top of page
  • J. Sutton

The Italian Mafia & The Formation of Cosa Nostra

The now infamous Italian Mafia aka the Cosa Nostra is an international criminal organisation, who have for many years come up with new ways to make money and evade taxes. Creating a global impact that authorities have been unable to ignore. From stealing millions of tax dollars through racketeering, money laundering via casinos, running protection rackets, to carrying out assassinations on fellow mafia members and Court Judges, the Italian mafia have made their mark in history as some of the most notorious criminal organisations in the world.

Both feared and respected by the general population there isn't much they have not been involved with in the criminal underworld, the corporate world, the political world and even the media. But where did it all begin? Criminal Behaviours takes a look into the Italian Mafia and the formation of Cosa Nostra.

The Italian Mafia formed slowly over time in West Sicily just after 1700's, initially they were small gangs of thieves and extortionists.

They were first referred to as mafiusi and were not thought of as organised but instead as more opportunistic criminals that committed crime in groups these groups were later termed mafia coschi.

The first structure of the mafiusi noteworthy of being deemed organised criminals was linked with trade and local agriculture during the 1800's around Palermo. This was considered the property and trading hub of Sicily it had a dense population for that time and a strong market for trade. These factors made it one of the more wealthy places in Sicily with global connections to trade.

There was no strict governing by the state over Sicily's trade and land meaning various groups of people would try to take advantage of local farmers and traders. Crops would be sabotaged or stolen and at times destroyed. The local farmers knew the local coschi were feared and known for being tough and forceful so hired mafiusi to guard their land and crop, stopping others from sabotaging it. They would also negotiate deals for the farmers in the sale and trade of their produce.

"Neither the Bourbon regime (1816–1860), nor the newly formed government after Italian independence in 1861 had the strength or the means to effectively enforce private property rights. Lemon producers, therefore, resorted to hiring mafia affiliates for private protection and to act as intermediaries between the retailers and exporters in the harbors." Dimico, A. et al. (2017)

For a time this worked well, however this relationship between land owners and mafiusi wasn't always plain sailing. The land owners were taxed for this service this charge would increase as their business increased. If the landowners and farmers didn't pay their tax there would be repercussions at times severe ones. Farmers would have their crops destroyed for example meaning they were left with no income or any other way to sustain their living.

The Mafia didn't begin to gain power and influence until 1861 when they became allies of the Italian State, this was the time they started to become very structured and became more of an organisation rather than just a protection racket. The Mafias power had its biggest change during the unification of Italy with Sicily. During this unification the Italians needed a way to gain favour with the people in Sicily especially with those involved with trade and land ownership. Knowing the mafia did business with the locals and also had these land protection deals with farmers they knew they would make useful allies.

They made an agreement with the local mafia that they would turn a blind eye to their protection rackets in exchange for votes from the people to ensure unification. The mafia agreed to this and proceeded to influence the peoples vote for the Italian State.

There is a well known documented case of how the mafia at this time operated. The story of Dr Gaspare Galati an account from a surgeon who had seen the bad side of the mafia. This was documented by Dr Galati and then sent to the authorities as a formal complaint who then later verified it as a factual account.

In 1872 Dr Galatis family members inherited property in Malaspina just outside of Palermo. The property the Fondo Riella was a lemon and tangerine fruit farm a large amount of land belonged to the estate. The previous owner (Galatis brother in law) had died of a heart attack. Shortly before his death he was under a tremendous amount of stress and had been receiving threats in letters.

Upon further investigation Dr Galati found out the person who was threatening his brother in law was his employee, a site warden Benedetto Carollo who was hired as security to guard the land. Galati found out that this warden was in receipt of between 20-25% of the farms income. He also found out that over time Benedetto had been sabotaging the crop to run down the farms income and in turn affecting the properties value, his plan was to wait until the owners were in dire finances and then offer to buy the property from them.

