Mafia families in the United States began a rise in perceived power after the Italian Mafia first implemented a presence in the United States in the late 19th century. By the turn of the century, particularly during Prohibition, mafia wars, crime and corruption related to U.S. Mafia families flourished in several cities. Today, the presence of mafia families in the United States is still apparent and in some cases, with considerable perceived power.
Early Mafia Families in the United States
The Italian Mafia is first known to have appeared in the United States in the 1880s with the arrival of the Sicilian Mafiosi members. After the first Mafia members came to the United States many more followed or became members of the few Mafia families that had already established a presence. The first Sicilian Mafia member in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, (FBI) was Giuseppe Esposito. He, along with six of his cohorts, entered the United States after murdering a Sicilian chancellor, vice-chancellor and 11 wealthy landowners.
While New York is often thought of as a Mafia stronghold, the first Mafia in the United States was in New Orleans. While Esposito was captured in New Orleans in 1881, that did not end the Mafia stronghold in new Orleans. A police superintendent was shot and killed “execution style.” After claims of bribes and witness intimidation, which led to acquittal of all 19 Mafia members charged with the murder of Superintendent David Hennessey, a vigilante lynch mob captured and killed 11 of the defendants; eight escaped.
After several Mafia families merged to form what is now known as La Cosa Nostra, the early beginnings were not as peaceful as may have been assumed they would be; or perhaps that was the plan all along. In less than six months, leader Salvatore Maranzano was murdered. The result of a turf war, word was out that Maranzano ordered a hit on “Lucky” Luciano; but Luciano took out Maranzano before the hit on Luciano was carried out. The notorious Charles “Lucky” Luciano then assumed leadership of La Cosa Nostra.
As a juvenile, Luciano had already established a name for himself by offering “protection” to schoolmates on the Lower East Side of New York, provided they paid the appropriate fee of course. He was arrested for selling heroin in 1916, for which he received a six month reformatory sentence. Not to be deterred, Luciano saw great opportunity to make profits through bootlegging and other criminal acts during the Prohibition.
After becoming leader of La Cosa Nostra, Luciano split the Italian Mafia into five crime families, ruling the notorious Genovese Crime Family himself. The Genovese Family was considered the most powerful Mafia family in the United States. The other four New York Families were the Gambino, Lucchese, Bonanno and Colombo families. He was also responsible for establishing “The Commission,” which Bio explains, is a governing body for organized crime nationwide. Luciano also brought other notorious gangsters into “The Family” such as Al Capone.
Prohibition and The U.S. Mafia
Prohibition in the 1920s led to a rise in Mafia Families, dramatic increase in crime rates and the types of crimes committed in areas where the Mafia had spread to. This was also the time for Mafia Family wars, retaliation and revenge murders of some of the most notorious members of the Mafia Families in the United States.
With the manufacture, transport and sales of alcoholic beverages banned, the Prohibition was an opportunity for Mafia Families in the United States to have even more control, and as explained by History.com in ‘Mafia in the United States,‘ to “enter the booming bootleg liquor business.”
Turf wars and other issues led to several killings of Mafia members by other Mafia members, such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, on Valentine’s Day 1929 by Al Capone, against members of the infamous Moran Gang. Lined up against a wall and killed by Capone’s enforcers, who arrived dressed as police officers, members of the Moran Family, as well as others who associated with them, were killed execution-style with machine guns and other weapons. The only person who escaped the execution was the person Capone really wanted – Bugs Moran. Moran, according to a Chicago Tribune article, had “slept in” that fateful Valentine’s Day.
Capone was also missing in action; a strategically planned vacation at his Florida retreat placed him far away from the scene of the Massacre. He, nor anyone else, ever served a day in jail for the in-broad-daylight St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The battle between Capone and Moran was over; Al Capone assumed control over the Chicago Mafia.
A few years later, Lucky’s luck ran out, when in 1936, Lucky Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison for extortion and charges related to prostitution rings. He served just 10 years and was deported to Italy. The loss of Luciano had little effect on the Mafia in the United States.
The Mafia in Post-Prohibition
By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the U.S. Mafia began to run sophisticated operations in smuggling, bribery, money laundering, gambling, prostitution and other crimes. The loan-shark business was very profitable for notorious Mafia Families, but not so profitable for those who failed to pay what was owed in a timely manner. There was Mafia control over local unions and other antics such as the “mob tax.”
The corruption of prominent businessmen, as well as some public officials, aided the Mafia Families in court cases. Even when Mafia members did get sentenced to prison, their operations were often run from behind cell walls, just as they are today.
In spite of activities of the most notorious Mafia families in the United States and the findings of a 1951 U.S. Senate Committee, led by Democrat Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, which determined, as the FBI reveals, a “sinister criminal organization,” known as the Mafia operating in the United States, other prominent officials denied their existence. One of those individuals was FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was skeptical about an Italian-American Mafia presence, responsible for organized crime, operating in the United States. He suggested that there were only localized gangs. This may have contributed to very minimal efforts on the part of law enforcement to pursue action against Mafia families. But in 1963, Mafia leader Joseph Valachi, who would later survive three attempts on his life inside prison because it became known that he began to “sing” to law enforcement, provided the first extensive look inside Mafia operations to the FBI and the U.S. Senate.
By the end of the 1960s, a trend emerged in dealing with Mafia families. Law enforcement vigorously pursued Mafia families to bring them to justice. The sudden lapse in memory of witnesses, the murder or disappearance of witnesses was not an isolated event.
Bringing Notorious Mafia Families Down
The sudden lapse in memory when witnesses against the Mafia takes the witness stand, the murder or mysterious disappearance of witnesses days before they are supposed to testify and are never heard from again never ceased; it still occurs today. The most recent occurrence is the finding of the body of Stephen Rakes alongside a road by a jogger on July 17, 2013. Rakes was an eager witness against Whitey Bulger. Rakes is not the only witness who has turned up dead over the years when scheduled to testify against Whitey Bulger. In 1984, a man who was cooperating with law enforcement agents and providing information about Bulger’s criminal activities first disappeared and then was murdered while chained to a chair. Fox News also described several other witnesses who have given or were supposed to give testimony against Bulger over the past several decades.
The FBI says that four Mafia families – the Sicilian Mafia, ’Ndrangheta or Calabrian Mafia, the Camorra or Neapolitan Mafia and the Sacra Corona or United Sacred Crown has over 3,000 members across the United States, primarily in major cities. Drug trafficking, extortion, illegal gambling and prostitution rings are not the limits of these organizations. Today, notorious Mafia members have been linked to counterfeiting and even bombings.
James O. Finckenauer, PhD, of the International Center, National Institute of Justice, describes recent massive fraud activities of Mafia families in ‘La Cosa Nostra in the United States.’ One scheme involved a health care operation, called Tri-Con Associates. Non-mob employees were recruited to run the organization, for which over 1 million healthcare, dental and vision appointments were scheduled for patients across the United States. Mafia members then intimidated administrators into “approving excessive fees to the company.” In a huge phone card scheme, the Gambino Family stole more than $50 million from customers and telephone companies through fraudulent sales. La Cosa Nostra has also been involved in stock market manipulation schemes.
Although History.com calls the notorious Mafia Families in the United States “a shadow of its former self,” its presence is still apparent, with some corruption of public officials still going on as well as criminal operations which includes infiltration of businesses, weapons trafficking in addition to their drug trafficking, the continuation of murders, either in retaliation or to silence witnesses or others suspected of providing information to law enforcement. While law enforcement may think they have the upper hand since the passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970, it is apparent that there is still a long way to go to take down the notorious Mafia families in the United States.