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This article is about a criminal organization in the United States. For other uses, see Mafia .

The American Mafia (usually called simply the Mafia within the United Statesmarker); also known as Cosa Nostra (sometimes lower case like "cosa nostra") or La Cosa Nostra (Joe Valachi announced the name, and the 'La' part is what the FBI has given the name as well, even abbreviating to LCN), also Our Thing, and This Thing of Ours, it is an Italian-American criminal society and offshoot of the Sicilian Mafia. Much like the Sicilian Mafia, the American Mafia had no formal name and was a secret criminal society. Another name, coined by the press, is the National Crime Syndicate. National Crime Syndicate referred to the entire U.S. Mafia, It emerged on the East Coast of the United Statesmarker during the late 19th century following waves of Sicilian and Southern Italian immigration.According to the Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker (FBI) investigations and the testimony of former members, there are thought to be five main New York Citymarker Mafia families: the Gambino, Lucchese, Genovese, Bonanno and Colombo families. The Italian-American Mafia continues to dominate organized crime in the U.S. It uses this status to maintain control over much of Chicagomarker, Detroitmarker, Bostonmarker, Buffalomarker, Pittsburghmarker, Milwaukeemarker, Clevelandmarker, Philadelphiamarker, Providencemarker, New Jerseymarker, and New York Citymarker's organized criminal activity, as well as criminal activity in other cities in the Northeastern United States and across the country, such as Las Vegasmarker, New Orleansmarker, Phoenixmarker, St. Louismarker, Miamimarker, Kansas Citymarker and many others.

The Italian-American Mafia has its roots in the Sicilian Mafia, but has been a separate organization in the United States for many years. Neapolitan, Calabrian, and other Southern Italian criminal groups merged with the Sicilian Mafia to create the modern pan-Italian Mafia in North America. Today, the Italian-American Mafia cooperates in various criminal activities with different Italian organized crime groups other than just the Sicilian Mafia, such as Camorra and 'Ndrangheta, which are headquartered in Italymarker.

In 1986, according to government reports , it was estimated that there were 1,700 members of Cosa Nostra and thousands of associate members. Reports also are said to include the Italian-American Mafia as the largest organized crime group in the United States and continues to hold dominance over the National Crime Syndicate, despite the increasing numbers of street gangs and other organizations of neither Italian nor Sicilian ethnicity. Many members refer to the Italian Mafia as the "original Mafia".

Also, while each crime family operates on its own, there exists the Commission, proof that they are nationally connected. Members of the Commission usually consist of the bosses of each major family. See also: Apalachin Meeting, Sicilian Mafia Commission, Havana Conference, Atlantic City Conference.

The Italian-American Cosa Nostra is most active in the New York metropolitan area, Philadelphia (see Philadelphia Mafia), New Englandmarker (see the Patriarca crime family), Detroit (see the Detroit Partnership), and Chicago (see the Chicago Outfit), but there are actually around 26 Cosa Nostra family cities around the United States, with many more offshoot and splinter groups as well as associates in other cities..

There have been times when crime families had gone to war with each other (a term sometimes used is "hitting the mattresses"), e.g., the Mafia-Camorra War, the Castellammarese War. Before the Chicago Outfit took control of the City of Chicago, the Outfit was constantly battling other gangs, most notably the North Side Mob, during the Prohibition era, which eventually led to the notorious St. Valentine's Day Massacremarker. Another war was between Joe Profaci and "Crazy" Joe Gallo. An internal war within a family occurred with the Bonanno Family dubbed "The Banana War."

Usage of the Term "Mafia"

Mafia properly refers to a number of Italian criminal organizations, particularly the Sicilian Mafia and the American Mafia. When referring to the Mafia, there may be several meanings, including a local area's Italian organized crime element, the Mafia family of a major city, the entire Italian-American Mafia of the United States, or the original Sicilian Mafia. Widespread recognition of the word has led to its use in the names of other criminal organizations, such as "Russian Mafia" or "Jewish Mafia", as well as non-criminal organizations, such as the term "Irish Mafia", applied to John F. Kennedy's political team.


