Senate hearings are one source for names of Mafia members.

As you may have noticed already, when I named this blog “Mafia Genealogy,” I had in mind more than one kind of lineage. There is the criminal enterprise called the mafia, and then there are the individuals who were its members. But how does one attempt to prove a connection between a person—such as your own ancestor—and a secret, illegal, and shadowy entity like the Sicilian mafia? I’ve charted connections among members of my own family, and the families of known mafiosi from Corleone. Here are some guidelines to help you avoid common mistakes, when doing your own mafia genealogy.

Know your own family tree. Much of the work of mafia genealogy is in being prepared to recognize a potential connection. (If you’re not of Sicilian descent, you can stop reading here, because you’re not related to the Sicilian mafia.) Two keys to preparation are knowing your family, and knowing the world that your family and the mafia inhabited  together.

To find out if any particular gangster is your cousin, you have to know your extended family: not just your direct ancestors, but all of their sisters and brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews. The more you know about them, their kin, and other networking ties to other Sicilians, the more likely you are to find the connection to a known member of the mafia. I’ve traced all of my lineages in Corleone back at least six generations, but that is only part of my preparation. I’ve also looked for all of the children, siblings, second marriages, godparents, and neighbors I could find for my ancestors.

Know the historical context. Understanding such topics as the internment of Italians in the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the Mafia purges of the late 1920s by Cesare Mori under Mussolini, tell you the conditions under which your subjects lived, and the events that may have affected their choices. By knowing the history of political movements, and their relation to the mafia, you can draw some conclusions about motivation and alliances that were likely to be behind an event, whether it’s a gangland assassination or a family’s decision to immigrate.

Studying the records of the time and place your subject lived, can tell you if they’re exceptional or typical. Did they immigrate before nearly everyone else from that town, or were they leaving around the same time as their neighbors? Was their involvement in a political or social cause prescient or pragmatic? How much money did they have? Was that a lot, in today’s money, or compared with your subject’s neighbors?

This blog concentrates on the mafia from Corleone, but there are other towns in Sicily with reputations for organized crime. Once you have identified a place where both you and the mafia have ancestors, learn what you can about it, and the criminals who lived there. Whenever possible, create family trees for the mafiosi you learn about.

Keep track of your sources. Concentrate on the primary sources where possible. You’ll want to know whether you saw the same data being reported by two different sources, or if there are two primary documents that support the same claim. You’ll also want to be able to return to those sources to mine them for more information, to cite your sources when you report your findings, and to rank your sources by their reliability, so you can weigh this into your account.

Sometimes, it takes me years of searching to connect an author’s claim, and a primary source that confirms it. Some sources I’ve used or look for recently include the records of trials, the notes from legislative hearings, both in the US and in Italy, and memoirs of individuals who claim membership in the mafia. I read the work of journalists with respected reputations, who have written extensively about the mafia.

The mafia is about relationships. There are only going to be a handful of people that you will ever be able to confidently say, “This person was without a doubt in the mafia.” But from those people, and their relationships, you can draw a larger network of people who marry and stand as godparents to one another, live and do business together, and belong to the same church confraternities and mutual aid societies. These connections show you who a person is likely to be loyal to, and who they might trust.

When studying immigration records, look at the whole manifest, not just the lines about your subject. Did this person travel alone? Who did they meet in the US? Did a lot of people who immigrated from the same place, with the same destination, indicate on the passenger manifest the intent to meet the same person? Your subject’s contact person is important: find out about them, too.

Construct timelines for your people of interest. Much of this advice is useful for any genealogical research, not only trying to find the black sheep. But since you will likely be comparing accounts in which you are not sure they mean the same person (such as an article about the Fratuzzi, and a marriage record containing the same name), a timeline will help. Along with certain relationships, like who their parents and spouses are, timelines will help you keep individuals distinct. When did they stand as a godparent, when did they marry, when did they immigrate, and did they come and go more than once? The many documented meetings, voyages, jobs, homes, periods of military service, births, and deaths, come together to construct a life story. Where there is a conflict—documents that put the same person in two far-flung places, at or near the same time, or give different dates for a vital event, different names for a person’s father or wife, or indicate a person had a child when they were five, or a hundred and five—these will become evident when you try to incorporate them into the known timeline of events in a person’s life.

