You’re probably familiar with the American mafia, at least through its portrayal in popular culture. But how did this infamous secret society come to be?
Louis Ferrante traces its origins in the first volume of his slated trilogy on the subject, entitled Borgata: Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia. While there’s been plenty written on the mafia, Ferrante, who was incarcerated for being a mobster himself, offers the first insider’s history of this crime organization. Today on the show, he shares the surprising influences on the formation of the mafia in Sicily, why Louisiana and not New York was actually the mob’s American Plymouth Rock, the unexpected collaboration between the government and the mafia during WWII, the real reason J. Edgar Hoover didn’t go after the mob, why that hands-off approach changed, and much more.
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. You’re probably familiar with the American Mafia, at least through its portrayal in popular culture. But how did this infamous secret society come to be? Louis Ferrante traces its origins in the first volume of his slated trilogy on the subject entitled Borgata: Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia. While there’s been plenty written on the mafia, Ferrante, who was incarcerated for being a mobster himself, offers the first insider’s history of this crime organization. Today on the show, he shares the surprising influences on the formation of the mafia in Sicily, why Louisiana and not New York was actually the mob’s American Plymouth Rock, the unexpected collaboration between the government and the mafia during World War II, the real reason J. Edgar Hoover didn’t go after the mob, why that hands-off approach changed, and much more. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/mafia.
All right. Louis Ferrante, welcome back to the show.
Louis Ferrante: Hey. Thank you Brett. Thanks for having me back.
Brett McKay: So the last time you were on the show you shared your personal experience in the mafia. But for those who haven’t heard that episode, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of your background?
Louis Ferrante: Sure. I started stealing cars when I was a kid, probably around 13, mostly for joyrides. Eventually we got into stealing them for parts, selling the parts to different collision shops in the area, and that morphed into a chop shop. I ran a chop shop for a few years. All through high school I was running a chop shop. I would steal cars after school, sometimes go out at night, take them, deliver the parts. The collision shop owners would arrange for us to deliver them. And then at some point or another we opened up… They would lease buildings for us and originally we dumped the cars in the woods but then at some point or another we had warehouses. We chopped the cars up and then just leave skeletons there. It would be under a phony lease. Back then you could do stuff like that. And then I started hijacking trucks. When I hijacked trucks, I get in with the mob. And I eventually ran my own crew within the Gambino crime family of heist guys and hijackers.
And that’s what we did. Every type of heist and hijacking you can imagine, we were involved in and we were successful at it. Unfortunately, at the time I went down we had three indictments but it turned out to be probably the most fortunate event in my life that the FBI closed in on us and took us down because it changed my life for the better. But I didn’t know that back then. And at some point while I was in prison, I faced life in prison with all the accumulation of all the charges. If you racked up all the charges together, it was like 150 years. So I was facing life. And they give you that. If you go to trial and you test them and you blow trial, the feds will give you those numbers. I have friends that are still in prison now, 30 years later. They’re doing 70, 80, 90 year sentences. So you do get it. But I was fortunate enough to take a plea with my co-defendants. None of us cooperated. We never snitched. I took a plea and I was able to get 13 years.
While I was in prison, I started to read. Amongst other things, I studied law. Besides history, science, I studied law and I was able to reverse one of my cases from prison and get out in eight and a half years. By then, I was reading a book a day. I had written a novel. I read hundreds if not thousands of books so I was ready to just turn over a new leaf in my life and I became a writer. And when I was going to my last team meeting in prison, they asked me what I was going to do with myself when I got out. They figured construction or something, at best. And I said I’m going to become an international bestselling author. And they were all hysterically laughing. And as I sit here today speaking with you, that’s what I am. So it worked out, thank God.
Brett McKay: Well, you got a new series of books that’s coming out. The first one is called Borgata. And in this series of books, you are laying out the history of the mafia in the United States. I’m curious, did you have an interest in mafia history while you were in the mafia or did this interest arise after you left it?
Louis Ferrante: Yeah, much later. While you’re involved in crime, you never think about those things. You go back as far as like there were beefs on the street, there were old-timers that you talked to. So you get sort of like an oral history of your contemporary times. But as far as a deep history, I don’t even think someone like Al Capone or John Gotti had any sense of the history that they were involved in when they were living their lives. They were just thinking about how to get money, how to make money, how to go about their lives. They understood the life, “the life”. They understood it like nobody else did and they were able to operate in that world like no one else could but I don’t think any of them had a grasp of the history, nor did I or anyone around me. Even when I was in prison, I didn’t want to read books about the mafia. I shied away from them. I was trying to educate myself.
I thought that stuff like that got me in here. It wasn’t something I wanted to fill my head with. But at some point or another, on this side, I was in Sicily and I met an older gentleman who was a book publisher, which I didn’t know at first. And he wanted to publish something by me and he recommended that I write a book about the history of the mafia. And he didn’t think that anyone else could do it like I could because I had lived it. Up until now nobody has really tackled the subject other than scholars, people who were educated, people who never felt the cold steel of a handcuff, a stiletto, a gun, never shot a gun, never went to prison, never sat in a clink facing life, never understood what it was not to eat if you didn’t steal and how that evolves into becoming a mobster as an everyday life when your entire life is a crime in progress. So I felt like I could bring things to the table and I hope that I have.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing you point out at the beginning of the book, there’s a lot of history books about the mafia in the United States. But the problem with history books about the mafia is that they’re typically based on police records, newspaper records. And as you point out, and we’ll talk about this, the mafia is a secret society and so there’s some stuff, unless you have that experience on the inside, you’re not going to know about. And I think that’s one thing you try to do. You try to use your own experience to add some context to the written record that we do have.
Louis Ferrante: Yeah, that’s right. When I was in prison, I said I’d never read mafia books while I was away but a lot of people around me did and you would hear a lot of, “Not true.” “Bullshit.” “Give me a break.” “Who wrote this crap?” You’d hear all those people that were reading these books screaming out all the time because they knew instinctively, intuitively, when they came across something that was not true. It could not have been true. But the writer doesn’t know. The writer, as I said, is usually some college-educated guy or woman and they haven’t really lived the experiences. So when you live it, you know. And I had that intuitive sort of take on things when I started reading and plodding through the history from the beginning of the mafia until present times and a bell would go off in my head if I knew it wasn’t true, if I knew it could have never happened. And that’s a big part of this trilogy. I’m able to debunk a lot of the myths that have been repeated throughout decades. Usually it’s somebody says something the first time and then the next author will use that first author as a source and then the third author will use the first two as sources, and the myth continues to just get repeated. So I was able to go back to the original story, where it came from, why it may have come about, and why it couldn’t have been true.
