A Brief History of the American Mafia

Mr. Beat is a social studies teacher who specializes in making history and geography more engaging

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Mr. Beat gives a brief history of the American Mafia, also known as La Cosa Nostra, or simply The Mob. One book used for the research of this video was Gotti's Rules, by George Anastasia. To purchase, click here:

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A special thanks to the AP Archive for footage for this video. It made a huge difference! AP Archive website:

Produced by Matt Beat. All images by Matt Beat, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines. Music: “Trieste” by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers and an additional instrumental by Electric Needle Room (Mr. Beat's band). #themafia #themob #americanmafia

Sources:

Gotti's Rules by George Anastasia

Photo credits:

Jim Henderson

Norbert Nagel

Sikeri

I’m sure you’re already aware of the Mafia, thanks to The Godfather or Martin Scorsese films. But I hate to break this to you, The Godfather and Martin Scorsese films aren’t exactly all that historical. So first of all, the media and law enforcement first used that term Mafia, to describe criminal groups in Sicily. You know, the Mediterranean island in Southern Italy. Or the rock that Italy is kicking. Anyway, Giuseppe Esposito, the first known Sicilian Mafia member to move to the United States, fled to New York City after killing a bunch of politicians and wealthy landowners back in Sicily. Esposito ended up in New Orleans, where, in 1881, detective David Hennessey caught him and sent him back to Italy. By this time, the Sicilian Mafia spread throughout both New Orleans and New York City. They wanted revenge. On October 15, 1890, they found Hennessey, now the superintendent and chief of police, and murdered him, execution style. In response, New Orleans police arrested hundreds of Sicilians, eventually accusing 19 for Hennessey’s murder. However, after a bunch of acquittals and mistrials and rumours the jury had been bribed, an angry mob formed outside the prison. On March 14, 1891, they broke into the prison, dragging out the indicted Sicilian men and killing 11 of them. These killings are perhaps the largest known mass lynching in American history.

After the lynchings, the term “Mafia” now entered the American national dialogue. More Americans had anti-Italian feelings, calling for more restrictions to prevent Italians from immigrating to the country. Oh yeah, and the whole Italian mob stereotype was born.

So how did the Sicilian Mafia evolve into the American Mafia? Well, from the 1890s to the 1920s, the rise and fall of various gangs would lead to their organization. And yes, many of these gangs attracted young, poor, Italian men with ties to Sicily. However, it’s important to point out that not all of these gangs were Italian. For example, the Five Points Gang was mainly made up of Irish Americans. Although, its leader, Paul Kelly, was Italian. Well that’s not a very Italian sounding name, Mr. Beat. Yeah, his real name was Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli. He changed his name so it sounded more Irish. The big rival gang to the Five Points Gang was the Eastman Gang, who were mostly Jewish. Other gangs in the mix in New York City in the early 20th century were the Cherry Hill Gang, White Hand Gang, and the Yakey Yakes. Many of these gangs participated in an extortion racket known as The Black Hand. The name came from gang tactics like sending a letter to someone threatening to kill them or kidnap a loved one unless she or he paid a specified amount of money. These letters often were signed with a hand held up as a gesture of warning, which was usually imprinted with black ink.

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