Dr Galatis discovery of this prompted him to fire Carollo and rehire a new warden for the land, he did this despite locals and friends advising him not to. On the 2nd of July 1874 the man he hired was shot multiple times in the back along a dirt track that passed between the lemon groves of the property. Over time he received letters saying

"he had been wrong to sack 'a man of honour' like Carollo and hire an ' abject spy' instead. They threatened that if he did not re-employ Carollo, he was going to meet the same end as his warden." Dickie, J. (2007)

People like Carollo give a good example of how the mafia differed to their previous identities as outlaws and thieves. He had a plan that was structured which he executed over time, he infiltrated himself into the business of the Fondo Riella, he influenced the trading deals of the farm and took a cut, he understood how the business operated and took financial advantage of the vulnerable people involved with the business such as the farmer. He established influence over the locals who clearly feared his reactions to things that went against him, this was seen when friends and locals warned Dr Galati to rehire him.

The Italian Mafias establishment, organisation and rise to power in Sicily was closely related to their political and state allies. Them building a relationship with those in powerful positions along with business and land owners inadvertently made them much more powerful and influential.

Before this the mafia had just been described as a clan of outlaws and thieves, their only structure was to the degree they operated in groups, had a common goal that they worked together over a period of time to achieve. Their overall success was a symptom of circumstance and opportunity offered by the Italian State although the states intention was to gain the vote, indirectly they gave the mafia the opportunity to become a strong influencing force in Sicily who at the time were both feared and respected by Sicilians.

Cosa Nostra

The Cosa Nostra was formed officially in the 1930's during the time of Charles Luciano and the formation of the commision in New York, USA.

During the time of prohibition there was an opening for those like Luciano to take advantage of the production, distribution and sale of Alcohol from 1926 -1933 this propelled the Italian American Mafia into wealth and in turn giving them access to those who were more rich and powerful than the regular man on the street.

Again the rise to wealth and power of the Italian American Mafia inadvertently came from the actions of the state this time however it was the American Government. Their sudden law change prohibiting the production, distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol meant that almost overnight the demand for alcohol was overwhelming. This resulted in people like Luciano seeing a gap in the market and under the mentorship of other more experienced mafia members Luciano established an underground criminal empire of speakeasies (underground bars) and alcohol production.

During Luciano's time in America he rose in mafia ranks pretty rapidly, starting out his life of crime as a youngster he was already a well known name in the mafia underworld. Luciano became part of the Masseria Family the most established Italian Mafia family in New York at the time he worked directly under the boss Gieuseppi “Joe the Boss” Masseria. After the death of Salvatore Maranzano another powerful mafia boss, Joe the boss would eventually go on to be executed on April 15, 1931 and Luciano took his place as head of the Masseria family.

With both of the biggest names in American Italian mafia gone Luciano was boss of bosses he called a meeting to put into place the restructure and re-organisation of what is now known today as Cosa Nostra. At that current time the Italian Mafia had structured the American Italian mafia into 5 original New York families Maranzano, Profaci, Mangano, Luciano, and Gagliano families.

During this sit down Luciano proposed that instead of a capo di tutti i capi (boss of all the bosses) that the structure should be more like a company with a board of commissioners that make decisions collectively. Effectively eliminating a boss of all bosses and equalising the vote of the representatives (caporegime) of each family.

Each one of the 5 families would be represented by a caporegime (like a CEO) this person would be known as the capo and when big decisions had to be made there would be a vote of all the capos. The syndicate or commission would be made up of the 5 established Italian American Mafia families of that time.

The Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese families are what these 5 families are currently known as.

Other than these changes in structure Cosa Nostra maintained other traditions from the Italian/Sicilain mafia such as becoming made and being initiated, having bloodline links to Italy, practicing omertà and continuing to follow the ten commandments of the mafia.

In conclusion although the Italian Mafia and Cosa Nostra (Italian American Mafia) are closely related they are not one in the same and should be thought of as two separate organisations that are connected through history and circumstance. It is true that one would not exist without the other but the way they operate and the obvious move away from Italian traditions are an example that they are to be seen and want to be seen as different from one another.

