The friends of Angelo di Carlo turn out to be “friends of friends.”
When Angelo di Carlo was interned during WWII, he was labeled by American intelligence as an alien enemy potentially dangerous to the United States, for several reasons. One was that confidential sources described him as a “man of respect” in the Italian community of New York. People called him “Capitano.” His reputation extended even to the Italian Embassy.
Angelo’s business associate in Esperia Film, Francesco Macaluso, says that Angelo had occasional business with the Embassy, regarding their films. For his part, Angelo claims he went merely to ensure his military pension was being paid out properly. In either case, he was granted private audiences on his visits to the Consulate: an uncommon courtesy. Angelo’s military rank—stripped from him when he failed to appear on murder charges in 1926—was also given as a reason for American intelligence to be concerned, during the war.
Angelo was found not guilty of murder by the Italian court in 1926, due to lack of evidence. But in 1930, he was found guilty of criminal association, which would make it difficult for him to conduct business in Sicily when he returned there in 1937, at the death of his father.
Mafia association is not a crime in the US, but it’s still an excellent detection method. Most crimes are never prosecuted, and with the exception of the occasional state’s witness, most mafiosi do not reveal their membership to non-members, not even to their wives and children. For Mafia genealogists, the challenge is not to find judicial proof, which is rare, or a membership roll, which is nonexistent, but to demonstrate that an individual does what mafiosi do. This includes having close business and personal contacts among men who are known members of the Mafia.
All of the men testified that they knew Angelo well, that he was no threat to the US government, and that they would sponsor him if he were released. Three of the affidavits are from men with close ties to Tommy Gagliano, boss of the Lucchese crime family:
Nunzio Pomilla is Tommy Gagliano’s brother-in-law and lathing business partner.
Leoluca di Frisco, who is known as Louis, is married to Tommy Gagliano’s niece. He owns a bakery and a lathing company.
There is another man by this name, a known Giuseppe Morello associate, who is also from Corleone. That Ignazio Milone is twenty years older, born in 1878. He is this man’s third cousin. The older man was killed in 1934.
(Another man who swore on Angelo’s behalf was Stefano la Sala, who I wrote about here a couple weeks ago. Like Milone, La Sala has a same-name cousin, a powerful member of the Lucchese family.)
All three of the Lucchese connections are men from Corleone. Ignazio Milone has been a blacksmith, a stone cutter, and a plasterer. Never married, he lived in the Bronx with his sister and brother-in-law. Milone and Pomilla both knew Angelo since they were children. Milone and Leoluke Calcaterra, a milliner, affirmed Angelo’s difficulties in Sicily. Each of them was in Corleone, visiting family, at some time during the two years Angelo was there. They claim that his harassment by the police, and fruitless efforts to secure a passport for himself and his wife, were generally known to people in Corleone. Costantino Castellano, who is from Palermo, was in Sicily in the summer of 1937. He was in contact with Angelo during that time, and confirmed Milone and Calcaterra’s statements.
A common thread is proprietorship in the construction trades. Louis di Frisco and Nunzio Pomilla owned lathing companies. Stefano la Sala was a building contractor. Pietro Castro, also called Peter, who is both Stefano and Angelo’s brother-in-law, was a plasterer who owned his own business. Pietro’s son, Anthony, was also a plasterer. Two of Angelo’s brothers were plasterers. Rosario Loiacono was a plasterer, as were two of his brothers, his father-in-law, Joseph Tavolacci and his brother-in-law, Domenick. Domenick Tavolacci is Peter Castro’s son-in-law, and was business partner in a plastering business with Angelo’s brother, John.
The Honorable Charles Buckley, who would lead the Bronx Democratic machine in the 1950s and 60s, was a bricklayer with his own construction business when he entered politics, breaking the unwritten rule that district leaders had to own saloons. The successor to “Boss Flynn,” Buckley was a strong believer in the political machine. If you needed something done in the Bronx, you saw your assemblyman, and if he couldn’t fix it for you, Buckley might. In the 1930s and 40s, he served fifteen terms in Congress. Among Buckley’s achievements in the Bronx was to bring in federal funds to pay for housing projects and highways: a boon for those in the construction industry.
At Peter Castro’s request, Buckley wrote a letter to the Attorney General. The letter made its way to the director of the Alien Control Unit, Edward J. Ennis, who wrote Peter Castro to suggest that his brother-in-law apply for a rehearing.
