A black and white image of the Italian American Mafia in the U.S.

An Overview of How the American and Sicilian Mafia were Organized

The Mafia fuelled the creativity of films, television series and novels with their history, commandments, traditions and leaders. Everyone is familiar with the fame and infamy that surrounds the Mafia and the intricate ways its life is depicted. From Italy to America, their codes and ethics survive today just as the tales of the legendary Mafia dons.

Mafia Terminology

A black and white image of the Sicilian Mafia.
image source: history.fandom.com

La Cosa Nostra

La Cosa Nostra translates to “our thing” or “this thing of ours”. Originally, the term referred to the general lifestyle of Sicilian organized criminals.

When the Mafia moved to the United States (US), the FBI listened in on their conversations through wiretaps. A common term they picked up was “La Cosa Nostra” and, therefore, La Cosa Nostra referred to the Mafia, although grammatically incorrect.

Nowadays, it specifically refers to the American members of the Mafia and differentiates them from the ‘Old World’ mobsters.


Omerta is a code of silence, often used if caught to divulge information to law enforcement. Breaking the rule results in death.


Each individual gang within the Mafia is called a ‘Family’, but not everyone is related. It’s common for male members to be in the same ‘family’ as their fathers or brothers.

Made Men

These are men officially inducted into a Mafia Family.

Wise guy

A wise guy is someone involved in the Mafia.

The Etymology of ‘Mafia’

The precise origin of the word ‘Mafia’ is unknown.

It might refer to a Sicilian noun, mafiusu (pronounced ‘mafioso’), which translates to swagger (a very confident and arrogant or self-important manner).

Some say it refers to a man from 19th century Sicily. It signifies a bully, arrogant but fearless, resourceful and proud, but this story is too vague.

The feminine form, mafiusa (pronounced ‘mafiosa’) means “beautiful or attractive woman”.

Mafie could refer to the caves near Trapani and Marsala that often served as hiding places for refugees and criminals.

Additionally, Sicily was once an Islamic emirate.

The term could be a Sicilian-Arabic slang expression that means “acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful”.

Selwyn Raab, author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, noted that until the 19th century, mafioso didn’t refer o a person involved in criminal activity. It referred to a person who was suspicious of central authority.

Origin of the Mafia

A black and white aerial photograph of Sicily in the early 1900s.
Sicily, Italy in the early 1900s. Image source: quora.com

For centuries, foreign invaders ruled Sicily, such as the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish.

The Sicilian residents formed small groups to protect themselves from foreign forces with regional groups of Sicilians. These groups later became known as ‘clans’ or ‘Families’. They created their own system for justice and retribution, with their actions carried out in secret.

In the 19th century, small private armies called the mafie formed that took advantage of the chaotic conditions in Sicily. For example, they extorted protection money from landowners.

From this, the Sicilian Mafia emerged as a collection of criminal families.

The Rise of the Italian Mafia

In 1861, Sicily became a province of a unified Italy. As the Italian government tried to establish itself, crime and mayhem ruled across the island.

Around the 1870s, Roman officials asked the [Sicilian Mafia] clans for help to go after the dangerous, independent criminals. In exchange, officials looked the other way when the Mafia extorted protection services on landowners. However, the government believed this would be a temporary solution.

The Sicilian Mafia expanded their criminal activities and became further involved in Sicilian politics and its economy. Therefore, the Mafia became involved and well-known for political corruption and intimidating people into voting for certain candidates. Those elected candidates would then own the Mafia a favour.

Additionally, there were instances where the Catholic Church involved itself with the Mafia. The Mafia monitored the Church’s property holdings and kept tenant farmers in line.

The Mafia in America

A black and white image of the Italian American Mafia in the U.S.
American Mafia. Image source: insider.com

Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italians came to America for better economic opportunities. The majority of Italian immigrants were farmers, craftsmen and unskilled labourers.

In New York City, between 1880 and 1890, there were 20,000 to 250,000 Italian immigrants. By 1910, there were around 500,000 Italian immigrants and first-generation Italian-Americans.

Although most immigrants were law-abiding citizens, some walked the criminal path and formed neighbourhood gangs that often preyed on their own communities.

The Prohibition Era

During the 1920s Prohibition, Italian-American gangs, and other ethnic gangs, entered the bootleg liquor business that developed into a sophisticated criminal enterprise. They became skilled at smuggling, money laundering and bribing the police and other public officials.

At the same time, in Italy, the Fascist Regime of Benito Mussolini attacked the Sicilian Mafia because they threatened and undermined Mussolini’s power in Sicily.

Some Sicilian Mafiosi escaped to the US and became part of the flourishing American Mafia and their bootlegging business.

