessness and a craving for action. His behavior patterns are essentially instinctive and primitive, his manner easy, copious, and ingratiating. His ideals of life resolved themselves in money to spend, beautiful women to enjoy, silk underclothes, and places to go in style. He was a chronic truant from school. During this phase of his life, the defendant was reared in an impoverished environment on the lower eastside, and at an early age he was beyond the control of his parents. His behavior patterns and social attitude during this formative period were largely conditioned by the influence of unwholesome associates, with the result that by the time he was eighteen years old, he acquired a definitely criminalistic pattern of conduct." (Court ordered psychiatric exam of Luciano, after found guilty of a New York City prostitution syndicate, in 1936. Quoted in The Case Against Lucky Luciano by Ellen Poulsen, 2007)

"Joe Sodano, fifty-eight years old, was a true believer, proud to be a member of the most exclusive men’s club in the world. A capo in Newark, NJ, branch of the Philadelphia family made it clear [in 1991, on FBI tape] that he wasn’t happy with the ‘new look’ of the American mafia. ‘There’s no more hidden people,’ he complained. "Isn’t it a good thing—you could be in the mafia, right, but nobody knows it? Too many showboats, too many celebrities. They want to come in with a suit and tie and thirty pounds overweight and then pose. Ego, ego is a dangerous thing. Look at John Gotti.’" (George Anastasia, The Last Gangster, 2004)

"Organized crime is an economic activity, and differs from street gangs, not just in the degree of organization and purpose, but because organized crime accumulates capital and reinvests it. This enables them to buy political protection that allows them to diversify and to respond to market shifts, such as the upsurge in demand for illicit drugs in the 1980s, and the growth in human trafficking in the 1990s." (Anonymous)

"Modern organized crime came of age during the United States Prohibition era in the 1920s. Meeting market needs by smuggling across international borders, exploiting differences in state legislatures, and developing underground distribution methods established a modus operandum which, when Prohibition was repealed, could be rapidly adapted to supplying other illicit or contraband products on a similar transnational scale." (Paul Lunde, Organized Crime, 2004)

"Murdering are own was a fact of life. Nobody liked doing it, but it was the only way to maintain control." (Joseph Iannuzzi, Joe Dogs, 1993)

"Most of the mob guys I knew operated under the assumption that the world was a very unfair place and they’d all been dealt a bad hand, so what they were doing now was merely offsetting those early bad breaks. They hadn’t been born into an old-world WASPy family, or one of the select Jewish families that they believed controlled much of the world’s finances, so the only way they could really get ahead was through their mob ties. Along with that came an oversized sense of privilege, and a frighteningly warped sense of entitlement." (Andrea Giovino, Divorced From the Mob, 2004)

"‘Lefty,’ Tony Rossi [Ed Robb] asked, ‘I understand how we all like to make money. But what is the actual advantage of being a wiseguy?’ [Benjamin Lefty Ruggerio] ‘Are you kidding me? Tony, as a wiseguy, you can lie, you can cheat, you can kill, and it’s all legit. You can do any f------ thing you want, and nobody can say nothing about it. Who the f--- wouldn’t want to be a wiseguy?’" (D. Lea Jacobs, Friend of the Family, 2002)

"His name was Dominick DiNorscia, but of course he had a mob alias, an interesting one. They called him ‘Tommy Adams’ [Newark, NJ; he was with the Philadelphia family of Angelo Bruno]. Why everyone needed a nickname is hard to say. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of camaraderie against the commonweal, or simply that those criminals lacked so much in maturity and in sophistication that their whole world was based on the concept of a boyhood club. They had their own codes, their own dress, bullies and cliques. No matter that the sodality was a deadly one, nor that their cliques could have powered a rather large corporation, the mob was nonetheless a puerile sort of brotherhood based upon rivalries, initiation, and games. Like others who had chosen ‘the life,’ Adams carefully adhered to the tradition of omertà—silence to the outside world. ‘Noi siamo fino la morte’—those were the words spoken upon initiation. Above family and country, ‘We are one until death.’" (Michael Brown, Marked to Die, 1984)

"Contrary to popular opinion, the henchman of La Cosa Nostra are neither as organized nor as powerful as the law enforcement community might believe, and they have not infiltrated every organization of society (except perhaps in the state of New Jersey). Nor do they regularly hold mass conclaves at which all their pertinent business is discussed." (See above citation)

"Organized crime is, at bottom, a business model, meant to self-perpetuate." (William Finnegan, "Watching the Waterfront," New Yorker, 19 June 2006)

"They [gangsters] have the mentality all their lives that it is always a scam." (Louis Eppolito, Mafia cop, 1992)

"Today the boundary line between respectable and illegal rackets has become objectively blurred and in psychological terms the different forms merge." (Theodore Adorno, Dialect of Enlightenment, 1928)

"While it is true that mafiosi are forbidden from identifying themselves as men of honor to outsiders, it is also important that their reputations precede them as people to be reckoned with. Their power as mafiosi depends on generating an attitude of respect and fear in others." (Alexander Stille, The Sack of Rome, 2006)

"Wisguys are not nice guys. Wiseguys aren’t even close to being nice guys. Wiseguys are barbaric. Wiseguys are the meanest, cruelest, least caring people you’ll ever meet. They suck up money like vampires soak up blood." (Joseph D. Pistone, The Way of the Wiseguy, 2004)

