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Bill Thayer

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Later Times

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rulers of the South

Francis Marion Crawford

published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
New York and London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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(Vol. II) Conclusion: The Mafia

 p363  The world at large knows little of modern Sicily, but that little generally includes a word of recent origin which is closely associated with the island in the public mind, but to which no meaning is attached that is even approximately true. The word is 'Mafia.' There is another which belongs to Naples, 'Camorra,' and which is better understood because it is more easily explained, and because the thing it means is more direct in its results. Both words are of doubtful origin. Camorra means an association of persons, having for its object an illicit control of any lawful or unlawful trade, obtained by forcibly excluding other people from taking part in it. In the broad sense it means the vast organization of thieves, high and low, by which daily life in Naples is controlled, by which the city is swayed in political matters, and with the existence of which the Italian government is obliged to reckon. The social effects of the Camorra do not extend much beyond the limits of the city; politically, the whole province is affected by it. In private life, it means that all who have acted in such a way as to be considered members of the Camorra are quite safe from depredation, so that if anything is stolen from them by mistake it is at once returned; it means also that whoever is willing to help the Camorra in its ends will be helped by it. It has no regular organization, no place of meeting, no  p364 elected officers; it is everywhere and it is nowhere; its members recognize each other by their conduct rather than by signs or words, and the commands of its chiefs are given verbally and transmitted in like manner. It might be described as a society for preserving a monopoly in stealing and illicit trades, were it not that many apparently respectable officials, men of business, and tradespeople protect it, or are under its protection. So far as it can be said to be organized at all, it manages itself by a sort of natural hierarchy and affiliation; the officers of each grade are self-created, and depend on force of character for the power they exercise. It might be called a system of bullying, in which every ringleader who can impose himself upon his companions is in turn forcibly controlled by one of higher standing than himself, who again is subject to others, and so on, from the street boy who gets a living by selling the stumps of cigars, to the high official and perhaps to the member of Parliament. The real end and object of the Camorra is, I think, always profit, gained by any means, good or bad. It constrains all pickpockets, thieves, and burglars in the city to render an account of their robberies of their superiors, on pain of being at once handed over to justice; and there is no city in the world in which it is so easy to recover stolen goods, provided that application be made in the right quarter. A part of its regular practice consists of robbing all foreigners,  p365 both directly, when possible, and in indirectly by extortion.

The Mafia differs from the Camorra in almost every respect, and whereas the latter is based on criminal practices, the former had its foundation in lawless principles. In attempting to give some account of the power which dominates a great part of Sicily at the present time, I shall follow the interesting work of Signor Antonio Cutrera, chief of police in Palermo, published in the present year 1900, and which may be taken as a thoroughly truthful account of the present state of things by one who has spent years in a hand-to‑hand fight with the evil.

Setting aside the possible ancient origin of the Mafia, its present development seems due to the great corruption which existed under the Bourbons, and especially in the police of that time, the consequence of which was a general tendency on the part of Sicilians to do justice for themselves. One of the principal functions of the Mafia is, indeed, to decide differences and dispense justice without appealing or submitting to the decision of a tribunal; and this is clearly the result a condition of things in which such an appeal was either useless or too expensive for persons of ordinary means.

Another principal element is the Sicilian character itself, which is bold, but extremely reticent, and is deeply imbued with a peculiar sense of honour for which the  p366 Sicilian language has a term of its own in the word 'Omertà.' According to this code, a man who appeals to the law against his fellow-man is not only a fool but a coward, and he who cannot take care of himself without the protection of the police is both. Evidently a profound contempt for the law is at the root of this principle, and the law is of course represented in the eyes of the people by the police and the tribunals. It is, therefore, logical that every Sicilian should do his utmost to hamper and impede the actions of both, and it is reckoned as cowardly to betray an offender to justice, even though the offence be against oneself, as it would be  p367 not to avenge an injury by violence. It is regarded as dastardly and contemptible in a wounded man to betray the name of his assailant, because if he recovers he must naturally expect to take vengeance himself. A rhymed Sicilian proverb sums up this principle, the supposed speaker being one who has been stabbed. 'If I live, I will kill thee,' it says; 'if I die, I forgive thee.'