Origins: The Black Hand

Mafia groups in the United States first became influential in the New York City area, gradually progressing from small neighborhood operations in poor Italian ghettos to citywide and eventually international organizations. The Black Hand was a name given to an extortion method used in Italian neighborhoods at the turn of century. It has been sometimes mistaken for the Mafia, which it is not.Giuseppe Esposito was the first known Sicilian Mafia member to emigrate to the United States. He and six other Sicilians fled to New York after murdering eleven wealthy landowners, and the chancellor and a vice chancellor of a Sicilian province. He was arrested in New Orleansmarker in 1881 and extradited to Italy.

New Orleans was also the site of the first Mafia incident in the United States that received both national and international attention. On October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessy was murdered execution-style. It is still unclear whether Italian immigrants actually killed him or whether it was a frame-up against the reviled underclass immigrants. Hundreds of Sicilians were arrested on mostly baseless charges, and nineteen were eventually indicted for the murder. An acquittal followed, with rumors of bribed and intimidated witnesses. The outraged citizens of New Orleans organized a lynch mob and proceeded to kill eleven of the nineteen defendants. Two were hanged, nine were shot, and the remaining eight escaped. The lynching was the largest mass lynching in American history..

In the 1910s and 1920s in New York Citymarker, the Sicilian Mafia developed into the Five Points Gang. In Chicago, the 19th Ward, which was an Italian neighborhood, became known as the "Bloody Nineteenth" due to the frequent violence in the ward, mostly as a result of Mafia activity, feuds, and vendettas.

The rising: Prohibition

Mafia activities were restricted until 1920, when they exploded because of the introduction of Prohibition. An example of the spectacular rise of the Mafia due to Prohibition is Al Capone's syndicate that "ruled" Chicago in the 1920s.

In New York City, by the end of the 1920s, two factions of organized crime had emerged, causing the Castellammarese War for control of organized crime in the city. With the murder of Joseph Masseria, the leader of one of the factions, the war ended uniting the two sides back into one organization now dubbed Cosa Nostra. Salvatore Maranzano, the first leader of American Mafia, was himself murdered within six months, and Charles "Lucky" Luciano became the new leader. Maranzano had established the code of conduct for the organization, set up the "family" divisions and structure, and established procedures for resolving disputes. Luciano set up the "Commission" to rule their activities. The Commission included bosses from six or seven families.

Post World War II

In the mid-20th century, the Mafia was reputed to have infiltrated many labor unions in the United States, notably the Teamsters, whose president Jimmy Hoffa disappeared and is widely believed to have been murdered by close personal friend Frank Sheeran, as stated in his book I Heard You Paint Houses. In the 1980s, the U.S. government made a determined effort to remove Mafia influence from labor unions.

In the 21st century, the Mafia has been involved in a broad spectrum of illegal activities. These include murder, extortion, corruption of public officials, gambling, infiltration of legitimate businesses, labor racketeering, loan sharking, tax fraud schemes, and most notably today, stock manipulation schemes.


The Mafia had eventually expanded to twenty-six crime families nationwide in the major cities of the United States, with the center of organized crime based in New York and its surrounding areas. After many turf wars, the Five Families ended up dominating New York, named after prominent early members: the Bonanno family, the Colombo family, the Gambino family, the Genovese family, and the Lucchese family. These families held underground conferences with other Mafia notables like Joe Porrello from Clevelandmarker, and other gang leaders, such as Al Capone.

