Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

IV. The Camorra

312. Origin of the Camorra.—This society, probably the most pernicious association which has ever existed in Europe, was, or is—for we have no proofs that it has ceased to exist—an association of blacklegs, thieves, extortioners, rogues and villains of every kind, infesting Naples and the Neapolitan territory. The origin of the name is involved in doubt, but most probably it is simply a Spanish importation; for the word camorra exists in that language, meaning quarrel, dispute, and a camorrista is a quarrelsome, cantankerous person, and as the word was not known in Italy before the Spanish usurpation, we may reasonably assume that the word and the thing were introduced into Naples by the Spaniards, especially as we know from old Spanish authors that associations like the Italian Camorra existed in Spain long before the latter appeared in Italy. To quote but one instance: In the account of what happened to Sancho Panza on the island of Barataria, we are told that on going his rounds one night he met two men fighting; on inquiring the cause of the quarrel, it appeared that one of the combatants had won a large sum of money at a gambling-house, that the other, who had been looking on, and given judgment for him in more than one doubtful case, "though he could not well tell how to do it in conscience," had claimed from the winner a gratuity of eight reals, but the latter would only give four, and hence the quarrel. To make such claims always was the practice of the Neapolitan gaminghouse Camorrista. The enforced gratuity was in Spain called the harato; in Naples, harattolo.

History says nothing as to the origin of the Camorra; tradition goes no further back than the year 1820; let us see what is known of its organisation.

313. Different kinds of Camorra.—There is the "elegant" Camorra, the swell mob of the society, who levy taxes on gamblers, as already mentioned; the Camorra, which extorts contributions from shopkeepers, hackney-coach drivers, boatmen, in fact, from every one following some outdoor calling; nay, the Camorrists abound in the prisons, and woe to the prisoner who, under the accursed reign of the Bourbons, did not quietly submit to their exactions. There was a political Camorra, and even a Camorra which committed murder.

314. Degrees of the Society.—The Camorra was largely supplied with new members by the prisons. A youthful prisoner, who aspired to become a Camorrista, began his apprenticeship in prison, where he was put to the most degrading offices in the service of imprisoned Camorristi. When in course of time he had given proofs of courage and zeal, he was promoted to the degree of picciotto di sgarro, Picciotto may be translated "lad," but as to the meaning of the term sgarro, the Camorristi themselves are in the dark. It may be derived from sgarrare, to mistake, or from sgarare, to come off conqueror, but either derivation is only a surmise. Nor were the terms applied to differences of degree always the same. In some localities the novice was called a tamurro; in the second degree he took the name of picciotto donore, and became picciotto di sgarro only after many years' trial. In a society having no written or printed records we must expect slight differences! In the flourishing days of the Camorra, admission to the degree of di sgarro was only obtained by undergoing the test of devotion and courage. The aspirant had to apply for permission to disfigure or, if necessary, to kill some one. If the Camorrists did not happen to have on hand an order to do either, the candidate underwent the trial of the tirata (duel, literally, "drawing"), which consisted in drawing his knife against a picciotto already received and designated by lot. This was not so dangerous a proceeding as might at first appear, for most of the picciotti were the sons of Camorristi, and as such practised from their earliest youth fighting with knives. There were clandestine schools of mutual instruction in the town, and even in the prisons, where the use of the dagger was taught. Moreover, this trial fight always was a simple tirata a musco (literally, a musk drawing), that is, a mild affair in which the knife was to touch the arm only, and at the first blood the combatants embraced and the candidate was initiated.

In the early days of the Camorra the trial was more severe. The Camorristi stood round a coin placed on the ground, and all at a given signal stooped to prick it with their knives. The candidate had to pick up the coin. Often his hand was pierced, but he became a pied otto di sgarro. He underwent a noviciate of three to six years, during which he had to bear all the charges of the association without sharing in its benefits. He generally belonged to a Camorrista, who assigned to him all the hardest tasks, occasionally giving him a handful of coppers. He was always chosen when blood had to be spilt. When a blow had to be struck, the picciotti were eager to deliver it in the hope of advancement. The one chosen by lot sometimes incurred six to twenty years on the galleys, but he became a Camorrista. All these murders were committed, not for the sake of lucre, but for that of honour; for the Neapolitan conscience bowed down before the knife, as more civilised countries still do before the sword.