Initiation into Cosa Nostra becoming a made member

As discussed above in order to become a fully fledged active member of cosa nostra specific criteria must be met. This does not mean you are made on that criteria alone, there are other things that must be done first to prove you are dedicated to "the life" you essentially become a "recruit" this is your pledge period during this time you are on call 24/7 the family come before anything else. You are given jobs during this time they will be a mix of serious jobs and more mundane tasks.

Anything you are told to do you do it no questions asked.

Once you get passed this initiation stage you will be called in to be sworn into the family, this pledge is for life.

During this ceremony a card of a saint is lit on fire and placed in the palm of the recruits hand, their finger is then pricked with a pin to draw blood these are symbolic acts to represent your oath and lifelong commitment to them.

The head of the family will explain if they ever violate the oath of cosa nostra they will burn in hell like the saint that burns in their hand. The allegiance to cosa nostra is bound in blood, their blood. Should they ever violate the oath they have taken their blood will be shed.

They are told they will obey the laws of omertà and not speak on the secrets, traditions or business of cosa nostra outside of cosa nostra. The ten commandments of the cosa nostra are then explained to them.

They will then be asked if they accept and understand the blood oath and blood tie of cosa nostra, once they accept they are deemed as born into the family and are referred to as amico nostro (a friend of ours).

Testimonies given by former mafia members who have been initiated into the American Italian Mafia explaining the process of becoming a Made Man have been divulged over time. They explain the process of taking the oath of Omerta and what happens during the initiation. The initiation pretty much stays the same according to each members accounts. Two of these accounts are included below, the first being the testimony of Salvatore Gravano the second being an account by former Colombo caporegime Michael Franzese.

Salvatore Gravano aka Sammy the Bull was an Underboss in the Gambino family for John Gotti, In 1991 Sammy turned state witness and gave testimony in court detailing the moments he became a made man in court. He did this during direct examination and questioning by John Gleeson Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1992. He identified Paul Castellano as the man who swore him into the family.

Below is an excerpt of Gravano's court testimony taken from the 1992 Gotti Trial.

"He [Paul Castellano] asked me if I liked everybody there. I told him yes. He asked me a few questions. One of the last questions he asked me was would I kill, if he asked me to. I told him yes. He told me what was my trigger finger. I pointed to my trigger finger. He pinched it, blood came out. He put it on the saint, and started to burn the saint and my hand.

He said, honor the oath. He said, to me, that if I divulge any of the secrets of this organization, that my soul should burn like the saint. I kissed him on both cheeks. I kissed everybody. I went around the table and kissed everybody. I sat down. They got up. They locked hands. They unlocked hands. They made me get in the middle of it. They locked hands again, and told me, at that point, I was part of the brotherhood. I was a made member and I belonged." - Salvatore Gravano 1992

Michael Franzese was a caporegime for the Colombo Family from 1980 - 1995. His father Sonny Franzese was an Underboss in the Colombo family, Sonny became a made member in 1950 and by 1963 he had risen to the rank of Underboss. It was at Sonny's recommendation that his son Michael was to be initiated into the family. Michael was recommended by Sonny's long-term associate Jo Jo Vitacco. Michael describes this initiation in his 1991 book Blood Covenant. He is taken to an associates office upon entering the room he see's the heads of the family sitting in chairs forming a U shape, his account of what happened next is below.

"In the exact middle of the U was Tom DiBella, the family boss. To DiBellas left was the family consigliere Alphonse ‘allie boy’ Persico, Carmine’s brother. (Normally the family underboss would have been to DiBellas right, but at that time there was no underboss)

I stood in front of DiBella. “Are you ready to take the oath of La Cosa Nostra?” the big man asked. “Yes” I answered. “OK cup your hands”. I did as I was told and a small piece of paper materialised into Bella’s hand DiBella lit it and dropped the flaming paper into the pocket formed by my hands. “If you ever violate the oath of La Cosa Nostra may you burn in Hell how like the fire burning in your hand”, he warned. I felt only a tinge of heat as the paper was quickly consumed the act was purely symbolic, not, as some believe a show of toughness or of the ability to withstand pain.