"See, being a wiseguy isn’t a series of distinct crimes—it’s a way of life. There is no end game, no ultimate goal. It wasn’t like my father or Jimmy had a plan to steal enough so they could retire on the New Jersey shore; my father [Henry Hill] pissed through more money than most people make in a lifetime. They did what they did because that’s who they were." (Greg and Gina Hill, On the Run: A Mafia Childhood, 2004)

"Mafia, in the sense of a criminal underworld, was coined by journalists and police officials. Members of the underworld might use terms such as mafia, mafiusu, or mafiusedda as slang, but never a sense that mafia denoted an association, or even a social class, to which they belonged. The underworld had its own terminology." (James Fentress, Rebels and Mafiosi, 2000)

"Crime was just another business, and to get into any other line of work, we figured, was just plain stupid. We never gave a second thought to punching a clock or pension funds or safety nets. We wanted all the money now, and we wanted to spend it now. We grabbed with both hands. We literally had people begging us to take it from them." (J. Iannuzzo, Joe Dogs, 1993)

"The mafia evolved into a moribund way of life, a feudal tradition adhered to mainly by senile senior citizens who are kept alive only by myth-making Hollywood directors and television series such as The Sopranos." (Bill Bonanno, son of Joe Bonanno, quoted in Newsweek, 25 June 2007)

"The mafia is guided by a project of power, its scope not ethical and much less community-based, but follows at every cost the principle of the supremacy off an aristocratic delinquency on the collectivity." (Pino Arlacchi, Italian criminologist, 2007 interview)

"The mafia grows not through force, but in a natural way like a prickly pear. It prospers in an insidious manner more than in a noisy manner." (D. Fallowell, interview, 2007)

"There are Americans who believe that criminal groups in their country belong to the Sicilian mafia, are in effect overseas branches of the main organizations, and they are all directed by orders from Palermo. This myth is shared even by some naïve American criminals of Italian descent, who learned it from reading the newspapers. They sometimes land in Sicily believing not only that they belong to the società but that they have a high rank in it. At most they are uomini rispettati like all moneyed foreigners. Soon enough most of them discover to their dismay that they are considered merely strangers by the real amici." (Luigi Barzini, From Caesar to the Mafia, 1971)

"Charlie Lucky Luciano was born in 1897 in Lercara Friddi, Sicily, and was brought to America when he was not quite ten. He was deported to Italy in February 1946. He was so ignorant of Sicilian criminal activity that he was swindled out of 15 million lire by the very mafiosi he supposedly controlled. He was talked into investing in a candy factory, na caramela, which was set up in such a way that the more money he made the more Luciano lost." (Jerre Mangione, La Storia, 1992)

"No matter how deeply I treasured memories of Sicily, I was Joseph Bonanno of America. I was from Sicily but not of that world anymore. Tradition has died in America. The way of life that I and my Sicilian ancestors pursued is dead. What Americans refer to a ‘the mafia’ is a degenerate outgrowth of that life-style. Sicilian immigrants who came to America tried to conduct their affairs as they had in Sicily, but we eventually discovered that was impossible. What Americans call ’mafia’ never was an institution, an organization, a corporate body. As best as I can figure out, this fallacy continues to receive the strongest acceptance not in the minds of ordinary people but in the minds of law-enforcement agents." (Joseph Bonanno, A Man of Honor, 1983)

"Sicilians have gone all over the world, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, all over, and the only place where this mafia developed was here in America. Can you tell me why?" (Jerre Mangione, La Storia, 1992)

[The Valachi Papers is] "A bloody history of the mafia as lived by one of its members for those who still dismiss the Cosa Nostra as a fanciful creation of ambitious D.As. There finally emerges the dark outline of a state within a state—a second government." (New York Times book review of Peter Maas’ "The Valachi Papers," 1968)

"Professor Di Maria told me of an ex-student who was a member of a powerful Sicilian mafia family who wished to free himself from its control and discovered that this could only be achieved while living on the island by changing himself into a homosexual. By doing this he was able to escape the mafia’s deeply rooted influence. His professional interests took him to the mainland where he lived the life of a heterosexual in an environment that demanded above all omertà (manliness) of a male." (Norman Lewis, In Sicily, 2000)

"The mafia is a premodern criminal anachronism." (Ivanhoe Lo Bello, Sicilian industrialist)

"It takes a strong person to reach inside himself and say, ‘I’m here because of me.’" (James Whitey Bulger, Boston mobster)

"One thing you can’t show as a gangster is weakness. I loved being a gangster. I loved everything about it. The money, the excitement, the power—it was at times as powerful a high as any drug could ever provide." (John Red Shea, Rat Bastards, 2006)

"They are people who care nothing for anyone else, to whom dishonesty was first nature, for whom morality was a thing to be sneezed at and despised." (Richard Hammer, The Vatican Connection, 1982)

"Vincent Rizzo was not ideal Marine Corp material. Psychiatrists determined that he sounded off to much…losing his temper often got him into trouble…he displayed inappropriateness of his affect in that he laughed in a silly fashion at his transgressions of regulations and social rules…paranoid and psychotic…he has a long time asocial personality with strong delinquent trends and is definitely a threat to society because of his behavior. He is sullen, surly and almost snarling in his responses. The man is immature, impulsive, motivated solely by a pleasure-pain principle. His mental defective 58 IQ score was meaningless. The patient shows very inadequate judgment and reality testing. His form and verbalization indicate a much higher IQ than that obtained…a threat to society…not fit to be a Marine. In September 1952, eleven months after his enlistment, Vincent Rizzo was given a bad-conduct discharge." (Excerpts from a military psychiatric profile of Vincent Rizzo, who was later to become a prominent New York City mobster. See above citation for source.)


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