Street scene from the late 1920’s showing Canal Street clogged with pedestrians and automobiles. (The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1978.94.5)

America’s Original Mafia

There are legitimate disagreements over when, exactly, the New Orleans Mafia was founded. Some contend it was first established in 1861, as a way to protect Italians from the breakdown of law and order during the Civil War. Importantly, though, in 1861, the Sicilian community in New Orleans numbered less than 1,000 people. Others argue that it didn’t set up shop until 1875, with the arrival of the Charles Matranga and family.

But considering the inherent difficulty of establishing any objective facts about the beginning of a secret organization, it is perhaps more instructive to mark the Hennessy Assassination in 1890 and the subsequent massacre of 1891 as signaling the Mafia’s arrival in America. Indeed, that’s precisely the argument the FBI made in 1987 in its report Organized Crime: 25 Years After Valachi.

The Mafia exists in the American imagination because we want it to exist.” – Pete Hamill.

“The Hennessey (sic) killing and the subsequent murders created perhaps the first significant public awareness of La Cosa Nostra (LCN),” an FBI special agent explained to members of the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “Newspapers nationwide reported the killings, and relations between Italy and the United States were strained for a time. The New Orleans grand jury investigating the incident reported that ‘our research has developed the existence of the secret organization styled “‘Mafia.'”

“We know today that the (La Costra Nostra) is strictly a North American phenomenon,” the agent explained, “and distinctly different from its cousin organizations in Europe.” As the city welcomed a surge of immigrants from Sicily, it also experienced a increase in crimes committed by Sicilian-Italians, though those numbers have also been disputed. Indeed, there is ample evidence that local elected officials and news publishers were deliberately exaggerating the truth about organized crime in New Orleans with the intention of curtailing the economic mobility of Sicilian-Italians. The feud between the Provenzanos and the Matrangas began as a dispute over the wages that were being paid to stevedores and port workers, not as a part of some ancient war between two secret Mafia rivals.

Regardless, the original iteration of the underworld in New Orleans wasn’t the formal organization that had operated in Italy for nearly a millennia but instead was, at best, merely a small handful of “Black Hand” societies, protection rackets generally but not exclusively associated with Italians.

And there was another factor at play: In the Deep South, racial and ethnic bigotry weren’t merely a belief system or a “way of life;” they were codified.

“The penalties of blackness went well beyond name-calling in the apartheid South,” explains Brent Staples of the New York Times in a 2019 essay titled “How Italians Became White.”

“Italians who had come to the country as ‘free white persons’ were often marked as black because they accepted ‘black’ jobs in the Louisiana sugar fields or because they chose to live among African-Americans,” Staples writes. “This left them vulnerable to marauding mobs like the ones that hanged, shot, dismembered or burned alive thousands of black men, women and children across the South.”

Accordingly, any dispassionate assessment of Carlos Marcello must acknowledge how xenophobia and nativism shaped the public’s perception of Italian immigrants in the New Orleans of his day and how it helped to define and contributed to the nation’s antipathy toward the Mafia.

Consider, for example, the particular type of vitriol that was used against Marcello, a man who had spent all but the first six months of his life in this country, after he asserted his Fifth Amendment rights more than 100 times during a 1951 meeting of the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, better known as the Kefauver Hearings:

“It is hard enough for the American people to live with their own garden-variety racketeers,” Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina told Marcello, “without having aliens to come here to prey like leaches on law-abiding citizens” (emphasis added). Sen. Ervin’s missive, uttered in frustration, proved to be an opening salvo in what would become the longest and most expensive deportation case in American history.

****

Charles Matranga emerged from the lynchings in 1891 as the undisputed boss of the small group of Sicilian-Italians that was said to be the Mafia. The Provenzano clan dissolved. Since then, organized crime in the Big Easy hasn’t been characterized by the kind of internecine conflicts that would define the Mafia in New York, with one notable exception.

Southeastern Louisiana University Professor emeritus Michael L. Kurtz’s 1983 essay “Organized Crime in Louisiana: Myth and Reality” offered a fairly detailed argument that the New Orleans Mafia, in particular, was never as influential or violent or corrupt as it is portrayed to have been.

Five years later, however, after combing through declassified FBI reports contained in the agency’s file on former Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long, Kurtz would refine his opinion somewhat: While the New Orleans Crime Family may have never been as sadistic or wanton as their cousins in New York and Chicago, they were engaged in far more political corruption than he had imagined. But we will get to that in the second part of this trilogy.