315. Ceremony of Reception.—On the reception of a picciotto into the degree of Camorrista, the sectaries assembled around a table, on which were placed a dagger, a loaded pistol, a glass of water or wine, supposed to be poisoned, and a lancet. The picciotto was introduced, accompanied by a barber, who opened one of the candidate's veins. The latter was then, in some circles, called a tamurro. He dipped his hand in his blood, and extending it towards the Camorristi, he swore for ever to keep the secrets of the society, and faithfully to carry out its orders. He then took hold of the dagger and planted it firmly in the table, cocked the pistol, and brought the glass to his mouth to indicate that he was ready, at a sign from the master, to kill himself; but the latter stopped him, and bade him kneel down before the dagger. He then placed his right hand on the head of the candidate, and with the left he fired off the pistol into the air, and shattered the glass containing the supposed poisoned liquor on the ground. He then drew the dagger from the table, presented it to the new companion, and embraced him, which example was followed by all the others. The tamurro, henceforth a Camorrista, became entitled to all the rights, benefits, and privileges of the society. His election was announced to all the sections. But this ridiculous ceremony was not always observed. Sometimes the candidate only swore fidelity to the society over two crossed daggers. The reception was generally followed by a banquet in the country, or in the prison itself if the reception took place among prisoners.

316. Centres.—The Camorristi were divided into centres. There were twelve at Naples, and every centre was divided into paranze or sub-centres, each one of which acted independently of the others and on its own account, though during a certain period all the centres, every one of which had its chief, acknowledged the chief of the Vicaria centre as their supreme head. (The Vicaria was originally the Castle Capuano, which became afterwards the palace of the Spanish Viceroy, hence the change of name, and eventually the Courts of Law.) The last of these supreme heads was one Aniello Ausiello, who eventually disappeared and was never apprehended by the police. The chief of every centre was chosen by the members; he could take no important step without consulting them. But all the earnings of the centre were paid to him, which invested him with considerable power, for he distributed the Camorra—for this word designates not only the society, but also the common fund. The chief was allowed a contarulo or accountant, a capo carusiello or cashier, and a secretary. Among the other employes of the Camorra were a capo stanze or caterer, and a chiamatore, literally, the caller, because he called the prisoners wanted in the prison parlour. The division of the barattolo (312) took place every Sunday, the chief always retaining for himself the lion's share.

317. Cant Terms of the Camorra.—The chief is called masto, or si mato, master, or Sir master. When a companion, as all the affiliated are styled, meets one of his chiefs in the street, he raises his hand to his cap, and says, "Masto, volite niente?" (Master, do you want anything?) A companion is simply addressed as si, an abbreviation of signore. An ubbidienza, obedience, means an order. Freddare to make cold, means to kill; the dormente, the sleeper, the dead body. The man who is robbed is called l'agnello, the lamb; soggetto, subject, or mico. The stolen object is called the morto or rufo; the fence, the graffo. These latter words are pure slang. The knife is called martino, punta (point), or misericordia; when quite flat and double-edged, a sfarziglia. A gun is a hocca (mouth), tofa, or buonbas; a revolver, a tictac, or bo-botta; the patrol are gatti neri, or sorci (black cats or mice). The commissary of police is nicknamed capo lasagna (lasagne are a kind of long and flat maccaroni); the lasorgnaro (dealer in lasagne) means a sergeant of police, and a simple policeman is an asparago (asparagus); the palo (Pole) is a spy; the serpentina means a piaster. When a picdotto took upon himself the crime of another, Facollava, he embraced him. Camorristi belonging to the lowest class of the people are called guappi (meaning unknown); those who are pickpockets, and to facilitate their sleight of hand have lengthened the fore-finger by violent stretching, or by a machine made for the purpose, till it is of the same length as the middle finger, are curiously enough called Chirurg.