Brett McKay: I love this book. It was really interesting because, as we’ll see here, I hope people see it by the end of this conversation, the mob in America it’s entwined with American history. We’ll see the mob influence in immigration, we’ll see the mob influence in the Great Depression, we’ll see the mob influence in World War II. So not only do you learn about the history of the mob, you learn about the history of the United States in the process. But you begin your history of the American mafia in Sicily and one argument you make is that Sicily’s millennia long history as a hub for foreign invaders and conquerors laid the groundwork for the culture of the mob. How So?
Louis Ferrante: With all the conquerors that came throughout history in and out of Sicily, the Spanish, the Arabs, the Normans, the Greeks, the Romans before then, et cetera, the French, there was always this sense of, “Let’s leave the Sicilian people alone.” It was weak central governments that really really allowed the mafia later on to thrive but originally this just family structure, this family unit to thrive. The local leader was the all-powerful person. We don’t want central governments telling us what to do. And each government, because their desire for taking over Sicily was it was called the Roman republic’s granary. They wanted the materials, the wheat, all the different things that they could get out of Sicily. The fruit, the mining, the sulfur. So each time a conqueror took over Sicily, they just wanted to rape it and they left the people to themselves. And because they left the people to themselves and there was always a weak central government, the people had to govern themselves. And they said, “Well, to hell with all these governments. We’ll just rely on ourselves and our family unit.” And that’s where I feel the foundation of the mafia was laid in Sicily.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about, I didn’t know this about Sicily but there’s a heavy Arab and Spanish influence on the island. How have those cultures influenced Sicilian culture and then consequently mob culture?
Louis Ferrante: Yeah. So the Arabs and the Spanish, I would say that they were probably two of the best rulers that Sicily had because they had almost completely hands-off approach for most of their time there. They left the people to themselves. So if you want a conqueror, if you’re going to have to get stuck with a conqueror, you want one that leaves you alone. And for the most part, the Arabs and the Spanish did do that and their influence is, I mean, incredible. If you just look at the landscape of Sicily, you see all these churches that were mosques at one point. So the Arab influence across the island is prevalent everywhere you look, as is the Spanish influence. Even the word “don” came from the Spanish language. The don, like a lord of a manor. The don, the don of a mafia family. It’s directly from the Spanish language. My own roots. The Spanish were also in Southern Italy and my own roots, there was a King Ferrante who was originally from Spain who ruled Naples. And my last name is Ferrante. So, I mean, I would think that somewhere my family is from that same region somewhere.
Obviously we were peasants by the time we came to the United States. We lost the fortune, I guess. But at somewhere we must have been connected to the original Ferrantes who were in Southern Italy who were originally from Spain. So there’s a huge influence, Arab and Spanish influence, on the island. And I believe the Arabs were the mafia’s founding fathers. At some point or another the Arab Berbers, which are the Arabs from mostly North Africa, they were in Sicily and they were pushed into the western regions of Sicily by the successive governments there. And they were harshly treated and they were very tough, and they sort of picked up their lives and their families in the regions of Agrigento and Palermo, two of the mafia capitals of the world. Two of the biggest mafia-influenced cities in the world were Agrigento and Palermo at one point and Palermo still is, to some extent. And that’s where the Arabs were and I feel that the Arabs did have a huge influence, and I believe they were the mafia’s founding fathers. The Arab Berbers of Sicilian Descent, obviously. Who came to Sicily, rather.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing you talk about that the Arabs had and that the mafia has is this sense of honor, omerta. I mean, a lot of cultures in that time period had a very highly developed sense of honor, code of honor. But I know in Arab culture, it’s really high pitched and, yeah, again you can see it there.
Louis Ferrante: Yeah, you do. And I did trace there was sort of like the Arab Bedouin lifestyle, where the patriarch is the arbiter of all things. That became the genesis of a mafia family, where the mafia godfather is the final say. He’s the law. What he says goes. If someone’s going to live or die, it’s his word that decides that. That was the same as in the Arab Bedouin culture. The patriarch was the almighty. And so a lot of that came from that and a lot of the different traits that were seen as respectable in the Arab culture were directly related to what became respectable in the Italian/Sicilian/mafia culture, which was really interesting. There’s a book written about the Arabs by Raphael Patai, or Patai the pronunciation may be, but I read it and I was just floored by how many comparisons there are between mafia culture and Arab culture. Which also brings us back to the Arabs as being the founding fathers of the mafia in western Sicily.
Brett McKay: Where did the word mafia come from?
Louis Ferrante: So I found that to be another something of Arab root. Most historians do agree that it is of Arab origin and they traced it to words like mahas, mahias, mafal, mafas, which mean different things, like cave dwellers, a proud horse, translated to be a proud person who acts like a proud horse, and all these different Arab meanings. And I was able to find something that was interesting that nobody had touched on yet. And I dug and dug and dug and made tremendous connections to this word as being the origin of the word mafia. And it comes from “mahdi”. Most of us in western society might be familiar with General Gordon Pasha, the english general who was sent to defend Khartoum against the siege from Muhammad Aḥmad. And he died there doing it. But Muhammad Aḥmad was considered the mahdi of his time, which was sort of like the guy who was going to defend the people, the Islamic people, from outsiders. And that’s sort of what happened after Italy was unified and Sicily was sucked into the Italian sort of idea of Italian unification, something most Sicilians did not want to be part of.