The American Mafia and Sicilian Mafia are different entities, but the American Mafia adopted some Sicilian traditions, such as omertà.

Operation Underworld

From 1942 to 1945, the Italian and Jewish organised crime figures cooperated with the US Navy. This temporary alliance occurred after a fire consumed the SS Normandie, a former luxury French liner that later became an American World War II (WWII) troop transport.

Many believed Nazi saboteurs caused the fire, but some saw it as an accident. Despite the theories, the US government needed to act.

Along with the Mafia, the US government recruited the Fulton Fish Market kingpin Joseph ‘Socks’ Lanza, a member of the Genovese Family. He provided undercover agents with union cards that allowed them in the market and aboard coastal fishing fleets.

As for the Mafia, they countered Axis spies and saboteurs along the US northeastern seaboard ports, prevented wartime labour union strikes and limited theft by black marketeers.

The Castellamarese War

A violent feud between two of New York City’s biggest Italian-American gangs, controlled by Joseph ‘Joe the Boss’ Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, called the Castellamarese War.

The war started when Masseria tried to gain control of organized crime in the US.

It ended in 1931 when Maranzo conspired with Massaria’s top soldier, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, to have Masseria killed. In return, Maranzano promised Luciano that all gangsters would be equals.

Maranzano emerged victorious and the most powerful Mafia boss in the nation. He called himself the capo dei capi or capo di tutti i capi, the “boss of bosses”. This is more commonly known as the Godfather.

Therefore, Maranzano was the first leader of La Cosa Nostra.

He established its code of conduct, the Five Families divisions and structure and developed procedures for resolving disputes. However, in taking the “boss of bosses”, he broke the deal with Luciano.

Under Luciano’s orders, 10 men murdered Maranzano on September 10, 1931. As a result, the Commission eliminated the “boss of bosses” position.

The Five Families of the Mafia

A photograph of an American mob family on a special, celebratoryoccasion.
image source: gangsters.inc

The original Five Families were named after their founders, their very first leaders.

In 1963, Joseph Valachi a low-level American mobster in the Genovese crime family and one of the first members of the Italian-American Mafia, publicly disclosed the existence of the Five Families during the ‘Valachi Hearings‘.

At the time, the original names of the Five Families changed to the names of the bosses at the time:

Despite years of changing bosses in each family, the names remain commonly used when referring to the Five Families.

The Structure of La Cosa Nostra

An image representing the structure of La Cosa Nostra
image source: godfather.fandom.com

The Boss or Don

The Don is the leader of each family and makes all major decisions. In addition to the money made by the family ultimately flowing to him, he uses his authority to resolve disputes and keep everyone in line.

The Underboss

Although the second-in-command, the power wielded by the underboss varies in each family. Some resolve disputes without involving the boss, others are groomed to replace the boss if he’s too old or in danger of going to jail.

The Capos

Originally, the capo was the term used for the head of the family.

Nowadays, a capo acts as a lieutenant who leads his own section of the family. The number of capos depends on the size of the family.

They operate specific activities and their territory may be defined geographically or by the rackets they operate.

To be a successful capo, the key is making money. He keeps some money earned by his rackets and passes the rest to the underboss or Don.

The Soldiers of the Mafia

Soldiers are the lowest rank of the Family and handle the ‘dirty’ work. They hold little power and make little money. Their numbers under one capo vary greatly.

Associates to the Mafia

The associates aren’t actual members of La Cosa Nostra, but they work with soldiers and capos on their criminal enterprises. They vary in professions, from burglars and drug dealers to lawyers, investment bankers, police officers and politicians.


The consigliere isn’t meant to be part of the family. He acts as an advisor and makes impartial decisions based on fairness and logic rather than emotions or vendettas. Members of the Family elect the consigliere, not the Don.

However, in reality, the Don can appoint a consigliere, whose decision-making may not always be impartial.

The Commission

The commission consists of the head of each of the Five Families, along with the heads of the Buffalo crime family and Chicago Outfit.

As the governing body of the American Mafia, they settle all disputes and demarcate territory between previously feuding factions and govern all activities in the US and Canada.

Induction into the Mafia

A photograph representing the Mafia induction ceremony with the burning of a picture and a cut on the trigger finger..
image source: mafianewsblog.wordpress.com

Until Joe Valachi’s testimony, the Mafia induction ceremony was kept a secret for decades. Certain circumstances alter the details of the ceremony, such as induction while in prison or a quick induction during a gang war.

First, the potential soldiers are told to “dress up” or “get dressed”. The Mafiosi take him to a private place where they sit at a table next to the boss. They join hands and recite oaths and promises of loyalty.

Next, the inductee holds a piece of burning paper and, while passing the paper from hand to hand, withstands the pain and heat until the paper is completely consumed. At the same time, they swear to keep their faith and uphold the principles of the Mafia.

