Labor and the Mafia

Labor and the Mafia

The image of a saint was often burned in the initiation ritual into the mafia. The feast day of Saint Isidore, patron of labrorers, is 15 May.

When the pioneering labor organizer Bernardino Verro joined the Mafia in the spring of 1893, he was inducted through a ritual involving his own blood, and the burning image of a skull.

The Fratuzzi leader at this turbulent time in Sicilian history was Giuseppe Battaglia. Critchley says that in December 1889, when Giovanni Vella was killed, the leader was Paolino Streva, whose uncle had led the cosca before him. Other sources, however, say that Battaglia took over leadership from the former capo, Salvatore Cutrera, in the early 1890s.

A proverb popular in the late 19th century in Sicily divided a peasant’s opportunities into two categories: immigrate, or become a criminal. Of course, some managed doing neither, and others did both. Birds of passage—migrant workers from Sicily who intended to return—included the father of Vito Ciancimino and his brothers, who were barbers and shoemakers. Giuseppe Morello‘s stepfather, Bernardo Terranova, and his family were also among the early wave of immigrants that left Corleone in the 1890s, seeking opportunity in America.

Critchley says that Gagliano was Giuseppe Morello’s uncle, but I have not been able to confirm this. The men shared a first name and with it, the common nickname “Piddu.” Using clues from two sources that give Battaglia’s year of birth and his father’s name to find his vital records, I’ve learned that Battaglia’s wife, Maria Rosa di Miceli, is a third cousin of Morello.

During a brief liberal period of Italian leadership around 1893, a worker’s movement arose, with Corleone as its hub. Bernardino Verro held one of the first labor conferences there in the summer of 1893, a few months after he joined the local mafia.

John Alcorn, writing about the Fasci Siciliani, offers another proverb to explain why Verro would have enlisted the aid of the criminal organization. “If he can take what you have, give him what he wants.” Unlike other successful labor movements that relied upon funds to support their members until the conclusion of negotiations, Corleone’s Fasci Siciliani (also called the Sicilian Leagues in English) used threats and violence to enforce the strike. In order to make a credible threat against landowners and potential scabs, Verro enlisted those who excelled at extorting and committing violence.

Because neither the mafia, the landowners, nor the peasants were as solidly organized as history can make them appear, the reality was one of strike interspersed with violence, but also with compromises from landowners, and strike-breaking laborers. At the end of the planting season, in the late fall, most workers were still locked out of their lands. A long simmering banking scandal erupted, taking the liberal prime minister with it. The Italian government switched to conservative rule, and peasants redirected their frustration from the landowners to the state. In the ensuing riots, government offices were burned down, and several dozen people were killed by troops who fired on demonstrators.

The failure of the strikes of 1893 to bring fair contracts, resulted in massive emigration from Sicily, writes Alcorn. An early wave of pioneering immigrants provides a critical mass in the destination country, making it easier for others to follow. As I’ve written in this blog before, part of the structure that evolved to provide such aid, was the early Sicilian Mafia in America.

 

Sources

John Alcorn. “Revolutionary Mafiosi: Voice and Exit in the 1890s.” Accessed http://www.comune.corleone.pa.it/file%20da%20scaricare/Saggi%20palermo1_Saggi%20palermo1.pdf 5 May 2016.

David Critchley. The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931. Routledge: New York, 2009.

Marzia Andretta, “La mafia corleonese e la sua continuità.” Accessed http://www.comune.corleone.pa.it/file%20da%20scaricare/Saggi%20palermo1_Saggi%20palermo1.pdf 6 May 2016. (Citing Archivio di Stato di Palermo, GP, aa. 1906-1925, b. 267, f. 3, Associazione per delinquere scopertosi in Corleone, 13 agosto 1916.)

