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Real Gangsters

Updated on March 22, 2012

When Attila the Hun raped and pillaged his way across Europe in the fifth century AD, he perpetrated acts that would have been considered horrifying crimes in the twentieth century. Attila is but one of many examples that could be taken from the past to show how commonplace the violence and strife that we would now define as organized crime used to be. Gradually civilization has developed beyond the point where such activity is an accepted part of life, even though governments still use force and war on a large scale - in a manner reminiscent of Attila's maraudings. But as far as the individual is concerned, powerful civil laws have grown up to control and punish the anti-social behavior that is deemed to be against the best interests of the community as a whole. So, while there is a considerable fear that the forces of law and order are incapable of dealing with the rising crime rate properly, they can at least ensure that crime by individuals does not get completely out of hand. But there is one aspect of crime that is scarcely touched by the law, an aspect that presents as much of a threat to the twentieth century Western world as Attila once did to Europe. This is organized crime - the world of gangs and gangsters, crime syndicates and massive corporations secretly owned and financed by a new breed of master-criminals.

Gangs organized to pursue criminal ends are by no means a modern phenomenon, as history shows. Men quickly learned that the surest way to defeat the forces of law was the formation of groups designed specifically to practice large-scale crime. In India, for example, an organization called the Thugs flourished for at least three centuries until they were finally stamped out by the Governor General, Lord William Bentinck, in the 1830s.

The Thugs were a well-organized group of religious assassins, who traveled the roads of India and wormed their way into the confidence of a band of travelers - then strangled the entire party on the first convenient night. The corpses were then looted and buried in a mass grave. The Thugs were certainly driven to a degree by religious motives - they adhered to religious rites linked to the worship of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of destruction. It is estimated that the Thugs killed more than a million travelers over the years before the fraternity became extinct.

Another striking example of a secret society dedicated to crime is provided by the infamous Mafia- an organization that has ruled Sicily and had considerable influence in Italy for many centuries. Like the Camorra - which was a similar secret society based on Naples that gained great power in the nineteenth century - the Mafia drew its strength from the terrible conditions of poverty and deprivation that existed in Italy. The Mafia, or 'Honorable Society' as its members like to call it, can trace its origins to the eleventh century, when the Normans conquered Sicily and defeated the Saracens who at that time ruled the island. The word Mafia means 'place of refuge' in Arabic, and it is probable the subjugated Saracens formed a society to give themselves mutual security - the forerunner of the Mafia of more recent times. Although outside Christian ethics, the Mafia has a powerful code of its own called Omerta which is rigidly enforced. The Mafia survived through the long years when the Spanish Inquisition was terrorizing Sicily simply because it was the only way in which a common man could 'be somebody'. Although the Fascist dictator Mussolini nearly smashed the power of the Mafia before the Second World War, the Americans who invaded Sicily in 1943 found it necessary to enlist the help of the Mafia - which restored the evil organization to its former glory, under the leadership of Don Calo.

These examples show that organized crime on a large scale is not new, but they both have elements of something besides crime - both, in a certain way, can be seen as part of a way of life. The real problem of large-scale crime today is slightly different. The Mafia, at certain times, had an all-pervasive influence on the nature and structure of Sicilian society.

The fact remains, however, that the society affected was a primitive agrarian society with relatively few members. It relied to a considerable extent for success on the inefficiency or even co-operation of the government and forces of law, which allowed it to flourish. And as soon as determined efforts were made to stamp it out, these were successful. This can be seen both in the case of the Sicilian Mafia - which was almost destroyed by Mussolini's zealous representative Prefect Mori - and the Thugs, whose undisputed reign of criminal terror quickly came to an end once the government decided to suppress them. Therefore, such criminal organizations as the Mafia and the Thugs can clearly be seen as nothing more or less than a reflection of the attitudes of the society within which they flourished.

This, of course, is true of any organized crime - which feeds as much on those weaknesses of Man that society guiltily defines as illegal, as on the fruits of its own enterprise. It is, then, easy to understand that the bigger and more complex a society, the bigger and more complex the organized crime it is capable of supporting. And it is only in the twentieth century that society has advanced to a position where organized crime has been able to become a correspondingly major problem.

The one nation that epitomizes the economic progress of the twentieth century - the biggest, most brash and complex society of all - is the United States of America. Other industrial nations of the West do have their master criminals and gangs, but organized crime is a tiny problem compared to that of America.

Great Britain, for example, has a number of small gangs based on major cities, notably London, but these are parochial in outlook and rely for their continuance purely on 'traditional' forms of crime such as robbery, intimidation, primitive protection rackets and similar activities.

