25. An Early Salutary Lesson That the Mafia Heeded Well
By the 1870s, Sicilian immigrants Carlo and Alberto Matranga had established the Matranga crime family in New Orleans, which operated out of a salon and brothel. They expanded their activities from prostitution to labor rackets and a lucrative extortion racket known as the Black Hand. They collected “tribute” from Italian laborers, as well as from another crime family, the Prozenzanos, who monopolized South American fruit shipments. In the 1880s, the Matrangas and Prozenzanos warred over control of the New Orleans waterfront, and each family brought in more and more Mafiosi from the Old Country. The violence spilled over and put pressure on the authorities to act. New Orleans’ police chief launched an investigation into Mafiosi activities, only to be assassinated for his troubles in 1890. Unable to identify his killers, he gasped “the Dagoes shot me“, before he died.
In the resultant backlash, nineteen Mafiosi were arrested and prosecuted. In a first trial, nine defendants successfully tampered with the jury, and despite overwhelming evidence, six were acquitted and three had hung juries. The next day, March 14th, 1891, a mob of thousands, whose numbers included prominent New Orleans citizens, stormed and broke into the prison housing the defendants. Eleven were killed – the biggest single mass lynching in US history. That had a salutary effect on the mafia. It demonstrated that America differed from Sicily and southern Italy, where criminals could act in brazen defiance of the authorities and society, with little to fear from either. In the US, there were limits to what criminals could get away with. Thereafter, the American mafia adopted strict rules against the targeting of law enforcement, and even preemptively killed mobsters who sought to go after cops or prosecutors.