The mob life has fascinated Americans for decades. With movies like The Godfather and The Departed as well as hit TV shows like The Sopranos, there's a sort of cultural obsession with the lifestyle of mobsters. The obsession continues to this day, as do the syndicate's many underground activities.
The Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, the mob: many names, all the same thing. Families and individuals fighting for power, blood oaths, racketeering - these are just some of the key features we picture from this perilous lifestyle. But what was it really like to be a part of the Mafia? What did people think of infamous mobsters like Al Capone and Meyer Lansky? Some of the accounts are filled with fear and violence, as expected. But in others, you'll find surprising details about what it was truly like being involved in Mafia life.
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Sicilian Mafia Hitman Maurizio Avola On His Formal Ceremony
Maurizio Avola became a full-fledged member of the Sicilian Mafia in 1983, when he committed his first murder on the mob's behalf at the age of 21. Despite the fact that his family ran their own restaurant and had nothing to do with the Mafia, Avola found his way into the fold. After the murder, he was officially initiated:
During the ceremony my finger was pricked with a needle in the presence of my godfather. Drops of my blood were burnt over the image of a saint while I took the oath. I was struck by the formal declaration of the rules; never introduce yourself as a member of the mafia to another associate, never desire the woman of another member, never kill another member unless authorised to do so by the head of the family, never use prostitutes and never speak to the police. I soon learnt other rules.
Avola was careful to play by the rules for many years, and admitted to killing 80 people. After his arrest, and realizing former associates wanted him dead, Avola broke the rules and revealed information about his former associates and the entire mob that led to more than 100 arrests.
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Michael Franzese On His Initiation
Mafia initiations are often depicted on the screen, but rarely do we know if those depictions are accurate. Michael Franzese, who spent 20 years in the mob following in his father's footsteps, recalled that on the night of his 1975 initiation, he didn't know it was happening. He was instructed to drive to a catering hall, and to wear a suit. After entering the dimly lit room and facing all of the bosses, the 24-year-old's finger was cut with a knife. He recalled:
Then I was told to cup my hands. They took a picture of a saint, a Catholic altar card, lit it and put it in my hands. It burnt, but didn’t hurt because it burnt quick.
They said: this is the oath. Tonight, Michael Franzese, you are born again into a new life, into La Cosa Nostra. Betray your brothers, betray your oath, and you will die and burn in hell like this saint is burning in your hand. Do you accept? And I said "yes."
Franzese went on to explain why he was attracted to that life, and why the initiation at the time meant so much to him:
When I came into the life, they told me, "Michael, wherever you go in the world, we’re always going to have your back. You never have to worry about your mother, your wife, your sister." To me that was very powerful[.]
Frank DiMatteo grew up in the 1960s - and also grew up in the mob. His father was an enforcer for the Gallo brothers, and his uncle reached the rank of capo (similar to captain) in the Genovese crime family. At a young age, DiMatteo started hanging out with associates of the Gallo crime family and witnessed firsthand the brutal war for power between the Gallos and the Colombo crime family.
After he left the life on his own terms, DiMatteo reflected on how he slowly came to realize what kind of life he'd been born into:
By 12 or 13, I knew who everybody was. By 13, I was driving, and I started learning about the life. By then, I knew exactly what was going on, so I was privy to a few things, but not much. I didn't go kill nobody at 13, but I was going to the clubs with them. Driving them here and there because I was tall. I looked like I do now, just a lot younger. I was six foot at 13. These guys went to a lot of restaurants, a lot of clubs, topless joints. Driving is basically how I learned what was going on.
When asked what "Crazy Joe" Gallo was like, DiMatteo had much to say about the mob boss who passed in 1972:
Joey was a scary guy. His eyes gleamed. He smiled. He wasn't the guy to joke with. But on the other side, if you're with him, there's nothing to fear. But Joey sowed his oats when he came home.
Joey was staying in the city with my godfather and Pete the Greek. We'd see him once a week if [we] were lucky. He would come down to the club. He was a nutty guy. Functional, but legitimately nuts. He had no fear. He was like the throwback of the 1920s gangsters. He thought he could move around and do what he wanted, say what he wanted. He didn't think nobody was going to shoot him, nobody had the balls to do it, so that's how he functioned. But we know he was wrong. He was only out [of jail] a year when they killed him.
Even Mafia novices have heard the name Al Capone. Rising to fame among the Chicago outfit, Capone became a mob boss, eliminating competition and rival gangs along the way. Deirdre Capone, the grandniece of the infamous mobster, eventually left Chicago and tried to hide all evidence of her ties to "Uncle Al." She succeeded, but later in life decided to write a book on what it was like growing up around Capone. She reflected on her great-uncle in a subsequent interview:
He was a mobster, but he was not a monster. [B]ack in the 1920s, the people in the gambling, prostitution, and liquor businesses practiced something that was called “omerta.” Omerta was basically the code of silence and meant, “don’t talk to an[y]body. You don’t know anything and you didn’t see anything.” They all lived by that code. Because of that, when somebody was written about in the newspaper, they didn’t know the person’s character.
She went on to describe the racket her grandfather and great-uncle ran in Chicago:
My grandfather’s business included only three things - gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. He swore to me that no innocent person was ever harmed, no child was ever in danger, and no woman was ever made to do something she did not choose to do. So, when they started seeing a different element coming into the business, they chose to get out... They’d get into business with one another and they could trust each other. A handshake meant it was a deal. People watched your back. Nobody got into that business without knowing those rules. If someone broke his word, there had to be retaliation.
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Karen Gravano On Her Father Salvatore Gravano
Karen Gravano knows what it's like growing up in the Mafia, hence her show titled Families of the Mafia. She knew her father was important by the way people treated him when he entered the room, but she never quite understood why. One day, he sat her down to explain what he was involved in:
He told me I would probably start hearing some things about his life and he wanted to explain it in the best way he knew how. He told me some men in Italy had formed a secret group and vowed always to protect each other and their families - even if it meant stealing or hurting other people. Then he told me he was part of that same group here in America. It didn't sound scary to me - it was nice to know we were being looked after.
But things changed when she was 19. Realizing that the FBI was going to arrest him for various crimes, her father "turned rat":
I was horrified. We'd always had it drummed into us never to "grass" on people: when my brother and I fought as children, we'd both be punished - one for fighting, the other for telling. Now I felt Dad had betrayed us all and I refused to move with my family when they joined the witness protection program.
In return for his cooperation, Dad received a reduced prison sentence of five years. It took me all that time to forgive him, but now, with a daughter of my own, I understand how he was trying to protect us, using the only power he had left.
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Luigi Di Cicco On His Father's Life Of Crime
Luigi Di Cicco was born in the mid-1970s and grew up in the Italian Mafia. His father and uncles were deeply entrenched in the Naples mob, referred to as the Camorra. His father, Giuseppe, was in prison when Luigi was born, and wasn't released until his son was in his 20s. Two of Luigi's uncles were killed in broad daylight when he was 11.
Raids on the family home were not uncommon, but the younger Di Cicco tried to avoid acknowledging the life of crime that surrounded him and had put his father in prison:
I only knew he was the Boss of this family who governed most of our zone[.] As for the rest I've never wanted to go into it. I've never wanted to go into the details, sincerely, to understand... if he'd been accused of murdering two, or three. I was always in the dark.
Because of who his father was, Luigi was treated with respect by everyone in town. Many assumed he would become the next capo in a short time. However, Giuseppe always encouraged Luigi to choose a different life:
I knew my father was in jail because he hadn't done good things. My dad made a choice. A wrong one. But he never made me make the same choice. He could have - but he didn't.