For now, it’s important to just know this: In 1891, when an angry mob stormed the Orleans Parish Prison and massacred 11 Italian immigrants, Charles Matranga was somehow able to walk out unharmed. Because Matranga was spared, a half-century later, the New Orleans Mafia celebrated its third-generation when Carlos Marcello took over the family business.

A Portrait of a Mobster as a Young Man

Carlos Marcello’s mugshot, 1929.

According the popular retelling, there is a direct line from Charles “Millionaire Charlie” Matranga to Carlos Marcello, but however neatly that story fits together, it grossly oversimplifies the structure of organized crime in New Orleans and attributes far more influence to Matranga than he ever possessed.

Matranga would retire in 1922, handing over control to his underboss Silvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla, and as the story goes, it was Silver Dollar Sam who transformed the paltry Black Hand society into a powerful subsidiary of Cosa Nostra, thanks in large part to Prohibition. But this also is based on a misapprehension of reality. In truth, Prohibition hadn’t made much of a difference to the New Orleans Mafia, even if it had in New York and Chicago, primarily because Prohibition had been only symbolically enforced in the Big Easy.

Neither Matranga nor Carolla were responsible for putting the New Orleans Mafia on the map; Carlos Marcello was.

Marcello’s career in the business of crime began at an early age. After dropping out of school at the age of 14, Marcello allegedly pulled off a string of petty thefts and robberies around the French Market, where he first became familiar with the underbosses and capos in the so-called underworld. At 18, he moved out of his parent’s home- a dilapidated old plantation home in Algiers to rent an apartment in the Quarter. (Two brief digressions: In Mafia Kingfish, John Davis claims the Marcello family home was named Stanford Plantation, but this, like many other details in his book, appears to be dubious. It is also worth noting that Algiers was named after the North African city near Tunis, Marcello’s birthplace).

When he was 19, he convinced two younger teenagers to rob a grocery store for him, one of whom was only 13. The boys stormed in, armed with guns. But a clerk behind the register recognized them, and as soon as they shuffled into their getaway car, having absconded with $65 in cash, he dialed up the police. Detectives didn’t believe the robbery was their idea, and they pressed the boys on who had put them up to it.

The police were already acquainted with the 19-year-old Marcello. He’d been on their radar for nearly four years, back when he had dropped out of school to work full-time in the Quarter. A few months before he masterminded the robbery, police had brought him in and questioned him as a potential accessory to a bank heist committed by associates of his father; though in John Davis’s version of the story, Marcello masterminded the bank heist as well. Perhaps, but either way, police decided not to press charges then. (Davis also claims the young Marcello earned the nickname “Fagin” in the local media after the Charles Dickens character who teaches boys how to pickpocket and then steals from them. Again, I can find no corroboration of this claim. The first time Marcello was referred to as “Fagin” appears to have been in 1961, more than 30 years later).

The grocery store plot earned him a nine to 14-year sentence behind bars at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola. He served fewer than five, managing to secure a pardon from Louisiana Gov. O.K. Allen.

Ostensibly, Angola was supposed to teach Marcello a lesson, and it had. He may have been a high school dropout, but while at Angola, he received a world-class education in how to operate a criminal enterprise. Nearly fifty years later, when he was convicted in the Brilab sting, the FBI boasted that their pursuit of Marcello was critical in their development of “enterprise investigations.”

After his release from Angola, Marcello married Jacqueline Todaro, the niece of reputed Mafia underboss Frank Todaro. (Davis wrongly claims that Jacqueline was Todaro’s daughter).

Two years after trying the knot, in 1938, Marcello was busted for selling 23 pounds of marijuana (which, in today’s dollars, would have had a street value of as much as $130,000) to an undercover police officer and sentenced to a year in jail and a massive $76,830 fine (equivalent to $1.3 million in today’s dollars). Federal agents described the bust as part of “the biggest marijuana ring in New Orleans history,” though that seems dubious. He was out of jail within ten months (he later claimed to have spent “one year and one day” in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta), and his fine had been reduced down to $400.

There were other incidents: A high-speed car chase, more allegations that he’d sold narcotics, and an investigative reporter who claimed Marcello had roughed him up. But none of those charges stuck either, and when the federal government went looking for documentation three decades later, they’d found that the records had been destroyed.