The Di Carlo family was persecuted by Italian Fascists in Sicily. That didn’t stop them from becoming propagandists for Mussolini.
A couple weeks ago on Mafia Genealogy, I introduced “Capitano” Angelo di Carlo. Calogero di Carlo, called “Lelio” or “Leo,” was the youngest child of the Di Carlo family, and Angelo’s business partner.
Seven brothers immigrated: Antonino (Nino), Giuseppe (Piddu), Giovanni (John), Angelo (Capitano), Francesco (Frank), Salvatore (Toto), and Calogero (Leo). Two sisters also immigrated: Marianna and Rosa. All but Angelo lived the rest of their lives in the United States, with several of the siblings settling together in Yonkers.
Their father was a butcher in Corleone, and at least two of the brothers, Nino and Toto, were butchers in the US. John owned a plastering business, and Frank worked with two of his brothers, sometimes with Toto as a butcher and other times with John as a plasterer. Lelio and his brother, Angelo, were entrepreneurs: before the war, as film importers, and after WWII, as travel agents. According to the Italian police, the brothers were suspected of international drug smuggling as early as the 1930s.
Angelo was in Sicily from 1937-39, having gone to assist their father, who died in Corleone in 1937. Angelo had a prior conviction for mafia association, and was unable to secure a visa, or even a driver’s license, under the Fascists. Despite these difficulties, Lelio says that Angelo may have helped acquire two of the first films Esperia distributed in the United States.
The Esperia Film Company was formed by Lelio in January 1939. He originally called Esperia the “Modern Film Company.” The company was called Esperia by March, when Angelo returned to New York. After two years in Italy, Angelo’s wife, Luisa, contacted a relative, a judge in Palermo, who secured visas for their return to New York. Angelo and Luisa lived with Angelo’s brother, John’s family in Yonkers. Angelo joined Esperia as a salaried employee.
According to IMDb, the films Esperia distributed were made between 1936-40, and distributed in the US between 1939-41. Other than those first two, Francesco Macaluso, Esperia’s president and general manager, selected all of the films Esperia licensed. He made a number of trips to Italy during the 1930s to obtain films for distribution. He is seen on manifests, returning to the US with his wife and two of their children in 1933, in 1936 with his adult daughter, who worked for Esperia as a bookkeeper, alone in 1937 and again in 1939. The records list Macaluso as a lawyer, until the last trip I found, in 1940, where “lawyer” is crossed out and replaced with “film merchant.”
Lelio claimed in a 1943 affidavit that all of the funds used to purchase the film licenses were his own, with some of those funds acquired from unspecified family members, and some quantity borrowed. But in 1942, when the FBI investigated Esperia, thirty percent of the stock was owned by Francesco Macaluso. The majority shareholder was Lelio, the treasurer, with sixty percent. His brother, John, owned the other ten percent.
According to the FBI, Esperia ceased operations in 1941. On 9 December, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, several of the Di Carlo brothers were arrested. Angelo and Luisa were still living with John’s family. According to John’s son, Vincent, who was ten years old at the time, Angelo, Toto, Frank, and Leo were arrested, because they were not yet citizens.
John was also arrested, according to Leo’s affidavit. In fact, his letter suggests only Angelo, John, and Leo were arrested, not Toto and Frank. Angelo, Calogero (Leo), and Frank appear in a list of persons of Italian ancestry who were taken into custody during the war. Only Angelo appears in the list of those initially rounded up after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he is also the only one interned. That Toto was also arrested, soon after his brothers, is confirmed in FBI Agent Burleson’s report from Ellis Island, the following month.
Calogero, who wrote in 1943 in an effort to have Angelo released from internment, downplayed his brother’s involvement in Esperia. Based on the contents of his affidavit, he understood the propaganda charges to be the main reason Angelo remained interned. He writes:
“My brother, Angelo di Carlo, came into the organization solely on a salary basis. He contributed no money to the company’s capital. His connection with the company was solely as a salaried employee, although he nominally held the title of Vice-President. He had no control over the bank account.”
John’s son, Vincent, who wrote a family history in 2013, and worked for his uncles as a teenager, provides a different impression of the brothers: “They were business partners but Angelo ran things and made all the major decisions.”
Though by the time of their 1943 affidavits, the Di Carlos and their supporters were careful to distance themselves from fascist governments abroad, domestic fascism enjoyed broad support in the 1930s, when Esperia began importing films. American heroes of the time included the pilot and widely known white supremacist and isolationist Charles Lindbergh, auto manufacturer and anti-Semite Henry Ford, and real life “Citizen Kane”: the yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst. “Hitler’s Mountain Home” was featured in the Hearst publication, “Better Homes and Gardens,” in 1938, the same year as Kristallnacht.
