Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

V. Mala Vita

326. The Mala Vita.—The society known by this name seems to be an offshoot of the Camorra, since the highest grade in it is that of camorrist, and the second that of picciotto; the third was that of giovanotto, or novice. The chief of the Camorristi held the title of "Wise Master," whilst the Camorrist was nicknamed "Uncle." The society first came prominently before the public in April 1891, when 179 persons were arrested and tried at Bari, in the Neapolitan territory, as members of it. The title of the society, Mala Vita, which signifies "Evil Life," is said to be taken from a novel by Degia Como, which, at the time of its publication, was tremendously popular in Italy. The discovery of the conspiracy was due to the disclosures of nine members of the society who became informers. It appears that admission to the ranks of the organisation was only procurable after numerous preliminaries. A person wishing to become a member had to be introduced by a member to the chief of the society, who would then instruct another associate to institute a rigorous inquiry as to whether or not the applicant was worthy of admission. All these negotiations were conducted in a species of thieves' slang. There were, as already mentioned, three grades of members, each possessing a separate head, and, to a certain extent, separate accounts.

When the admission of a new associate had been resolved upon, a meeting of the sect in which he was to be enrolled was convened, and the formality of taking a vote upon the question having been gone through, the candidate was led into the place of meeting. An interrogatory and interchange of declarations, conducted in the secret dialect of the body, next ensued. The novitiate was finally sworn in with great mystery. He took the oath with one foot in an open grave, the other being attached to a chain, and swore to abandon father, mother, wife, children, and all that he held dear, in order to work out the objects of the association.

Humility and self-abnegation were also imposed upon the novitiate by the terms of the oath. After the ceremony of initiation, the chief delivered a fantastic harangue, intended to intimidate the new member by impressing him with a due sense of the fearful pains and penalties which would certainly attend any betrayal of the society's secrets or interests. No one was allowed to join the organisation who had been a gendarme, a policeman, or a custom-house officer. The principal object of the society appears to have been brigandage. The booty obtained in all predatory expeditions, and the ransoms derived from the capture of unlucky travellers, were thrown into a common stock, a certain proportion being, however, specially set apart for division among the Camorristi, whose duty it was, within eight days, to divide the remainder among all the members of the organisation, an exceptionally large share being claimed by the chief. Breaches of the society's rules and disobedience to orders were punished by torture and death, the whole society sitting in judgment, and the executioners being selected by lot. In the event of any person so deputed failing to carry out the society's decree, he had to undergo the same punishment he had been ordered to inflict. The member was obliged to have certain designs tattooed on his body, by which he could at any future time be identified. Some of these designs were extremely curious, representing angels, devils, serpents, dancing women, Garibaldi's portrait, and the Lion of St. Mark.

At the trial, informers explained how, when in prison, they, by order of the Camorristi, conveyed letters or money to other prisoners belonging to the society; or how the decrees of the Camorristi, involving outrages upon prisoners, warders, and others, were communicated to those chosen for their execution. The evidence adduced revealed a thoroughly organised system of outrage and exaction pursued against innocent persons, and of revenge committed upon such as were suspected of communicating with the police. Severe sentences of imprisonment were passed on most of the accused; but the society evidently continued to exist, for in March 1892, about one hundred and sixty persons, mostly young men between the ages of twenty and thirty, were arrested as members of it. Their chief was a man of sixty, who had spent some twenty-five years in penal servitude on the galleys. His followers were all persons guilty of various crimes, such as robbery, assault, and other acts of violence. They were, of course, sentenced to various terms of imprisonment; but the Mala Vita Society still exists.