Don of a New Age

REVIEW: 'Borgata: Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia' by Louis Ferrante

Lucky Luciano (Remo Nassi/Wikimedia Commons)
March 17, 2024

The Mafia is an American institution. No wonder it's been in decline since the 1970s. Unlike other American institutions such as the DMV and the TSA, the MOB is esteemed by many of the people it exploits. Not all organized criminals are viewed so reverentially. Just 13 percent of adults approve of the job Congress is doing. A far greater number of Americans approve of the job that Francis Ford Coppola did on the Godfather movies—just not Godfather III.

The pacey, detailed, and gripping Rise of Empire is the opening volume in Louis Ferrante's Borgata Trilogy. This epic structure resembles that of the Godfather movies. More relevantly, it resembles John Julius Norwich's trilogy on the Byzantine Empire: the beginnings in a collapsed Italian society; the golden age as an Italian system blooms in a new world; the pitiful decline, in this case under pressure from the barbarians at the FBI and the RICO Act. The resemblance is not accidental. The story of the Cosa Nostra is an imperial epic in exile and a shadowy synecdoche for that greater epic, the American century.

Louis Ferrante is a wise guy in both senses. He describes himself as a "former mafia associate and heist expert"—a locution nicely combining a broad claim to technical expertise with a precise legal disavowal of its exercise. Following a misunderstanding with the authorities, Ferrante served eight-and-a-half years in jail. He refused to inform on his colleagues in the Gambino family and filled the 18-hour stretches in his cell by reading historians such as Cicero, Plutarch, Gibbon, and Marc Bloch.

Ferrante calls his Borgata trilogy "the first mafia history written by someone who has lived The Life." To understand what an achievement this is, and how valuable Ferrante's first career is when he's managing his sources, imagine Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough making a midlife switch into racketeering. As members of the academic mafia list their fellowships and publications to differentiate themselves from the commercial riff-raff, so Ferrante describes why his credentials count for more than those of "writers who have never stolen so much as a candy bar, or have never felt the cold steel of a stiletto, a handgun or a handcuff":

"[T]hey have never encountered an actual historian who has lived in the mafia's world, spoken their tongue, committed their crimes, drawn their blood, fled justice with them, and served prison time alongside them; I am them, and I am also a historian."

Ferrante's previous book, the bestselling Mob Rules, applied lessons from The Life to legitimate business. George "Fat George" DiBello, the caretaker of John Gotti's social club in South Queens, declared that if Gotti were alive today, Mob Rules "would be his favorite book." "Finally," wrote Rita Gigante, daughter of the late Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, "Lou brings all of the Mafia's wisdom and business acumen together … and shows readers how they can apply the mob's best practices in their own businesses." If Hunter Biden had read it, he wouldn't be hiding in his father's basement today.

Ferrante is a Plutarch of the underworld. He writes to establish not just the facts of who whacked whom, but also to "highlight the vices and virtues of great men" for the moral instruction of his readers—in this case, whether the whacker and whackee "did something wrong or right, according to Mafia rules." Those rules are Sicilian. Their foundation, Ferrante writes, is "oral laws that are privately enforced and are based on traditions that are oblivious to, or even contemptuous of, written law."

The word for a gang (borgata or brugard) derives from the Sicilian term for community. Omertà, the code of silence, comes from the Sicilian omu, from the Latin homo: man. The honor code was, like Sicily's architecture and dialect, heavily influenced by the long Arab occupation. The word mafia might come from the Arabic mahfaz (protection), or mahfil (gathering), or ma-fuah (strength, protection). Ferrante attributes to Arab or Spanish-Arab influence Mafia signatures such as strangling with a garotte, castration, and that old chestnut, castration followed by jamming the genitals into the dead man's mouth.

Under feudalism, the rule of absentee landlords was enforced by gabellotti (overseers). As feudalism decayed, either the private armies of the gabellotti evolved into the mafia and generated their own leaders, or the gabellotto, who was also a moneylender, stayed on top, and morphed into the modern don (the name, once reserved for nobility, is a legacy of Sicily's Spanish conquerors). The Carbonari, a 19th-century nationalist society, supplied the secret oaths and organizational methods; the capo di carbonari who led a unit of 10 to 100 men became the caporegime who leads a crew.

In the 1860s, the word mafiusi appeared in the local papers and in a play set in the Palermo jail. In the same decade, the abolition of slavery in the United States stimulated demand for low-wage workers. Over 80 percent of the more than 5 million Italians who sailed to the United States between 1880 and 1930 were from southern Italy; 1.5 million were Sicilians. As Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo recalled, "Italians were considered dirt … the scum of the earth." They were also indispensable dock workers. New Orleans became the mob's "Plymouth Rock … the first city to host a mafia family in the New World."

