How Lemons Gave Rise To One Of The Largest Criminal Organizations

The suavely portrayed organized crime ring in The Godfather was allegedly predicated on a cultural zest for lemons. Dating back to Sicily in the mid-1800s, the relationship between lemons and the Italian Mafia emerged when a weak, corrupt government and a highly profitable fruit market led to an opportunity for extortion. This situation also contributed to the so-called protectionism measures for which the Sicilian Mafia - Cosa Nostra - is still known. 

It may seem strange a particular food could spawn conflict and one of the most successful crime organizations in the world. However, it makes sense if you understand the basis for the high global demand for lemons - this citrus fruit helped prevent scurvy. Plus, lemons are challenging to grow, and Sicily's temperate climate proved ideal for cultivating lemons. Citrus producers had to become self-reliant when protecting their groves from opportunistic racketeers, though. Enter the Sicilian Mafia. 

Sophisticated food crimes still crop up now and then, but lemon racketeering is long gone. Regardless, this demand for citrus catalyzed the Sicilian Mafia, which still operates in both Sicily and the United States. Major mob busts in the US occurred in 2011, when the feds apprehended 127 members, as well as in 2016, when more than 40 associates faced charges for racketeering. Sicily continues to fight the Mafia as well, but with variable success.

Life handed the Mafia lemons, and they certainly made lemonade - along with a thriving global organization.

  • One Naval Surgeon Found Citrus Could Stop Scurvy, And The Lemon Market Boomed
    Photo: Design Build Love / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    One Naval Surgeon Found Citrus Could Stop Scurvy, And The Lemon Market Boomed

    In the mid-18th century, James Lind was a surgeon's mate in the British Navy. He experimented on fellow sailors with lemons, garlic, cider, vinegar, and saltwater before surmising scurvy prevention was possible by consuming citrus. Before Lind's realization, lemons weren't something people ate - the citrus fruit was a luxury for the rich, meant for decorating, not consumption. Once Lind's discovery gained widespread recognition, however, it changed everything. 

    In only 13 years, from 1837 to 1850, lemon juice exports from Sicily increased from 740 barrels to nearly 21,000. The amount of land used for citrus expanded from 19,000 acres to more than 66,000 acres. The market was booming, and money followed. Growing citrus was lucrative for farmers - about 60 times the average profit per hectare when compared with the rest of Sicily. It's no surprise many farmers jumped on the lemon train. 

  • Scurvy Is The Debilitating And Often Deadly Result Of Vitamin C Deficiency
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    Scurvy Is The Debilitating And Often Deadly Result Of Vitamin C Deficiency

    Caused by vitamin C deficiency, scurvy can lead to anemia, exhaustion, spontaneous bleeding, limb pain, swelling, and ulcers in the gums - meaning you could lose your teeth.

    Scurvy has a well-established association with pirates and sailors. During the buccaneers' peak when they embarked on long sea voyages for trade and exploration, it was nearly impossible for men on ships to get adequate nutrition. If left untreated, scurvy could become fatal.

    People at sea weren't the only ones falling victim to scurvy. The Irish Potato Famine in 1845, the American Civil War, and a post-drought Afghanistan all contributed to vitamin deficiencies and scurvy.

  • The Sicilian Economy Set Up The Mafia For Success
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    The Sicilian Economy Set Up The Mafia For Success

    The rise of the Sicilian Mafia isn't solely attributed to lemons. However, the surge in lemons' popularity certainly gave the Mafia a necessary economic boost to secure influence. Sicilians were poverty-stricken, and the weak government created conditions conducive to racketeering. When there is a lack of enforcement and adequate protection, people tend to turn to other avenues - and in this case, the Mafia was ready and waiting to offer their services... at a price. 

    During the burgeoning citrus market of the 1800s, Sicily operated under a feudal system: peasants primarily worked while landowners claimed the profits. Middlemen, called gabelloti, served as intermediaries between the peasants and landowners. After revolt and restructure in the early 1800s, the middlemen in Sicily took more control.