The obligation to conceal the name of the assassin or other offender extends to all those who chance to be witnesses of the crime, and it is even considered to be their duty to hide the criminal from the police if he is pursued. The code requires an innocent man to go to penal servitude for another rather than betray the culprit, and Signor Cutrera, who should know, if any one does, states that cases are not rare in which Sicilians, though innocent, have undergone long terms of imprisonment and have even died in prison, rather than give information to the police. The Mafia would brand with 'infamy' a man who should do otherwise, and this principle makes it almost impossible to bring into court witnesses for the conviction of a Mafiuso. With regard to the injured person, the obligation of silence is the same, although the possibility of vengeance may be infinitely removed. As has been said, the derivation of the word Mafia is unknown. The word itself, in the Sicilian dialect, means the ideally perfect, and a beautiful girl, for instance, would be called 'Mafiusa,' simply  p368 on account of her looks. The word is even applied by hawkers to their wares. It was first used in its present sense by the author of a famous play, 'I Mafiusi di la Vicaria,' which was produced in 1863 and ran many nights, and which has been translated from Sicilian into Italian and has been given all over Italy. From that time the west was adopted into the Italian language to designate an uncertain combination of brigandage, 'Camorra,' and general criminality. It is not the first time that a book or a play has given a name to something which had none, and which is ill defined by it. In Sicily the word now means a condition produced by two factors only, a long reign of violence on the one hand, and that mistaken sense of honour on the other, which has been already explained.

We next come to the consideration of the results produced by this state of things, and these of course vary according to the class to which the delinquents belong, from the lowest upwards. Signor Cutrera correctly describes the appearance of a low Mafiuso of Palermo. He wears his hat upon the left side, his hair smoothed with plentiful pomatum and one lock brushed down upon his forehead, he walks with a swinging motion of the hips, a cigar in his mouth, a heavy knotted stick in his hand, and he is frequently armed with a long knife or a revolver. He stares disdainfully at every man he meets with the air of challenging each comer to speak to him if he dare. To any one who knows  p369 Palermo, this type of the lower class is familiar. He is the common 'Ricottaro,' a word which I will not translate, but which broadly indicates that the young man derives his means of support from some unfortunate woman who is in his power. It is a deplorable fact that the same mode of existence is followed by young men of the middle classes, whose plentiful leisure hours are spent in play, and who have constituted themselves the official 'claque' of the theatres, imposing themselves upon the managers as a compact body. Moreover, during elections, they can be of the utmost assistance to candidates, owing to their perfect solidarity. With the most atrocious vices, they possess the hereditary courage of the Sicilian, and will face steel or bullets with the coolness of trained soldiers; and though they will insult and even beat their women when in the humour, they will draw the knife for the least disparaging word spoken against what they regard as their property. The writer I am following observes that a considerable number of these young men end in the dissecting room or in prison, but that others mend their ways when they are thirty years of age and turn into a higher species of their kind, which may be called the real Mafiusi.

The Mafia divides itself everywhere and naturally into two parts, the one existing in Palermo and the large cities, and the other without the walls and through the open country.

 p370  The full-blown Mafiuso in the city differs from the common Ricottaro in that he works secretly and by means of moral pressure, whereas the Ricottaro boldly kills his enemy or is killed by him, without the least attempt at concealment. Statistics show that in the city of Palermo, from 1893 to 1899, both inclusive, there have been eighteen murders, twenty-eight attempts at murder, and eighty-nine stabbings, all the work of the Ricottari.

A man's position in the proper Mafia is the result of his personal influence, which derives in the first place from his reputation as a man of so‑called honour, and which is afterwards increased to any extent by force of circumstances, until he becomes a 'Capo-mafia,' and one of the acknowledged chiefs. His prestige is then such that his fellow-citizens appeal to him to settle their differences, both in matters of business and interest and in questions of 'honour'; his house becomes the resort of all those who have difficulties to decide or who need the help of the 'friends,' as the Mafiusi commonly call each other. Nor are the Mafiusi the only persons who invoke the help of the Capo-mafia; strangers and even foreigners appeal to him, and as his prestige is increased in proportion to the gratitude he earns, he will take the greatest possible trouble to oblige any one who come to him for advice or assistance; and while the Mafia, as a whole, blocks the way for the law at every step, it makes itself indispensable to those who  p371 need redress and despair of getting it by legal process. We cannot call the means used by the Mafia lawful nor moral, but the scrupulous exactness with which a Capo-mafia keeps his word, and the general fairness with which he decides the cases that come before him, though he have not the smallest right to decide them, inspires great confidence in his clients and creates the sort of moral despotism on which the Mafia depends for its existence. Furthermore, the Capo-mafia may be a lawyer, and a member of the municipal or even the provincial council, or a cabinet minister, rising to the moral control of the whole society simply by his prestige and predominant will, but never by any sort of election or machinery, since the Mafia has none. Long before that he has become a rich man, because it would be practically impossible to make a contract for any public work, or to carry it out, without his intervention. Thus the vast system of patronage narrows naturally to a few chief patrons, who are of course intimately associated and who sometimes obey one head. The Mafia disposes of men of all conditions and all professions, and they are bound to it by no promises of secrecy nor oaths of obedience, but by interest and necessity on the one hand, and the strong Sicilian sense of 'honour' on the other; they are protected by it, for it can annihilate its isolated enemies, and even in criminal cases it is almost impossible to convict a Mafiuso, in the total absence of witnesses against him, so that a  p372 wise judge will generally adjourn such a case until he can find some excuse for sending it to be tried in a court on the mainland.