They do not occupy a position in the economic establishment and control little or no legitimate enterprise. French gangs are stronger, and pay important lip service to their American cousins- forming a vital and profitable link in the chain that carries drugs from the near East to the illegally-supplied army of American addicts. Even so, the amount and scope of organized crime in Europe generally is infinitesimal compared to that of the crime-riddled United States.

Any examination of organized crime in the world today must therefore begin and end with organized crime in America, where it has been described as 'The nation's biggest single industry'. How did this situation come about? Initially, it is necessary to examine just how United States society was formed. It in fact acted as a 'Great Melting Pot', as one writer described it. Millions eagerly left the decaying Old World for the New- drawn by glittering prospects of wealth and opportunity that many original pioneers were already enjoying. Instead of this dream, the penniless arrivals discovered that the only choice that faced them was employment in the sprawling cities with their rapacious industries, ever-ready to suck in more exploitable cheap labor. Inevitably, the various immigrant groups clung to the vestiges of their national heritage - banding together with those of their own religion and culture - whether Irish, Scandinavian, Eastern European or Jewish. Those immigrants - the vast majority - who failed to escape the pull of the industrialized urban areas were therefore forced into slum ghettos.

Hostility between the various ethnic groups who were competing for a slice of the same cake was natural, and the air of conflict between various groups was heightened by the violence of employers, police and society in general - perhaps a reflection of the American pioneer ideal, which was based on a firm belief in the value of self-sufficiency in a hostile environment. Yet despite widespread poverty in the ghettos and slums, America still offered the prospect, or at least possibility, of unlimited wealth and success - even for those who were existing in conditions of crippling deprivation. Clear proof of this to the children of the slums was provided by the gangsters with their 'sharp' clothes, big cars and lavish way of life. It was one avenue to wealth in a materialistic society, and to the deprived slum-dwellers crime itself became a natural way of life.

This resulted in a situation where, over the years, the machinery of municipal government was penetrated by criminals, either directly or by the use of bribery and corruption. In 1868, for example, Tammany Hall - the New York political machine - fell under the control of Mayor Oakley Hall, a nominee of William Marcy Tweed, a prominent crooked politician. In two years, the 'Tweed Ring' robbed the city of over two hundred million dollars an enormous sum even by modern standards.

Since then, municipal government and corruption have gone hand in hand - and the extent to which they do so today can only be guessed. Furthermore, the law was also brought into disrepute in a system where the judiciary and politics are not divorced. Not only did corrupt judges appear, but Sheldon Glueck described the chief qualification of the American lawyer in his book Crime and Justice as 'an ability to keep constantly alert to discover open or rusty joints in the armor of justice.' The ideal of freedom is dear to the American heart, and minimum control of individual freedom is an important ideal. Thus, with the situation as described, it is not hard to see why America is the perfect setting for a network of organized crime almost as grand as the nation of America itself.

And this is indeed the case. The formally-organized groups that made crime their business feasted on the conditions that existed in nineteenth century American cities, quickly establishing themselves as a part of society - and growing with it towards wealth and power. The first such organization to arrive from Europe was the Sicilian Mafia or Cosa Nostra ('this thing of ours') as the American Mafia titles itself. Together with the far less tightly organized Unione Siciliana - an organization that specialized in helping newly-arrived immigrants, especially from Italy, and thus gaining power over them the Mafia took full advantage of the license allowed by the lax and chaotic rule of law to establish a hold which has never been broken, entering with gusto into the exploitation of vice, gambling, bribery of officials and police, labor union rackets and all facets of criminal activity.

In 1920, the single factor which had paramount influence on the establishment of organized crime in America took place the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed the sale and consumption of alcohol. Immediately, alcohol became America's biggest industry.

The criminals who supplied the nation's thirst, or bootleggers as they became known, were estimated to have made at least four thousand million dollars in one year of prohibition alone - as the entire nation conspired against the law. The number of saloons in New York more than doubled, and drink was available everywhere.

But if crime was entering its golden era, it was also entering a period of criminal violence unrivaled before or since. In fourteen years of Prohibition, about eight thousand gangsters were killed by their fellows or the police in Chicago and New York alone.

At first, in the general scramble that followed Prohibition, numerous gangs were able to exploit the situation freely. They were the organizations that sprung from the ghettos, such as Dian O'Bannion's Irish gang in Chicago.