The first inter-borgata war was fought in New Orleans in 1869 between the Stoppagherra ("the Stoppers"), led by Joseph Provenzano, who controlled the docks and the French Market and had political connections, and the Gardeners, led by Charles Matranga, who had an "army of sworn killers." With Matranga taking over Provenzano's rackets, the corrupt New Orleans police chief David Hennessy forced a sit-down and a handshake. But Provenzano's men then shot up a carriage full of Matranga's men; Matranga's brother Anthony had his leg blown off.

Hennessy arrested Provenzano and his capos. They were sentenced to life, but the same judge then vacated the verdicts and granted a new trial. Matranga "may not have read the newspapers, but he could read the writing on the wall: the fix was in." Five of Matranga's men killed Hennessy with sawed-off shotguns. Hennessy lived long enough to say, "The dagos shot me."

The witnesses developed amnesia, and the jury found itself unable to reach a verdict. When the judge declared a mistrial, a mob broke into the prison and murdered 11 Sicilian suspects. Matranga was unharmed. Ferrante suggests that "whoever coveted Hennessy's job may have spotted an accomplice in Matranga."

All this was classical Sicilian stuff. To thrive in America, however, the Sicilians needed to form "new alliances with anyone from anywhere." The alliance that "would propel them to the very top of organized crime in America" was formed with "renegade Jews" who had "exchanged their kippahs for stilettos." Lucky Luciano met Meyer Lansky when their immigrant families were lodging on Hester Street on the Lower East Side. Their mentor was Arnold Rothstein, a dropout from a respectable family who ran an illegal casino and was Tammany Hall's "bridge to the underworld."

Ferrante reports that Rothstein "passed" on fixing the World Series in 1919, but "made a heavy bet with the insider knowledge" and won big. Then Irving "Waxey Gordon" Wexler (opium dens) introduced Rothstein (gambling) to Big Maxie Greenberg (bank robbery), who was looking for $175,000 so he could buy boats and trucks to bring booze in from Canada (Prohibition). Rothstein bought in, then brought in Samuel Bloom, one of his gambling marks who had a stake in a Scottish distillery. Rothstein set up an operation shipping Scotch from Glasgow to Atlantic City.

Crime would have become this organized sooner or later, without Prohibition. But Prohibition virtually forced the conversion of isolated gangs into complex quasi-corporations. Lansky fitted Model T automobiles with secret smuggling compartments, and Luciano used Mafia connections to set up a national distribution network. Lansky brought in his friend Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, and Luciano brought in Frank Costello (Castiglia). When one of Lansky and Luciano's loads of Scotch was hijacked, they suspected Samuel Bloom of tipping off the hijackers. "Bloom was no longer in bloom," Ferrante writes in a typically dry concrete image. The same went for Bloom, who was "encased in cement and dumped in the Hudson River."

Next stop, the President Hotel in Atlantic City for the mob conference of 1929. The attendees, "with names such as Torrio, Moretti, Mangano and Corolla, Stromberg, Schwartz, Bernstein and Berkowitz, sounded like a group of Italians in search of a construction seminar had accidentally wandered into a dental convention." Lansky proposed that, with the repeal of Prohibition imminent, it was time to get into gambling. The conference discussed territorial divisions, mutual ownership of casinos, the distribution of Frank Costello's slot machines, and how to profit from the national race wire owned by Moses Annenberg, who had forced open the Chicago newspaper market for William Randolph Hearst.

The Mafia was undergoing cartelization: only in America. This produced a kind of stability, and Luciano ushered in the imperial "Age of Augustus." He kept his borgata "steeped in tradition"—he honored the dead, even when he had ordered their dispatch—but everything about his personal life was "a complete break with Sicilian tradition." He lived in the Waldorf Towers with a harem of prostitutes. He never married. He never personally killed anyone either; Vito Genovese, Ben Siegel, Albert Anastasia, and Red Levine did that for him.

Frank Costello struck a deal with Senator Huey Long for slot machines in New Orleans (Luciano later said that Long pocketed about $3 million of the $37 million the machines generated). Lansky opened casinos along the eastern seaboard. Lepke Buchalter kept the unions in line. They saw off Dutch Schultz in the bathroom of the Palace Chop House, but, in 1935, Thomas E. Dewey secured Luciano's conviction for running brothels.