318. Unwritten Code of the Camorra.—It is not probable that the Camorristi ever had a written code of laws; but they had an orally-transmitted code, containing twenty-four articles. It would extend this book too much were we to give them all: we select a few. Article 2 declares that no member of the police is ever to be admitted; but article 3 allows a Camorrista to join the force in order to keep his brethren informed of anything the authorities may be planning against them; article 5 stipulates that offences against the society are to be tried by the Grand Master and six Camorristi proprietarii (that is, Camorristi who have others under them); by article 8 any member who has betrayed his oath of secrecy is condemned to death; articles 9 and 10 award the same punishment for omissions or commissions of acts endangering the security of the society. By article 15 the lowest Camorrista may kill any member who has committed any act injurious to the society, but he must do so in the presence of two companions, who must witness to the facts. Article 16 condemns any one who attempts to become personally acquainted with the Grand Master to death. By article 20, Camorristi, who have reached the age of fifty to sixty years, or who have been injured in the cause, are entitled to temporary or permanent support; their widows also in certain cases receive pensions. Article 24 secures to prisoners gifts in money, arms, or whatever they may be in need of, without any restriction.

It was also an unwritten law among Camorristi to mutually assist one another if unlucky at play; an offence committed against a member of the Camorra elegante was an offence committed against all, and any one of them could avenge it; these latter gentry also generally dressed alike, wore their hats in the same way, and carried their walking-sticks horizontally suspended between two fingers of the right hand. Stealing was allowed, but the objects stolen must be of some value, so as not to bring disgrace on the Camorra!

319. The Camorra in the Prisons.—We have already mentioned that the Camorra was ubiquitous, that, in the time of the Bourbons, it invaded the prisons even. A prisoner on his arrival was accosted by a Camorrista, who asked for money for the lamp of the Madonna. On all the prisoner ate, drank, smoked, on any money he received from friends, on necessaries and superfluities, on justice and privileges, the Camorra levied a tax. Those who resisted this extortion ran the risk of being beaten to death. True, the Camorrista, who had taken the prisoner "under his protection," would not allow him to be fleeced by others, and would even fight for him—after having skinned him alive! When a prisoner of some rank was brought to the Vicaria, he would occasionally receive from the Camorra—not from the gaolers, who went in fear of the sectaries—a knife for his personal defence. In every prison the Camorristi had a depot of arms, which went by the name of the pianta (plant), and was never discovered by the gaol authorities. It may fairly be assumed that originally the Camorra was established in the prisons as a protection for prisoners, who under the vile reigns of the Bourbon dynasty were shamefully ill-treated by the officials. It is certain that the Camorristi maintained some order in the prisons; in fact, the gaolers often were glad to have recourse to their authority to master rebellious prisoners.

320. The Camorra in the Streets.—Originally the Camorra existed in prisons only; it was carried into the city by prisoners, who had served their time, shortly after the year 1830. From that date the streets of Naples were infested by Camorristi, who "worked" in gangs. They mewed like cats at the approach of the patrol, crowed like cocks on seeing a benighted pedestrian; this sign was also adopted, when known at a house, to indicate a friend. They uttered a long sigh when the pedestrian was not alone; sneezed when he did not look worth attacking; chanted an Ave Maria when the spoil promised to be good, and a Gloria Patri when the expected victim hove in sight. When a Camorrista entered a meeting-place of the sect where he was a stranger, any one present who knew him, to indicate to his friends that the new-comer was one of them, would twice or thrice raise his eyelids, thrust his' hands into his pockets, and look for a second or two at the ceiling. The town Camorra was not absent from the highest circles. Royal Highnesses were in league with smugglers, and shared their profits; ministers protected the Camorristi "for a consideration;" bishops, the heads of charitable institutions, every government official, in some way or another were involved in the Camorra scandal. M. Marc-Monnier mentions a Camorrista he knew at Naples who, though he played with loaded dice, cheated at cards, and was, in fact, a thorough swindler, was yet received at Court, because he handled the sword well, and was feared as a duellist, until an Englishman killed him in an "affair of honour."