They thought that they would get their independence after the unification of Italy, and they did not receive that. And then there was a vote that they felt was fixed. So there was a lot of problems in Sicily having these bitter feelings toward Italy as their latest overlord. And at this point or another, that’s when all of these Arabs, this Arab Section of western Sicily start to become upstarts. And this word Mahdi fits absolutely perfect with what was happening there, where these people were defying the government behalf of the people. And the word “mahdi” stems now to Mahdist regime, which was the Mahdi’s regime, the Mahdist regime known as the Mahddiya, which is a single letter away from the mafia, which is mafia. So I think that that was the etymological root of the word. I leave it to future historians to debate but that was my best shot at where the word mafia came from.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Sicily, since ancient times, and we’re going back, we’re talking like 2000 years ago, was subject to a lot of conquering. And those who ruled Sicily, they did so from far away. And in the absence of a strong central government, the people of Sicily developed its own kind of unofficial rule through a system of strong families headed by a patriarch. And they call these families Borgatas. And it’s these families that really control and manage things on the island. And then feudalism comes in to Italy and Sicily during the Middle Ages. How did feudalism shape what would eventually become the mafia?
Louis Ferrante: So feudalism was, it started out as the Roman Latifundia, which turned into feudalism in the Middle Ages. It was this idea of tracts of land would be controlled by a lord of a manor and he would have vassals or soldiers under him. And that particular system of government, very, very private government, it was all privatized. There was no central institutionalized government. All private matters were dealt with between lords on their own and they had their little armies to go out there and fight if they had a problem. And a lot of people, I saw historians would give a word or two about, well, the mafia came from feudalism and then they would never go into how. So I dug deep into the books on feudalism and the Middle Ages to find out, Are there real comparisons here? And I found stunning comparisons that I outlined in the book between an overlord, a lord of a manor, and a mafia don and his vassals and soldiers. Be it the oath that they took to each other, be it the relationship that they continued to have with each other, the requirements, the responsibilities, et cetera, et cetera.
And I lay them all out. So there was a direct relationship between feudalism and the mafia as we know it today. Contemporary time, contemporary mafia, not even 1860 mafia. I’m talking feudalism and today’s mafia in 2024 is exactly the same. So the next step was, well, then why did they salvage this sort of like rotting structure that the rest of the world considered obsolete? Well, they felt comfortable with it. The Sicilians felt like feudalism was what they knew. And when feudalism was done away with in the 1800s, a lot of Sicilians said, “Well, you know what? This is the government we like and we’re going to keep it. We’re just going to transform it into something a little more local and a little more family oriented.” And the lord of the manor became a mafia don or the patriarch of an extended family, and the vassals became mafia soldiers. It came from feudalism directly.
Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing that feudalism had that I can see these Sicilian families like about it, feudalism, it’s very paternalistic, right? There’s the lord of the manor and he treated the people in his manor, they were like family. You had to take care of them. And as society became more modernized, things became more individualized. Like, well, you’re just kind of on your own, right? You get raised by your dad and your mom and then you got to go off and start your own family. These Sicilian families, they didn’t like that so I can see why these strong families would adopt the feudal aspect, because it’s all about connections.
Louis Ferrante: Definitely. Even when I was a kid, Brett, I’m talking about the 70s and 80s, right? I’m a young kid. I came from a big Italian family. My father had seven brothers and sisters so we had dozens of cousins. My mother’s side, they were always at the house. We always shared dinner together all of us. The holidays there were, we had table lined up after table after table after table, across the basement, upstairs, downstairs ’cause we couldn’t… Just to fit for a holiday. And it was such a tight unit where if something happened to one family member, if we looked outside and somebody drove by in a car and accidentally bumped into one family member, there were a hundred of us out there, aunts, uncles cousins screaming and yelling, attacking somebody because we were so close at that point. So no matter what the case was, I mean, I’m giving an extreme example but no matter what, we were close. And it’s so different today. We’re all scattered. “What are you doing for Christmas? What are you doing for New Year’s?” We call each other, we say hello. We’re Americans now and it’s completely different.
And that family structure as opposed to the one I once knew is so different, so different. Every Sunday we were all together for dinner. I remember I used to hijack trucks and I’d hijack a truck and I’d say to my friend Ronnie years later reminded me, he goes, “You remember we used to hijack a truck and we’d have the guy tied up in the truck and you’d say, ‘I gotta go home for dinner.’ And we’d go, ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, my mother wants us home at 5:30 for dinner, all of us.'” And he goes, “We’d literally drop you off for dinner and you’d meet up with us later.” So, I mean, that’s how I was raised. So to think that family could play such a part where I’m leaving a hijacked truck to go home for dinner ’cause my mother wants us home for dinner, I mean, that says it all. And now I think most kids, my niece and nephews just miss dinner. They don’t even call. If the seats are empty, you figure they got involved in something else, they didn’t come home. So things are different.
Brett McKay: Okay. So the mafia, these strong families sort of imitating feudalism, the setup, the arrangement of it, and the don, he was in charge of everything. He mediated disputes within the family. He mediated disputes with other dons. And I think that’s something people don’t understand. The mafia, it’s like it’s a government outside of state government. I think that’s the big takeaway there. So you have this set up and then in the 19th century you see the rise of male-only secret societies. We’re talking like Freemasonry, the Odd Fellows, and that started to influence the mafia. What was the influence there?
Louis Ferrante: Yeah, that’s really interesting. So feudalism dies and then there’s the rise of these secret societies. And this is at the same time the Sicilians are going through this really really catastrophic change on the island because there’s the unification of Italy and people are fighting for that. The Italians wanted to free themselves from the Austrians controlled a lot of the north of Italy and the French controlled a lot of the south. And the secret societies across Europe were, they’re targeting the ancient regimes. They wanna overthrow them. So whether it be they were targeting the old Ottomans or the old Habsburgs or the old whatever ancient regimes were across Europe, they would be targeted by these new secret societies that had all kinds of codes, this sense of honor, this sense of duty. They treated each other in a certain way. They had secret handshakes. They had secret oaths they took in secret places. And they had capos. They even had a capo di tutti capo. They had a big boss of all of them. And then they had a capo regime, capos who were in charge of regimes of 10 or 100 people.