  • Boss — The boss is the head of the family, usually reigning as a dictator, sometimes called the Don or "Godfather". The boss receives a cut of every operation taken on by every member of his family. Depending on the family, the boss may be chosen by a vote from the Caporegimes of the family. In the event of a tie, the Underboss must vote. In the past, all the members of a family voted on the boss, but by the late 1950s, any gathering such as that usually attracted too much attention. In practice many of these elections are foregone conclusions such as that of John Gotti in 1986. According to Sammy Gravano a meeting was held in a basement during which all capos were searched and Gotti's men stood ominously behind him. He was then proclaimed boss.
  • Underboss — The underboss, usually appointed by the boss, is the second in command of the family. The underboss is in charge of all of the capos, who are controlled by the boss. The underboss is usually first in line to become acting boss if the boss is imprisoned. Unless the don names a successor other than his underboss, the underboss is often first in line to become boss when the boss dies.
  • Consigliere — The consigliere is an advisor to the family and sometimes seen as the Boss's "right-hand man". They are used as a mediator of disputes, representatives or aides in meetings with other families. In practice today the consigliere is normally the third ranking member of the administration of a family and does not necessarily need to be senior in age or experience for advisory purposes. A Boss will often appoint someone close to him who they trust as their consigliere.
  • Caporegime (or capo) — A caporegime (also captain or skipper) is in charge of a crew; a group of soldiers who report directly to him. Each crew usually contains 10-20 soldiers and many more associates. A capo is appointed by the boss and reports to him or the underboss. A captain gives a percentage of his (and his underlings) earnings to the boss and is also responsible for any tasks assigned, including murder. In labor racketeering it is usually a capo who controls the infiltration of union locals. If a Capo becomes powerful enough he can sometimes wield more power then some of his superiors. In cases like Anthony Corallo they might even overstep the Mafia structure and lead the family when the boss dies.
  • Soldato (Italian for soldier) — A soldato is a member of the family, and traditionally can only be of Italian background (although today many families require men to be of only half Italian descent on their father's side). Once a member is made he is untouchable, meaning a sitdown involving the soldier's capo and boss must be held before he is murdered. When the books are open, meaning that there is an open spot in the family, a Capo (or several Capos) may recommend an up-and-coming associate to be a new member. They are also called made men, who have made their bones, by committing a murder on the orders of his superiors (a capo, underboss, consigliere, or boss). This ensures the soldier's reliability: he will never testify against a man who could testify against him. Being made is the beginning but not the end of a Mafia career. (The definitions of made man and making one's bones are inferred: most books on the Mafia—fiction or nonfiction—assume these terms but never define them.)
  • Associate — An associate is not a member of the mob, and an associate's role is similar to that of an errand boy. They are usually a go-between or sometimes deal in drugs to keep the heat off the actual members, or they are people the family does business with (restaurant owners, etc.) In other cases, an associate might be a corrupt labor union delegate or businessman. Non-Italians will never go any further than this, with the Chicago Outfit as an exception; while the Outfit is dominated by Italians, it has had occasional non-Italians in high ranks from its earliest days. However, occasionally an associate will become powerful within his own family, for example Joe Watts, a close associate of John Gotti. Jimmy Burke was another powerful Mafia associate, who was said to have had the respect of a capo in the Lucchese family.

The American Mafia's organizational structure and system of control were created by Salvatore Maranzano (who became the first "capo di tutti capi" in the US, though he was killed by Lucky Luciano after holding the position for only six months).

Most recently there have been two new positions in the family leadership: the family messenger and street boss. These positions were created by former Genovese leader Vincent Gigante.

Each faction was headed by a caporegime, who reported to the boss. When the boss made a decision, he never issued orders directly to the soldiers who would carry it out, but instead passed instructions down through the chain of command. In this way, the higher levels of the organization were effectively insulated from incrimination if a lower level member should be captured by law enforcement. This structure is depicted in Mario Puzo's famous novel The Godfather. In The Godfather: Part II, These links are called "buffers": they provide what the intelligence community calls plausible deniability.


The initiation ritual emerged from various sources, such as Roman Catholic confraternities and Masonic Lodges in mid-nineteenth century Sicily and has hardly changed to this day. The Chief of Police of Palermo in 1875 reported that the man of honor to be initiated would be led into the presence of a group of bosses and underbosses. One of these men would prick the initiate's arm or hand and tell him to smear the blood onto a sacred image, usually a saint. The oath of loyalty would be taken as the image was burned and scattered, thus symbolising the annihilation of traitors. This was confirmed by the first pentito, Tommaso Buscetta.

