Ten years before The Godfather forged a mythic image of the Sicilian Men of Honor society, an Italian film exposed that same secret society’s inner workings, styles and rituals with a bit more clarity than Francis Ford Coppola was able to muster. After all, Coppola was working primarily off the testimony of a low-level snitch, so even though much of his film rings true for Italian-Americans, he hit some false notes.
One thing about The Godfather: you never hear the words “men of honor” even once, although you will find them sprinkled throughout Alberto Lattuada’s little-known masterpiece. The film is available for free streaming on Amazon Prime right now and I strongly suggest you check it out asap. But please don’t look up the wiki info first as it will only spoil the plot. The less you know, the more you will enjoy this film.
I have to wonder if it was based on an actual event. “Anatomy of a Hit” would be a good subtitle. It’s a black comedy and will keep you laughing, but there’s a reality lurking underneath this comedy. The psychological underpinnings of the Sicilian brotherhood of death and how that society operates are actually quite realistically revealed.
The Sicilian men-of-honor society was transplanted along with the waves of Italian immigrants that entered North America from the 1840s and on, but it did not surface in the public eye until a New Orleans chief-of-police whispered “the dagoes did it” as his dying words on the streets of New Orleans in 1890.
An initial wave of anti-Italian mafia paranoia took place around the turn of the century. Meanwhile, working quietly behind the scenes, this brotherhood of death established a national Commission of Peace, which held authority over replacing family heads, as well as a general assembly of several hundred made members, which was to be held once every four or five years. They also created an initiation ritual involving a human skull pierced by a stiletto upon which drops of fresh blood were dripped during the ceremony. This was all in place by the early 1900s and continues today in some form, although the skull was soon replaced by burning paper saints. The Commission was created to prevent outbreaks of violence like New Orleans, where two Sicilian clans started fighting over who was going to unload fruit from Italian-American owned ships, resulting in the death of that police chief.
The society was criminal from the start. In fact, counterfeiting provided the initial wave of capital, the profits of which could be invested to grow legitimate businesses, like shipping and olive oil. Another source of income was murder. Since this society was, in fact, a brotherhood of death, and drew its initial power from its masters of the art of the stiletto, these talents were for sale, although revolvers and sawed-off shotguns soon replaced the knife as the preferred instrument of death.
There were clans everywhere, but the main families were in New York, New Orleans and Ohio-Pennsylvania. If a member committed a murder in one town, the Commission just moved that person to another town. There was very little coordination of police activity and no central FBI. In other words, for many years, the Sicilians were more organized than the police.
In 1969, Joe Valachi became the first member to break omerta and live to tell about it. Joe was a trigger-man, a street level enforcer with zero access to the inner core of the society, so the picture he painted was the image held by most people at his level. Valachi was not Sicilian, by the way, which made him an outsider of sorts.
Don Peppino’s son was the first insider to talk, and a slew of books followed, until, eventually, the great Don wrote his own story, a masterpiece and the best mob book ever written, although it gets little credit today. The book is called Man of Honor by Joseph Bonanno.
Francis Ford Coppola got The Godfather project dropped in his lap shortly after Valachi testified, which is what got the whole mafia ball rolling again. So many people were amazed such a powerful secret society could remain hidden for such a long time. The first post-Valachi mob films bombed, including one with Kurt Douglas. None of these films conveyed the spirit of Italian life. Coppola blew that spirit into his film with the scenes involving major family ceremonies.
The march of history is actually orchestrated through alliances and conflicts between secret societies like the men of honor. The social register operates much the same way as the Sicilian brotherhood, in that it has chapters located throughout the major cities, all of which hold regular ceremonies. The listings contain 30,000 names and each member belongs to numerous societies and clubs, all of which are notated in brief initials hard for outsiders to even decipher. This is the old money society and it would be absurd and naive to think they would not have their own secret brotherhoods of death embedded into their cultures, well hidden somewhere way in the background. In fact, Skull & Bones at Yale might be a primary example. The social register is aligned primarily with the House of Lords, so there’s another brotherhood of death to bring into the circle of influence. And lately, the Mossad has emerged as the deadliest and most effective of all the brotherhoods of death, so there’s another secret society to bring into our current circle of influence. All these secret societies are cooking up profit schemes all the time because the only real rule is big dog eats first.
If you understand the men of honor, you begin to understand how similar brotherhoods exist in other levels of society. These societies are interacting over who gets the most skim, while making every effort to insure their children inherit the worlds they command.
I love Coppola’s film, which had a powerful psychic influence around the world, as big as Wizard of Oz or Star Wars. In fact, it almost instantly rearranged the mob leader from evil to good in the initial wedding scene, a masterpiece of pro-mafia propaganda, in which the Godfather declines to do murder for hire, but he will beat up this guy up for free if you promise to be his friend, call him Godfather, and kiss his ring like he’s the Pope.
