Actual Historians Answer Questions About The Mafia

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Vote up the most informative answers to mafia questions.

The mob. The Mafia. La Cosa Nostra. We've all heard of it, and seen it portrayed in movies such as The Godfather or on TV shows like The Sopranos. But what was the Mafia really like? How did the organized operation that brought us Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano actually operate?

Some believe the presence of the mob was exaggerated from the start, yet others insist that its presence is as pervasive today as it was 100 years ago. To answer some of the most common questions people have about the Mafia, Reddit's "Ask Historians" community is a handy place to turn. Just as they have helped shed light on everything from the Bible to what life was really like in the American West, these historians will shine a light on a group that thrived on operating in the dark.

  • 1
    262 VOTES

    Did Mafia Members Avoid Dealing In Drugs, As Portrayed In 'The Godfather?'

    Redditor  u/awoelt asked:

    In The Godfather (1972) Don Corleone says that if their family starts getting involved with drugs they will lose all their connections to legitimate people like police and senators. Did this prophecy come true? Also, were there people that really believed this in the late 1940s?

    Redditor u/grandissimo answered:

    Several mob leaders publicly insisted that they did not condone drug smuggling. Joe Bonanno’s autobiography A Man of Honor declared that his “tradition” outlawed narcotics, which no true “men of honor” would traffic in. However, because of the high profits, a scattered few of his underlings had dabbled in it.

    Frank Costello, whose biography has several parallels with that of [Mario] Puzo’s fictional Vito Corleone, professed to be anti-drug. Though he was able to control members of his own Luciano family to an extent, he was not successful in convincing other mobsters in saying no. Indeed, his own successor, Vito Genovese, was sentenced to 15 years in prison following a narcotics conviction.

    It’s worth noting that Costello, the primary model for Corleone, was one of the most tied to “legitimate” public figures, so he had the most to lose, so it makes sense that he would try to keep as much distance between himself and drugs as possible.

    Public disgust at narcotics smugglers was distinct from the way Americans felt about Prohibition. Illegal alcohol, like gambling and to an extent prostitution, was seen as a minor vice that was in great public demand. Americans liked to make gambling illegal, for example, but also liked to gamble themselves. Or, as rumrunner Moe Dalitz apocryphally told the Kefauver Committee: “I wouldn’t have bootlegged it if you people wouldn’t have drank it.”

    In writing The Godfather, Puzo was not seeking to author an accurate depiction of organized crime in America. Rather, he wanted to make a lot of money. For dramatic purposes, of course, Corleone’s refusal to provide protection for drug smuggler Virgil Solazzo drives the plot of the story, ultimately leading Michael Corleone to succeed his father as Don. So, while it might not be accurate, Corleone’s anti-drug stance did the job Puzo needed it to.

    262 votes
  • 2
    250 VOTES

    Was There Such Thing As A German Mob In The United States?

    Redditor u/killevra asked: 

    Was there such as thing as a "German Mob" in the United States?

    Redditor u/mikedash answered:

    This is a very good question, and while I've researched and written about the early years of the Mafia in the US, and looked at Jewish and Irish organised crime in New York as well, I have never come across any references to a German equivalent. This is not to say it never occurred - and in fact, given that at least 6 million German[s] emigrated to the US during the 19th and early 20th centuries, I'd be very surprised if it never did - but certainly Germans were not as prominent as other ethnic groups in organised crime.

    To understand why this was so, I'd suggest we need to look at both the way in which German immigration worked, and at the nature of German organised crime itself.

    It is almost certainly significant that a high proportion of German immigrants were farmers who arrived in the US in the first half of the 19th century, before westward expansion ceased and at a time when land was still relatively easily available and relatively affordable. This meant that large numbers of German immigrants were much less likely to remain in the cities, where organised crime is almost always focused, and much more likely to move on to find and farm land in some relatively remote rural location.

    A second significant group of immigrants were relatively well-off political dissidents, many of them fleeing Europe in the wake of the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848. Members of this group were much more likely to remain city-based, but they were often sufficiently wealthy and sufficiently well-educated to be able to take up middle class occupations, and they integrated into US society relatively quickly.

    Finally, members of both groups - being northern European and predominantly Protestant - also faced far less prejudice than did Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, and hence were much less likely to find themselves living in ghettos and denied opportunities - both key drivers in the development of organised crime among members of other ethnicities.

    250 votes
  • 3
    195 VOTES

    Why Did The Mafia Turn Stonewall Inn Into A Gay Bar?

    Redditor u/watercolor_ghost asked:

    Why did the Mafia turn the Stonewall Inn into a gay bar? Why would they be interested in doing that, and how exactly did a $3,500 investment "turn" it into a gay bar, in a practical sense?

    In response, redditor u/sunagainstgold answered: 

    It wasn't just Stonewall. In the 1960s, the Mafia (and specifically the Genovese mob family) was behind pretty much every bar in Manhattan that courted a gay clientele. And it wasn't just $3,500 startup - it was $1,200 a month after that, to ensure that the police and State Liquor Authority would allow Stonewall to reopen after each very frequent raid.

