Russell Shorto

If you think you know about the mob just because you've seen The Godfather, think again. Russell Shorto, author of Smalltime, about the little-known history of mobs in small-town America—and in his own family—dishes on eight things about the mob that might be unbelievable if they weren't true.


1. The mob was originally Arabic (sort of).

I knew practically nothing about the Mafia when I started looking into my grandfather’s life. I was aware from childhood that he was some kind of mob honcho in our town, and I think it was precisely this awareness that kept me from wanting to explore the subject: There was a kind of blanket of silence on the subject in my family, a tacit understanding that we don’t go there. Once I broke through that and began digging into Russ’ life (I was named after my grandfather), I was amazed at my ignorance of the topic. As for the name, nobody knows for sure where the term Mafia came from, but the best guess is that it originated from an Arabic word, mu'afa. Sicily, where the Mafia originated, was invaded countless times over the centuries, including by Arabs. The Sicilian language, which is actually classified as distinct from Italian, thus has elements of Greek, French, Catalan and many other languages, including some I’d never heard of (“Old Occitan”). In Sicilian, the term Mafia originally meant "a place of refuge." It seemed to relate to peasants' need to protect themselves against the many outside threats.

2. The mob came to America thanks to Italian unification.

For most of history, “Italy” wasn’t a thing. The Italian peninsula was broken up into many independent or vassal states, such as the Duchy of Lucca and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Risorgimento, or Italian Unification, was a long series of wars and crises, the end result of which was an independent nation called Italy in 1861. Many Italians celebrated, but those in the south mostly did not. There was a bitter and long-standing divide between north and south, with northerners believing that they represented the ideals of the Roman Empire and that southerners were backward, lazy and stupid. When independence came, it was northern Italians who ran the country, and they proceeded to crack down viciously on the south, worsening the region’s already disastrous economic plight. That forced millions of southern Italians to migrate.

3. Abraham Lincoln played a role—OK, an indirect one—in the establishment of the Mafia in America.

Italian unification coincided with the American Civil War, during which Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Once the war was over and formerly enslaved people were free, plantation owners looked elsewhere for people willing to pick cotton and do other backbreaking work. They looked to Sicily, where people were facing starvation, and began advertising for workers. Coal mines, especially in Pennsylvania and New York, soon began doing the same thing. My great-grandfather was one of those who answered the call. He boarded a boat in Messina, Italy, and landed in New York, where a company rep gave him lunch and a train ticket to Pennsylvania to work in the mines.

4. The mob was a reaction to American racism.

Racism was strong and matter-of-fact in the version of America to which southern Italians immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. People of African origin, who had until recently been viewed as property, were essentially considered subhuman by many white Protestants. Sicilians were soon ranked at the same level. (By one reckoning, Sicilians were paid slightly less per day than Black Americans.) In my family, I heard stories of abuse and extreme poverty. Southern Italians weren’t able to open bank accounts, let alone hold good jobs.

5. The mob grew out of Prohibition.

My great-grandmother brewed moonshine in a still in her living room during Prohibition, and my grandfather, the future mobster, went out on the streets and sold Coke bottles filled with the stuff. They were both working for a neighborhood leader, a kind of proto-mob figure. This was typical around the country: Poor Italian immigrants took advantage of the opportunity that the ban on alcohol provided. Once Prohibition ended, those same Italians shifted from booze to gambling, and the mob as we know it came into being. When my grandfather was a young man, he was blocked from mainstream businesses, so he started a gambling operation, which grew into what one old-timer estimated was a $2 million-a-year enterprise.

6. The mob was crazy about American capitalism.

The men who founded the American mob admired the country’s titans of industry—people like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan. The fact that those robber barons were a law unto themselves, bending the government to their will, only made them more admirable. The mob saw capitalism for what it was in the days before regulation took hold—a ruthless free market enterprise—and loved it. They were barred from participating themselves because of their ethnicity, so they copied it as much as they could, including doing things like opening branches around the country. My grandfather and his brother-in-law opened a gambling franchise in my hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania. His brother-in-law had two aliases he occasionally used: Ford and Forbes, which I think speaks to his admiration for American capitalists.

7. The mob was everywhere.

Most people know the Chicago mob, the Philadelphia mob and of course the New York mob. But in its heyday, the mob spread to virtually every small- to medium-size city in the country. The Freedom of Information Act requests I filed with the FBI yielded accounts of mob activity in places as far-flung as Butte, Montana, and Anchorage, Alaska. In big cities the mob got into all kinds of activity—drugs, prostitution, garbage, construction—but in most smaller cities, it restricted itself to gambling. In my hometown, I found no references to drugs or prostitution, and in fact the old boys I interviewed said that my grandfather and his partner had a firm rule against getting involved in drugs. That was one of the main differences between small-town mobs and mobs operating in big cities. Another was the intimacy. Everyone above a certain age whom I interviewed in Johnstown knew what my grandfather was up to, even people who weren't involved with it themselves. That's because everyone played the numbers. People thought of the mob as a kind of public utility, providing entertainment to the masses.

8. A lot of people made their living from the mob.

You didn’t have to be in the mob to make a living from it back in the day. My grandfather and his partner ran a numbers game that virtually the whole town played, which employed about a hundred people. Some had day jobs and ran numbers on the side; others were full-time bookies. Most of them were essentially self-employed, and they paid a portion of their proceeds to “the boys.” Hundreds of others were likewise employed by the mob, directly or indirectly, in pool halls, bars and cafes. Numbers runners made the small-town mob a feature of midcentury American life. You could meet up and do business with them at your favorite hangout. Or they would even come to your door. Most people experienced it as a regular feature of the neighborhood. Or, you might say, as part of the American experience.

If you think you know about the mob just because you've seen The Godfather, think again. Russell Shorto, author of Smalltime, about the little-known history of mobs in small-town America—and in his own family—dishes on eight things about the mob that might be unbelievable if they weren't true.

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