Dewey went into politics, becoming governor of New York and a two-time Republican presidential nominee. Luciano went into Clinton Dannemora jail. Vito Genovese took over, but had to flee to Sicily, so Frank Costello moved up. Lepke went into hiding with a $50,000 bounty on his head; when the police showed up, he struck a pose as the landlady's paralyzed husband. "No witnesses … no indictments," he reasoned, and deployed the hit squad known to the papers as Murder Incorporated.

In March 1944, while Ben Siegel was turning a G.I. truckstop into Las Vegas, Lepke and his killers Louis Capone and Mendy Weiss went to the electric chair. As Ferrante says, "Few examples of the Italian mafia's high voltage relationship with Jews are more illustrative than Louis Capone's braciole ass being cooked on the same grill as Lepke's brisket ass." By then, the mob was in formal partnership with the U.S. government. World War II boosted the Mafia: shortages of goods, and the waterfront was busier than ever.

"The mafia does not typically create the current but swims with it," Ferrante writes. "For an idea of how well they swim, think of a great white shark in a pinstripe suit." In February 1942, someone set fire to the USS Lafayette, which was anchored on Pier 88 by the Hudson River. The Navy Department contacted the New York D.A.'s office. The D.A.'s office arranged for Lansky and Luciano to meet, and two weeks later the U.S. Navy and the mob were working together to protect the Port of New York.

At Christmas 1946, the bosses, accompanied by Luciano's friend Frank Sinatra, convened at the Hotel Nacional, Cuba. Ferrante dismisses the story that it was here that the bosses, who were losing on their investments in Siegel's newly opened Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas, decided to kill Siegel. 

"Do you murder a man because his start-up is not an overwhelming success in one lousy week?" Ferrante asks, raising a question that still crosses the minds of tech investors. No, but good business practice also means you don't make a hotel manager out of a "degenerate gambler" who pistol-whips a guest at a poolside barbecue in front of his children, runs up gambling debts, and extorts money from the Las Vegas bookmakers. Siegel was killed in a kind of boardroom coup, only the first shot broke the bridge of his nose and blew out one of his eyes. He was shot eight more times, until much of his face was blown off.

Luciano and Lansky later claimed that they had set fire to the Lafayette, creating a problem that only they could solve. The government had also created a problem that only it could solve. Core businesses such as gambling and loan sharking funded the Mafia's expansion via "threats, bribery and murder" into "every nook and crevice of American industry." This was one reason why J. Edgar Hoover, who never lost on the horses because Frank Costello fixed the races on which he gambled, was slow to set the FBI on the mob.

Another reason was that Mafia prosecutions created political problems. Lepke Buchalter's web of associates "nearly reached" FDR, via Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Harry S. Truman was himself a "product of Kansas City's mafia-controlled Prendergast Machine." In 1950, when Senator Estes Kefauver attended the Conference of U.S. Attorneys, who took Hoover's line, he was told there was no national organized crime syndicate. In the same year, Kefauver attended the American Conference of Mayors. They had no doubt there was a syndicate.

Kefauver agreed with the mayors, formed a bipartisan congressional committee, and staged its proceedings on television. The mobsters took the Fifth, or cracked wise, or were suddenly incapacitated by "Kefauveritis." Still, Kefauver had exposed the "new aristocrats of the criminal world." He also said that corrupt politicians had "sunk to a new low." The prize for corruption goes to Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, who went into partnership with Lansky and the Florida don Santo Trafficante.

Trafficante, Ferrante reports, is said to have arranged "three high-priced call girls" when a young senator named John F. Kennedy visited Cuba, then watched the orgy through a two-way mirror. The historian, like the police detective, has his sources. Ferrante has made inquiries among his erstwhile associates about who whacked whom in various cold cases. He is not a "snitch," and neither, he says, are they. This first volume closes in 1960, so almost all of the cases are as cold as an informant in a freezer truck—apart from the biggest hit of all.

The golden age, Ferrante writes, ended soon after the swinging senator became president. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy, called himself "the one man in America who was above and beyond a price," and declared "a relentless crusade" against the Mafia, awakening the FBI, and "placing dons across the country in his crosshairs—until the crosshairs were turned on his older brother."

That is the cliff over which Ferrante hangs the end of Rise of Empire. The reader is suspended like a debtor by his feet from the window. The Mafia "worked the system": As patriotic American businessmen, they were "never against it." But the system turned on them.

Borgata: Rise of Empire: A History of the American Mafia
by Louis Ferrante
Pegasus, 400 pp., $29.95

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.