Coppola was a real outsider however, working almost exclusively with Valachi’s testimony and Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel. He mixed up details from all the five families and turned Valachi into Salvatore Tessio, a caporegime leader of his own clan, who commits an honorable suicide to preserve his family’s standing with the Commission. That, my friends, is not the real story of Valachi, a thug who spent the remaining short years of his life in prison fighting for his life and even killing an innocent dude he suspected of being his assassin. Yes, the real story is not so glamorous as Coppola painted it.
Someday maybe we’ll get the real story on other brotherhoods of death, all of which carry a terrible psychic toll on members. Arranging murder is a toxic endeavor that pollutes the soul. Although our culture glamorizes these societies, they never show the PTSD, or the spiritual degeneration. It only took 120 years before someone inside the men-of-honor society revealed their hidden structure. Since Skull & Bones began around the same time, I wonder how long we’ll have to wait for a whistleblower to emerge from within that culture?
Most people think the mafia was first exposed in 1957, when hundreds of members were discovered meeting at a private estate in Appalachia, New York. Until then, FBI Director Hoover claimed essentially there was no “organized crime” in America, while concentrating most of his efforts harassing communists and pot-smoking jazz musicians. However, a little research quickly reveals that story is a fantasy. In fact, the mafia was named and identified before the turn-of-the-century, long before Hoover arrived on the scene. The “mafia” became a household word in 1888, after the murder of newly-appointed New Orleans police chief David Hennessy.
“The dagoes did it” mumbled the police chief before dying. People today have no idea of the racism that confronted the average Italian immigrant in those days. Even in a melting pot like New Orleans, Italians were not trusted nor respected by the average white citizen. At the time, unloading the banana boats was considered the worst work on the wharfs, reserved for the lowliest of stevedores, the Italians. At first, the Provenzano family controlled fruit unloading in New Orleans, but soon a rival group, the Matranga family, greatly undercut their prices and hired away their foreman, Jim Caruso. One night, the Matgrangas were attacked by some Italians with shotguns and the Provanzanos were arrested and put on trial, which ended in mistrial.
Days before the second trial was set to begin, Hennessey was murdered. A mass roundup of Italians took place, with representatives of both clans being jailed as they each pointed fingers at each other, claiming the other side was involved in a secret brotherhood of death, the mafia, with representatives in major cities across North America.
Problem is, no one could figure out which side was telling the truth.
And Hennessy had a very complicated history. He’d executed former police chief-of-aids Thomas Devereaux with a bullet to the back of the head, a murder witnessed by many but ultimately forgiven because Devereaux had just shot his cousin Mike, who’d later be found executed anyway. In 1881, the two Hennessy cousins pinched Giuseppe Esposito in New Orleans. Esposito was wanted in Sicily and is considered one of the earliest of the mafios to migrate to North America. But Hennessy belonged to a working man’s social club with both rival clans, and seems to have been sincerely trying to negotiate a truce between them.
Most of the testimony about the mafia would quickly be forgotten, however. One thing Sam Giancana used to say: if you want to know the killer, look for who survives. (Using this logic, his brother Chuck believes Santos Trafficante accepted the hit that killed his brother Sam, and even thinks Johnny Roselli pulled that trigger, as he had just defected from the Giancana outfit. I believe William Harvey is Giancana’s real killer, however. Roselli did clean-up work after the assassination, and told several people he was one of the shooters. And when Congress began investigating, both were soon dead within a few days of each other. Similar, in fact, to what occurred with Hennessey.
Employing Giancana’s logic, the Matranga family represented the real mafia, since they eventually morphed into Carlos Marcello’s well-connected outfit. So even though a Sicilian family was already installed on the docks of the Big Easy, they were swiftly pushed aside by a better-connected group that devastated wages being paid to Italian stevedores, cutting their daily pay almost in half.
But after this murder of the chief, innocent victims from both clans were shot, beaten, dragged and hanged in the streets of New Orleans by a howling, blood-thirsty mob. The best book on the subject The Crescent City Lynchings was written by Tom Smith. I particularly enjoyed reading the testimony of Joe Provenzano, as he described the initiation ceremony as told to him by his ex-foreman Caruso. At the time, there already was a national Murder Incorporated, operating across the country, and, apparently, the price for murder wasn’t even that high. And the ceremony for the made men wasn’t all that different from the one Joe Bonnano would undergo in New York City forty years later. When Hoover took power at the Department of Justice, however, he dismissed all this talk as unfounded conspiracy theory. Makes you wonder what Hoover was really up to, doesn’t it? Especially since the Sicilians were helpful in pushing the Communists out of the labor movement, just as the Matrangas pushed out the Provenzanos.