This structure that the secret societies of Europe had, the mafia almost to the T adopted a lot of those things. And it’s incredible. And when you read Giuseppe Mazzini is considered today as one of the founding fathers of Italy. He’s sort of like the George Washington of Italy. And he goes through an oath he took when he joined the Secret Society of Young Italy. And that oath I put juxtaposed with Joe Valachi’s oath, an informant in the 1960s in the American Mafia, and it’s identical. The oath that Joe Valachi said he took and that mobsters take today, but I had that one in writing so I could show the reader this is the exact oath that Joe Valachi dictated in front of Congress and here’s the exact oath that Mazzini took when he joined the Secret Society of Young Italy. And with the exception of a few words, they’re identical. And then you take, again, the capo regimes, the structure of the… A lot of people thought that that came from Roman times, the mafia copied it from Roman times, but maybe I think the secret societies of Europe copied it from Roman times and the Mafia had it readily on hand when they needed it and copied it from the secret societies of Europe, which were so successful in overthrowing the old regimes.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. Okay, so by the 19th century you have what we now call the mafia. Basically you had these local strongmen who were patriarchs of large families that began to emerge and assume the roles once reserved for feudal barons and they started replicating the feudal structure in their organization. So they had private armies, they engaged in their own type of taxation. It was basically extortion. They did other illicit activities to make money. And then these feudal-like families, they took inspiration from 19th century secret societies and they had oaths and secret handshakes and the like. And then these mafia families, they were causing the Italian government problems in the middle of the 19th century. They were killing each other, kidnapping people for ransom, engaging in gambling and prostitution and the like. And then you had some of the Italian mafia, they started immigrating to the United States and so then you take the story in your book over to the US. And I think when most people think about the mob in the United States, they typically think of New York and New Jersey but you start off the history of the Sicilian Mafia in America in New Orleans, and I didn’t see that coming. So why start things off there?
Louis Ferrante: It’s very interesting ’cause I didn’t see it coming either. When I was on the street, we dealt with other mobs. We dealt with guys in Philly, we dealt with guys in New England. We dealt with a couple of guys from Louisiana. But we always considered them much smaller outfits than our own. New York has five mafia families so it’s the biggest concentration of gangsters in the world. So these other smaller places, they never impressed me as anything huge when I was on the street. And when I started to read and dig deep into the research, I realized that a lot of Italians from southern Italy and Sicily, when they first landed in America they sought out, first of all, the climate that they understood like their own. And Louisiana was much warmer than New York. I mean, in New York you have freezing winters then and now. They weren’t used to cold freezing winters, people from Sicily and southern Italy. So they liked Louisiana. They were drawn to it because of their climate. And the other thing was after the abolition of slavery, when slave labor was abolished, the United States was a growing nation, agrarian and industrial, and they needed people to take over those jobs. So the Italians, in many ways, picked up a lot of the work that the African Americans were freed from but they were paid very, very low wages.
But they were happy to find work, even if it was for low income. And anywhere they could find work they went throughout the south and Louisiana became the hub of this really large working industry of Sicilians. And that’s where the mafia also planted themselves. The mafia almost always traveled with Italian immigrants. So if Italian immigrants poured into, let’s say, Louisiana, the mafia came with them because they felt like, well, if we organized the workforce here and we control, let’s say, the vegetable market, a lot of citrus and vegetables came through Louisiana and spread out across the United States, if we control this entry point we could have tremendous power. And they did. So the mafia always ended up where the immigrants went, and that’s why a lot of immigrants ended up, Italian immigrants ended up in New York and New Jersey, and that’s why the mafia was strong there as well. But the climate was the biggest magnet in the very beginning and the idea of having work. There was a lot of work in the South when they lost the African Americans as slaves and they needed to hire quick. They needed to hire people who were willing to do dirty work for them down there on a lot of those estates and they did. And they hired Sicilians and a lot of other southern Italians.
Brett McKay: And so how did the mafia make money in New Orleans? What was the opportunity that they saw there? They can get a corner on a particular trade or business, that’s where they saw the money.
Louis Ferrante: Well, like typical predators, any opportunities for money they were there. So, for example, there were a lot of… Louisiana was known as a very crime ridden place always from the time we purchased it during the Louisiana purchase, we purchased it from Napoleon, it was always a considered a very lawless place to be. And it went through sort of successive empires. The Spanish had it, the French had it, Louisiana for a while, until the United States purchased it, as I said, during the Louisiana purchase. So it was always this sort of very lawless place and so that was sort of a welcoming thing for the mafia. “Gee, we have a lawless place already with very corrupt policemen. This is great. And very corrupt politicians that we could buy.” So they got into things like they owned houses of prostitution. They partnered with a lot of people. They owned gambling dens. But the main thing was, as I said, the citrus and vegetables coming into Louisiana, the stevedores, if you could control the stevedores, the people who unloaded the ships, you could control then also, too, what was called the French market but was run and taken over by Sicilians, which was the big retail, wholesale, vegetable and fruit market.
So they controlled that as well. And then they controlled all the fanning out of this fruit and vegetables throughout the country. So the mafia was able to really, really not only take over the lower sort of criminal conduct like gambling dens and houses of prostitution, but also too the fruit and vegetable market. And then, obviously, they’re always ready to do loan sharking and get involved in any other rackets that come their way. And they did. And they became extremely strong in Louisiana. But at some point or another they sort of, they either learned to lay low or they became a little low key or they became less powerful. And they surface again in the beginning of volume two of this trilogy when Louisiana is front and center, takes the stage first on what becomes this feud with the Kennedy brothers. But Louisiana, once again, very strong concentration of mafiosos from the very beginning. It turned out to be the mafia’s Plymouth Rock in the sense of the first place they planted a flag in the United States.
Brett McKay: Earlier I said that when you read this history, the mafia, you see how the mafia is entwined with American history. And one thing I learned from this book was that the largest mass lynching in US history happened in New Orleans and Italians were the victims of this lynching but the mob had a connection. Can you talk about this 1891 New Orleans lynching?
