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Double Vendetta: how academic research exposed mafia workings

By Lara Carim, on 13 January 2012

The Italian authorities officially recognised the existence of the mafia as a single unified criminal organisation in 1992. This was in spite of evidence brought to their attention more than 100 years previously exposing the secretive, bloody ritual undergone by all new ‘men of honour’ – evidence that had lain neglected in Sicilian archives until Professor John Dickie (UCL Italian) unearthed them in research that grew into his latest book, Blood Brotherhoods (Sceptre 2011).

On 10 January, Professor Dickie held the packed audience of the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre spellbound with the tale of the dogged yet doomed Inspector Sangiorgi, in a dramatic inaugural professorial lecture that more resembled a one-man show.

Giovanni Falcone – an investigating magistrate from Palermo – became a national hero in Italy when he was killed by a car bomb weeks after bringing several hundred members of the mafia to trial in 1987 – a trial that forced the authorities to admit that the Sicilian mafia was a “freemasonry of murderers”, in Professor Dickie’s words, rather than disparate criminal gangs. The trial pivoted on the detailed description Tommaso Buscetta – a mafioso turncoat – gave in the dock of the initiation ritual he had undergone.

Professor Dickie’s painstaking research revealed that this ritual was identical to the one described in a letter of 29 February 1876 from the Chief of Police to the Chief Prosecutor of Palermo: the novice pricks his arm and hand to draw blood. The blood is wiped on a card bearing the image of a saint, which is then burned and its ashes scattered as the new man of honour swears his faith to the mafia.

The ritual was first uncovered by Ermanno Sangiorgi, a rookie inspector posted to Castelnuovo – “the most mafia-infected area of Sicily” – in 1835, who took the masochistic decision to fight the mafia openly, rather than cede to the longstanding ‘co-management of crime’ by authorities and mafiosi.

Sangiorgi’s investigations led to the first description of the mafia initiation ritual, a reduction in gun ownership and the reopening of 34 murder cases (all of which had taken place in a single year in a town of 800 inhabitants). The natural climax of his labours – a proposed ‘maxi trial’ of the heads of 26 branches of the mafia – was scuppered, however, by Carlo Morena, the Chief Attorney of Palermo, whose resistance illustrated the extent of the mafia’s infiltration of state powers, and its impressive organisation.

Sangiorgi’s ambitions were smothered when he took up the case of Calogero ‘Old man’ Gambino, who had lost his sons in a ‘double vendetta’ – the local mafia had killed one and framed the other in a culmination of a 15-year campaign against Gambino’s family involving rape, theft and murder. After receiving a chunk of mare meat – a typical mafia warning later immortalised in Puzo’s The Godfather – and escaping an ambush, the brothers had presented the police with the rifle that had been used by their persecutors.

Horrifyingly, the police prosecuted the brothers for theft of the rifle and Sangiorgi was despatched to the opposite – least criminal – corner of Sicily, having submitted to Morena a thoroughly researched report in support of the Gambino family.

A turn of the political tide brought a nationwide clampdown on crime, and saw Sangiorgi posted to Agrigento in 1876, where he promptly had the local rapist-cattle rustler mafia boss – Pietro De Michele – arrested. Carlo Morena, fearing a resurrection of Sangiorgi’s quest for truth, not only had the surviving Gambino brother convicted of murder, but also orchestrated slurring of Sangiorgi in the press, which described his ‘dishonest conduct’ and ironically denounced him as a protector of the mafia.

All the while, Morena was furiously firing off letters to authorities across Sicily, urging them to free convicted mafia chiefs on technicalities and even going so far as to cast Pietro De Michele as a “victim of political persecution”. Thus, the time-honoured mafia tradition of turning accusations of corruption onto those seeking justice can be traced back to the earliest records of mafia activity.

To the relief of the rapt lecture audience, the saga closed relatively happily – Sangiorgi retired early in 1879 and lived out the rest of his life peacefully with his reputation intact. Gambino senior’s fate is unknown, while his wrongfully convicted son broke rocks in prison for the rest of his life.

The then Italian Minister of the Interior, who had heard rumours of Morena’s wrongdoing and received a full report on the extent of the mafia infiltration from Sangiorgi, was toppled before an enquiry could be instigated. In this way evidence of the mafia’s confederation and shared initiation ritual slipped from institutional memory – only to be discovered generations later by Professor Dickie.

The impressively rigorous process of piecing together this history afforded Professor Dickie, in his words, “the three pleasures of research” – discovery, narrative and relevance. The morbidly fascinating detail can be explored in his latest book Blood Brotherhoods.

Professor Dickie’s lecture was one in a series of inaugural lectures organised by the UCL Faculties of Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences running until May 2012.

Inspector Sangiorgi and the Sicilian Mafia 1875-1877 – Professor John Dickie by UCL-Arts & Social Science

3 Responses to “Double Vendetta: how academic research exposed mafia workings”

  • 1
    Ruth Coutinho wrote on 13 January 2012:

    This lecture was brilliant! Professor Dickie is an impressive speaker and really made the material come to life. I was completely entertained and could not believe the hour passed so quickly.

  • 2
    Felicity Stafford wrote on 13 January 2012:

    This was a gripping story and engaging lecture. It was fascinating to hear about the mafia cover up in the late 1800’s and the lengths that certain characters went to in order to discredit each other. Professor Dickie’s findings would make a gripping crime film and his passion for the subject was very clear throughout the presentation. Listening to the story unfold was a wonderful way to spend a Tuesday evening.

  • 3
    John Dowdle FRSA wrote on 16 January 2012:

    Having listened to the talk on-line, I must say I found it most interesting and informative. Thank you for making it accessible over the internet.

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