Featured image credit: Isidore, patron saint of laborers, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183298

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Mamma Mafia and the Little Brothers

Mamma Mafia and the Little Brothers

“Mafia” is a feminine term that means beautiful and proud. Paradoxically, women are both essential to and excluded from the criminal organization.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the mafia in Corleone was led by members of a new agrarian bourgeoisie (“nuova borghesia agraria”) of estate managers for absentee landlords. Author and labor organizer Dino Paternostro names three dozen in leadership of the Fratuzzi (“little brothers” in local dialect) around 1900. Many of these men are closely related, often through maternal lines and marriages. Arguably, some of the most important relationships a Corleonese man had, in this time, were his in-laws and maternal uncles.

Under Giuseppe Battaglia, the boss around 1900, the Fratuzzi were headed by Michaelangelo Gennaro, who was the nephew of former boss Salvatore Cutrera. Sources vary in describing their relationship, with some calling him the grandson of Cutrera. Salvatore was, in fact, Michaelangelo’s uncle by marriage: to Maria Carmela Gennaro, Michaelangelo’s paternal aunt. They married in 1859, six years before Michaelangelo was born.

In the next generation, Gennaro was replaced by Luciano Labruzzo and Giuliano Riela, a man from San Giuseppe Jato. Riela married into a well connected family. Salvatrice Cascio, my first cousin three times removed, was related to power on both sides of her family. On her mother’s side, she was Michaelangelo Gennaro’s niece. 

Women have never been part of the formal organization except symbolically, but their real-life relationships are part of the essential glue that holds the mafia together. There’s a clear pattern of inheritance, not only from father to son, but through men’s maternal uncles. From one century to the next, even while the Sicilian mafia is evolving into an international crime syndicate, it remains traditional in this regard. This is one of the ways the mafia makes itself inextricable from daily life, by leveraging the power of family. One’s in-laws are also one’s sworn allies and business partners. They’re the people most likely to help you find a wife, further cementing loyalty. Even more common than cousin marriage, in my own family, are such double in-law marriages as those among Salvatrice Cascio’s siblings. Her sister, Angela, married Carlo Taverna, who is also named among mafia leadership in Corleone at this time. Their brother married Carlo’s sister. 

Dr. Michele Navarra, born in 1905, was the son of a teacher with no family history of mafia involvement. On his mother’s side, however, his uncle by marriage was Angelo Gagliano, who is also named in Paternostro’s article. Gagliano, an associate of Giuseppe Morello’s and a capo in the Corleone mafia, is described as a particularly violent criminal. He appears to have been a successful one: Angelo can be found traveling to New York in 1899, carrying $1,000, which is worth more than $28,000 today. In New York, he owned a car wash where Jack Dragna claimed to work. Before long, Angelo returned to Sicily and married the daughter of another known mafia leader, his godfather, Bernardo di Miceli.

Angelo was indicted for attempted murder in 1910, and acquitted of the murder of labor organizer, Socialist mayor—and Fratuzzi member—Bernardino Verro in 1915. In 1928, a time when the fascists were rounding up hundreds of suspected mafiosi, Gagliano was acquitted of Verro’s murder. Two years later he was killed, at age 68.

The mafia dynasties evident at the turn of the century, continue for at least another generation. In 1936, Navarra married his first cousin, Tommasa Cascio. Like Salvatrice and Angela, her second cousins, Tommasa was from the “new agrarian bourgeoisie” in Corleone.

Image: Detail from “Sicilian Vespers” by Francesco Hayez. Public Domain.

Kissing cousins

Kissing cousins

In the provinces of Palermo and Agrigento, in Sicily, around 1900, close to five percent of all marriages required dispensation due to consanguinity. As distantly related as the fourth degree, which is to say, second cousins, needed approval from the archbishop to marry. I’ve found more than a hundred dispensations for marriages in Corleone, but only a handful have been between first cousins.  One of those was my twice great uncle Francesco’s second marriage.