Louis Ferrante: Sure. There was a lot of discrimination in Louisiana against Italians and a lot of it came from, they came there poor and they were considered less than white. They were considered darker than white. And they also lived in the African American quarters so they were definitely grouped with African Americans at the time. And there was a lot of disparaging names that they were called, Italian Americans. Now, when I grew up I remember my parents telling me that they were discriminated against when they were young. And I didn’t see a lot of that as I was young growing up myself but I trusted that they saw it when they were young. Well, it got better in the United States but at some point or another, and schools don’t teach this, the academic silence on this is just, to me, is startling that this is not taught in schools, but Italians were the second biggest group lynched in the South second to African Americans who obviously bore the brunt of that. But Italian Americans were regularly lynched in the South. Anytime they did something, stepped outta line, they were lynched.
And at some point or another there was a Chief Hennessy. Chief Hennessy was the head of the police department in Louisiana and he was partnered with one of the mafiosos in Louisiana. They shared this bordello called the Red Lantern and they had a few other things going on with each other. And at some point or another Hennessy wanted to intervene in this fight between two mafia dons: Who was gonna rule Louisiana? And Hennessy took the side of one of the mafia dons. So I do believe that the other mafia don was instrumental in killing him, however, I do also believe that a lot of innocent Italians were grouped with him and thrown on the indictment because they didn’t know where to begin. They didn’t have, the police did not have the investigative skills that they have today so they went in there and they just started rounding up Italians like crazy. And then at the end they put together an indictment of a handful of Italians, a dozen or so, and they tried them. And there was probably only two or three mafiosos on the indictment, real mafiosos. The rest seemed to be just innocent guys who were thrown in who knew the wrong guy, who was seen in the wrong place.
And at some point or another the jury, who there were no Italians on the jury and the jury acquitted the Italians of this. And the prosecutor was livid that they were acquitted and he blamed the jury for being bribed without any evidence. And the judge ordered them all back to the local prison. And he shouldn’t have. He should have allowed them to leave. And even if there were any being held on other charges, he should have gave them bail, but he should have allowed them to leave. But he ordered them back to the prison and the warden of the prison immediately prepared for a siege because the talk of the town was that this chief of police was murdered by these Italians and if justice was not served in court then it would have to be served by a lynch mob. And they converged on the prison. They literally ran newspaper advertisements calling for justice, basically calling for murder, cold-blooded murder. And they met the next morning, they gathered together, converged on the prison, stormed the prison, broke in, and they murdered the Italians. Some of them were hung up, some of them their brains were blown out. And it was the biggest mass lynching in US history. Something I was never taught in school.
Brett McKay: Yeah. 11 Italian Americans were killed and there were 15,000 people involved in the mob that lynched them. So, I mean, this was a huge deal. And then the other thing you talk about in this history of the mafia is the connection between Jewish gangsters in the Sicilian mafia. When did these two groups start working together?
Louis Ferrante: During prohibition, there was this need for alcohol. The country was not ready to be dry. It was a very small minority that had gathered up a tremendous lobby and got this thing passed. And next thing you know, everybody’s deprived alcohol. So now you have Italian immigrants, German immigrants, Irish immigrants who are saying, “I don’t understand why we’re not allowed to drink. What kind of country is this?” And the mafia starts producing this bathtub gin, rotgut they called it, basically like an Italian version of moonshine. And they’re producing it as best they can and they’re sending it out to the people and selling it in bottles, et cetera. And all the ethnic gangs were doing this at the time, have you, whether it be African American gangs, Jewish American gangs, Polish American gangs, everybody was bootlegging. But the Italians had this organization because they had the mafia. They could sort of stand out as the most organized underworld establishment.
So they really, really controlled a lot of this. But the Jews came along in the face of Arnold Rothstein and Arnold Rothstein was able to strike a deal with distilleries in England and then make deals with Canadian merchants and start to bring in real alcohol, you know, the good stuff. And he became sort of like this guy who also had reared a lot of mobsters in the life. A lot of young mobsters attributed their tutoring to Arnold Rothstein: Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano. And with their own words, they say, “Arnold Rothstein taught me this. Arnold Rothstein taught me that.” And at some point or another, Rothstein’s bringing in this top liquor. And he took a very big liking to Meyer Lansky, who was a fellow Jew like him, and Lucky Luciano, who was Lansky’s best friend. And Luciano and Lansky, as best friends, then had the opportunity to inherit Rothstein’s liquor empire when Rothstein felt it was too violent and wanted to bow out of it. Rothstein was never a violent guy. So he said, “You know what? I started this. I made a ton of money with it but I’m gonna bow out.”
And he left it to Lansky and Luciano who took over. And then Lansky and Luciano sort of were seen by a lot of the other Italian mobsters as like, well, what’s up with this hybrid gang of Jews and Italians? They’re not like us. We’re Italians, you know. We’re Italians first and foremost. And Luciano wanted to take Rothstein’s advice with his consigliere, Frank Costello, who was also tutored by Rothstein and partner with the Jews. And at some point or another Luciano overthrew the old mobsters, the old regimes, the old dons I should say, and he then established this ironclad relationship with the Jews, which continued throughout for decades to come. But that’s where it all began, during prohibition. And it began most prominently with Lansky and Luciano being best friends and insisting that there was a great partnership to be had between the Italians and the Jews. And when Luciano took over the mob, took over one family, but then had great say in all five families in New York and across the country, he really, really pushed this idea of partnering with the Jews. “They were equal to us,” he said, “And we could do everything with them.” And he did.
Brett McKay: One thing you talked about I thought was really interesting, the relationship between Lansky and Luciano, because they really, they were the guys in that first half of the 20th century in the American mafia. And it’s funny how they worked together. Lansky did a lot to help Luciano take over the Italian mafia. So, as you said, Luciano wasn’t in charge but through some political and other means, he was able to attain power. But he did with Lansky’s help.
Louis Ferrante: That’s correct. So Lansky was always there by his side. They were together from… They met as kids. Lansky might have been 12 or 13. Luciano was maybe 16 or 17 when they first met. But they were very young. I forget the exact age but they met as kids and they always continued to stay close with each other. And as Luciano came up in the mob, Lansky was always there advising him. And also, too, that Luciano had this sort of like secret hybrid crew of Jews and Italians. He had not only Italian torpedoes, hitmen for him, like Vito Genovese and Joe Adonis and Frank Costello, but he had also too Jews like Ben Siegel who was a friend of, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, who was a friend of Lansky. Red Levine, who up until almost like when I was around as a kid, Red Levine was still knocking around, you know. He was a major hitter for Luciano.