    The repeal of Prohibition may have restored Americans' right to drink alcohol, but municipalities and states found various ways to curtail gay people's ability to drink together in public. Los Angeles undercover cops would count the seconds they saw people kiss (in greeting, on New Years' Eve, whatever) and arrest or brutalize whatever they considered to transcend the line from celebration to queer. The favored tactic of the New York SLA [State Liquor Authority], of course, was to raid and shutter bars declared "disorderly[.]" 

    Things might have reached a breaking point around 1960. Out in California, a group of San Francisco gay bar owners had banded together to go public about the massive bribes they were paying police in order to remain open, the effect being, they exposed significant police corruption. This resulted in the effective closure of SF's 50 or so gay bars - but had ramifications across the country, too. In New York, only one bar managed to survive an initial 1960s shakedown and mass closure.

    But the earlier entrenched corruption of statutory violation, raid, bribe, reopen cycle became even more vicious in most places. In the 1960s in particular, therefore, the Mafia pretty much made New York's gay bar scene a treasured racket. They charged ridiculous cover fees and generally served cheap, lousy alcohol in exchange for the masquerade of protection from police raids. In fact, gay bars were raided as often as ever; just protection fees like the $1,200 Stonewall paid monthly meant the bars would be allowed to reopen afterwards. 

    Word of mouth that Stonewall (Cherry Lane Theater, Fifth Avenue Bar, etc.) were "periodically safe" places for gay people to drink and be gay in public was crucial for the Mafia to keep their gay bars profitable, particularly a complete dive like Stonewall for which the space was really the only attraction.

    In the middle of the 20th century, gay bars were a hot moneymaking opportunity for any shady criminal businessman or corrupt cop. In New York, the Mafia took particular control of the situation in the 1960s, including the fateful cultivation of Stonewall into the trashiest yet in some ways most emotionally significant in terms of "freedoms" permitted queer-clientele bar in the city.

    195 votes
  • 4
    246 VOTES

    Did J. Edgar Hoover And The FBI Deny The Mafia's Existence?

    Redditor u/AlphaChannel asked:

    I've read that J. Edgar Hoover denied the existence of the Mafia in America until the Appalachian Meeting made it impossible to do so. What was the reasoning behind this? Did he not believe [the] American Mafia to be a major problem, was he unaware, or did he just not want to publicly admit the issue?

    And Redditor u/rickybeingricky answered:

    The only way to explain Hoover's neglect in dealing with the Italian-American Mafia prior to the Appalachian Meeting in 1957 is to engage in speculative history. As Hoover was both incredibly powerful and intensely secretive, there is absolutely no way to know for sure what his reasoning was for avoiding serious investigation and prosecution of the Mafia before Appalachian. There are, however, at least three well-accepted theories about this, all of which are reasonably believable.

    First, Hoover likely avoided going after the Mafia because the Mafia had found evidence of Hoover's homosexuality. [T]he Mafia obtained this information two ways. The first was that there were photos of Hoover cross-dressing circulating around secretive channels that the Mafia likely obtained. The second way is that Hoover was caught engaging in homosexual behavior at a sex party by the wife of liquor distributor and Mafia ally Lewis Rosenstiel. [R]umors about Hoover's homosexuality had existed as early as the 1940s and if the Mafia had proof they would have certainly used that proof to blackmail Hoover into turning a blind eye to their activities.

    It is also probable that Hoover avoided prosecution of the Mafia because the FBI relied on Mafia figures as informants. Because the Mafia had information on the who's who of the criminal underworld they could provide information about Hoover's actual targets, whether Communist spies, Civil Rights leaders, or public figures or politicians suspected of engaging with the USSR. 

    Finally, while there are too many Hoover biographies to list here, there is consensus among historians that he had particular goals which changed at various points during his career and organized crime took a back seat between about 1935 and 1957 for the simple reason that Hoover's personal goals as a lawman changed. This is largely because Hoover spent much of his early career as a gangster hunter. He caught noted bank robbers such as John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly during this time and by 1935 when the FBI was created, Hoover put his gangster days behind him and used his newly increased investigative resources and manpower to pursue what he saw as the "big fish" of the criminal world. Gangsters were petty when compared to the Nazi and Communist collaborators that Hoover sought after 1935.

    246 votes
  • 5
    172 VOTES

    What Distinguished The Black Hand From The Mafia, And Who Was Really In Charge?

    Redditor u/td4999 asked:

    In The Godfather [P]art II, the Mafia emerged only after a proto-organized crime group, the Black Hand, was superseded. Was there anything that distinguished the Mafia from this group, other than who was giving orders?

    Redditor u/mikedash answered:

    Although the people who committed Black Hand and Mafia crimes, and the people who were targeted, were very largely Italian or Italian-American, the two had little else in common.

    To begin with, and despite the recent and quite heavily publicised book on the subject by Stephen Talty, the Black Hand was in effect a type of crime - extortion via threat of violence - and not a criminal organisation. There is some evidence that loosely organised groups committed more than one Black Hand crime, but none that there was a broad-based, permanently organised criminal group that operated under this name, or was labelled as such by the newspapers or the authorities.

