Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

VI. The Mafia

327. The Mafias Code of Honour.—This is a Sicilian society, which may be briefly described as another Camorra, its aim and practices being similar to those of the Neapolitan association, with a strong admixture of brigandage and blood-thirstiness. The society has a regular code of laws, called the Omerta, according to which every member must himself avenge any wrong done to him, for not justice, but the living, must avenge the dead—hence the laws of the vendetta. No member is to give evidence in any court of law against a criminal, but must, on the contrary, conceal and protect him. Candidates are admitted after a trial by duel; the members are divided into such as are merely under the protection of the Mafia, and such as are active members, and share in the profits, derived from smuggling and blackmail levied on landowners and farmers. No one guilty of, in the Mafia's opinion, disgraceful conduct, such as giving evidence in a court of law, or information to the police, picking pockets, or being a coward, is ever admitted a member, who call themselves giovani d'onore, honourable youths. They have their secret signs, passwords, and other means of recognition, which they have hitherto managed to keep from the knowledge of the outer world.

Like the Camorra, the Mafia is represented in all classes of society. It lounges abroad in silk hat, black coat, and kid gloves; it skulks in dens haunted by the forger, bully, or pimp. Generally when a murderer or burglar is arrested, the governor of the prison gets a hint that the culprit is a Mafiose, and forthwith he is treated with consideration. The judge on the bench receives a document in open court, and the prisoner somehow has to be discharged for want of evidence; juries, as a rule, refuse to convict. When in 1885 doings of the Mafia were discussed in the Italian Parliament, proofs were adduced that the society was represented in the antechamber of the procurator-General of Palermo; nay, the very commandant of the Royal troops, holding the King's commission to stamp out the sect, was directly accused in the Italian Chamber of acting in collusion with the Mafia, if, indeed, he was not a Mafiose himself. The stormy discussions which followed led to no result, and the Mafia was left to pursue its course in unhappy Sicily.

328. Origin of the Mafia.—The origin of the Mafia must be sought for in the former political conditions of the island. Since the middle of the last century, when Sicily was united with Naples, and with it formed the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the island was under the government, or rather misgovernment, of viceroys. The few years of the First Republic and First Empire of France alone formed an exceptional period, during which the Court of Naples, expelled by Napoleon, took refuge in Sicily, where it was protected by England, which sent an army under Lord Bentinck, and a fleet under Nelson, to ward off the French from the island. There existed at that time in Sicily a numerous class of armed vassals, dependents, and retainers, in the service of the feudal nobility, clergy, and large landowners.

The King of Naples, having upon the advice, or rather compulsion, of England granted the Sicilians a constitution, this measure involved the abolition of all feudal rights. The retainers and vassals thus set free being mostly reckless and daring fellows, nearly all turned brigands, whom the Bourbon king had no means of suppressing. He therefore, to restore a little order and security on the island, took the chiefs of these robbers into his service, and organised the bandits into compagnie d'armi, or rural gendarmes, who, however, while pretending to prevent robberies and extortion, themselves committed these crimes. They grew very powerful, and daily affiliated new members. The respectable inhabitants, rather than expose themselves to the risks of the vendetta, quietly submitted to the exactions of the society; the lower and uneducated classes began to look on it as a terrible power, superior to that of the government, and ended by considering it an honour, as it certainly was an advantage, to be received among its members.

The causes of the continuance of the Mafia may be found in the sulphur mines of Northern Sicily, and in the agricultural conditions of the whole island. Tens of thousands of labourers of both sexes, and of every age, are employed in the mines, and their condition is one of abject poverty, and unremitting, dangerous toil. In the agricultural districts the peasantry are ground down by the "middlemen," who rent the estates of the great landowners from these latter, and under-let them in small portions, and at exorbitant rates, to the peasants, who, unable to live on the produce, are driven into crime. The true seat of the Mafia is the neighbourhood of Palermo; no one can go a mile beyond the gates without risk of being robbed or murdered. In September 1892 about one hundred and fifty of these malefactors were arrested at Catania, most of them, on being examined, proving to be old offenders.

The Mano fraterna, another secret association, discovered in Sicily in 1883, was an offshoot of the Mafia, though its members repudiated the idea of being robbers and extortioners; they called themselves the instruments of universal vendetta.

