By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho
Vito Cascioferro was the person from the Sicilian mafia who went on to become a don and later emigrated to New York. Thus started the influence of the Italian mafia on the world crime scene. But it was a bare beginning. Many more mafias cropped up around the world, and then Arnold Rothstein turned crime into a business. Read to know more about this secret world.
Fasci Siciliani and the Italian Mafia
Nineteenth century Sicily was the scene of a long-standing struggle between angry peasants and ruthless landlords, and the new Italian government tried to impose its control over both. The landlords employed armed henchmen to intimidate the peasants, and the peasants responded by forming secret societies to carry out intimidation of their own. In the 1880s, many of the peasant societies became known as the Fasci Siciliani: half socialist organization, half secret society.
In these societies, gangsterism and revolutionary ideas went together. Vito Cascioferro, an illiterate thug from Palermo, joined the fasci and went on to become Don Vito, a very important personality in the Sicilian mafia. Some say he was the person who established the Italian mafia in America. Some others describe him as the first capo di tutti capi, meaning ‘boss of all bosses’, although it is not confirmed if such a position existed at that time in the Sicilian mafia.
Don Vito in New York
Italian authorities started cracking down on Fasci Siciliani, and that forced Don Vito to emigrate to New York. There he remodeled the old Black Hand extortion racket. He started offering protection plans on installments to prominent citizens rather than asking them for a single payment of a large amount of money.
To check the rising influence of the Italian mafia in the Italian-immigrant community, the New York police built a special Italian team in 1908 under Lt. Joseph Petrosino. The members of the team were hand-picked, and this Italian-American group usually operated undercover, becoming the NYPD’s secret society answer to La Cosa Nostra.
In 1903, Don Vito was arrested by Petrosino for murder. But he was acquitted, and he moved to Sicily. However, Petrosino was convinced that Don Vito was the mastermind of the mafia. Petrosino, determined to catch Don Vito, let himself be lured to Palermo, but got murdered there.
It seemed Don Vito was invincible. He was arrested 69 times but was never convicted. No one dared—or lived—to testify against him.
But Benito Mussolini turned out to be his match and rival. This Fascist dictator was firm about destroying the Italian mafia. So in 1926, Cascioferro was arrested one more time and convicted of a single count of murder, although he claimed that this was one crime he did not commit. Once mighty boss of bosses eventually died in prison in 1943 due to malnutrition.
This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Omerta: the Code of Silence
The reason why Don Vito and other Mafiosi like him were hard to get was their strict adherence to omerta or the code of silence. It was the organization’s soul. No member of the mafia ever spoke or asked for mercy. As long as omerta was held sacred, the organization had an almost impenetrable wall around it. But once it was eventually broken, the mafia declined very quickly.
It started with a testimony of the Genovese crime family member, Joseph Valechi, in 1963. Thereafter, almost every American mafia kingpin’s downfall came fairly quickly.
What is commonly thought of as the American mafia is actually the blending of three different southern Italian criminal secret societies: the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra, and the Calabrian Ndrangheta. Based in the port of Naples, Camorra mainly earned through smuggling, while Ndrangheta was more of a rural mafia that specialized in extortion and kidnapping.
Ndrangheta is interesting because the name is of Greek, not Italian, origin. Its root means “heroic” or brave, similar to mafiusu. Some people believe that Ndrangheta traces back to one of the secret societies or mystery cults of the classical era. This could be possible although it can’t be proved.
Another curious detail is that Camorra and Ndrangheta claim descent from the same criminal society: the Spanish Garduna. The Garduna was an Iberian group that, among other things, was accused of doing the dirty work for the Spanish Inquisition. The problem is that the age and even the existence of the Garduna is open to question.
Learn more about the multiple evolutions and adaptions of Freemasons.
Advent of Arnold Rothstein
By the 1930s, American organized crime—or the Syndicate—was mostly a fusion of Italian and Jewish mobs, and a few Irish ones. The two figures most often associated with it are Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano and Meyer Lansky. But the guy who really envisioned running crime like a business—with assigned territories, and a corporate commission to settle disputes—was Arnold Rothstein. Today, Rothstein is probably best known as the gambler who supposedly ‘fixed’ the 1919 World Series.
Rothstein held the maxim that a smart man with a pencil can steal more than a thug with the gun. Unlike Don Vito, Rothstein didn’t grow up in poverty. He was from a rich family. He was the son of a wealthy and respected businessman. His older brother studied to become a rabbi.
However, Arnold did not want such things. Owing to his ability to make real fast calculations, he had made a name for himself in the New York gambling scene by 1910. It was just the beginning. He believed that crime was just another business and should be operated like that only. He bought influence with money and then used that influence to make more money. The reach of his influence rose from the Manhattan street gangs to Tammany Hall.
Rothstein not only saw a great opportunity in Prohibition for the underworld, but he saw a future in other illegal commodities also, like narcotics. He played a role in setting up one of the first international drug operations. From top to bottom, it was run by secret societies, including Chinese Tongs, German militarists, Japanese Black Dragons, and even the Soviet secret police.
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The Drug Cartel
The US federal agents arrested two men on the New York docks on 13th July 1926. Their names were Charles Webber and William Vechuda. They had come to pick up crates of bowling balls and pins manufactured in Germany. However, hidden inside was $600,000 worth of heroin, opium, and cocaine.
Rothstein put up bail for Webber and Vachuda, and the two stayed tight-lipped. The same year, in September, came the news of a ‘huge narcotics ring’ bust in Berlin. A German official, Dr. Horst Hann, who was in charge of policing the narcotics trade, was one of the people implicated. This Berlin ring was the source of the drugs that had arrived in New York.
And then there were major arrests from Geneva, Harbin, Riga, and Shanghai. The opium started out in Manchuria, then went to Riga, and from there it landed in the labs near Berlin. There was only one way to send it from Harbin to Riga, and that was via the Soviet Union.
And the opium traffic was controlled there by none other than the Joint State Political Directorate or OGPU—the secret police. Some members of the German secret army, or Black Reichswehr, were also involved in this drug cartel. It was exactly what Arnold Rothstein had dreamed of: a win-win situation for everybody.
The Japanese Black Dragons earned money to finance subversion in East Asia, the Soviets earned money to finance subversion and espionage all over the world, and the German militarists earned money to subvert the Weimar Republic and fund politicians like Adolf Hitler. And, of course, Rothstein and his cronies profited in between. What at first had looked like a big score for law-enforcement, soon went sour.
Common Questions about Italian Mafia
Vito Cascioferro, an illiterate thug from Palermo, joined the fasci and went on to become Don Vito, a very important personality in the Sicilian mafia. Some say he was the person who established the Italian mafia in America. Some others describe him as the first capo di tutti capi, meaning ‘boss of all bosses’.
Omerta is the code of silence and secrecy. It forbids an organization’s members from betraying its secrets. As long as omerta is held sacred, the organization has an almost impenetrable wall around it.
Arnold Rothstein was the one who really envisioned running crime like a business. However, Rothstein is probably best known as the gambler who supposedly ‘fixed’ the 1919 World Series.