It’s important to realise that the Mafia was around in the United States for quite a long time before it became truly powerful. There were groups of Italian gangsters operating along Mafia-like lines in the US from at least the 1870s. They first crop up in New Orleans, a port city that did a lot of trade with Sicily. The New York Mafia got its start in or around 1899, when its “first family,” the Morello family, began counterfeiting operations. Significant power came in the 1920s, and more so in the 1930s. Before that the Mafia was only a power very locally, and in very distinct places.
There are a number of reasons why that early, local power became possible. They all come back to the central fact that the Mafia didn’t only kill in order to exert its influence – it killed and got away with it. Knowing that a Mafiosi was quite likely to resort to lethal violence if you opposed him – and that he would not have to worry too much about getting caught if he did – was a powerful incentive not to put up too much of a fight.
So to understand how the Mafia became powerful we have to understand how it could kill and get away with it. The traditional answer to this problem is that the Mafia was clannish – it could depend absolutely on loyalty to the group – and that it was better organised than other gangs. It was able to import ideas and organisation from Sicily. But other than that, there’s not very much evidence that either of these things were true in its earliest years. Not all Mafiosi were Sicilian and some Mafiosi did become informants. The Secret Service in particular (which was the main US agency fighting counterfeiting operations) had a very good idea of what was going on inside the nascent Mafia families from 1902 or 1903.
More important was the fact that the early Mafia did not impinge much on areas that the police or the public cared about. There’s a myth, based on the Godfather films, that the Mafia got its start because it offered protection to Italian immigrants in the US. That’s absolutely wrong. In fact the early Mafiosi were almost entirely confined to Italian-on-Italian crimes, mostly extortion by intimidation, using so-called “Black Hand” threatening letters, and small-scale protection rackets.
There’s a myth, based on the Godfather films, that the Mafia got its start because it offered protection to Italian immigrants in the US. That’s absolutely wrong.
But this very selectivity protected them. In the New York of the early 1900s, practically all of the police were Irish. They spoke no Italian and didn’t care that much what Italians were doing to each other, so long as it didn’t leak out into the English-speaking parts of New York. Well, perhaps “didn’t care” is a little strong – they couldn’t make themselves understood in the Italian districts and knew they wouldn’t get much co-operation if they tried. The police “Italian squad” was only nine men strong at its peak in this period.
So the early Mafia was very strong in a very small “world”, and it wasn’t even that profitable. The bosses were only a step removed from the streets and they still lived fairly ordinary lives in fairly ordinary tenements. What changed was the Volstead Act – Prohibition to you and me. With that one move, the US government handed over the third or fourth most profitable industry in the country to gangsters, and at the same time it almost legitimised their crimes, because most people wanted to go on drinking and didn’t care too much about who was supplying the booze. Bootlegging was seen as pretty much a victimless crime, so major gangsters like Al Capone (a Neapolitan who had Mafia links) were able to attain a certain social status – again, so long as they didn’t let the messy, violent side of their business impinge too much on the quasi-legitimate side.
It was Prohibition that made organised crime so lucrative and gave groups like the Mafia the resources they needed to become truly powerful. But even here, we need to be careful. The Mafia and other Italian gangsters had the high profile, but the biggest profits were being made by less splashy and less overtly violent guys behind the scenes. Even at the height of Prohibition, the real profits were being made by much lower-profile crime syndicates. And if you’ve heard all about Capone, but can’t name the man who ran the biggest booze syndicate in the US in the 1920s… well, that’s sort of the point.