All 29 of Esperia’s 1940 releases “attempted to convince spectators that under the leadership of Mussolini Italy was a strong and mighty nation.”One feature film distributed by Esperia is described as propaganda in the book “Equivocal Subjects.” “Under the Southern Cross” (1938) (on YouTube) is seen to “naturalize” Italian occupation of Ethiopia, which began in 1898. A second Italo-Ethiopian War was fought in the years just before this film’s release. Recall that Angelo’s service to Italy, from which he derived his lifelong nickname, was in the occupation of Libya. His evident pride in his role in Italy’s colonial “Scramble for Africa” may have extended to the subject of his countrymen in Ethiopia. Angelo told FBI investigators, following his arrest, that he was not pro-Fascist, but he was still pro-Italian.
Lelio calls Esperia “a private business venture, absolutely in no way connected with the political regime in Italy”. In their defense, Lelio notes that the films Esperia imported, were also shown in other theaters around the United States. Individual Esperia releases, reviewed in contemporary newspapers, are depicted as light entertainment, exotic dramas and comedies of variable artistic merit.
The News Research Service, produced by Joseph Roos, describes Esperia as a propagandist specializing in short films. The typical distribution method was to screen a full-length feature along with two or three short pieces of propaganda. This article singles out two film houses in New York City, the Roma Cine Teatro at 1662 Broadway, which “flourished under the management of the notorious, one-time anarchist, Pietro Garofalo,” and the Cine Citta, at 250 W 54th St, managed by Signor Macaluso, a “widely known… Fascist agent.” The Rome Cine was one of the theaters in which Angelo di Carlo was invested.
By 1936, Francesco Macaluso had been active in American fascist leadership for almost two decades. The Di Carlo brothers were well aware of their business partner’s politics. Vincent knew Francesco personally. He visited his uncle Angelo during his internment, at two different camps. Vincent says of Macaluso: “His relationship with Angelo was strictly business. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Macaluso was a hardcore Fascist. At my visit to Fort Meade I witnessed him trying to impress visiting family members of the POW with shouts of ‘Viva il Duce’ and making Nazi/Fascist salutes.” (Personal correspondence, 11 March 2016.)
Since internees were rated on their behavior in the camps, his association with Macaluso may have harmed Angelo’s chances of being released. Luckily for them both, the war was coming to an end.
Affidavit signed by Calogero di Carlo, 28 July 1943. Released electronically by NARA on 9 March 2016 to the author.
“Fascismo Says It With Movies.” Research Supplement Published by News Research Service, Inc. Vol. 5. No. 142. 23 April 1941.
Federal Bureau of Investigation report made at New York, NY, on 23 January 1942 by J. Burleson regarding Angelo di Carlo. File no. NY 100-17523. Released electronically by NARA on 9 March 2016 to the author.
XIII Legislatura – Disegni di Legge e Relazioni – Documenti. Legione Territoriale Carabinieri di Palermo. Oggetto: Vito Calogero Ciancimino gia’ Sindaco della Citta’ di Palermo. Senato della Repubblica. Camera dei deputati. N. 3209/1064-2 di prot.llo. Dated Palermo, 14 April 1971. Accessed at http://legislature.camera.it/_dati/leg13/lavori/doc/xxiii/015_RS/00000008.pdf on 24 January 2016.
Feature Image: Promotional poster for “Il Sogno di Butterfly” [English: “The Dream of Butterfly”], a 1941 Esperia release (Source: IMDb)
Before and during World War I, Giuseppe Morello was fighting his own war in New York, while in Africa, Captain Angelo di Carlo was fighting an aggressive war of colonial expansion in Libya, which Italy had recently wrested from the Turks. Angelo found himself on the other side when the Fascists rose to power in 1922, as it soon declared a war on the mafia in Sicily, nearly wiping them out, and forcing di Carlo to flee. Meanwhile, his future associate in the United States, an Italian Fascist propagandist, was making a name for himself in the United States.