    This change may sound like a step in the right direction for Sicilians, but this was not the case. The gabelloti hired guards to protect the land due to fear of thieves; this was a significant step toward the Sicilian Mafia's development. In 1860, when Sicily became a part of Italy proper, smaller citrus farms popped up.

    Those small farms, of course, had to hire guards to prevent thieves. Anyone who couldn't afford guards was at the mercy of the gabelloti. Having to deal with the gabelloti, guards, or thieves, landowners turned to the Mafia for protection. 

  • The Mafia Formed To Stop People From Stealing Lemons
    Photo: Matt c j486 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Mafia Formed To Stop People From Stealing Lemons

    Thieves began stealing lemons, so farmers had to protect their valuable commodities somehow. They hired men to guard the lemons, and before long, this newly formed Sicilian Mafia was thriving. Researchers determined the connection between lemons and the Mafia by looking at 19th-century Mafia activity and citrus production. Sure enough, there was a strong correlation. 

    A first-person account from 1872 illustrates how quickly the situation turned severe. Gaspare Galati inherited a Sicilian citrus farm. Galati knew the farm's warden was stealing, so he fired him. Soon afterward, however, the new warden died in the lemon grove due to a fatal gunshot. 

    Galati received death threats demanding he hire the old warden back. Galati was an upstanding citizen, but the police and judges wouldn't support him. Consequently, Galati left Sicily and took his family to Naples.

    Galati's experience wasn't an isolated one. Historians believe anyone in the citrus market from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s had to cooperate with the Mafia. Lemon producers were victims of extortion and intimidation, funding the group as a result. 

  • Cultivating Lemons Is Difficult And Time-Consuming
    Photo: rarehero / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Cultivating Lemons Is Difficult And Time-Consuming

    Other than their anti-scurvy properties, lemons were highly valued in the 19th century because its cultivation is difficult. Lemon trees can't grow in many places, and it takes seven or eight years for a lemon tree to produce fruit. 

    Sicily started growing citrus in the 11th century. The region has a year-round temperate climate and fertile soil. Consistent warmth is key to lemon production; after exposure to low temperatures for a few minutes, the citrus flowers and fruits wither. Sicily's perfect setup for lemon cultivation allowed citrus producers to harvest twice a year, making the market especially lucrative. 

    This massive investment in time and labor made producers wary of thieves and criminals; it's logical they would turn to someone to protect their resources, considering the government proved too uninvolved. Likewise, the Mafia wisely targeted lemons and not something else. Why go for wheat or olives when lemons are easy to steal and could result in higher profits?

  • The Mafia's Hold In Italy Faltered - Then The US Helped Them Get It Back
    Photo: Muzej Revolucije Narodnosti Jugoslavije / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Mafia's Hold In Italy Faltered - Then The US Helped Them Get It Back

    When Benito Mussolini rose to power, he considered the Mafia a threat to his fascist regime. In 1926, he designated a prefect Cesare Mori to cleanse Italy of the Mafia. Mori was relatively successful and convicted hundreds of Mafiosi. Those who escaped fled to the United States, hoping to re-establish their stronghold there. 

    The United States, wanting to free Italy from Mussolini's rule, looked to Italian mob bosses for help. Two mob bosses already incarcerated in US prisons, Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, agreed to help the United States in return for commuted prison sentences.

    The United States eventually reached out to Sicilian bosses as well. All parties agreed the Mafia bosses would remain in Sicily to keep control. The Mafia dove into rebuilding their influence, which faltered under Mussolini, buying politicians' favor for votes and the ability to infiltrate entire neighborhoods. 

    A Mafia presence in both Italy and the United States led to drug trafficking between the two groups starting in the late 1950s - likely more lucrative than stealing lemons. The Mafia remained strong, thriving well into the 1990s.