DiBella grabbed my right hand and in his, big rough hand held up my thumb, and pricked it with a pin. It stung. As the blood formed into fat drop DiBella squeezed my thumb. The drop of blood became too heavy and spilled to the floor. Looking down, I could see the splatter drops of blood from the two recruits who had come before me. “This is a blood tie he intoned your allegiance to La Cosa Nostra is bound by blood. Should you ever violate this oath your blood will be shed.” - Michael Franzese 1991

Once a man is made he is then told the rules of Cosa Nostra to not abide by these rules can result in death.

The rules of the Italian Mafia aka "The ten commandments of the mafia

During a property raid on suspected Italian Mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo's home in 2007 a document was recovered. On this document was a list of rules pertaining to cosa nostra, these rules specify what is and is not accepted of a member of the mafia.

These rules are part of the oath you take during the initiation ceremony into the mafia, breaking these rules can be punishable by death.

The transcript for the original document in Italian

Giuro di essere fedele "a cosa nostra' se dovessi tradire le mie carni devono bruciare - come brucia questa immagine.

Divieti e doveri.

Non ci si può presentare da soli ad un' altro amico nostro - si non e' un terzo a farlo.

Non si guardano mogli di amici nostri.

Non si fanno comparati con gli sbirri.

Non si frequentano ne' taverne e ne' circoli.

Si e' il dovere in qualsiasi momento di essere disponibile a cosa nostra anche se ce la moglie che sta per partorire.

Si rispettano in maniera categorica gli appuntamenti.

Si ci deve portare rispetto alla moglie.

Quando si e' chiamati a sapere qualcosa si dovrà' dire la verita' non ci si può' appropriare de soldi che sono di altri e di altre famiglie.

Chi non può entrare a far parte di cosa nostra.​

Chi ha un parente stretto nelle varie forze dell' ordine.

Chi ha tradimenti sentimentali in famiglia.

Chi ha un comportamento pessimo - e che non tiene ai valori morali.

The transcript of the translated document in English

I swear to be faithful "to our thing" if I were to betray my flesh they must burn - how this image burns.

Prohibitions and duties.

You cannot introduce yourself to another friend of ours - yes, no third party does.

We don't look at wives of our friends.

They don't have involvement with cops.

We do not frequent taverns and clubs.

It is a duty at any time to be available for our own thing even if the wife is about to give birth.

Appointments are categorically respected.

You have to respect your wife.

When one is called to know something, one will have to 'tell the truth', one cannot 'appropriate money belonging to others and other families.

Who cannot become part of Cosa Nostra.

Who has a close relative in the various police forces.

Who has sentimental betrayals in the family.

Who has bad behavior - and who does not care for moral values.

The Mafia Today

The Mafia itself is established on the idea of being a 'Man of Honour' to accept a role in this organisation is to dedicate your life to the life. Its history, and deep seated roots in family bloodlines mean it will continue to exist, grow and adapt. Even today these organisations are active and still play a key role in much organised crime around the world. However, its formation and intricate growth will always be set in the humble beginnings of men who rejected the idea that any authority other than their own can rule over them and their kin.

Word/Phrase Key

Cosa Nostra - Specific to the American Italian Mafia a name meaning 'our thing' this was first used in the 1930's during the time of Charles Luciano.

Made/Made man/to be "made" - A made man in the mafia refers to a fully fledged member who has blood ties to Sicily or Italy and been sponsored by another "made man " and initiated in to the mafia for life.

Omertà - A code of silence and honour. Those involved in the mafia are not allowed to discuss what they or any other members do outside of the mafia itself including under police interrogation, breaking this rule is punishable by death. This is called omertà, the word is from Sicily and is believed to originate from Italy as a variation of umiltà, the latin being humble (humilis) - ground (humus) it has also been disputed that its origins are based in Spain as a variation of the word hombredad (manliness) in relation to a rational intelligent man of outstanding quality, strength and integrity.

96 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page