Francesco Macaluso was born in Casteltermini (in Agrigento province) on 18 November 1886. (A poet and lawyer by the same name, born in the same province the previous year, was a socialist, and ardent opponent of fascism.) Francesco and his wife immigrated to New York in 1914, joining his sister there briefly before moving on to Boston, where their first two children were born. Francesco and his wife, Esmeralda, named their first child Ferdinando Antonio Americo Macaluso. It’s hard not to see the Macalusos as making a declaration of confidence in their new home, giving their first born son the name “Americo.” What can be more difficult to resolve is the simultaneous regard Macaluso held for fascism and for the United States.
Fascism was not only a European phenomenon. The ideas of eugenics, social darwinism, and “Nordicism,” a set of myths about the aggressive, colonizing nature of Aryan people, were in powerful circulation in the US, from at least the 1890s, the same time it was galvanizing Europe. The Fascist League of North America had an active chapter in Boston by the late 1910s, with Macaluso at its head. As part of his political organizing, he published a monthly journal, called “Giovinezza,” the first openly fascist publication in the US.
While World War I raged in Europe, Giuseppe Morello, one of the original bosses of the Sicilian Mafia in New York, was fighting the Mafia-Camorra War against a Neapolitan gang based in Brooklyn. In 1906, Morello’s former captain, Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, married a woman from Corleone, Angelina Oliveri, whose mother was a Streva. Angelina is a second cousin of Paolino Streva, the captain under which Giuseppe Morello worked in Corleone as a cattle thief, in the 1890s.
Reina formed his own family, and managed to avoid the conflict, enjoying the protection of Joseph Masseria, who would figure prominently in the next mafia war, the Castellammarese. Tommy and Angelina’s daughter, Carmela “Millie” Reina, would marry Joe Valachi, a Lucchese gangster, at that war’s conclusion in what is described as a “union of underworld convenience,” in 1932. (Valachi famously turns pentiti before the US Senate in 1963, and brings down the crime family his father-in-law originated.)
Italy entered the war against Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915, in order to annex two historically contested regions, the Austrian Littoral (Trentino) and Dalmatia (South Tyrol). However, at the end of the war, Italy did not receive the territories, a “mutilated victory” that would become an important part of Italian Fascist propaganda.
The US finally entered WWI by declaring war on Germany in 1917. The following year, large numbers of American troops deployed to Europe. Doctor of Italian law Francesco Macaluso, an Italian national, working for the Italian bank, Banco Stabile, in Boston at this time, requested an exemption from the US draft, because he was supporting a family. By this time, he and Esmeralda also had a daughter, Rose.
The end of WWI saw the beginning of another worldwide catastrophe, a flu pandemic that killed between three and five percent of the total population. Previously healthy young adults were its main victims. The US experienced a mild economic recession during the pandemic, followed by a more severe one that began in 1920. By that year, Francesco Macaluso and his family had returned to New York, where their third child, Armand, was born.
In one of the first scenes of the 1974 film, “The Great Gatsby,” set in 1922, Nick Carraway arrives at his cousin, Daisy’s rich estate on Long Island, and her boorish husband, Tom Buchanan, is spewing classic “Nordicism”: white supremacy, and its allied fascist mythology of world domination. It comes up three times in the film: everyone remembers the glasses on the billboard across the street from the filling station, but fascism is as essential to “Gatsby” as the Charleston. While white America was dancing to the new sound, jazz, Black Americans in the 1920s were being brutally repressed by their government, and through extralegal violence. The KKK was at the height of its power in 1925, when 400,000 members marched on Washington. It is no exaggeration to say that the Holocaust is descended from Jim Crow. Nazi Germany modeled its discrimination and segregation laws on America’s.
In Italy, Fascist Benito Mussolini took power through use of the Blackshirts, paramilitary squads of First World War veterans and ex-socialists. He marched them on Rome in October 1922, and the king appointed Mussolini Prime Minister during their march, turning a military invasion into a victory parade. Under Mussolini’s orders to eradicate the Mafia in Sicily, Cesare Mori, Prefect of Palermo, arrested over 11,000 people between November 1925 and June 1929, and a countless number died in mysterious circumstances or simply disappeared while in police custody. Hundreds fled to America to avoid the purge, including “Capitano” Angelo di Carlo.
Angelo arrived in the United States for the first time in 1926, age 35. Although married, he traveled alone, arriving in New York on July 16, 1926. The manifest lists his occupation as Captain. Several of those traveling with him are stamped “Diplomat.” Angelo met his uncle Giovanni di Miceli, a banker living at 241 East 108th St, New York. One of Angelo’s brothers was staying with him, already.
