The Mafia without godfathers

The Mafia without godfathers

In a controlled study of Mafia marriages in Corleone, I found that Mafia members are historically more closely related to their brides than their non-mafiosi neighbors in Corleone. What are the implications, genetic and otherwise?

The rates of consanguinity among Corleone’s families, even its Mafia families, are not likely to represent an existential threat due to inbreeding. According to Cavalli-Sforza and his co-authors, nowhere in human civilization do we find sufficient rates of consanguineous marriage to threaten a population from pedigree collapse, even one as small and insular as Mafia families in Corleone. While the rate of consanguineous marriage approaches 50% in some populations today, in Sicily, it has not risen above ten percent. (Cavalli-Sforza 2004)

On the other hand, cousin marriage could represent a different kind of danger to a free society. Jonathan F. Shulz (2016) has shown that not only is consanguineous marriage highly significantly correlated with mafia activity, “cousin marriage is a highly significant and robust predictor of democracy.” Even controlling for a variety of other factors, including the year of onset of the Neolithic revolution, and duration of Church bans on consanguineous marriage, a ten percentage point higher rate of cousin marriage is associated with an approximately three points lower score on the Polity democracy index (a 21 point scale, from -10 to 10). This is equivalent to the difference between the “full” democracies of Italy and the United States (which both scored a “10” in 2015), and the more limited democracy found in countries like Bolivia, Kyrgystan, and Nigeria (which scored a “7” that year).

Another way of looking at it would be to compare the United States’ score in 2015, under Democratic President Barack Obama, and the current rating (2016) as a “Flawed Democracy” on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index under Republican Donald Trump, who won the electoral vote in November. (Data for 2016 are not yet available from Polity IV.)

The Mafia has cultivated an image of itself that is indivisible from Catholicism and Sicilian culture. One way the two institutions are allied, is in sharing authoritarian values—which is to say, undemocratic ones. The Church authors and then reinforces the religious values and rituals which bind together Sicilians from different families and towns, even those living halfway around the world. And it does so while at the same time, honoring the local: the daily miracle of transubstantiation, the vision, the miracle, the saint who lived close by. The Cursa Santu Luca, celebrating the anniversary of a miraculous retreat by Bourbon forces at Corleone, is one such local, religious celebration.

Another local ritual reinforced by the Church is the “inchino,” where the effigies of saints are made to curtsy or bow, by the confraternity members holding them, in front of the homes of honored families. Not infrequently in Italy, the honorees are at the top echelons of local mafias. When the San Giovann’Battista confraternity in Corleone conducted the inchino in front of the home of Toto Riina’s wife, Ninetta Bagarella, last year, the resulting investigation brought down the corrupt city government, and dissolved the city council.

Collusion between members of the Catholic Church and the Mafia in Sicily has existed, and been overlooked, for decades. Toto Riina was married by a priest in a Palermo church, while living as a fugitive. Rome’s position on organized crime began to change in 1993, when the Pope denounced the Mafia. In 2014, the Vatican declared that Mafia members are to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Yet this has not completely severed relations between Church and Mafia, as recent events in Corleone demonstrate.

Complicating these institutional associations are the most personal of connections, those among family members. The Catholic Church holds a monopoly on the sacraments that quite literally create Catholic families. Exercising its right to refuse the sacraments could strike a mortal blow to the organization whose own mythology centers the Catholic family. After all, what is the mafia without godfathers?

The recent objection of the archbishop in Monreale, to a known mafia associate standing as godfather to his niece, may be part of a growing movement to uphold the 2014 Vatican position against mafia activity. Giuseppe Salvatore “Salvo” Riina, the son of Toto Riina, has served an eight-year sentence for Mafia association. Yet last December, Salvo stood as godfather to his niece, an honor Archbishop of Monreale Michele Pennisi has since publicly opposed. It is well understood by Catholics that godparents are obliged to uphold the faith and set an example for their godchildren, facts the archbishop repeated in his objections. “I am not aware that the young man has ever expressed words of repentance for his conduct,” Pennisi says of Riina.

People marry in for reasons other than a lack of opportunity to marry outside one’s extended family. And people who marry their close kin at higher than average rates, do not do so randomly. People who marry their cousins do so not in ignorance, but in concert with their own values, and they do so for legitimate social and economic reasons, such as to preserve inherited wealth, strengthen family ties, and increase one’s personal prospects. One reason for marrying in that cannot be casually discounted, is to preserve power accumulated through generations of mafia activity.

Marriages between close relations are not normally permitted by the Church. For first and second cousins to marry in Sicily requires dispensation from the local archbishop. In the past, dispensations were granted whenever possible: the lack of a dowry, the danger of unmarried cohabitation, and even the risk of social embarrassment to a family at having to break an engagement, were all considered valid reasons to permit a marriage that would otherwise be prohibited due to consanguinity. Unlike the selection of a godparent, which is approved by the local priests, the dispensation process puts each archbishop in position to decide, on a case by case basis, whether a marriage might go forward. While dowry is, hopefully, no longer a deciding factor in granting dispensations to marry, perhaps mafia association will soon become one.