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Old houses at Pizzo, Calabria,
where Murat, King of Naples,
was executed in 1815

The Mafia acknowledges no allegiance to any political party, but when it nominates a candidate his election is generally a foregone conclusion, and the successful contestant is greeted by a popular ovation.  p373 It is hard to see how a constitutional government could successfully oppose such a system. Thoughtful persons will see what Signor Cutrera has not seen, namely, that it is a complete and highly efficient form of self-government, which exists, and will continue to exist, in defiance of the constitutional monarchy under which it is supposed to live. An ancient tyrant would have destroyed it by the brutal process of massacring half the population and transplanting the rest to the mainland, but no civilized method of producing the same result seems to have occurred to statesmen. The Bourbons employed the Mafia to keep order, the present government tolerates it because it cannot be crushed; when the Mafia joined Garibaldi, the Bourbons fell, and it remains to be seen what will happen in the south when the Mafia turns against the monarchy it has called in. It is to be hoped that such a catastrophe is far removed from present possibility, and it is at least a somewhat reassuring fact that the Mafia is the very reverse of anarchic, or even socialistic; it is, indeed, one of the most highly conservative systems in the world.

Its tyranny is more outwardly visible in the country, and particularly in the rich lands that surround Palermo, than in Palermo itself, or in the other cities most infected by it. One reason of this is the great development in the cultivation of oranges and lemons during this century. The crops are relatively very  p374 valuable, and are especially tempting to thieves because immediately marketable and easily carried off; the lands are cut up into innumerable small holdings, and, without patrolling every orange grove with soldiers, which is impossible, the authorities could not possibly prevent the depredations of the fruit-stealers. The Mafia affords all who appeal to it the most thorough protection, and its despotism over the orange-growing regions is absolute; for, in return for such great advantages, landholders, whether owners or tenants, are only too glad to serve it at need and to abstain from all recourse to law.

In the first place, every landholder is obliged to maintain a 'guardiano' or watchman, in addition to the men he employs upon his land. There are, therefore, several thousands of these watchmen in the orange groves of the Golden Shell alone, and they are without exception Mafiusi, since they have the monopoly of their business and can altogether prevent the employment of strangers in their occupation. The landholder who attempts to oppose the monopoly will lose his whole crop in a night, and, if he persists, his life is not worth a year's purchase. Among the watchmen and their employers, who are often bound to them by the strongest ties of friendship as well as of interest, there are always some whose influence controls the rest, men who have killed their man in a question of 'honour' and who have shown themselves on many  p375 occasions to be thorough Mafiusi. They therefore become the Capi-mafia of the district, and they are always in communication with the Capi-mafia of the city, and thereby affiliated to the great system of patronage. All differences which the Capo-mafia in the country is not competent to decide are thus referred to the patron in the city, from whose decision there is no appeal. Any one, whether a Mafiuso or not, who refuses to obey that verdict, is killed without mercy and generally without delay, unless he can escape from the country in time. The shot is fired from behind a wall, or in a shady grove at dusk and in the total absence of witnesses the most scrupulous inquiry very rarely even leads to an arrest, and never to a conviction. It is not a fight, but an execution, approved by all the thousands of landholders and their watchmen, who manage their affairs and govern themselves in this way. It may be that the Capo-mafia's decision was perfectly fair; in any case the man knew what he risked in disobeying it, and his friends are not surprised at his death, nor do they seek to avenge it.