A hit, or assassination, of a "made" man had to be approved by the leadership of his family, or retaliatory hits would be made, possibly inciting a war. In a state of war, families would "go to the mattresses" —- an Italian phrase of uncertain origin which roughly meant to go into battle.

Symbolism in murders

  • For allowing Joseph Pistone into the Bonanno crime family caporegime Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano had his hands severed, since he had Pistone shake hands and introduced others that he was a "friend of ours" or a made man when he was in fact not. Later during the attempted murder of Joseph Sintallini, Tommy Agro attempted the same thing.
  • In the murder of Lucchese crime family soldier Bruno Facciolo, a dead canary was stuffed inside his mouth after he was shot to death.
  • On April 18, 1980, Philadelphia Mafia Consigliere Antonio Caponigro had Angelo Bruno killed without the approval of The Commission. Caponigro and his brother-in-law Alfred Salerno were taken to an isolated house in the mountains of upstate New York and tortured for days before finally being killed. Sixty-four year old Salerno had been shot three times behind the right ear and once behind the left ear. The autopsy report showed that rope had been tied around his neck, wrists, and ankles with most of his neck and face bones shattered. Caponigro was shown to have been suffocated, beaten, repeatedly stabbed and shot, and was found later in a garbage bag. Around $300 was found stuffed up Caponigro's rectum as a sign that the unfortunate man had become too greedy.

American Mafia families by region

Note that the Mafia has members, associates, and families in others region as well. The organization is not limited to these regions. Many of these families have influence in other U.S. states, cities, and areas also.

Prominent Italian American Mafiosi

See also: List of Italian American mobsters.

Cooperation with the U.S. government

During World War II

U.S. Naval Intelligence entered into an agreement with Lucky Luciano to gain his assistance in keeping the New York waterfront free from saboteurs after the destruction of the SS Normandie.

Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro

In August 1960, Colonel Sheffield Edwards, director of the Office of Security of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), proposed the assassination of Cubanmarker head of state Fidel Castro by Mafia assassins. Between August 1960 and April 1961, the CIA, with the help of the Mafia, pursued a series of plots to poison or shoot Castro. Those allegedly involved included Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante, Jr., and John Roselli.

Law enforcement and the Mafia

In several Mafia families, killing a state authority is forbidden due to the possibility of extreme police retaliation. In some rare strict cases, conspiring to commit such a murder is punishable by death. The Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz was reportedly killed by his Italian peers out of fear that he would carry out a plan to kill New York Citymarker prosecutor Thomas Dewey. The Mafia did carry out hits on law enforcement in its earlier history. New York police officer Joe Petrosino was shot by Sicilian mobsters while on duty in Sicily. A statue of him was later erected across the street from a Lucchese hangout.

In 1951, a U.S. Senate Committee, led by Democratic Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, determined that a "sinister criminal organization" known as the Mafia operated around the United States. The hearings, televised nationwide, captured the attention of the American people and forced the FBI to recognize the existence of organized crime.

In 1953, the FBI initiated the "Top Hoodlum Program". The purpose of the program was to have agents collect information on the mobsters in their territories and report it regularly to Washington to maintain a centralized collection of intelligence on racketeers.

In 1957, the New York State Police uncovered a meeting of major American Cosa Nostra figures from around the country in the small upstate New York town of Apalachinmarker (near Binghamton, New Yorkmarker. This gathering has become known as the Apalachin Conference. Many of the attendees were arrested, and this event was the catalyst that changed the way law enforcement battled organized crime.

The establishment of the United States Organized Crime Strike Force facilitated efforts to prosecute members of the Mafia. The Strike Force was established in the 1960s through a joint congressional effort led by Robert Kennedy. It was under the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Labor. It was later disbanded at the national level, but continues at the state and local level today. It was responsible for investigating and eventually helping to bring down high-level Mafiosos such as Joseph Aiuppa of the Chicago Outfit, Anthony Salerno of the Genovese crime family of New York and Paul Castellano of the Gambino Family. Also, the Strike Force took eliminated much of the organized crime in the Teamsters across the country.