But the Camorrist pur et simple sponged on the lower classes. A beggar could not occupy his accustomed post without feeing the Camorrista. In the low taverns found in many parts of Naples, where ragged beggars would sit all day, nay, all night long gambling, the Cammorrista would stand by and levy his tax on every game. By what right did he claim it? No one could tell: suffice it to say, no one disputed it. The tax on gamblers was one-tenth of the winnings. A rich man, known to be about to bid for a house sold by auction, would be waited on by a Camorrista and informed that unless he paid a certain sum to the society the latter would outbid him; of course he had to yield. From houses of ill-fame the Camorra drew a large revenue, as also from smuggling. The police being very badly organised under the old regime, leading merchants were glad to engage the Camorra to superintend the loading and unloading of merchandise; Camorristi were found at every town-gate, the offices of the octroi, the custom-house, the railway station, taxing coachmen and porters; nurserymen bringing fruit into the town were mulcted in one sou the basket. The Camorristi also kept illegal lottery offices: the profits must have been large, for a woman who was apprehended was shown to have gained one thousand francs a week. In fact, the Camorra speculated on every weakness and vice of mankind. Under the Bourbons it even infected the army; but when it attempted to corrupt the Italian army, such members as were detected were publicly exposed with a placard suspended from their necks, bearing the henceforth infamous word—Camorrista.

321. Social Causes of the Camorra.—These must be looked for in the abject state of slavery in which the Neapolitan people were kept by the Bourbon dynasty, which protected common malefactors to secure their loyalty, whilst the intelligence of the country, aiming at liberal institutions, was persecuted with the utmost malignity. The clergy bravely helped the king to keep the people in a condition of the grossest ignorance and superstition. Hence no vigorous association for good could arise against evil; fear kept down the few who stood at a higher moral level, hence the power of the well-organised and flourishing Camorra, just as we find, at the present day, Chinese beggars forming powerful guilds and exacting donations from the shopkeepers in every city of the empire. The Camorra had never been a political society before 1848, therefore government did not interfere with it; nay, sometimes they were useful to the police, and were, in fact, taken into their service, every one of the twelve heads of sections receiving a hundred ducats (425 francs) a month from the secret police fund, whilst the higher employes of the force received one-third of the monthly proceeds of the swindling transactions of the society. Sometimes the latter would detect crimes which the police could not discover.

322. The Political Camorra.—After 1848 the conspirators against the government, unable to stir up the people, endeavoured to win over the Camorristi, but all they gained by this injudicious step was to be heavily blackmailed by them. Some of them, having attempted honestly to earn their money, and fallen into the hands of the police, were sent to prison. Then the sect became political. In June 1860 Francis II. was compelled to grant a constitution; the prisons were opened, and a crowd of Camorristi came forth. Their first act was to attack the commissaries of police, to burn their papers, and beat the gendarmes to death with cudgels. The Sanfedisti or the rabble in favour of the king and divine right, threatened to pillage the town—they had already hired store-rooms to deposit their booty. Don Liborio, the new Prefect of Police, threw himself into the arms of the Camorristi to save Naples from pillage—and they prevented it. They were formed into a civic guard, which kept order in the town until the arrival of Garibaldi. But they remained Camorristi at heart. They largely engaged in smuggling, and forcibly took the octroi of the town gates, so that government on a certain day received at all the gates together but twenty-five sous. This led to vigorous measures. Ninety Camorristi were arrested in one night; the next day the octroi yielded 3400 francs. On the establishment of the regular monarchy, Silvio Spaventa, a patriot of the year 1848, became Minister of Police; one of his first measures was to deal with the Camorra. He had not long to wait for an infraction of discipline on their part; in one night he caused more than one hundred Camorristi to be arrested; at the same time he abolished the civic guard, replacing it by a guard of public security, organised beforehand,

323. Attempted Suppression of the Camorra.—But in spite of the energetic measures of Signer Spaventa, the Camorra was not destroyed; it existed not in a group of men only, it was deeply rooted in the morals of the country. Though the chiefs were removed, the sect retained its organisation under other chiefs. Such Camorristi as had been sent to prison after a time regained their liberty, and resumed their malpractices; they were transported to various islands in the Mediterranean, whence many of them made their escape, returned to Naples, and raised tumults in the streets, crying, "Death to Spaventa!" They became powerful at elections, and with their cudgels directed the religion and politics of the electors. Peaceful citizens were nightly assaulted and robbed in the streets of Naples; burglaries became quite common. This state of things lasted till 1862. The Southern States had been declared in a state of siege, and General La Marmora and the Questor Aveta determined to take this opportunity of exterminating the Camorra. In September 1862 three hundred of the most notorious Camorristi were in prison; some of them were sent to the cellular prison, the Murate, at Florence; others were shut up in the islands of Tremiti. Yet the Camorra seems irrepressible. Occasionally there would be an apparent lull in its activity, to break out again with renewed vigour. It would be tedious to relate its doings from year to year, for it continued to flourish when the new kingdom of Italy was firmly established: a few episodes may suffice.