So Luciano could call on this sort of like secret assassins, this Jewish element in his gang, who the Italians were unaware of. So that helped him a lot. And also, too, Lansky’s genius. Lansky was able to put together incredible schemes and eventually got involved in bringing the Italians with him with casinos and gambling and invited the Italians to take part when he took over Cuba as sort of like this mecca of gambling. And then when Bugsy Siegel got involved in Las Vegas, Lansky went out there and brought the Italians as well. So Lansky was always at the forefront of these brilliant schemes that the Italians just loved and they followed his lead in a lot of ways. But Lansky also guided Luciano’s career in so many ways when Luciano, you know. There’s time and again Luciano’s in this quandary when he’s making his way up and he’s trying to take over the Masseria family. There was an old Borgata controlled by this guy Lupo the Wolf.
It was taken over by Giuseppe Masseria and then eventually Luciano wants to take over this family. And each time he’s in a quandary, time and again you find them slurping down matzo ball soup with Lansky at some Jewish delicatessen, you know, and that’s where they’re trying to figure out their next move, which is interesting. Even in my time, I had this really great heist crew, heists and hijackings. We had two Jews in my crew. They were two of the toughest guys in my crew. They wouldn’t take shit from anybody, you know. And at a time when most Jews today are considered, doctors, dentists, and they usually lean towards education and following a legitimate trajectory in life. I had two of those leftovers who were the toughest guys and most honorable guys around. And so that continued through even my day.
Brett McKay: So prohibition played a big role in the rise of the mafia in the United States ’cause that was an opportunity that can make a lot of money because there was a demand for it and they’re able to work in the black market. So that was from 1920 and prohibition ended in 1933. What did the mafia do at the end of prohibition? Where did they see they can make money?
Louis Ferrante: They walked out of prohibition with this great big windfall of cash that they made. And not only this cash that they were looking to invest, so they’re looking for opportunities, but also too they established tremendous connections in the over-world by bribing prohibition agents, by bribing local ward leaders, by bribing mayors and governors and congressmen. They walked out of prohibition with all these corrupt relationships with the over-world because, you know, congressmen didn’t think it was such a bad thing to maybe partner with a gangster who was only supplying what the people wanted, supplying demand, or the local mayor or the ward leader, et cetera. So a lot of times, a lot of these relationships, rather, they carried with them after prohibition and they’re looking around for things to do with these big pockets full of money and they started to invest in… Lansky thought it was the next big thing was casinos. He said gambling would be to Americans like liquor was. Now that liquor is legal again, Americans still want to drink but they also want to gamble and we could provide gambling opportunities for them where gambling is illegal.
So Lansky said let’s dump a lot of money into casinos and that was the next big thing. There was also the stock market crash, it was in 1929. And when the banks all failed and banks were no longer dishing out money to private businesses, if you had a business and you needed cash you couldn’t go to a bank anymore so easily because so many banks banks failed and the few that were remaining were very, very critical of who they were lending money to. So here’s the mafia with pockets full of cash and they’re going, “Hey, you got a garment company. We’ll lend you money. We just want a piece of the shares.” And that’s how the mafia dumped all of this money that they took from prohibition into a lot of these legitimate industries, semi-legitimate industries, and put that money into a lot of the businesses they remain in today. So it was incredible that they were able to pull that off.
Brett McKay: So another place we see mob history connect with American history was the mafia had a role in World War II. What role did they play during World War II?
Louis Ferrante:When World War II broke out, I don’t think the mafia had any idea of how big a role they would play in the war effort. Obviously, a lot of mobsters were patriotic Americans and they put down their guns and their stilettos and put on an army uniform and fought for this country. There’s a guy, “Matty the Horse” Ianniello, who was around in my time, who was a rear gunner for a bomber squad. There were other people like Anastasia who joined the Army, Albert Anastasia. There were a ton of Italian Americans who joined the war effort. But back on the home front, what happened was there was a ship and this ship was burned in New York. It was the Normandie, rechristened the USS Lafayette. It was destined to be a transport ship for US troops. At some point or another, this burns in the harbor in New York and a lot of people thought it was sabotage. And they ruled that it wasn’t sabotage but the US Navy at the time said, “Well, it could just as easily have been sabotage.”
There were a lot of these German U-boats we’re spotting here and there. One came ashore in Long Island, another one was seen off the coast of Jersey. So a lot of these U-boats, they feared, would interrupt the transports of troops and ammunitions to Europe. And we were obviously, the United States was the arsenal of the democracies and we had to keep that flow going and the mafia controlled the waterfront. So at some point the Navy said, “Let’s reach out to the mafia.” They started to try to walk around the waterfront, talking out of the sides of their mouth like they saw in movies, and try to find out who the mob leaders were and everybody was keeping quiet. Nobody talks to these naval agents. And at some point the Navy approached the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and said to the prosecutors, “Hey. Can you tell us who we could talk to? Who would be a good mob guy we could talk to? We want to see who we could reach out to on the waterfront that could help us secure the waterfront.” They said, “Well, Joe “Socks” Lanza, he controls the waterfront. Go speak to him.”
So the US Navy arranges a meeting with this Joe “Socks” Lanza and Joe Socks says, “I’ll help you. I’m a patriotic American. I’m happy to help you against these Nazis and fascists. But the problem is, I got a boss and if this isn’t on record and okayed by the boss, a lot of people could, you know. Maybe someone’s eye-ing me and says, ‘I want to control the waterfront.’ Maybe they’ll make an accusation and say, ‘Hey. Socks is dealing with the feds.’ And then I’m dead. So if you get it approved by my boss, who’s right now in Clinton, Dannemora prison,” a place I personally was in, me meaning myself, “Go see him in Clinton. And if you get it okayed by him, I’ll work with you.” So at that point they said, “Well, how do we reach out to Luciano?” And he said, “Well, Lansky speaks with Luciano’s tongue.” Meyer Lansky, Socks Lanza tells them this, “Go speak to Meyer Lansky.” So they went to Meyer Lansky and Lansky says, “I’ll definitely help you and so will Luciano. I’ll go speak with him. But you got to bring him closer to me. You guys stuck him all the way up after he was convicted of something, Luciano, you stuck him all the way up by Clinton, Dannemora, which is near the Canadian border. Bring him closer to the city where I can meet with him.”