Not much is known of Francesco Macaluso during the 1920s. Based on the census records, he lived near his sister in New York, and worked as a lawyer. It’s possible that he traveled back to Italy in 1928, calling himself a journalist at this time: a manifest matching his name, age, and birthplace is likely Macaluso. Evidence indicates he remained active in the American fascist movement: in the 1930s, his propaganda would shift from print to film, in partnership with the di Carlo brothers.
By the late Twenties, there was already notable tension between the two factions who would fight the Castellammarese War, the gangs of Joe Masseria (the future Genovese family) and Salvatore Maranzano (the future Bonanno family). Maranzano, born in Castellammare, Sicily, was sent by Don Vito Cascio Ferro (a Palermitan who lived for a time in Corleone) to take over Masseria’s operations in New York.
Tommy Reina had become successful under Masseria’s protection, but now the boss began demanding a portion of Reina’s profits, prompting him to consider defecting to Maranzano. Masseria, learning of this, arranged with Reina lieutenant Tommy Gagliano to have Reina killed. (Gagliano and Reina are related through Reina’s wife: they are second cousins, once removed.) On February 26, 1930, Vito Genovese murdered Reina, on Masseria’s order. The hit is widely considered the opening salvo in the Castellammarese War between the exported mafias of Corleone and Castellamare del Golfo: the “Mustache Petes” of the Old Country and the “Young Turks” of the New World. That August, Giuseppe Morello, the first mafia boss of New York, was killed.
Feature Image: Still from “The Great Gatsby” (1974)
The story of Captain Angelo di Carlo’s life takes us through a turbulent period in world history, and in the history of the Sicilian Mafia: through two world wars, and two more for domination of New York City by competing mafia organizations. In his lifetime, Italy would fight its old enemy, Austria-Hungary, in World War I, but before doing so, would fight a colonial war in Libya against the Ottoman Empire. The rise of fascism in Italy nearly destroyed the Sicilian Mafia before the end of WWII, but due to the political blunders of the Allies following Operation Husky, the Mafia was able to reform itself under their protection. Angelo di Carlo is considered one of the architects of this renaissance.
The Turbulent 1890s
Angelo was born in February 1891 in Corleone,the eighth of thirteen children. According to the family historian, Angelo’s nephew and godson, Vincent di Carlo, their family was distinguished in Corleone by its very tall, fair, and beautiful members. Vincent reports that DNA evidence shows the family is descended from Normans, part of the Lombard resettlement of Corleone beginning in the 11th century.
The month after his birth, eleven men, most of them Sicilian immigrants, would be killed in a New Orleans prison in the largest mass lynching incident in American history.
The decade of Angelo di Carlo’s birth would see an Italian banking crisis unseat its prime minister, and the birth of a powerful worker’s movement, the Fasci Siciliani, with one of its most notable leaders, Bernardino Verro, organizing in their native Corleone. Verro would join the Fratuzzi, the local mafia, in 1893, and die at their hands in 1915. In 1930, when Angelo di Carlo lives in New York, Morello and Ferro battled for dominance over the gambling dens of Manhattan, in a war that would take Morello’s life.
In the late 1880s, Giuseppe Morello made a name for himself as a vicious cattle rustler, working with Paolino Streva, under the protection of Fratuzzi boss Giuseppe Battaglia. Morello and Gioachino Lima both fled the country in 1892, following a series of murders, including that of the Sylvan Guard, Giovanni Vella, who was investigating Morello’s crimes. The Morello-Terranova family would spend most of the next decade as agricultural laborers in the American South.
In Sicily, Angelo di Carlo received a good education: a total of ten years in public school and gymnasium, the European equivalent of American high school, followed by a year in lyceum (college), and one year in officer military school. He graduated from military academy and became an officer in the Italian Army. As an adult, Angelo was tall and strongly built, distinguished and yet physically imposing. His military rank of “Capitano” became a lifelong nickname.
Like Germany, Italy saw itself as a natural heir of the Roman Empire. In the years leading up to Angelo’s military service, the Italian elite embraced a philosophy termed “Unredeemed Italy” (“Italia Irredenta”) that dovetailed with a fascist belief in Aryan expansionism, called “Lebensraum” in German and “spazio vitale” in Italian. Not unlike the American myth of “Manifest Destiny,” fascist doctrine included the notion that man was a species continually at war. All three movements put varying degrees of emphasis on the primacy of Nordic people, and traced their political lineage to ancient Rome. To avoid stagnation, fascists argued that Italy would once again have to expand its borders, through reclamation of lands historically occupied by culturally Italian people, and through colonization. The “Spazio vitale” effort was particularly concentrated in the Mediterranean and in Africa.