324. Renewed Measures against the Camorra.—In September 1877 the government made another determined effort to suppress the Camorra. The market of St. Anna della Paluda was the spot chosen for the attack. No peasant could bring and sell there his vegetables and fruit before having paid a tax to the Camorristi. Besides the guards in plain clothes, the market had been surrounded early in the morning by police and carabiniers, while a tolerably strong force of Bersaglieri was in attendance close at hand. On a sudden every gate and way of exit was closed; flight or resistance was out of the question, and fifty-seven of the most notorious of the Order were seized, bound together by a long rope, and carried off to the nearest police station, where they were soon committed and sent off to prison in parties of ten. There was the picciotto without dress and in his shirt sleeves, and the full-blown Camorrista, dressed as a gentleman, with his fingers covered with rings, and a gold chain round his neck. This razzia was followed a few days after by another in the fish market, when fifty-nine of the worst characters were caught. Yet so tenacious are the Camorristi of their pretended rights, that two days after the descent on the fruit market some of them made their appearance and usual demand, which, however, was resisted, and the fellows were arrested. The wives, too, of those whom the police had seized entered the market, alleging that their husbands had commissioned them to receive their dues. In former days they would have been paid at once; on this occasion the wives were marched off to prison.

325. Murders by Camorristi.—Another occasion when the Camorra again came prominently before the public was in June 1879. In August 1877 one Vincenzo Borrelli, a leading member of the society, was murdered near Naples. He had fallen under the suspicion of having turned spy and informer, and entertaining secret relations with the police. Accordingly his death was decreed by the association. Six members met together in a wine-shop, and agreed to select one of their number to do the deed. The lot fell on one Raffade Esposito (the Foundling), who seems to have been chosen because he had a private cause of quarrel with Borrelli, and also because he was himself suspected of want of loyalty towards the society, and his fidelity would be conveniently tested by his readiness to undertake the deed. Esposito lay in wait for Borrelli and shot him from behind. The wound was not immediately fatal, and Esposito was pursued and seized by some soldiers, but he was rescued by a sympathising crowd. Borrelli's body was carried to the dead-house amidst the insults of the populace, and subjected to all sorts of indignities. Esposito was made the hero of the day; collections were gathered for him; but he found it impossible to evade the vigilance of the police, and three days after his rescue he gave himself up. He was escorted to prison through the streets of Naples by a vast crowd of sympathisers, who pressed money and cigars on him, and strewed flowers in his path. Some seventy-eight other members of the Camorra were arrested at the same time, and indicted as accessories to the murder of Borrelli; but the judges and jury, threatened with the vengeance of the Camorra, found "extenuating circumstances," and the criminals got off with comparatively slight punishments.

But, then, all these wretches are noted for their devotion; they are faithful children of the Church, which knows how to protect them; and the Camorra still flourishes, for the papers reported in April 1885 a fresh trial of Camorristi, one of them having turned informer. A number of them had been sent to the island of Ischia, and the first proceeding of some of the chief sufferers from the Italian mania for secret societies was to form an inner circle of the Camorra, electing a president, whose position entitled him to all articles stolen, a portion of which he assigned to thie thief; he also allowed gambling, receiving a share of the winnings—in fact, we find that in 1885, under the present Italian Government, the Camorra survives in prisons in the same form and vigour which distinguished it under the Bourbon despots. But what progress or improvement can be expected among the lower classes of Italy as long as a Pope occupies the Vatican, and a German Emperor insults the intelligence of civilised Europe by kneeling to that Pope, who is the representative of an ecclesiastical system which has always fostered and protected brigandage, with its robbery and murder?