On the rare occasions when a Mafiuso is arrested, his friends and relatives appeal to their Capo-mafia in Palermo, and he at once institutes a most scrupulous inquiry into the man's antecedents. If it is found that the prisoner has throughout his life strictly obeyed the principles and the commands of the society, its vast machinery is instantly set in motion to secure his  p376 release or acquittal, money is spent unsparingly, though the accused be penniless, scores and sometimes hundreds of witnesses are suborned, the most eminent lawyers are secured for the defence, and the strongest arguments appear in the man's favour in the most accredited newspapers. The man is of course proved innocent, and the verdict is received with a chorus of popular approbation. If, on the other hand, the inquiry shows that the man has once failed in his duties as a Mafiuso, the Capo-mafia refuses all help, and a witness will dare to appear in his favour, and he is dealt with by the law without opposition. A stranger might think that the law has triumphed in such a case, but it has not; it has executed a verdict already given by the Mafia.

The Mafia in the country is more completely organized than that of the city, which is natural where a large body of men are employed in the same business, as watchmen of the fruit-crops. The country Capo-mafia has the privilege of disposing of all the watchmen's places in his district, the landholders or tenants pay him for his patronage, they accept the watchmen he gives them, and the terror of his name is a sufficient surety of the safety of their oranges. If they were robbed, his reputation would be endangered; if some inexperienced thief is foolish enough to attempt it, he is certain to be caught and severely beaten.

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The place where Murat was shot
in the castle at Pizzo

It is the business of the country Capo-mafia to make  p377 demands upon rich landholders for sums of money, when funds are needed by the Mafiusi of his district, and here lies the connecting link between the more or less innocuous Mafia and the brigandage which is the curse of Sicily. A Mafiuso, great or small, pays at once what is demanded of him for the common good; but there are many large landholders in the country who believe themselves strong enough to be independent of the Mafia, protecting their crops from thieves with a small force of armed men, and maintaining constant relations with the government's force of carbineers.

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Castle at Pizzo, with the window of Murat's prison

 p378  Two hundred and nineteen letters demanding money have fallen into the hands of the police of Palermo within seven years. Signor Cutrera publishes some of these in his valuable work. Several are dated, and most of them 'Dear Sir,' or 'Dear Friend,' while they all conclude by threatening the life of the person addressed, and often the lives of all his family. The place to which the money, sometimes as much as ten thousand francs, is to be taken is always indicated with extreme clearness, and in several cases, the name of the person who is to bring it is given, and that person is generally some one in the victim's employment.