It was in pursuit of this nationalist effort that Italy declared war in 1911 on the Ottoman Empire, and Angelo di Carlo saw military service as an artillery captain in the 3rd mobile battalion of the 40th infantry, in the Italo-Turkish War, in Libya. The Italians took Libya, held at that time by the Turks, in response to losing their own territory in Eritrea. Angelo would remain in active service until 1915, just before Italian entrance into World War I, and in the reserves until 1932.
The Mafia-Camorra War
In the early years of the Great War in Europe, Italian mafias in New York were beginning to fight one another for dominance. Following the New York Stock Exchange crash of 1901, Giuseppe Morello returned north to the city, where he remarried to another Corleone native, and began a counterfeiting operation. One of Morello’s captains, Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, eventually left Morello’s organization to form his own. While Reina’s family built a reputably peaceful ice trade empire in the Bronx, the Morello organization was drawn into a bloody war for dominance over gambling in Manhattan. The Sicilians, clustered around Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, and the Napolitani Camorra, based in Brooklyn, both wanted the monopoly. This prudent neutrality would benefit Reina right up to the eve of the second great mafia war, which began with his assassination in 1930.
On the national scene at this time, Woodrow Wilson, presiding over a small, unready military, remained publicly committed to American neutrality. German submarines sank the Lusitania, a passenger vessel, killing more than a hundred American citizens, but failed to lure America into the conflict.
Reina’s former associate Nicolo’ Terranova, Giuseppe Morello’s half-brother, was killed in the Mafia-Camorra War against the Napolitani, in 1916. That year Steve LaSalle, born Stefano la Sala, was with the Terranova brothers in a plot to kill Joseph DeMarco, one of the Camorra, in retaliation for Nick’s murder. LaSalle turns up later in support of Angelo di Carlo’s release from internment during WWII.
One of the last efforts of the Camorra, when assassinations proved ineffective, was to go after Ciro Terranova’s legitimate business interests, including artichokes (Ciro’s nickname was “the Artichoke King”) and coal. These were not successful, either. Participants in the murders turned informant, including Rocco Valenti and Ralph Daniello, the latter murdered after his release from prison in 1925. Mafia-Camorra War trials continued through the 1920s for Frank Fevrola and Antonio Paretti, with the latter executed at Sing Sing in 1927.
Meanwhile in Sicily, Bernardino Verro, the first Socialist mayor of Corleone, was increasingly at odds with the mafia’s primary clients, the large landowners, through his organization of peasant labor. Verro was killed by his fellow Fratuzzi in 1915 and replaced with another Socialist, Antonino lo Cascio. His worker’s movement, the Fasci Siciliani, would be subverted by right-wing nationalists who would become known as the Fascists.
The following year Angelo di Carlo, recently retired from active service and still living in Italy, married his first cousin, Luisa Castro.
In the years following the Mafia-Camorra War, the US would enter WWI and help bring about a victory for the Allies on the Western Front. Turbulence—economic, political, and social—would rock both sides of the Atlantic through the 1920s, and persecution by the Fascists would send suspected mafiosi to the US in the hundreds, among them, one reserve Italian Army captain by the name of Angelo di Carlo, pursued by charges of killing a Fascist in Palermo.
Feature image credit: Italian marine troops landing on Tripoli. (Public domain)
How fascism moved from left to right, and the Mafia’s enduring relationship with Freemasonry.
The historic relationship between the Mafia and Freemasonry is a fascinating one, for the role that its members have taken in world events. It’s a story that unfolds over centuries, crosses oceans, and takes many turns. But once I started asking the internet about connections between Freemasonry and the Mafia, it wasn’t long before I was neck deep in conspiracy theories about shadow governments run by corrupt pagan cultists in high places. What is true about the relations among Church, state, Mafia, and Freemasonry?
Some connections—like those between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry—are discredited. But sometimes true stories get lumped in with those that can’t possibly be true. The Mafia and Freemasonry, although both secret organizations, are not centrally governed, making the “New World Order” under their totalitarian rule, a dystopian fantasy, not a reasonable conclusion based on the facts. What has been true through much of their shared history in Italy, is that Freemasonry has been a shield behind which the elites in politics, business, and criminal enterprise meet in brotherhood and secrecy, allowing corruption to flourish.
