Histories    |     Facts    |     Archives    |     About Us    |     Contact Us

The Mafia and American Law

A History of Organized Crime

Organized crime in America comes in many forms, but it was the Mafia that emerged with the highest profile and helped spur numerous acts of Congress to help law enforcers deal with the threat. At the same time, however, much of the early history of organized crime is largely inseparable from political corruption. In the first half of the twentieth century, the law had often been obliged to turn a blind eye to illegal activity because of personal investment, threat of retaliation, or political pressure. Though organized crime long predates Prohibition, it was the illicit manufacture and distribution of alcohol during temperance that made countless criminals very wealthy and set the stage for many years of criminal influence and affluence all over America. Gradually, public and government awareness of the breadth of the threat evolved into political action. A turning point came in 1951 with high-profile televised hearings on organized crime in New York City that helped create the now stereotypical image of the Mafia by introducing major Italian gang personalities into the average American household. Then, In the 1960s, a vigorous campaign by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy prompted new acts of Congress that would become essential tools in combating organized crime—tools that would be the foundation of the federal government’s new focus on international organized crime and terrorism in the twenty-first century.

Understanding Organized Crime and the Origins of the American Mafia

Organized crime is generally defined as “a continuing, profit-motivated, criminal enterprise that employs the use of fear, violence, intimidation, and public corruption to achieve organizational goals and remain immune from law enforcement” (Lyman and Potter 2004). Meanwhile, exactly what the Mafia is both in the United States and on an international level remains uncertain, due to its status as a secret society with roots in Italy. Though older sources have been suggested, an individual of the “mafia,” the Sicilian mafioso, suggests a “brave man” acting with hostility in response to the foreign governing body in nineteenth century Italy (Repetto 2004). Generally, the term “mafia” referred to the system of organization on the island of Sicily, which involved individually managed estates and families grouped geographically, but without an overarching hierarchy.

The tight-knit hierarchical structure of the American Mafia popularized by books and films such as The Godfather, Goodfellas and, more recently, the TV series The Sopranos may have ties closer to other organizations, such as the camorras (fighters and thieves who wore cloaks from which the word may derive) near Naples, Italy. The American Mafia, thus, is not simply a transplanted Sicilian Mafia operating on a new land ripe for corruption and violence. The abstractness and complexity of the Mafia have been chief causes of legal issues when attempting to prosecute gangsters under unspecific and undefined law (Lyman and Potter 2004).

In the early twentieth century, waves of Italian immigrants filled a void at the bottom rung of the economic ladder and organized themselves into “families” in the big cities, usually according to their specific region of birth. Individual gangs maintained fierce loyalty and a code of silence called “omerta.” The challenge of omerta left early law enforcers to simply let gangs fight it out among themselves. However, when a series of violent incidents occurred in New York City in 1903, the police department was provoked into establishing a squad led by Joe Petrosino to deal with Italian crime, ranging from counterfeiting to murder. Petrosino even traveled to Italy to seek fugitives wanted in America, only to be murdered by paid assassins tipped to his reputation (Repetto 2004). In America, many Italians (among others) gravitated toward labor unions later championed by national figures such as Jimmy Hoffa, while some took advantage of the extremely profitable enterprise of bootlegging at the onset of Prohibition. The unpopular law, however, made for sporadic enforcement and, in some cases, direct collaboration with criminals.

The Early Battles

James O. Finckenauer uses enterprise theory of supply and demand to recognize the ease with which criminal organizations prospered during Prohibition. Americans casually broke the law, especially in large cities such as Chicago and New York where underground saloons were operated by gangsters who often had an overt understanding with the police (2007). Meanwhile, prominent citizens openly patronized these “speakeasies” and paid a premium for illegal alcohol of varying quality. When police raids were conducted, they were usually with advance notice and sometimes just part of the fun of a night out on the town. In these areas, societal sentiment simply did not align with the law, so extensive action was not taken to prevent the illegal enterprises from continuing.

