The first Mafia gang in Sicily

The first Mafia gang in Sicily

A cattle rustling gang from Corleone were the first documented members of the Sicilian Mafia in history.

The 1830s were hard times in Sicily. Feudalism ended a generation before, and the common lands on which peasants once scraped out an existence were closed to them. Competition from Russia and the United States in the international wheat market, combined with legal “reforms” in Sicily, made life very difficult for the poorest peasants. In this charged atmosphere, the first Mafia gangs appeared in western Sicily.

Typically, armed gangs in the countryside of western Sicily organized around kinship ties and personalities. Mainly young and unmarried men came together to operate in the summer and dispersed to their homes in the winter. Successful bandits had client-patron relationships with mafiosi, who bought their stolen goods (or protected their broker) and provided some protection from police. Bands without such relations were quickly destroyed. Even those with Mafia connections did not typically survive beyond the youth of their founders, distinguishing gangs from more durable social organizations.

In January 1834, members of the armed gang led by the Palumbo brothers of Corleone were actively pursued by police, but were welcomed into their parents’ homes and even counted in the Church census. Although most of its members were killed by police, the escape of its leaders is remembered in popular legend. 

Two pairs of brothers whose families were bound through compareggio formed the nucleus of the gang. Bernardo Palumbo and his younger brother, Antonino, were the gang’s leaders. Antonino Palumbo’s godparents were the parents of Biagio and Paolo Jannazzo, who were in the Palumbo brothers’ gang. Active from 1832 until their destruction in 1836, there were as many as eighteen members, fifteen of whom are known from vital records. They were young peasant men between the ages of twenty-two and thirty, most of them from Corleone. 

Most notable in Mafia history, this Corleone-based gang was documented in the years just preceding the first record of Luca Patti’s cattle rustling ring, covering the same territory in the interior of the province of Palermo. Many consider Patti the first instance of a Sicilian mafioso in recorded history, but his ring appears to have had a predecessor, or possibly competition, in the Palumbo brothers’ gang. 

When I first wrote about the gang in 2016 I called them the Rapanzino gang, after another leading member: Giuseppe Castro. The nickname refers to abduction, a common category of Mafia crime. Castro was often named in combination with Nicolò Ciavarello, who was called “Puntillo,” a name which means “stubbornness.” 

The other members were:

Salvatore Blanda, from Prizzi

Calogero Caponetto, from San Giuseppe Jato

Luciano Catania

Antonino Leone

Leoluca Mondello

Filippo Pecorella

Giuseppe Petralia, from Palazzo Adriano

Giuseppe Piazza, aka Francesco Piazza, aka Baglione

and Salvatore Pomara, aka Reina

The gang rose to police attention in 1833. Despite being officially wanted men, several members were reported to be living with their parents and siblings in the Church’s census of households in Corleone, taken early in 1834. Appearing in the same census is Don Pietro lo Cascio, one of two police captains leading the pursuit. 

Sometime in 1834 or 1835, three members of the gang escaped from the jail in Corleone with two other prisoners, one of them a cousin of one of the escaping gangsters. Three more members, including the Palumbo brothers, were reportedly guillotined in Palermo in December 1835. It’s rumored that the brothers and possibly “Baglione” Piazza, the third brought to Palermo, escaped justice. The same month, thirteen members escaped from prison in Palermo and got the gang back together. In March, bounties were set on them all. They were picked off by police, killed and arrested, through mid-July. 

Although the gang was almost entirely exterminated by police, the descendants of their closest family members include an impressive roster of mafiosi. Along with Giuseppe Morello’s stepfather Bernardo Terranova and Michelangelo Gennaro, 1920s boss of Corleone’s Mafia, the Fratuzzi, are Morello counterfeiters Pasquale and Leoluca Vasi, New Orleans connector Serafino Saltaformaggio (father-in-law of Lucia Terranova), and the current boss of the Genovese Family: Barney Bellomo.


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Did the Mafia begin with the Sicilian Vespers?

Did the Mafia begin with the Sicilian Vespers?

A commonly told origin myth of the Sicilian Mafia would make the secret, criminal organization over 700 years old. But is it true?

By the oldest claims, the Mafia is more than seven hundred years old, dating back to Norman rule and the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, or even earlier, to the Emirate of Sicily, in the 9th Century. 

What was the Sicilian Vespers?

In 1266, the younger brother of France’s King Louis IX, Charles I of Anjou, took Sicily from the Swabian dynasty. The new Angevin king increased taxes on Sicilian subjects, and this coupled with abuse by French soldiers, sparked a peasant revolt called the Sicilian Vespers. Anyone who looked or sounded French was killed by the Sicilians.

The result of the Sicilian Vespers was not self-rule, but the division of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After Charles was ousted from the island of Sicily, he retained the mainland Kingdom of Sicily while Peter III of Aragón was crowned King of Sicily beyond the Lighthouse, or the Kingdom of Trinacria, by the island’s barons. The Aragonese dynasty held Sicily for the next four hundred years. 

Beginning with Peter III, Sicily was ruled from Palermo by the Sicilian branch of the Aragonese dynasty, with a strong parliament in which the Sicilian language was spoken. A period of relative independence, in the 14th century, forged a Sicilian national identity, distinct from their ethnic heritage, or the lands from which their rulers came.

This golden age for the island of Sicily is the time that Mafia propaganda reaches back to for nostalgia. They try to take credit for forcing out a foreign monarch, and the “good old days” when the king ruled from Palermo, and Sicilian was spoken with pride. The Mafia’s version of history glosses over the next five hundred years, in which Spanish kings held Sicily and ruled its people into misery with neglect and taxation. 

Giuseppe Garibaldi, who led the successful revolution against the Bourbons

The Mafia has attached itself, when convenient, to independence movements for Sicily. Its power was decisive in the revolutionary movement which united Italy, for the first time ever, in 1860, after several failed attempts. But it followed this coup by supporting a Sicilian independence movement, briefly, before settling into a cozy arrangement with the Christian Democratic party. The Mafia’s wild political swings betray its true purpose: to bring about circumstances from which Mafia bosses could materially benefit.

A timeline of Sicilian foreign rule

The time frame during which the Vespers origins camp requires belief in a Mafia—with no evidence to support its existence—is truly vast. “Proof” in the form of 19th Century mafiosi who claim the Mafia’s origins were in the Sicilian Vespers is not a primary form of evidence, coming as it does 600 years after the fact, but only tells us how old the legend is. 

Most theories of Mafia formation cluster in the early-to-mid-1800s. If you had to pick a year when the Mafia began, it might be 1838: the year Luca Patti, son of Giuseppe, a gabellotto from Corleone, was said to be leading a cattle-rustling ring which stretched to Messoiuso and Termini Imerese (Hess, 1973/1998, p. 98; Dash, 2009, p. 83).

In discussing Mafia origins, the question of “when” might be resolved with a mean or average of proposed start dates. For other aspects of Mafia formation—who, how, with what resources, and why—a longer, qualitative discussion is in order. To continue exploring an array of theories on how the Mafia began in Sicily, follow this link to the Mafia Genealogy blog at Patreon. Associates who support Mafia Genealogy have access to this and other exclusive content.

Introduction to my work on Patreon

Sources

Dash, M. (2009). The first family: Terror, extortion, revenge, murder, and the birth of the American Mafia. Random House.

Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. (E. Osers, Trans.). London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. (Original work published 1973)

Title image:  I vespri siciliani, by Michele Rapisardi