  1. Colleen Barry. “Italy: Mafia stronghold of Corleone has new ‘godfather’ saga.” Published 2 February 2017. Accessed 3 February 2017 at
  2. Colleen Barry. “Italy: Mafia stronghold of Corleone has new ‘godfather’ saga.” Published and accessed 5 February 2017 at
  3. Jonathan F. Schulz. The Churches’ Bans on Consanguineous Marriages, Kin-Networks and Democracy (December 14, 2016). Available at SSRN: or
  4. Alexander Stille. The Pope Excommunicates the Mafia, Finally. Published 24 June 2014. Accessed 8 February 2017 at


Image credit: Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464). “Baptism, Confirmation, Penance.”

Are Corleone’s Mafiosi more likely to marry close relations? Part 1

Are Corleone’s Mafiosi more likely to marry close relations? Part 1

Over the next several weeks, I will share the results of my first study, into the rates of consanguineous marriage among known members of the Mafia in Corleone, and a control group matched by year of marriage.

I’ve noticed that Mafia members in Corleone appear to marry into other known Mafia families, engage in double in law marriages, and marry close blood relations, all at higher rates than is typical for the town as a whole. A few months ago, I decided to quantify my observations beginning with a controlled study of the blood relations between members of the Fratuzzi and their wives.

Cavalli-Sforza and his co-authors have written the definitive text on consanguineous marriage in Italy, and have paid special attention to Sicily which, owing to its geography and political history, is more isolated than the Italian peninsula. I planned to use their results as a baseline for my own research.

The genealogical documentation that accompanies every marriage is created by a priest, using the baptismal and marriage records. The results were used by the Church to determine degree of relation, which it labeled in degrees I through IV. First degree is the closest relations that are ever allowed to marry, and fourth is the most distant relations still requiring dispensation to marry.

Cavalli-Sforza et al’s research is based on these marriage records created by the Church. The authors are geneticists, with different research aims, and so their categories are slightly different, but map neatly onto the Church’s:

Church degrees of relation Cavalli-Sforza
I. uncle-niece/aunt-nephew 12
II. first cousins 22
III. first cousins once removed 23
IV. second cousins 33

consanguineous-marriages-percentageIn this table from the Cavalli-Sforza text, you can see the types of consanguineous marriages are coded by number. The last two categories, “34” and “44,” are second cousins once removed and third cousins, respectively.

At first, I interpreted this table as saying that half of all marriages required dispensation, due to the bride and groom being first cousins (“22”). In fact, that column shows not the percentage of all marriages, but of all marriages requiring dispensation. The total percentage of marriages that were consanguineous is in the second to last column of this table.


Overall, the incidence of marriage in Sicily between third cousins or closer relations has historically been around five percent of all marriages, according to Cavalli-Sforza’s figures, peaking at around ten percent, and returning to those levels later in the century.

Typically, 25% of your genes will also be found in any one of your aunts’ or uncles’ DNA. You share half as much of your DNA with one of your parents’ siblings as you do with one of your own brothers or sisters. If you have a half-sibling, your coefficient of relationship is also 25%. In other words, you have as much in common with a half-sibling, genetically, as you do with one of your parents’ full siblings. Half-siblings were not allowed to marry, but uncle-niece or aunt-nephew pairings were, with a dispensation from the Church.

Double first cousins are the products of double in-law marriages. When two siblings from one set of parents marry two siblings from another set of parents, the offspring of these marriages are not just first cousins, but double first cousins. They share as much in common, genetically, as half-siblings, or a man and his niece, or a woman and her nephew. While you and your first cousins share just one set of grandparents in common, double first cousins have both sets of grandparents in common. The Church does not restrict double in-law marriages.

Degree of


Relationship Coefficient of

relationship (r)

0 identical twins; clones 100%
1 parent-offspring 50% (2−1)
2 full siblings 50% (2−2+2−2)
2 3/4 siblings or sibling-cousins 37.5% (2−2+2−3)
2 grandparent-grandchild 25% (2−2)
2 half siblings 25% (2−2)
3 aunt/uncle-nephew/niece 25% (2⋅2−3)
4 double first cousins 25% (4⋅2−4)
3 great grandparent-great grandchild 12.5% (2−3)
4 first cousins 12.5% (2⋅2−4)
6 quadruple second cousins 12.5% (8⋅2−6)
6 triple second cousins 9.38% (6⋅2−6)
4 half-first cousins 6.25% (2−4)
5 first cousins once removed 6.25% (2⋅2−5)
6 double second cousins 6.25% (4⋅2−6)
6 second cousins 3.13% (2⋅2−6)
8 third cousins 0.78% (2⋅2−8)
10 fourth cousins 0.20% (2⋅2−10)

Table source: Wikipedia

Cavalli-Sforza categorize marriages between double first cousins as “Multiple,” indicating that the bride and groom are related through multiple common ancestors.