They did. The Navy arranged for the wardens in the US Bureau of Prisons, the New York State Bureau of Prisons, rather, to bring him closer to the city. And then Lansky went with an attorney and he talked to Luciano, got the OK. Luciano told Socks Lanza, “You tell everybody on the waterfront, me, Lucky Luciano, said that this relationship is ordained by me and you could work with the Navy. We have to protect our country.” And Socks Lanza went back to work and he told all these mafiosos that lined the waterfront in New York and New Jersey, which was controlling the Eastern seaboard and all the shipping to Europe, “Do everything you can for the Navy.” All the sea captains were told to report to the people on the docks. All the docks were told to tell any of the mafiosos, “If you see anything at sea, tell us. Report it immediately. If you see anybody walking around the piers, walking around the docks, tell us. If you see anything strange, report it to us and we’ll report it to the Navy.” And from that moment on, the docks were secured and the Navy sat back and knew there wasn’t going to be a single U-boat near this coast, and there wasn’t any more.
So that was a big deal. And then when they planned, Churchill and Roosevelt were planning with Stalin to eventually open up a second front in Europe because France fell to the Nazis and Stalin was fighting the Germans on the Eastern front and we wanted to open up a second front. And before Normandy, we wanted to start that second front in what Churchill considered the soft underbelly of Europe being Sicily. So when we decided, the United States with England decided that we were going to attack Sicily and eject the Germans from Sicily and then eject the Germans and the fascist Italians from Italy, once we decided the attack would be towards Sicily we wanted to consult with the Sicilians here in America and a lot of the naval intelligence did just that. “Tell us where the deep sea ports are. Tell us where the roads are heading inland. Tell us what roads could hold heavy machinery.” And once again the mafia was called into play and helped them to sort of like get the whole landscape of Sicily before the invasion of Sicily led by General George Patton and Field Marshal Montgomery of England.
Brett McKay: So, yeah, the US Navy made a deal with Lucky Luciano.
Louis Ferrante: Exactly.
Brett McKay: I didn’t know that. Something that’s interesting too is during this time from like the early 19th century until right here at World War II into the 1950s, the federal government, sort of like the FBI, really wasn’t doing much to go after the mafia. There were prosecutions going on but usually they were at the state level. Thomas Dewey in New York, that’s kind of how he rose to fame was he went after the mafia in New York. So J. Edgar Hoover was in charge of the FBI at this time. Why did he mostly ignore the Italian mafia?
Louis Ferrante: It’s a great question. I dug and dug and I researched this endlessly because I really, really wanted to know. And everything I’ve gathered is as follows. Most people do accuse Hoover. They say, well, the mafia had bribed him and they had pictures of him. We all believe today, for the most part, that Hoover was a homosexual and possibly also too a cross-dresser. And a lot of the allegations against Hoover was that the mob had compromising pictures of him either in homosexual positions or in drag. And I could not find a stitch of evidence to support that, only allegations. But I was able to find evidence to say that Hoover was very, very sensitive as far as his FBI looking good. We all know that, by the way, but I found evidence that suggests that he felt prosecuting the mafia would make his FBI look bad. And this is how. Basically, if Hoover went after the mob, they’ve got great lawyers, they bribe judges, they bribe juries, and the FBI would lose a lot in court. So that’s the first way the FBI would look bad. He doesn’t want to lose, Hoover. He wants to win. He wants 100% conviction rate if he could get one. So that’s the first part.
The second part is he found out, Hoover did, that the mafia had deep tentacles into politics and they almost swayed the 1932 presidential election. And they controlled Tammany Hall in New York, the political machine in New York, and controlled who would be mayor, who would be governor. So they had very, very, very deep control of politicians. And these same politicians, because the contacts went all the way up to Congress, these same politicians are the people that Hoover, Congress is where Hoover goes to beg for money every year for the FBI. He has to go there and say, “Look, I need a new budget.” And he really didn’t want to start going after mobsters when he felt that those relationships went all the way up to people in Washington, DC, who he was friends with. So there was a big part of it was that. So a lot of people later on in Hoover’s FBI who were just as startled by his either naivety or his hands-off approach to the mafia that nobody can understand it, to the best of their knowledge, they said that it was this hands-off approach because he feared what he might uncover and he feared this bad conviction rate.
You know, the mafia was maybe more powerful in America than even the FBI was at the time and if he showed up as second to the mafia, he was done. And he was very, very concerned with his image and the FBI’s image at the time. So once again, I don’t feel like it went back to any compromising photos. I feel those photos would have surfaced by now. And if they didn’t, there would have been some form of evidence. There never was. And also the mob gave him horse racing tips. A lot of people said, well, the mob gave him horse racing tips and that’s how they bribed him. I don’t think Hoover was the type of guy to sell out his country for a $10 horse racing tip or even a $100 or $1,000 horse racing tip. I do believe it was what I said. I believe that he felt his FBI would show up poorly and a lot of people came forward from within his FBI later on and said that’s exactly what it was. And these weren’t friends of Hoover. These people hated Hoover when they came forward later on. So I felt, given their hatred of Hoover as could be seen in their memoirs, I felt that they would immediately tell us if there was something deeper at play here and I couldn’t find evidence of it.
Brett McKay: Okay. So we’re up to about the 1950s now. And at this point the mafia has got their eyes set on casinos as their next big play. They get involved in the rise of Las Vegas. And you talk about how Bugsy Siegel goes out to Las Vegas and he’s the guy that got the Flamingo going, right?
Louis Ferrante: Yeah. That’s correct.
Brett McKay: And, again, there’s also just all the intrigue that’s involved there. Siegel ruffled some feathers. And it was Luciano, at this point he’s been exiled to Sicily but he was still controlling things and Siegel, he got whacked.