Uncle Francesco’s first wife was his second cousin, Maria Antonia Gennaro, a woman who was distinguished as being one of the few female merchants in Corleone. She was also the sister of Michaelangelo Gennaro, who was already active in mafia leadership by 1900, according to Dino Paternostro. Michaelangelo and Maria Antonia are Cascios on their mother’s side. Two more of their sisters also married cousins, all of them Cascios by blood. Maria Antonia died in 1890.

My twice-great grandfather, Francesco’s brother, Giuseppe Cascio, was too sick to report the birth of the sixth of his seven children, in 1894. Five years later, he was dead at the age of forty-six. His widow, Angela Grizzaffi, immigrated to New York not long afterward, with four of the children. The two youngest came two years later, accompanied by Angela’s brother. The second child, Biagia, stayed in Corleone and married her first cousin, a man with the same name as her father, Giuseppe Cascio.

In a traditional society like Corleone’s at the turn of the twentieth century, parents chose two kinds of relationships for their children: their godparents and their spouses. Both of these selections, when taken as a set, tell us who the parents trusted.

Commonly, godparents are aunts and uncles of their godchildren. Other times, godparents come from families that are more noble than the parents’, indicating a patronage relationship. A third kind of godparent relationship is among families who frequently intermarry. The bonds within a family, between the leadership and their followers, and among families, are cemented by marriages, and reinforced with the spiritual ties of godparents and their godchildren.

The choice to marry in (endogamy), is a trade off between the value of forging new marital alliances, against that of strengthening existing bonds. It’s said that up to a staggering 80% of all of our ancestors, were pairs of first cousins. Today, about ten percent of all marriages are between first cousins. The rate is higher in parts of Muslim North Africa, and in China. The marriage patterns that are most endogamous are endemic to the most tribal societies. Ladislav Holý writes in “Kinship, Honour, and Solidarity: Cousin Marriage in the Middle East” that marrying cousins reinforces the integration of “the minimal unit” and asserts the family’s distinction, purity, and traditional observance. Steve Sailer makes a connection, often repeated, on the practice of cousin marriage in Islam: “Muslim countries are usually known for warm, devoted extended family relationships, but also for weak patriotism.” The same can be said of Sicily around the turn of the twentieth century. After a century of revolution, the island found itself once again ruled, and neglected, by the mainland. Genuine authority and loyalty were local, rooted in the family and the Church.

There are natural limits to how much inbreeding a society can tolerate, so while cousin marriage can be quite high—it’s currently around 50% in Iran—it’s not an exclusive practice. A blogger who writes on human biodiversity points out that there are two ways cousin marriage leads to inbreeding. Because of how the Y chromosome is passed down, the sons of marriages between men and the daughters of their fathers’ brothers (what anthropologists call “fbd marriage”) have less genetic diversity. Also, fbd marriage leads to more double-first cousin marriages than other possible cousin pairings.

In a patriarchal society like Corleone’s, a man who marries a woman from his own patrilineage, such as his father’s brother’s daughter, is undivided in his loyalty. This kind of marriage is so sought after that it remains a strong tradition in Islamic countries, for men to have the right of first refusal in the marriages of their paternal cousins. Marriages between men and their mother’s brothers daughters (“mbd marriage”) is called “alliance building,” creating ties between different patrilineages. Of the handful of first cousin marriages I’ve found in Corleone, the most popular are msd marriages, between the children of sisters. Worldwide, this is the most uncommon.

In double in-law marriages, the children of both marriages are also double cousins: they have two common sets of grandparents, instead of one. My twice-great grandmother, Angela Grizzaffi, was the third of her siblings to marry into the same immediate family. Those strong bonds, as well as the one forged by her daughter, Biagia’s marriage to her first cousin, another Cascio, reinforced her safety net and may have been instrumental in her family’s successful immigration, after the death of her husband. While her own siblings provided clear support—by taking her in, and escorting her youngest children when they made the voyage—that Angela’s sister and brother were married to siblings of her late husband, would have provided more incentive for them to help. Like cousin marriage, double in-law marriages create additional ties to the family, increasing loyalty and the obligation for mutual aid.

