The mafia, a loose collection of Italian crime organizations, entered the United States from Italy during the last half of the 19th century. Though it is still hotly debated whether Italian-American groups were ever linked directly to the Mafia in Italy, they did serve as power brokers in many American cities, extorting payment for “protection” and providing goods and services often denied through legal channels.
Emerging in response to centuries of Arab and Norman domination in Sicily and southern Italy, agents of absentee landlords came to hold control over the land and thus the livelihood of local peasants. At the same time that they were extracting payment from the people, they could deliver economic opportunities and protection from foreign overlords. This system was widely imported to the United States during the 1890s with the dramatic increase in immigration from southern Italy. With the murder of the New Orleans, Louisiana, police superintendent in 1890, tales of a highly organized network of Italian criminals began to circulate, variously known as the mafia, the Black Hand, the Neapolitan Camorra, or La Cosa Nostra. In 1891, the New York Tribune reported that “in large cities throughout the country, Italians of criminal antecedents and propensities are more or less closely affiliated. . . . Through their agency the most infernal crimes have been committed and have gone unpunished.” Evidence suggests that while Italians, like other immigrants shut out of urban political and economic benefits, did organize as a means of economic advancement, the groups were largely local and unconnected until Prohibition in the 1920s. The idea of a tightly organized national organization remained largely submerged until the 1950s, when hearings chaired by Estes Kefauver concluded that the mafia was an international organization with “sinister” criminal goals. Investigations by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the 1960s and The Godfather film series of the 1970s perpetuated what immigration historian Robert Daniels calls “the Mafia syndrome.” According to Daniels, the Corleone family in The Godfather “resembles real gangsters about as much as Paul Bunyan does real lumberjacks.” The consensus of scholars is that Italian association with crime always represented a tiny portion of the population and that it was consistent with patterns of most immigrant groups with limited access to the economic benefits of society and forced to live in urban slums.

A–Z index