Freemasonry today distinguishes work in stone—operative masonry—from the culture that developed through lodges, known as speculative masonry. The organization we know today as Freemasonry is believed by most historians to have evolved out of medieval guilds of master stonemasons. The term “freemason” originally referred to the advanced, operative masonry skill to shape decorative stone. From the late 17th century, lodges of speculative Freemasons—men who studied the principles of organized, operating freemasons, and applied their philosophies in other aspects of their lives—began to organize in Scotland and England. By the early 18th century, leadership of the Freemasons in the UK became the domain of the nobility. At the same time, American colonial leaders including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were active Freemasons.
Freemasonry is organized into independent Orients and Lodges, by geographical location. No group or individual rules over all Freemasons. Some bodies within Freemasonry do not recognize one another. Propaganda Due (P2), for example, was a Masonic lodge operating under the Grand Orient of Italy from 1945-1976, when its charter was withdrawn. It continued to operate covertly until 1981. The banking scandal of Michele Sindona was linked with P2.
Instead, members share bonds forged by a common authoritarian culture, and mutual recognition of rules and values. Salvatore Lupo says Freemasonry and the Mafia are similar, both by design and membership overlap. Both organizations share values of humility, a respect for the rules, and for the hierarchy. Like Freemasonry, the Mafia is made up of local organizations that are independently run, but share alliances and concerns with other families, or cosche.
Since before Freemasonry’s introduction to Sicily during the Napoleonic wars, the Catholic Church has considered Masonic membership a violation of Catholic values. As early as 1738, Pope Clement XII denounced Freemasonry, and membership remains grounds for excommunication. The Church argues that the fraternal organization teaches deism, a belief in a kind of Creator as Engineer of the Universe, which precludes such concepts as grace, in the Catholic sense of all help coming from G-d. Freemasonry requires its membership to believe in a creator, but does not further specify what relationship people should have with such an entity, making membership open, from the organization’s perspective, to a wide array of faiths. The Mafia, at least in legend, began as a mutual aid society. Masons, too, swear an oath of loyalty to help fellow members. But the Church calls for men to seek such help from G-d.
In Catholic countries, the Church competes with the state for power, particularly in periods of liberal rule, when the Church and its clergy tend to have their roles limited. The land seizures from the Church by the state, even in the Bourbon period, benefited the mafia, who were positioned to rig auctions, and had the capital to buy formerly Church-held land as it came onto the market. Liberal periods of rule after the Risorgimento also correlated with greater levels of political corruption. The lodge was where politicians, business leaders, and criminals, all at the highest levels in their fields, could meet on a level playing ground, under neutral auspices. During periods of state repression, Masons met publicly, but under other names, such as the “Centro Sociologico Italiano.”
Yet it was a vertical alignment of social classes, from high to low, that Salvatore Lupo argues made the Mafia possible in western Sicily. At the turn of the 19th century, Sicilians learned the principles of the French Revolution from Napoleon’s armies. An Italian sect of Freemasons known as the Carbonari, or “charcoal burners,” emerged, the name a reference to a now-illicit activity common among peasants, of burning wood to make charcoal in the baron’s woods. Sicily’s anti-Bourbon nobles flocked to the Carbonari and found themselves imprisoned for sedition.
Lupo writes, “According to a document dated 1818, the distinction between freemasonry and carboneria was the openness of the carboneria movement to the lower classes, to the ‘good craftsman, [to] the honest farmer,’ perhaps even to the ‘common riff-raff.'” In prison, the seditious barons shared their ideas with the men they met there, who spread the radical idea among other mafiosi. The Carbonari were singled out for excommunication by Pope Pius VII after they played a key role in the uprisings of 1820-21.
One of the Italian Carbonari, and a 33rd Degree Freemason, was Giuseppe Mazzini. By the 1830s, he had founded Young Italy, a secret movement organized around the principle of “Italian unification as a liberal republic.” Despite his use of the term “liberal,” by most analyses Mazzini’s politics are on the far right of the political spectrum. He called for “class collaboration,” a vertical alignment of social classes, to use Lupo’s phrase, that made Mazzini “an enemy of both communism and capitalism.” (Karl Marx, on more than one occasion, called Mazzini a reactionary old ass.)