After my great-uncle Francesco’s first wife died, he married one of his wife’s nieces, who was also his first cousin, thus maintaining and reinforcing his ties to the family of his brother-in-law, Michaelangelo Gennaro. In the first decade of the twentieth century, two of Francesco’s daughters married men in mafia leadership, Carlo Taverna and Giuliano Riela, and one of his sons married the sister of Taverna.

Dr. Michele Navarra, who would lead the Fratuzzi from shortly after WWII until his assassination in 1958, married the daughter of his mother’s sister, Tommasa Cascio, in 1936. She was descended from a line of landowners, and the second cousin, once removed, of my great-uncle.

Mafia genealogy

Mafia genealogy

In legend, the mafia in Sicily dates to the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Two of the Five Families of New York, the Lucchese and Genovese families, are Corleonesi in origin. Their founders, Gaetano Reina and Giuseppe Morello, immigrated from Corleone, in the heartland of Sicily, to New York City, around the turn of the twentieth century. They came with their families, and settled in East Harlem.

In 1900, two of my great-grandparents were teenagers in Corleone. They were about to lose their fathers, and consequently, their lives would be dramatically altered. After the deaths of their fathers, Louis Cascio and Lucia Soldano both immigrated to America, each with their mothers and siblings, and settled around 106th St, on the northeast corner of Central Park in New York City. The census reports that my twice-great aunts and uncles found work, and supported their widowed mothers.

I don’t know if Louis and Lucia knew each other in Corleone, or how their marriage was arranged. (It was almost certainly arranged.) According to family lore, after they married, my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano, sold olive oil to the neighbors, produced and exported by one of Louis’ brothers-in-law back in Corleone. When I first heard this story, I didn’t realize how unlikely it was to be true.

Giuseppe Morello, aka “The Clutch Hand,” was a member of the mafia in Corleone, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, Bernardo Terranova. In New York, Gaetano Riina was one of Morello’s captains. Giuseppe’s half-brother, Vincenzo, married Gaetano Riina’s sister. Giuseppe’s cousin was married to my twice-great aunt Biagia Cascio, Louis’ sister: the one who stayed behind to marry the olive oil producer, while the rest of her family, her mother and all of her siblings, immigrated.

It’s the stories that yield themselves most grudgingly from the facts, that captivate me. Possibly this is because I am one of those people whose lives would have been lived entirely between the lines, if I’d been born in any other time and place in my family’s history. I realized a few years ago that I owed my good fortune to ancestors I didn’t know at all. So I started reading history: American, and Sicilian. I charted the histories of foreign domination and colonization, of feudalism and chattel slavery, and of two of the breadbaskets of a global economy.

And the juncture, where my Sicilian ancestors stepped into American history, coming with the first waves of the mafia: into New Orleans, Chicago, New York, into the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the strawberry fields of Louisiana. How Sicily built parts of the America we know. The intersection of cultures that made me, Atlantic City, and “Don Corleone.” A large part of the story of America’s Sicilian heritage, and my own, the myths and the reality, is about the mafia.

I don’t know for sure that Giuseppe Morello was helping his cousin,  but it seems likely. What’s not very probable, is that Biagia’s husband produced all of that olive oil, himself. Most farmers didn’t own any land, and those who did, had very small plots, enough to support only a handful of trees: not enough to start an export business.

I am documenting the relationships among known mafiosi from Corleone: to one another, to other powerful figures, and to my own family. The mafia of the twentieth century has been written about many times. Few have attempted to trace the connections, as I have been doing, from father to son, through the generations, going back to the revolutionary period of the early 1800s in Sicily, maybe farther.  Myths sometimes point to hidden truths. Myths tell us who we are. The story my great-uncle told was about how my family became American.

This blog is about the truth behind the myths.