These instances, made public with a great quantity of corroboratory evidence by a chief officer of the Sicilian police, should be enough to explain the nature of the despotism exercised by the Mafia. From threatening letters to highway robbery there is but a step. Upon the road that leads from Palermo to Misilmeri there is a hamlet called Portella di Mare, which is famous for the number of attacks made upon travellers. In the whole province of Palermo the statistics show that there were one thousand and ninety-two highway robberies between the years 1893 and 1899 inclusive. When it is considered that no country in the world is so thoroughly patrolled by an efficient and courageous police, such figures show the magnitude of the difficulty with which the authorities have  p379 to contend. A further consideration of the subject would lead too far, but with regard to brigandage in Sicily it should be distinctly understood that it does not form a part of the system called the Mafia, but is often closely connected with it by the bond of common interest. The principal reason why brigandage continues to exist is that the outlaws make themselves useful to certain great landholders, who, in return, protect the malefactors from the police. It may even be known that a whole band — supposing it to be travelling together, which rarely happens — may be concealed in the house of a rich man, and that the police may be cognizant of the fact. In order to search the house, the commander of the detachment must produce a judicial warrant authorizing him to do so. The little squad of carbineers and soldiers of the line have very probably tracked the bandits for several days through a wild and dangerous country, not having the slightest idea where they might next take refuge. It would be manifestly impossible to issue a general warrant authorizing the police to search any house in the country, for this would be regarded as an act of tyranny, and the Mafia would probably retort by bringing on a general revolution throughout the island. If the officer commanding the pursuing party sends back to his chief, therefore, for the necessary authority, the bandits, well informed of their pursuers' movements, have plenty of time to escape to another hiding-place;  p380 and if the officer at last receives the warrant, uses it, and finds no brigands in the house, the proprietor makes complaint to the heads of the Mafia, who have innumerable weapons at their command with which to make the action of the police publicly ridiculous. But if the officer, being quite sure that the brigands are in the house, takes upon himself the responsibility of searching it without a warrant, and if, as will very probably happen, the whole band escapes through a subterranean passage, such as may be found in many Sicilian houses, he is liable to an action at law, in the course of which the Mafia will spends hundreds of thousands of francs and put out its whole strength to destroy him. If by any possibility he escapes being dismissed from the service for having overstepped his authority, his only chance of life is to leave the island secretly and at once. As for a proprietor who refuses to receive the brigands or to offer them the best he has so long as they are pleased to prolong their visit, neither his property nor his life will ever be safe from that day. His crops will be burned, his orange and lemon trees hacked to pieces, his vines torn up by the roots; and if he is the possessor of great herds of cattle or flocks of sheep, the professional cattle lifters who abound in Sicily will mark him for their prey, knowing that neither the Mafia nor any band of outlaws will raise a finger to protect him. By twos and threes his cows  p381 and his oxen will disappear; with a skill that would do honour to Texas the brands on the animals will be converted into new and different ones, and before long the stolen property will be sold at a cattle fair a hundred miles away. If at the end of a year the  p382 unhappy victim is alive, he is wholly ruined, but it is far more probable that a bullet will have ended his troubles long before that time. To bring about such dire results, it is not even necessary that he should have shut his doors against the outlaws; he may receive them, entertain them, and thank them for the honour of their visit, as is customary in such cases, but if he should afterwards give the least clew to their movements, he is a doomed man as surely as if he had refused to receive them. I repeat that bandits are not necessarily Mafiusi, but in the great majority of cases they have been 'friends' before taking to the woods; and though the higher Mafia may disapprove of their proceedings, it is rarely unwilling to make exhibition of its vast power and of its contempt of the law by affording them its protection. The Mafiusi may occasionally quarrel among themselves and blood may be shed in encounters that are regarded as honourable, for it is only a man condemned by the society who is murdered without a chance for his life; the society will never interfere in the settlement of questions of so‑called honour, whereas it acts as a tribunal for all disagreements which would be settled by law in a civilized country. But, owing to the strong peculiarities of the Sicilian character, violent disputes between the 'friends' are extremely rare, and the solidarity of the whole society might be an example to associations formed with a  p383 better object.

It would be unjust to Italy to leave such a subject without making two important statements. In the first place, it is quite wrong to suppose that foreigners visiting Sicily and having no interests in the island are exposed to any danger from the Mafia or from any organized band of brigands, and with ordinary precautions, if the traveller is willing to avoid a few dangerous localities, he will not be more exposed to the attacks of common thieves than in many other countries. He may go with safety where a Sicilian nobleman or a landholder hostile to the illicit powers would need the protection of a dozen mounted carbineers, and this well-known fact has been proved true in hundreds of cases. Foreigners who have been taken by brigands in Sicily and held for ransom have invariably possessed some vested interest in the country. This may be accepted as positively certain.

Secondly, as I have already said, the Camorra of Naples does not extend beyond the suburbs of the city. The southern mainland from Naples to the straits is one of the safest tracts of country in the world; it has produced no society even faintly approaching the Mafia, brigandage has been totally stamped out by the Italian government, and the entire absence of travellers who might be robbed is a sufficient reason why the evil should not break out again. The southern mountains are wild and desolate beyond description, the southern plains are lonely and thinly populated, the poverty of  p384 the lower classes everywhere is painful to see; but the country is safe from end to end, and the student, the artist, or the idler may traverse it in all directions, alone or in company, on foot or on horseback, without incurring the slightest risk. It is due to the honourable and untiring efforts of the present government to state this very clearly, and if the power which has accomplished so much on the mainland is unable to make headway against the Mafia in Sicily, the reason is that the Mafia is not an organized and tangible body which could be called to account for its actions, but is the inevitable result of many combined circumstances, involving national character, national traditions, and certain especial conditions of agriculture and wealth, none of which exist together anywhere else in the world.

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My task is ended. If the curiosity of my readers is unsatisfied, let them visit the south and seek out for themselves those things which they desire to know; if they are disappointed with the story of twenty centuries, as I have told it, let them look into the fathomless archives of southern history and read in half a dozen languages and dialects the thousand tales which I have left untold. In either case, I shall not have laboured in vain. If any, after reading this book, are tempted to wander through some of the most beautiful and memorable places in the world, or if any, desiring more knowledge, are impelled to pursue the study of classic  p385 history or the romantic chronicles of Norman times, I am more than repaid for having attempted what is perhaps impossible.

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Page updated: 23 Jun 18