In 1963, Joe Valachi became the first American Cosa Nostra member to provide a detailed look at the inside of the organization. Having been recruited by FBI special agents, and testifying before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations, Valachi exposed the name, structure, power bases, codes, swearing-in ceremony, and members of this organization. All of this had been secret up to this point.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) passed in 1970 made it a crime to belong to an organization that performed illegal acts, and it created programs such as the witness protection program. Frequent use of the act began during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Charges of racketeering were successfully pressed against scores of mobsters, including two of New York's Godfathers, Anthony Corallo and Carmine Persico, during the Commission Case in 1985. Another of those convicted, Anthony 'Fat Tony' Salerno, was thought of as the Genovese Godfather but was only a front-boss. The Act continued to be used to great effect up to the end of the 20th century and hurt the Mob severely.

The Mafia is still the dominant organized crime group in the United States, despite the success of RICO. According to Selwyn Raab, author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires, after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the FBI has redirected most of its attention to finding terrorists.

In popular culture

  • The American branch of the Mafia has provided the setting and characters for many well-regarded films. These include:
* Little Caesar
* Scarface, 1932 film loosely based on Al Capone (not to be confused with the 1983 Al Pacino film of the same name which was not about the Italian Mafia).
* The Godfather Trilogy, a series of films about the New York mob, the first two films often regarded as some of the classic and greatest ever films
* The Untouchables, 1987 film telling the story of Elliot Ness and his fight against Capone
* Goodfellas, telling the story of mobster Henry Hill
* A Bronx Tale, the story of a young man growing up in a Mafia neighborhood
* Casino, about Mafia activity in Las Vegas
* Donnie Brasco, about Joseph Pistone's infiltration of the mob
* Analyze This, a comedy where a Mafia boss sees a psychiatrist to help him with his problems
* Brooklyn Rules, Mafia crime drama based on young men growing up on the low side of New York City
* Knockaround Guys is the story of the son of a Mafia underboss who loses a bag with half a million dollars and, with the help of his friends, dominates the small town in order to get the bag back.
* Crime Story
* The Boondock Saints

See also


  1. Rick Porrello's - 26 Mafia Families and Their Cities
  2. New Orleans Know-It-All – News & Views – Blake Pontchartrain™ – Gambit – New Orleans
  3. Organized Crime - American Mafia, Law Library - American Law and Legal Information
  4. Capeci, Jerry. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002
  5. "Mafia's arcane rituals, and much of the organization's structure, were based largely on those of the Catholic confraternities and even Freemasonry, colored by Sicilian familial traditions and even certain customs associated with military-religious orders of chivalry like the Order of Malta." The Mafia from
  6. "Go to the mattresses" from
  8. Tim Newark Mafia Allies, p. 288, 292, MBI Publishing Co., 2007 ISBN 978-0760324578
  9. Bay of Pigs Chronology, The National Security Archive (at The George Washington University)
  10. Ambrose & Immerman Ike's Spies, p. 303, 1999 ISBN 978-1578062072
  11. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires
  12. FBI website


  • Arlacchi, Pino (1988). Mafia Business. The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-285197-7
  • Chubb, Judith (1989). The Mafia and Politics, Cornell Studies in International Affairs, Occasional Papers No. 23.
  • Critchley, David. The Origin of Organized Crime: The New York City Mafia, 1891-931. New York, Routledge, 2008.
  • Dash, Mike. The First Family: Terror, Extortion and the Birth of the American Mafia. London, Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  • Servadio, Gaia (1976), Mafioso. A history of the Mafia from its origins to the present day, London: Secker & Warburg ISBN 0-436-44700-2

External links

Further reading

  • Capeci, Jerry. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Mafia. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002. ISBN 0-02-864225-2
  • United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field Publication. Investigation of Improper Activities in the Labor Or Management Field, 1959. [685492]
  • United States. Congress. Senate. Commerce. Effects of organized criminal activity on interstate and foreign commerce. 1972. [685493]
  • United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Governmental Affairs. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Organized Crime and Use of Violence: hearings before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. 1980. [685494]
  • United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Governmental Affairs. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Organized Crime. For sale by the Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office, U.S. G.P.O., 1988. [685495]

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