Vincenzo Bentivegna of Corleone was influenced by Mazzini’s ideas, and began to spread his philosophy among other young people who were, like him, the children of Carbonari. The Marquis of Chiozi, Ferdinando Firmaturi, of the only noble family that lived in Corleone at this time, was converted by Vincenzo. Don Giuseppe Catinella, who would later represent the district in Palermo, was a Carbonaro. One of his close friends and advisors was Francesco Bentivegna, a cousin of Vincenzo’s, and an ardent Republican revolutionary.
However, the revolution of 1848 was not successful. The mafia, initially supporters, switched sides and were rewarded by the Bourbon king with lucrative government contracts. By 1856, the Bentivegna brothers, and the revolution they came to represent, had been betrayed, the brothers themselves imprisoned, or killed.
Another follower of Mazzini’s ideas, Giuseppe Garibaldi was inducted into Freemasonry in 1844, while in exile, and used his networks of Freemasons and socialists, among others, to gain support for Italian unification. Garibaldi conquered Sicily in 1860, but he no longer believed, as Mazzini wrote, that popular insurrection was the only way to unite Italy. Instead, Garibaldi handed the conquest of the Thousand to Piedmont, who he believed was the only force powerful enough to unite Italy against foreign rule. Francis Marion Crawford gives credit elsewhere. In his nonfictional account, Rulers of the South, he writes that “when the Mafia joined Garibaldi, the Bourbons fell.” (There is a third theory of Garibaldi’s success in Sicily, which credits the saints of Corleone.)
The term “fascism” was originally applied to organisations on the political Left. “Fasci” are bundles of sticks, like in the parable. Band together, like a bundle of sticks tied together, and no one can break you. The Fasci Siciliani was a peasant movement to organize labor, similar to the guilds of master tradesmen. The term was subverted to serve Mazzini’s far-right political agenda during World War I, when Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist party in Italy.
Bernardino Verro (my third cousin, three times removed) was an early labor organizer, and Corleone native. In the summer of 1893, he hosted a labor conference in Corleone. That was also the year Verro joined the Fratuzzi, the local mafia, to “give teeth” to his labor unions. Their relationship was strained from the start, with Verro’s organizing in direct opposition to the concerns of the nobility, which were protected by the Mafia. A year and a half after taking office as the first Socialist mayor of Corleone, Verro was killed, in November 1915. “Socialist carpenter” Carmelo lo Cascio (no known relation by blood, though he is by marriage) replaced him as mayor. Although there was a trial, there were no indictments for Verro’s murder.
Although the Mafia and the Fascists were both on the Right, politically, they were in opposition to one another. The Fascist regime in Italy was strongly opposed to the Mafia—authoritarians do not like competition—and nearly destroyed the organization during WWII. In the 1920s, hundreds fled Sicily to avoid arrest. Not only the Mafia, but Freemasonry was also suppressed. The latter became a dog whistle for the former. Angelo di Carlo, who is later called an architect of the Mafia in Sicily after WWII, went to New York during the purges of the Twenties. Shortly after his arrival, the Italian government accused him of the politically motivated murder of a Fascist in Palermo. Rather than call him a member of the Mafia, the Fascists call di Carlo an opponent of Fascism and “a member of the Masonic fraternity.” This is a strange set of accusations, unless you’re keeping track of political alliances.
When the Allies occupied Sicily during WWII, the Mafia regained power because they were the only ones who “had no compromising dalliances with the Fascist regime.” Di Carlo began his involvement in a decades-long money laundering conspiracy that was later discovered in an investigation of Vito Ciancimino, a Corleone native and mayor of Palermo, in the early 1970s. The Fascists were again in control of Italy at this time, planting bombs to frighten the public away from the liberal philosophies spreading on college campuses. The government called di Carlo, who died in prison awaiting trial in 1967, an anarchist and a deserter during WWI.
In recent years, the Italian government has voiced the opinion that Masonic affiliation continues to provide criminals with networking contacts in every field. In 2013, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith made some remarks in the Catholic Herald, about the mafia in masonic organizations, that serve the same caution when applied to the state, or even to the culture. “Italian masonry is strongly identified with big business and banking, and the powerful secretive elites that are supposed to be the ‘real’ government of the country,” Father Lucie-Smith writes. “Masonry is also seen as strongly anti-clerical; thus a masonic lobby in the Vatican would be opposed to virtually everything the Church stands for, and a real enemy within.”
Commissione Parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia e sulle altre associazioni criminali similari (CPA: Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia) Relazione sui Rapporti tra Mafia e Politica, Page 59, Roma, 1993.