Then, they promise to be a member of the Family for life and draw a drop of their blood from his trigger finger.

Some families pair the inductee with a highly experienced and ranked Mafioso to guide them into Mafia life.

Rules of Induction

The Mafia only allowed men of Italian heritage to join. In some families, both parents must be Italian or of Italian heritage. In others, they only require the father to be Italian or of Italian heritage.

The inductees must have a skill for making money or show a willingness to commit acts of violence when ordered.

Additionally, they must pass a test before being invited to join to “make their bones”. They commit an act of murder of one of the Don’s enemies.

However, simply being invited by a Don isn’t how one becomes an inductee. The Commission also needs to consider them.

In the 1920s and 30s, during the raging gang wars, families recruited large numbers of new soldiers. These new soldiers went unrecognized by other Families and could easily approach rival capos and made men and assassinate them. The Commission managed to prevent this.

Now, Families give the Commission a list of potential inductees, who then circulate the list among the Families. It eliminates the risk of not being recognized. This gives the additional opportunity of removing any inductee another Family has a problem with and, therefore, averts any violence and war amongst Families.

Women in the Mafia

The primary image of a mobster is male. The Mafia consigns women to be wives, mothers or even love-level criminals. This has changed in recent years.

During the police crackdown on the Mafia in the 80s, male mobsters left their assets to their wives and daughters before they went to jail. From then on, women took on criminal enterprises until their husbands and/or fathers were released.

Like their male mobsters, their female counterparts were just as ruthless, strategic and daring.

A prime example is Connie Rastelli, wife to Philip ‘Rusty’ Rastelli the former boss of the Bonanno Family. She helped her husband with many of his rackets. Allegedly, she was a getaway driver, ran illegal abortion centers, collected loans, threatened witnesses and may have been involved in Mafia-related murders.

Notable Members of the Mafia

The black and white mugshot of Charles 'Lucky' Luciano.
Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Image source: abc.es

Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegal

Siegal was a well-known Mafia hitman and enforcer who ended up managing his own rackets. He also co-founded Murder Inc., the enforcer arm for the mob.

In 1936, he was well acquainted with Meyer Lansky, the Mob’s “Accountant”.

He then moved to California and developed rackets for the mob bosses. His good looks and charm gained favour with Hollywood celebrities, which led to his own fame.

With his girlfriend, he developed casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada, and pocketed mob funds that were for construction costs.

Lansky and other East Coast bosses ordered a hit job on Siegal for his disloyal activities.

In 1947, the hitmen fired a flood of bullets at Siegal outside of his girlfriend’s home, killing him at 41 years old.

Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano

Luciano, a Sicilian raised in New York, was pivotal in the creation of the National Crime Syndicate. He was considered the mastermind behind modern organized crime since he established its governing body.

As the head of the Genovese Family, he was one of the most powerful mob bosses.

In 1936, District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey jailed Luciano for his prostitution business. Luciano ultimately shortened his 30-year sentence when he helped the US Navy’s security measures during WWII.

In 1946, he was deported to Italy and managed to run his drug operations in the US from there.

He died in 1962 from a heart attack in an airport in Naples.

Frank Costello

Costello, born in Italy and raised in East Harlem, became one of Luciano’s acquaintances and was involved in gambling and bootlegging operations in New York and the South.

He gained widespread local political influence and was the main syndicate boss after Luciano went to prison.

During the 1950s, he was in and out of prison for contempt and tax evasion. In 1957, he was shot in the head order of a rival mob.

Costello miraculously survived and continued operations, even though his power diminished.

He died at 82 years old of a heart attack.

Samuel ‘Sam’ Mooney Giancana

Giancana is of the legendary mobsters.

In the underworld, he’s famous for his ruthless personality. According to the rumours, he committed a minimum of three murders at 20 years old and was arrested over 70 times.

He led the Chicago Outfit from 1957 to 1966 and was obsessively interested in American politics.

Giancana was also known for his ties to Joseph P. Kennedy, who asked Giancana for help to secure votes for his son, John F. Kennedy, in the 1960 election.

Soon after, reports say that Giancana was furious at JFK for giving Attorney General Robert E. Kennedy approval to pursue organised crime.

Moreover, this led to the conspiracy theory that the JFK Assassination was a hit job by the mob, orchestrated by Giancana.

Conclusion on the Mafia

A black and white photograph of two members of one of the Mafia Five Families, standing in their suits, wearing their trenchcoats and hats, standing respectingly.
image source: legendsofamerica.com

From Italy to America, the Mafia continues to uphold its traditions and activities. Whether some evade arrest or get caught, their morals and traditions live on through the next generation.

The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.

-Mario Puza, author of The Godfather.

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