Louis Ferrante: Yeah. So, yeah, Siegel opens the door for a lot. I mean, there were hotels on the strip already in Vegas when Siegel went out there and decided he wanted to build his own but they weren’t as mob-infiltrated as Siegel’s hotel, the Flamingo. Siegel desperately needed money. Siegel was a degenerate gambler, couldn’t hold onto money for nothing. And he needed money from Lansky first and, through Lansky, once Lansky agreed to come in on it then all the mob wanted in. Every don across the country wanted in once Lansky approved it. So he gets all this investment money from mobsters and he builds the Flamingo and the Flamingo’s doing phenomenal and his partners, even the Chicago mob, dumped a lot of money into the Flamingo and as well as the New York mob. So they were partnered with this and Siegel was the front man. But at some point or another Siegel was just like a problem. He could not run a casino hotel for the life of him. Time and again he’s doing something stupid. And he just wasn’t the type, you know. We all have different characters.
I couldn’t run a Fortune 500 company but I could run a mafia crew, you know. I could run a heist crew. I did, and I was damn good at it. But if you put me in charge of Microsoft tomorrow, I would be as bad as Bill Gates would be running a heist crew. So there are different people who have different talents and Siegel was a great mob guy. Great mobster. He ran the transatlantic wire for the Los Angeles mob when he first went out to Los Angeles, which was his first stop when he left New York. And he did great at that, bringing new people on. The wire was a wire service that bookmakers needed for fast information about races and the track. So the wire was the first thing before the internet and all this other stuff, it was the wire service. So Siegel ran the wire service, hooked up a lot of bookies with the wire service who would pay a monthly fee for it. He was making a ton of money with that with the Los Angeles mob. Then he does the Flamingo and he’s just blowing everything at the Flamingo.
He’s making mistake after mistake. The place isn’t making money. And a lot of people start accusing him of stealing the money but I don’t think that to be the case either and you’ll see why. I present a lot of evidence where he was just an F-up, but not a thief. He was loyal to the mob, just a real screw up. And at some point or another he is taking what he’s making with the wire and he’s dumping it into the Flamingo and he’s squeezing the bookmakers with the wire and he keeps squeezing these bookmakers for more and more money every month. And the bookmakers at some point just launch a revolt and they start complaining to the mob guys who control the wires that Siegel’s squeezing us again. So this combined with his atrocious presentation at the Flamingo finally tipped the scales for the Chicago mob to go to Frank Costello, who was acting boss for Luciano who was in prison, and just ask Costello, “Look, we need to whack this guy.”
Costello and Luciano, Siegel belonged to their family. They had a claim on him. So the Chicago mob couldn’t just whack him on their own. So they went to Costello and said, “Look, he’s a problem. We got to get rid of him.” And Costello put them off through the war the first time they came to him but the second time they came to him and they called the beef, Costello was at that point a little vulnerable himself in New York and he had no power to resist it at that time and he gave them the okay and they clipped Siegel. They blew his eye out in Los Angeles while he was visiting the mansion of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. And that was it. And then minutes after Siegel was clipped, he’s laying dead on the couch in a pool of blood, his eye’s splattered against the wall. And literally minutes later, before any news of his death even leaks out to any press or anybody, these guys march into the Flamingo and say, “We’re taking over here.” And that was obviously pre-planned by the mob.
Brett McKay: So you end this part of the history right before the election of John F. Kennedy and the appointment of Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general. Why end the first part of your mob history here?
Louis Ferrante: It’s a major pivotal moment and event for the mob. And the reason being is, as we had spoken about, there was a massive hands-off approach to the mob, specifically by the FBI, throughout the whole first volume. Hoover didn’t want anything to do with them and there was never any real major massive indictments against the mob. They just did not have the will, determination to take down the mafia. No one did. And suddenly, Robert F. Kennedy… John F. Kennedy is elected president and the mob, believing that the Kennedys would be okay with them, even helped Kennedy get into office. And at some point Robert F. Kennedy is appointed attorney general, something that everyone saw coming. But Joe Kennedy, the Kennedy patriarch and father of the Kennedy clan, wanted Bobby as attorney general and some say that he wanted him there to head off any examination into the election because a lot of people felt that the election was robbed. There was a slim margin that went for Kennedy in the wards of Chicago that were mafia controlled and Joe Kennedy feared that there might be a close examination of the ballots in Illinois and Chicago specifically. And he didn’t want that to happen. So he puts Bobby Kennedy in, John Kennedy does, and Bobby Kennedy immediately goes after the mob.
And he already had a grudge with them from different congressional hearings where they defied him and got away with it. And now he’s attorney general with the complete power, all the resources of the United States legal system behind him. He’s the big head honcho and he’s going to take on the mob. For the first time ever in the mafia’s history Bobby Kennedy is going to take them down and he swears he’s going to eradicate them and destroy the mob in the United States. And he thinks that they’re the biggest evil in the country and he goes after them with every resource he could muster. And he marshals the resources of the Treasury Department, the INS, Immigration Naturalization Services, to deport any mobsters who aren’t here legally, the IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, any mobsters he wants all of their tax returns looked at. And he goes after them with everything, full force of the Justice Department. And he drags Hoover into the fray, kicking and screaming, but nonetheless into the fray. And Hoover begrudgingly starts to go after the mob for the first time too because he’s got Bobby screaming down his neck about they need to take down the mafia. So it’s a perfect place to start the second volume, which is the first time the mafia is ever on the run in US history.
Brett McKay: Well, Louis, this has been a great conversation. There’s so much more that people can learn in this book. So where can they go to learn more about it?
Louis Ferrante: I urge people probably the best place is Amazon. I urge them to go to amazon.com. You could find the book. The US edition is a red cover. It’s called Borgata: Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia. The UK edition, United Kingdom, is a blue cover with the same title. So I urge you to go to Amazon. You could always check in also at my website, louisferrante.com, L-O-U-I-S-F-E-R-R-A-N-T-E.com, louisferrante.com. And there are links there where you could buy the book as well.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Louis Ferrante, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Louis Ferrante: Thank you so much, Brett. Absolute pleasure to be with you a second time. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Louis Ferrante. He’s the author of the book Borgata: Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, louisferrante.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/mafia where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter. We have a daily option or weekly digest. They’re both free. The best way to keep on top of what’s going on at Art of Manliness. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AoM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.