Track duplicate names. People who share the same name can be a big issue in any genealogical search involving Sicily. First and second born boys and girls in Sicilian families are traditionally named after their grandparents. That makes it likely to find first cousins with the same name, of around the same age. It also means that full given names of men are likely to recur in alternating generations. Probably, those people were called by nicknames in their daily life, and it would have been obvious from context whether someone was talking about the boy or his grandfather, but in official documents, nicknames will almost never appear. Instead, there is the subject’s reported age, which is likely to be off by a few years, but not by twenty or thirty. Given names might also include fathers’ names—like Giuseppe Morello fu Calogero, or “Giuseppe, son of the late Calogero Morello”—so you can tell one person from his or her cousin of the same name. When you’re reading an accounting of mafia history, pay particularly close attention to ages and the names of close relations, as these will help you establish which person of that name, from that place, is being described.

Return to your sources. Sometimes I don’t absorb the facts that I’m facing, right there in a document, because I don’t understand their significance the first time I read them, or the second. When I began looking for my great-grandfather Leoluca Cascio in Corleone, I had no idea how common his name was, and began an inductive search. I was deep into the Cascios and had been for months before I found a clue that there were other forms of my family’s surname. There was no way for me to discover this fact, except to stumble over it. That’s why I say, keep studying history, keep collecting the facts surrounding your subjects’ lives, and when you’re trying to make progress with a biography or timeline, go back to the documents at intervals, in case there is more to glean.

Document contradictions and uncertainties. Any record, even a primary one, can contain errors. Lots of secondary sources have incorrect ages, which would lead you to the wrong birth year. Keep track of these and highlight them in your notes, rather than smoothing over them. For instance, if you’re not sure if Joe’s mother’s name is Jane or Jenny, and in one record it looks pretty clearly like Jane, but in the other it’s smudged, don’t make assumptions: document the smudge. With luck, a primary source will clear up the question.

Know the hallmarks of mafia activity. Besides the connections people have to known gangsters, the other kind of relationship that can lead you to conclude a person’s probable mafia involvement, is their relationship to their community. Someone who many people turned to as a godfather, or indicated on their passenger manifests they were going to meet, is a locally important person. The mafia’s main business has always been racketeering, so if you find an arrest for this crime, you can be confident the criminal was part of a larger organization. Likewise, for counterfeiting in New York around 1900.

There are not many years’ worth of civil records for Corleone, but they tell us people’s professions or stations in life, which were considered the same thing: it was what you were, and what you did. The vast majority are either villagers or peasants. (Hard to believe that decades after feudalism was formally abolished, the Italian Republic still used these terms in civil records, but there they are.) Some women are peasants and some are housewives. Among the men, I look for those who are called possidente, civile, or borgese, which all mean that he owns land and can vote. In Sicily in the 19th century, it was rare for individuals to rise to the landowning class without being involved in the organized criminal class of gabelloti. The other professions I look for are also associated with the rural entrepreneurial class: farm management, herding, and transportation.

None of these clues—being in the land owning or management classes, being called “don,” or being called upon by your neighbors, all by itself, is a sure indicator of mafia involvement, but when several occur, and when they occur in combination, the emerging pattern tells me what I want to know. Thomas W. Jones, PhD, FASG, and editor of the “National Genealogical Society Quarterly,” quotes the bible of his industry with this question to ask yourself about any element of your narrative: “do ‘at least two sources of independent information items agree directly or indirectly on a research question’s answer’”? Whether or not that person would have ever admitted to belonging to a secret organization, or had ever burned a saint and swore an oath of allegiance, may be impossible for me to ever know. But what I can know is whether they did what mafiosi do. 

Image Credit: Mobster Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee. Al Aumuller, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. (Public domain.)

 

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6 thoughts on “How to tell if your ancestors were in the Mafia

  1. I just found out that my grandfather was in the mafia during the early part of the 20th century. I am trying to obtain dual italian citizenship. I need a boat record between the United States and Italy somewhere between 1926-1934 (when my grandfather returned to the U.S.). Any suggestions?

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