329. Origin of the term Mafia.—What is the meaning of the word Mafia? and whence comes it? The invention is attributed to Mazzini; it certainly was unknown before 1859 or 1860, the time when that agitator made his appearance in Sicily. It is well known that he had no faith in any class of society except its very dregs, and his having formed the vagabonds and thieves, who then swarmed a11 over Sicily, into a secret society of his own, seems well borne out by facts. The allegation is that he first formed a secret society called the Oblonica, which word was coined by Mazzini from the two Latin words obelus, a spit, and nico I beckon, which being joined and contracted became oblonica, the word meaning, "I beckon with a spit;" "spit" being taken in the sense of dagger, as no doubt the sect understood it, we should get the sense of I beckon, or threaten with a dagger, which was the usual occupation or practice of the vagabonds enlisted by Mazzini. But within this sect he formed an interior, more deeply initiated, one, the members of which were called Mafiusi, from Mafia, composed of the initials of the five following words:—Mazzini, autorizza, furti, incendi, avvelenamenti, (Mazzini authorises thefts, arson, poisoning). And the Mafiusi were accustomed to call these crimes their pavi, or bread, since it was by them they lived.

330. The Mafia in the United States.—In October 1890 Mr. David Hennessy, chief of police at New Orleans, was assassinated. The subsequent legal inquiry showed the murder to have been the work of the Mafia, which had been introduced into New Orleans about thirty years ago. In May 1890 a band of Italians, residing in that town, surprised another band belonging to another society called the toppaghera in an ambush, and riddled the entire party with bullets, killing and wounding six persons. The authorities thereupon determined to take extreme measures to end the vendetta, which had already resulted in more than forty murders among Italians and Sicilians in New Orleans. Six persons were arrested and tried, but during the trial all the witnesses were assassinated. The men charged were, however, convicted, but their counsel succeeded in securing an order for a new trial, which was still pending when the chief of the police, Mr. Hennessy, was assassinated. He had thoroughly investigated the doings of the opposing societies, and was in possession of information which, it was thought, must lead to the conviction of the European cut-throats. He had received frequent warnings to beware of assassins, and had for some time travelled with an escort night and day. Nothing happened, however; he, on Sunday, dismissed his guard, believing it to be no longer necessary. On the following Wednesday, at midnight, he left the police headquarters for his home. It was raining and very dark, but, as he had not far to go, Mr. Hennessy determined to walk. As he turned the corner of Basin and Girod Streets, where an electric light threw down its strong rays upon him, a volley of bullets was fired at him from a passage a few feet away. Though severely wounded, Mr. Hennessy turned, drew his pistol, and emptied it in the direction of the dark entrance of the alley. Altogether fully twenty shots were exchanged. A policeman who was standing on the opposite comer ran to assist his chief and was shot in the head. Mr. Hennessy having exhausted the contents of his revolver, fell to the ground from loss of blood, and as he did so, four of his assassins sprang from the alley and ran down the street, while four others emerged a moment later and went off in the opposite direction. In their flight the murderers dropped three guns. They were muskets, sawn off behind the trigger, and with the butts hinged on, so that the guns could fold into the pocket. These are used only by Italian and Sicilian desperadoes. Eleven Sicilians were arrested on suspicion; and from the confession of one of them it appeared that the murder of Mr. Hennessy was determined on at a secret meeting held on the Saturday preceding the day of the assassination; ten members were chosen by lot to do the deed.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence against the accused, the jury, intimidated by threats of assassination by the countrymen of the Italians implicated, found six of them not guilty, giving them, as they alleged, the benefit of the doubt. A fresh charge, however, was preferred against those whom the jury had acquitted, and they were sent back to the county gaol. But early on March 14, 1891, a large crowd collected at the Clay statue and was harangued by a citizen named Parkerson on the case of the Italians charged with the assassination of Mr. Hennessy. He denounced the finding of the jury, and under his leadership about two thousand persons, armed with guns and revolvers, stormed the county gaol, where the accused, nineteen in all, were still confined. The mob dragged the prisoners from their cells and hanged or shot eleven of them. On the following day meetings of the Stock Exchange, the Board of Trade, the Cotton Exchange, and other public bodies passed resolutions deploring, but endorsing as necessary, the acts of the mob which stormed the gaol and lynched eleven Italian prisoners. The lynchers included some of the most prominent men in the city, and the notice calling the meeting, which culminated in the massacre of the prisoners, was signed by professional men, editors, merchants, and public officials.

These occurrences led to a temporary tension between the governments of Italy and the States, but fortunately for the two countries the application of diplomatic oil gradually softened and finally dispersed the irritation. The Mafia has not since then dared to raise its head in New Orleans, though it may well be assumed to be still exercising its pernicious influence in secret. And that influence at one time was very great over the reputable portion of the community, who feared it much more than lawless ruffians feared the law. The majority of the Mafia Italians got their living by crime, whilst those who did follow a respectable trade got rid of competition by holding out threats of assassination to their rivals. Every time a member of the Mafia was tried for crime, one or more of the jurymen selected to try him received warning, written and sealed, from the Mafia Society, terrorising them into a refusal to convict. Probably the trouble is not over yet; for the government action in attempting to suppress the society on the other hand stirs up the Italian feeling for their compatriots, and many Italians, who never contributed before, nor sympathised with the objects of the Mafia, now subscribe freely.