The Birth of the Cosa Nostra - The Sicilian Mafia Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Birth of the Cosa Nostra - The Sicilian Mafia

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The Cosa Nostra1 is a crime organisation which held vast power over some of the early Italian states in the 1870s through to, some would say, the present day. The Sicilian Mafia also has an infamous offshoot in America, the American-Sicilian Mafia. This grouping would have still considered itself a part of the Sicilian Mafia up until the early 1930s when, with the making of2 Al Capone, it became an Italian outfit. Some people assume that the Mafia is an Italian crime organisation. This is most certainly not true. It did and still does have great power in isolated pockets of the Italian mainland. However, it is a specifically Sicilian group. There are other groups in Italy based on more or less the same set of ideals. For example the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia and the Camorra3 in Naples and its environs. However, no crime organisation has ever come close to the organisation, power and capabilities of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.


Throughout Roman times Sicily was described as the grain field of Italy. In 1860 this had not changed - however, Sicily itself had. On 7 June, 1860, the Sicilian capital city of Palermo became an Italian city. This was after Garibaldi and his infamous redshirts, consisting of about 1,000 volunteers, pulled off an amazing victory, bringing the independent Sicily into the new Italian State. These turbulent times saw the genesis of the Mafia. And improbable as it sounds, the birth of the Cosa Nostra, in part, was down to...the lemon.

Grain was always traditionally the main produce of Sicily, but during the 9th Century, after conquering the island, the Arabs introduced the lemon. The lemon was only able to grow on the island thanks to a delicate and intricate irrigation system. And there was increasing demand for this small yellow fruit.

In the 1700s, the British Royal Navy purchased vast amounts of citrus fruit, mostly lemons, to prevent their sailors from getting scurvy. Europeans began to appreciate the lemon. So by 1860, owning a small lemon orchard in Sicily was a valuable commodity. By the mid-1870s, 2.5 million cases of Italian citrus fruits arrived in New York every year.

So where do the Mafia come in? Well, they come in on the protection end of things. The early Mafia was a racketeering organisation based in the groves around Palermo.

Dr Galati

The first evidence we have for the Mafia is in an account by one Dr Galati. Galati was certainly not the first to be persecuted by the Mafia, but he was the first person to leave a detailed account of his dealings with them. In 1872 Galati came to inherit a pristine four-hectare lemon grove only a ten-minute walk from Palermo. However, all was not well inside its walls. Its previous owner, the doctor's brother-in-law, had died of a heart attack following a series of threatening letters. Some time before he died, he learned that the sender of these letters was a warden on his own grove, Benedetto Carollo, who had dictated them to someone who was literate. He said that he swaggered around the grove making wild threats against Galati and it was well known that he creamed at least twenty per cent off the sale price. He even stole coal for the steam engine. Eventually lemons started to go missing from the grove. Orders couldn't be met and the grove got a bad reputation. Carollo was trying to ruin the grove so as to buy it himself. Galati sacked him and hired a replacement.

Some 'good friends' of Carollo's came around and advised that Galati should take him back, but Galati refused.

At approximately 10pm on 2 July, 1874, Carollo's replacement was shot several times. The hitmen had built a platform behind a stone wall so as to shoot him in a winding back lane. This method became a staple of early Mafia hits. The police were called and they tactfully ignored Galati's convictions that it was Carollo, arresting instead two men who had no connection with the victim and then promptly releasing them. He received a series of threatening letters, seven in all, which said it was a disgrace for a 'man of honour', such as Carollo, to be fired.

Eventually he was forced to flee the country after a series of attempts on his life. However, Galati was one of the first people to put an explanation to the new terminology 'man of honour', a term which is still used to describe a Mafioso, or member of the Mafia.

In the Maffia's4 language, a thief and a murderer is a 'man of honour'; a victim is an 'abject spy'.

Even at this early point the Mafia has corrupted the local government. When Galati asked for his seven threatening letters back, he only got six. The seventh and most explicit had been strangely mislaid.

From Galati's writings we can also see how this early Mafia worked. A cosca5 would base its power on protection rackets. They could then force owners to hire whoever the Capo, the boss, wanted. Violence allowed the Mafia to set up mini cartels and monopolies. Then the Mafia could steal as much as they liked. Either with the aim of making a comfortable 'tax', or in order to buy goods for themselves at an artificially low price.


Galati's account did not end in any convictions, but it did bring to light the first signs that the Mafia was a secret organisation. His memorandum provoked the Minister of the Interior to ask for a written report from the chief of police in Palermo. In this report he revealed the secret initiation rite.

Before a 'man of honour' could be 'made' he needed to have perpetrated a violent crime, usually murder. According to the Chief's report, any man of honour due to be initiated was led into the presence of several bosses and under-bosses. Then one boss would prick the Mafioso's arm or hand and tell him to smear the blood on a sacred image, most often the Virgin Mary or a local saint. Then the oath of loyalty would be taken as the image was burned and its ashes scattered, symbolising the destruction of traitors. Since May 1976 when Giovanni Brusca was 'made', this rite hadn't changed much. A violent crime was still needed, blood was smeared, the picture burned, the man was 'made'.

However, even if you were 'made', this is a big organisation and you can't possibly know everyone, so how do you introduce yourself or check if another person is actually in the Cosa Nostra? If there was a third party present who knew both of them they would be introduced along the lines of 'You two are the same thing as me' or 'He is a friend of ours'. But if you just met a fella and there was nobody else there who knew him how do you introduce yourself? Like some secret cold war spies, the Cosa Nostra had a bizarre conversation to identify each other. It was always about a 'toothache'. This is an example of an 1870s 'introduction':

A: [pointing to one of his upper canines] God's blood! My tooth aches!

B: Mine too.

A: When did yours hurt?

B: On the day of Our Lady's Annunciation.

A: Where were you?

B: Passo di Rigano.

A: And who was there?

B: Nice People.

A: Who was there?

B: Antonio Giammona, number one, Alfonso Spatola, number two, etc.

A: How did they do the deed?

B: They drew lots and Alfonso Spatola won. He took a saint, coloured it with my blood, put it in the palms of my hands, and burned it. He threw the ashes in the air.

A: Who did they tell you to adore?

B: The sun and moon.

A: And who is your God?

B: An 'Air'.

A: What kingdom do you belong to?

B: The index finger.

In this example the 'Sun and Moon', 'Air' and 'Index finger' are clearly designations of the Mafia family that Mafioso B was initiated. This was used in the 1870s, the one in the 1970s was not so different.

A Bright Future

From these humble beginnings the Sicilian Mafia would reach some great heights through murder and mayhem, racketeering, corruption and persuasion.

1Literally 'our thing' or 'this thing of ours'.2'To be made' is a mafia term, meaning to become a full member; the equivalent of an Officer in the Army.3Which is actually older than the Mafia.4At this stage there was still a little confusion as to whether Mafia was spelled with one 'F' or two.5Can mean a certain Mafia area, or the gang that controlled that area.

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