Soon, however, Italians, representing a loose conglomeration of the Black Hand, Mafia and Unione Siciliana, began to eliminate their rivals by the use of violent methods. O'Bannion's murder signaled the start of a brutal battle for supremacy over the Chicago underworld. His successor, Polish Hymie Weiss, soon followed - as did six men who remained with George 'Bugs' Moran, the successor to Weiss. This was the infamous St Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. The man responsible was AI Capone, the uncrowned King of the Chicago underworld. He had inherited a criminal empire built up by Big Jim Colosimo, the Black Hand extortionist who was murdered on the orders of his able second-in-command Johnny Torrio, a capo mafioso (Mafia chief). Capone took over from Torrio, and disposed of all opposition by the simple method of execution. Capone was not a Sicilian, but gained the acceptance of the Mafia hierarchy because of his undoubted criminal abilities.

Capone's annual income soon reached an estimated forty million dollars, and he indulged in the usual orgy of corrupting officials and police to protect his operations.

But Capone's fall was as sudden as his rise, and by 1932 he was in prison, never to re-emerge. This was partly the result of adverse public reaction to his activities, the Chicago Crime Commission having been formed in 1930 by enraged private citizens to fight Capone and corrupt officialdom. There was also sharp underworld reaction to the adverse climate created by Capone's violent gang wars. Frank Costello, a New York gangster, had already met Capone to urge a new moderation, and in 1935 he arranged for the murder of Capone's New York counterpart, the violent Dutch Schultz.

The murder of Schultz heralded a new era in organized crime - that which we know today. where the big organizations stay well out of the public eye and concentrate on building an ever-growing empire where legitimate enterprise and criminal activities on a vast scale are so closely entwined that they are impossible to separate. In 1935, a criminal dream was coming to fruition - The Syndicate.

Originally the idea of Torrio, it became a reality in New York with the meeting of Costello (gambling), Lucky Luciano (Mafia), Joe Adonis (political rackets), Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky (enforcement) and Lepke Buchalter (labor union rackets). These top gangsters met prior to the murder of Schultz, spurred on by the prospect of an organization of major criminals working together for mutual profit, instead of destroying one another in a fight for underworld supremacy.

Although opposed to mass violence, the Syndicate was prepared to dispose of anybody who interfered with their plan, and to this end they employed Murder Incorporated, a Brooklyn gang whose chief executioners were Albert Anastasio and Abe Kid Twist Reles.

Although it was initially an East coast grouping, the Syndicate soon expanded nationwide as the obvious advantages of such an organization became apparent to the criminal fraternity. It has done its work so well that it is only possible to guess at its real strength, composition and turnover. Since the revelations of Joe 'The Canary' Valachi - a Mafia hoodlum who was the first important member of that organization to break the age-old rule of silence and give evidence about the nature and composition of the American Mafia - there is considerable evidence to support the theory that the Syndicate is Mafia-backed and that it controls the majority of organized crime in the USA.

Although the Syndicate is not thought to have any one leader, prominent members were, until his imprisonment in 1952, Frank Costello - a founder member - and Vito Genovese, leader of the Mafia.

The real nature of The Syndicate will never be known. It does however symbolize the vast, established nature of organized crime in America. Labor unions, industry, entertainment, gambling, prostitution, drugs and every other criminal activity known to Man are thrown together and exploited, to the point where a million dollars is no more than a grain of sand on the beach. Organized crime is so deeply entrenched that it will never be eradicated from American society, despite the almost frantic 'efforts a distraught government are currently making. The conditions that have permitted this to happen are, fortunately for the rest of the world, uniquely American - but that is no consolation for the United States.

The clear and most unfortunate truth is that organized crime in the United States is not an isolated phenomenon.

Its ethics do not differ greatly from those of big business, and still less from those of local party politics, with which it is closely linked. Regrettably, organized crime has become a part of society itself.


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    • Charlton Burton profile imageAUTHOR

      Charlton Burton 

      8 years ago

      People will be fascinated with just about anything. Not everyone will be fascinated with the same thing though.

      I do not believe evil will ever end. It's a choice. Some make it far too easily. And for some it is the only choice that they'll make (even if doing the right thing is easier).

    • SpanStar profile image


      8 years ago

      Well there's certainly enough pertinent information regarding real gangsters. My issue, my concern has always been why are we as a people so concerned with evil or evil people? It seems as though the more horrific the crime is the more we are mesmerized by people who can commit such acts. Many trial cases of the past the criminal is the center of attention when they have committed brutal acts against mankind-Hillside strangler, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, machine gun Kelly, The Purple Gang, Bonnie and Clyde, the list goes on and on while we build these criminals up to be larger than life. It is my firm belief that if it were possible we would in fact choose to interview the Devil himself because we believe we can change evil, when I look around it doesn't strike that we're doing that good a job at ending evil.

      Once again I asked the question what is our fascination with evil?

    • dadibobs profile image


      8 years ago from Manchester, England

      A seriously hard hitting, and fact filled hub. The research for this hub must haven taken weeks!

      Very well done.

      Voted up :)


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