Mafia Icon Vice Article

The Mafia in Popular Culture

A lot of films and television series nowadays contain many scenes of violence where gunfights and car chases etc. excites and grabs the viewer’s attention. The same being with many video games where violence as in shooting, theft and murder is becoming the core of the gaming world including top-selling titles  Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. This article focuses on how the Mafia has played a part in influencing the culture in today’s world mainly inside the media and how a violent and negative organisation can be seen as iconic.

The first signs of criminal activity by the soon to be known Mafia, came from New Orleans in 1869 after the New Orleans Times reported that “well known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars” were disturbing the city and this was the period known as the Black Hand. The influx of Italians to America continued to grow going into the Twentieth century with figures stating that 655,888 immigrants came to the United States between 1890 and 1900 in which two-thirds were men. The Italians came into the country looking for opportunities to make money mainly in manual labour due to their lack of education coming with little money from the poorer villages in Southern Italy. The Italian immigrants started to spread in the older and poorer parts of different cities in the United States where they replicated their Italian cultural origins known as “Little Italies” with Little Italy in Manhattan being an example of this. Along with Italian traditions such as food and other ways of living, these “Little Italies” reflected the crime life they left in their home land which would eventually grow into large illegal organisations in America which we know as the Mafia. Some of the Italian groups started to deliver letters anonymously which threatened the life of the receiver, forcing them to pay sums of money or their lives would be at risk. Along with the threatening text, the letters had terrorising drawn images on them such as knives, daggers, blood and hearts in attempt to scare the target into giving them the money. Below is an example of the content of a Black Hand Letter:

“If you have not sufficient courage you may go to people who enjoy an honourable reputation and be careful as to whom you go. Thus you may stop us from persecuting you as you have been adjudged to give money or life. Woe upon you if you do not resolve to buy your future happiness, you can do from us by giving the money demanded.”


Americans discarding alcohol after Prohibition.

The Mafia kept on growing in cities around the US, becoming more and more of a global organisation which specialised in the making large sums of money in illegal ways. As mentioned previously, extortion was the Mafia’s most common method of making money. As seen in many of todays films, gangsters would tell shop owners to pay them sums of money so they can “protect” them from criminals (the gangsters) who would destroy the shop or even hurt their family if they wouldn’t pay up. The Mafia would also deal in illegal unregulated goods such as illegal drugs, illegal gambling and prostitution but one of the most notable sources of income was the selling of alcohol during the Prohibition era. The Prohibition law was introduced in 1920 which forced the ban of selling alcoholic beverages which saw the amount of Mafia activity accelerate as gangsters saw the opportunity to illegally trade alcohol which was very popular at the time. Alcohol was expensive, unregulated and untaxed which meant larger profit margins and as a result of this statistics show that crime got a lot worse after the law was placed. Arrests for breaking the law went up by large figures which saw and increase in the amount of arrests for thefts and burglaries up by 9%, homicides, assault and battery cases shot up to 13% more and the number of federal convicts increased by a staggering 561%.

One of the most notable gangsters was Al Capone who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899. Capone started his rise in the Mafia early after quitting school and becoming part of a notorious street gang which notorious gangsters Johnny Torrio and Lucky Luciano where part of. Al Capone joined Torrio in Chicago and later became an influential lieutenant in the Colosimo mob where he started his growth in the criminal world by illegally brewing and distributing beer and liquor during the Prohibition era. It was in 1925 when Capone first gained any real control after Torrio was forced to step down after being seriously injured in a failed assassination attempt leaving Capone as the boss. This is where Capone build his relentless and ruthless reputation resulting in the disappearance of rival gangs  in areas of Chicago stamping the start of Al Capone’s rise to the top.


Notorious gangster Al Capone

On February 14, 1929 seven members of the “Bugs” Moran were brutally shot down against a wall famously known as the St. valentine’s Day Massacre. It is thought members of Al Capone’s gang were the perpetrators despite Al Capone being in Florida at the time meaning the FBI were unable to find Capone guilty of any charges. However, Capone was arrested when leaving the courtroom for contempt of court which he paid the $5,000 bond and later released. Shortly after Capone and his bodyguard were arrested in Philadelphia after being caught carrying deadly weapons being sentenced to a year in prison which Capone was released 3 months early due to good behaviour.

On February 28, 1931, Capone was found guilty again and was sentenced to  a further six months in Cook County Jail. With the FBI unable to trace and provide evidence of Capone’s involvement, the U.S. Treasury Department looked into tax evasion cases involving Capone, Capone’s brother Ralph and other fellow mobsters which were reflected in the film The Untouchables. On October 18, 1931, Capone was again sentenced to eleven years in federal prison and was fined $50,000 in extra punishment. After serving seven years serving in prison, Al was released after he was suffering from paresis and was then admitted to Baltimore hospital for brain treatment. On January 25th 1947 Al Capone died inside his Florida home after suffering from a stroke and pneumonia with his wife and close family with him.


Marlon Brando playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

There are many successful television series and films that have been inspired by the Mafia most notably The Godfather movies which are recognised as being the best movies of all time which have helped shape people’s perception of the Mafia. When asked what words come to mind when you think of the mafia The Godfather on its own came up a few times along with other films and Tv series showing how media and modern culture have sculptured peoples outlook on the Mafia. In more recent times Tv series are becoming more successful with The Sopranos being a large hit where many say main character Anthony Soprano was based of Al Capone. Boardwalk Empire is another Tv series which glorifies the Mafia lifestyle changing peoples perception. Although the Mafia and organised crime involved a lot of death, bribery and a lot of other illegal activities, it has had a positive impact on todays popular culture and movie characters such as Anthony Soprano, Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are looked up to matching the definition of an icon.


Andrew Shepherd


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