Imagine living in a world where crime ruled. A world where gangsters were more powerful than politicians, owned the police, and ran the city in whatever way they felt. They robbed whom they wanted and killed when they didn’t get their way. Now stop imagining and realize that this happened here in the United States of America in the 1920’s. It was run by an organization made up mainly of Italians called the Mafia.
The word Mafia itself has many meanings. In Arabic it means “refuge”, which refers to the origins of the Mafia as a society that fled to the hills of Italy to avoid attack. Some Italians hold it as a word of high respect implying strength, courage, agility, quickness, endurance, and intelligence (Brief History 2). This is why being a member of the Mafia is such an honor to its members. Another meaning of the word refers to the Mafia’s origins as an acronym in Italian, Morte Alla Franciese Italia Annela. This translates to “Death to French is Italy’s Cry” in reference to Italian’s distaste for the French during their invasions in the 1800’s.
The Mafia originated in Sicily as a secret society to unite Sicilian natives against invasions by France and Arabs in the late 1800’s. These Mafia members led a revolt against the French and Arabs and gained power over time. As time progressed, the Mafia controlled the government, banks, and police activity and turned to crime for profit. A Mafia-run Sicily prospered until the rise of Benito Mussolini. As an advocate of socialism, he began to crack down on Mafia activity in Italy (Brief History 2). This forced many of the prominent mob bosses to flee America where they would prosper for a decade and a half.
As complicated as it might be, the Mafia revolves around one basic principle called Omerta. Omerta is an oath in which every official member of the Mafia must be sworn in under. This code states that all family-based activities are above all domestic family matters in the home, it enforces silence, a strike upon another member is like a strike on the boss himself. Violating any of these laws is punishable by death with no trial or remorse (Whizkid01 3). This one value is what kept Mafia families powerful and prosperous.
As the Mafia grew in America, they prospered off illegal gambling and prostitution. It wasn’t until 1919 with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that the Mafia really gained power. The 18th amendment banned the distribution and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages in America (Prohibition 2). Although this amendment meant nothing but good, it did the exact opposite to America. While politicians saw an improved nation with this amendment, criminals saw green. Americans now thought drinking as a thrill, it was something illegal that they can do but get away with. It was the rush of getting away with it that made speakeasies so popular. Speakeasies were Mafia-run entertainment clubs, consisting of an open bar of the finest bootlegged liquor along with dining and entertainment (Prohibition 5).
One of the most successful Mafia bosses involved in bootlegging and prostitution was Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He was born in 1897 in Sicily, Italy. At the age of 9 he moved to the Lower East Side of New York. In 1920 he began his own prostitution ring in New York. By 1925 he had control of all the prostitution rackets in Manhattan. He moved into bootlegging along with Meyer Lansky in 1931. That same year, he organized a meeting for all the families in New York after the execution of his rival, Masseria in order to maintain peace. The organization of the five families was based on Caesar’s ruling of the Roman Empire, enforcing organization and discipline and the code of Omerta. Although all the money he made was illegal, Luciano still reported all taxes and kept his paper work clean. However, he did not escape the wrath of the hungry Thomas E Dewey, a powerful district attorney. The underworld mastermind was brought up on 90 charges of racketeering but was released unscathed. Luciano and the US worked a deal where Luciano would expose vital facts about Italy regarding a US invasion. “Lucky” was granted deportation to Italy without prison time where he would perish in 1962 (Charles 3).
Meyer Lansky was a man described by Luciano as “the toughest guy, pound for pound, I have ever met”. This was a lot to say about a Russian mob boss that stood only 5 feet tall. Lanksy’s intelligence, toughness, and organizational skills brought him to the top and earned him respect from fellow New York crime bosses. Lansky began his criminal activity in his teen years by studying gambling operations. Upon learning all the tricks, he would hustle others out of their money using his wits. He became a blue-collar worker until the Prohibition Era began. It was then that he turned to a full life of crime. Teaming up with Bugsy Siegel, they formed a one-two combination of brains and brawn. Siegel and Lansky were brought up under the wing of Anastasia Rothstein, the powerful New York boss responsible for the fixing of the 1919 World Series (Meyer 3). Lanksy came up by forming a liquor distribution business with Rothstein and Lucky Luciano. They would distribute liquor to speakeasies and rival families and gain great profits and power. Upon the repeal of prohibition with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, Lansky turned to gambling. He helped develop gambling rackets in Saratoga, Arkansas, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Florida. He died at the age of 83, a rich man with assets in Cuba, Vegas, and New York (Meyer 6).
