Mafia in America

The Mafia as it operated in America is difficult to define ethnically because it had ties with  so many other ethnicities. For this reason, it is more accurate to call it the American Mafia. Though it consisted heavily of Italian Americans, the American Mob would include instrumental participants such as the Jewish Meyer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein. The Italian community—and, indeed, the Italian Mafia—had been around long before the ‘20s. The famous assassination of police Chief David Hennessey in 1890 was arranged by the Matrangas, an influential Italian family. The Matrangas were in a rivalry with another influential family, the Provenzanos. Hennessey had publicly favored the Provenzanos, and strove for the release of alleged Provenzano shooters involved in a shootout.[1]  In all fairness, these families were not acting as mafia proper. For one, the Mafia observed omertá, the right and obligation of a wronged man to avenge himself. The Matrangas had gone to the police with the shootout, where, unfortunately, a Provenzano-sympathizer was in influence.[2]


Nevertheless, this is an example of not only the Italian presence in America at the time, but an involvement of some of its members in organized crime.  It is worth noting that neither Italians as a whole nor any particular individual of their ethnicity can be called responsible for the start of organized crime in America. Organized crime figures like Ike Rynolds in New York, Jerry Bassity in San Francisco[3], and the Ku Klux Klan throughout the nation well preceded the rise to power of the Italian-American Mafia. This dispels the notion the Mafia started organized crime in America.



It goes almost without question that Prohibition presented an enormous opportunity for organized crime. The people who were formally in the business of operating shady brothels and gambling rings now had a new vice to capitalize on—one that many people in big cities such as New York and Chicago could sorely do without. The police were hardly a problem. Tammany Hall, a powerful political machine in New York, was well entrenched in the practice of taking bribes and protecting underground crime spots.[4] It was, in fact, widely known in the public that the police took in great quantities of wealth from the crime enterprises they were designed to oppress.[5] In Chicago, Johnny Torrio would use his connections with the police not only to secure the protection of his own businesses, but, if need be, to expose and undermine the enterprises of any uncooperative rivals.[6] If one were to ask where the police were during Prohibition, he can be sure that they were active; the better question would be whether they generally did more to help or hinder organized crime.


The actual act of bootlegging was by no means difficult. Prohibition, in some cities more than others, was poorly reinforced. A meager number of hastily trained agents were assigned to the entire nation, whereas Harlem congressman Fiorello LaGuardia remarked that to enforce Prohibition in New York City alone, it would “require a police force of 250,000 men, and a force of 250,000 men to police the police.”[7] Officials and law enforcement were incredibly easy to bribe: police officers and prohibition agents earned much more money by taking bribes than they ever did by working at their official positions. Honest Prohibition agents and law enforcement found themselves sorely outnumbered and outmaneuvered; the U.S. Coast Guard had all of 55 vessels to cover more than 5,000 miles of coast line, every stretch of which was a possible site for bootlegging activity.[8] Almost all of the remaining threat of arrest was eradicated with bribes and payoffs. With almost complete freedom, the bootleggers would often perform their work in broad daylight. It was so common, in fact, that New York tourists could take a short ride out to watch the bootleggers at work.[9] The easy access to liquor combined with the easy protection from authority and law enforcement created a massive source of revenue for organized crime. Smuggling liquor, if not difficult, was a complex task. It required cooperation, intelligence, and communication—elements that were not nearly as essential to previous lines of illicit business like prostitution or bank robbery.[10] It would be this revenue and influence that would propel the American Mafia to power in America.


In New York, Irish mobsters initially held the upper hand in organized crime. With control over the Brooklyn waterfront, the White Hand, an Irish gang led by Bill Lovett, extorted ships and companies which needed the docks.[11] Victims would essentially pay tribute to their extorters, and those that didn’t faced vandalism or death. But the Italian mob, accordingly named the Black Hand, began to muscle in on the waterfront. A gang war ensued, and Lovett and key members of the Irish mob were murdered.[12] But more important to the Italian mob’s success over the Irish mob was the beginning of communication between Italian crime leaders in different parts of the country. Al Capone, one of the most familiar names in mafia history, had, early in the Irish/Italian conflict moved to Chicago.[13] It was this link that allowed the Italian mafia to spring into organized action once Prohibition began.


