However, these were a hardworking, industrious people with the blood of Dante, Caesar, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Galileo running through their veins, and no amount of prejudice was about to keep them down, as has been made all too evident by the success of so many Italian Americans, from the ingenious inventor Gugliehmo Marconi to the baseball great Joe DiMaggio, tenor Enrico Caruso, jazz great Joe Venuti, filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, the actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, businessman Lee Iacocca, and entertainer Frank Sinatra.
New York's Tammany Hall, part of the most crooked administrations in government history, was a good example to the early Italian American immigrants of the blatant hypocrisy so rampant in both government and business; indeed, society at large.
With the millions of honest, hardworking Italians who emigrated from Italy to America between 1890 and 1921—some 4.5 million—also came a cunning criminal element known as La Cosa Nostra, which loosely translated means "our thing"; that is, the Mafia we have come to both loathe and be so fascinated by. Rather than supply a treatise here on the genesis of the Mafia, suffice it to say that the Sicilian Mafia began as a society of honored men in Sicily who banded together to fight the tyranny and brutalities of conquering nations. The Greeks, Turks, French, Spanish, and Normans had all invaded Sicily and subjected the Sicilian people to iniquitous treatment. The raping of Sicilian women and girls was the norm, not the exception. In the end, however, the Sicilians managed to outsmart, outwit, and outmurder their tormentors.
South Brooklyn was home to a large Italian community, and mafiosi inevitably set up shop and took deep roots here. Ultimately they decimated the competition for the lucrative underworld enterprises—vice, bootlegging and gambling, shylocking and hijacking, prostitution and racketeering. The Irish and Jewish gangsters, who fought the Italians tooth and nail, were eventually sent packing by the organized structure, efficiency (based upon the Roman legions), and deadly cunning of the Mafia. In the words of Owny Madden, a renowned Irish bootlegger and gangster of the 1920s, "Nobody kills better than the wops." (Wops referred to Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island without papers.)
Excerpted from "Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss" by Philip Carlo. Courtesy of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Please click here for more information on the book.