However, in instances where the line was clearly and grossly crossed, public outcry demanded the law to intervene. Such was the case in a Chicago primary election in 1927 when violence erupted in the attempt to sway the vote. Election workers were assaulted and kidnapped while bombs exploded at their candidate’s house and political leaders were murdered. The election carnage made the papers all over the nation. Not only did the state of Illinois respond with special appointments to investigate, but President Hoover dispatched marines to Chicago to help protect the city during the November election. Also, when organized crime attacked or insulted the police, the police would inevitably retaliate out of resentment. Most notably was Al Capone’s three-year reign of terror in Chicago that culminated with his infamous criminal indictment on charges of tax evasion, the only crime that could be directly linked to him. Colonel Henry Barrett Chamberlain had not been long acting as director of the newly established Chicago Crime Commission when he coined the phrase “public enemy” in reference to Al Capone. In addition to brutally influencing the previously mentioned election primary, there were well-publicized murders following the legendary St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and other high-profile violence that forced Capone and other mob bosses to lay low. Meanwhile, their old political allies distanced themselves and driven prosecutors pushed vigorously for indictments and legal reform (Repetto 2004).

Like Capone in Chicago (in mobs in major cities throughout the nation), the New York mob was equally integrated into the political arena and exercised a great deal of control in society. Major figures such as the notorious killer Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel allied with the financial guidance of Meyer Lanksy not only to run extortion rackets in New York, but also spread their influence across the United States. Siegel’s major brainchild was to open a casino/hotel resort in the middle of the desert, and idea that would eventually become the Flamingo in Las Vegas. Other major player in the organized crime scene was the politically influential Frank Costello who ran protected gambling rackets through New York fruit stands as well as becoming a major liquor distributor during Prohibition. Costello went to build his own casino in Las Vegas en route to becoming one of the most powerful mob bosses in the nation.

The bosses had extensive networks that made it difficult for the police to connect individuals to specific crimes, places, and dates, making law enforcement a difficult task, but one that was helped with later legislation. The wealth accumulated from these various criminal ventures was the foundation of the network of organized crime that emerged over the course of the next two decades. In the 1930s, bosses such as financial genius Arnold Rothstein and the politically connected Johnny Torrio, whom Thomas Repetto (2004) dubs the “the architect of modern organized crime,” were the models for new generations of gangsters that they helped tutor. Out of this era began the national syndicate that would not come fully into public and governmental awareness until late in the 1950s.

Mid-Century Awareness and the New Legislation

Senator Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime did not outrightly expose the complete, brutal reality of the Mafia to the American public. Nor did the Apalachin incident ignite immediate action on the part of the federal government. However, something changed when dozens of Mafia bosses met one 1957 November day at Joseph Barbara’s estate to select Vito Genovese as the ultimate “Mr. Big,” the boss of bosses (Lyman and Potter 2004). The response by law enforcement of the past had been to try to take down the bosses. But what became evident with the realization of the existence of such a “syndicate” was that even if Mr. Big were removed, his family would remain intact; it would simply transfer hands, usually resulting in the family being renamed. New legislation would have to be of an entirely different mold in order to be of any use to law enforcement, and such a campaign wouldn’t come into play until after the death of FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover. Hoover had been reluctant to pursue the problem of organized crime in large part because of the overwhelming challenge it posed and the threat to the image of his bureau. Congress, though, stepped in to address issues of labor racketeering and extortion, and from the 1930s to the 1970s, it passed a number of laws to help protect unions from further exploitation by the Mafia (Jacobs 2006).

In Robert F. Kennedy, American found an outspoken activist in the battle against organized crime. As U.S. Attorney General, Kennedy vastly broadened the Department of Justice’s focus on organized crime and required the FBI to enforce certain changes, including expanding the Top Hoodlums Program and renaming it Criminal Intelligence. Kennedy further brought together sections of 27 governmental agencies dealing in organized crime and formed a committee which he oversaw. As a vocal critic of the Mafia in particular, one of Kennedy’s pet projects was to bring down Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa built empires in securing numerous rights for his unions, but unfortunately dealt far too frequently with the Mob. An enduring popular legacy of the era is that the Kennedy’s pursuit of the mob and attempts to overthrow Communist rule in Cuba were major factors in the assassination of both John and Robert. But in spite of innumerable conspiracy theories, the enduring official verdict is that each man’s assassin acted alone.