    Conversely, and again despite quite a few efforts - most prominently those of [author] Joseph Albini - over the years to suggest that it was also little more than a label, inappropriately applied, there is considerable evidence that the Mafia was indeed a criminal organisation with specific leaders, membership requirements, and even membership rituals.

    It can also be helpful to look at dates. Mafia groups can be shown to have existed in Sicily from around the 1840s, and they were a significant feature of life on the island from the 1860s at least. From a US perspective, however[,] the identification and labelling of Black Hand crime, and the extensive newspaper coverage that resulted (which reached a peak when the famous opera singer Enrico Caruso was revealed to have made a hefty payment to Black Hand extortionists) was focused in the first decade of the last century, and therefore antedated most but not all Mafia activity in the US.

    We can sum up by saying that some Black Hand crime probably was Mafia related, but that the Black Hand was in no sense a rival or precursor operation to the Mafia. And a final key point to bear in mind was that Black Hand-style extortion was very much a "first generation" type of organised crime. While it certainly was possible in some cases to go back and extort a victim for a second time, it was much more a "slash-and-burn" type of crime, in which significant effort had to be made to achieve a single, albeit sometimes lucrative payoff, and which typically ruined the business that had been targeted. Later generations of organised criminals, including, famously, the main Mafia families, preferred what was known as the "dipping the beak" technique of extortion - taking much smaller sums, regularly, from a business that was thereby enabled to continue to operate indefinitely.

    The [extortion] letters, which were always anonymous, were often phrased in bizarrely courteous Old World language, but the underlying threat of violence was ever-present. "I beg you warmly," one such missive concluded, "to put them [the notes] on your door within four days. But if not, I swear this week’s time not even the dust of your family will exist."

    To many New Yorkers, including the reporters of the English-language press, the most compelling feature of these cases was the bizarre decorations that adorned the extortion letters. Demands were accentuated with crude drawings of skulls, revolvers and knives dripping with blood or piercing human hearts. Many also featured pictures of hands, in thick black ink, held up in the universal gesture of warning. It was this last feature that inspired a journalist writing for the New York Herald to refer to the communications as "Black Hand" letters - a name that stuck, and, indeed, soon became synonymous with crime in Little Italy.

    From there it was but a short step to the idea of the Black Hand as a distinct organisation, with its own leaders and hundreds, if not thousands, of members scattered through the country. The notion of a powerful, professional criminal conspiracy did seem to answer many questions, not least explaining why the authorities found it so very difficult to make arrests. 

    172 votes
  • 6
    181 VOTES

    How Much Of The Mafia's Decline In New York City Can Be Attributed To Rudy Giuliani?

    Redditor u/FelicianoCalamity asked: 

    Rudy Giuliani is often referred to as having completely broken the mob when he served as the US Attorney for SDNY. How much of the Mafia’s decline in the US, or even just NYC, since its heyday can actually be attributed to him personally?

    Redditor u/HomeAliveIn45 answered:

    In the 1950s and 1960s, especially when Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department took organized crime as a public priority, the feds quickly found they could easily arrest virtually any member of the mob they wanted, but they had enormous difficulty tying its leaders to the crimes of their underlings. See for example the Appalachian Meeting of 1957, in which some 60 bosses from various families were arrested and charged, but all their sentences for conspiracy to obstruct justice were overturned on appeal. The problem was that traditional Anglo-American common law required more evidence for inchoate crimes than could be gathered, particularly in the face of the Mafia’s code of silence.

    Enter RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act], which passed in 1970. RICO allows prosecutors to bring charges against a member of an organization for the enumerated crimes committed by any other member of that organization. Importantly this means that bosses could now be charged for the crimes of the capos and soldiers. Throughout the 1980s it was used very effectively to prosecute the mid and high level ranks, and did damage to the New York families. However, many prosecutors remained wary of it for some time, given how new and potentially unwieldy it could be (the first RICO case came to trial in 1979, 9 years after its passage).

    Thus, many high-ranking bosses went untouched. But Giuliani realized that RICO’s definition of an organization could be extended. RICO defines a criminal enterprise very broadly and very extensively; it can contain factions of La Cosa Nostra, your grandmother’s bridge group, a labor union... just about any association of people, official or otherwise. Giuliani realized that the families were close enough in their cooperation with one another that they could all plausibly be tied together as one single criminal organization. The very concept of the Mafia was itself an enterprise, and the bosses merely represented subdivisions of it. Most famously, 11 such leaders were tried together in the so-called “Commission Trial” (the Commission being the name of the panel of family leaders who periodically met to discuss business). Nine of the 11 were found guilty and sentenced to effective life sentences.

    The Mafia went even further underground than before, and generally abandoned any activity that would bring them unwanted attention (particularly public acts of violence). Ask any average American today if the Mafia still exists and they will probably say no, or shrug at most. That is exactly the response the families want; to return to the days before the Appalachian Meeting when they were more of a scary bedtime story than a real threat. The Commission allegedly still meets, though nobody knows where or how often. From a legal perspective, Giuliani’s prosecutions are more laudable for the innovative use of RICO rather than for their impact on the mob.

    181 votes