Not only did Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky have a large influence on organized crime, but the nation felt the wrath of Dutch Schultz as well. The “Dutchman” as he was called began by driving beer trucks and bartending at speakeasies. He later became a beer wholesaler, selling to his rivals. He gained a ruthless reputation by forcing his rivals to buy from him. He set an example once by hanging a man by his thumbs and placing a bandage dipped in ghonerrea discharge, later blinding the man (Dutch 2). Schultz would then expand into shaking down each restaurant and taxing them. If they did not pay the tax, the restaurant would be sabotaged or the owner would meet death. Schultz came under serious heat from FBI for 4 years but they were unsuccessful in 2 tries of tax evasion. The Dutchman met his downfall on October 23, 1935 when he was shot dead in his favorite restaurant (
Perhaps the most infamous of all gangsters that operated during the Prohibition Era was Alphonse “Scarface” Capone. He was born in 1899 to immigrant Italian parents in Brooklyn, New York where he would reside until 1919. In that time he had joined the James Street Gang, led by Jonny Torrio. Torrio would later move away but call Al in 1919 when Capone was in trouble with the law (Alphonse 3). After that phone call Alphonse as his mother called him would then move to Chicago to work as a bouncer at one of Torrio’s night clubs. Through the years Capone would become closer and closer to Torrio while gaining power in the Chicago mob syndicate. When Torrio was hospitalized and retired he gave the family business to Capone, took 30 million dollars with him and moved back to New York (Alphonse 4). “Scarface” as he was called due to 3 large scars on the side of his face aquired in a bar fight was now the most powerful mobster in Chicago. He gave the people what they wanted, booze, prostitution and gambling and became a star and a millionaire.
Although it seemed like it was impossible for Al Capone to be hated by the public, he quickly lost his popularity after one of the bloodiest recorded days of February. This day is now called “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”. Capone felt that his enemy, Bugs Moran needed to be eliminated. The plan was to negotiate a false liquor deal and take him out. The gunmen dressed up as police to raid the deal, stood 7 of Moran’s men on the wall and opened fire. Lucky for Bugs he was a block away running late. Reports of this massacre ran rampant through Chicago but no connection could be made to Capone as he sat in his Miami home, thousands of miles away from any massacre. This brought bad publicity to Capone and all mobsters, as murder was not something the public loved about him. Capone died in 1947 in Miami after suffering a brain hemorrhage (Alponse 7).
Even past the mob’s height of success, there are alleged ties between the Mafia and the 35th president of the United States, John F Kennedy. Chicago mob boss “Momo” Johnson did Kennedy a favor by “raising the dead” and stuffing the ballots in the 1960 presidential election where JFK won by 1/10th of a point. Kennedy then made the mistake of disassociating himself from his Mafia associates and refused to return the favor. These alleged acts form an assassination theory pointing the finger at the Mafia for the hit. It was not only because of the un-returned favors, but JFK and his brother Bobby who was attorney general led a crackdown on organized crime. Convictions involving the mob soared from 35 to 288 in 2 years. This did not make Mafia leaders happy, which is an acceptable motive for Kennedy’s assassination (Fox 308).
The speculation surrounding Kennedy’s assassination is visible in the film. JFK is first hit in the throat and bounces forward. The fatal shot came from the front making it obvious that there must have been two shooters, going against the Warren Commission’s reports blaming Lee Harvey Oswald for the killing. With hundreds of investigations and dozens of theories, perhaps no one will ever know the truth.
In conclusion, the Mafia made a great impact on society in its more prosperous days. During prohibition, the Mafia forced the development of the ATF as well as Hoover’s development of the FBI. They had ties with a president and could be responsible for his assassination. Their impact stretched amongst the decades and will continue as long as they have power.