Out of the tumultuous political climate of the 1960s there emerged key legislation and expanded powers for law enforcement, from increased electronic surveillance to the use of informants, undercover operations, grants of immunity, and witness protection. Most importantly, the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) was passed as part of the Organized Crime Control Act in 1970. The act was designed to help prosecute patterns of illegal infiltration of businesses based on “predicate acts,” specifically at least two instances within ten years. It was designed to link people and crime over time and included hefty penalties designed to deter further engagement in organized crime (Finckenauer 2007).

In 1968, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act attempted to define organized crime in the law by outlining the disciplined, organized, and continuous engagement in illegal enterprises “including but not limited to gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, narcotics, [and] labor racketeering.” It is the only legal definition on the books, and can only begin to suggest the scope of organized crime. The complexity of the legal battle is a result of the variety and diversity that exists among people engaged in organized crime, and their shifting relationship with the American city and its political leaders (Finckenauer 2007).

The Recent Decades: From Organized Crime to Modern Terrorism

While efforts to curb organized crime have aided police enforcement domestically, the global reach of some organizations has made controlling illegal activities especially challenging. International criminal activity is not a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by long-standing global financial ventures where organizations launder across borders and among international banks to finance their illegal activities through legitimate-looking businesses (Lyman and Potter 2004). However, the globalization of economies in the last quarter of the twentieth century combined with improvements in transportation and communication to encourage the movement of goods and services across boundaries at a much greater scale. Among the most recognized forms of transnational crime is human smuggling and trafficking. In many cases, legal migrants are voluntarily carrying illegal goods across boarders because organized criminal activity close to home provides unparalleled economic opportunity for the lower classes. Indeed, James O. Finchenauer suggests that “[a]s long as the economic, social and political conditions that fertilize organized criminality exist, so will organized crime. Absence of economic opportunity and poverty in too many countries leads their people to look to criminal organizations as a way out” (2007). Examples include farmers turning to illegal but more lucrative crops from poppies in Afghanistan to coca and marijuana in countries south of the United States border (Finckenauer 2007).

The War on Drugs in the 1980s spurred major legal initiatives to aid law enforcers in the pursuit of organized criminals. In 1984, the Crime Control Act expanded asset forfeiture laws while the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act created stricter sentences for money laundering as well as defining “mandatory prison sentences for large-scale distribution of marijuana” (Lyman and Potter 2004). New designer drugs were also added to the controlled substances list under the 1986 Act. The most important legislation from that year, however, came with the Money-Laundering Control Act that specifically targeted financial transactions made to conduct illegal activities or the concealment of such funds. Indeed, the code of the Internal Revenue Service has been useful in law enforcement from Al Capone to the present day. From evasion of income tax to hiding assets, the IRS has many tools for combating corrupt finances. In 1988 the Chemical and Diversion and Trafficking Act was passed to deal with the raw materials of drug manufacture.

Finally, the controversial Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, or the USA Patriot Act, which followed the attacks of 9/11, provided expanded investigatorial authority for police agencies at all levels, and not just in relation to terrorism. In fact, some believe the expanded powers of the Patriot Act have allowed the violation of a number of American civil liberties, especially those related to government surveillance through wiretapping. (Lyman and Potter 2004). Nevertheless, the act has been reauthorized twice by Congress, once in 2005 and again in 2006, though with a number of provisions and additional oversight.

-- Posted January 19, 2008


Finckenauer, James O. 2007. Mafia and Organized Crime: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications.

Jacobs, James B. 2006. Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement. New York, New York: New York University Press.

Lyman, Michael D. and Gary W. Potter. 2004. Organized Crime. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Peason Education, Inc..

Repetto, Thomas. 2004. American Mafia: A History of its Rise to Power. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Repetto, Thomas. 2006. Bringing Down the Mob: The War Against the American Mafia. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.