The maintenance of such a large industry as Prohibition-era alcohol necessitated the evolution of the Mafia into a national syndicate. At the Statler Hilton Hotel in Cleveland in 1928, a Mob conference was held. Members of organized crime from seven different states were present, discussing, among many other things, the control over the production of corn sugar—necessary in the illicit production of whiskey.[14] Prohibition essentially fed organized crime in many places in America, and bootlegging was organically ingrained into mob life. There is something to be said about a line of business whose welfare was so important that it that called together Mafia leaders from across state lines. Eventually such measures were taken that a network of communication and mutual acknowledgement between organized crime leaders would cover the nation. Meetings held between Mob bosses in one place would no longer include as subject matter purely local happenings, but the dealings of crime figures in other places, as well. Geographic distance was hardly an issue, as such places as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver[15], Chicago, Louisiana and New York would be included in the now-national nature of the Mafia. “American Mafia,” now, meant more than just organized crime in the United States. It addressed an organism whose members and influence were dispersed throughout the nation. 


The Eighteenth Amendment undoubtedly provided organized crime with nothing short of a golden opportunity. For illegal liquor was not the only source of revenue; once a patron was already in the underworld to get his alcohol fix, the other temptations of vice enterprise (gambling, sex, and drugs) were more enticing than they were from afar. So the immense revenue that flowed into the Mafia’s pockets was due largely, whether directly or indirectly, to Prohibition. What, then, would become of all the wealth and influence the Mafia accrued during the gold rush when alcohol was legal again? To be sure, the enormous market for liquor was not nearly as profitable as it was when the whole thing was illegal. Now, more law-conscious entrepreneurs would take the scene. While many members of the mob did, in fact, begin more legitimate businesses, others could not rid themselves of their affinity for profit at the expense of the law. Gambling—another vice enterprise—would enjoy its time at the forefronts of attention from organized crime. Indeed, Las Vegas—today called Sin City—was transformed and popularized by Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, with much financial help from associates like Meyer Lansky.[16] Though Siegel would later be killed for his ineptitude and debt, he nevertheless was the pioneer who planted the seeds of unashamed and luxurious vice enterprise in Las Vegas.[17] Meyer Lansky would push for gambling resorts in an island not far from the tip of Florida, with co-operation from Cuba’s President Batista.[18] 


Another far-reaching arm of influence stretched into an industry with which practically all Americans are familiar: Hollywood. In 1934, the Mafia gained control of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a labor union which operated, as its name suggests, in the world of theatre and film.[19] Following a significant wage cut, union members went on a series of unsuccessful strikes, the heavy tolls which left the IATSE in a vulnerable position for the Mafia to swoop in.[20] George Browne, formerly a small time criminal, was “strongly persuaded” by Capone gangsters to run for president of the union. With a little help from the Mafia’s muscle for hire, the IATSE was now standing in the shadow of one of the most powerful organizations in the country.[21] Once in this wedge of influence, the Mafia began to move influential men, like Johnny Roselli from Chicago[22] and Bugsy Siegel from New York.[23] The mob interest in Hollywood was, of course, an economic one. With its influence in the labor unions, the Mafia was able to threaten and extort enormous amounts of money from the film industry.[24]


[1] Thomas Reppetto, American Mafia: A History of its Rise to Power. (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2004), 13.

[2] Reppetto, 9

[3] Reppetto, xi

[4] Robert Lacey, Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life (Boston: Little Brown and Company 1991), 47.

[5] James Fentress, Eminent Gangsters: Immigrants and the Birth of Organized Crime in America (Lanham : University Press of America, 2010), 49

[6] Fentress, 229

[7] Prohibition, Film, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick (Washington DC: The Prohibition Film Project, LLC, 2011).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mafia: The History of the Mob in America A&E Home Video, 2001

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Reppetto, 149

[15] Reppetto 151

[16] Mafia: The History of the Mob in America, 2001

[17] Mafia: The History of the Mob in America, 2001

[18] Lacey, 6

[19] Reppetto, 201

[20] Reppetto, 202

[21] Reppetto, 201

[22] Reppetto, 203

[23] Reppetto, 203

[24] Reppetto, 205