Unlike some immigrant cultures, the Sicilians clung together after immigration and kept their tribes united, even in the New World. They did not join the local political machines, but preferred to create their own. The Sicilians were so tight, in fact, that soon after establishing their communities, the most respected leaders took steps to organize on a national level. Eventually, they set-up a “Commission of Peace” to deal with conflicts like the one that had broken out in New Orleans. But in 1888 that commission was not yet functioning. And the Sicilians always broke down to one of two styles: the first rooted in the working class poor “Black Hand” extortion societies, and the other based on the landed, old money traditions and their concepts of honor and revenge. The former tended to get involved with prostitution and drugs while being completely ruthless, while the later preferred gambling and alcohol and a code of ethics that kept the animals under control.
After the Hennessey murder trial failed to convict a single murderer, however, New Orleans demanded street justice. Around 250 Italians had been rounded up, including members of both families. Eventually, a grand jury indicted 19 people, nine of whom were immediately put on trial for the murder, but the prosecution was filled with obvious perjuries and the trial ended in acquittals for all. A mob led by William Parkinson and the town blue bloods marched on the jail, busted through a wall and savagely beat, shot, dragged and lynched 11 Italians, most of whom had already been found not-guilty or acquitted and several of whom were clearly not involved in the crime. “The Italians have taken the law into their own hands, and we had no choice but to do the same,” explained Mayor Shakespeare after the savagery was over. But in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison ordered the payment of $25,000 to each of the families of the victims who were Italian citizens.
Meanwhile, in the early 1900s, the New York Police created a special undercover Italian squad to investigate the Sicilians in New York, led by Joe Petrosino. The police knew almost nothing about the inner workings of these families, so strong was the rule of omerta. Petrosino undertook a fatal mission to Sicily in an attempt to find out whether the North American families were, in fact, taking orders from Sicily. He was murdered soon after arrival, creating yet another intense wave of anti-Italian sentiment in America.
These two murders, in fact, were the reason the Sicilians set up a Commission of Peace in the first place and it was also the reason why they put a ban on the murder of policemen and politicians (a ban that held until Giancana and Roselli accepted an offer from William Harvey to assassinate JFK). After Don Peppino (Joseph Bonnano), the most respected of the Sicilian godfathers, heard about the JFK assassination he was deeply troubled and felt nothing like that could have happened had the Commission been able to hold firm. After all, Peppino had successfully thwarted Dutch Schultz’s plot to murder crusading prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, which would have provoked an all-out war with the establishment. The Commission wasn’t just about organizing criminal enterprises, it was about protecting their fellow Italians from racism and preserving their unique cultural identity.
Law enforcement has long been obsessed with finding the Capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses), even though that position seldom existed except in fantasies. Even though the clans were organized in Sicily as an underground army to resist their invading oppressors, the families were run mostly as private fiefdoms and did not interfere with each other. When a New York don attempted to anoint himself Capo di tutti capi, he was typically assassinated by rivals. Giancana eventually evolved into the closest thing to Capo di tutti capi, just based on the reach of the Chicago outfit.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that insiders began to reveal how the clans operated internally. The film “The Godfather” was one of the first peeks inside the culture, but Puzzo was not a true insider and that book and film are rife with false rumors. A better picture began to emerge after several books were published by members of the Bonnano family. Don Peppino had led the opposition to drug dealing and supported a ban on both prostitution and drug dealing that was routinely ignored throughout the culture. But the young Turks running the newer families wanted the drug money, and they plotted against Don Peppino, eventually attempting to assassinate his son, who had been put in charge of the family’s day-to-day operations after the Don moved to Arizona to escape what he called “The Volcano” (New York City). His son had been raised in Arizona, attending private schools and ROTC and he was not really accepted by some of the street thugs. Persecution of the Bonannos, the most respected family, led to the breakdown of omerta and the Commission of Peace. Reading Don Peppino’s book (A Man of Honor), the best book of the bunch, one can’t help but feel there are good and bad elements in both cultures, and after retiring, Don Peppino was hounded by some of the worst elements in the FBI until his death. The FBI attempted to turn almost every friend he made out west into a secret informer against him. Don Peppino was like an old gunslinger trying to retire but young bucks (from both cultures) wanted to make a name for themselves and wouldn’t let him. One of these was named Rudy Guiliani, who used the book to prove the existence of a Mafia Commission and successfully put the heads of the Five Families of New York in jail, using the book as a blueprint of who to go after. Despite this, Don Peppino lived long enough to die of old age at age 97 in Arizona, on May 11, 2002. His first born son, Salvatore (Bill), who had been the first to break omerta by speaking to Gay Talese, died a few years later in 2008, at 76. Bill became a successful Hollywood producer of films and TV specials about his family. Don Peppino had survived numerous heart attacks; Bill succumbed to his first.