How to tell if your ancestors were in the Mafia

How to tell if your ancestors were in the Mafia

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.)


The godfathers of the American South

The godfathers of the American South


In Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone is called by the name of his hometown because he was fleeing the mafia. But why was he called “don”?

In the US, we don’t have a term similar to this Sicilian honorific. The Southern custom of calling elders “Mister” or “Miss,” along with their given name, like “Mister Vincent,” comes close. “Don”  began being used by Sicilian nobility during its centuries under Spanish rule. In rural settings, the titles were applied more loosely, not only to the marquis, the barons, and their families (the feminine form is “donna”), but also to priests, and to other respected men in the town. In Church records of marriages, baptisms, and deaths, the elite guildsmen are recorded with the title of “maestro,” and nobles, priests, and a very few others are called “don.” The vast majority of people are peasants, and are given no title at all.

Children in Sicily call their godparents padrino and madrina (or cumpari and cummari), or they might call them “uncle” and “aunt” (zio, zia) or “grandpa” and “grandma” (nonno, nonna) but not “don” and “donna.” These honorifics are communal, not familial. Sicilian culture associates masculinity with self-sufficiency. In an agricultural setting, with little infrastructure or police presence, decisive—even violent—action can be necessary to survive. Men who command the resources to solve problems not only for themselves, but for others, prosper and earn the respect of their neighbors.

As a rule, the owners of large tracts of farmland in Corleone in the 19th century employed farm managers, agricoltore or gabelloti, to run their estates, and rural guards (guardia campestre) to protect them. Meanwhile, the landowners lived in Palermo, an arrangement that sheltered the landowner’s property, both within Palermo and outside of the city, from taxation. Because there were so few police working on the island, the guardia were a necessity in rural areas: so much so, that the state paid guards’ salaries (to protect land on which the state did not earn tax, a corporate loophole familiar to anyone who reads the US news). The nobles’ absence from small town life made the next rung down, the gabelloti and the guardia, the public face of authority to the peasantry. “Becoming a field guard was a familiar way of acquiring local power and influence,” writes Denis Mack Smith in his “History of Sicily.” They had the power to solve their neighbor’s problems, and some were so widely called “don,”the title appears in the Church records of their children’s baptisms and marriages.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a system of patronage helped many new immigrants from Sicily find work and housing in America. The farm managers to whom peasant farmers went, hats in hands, to beg for work on the estates of Corleone, had money to loan.

With the advent of steamship travel, farmers who could no longer make a living in Sicily, could do so in America. Ships from Naples stopped in Palermo before crossing the Atlantic. One’s patron could secure passage from Palermo to New York, and from there, to a high-paying job in the American South. The Americans who had previously performed agricultural labor in the South were being lured north to cities, to work in new industries. Their vacancies were filled, in some degree, by immigrants from Sicily, through the connections of their patrons, their patrini. Because whoever sent them to Ramos, or to Bryan, knew the name of the don of that place, who would help their countryman.

Not all of the farmers in Corleone who wanted to go to America, were able. People who could afford passage were still turned away at the port in Palermo, because they had physical handicaps, or not enough money to reach their final destination. One of my twice-great grandfathers is listed on a 1906 ship manifest, and then crossed out, indicating he attempted to immigrate but was not allowed to sail. His wife and some of his children had already immigrated, and he was attempting to join them. Family legend says that he was blind. After he died, his two remaining children at home, both teenagers, joined the rest of the family in New York. One of them was my great-grandmother, Lucia Soldano.

Besides the cost of a steamship ticket and the physical health necessary to travel and work, immigration required other resources. For an illiterate Sicilian who spoke no English to consider immigrating, he would need clothes, including shoes, suitable for travel, and enough advance money and food to make the journey. To be allowed to sail, he must provide the name and address of a contact person in America. Once he arrived, he needed work and housing. Besides these immediate concerns, Sicilians abroad depended on their local patrons for insurance against unemployment, disease, and death. The men called “don” solved such problems: for a fee. Like “Don Vito” Corleone, they helped their friends, who in turn would help their patron.

Many families from Corleone went to Ramos, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, and to Bryan, Texas, 100 miles inland from Houston, both places where large numbers of Sicilian immigrants settled. On one ship manifest, a bride travels with her brother-in-law to meet her husband in Ramos, and their neighbors from Corleone, the Grizzaffis, heading to Bryan to work. The bridegroom shares a name with “Mr. Vincent” Collura, another immigrant from Corleone, of unknown relation, who returns to Corleone after WWII.

The Morello-Terranova family spent time in each of these communities in the 1890s, planting sugarcane in the former, picking cotton and contracting malaria in the latter, before returning to New York. In the City, they delivered ice (an age-old mafia activity), ran saloons and coal cellars, and printed counterfeit money. That their story would be exceptional is evident from the passenger manifest: among mainly illiterate passengers, the men in Giuseppe Morello’s family could read and write. Despite Giuseppe’s birth defect, which left him with only one finger visible on his right hand, he was not turned away at the port. And while their neighbors had one or two bags each, the Terranova family brought more than a dozen pieces of luggage.

For the poorest of the poor, escape was impossible. For those with the ability to pay, however, the choice to escape the cycle of poverty was an easy one to make. Help from one’s “godfather” was an offer no one could afford to refuse.


Image: “Decatur Street Italians, 1938” Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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 (Edit: It was his second cousin, though she’s widely reported to be his sister. 15 May 2022). 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.