Since the priests would go back at most three or four generations to complete the documentation supporting a marriage, any common ancestors revealed by the supporting documentation are close enough relations to have a significant impact on a potential couple’s shared coefficient of relation. While discussion of the existing research has focused on the rates of marriage in the first two categories (uncle-niece and first cousin marriages, respectively), and Cavalli-Sforza describe the first category as having an unusually high number of marriages, there’s no telling how much consanguinity lies unmeasured under the heading of “Multiple,” especially if, as I have observed, double in-law marriages are common in the populations being studied.

I have hypothesized that my control group in Corleone would turn out to “marry in” at roughly the same frequency as the rest of Sicily, i.e. around 5-10%, and that Mafia marriages would prove more consanguineous, on average, than the control group. Now, the genealogical research is complete. Over the next several weeks, I will share the results.


  1. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Antonio Moroni, and Gianna Zei. Consanguinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy. Princeton University Press, 2004.
  2. “Coefficient of relationship.” Wikipedia. Accessed 19 August 2016.


Featured Image: “The Olive Trees,” by Vincent Van Gogh

Cousins, many times over

Cousins, many times over

There’s a classic illustration of exponential growth, that goes something like this: a king agrees to play a chess match for a prize: a single grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two grains on the second square, and so on, doubling the number for each of the 64 squares. The king loses the match, and soon realizes that the amount of rice he would have to pay is far higher than he imagined: 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, or more than eighteen quintillion grains of rice in total. That’s a lot of rice.

Every genealogist who has gotten very far in charting all of their own ancestors has discovered that doubled numbers get large, very quickly. We all have two parents, four grandparents, and so on: the number of ancestors grows exponentially with each generation.

My closest common ancestor with Salvatore “Toto” Riina is through his mother, Maria Concetta Rizzo. We’re both descended from Giovanni Todaro and Antonina Russo, who married in 1750. Maria Concetta is the fourth great granddaughter of their son, Filippo. Filippo’s sister, Emmanuela, married Leoluca Cascio in 1770, and they are my 5GG. Of my 128 fifth-great grandparents, thirty-two are through my paternal grandfather, and lived in Corleone.

Toto and I are also related through his father, Giovanni Riina. Michaele Giunta and Innocenza Papania, who married in 1729, are Toto’s 5GG and my 7GG. So in addition to being sixth cousins, once removed, on his mother’s side, we are also sixth cousins, twice removed, on his father’s side.

Giuseppe Sangiorgi and Filippa lo Munti, who married in 1683, are also Toto Riina’s direct ancestors and mine: they are his 6GG and my 7GG, which makes us fifth cousins, once removed. We’re also seventh cousins, twice removed, three different ways. Pietro Mannina and Gioachina Biscuso, who married in 1673, are his 6GG and my 8GG. So are Giuseppe Sciacchitano and Caterina Lanza, who married in 1703, and Giovanni Sciortino and Mattea Russo (of no known relation to Antonina), who married in 1689.

Giovanni Fruja and his wife, Giuseppa, who I estimate married sometime before 1650, are my 9GG and Toto Riina’s 7GG, making us 8th cousins, twice removed, through this pair of common ancestors. Another of our common ancestors is Tommaso Cimino (my 6GG, his 8GG), who married twice, first to Toto’s ancestor, and then to mine, making us half-seventh cousins, twice removed.

In population genetics, degree of consanguinity is measured as a percentage of one’s genetic inheritance held in common with another, called a coefficient of relationship (CoR). The more closely related you are to someone, the higher your CoR. Identical twins have a CoR of 100%. You and your mother have a coefficient of 50%, and so do you and any of your full siblings. Half siblings share a coefficient with aunt/uncle-nephew/niece relationships, of 25%.

In the same way the number of grains of rice grows exponentially larger, from one chessboard square to the next, the CoF gets exponentially smaller, the more distant the relationship. Fourth cousins share a coefficient of relationship of only 0.20%. Sixth cousins, once removed, have a CoR of 0.000061035156%

I have multiple ancestors in common with another Corleone Mafia boss, Michelangelo Gennaro. We’re second cousins, four times removed. My fifth-great grandparents, Leoluca Cascio and Emmanuela Todaro, are Michelangelo’s great grandparents.

Michelangelo and Toto are also multiply related. They’re third cousins, three times removed, both being descended from Giovanni Todaro and Antonina Russo. They are also fifth cousins, twice removed, through Domenico Saggio and Domenica Mondello, who married in 1651: they are Michelangelo Gennaro’s 4GG and Toto Riina’s 6GG. And all three of us are descended from my 9GG, Giovanni and Giuseppa Fruja, who are Gennaro’s 5GG and Riina’s 7GG.

Image credit: Giulio Campi, “The Chess Players”

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.