Heading Back into the Past: 1920s Italy

How digging in to family history can turn your understanding of your identity inside out

 Hey reader! Close your eyes and take a journey into an immersive experience. Buckle up and enjoy the ride as you encounter a different life outside of your own.

Imagine, you’re a thirteen-year-old boy in the twenty-first century, an Italian-Jewish American named Tommaso Luciani, a bright kid who loves the color blue and resides on the Upper East Side of New York. A city where big dreams come true, and sky-touching skyscrapers await at every avenue. You get to live as a new wave of technology, accelerating fashion trends and futuristic inventions open possibilities as high as the skyscrapers around you.

But you have no connection to your Italian side whatsoever, and you don’t even speak the language. At family-orchestrated events, you feast on tasty Italian delicacies, like polenta and cannolis, yet you feel like an outsider looking in. Italian culture has always felt like a foreign land to you.

But that’s all about to change.

It’s early in the morning, and you’ve just come from your beloved grandfather’s funeral. Shiny black dress shoes, black yarmulka, along with a black suit and tie. The service was beautiful and breathtaking. The audience was filled with tear-stained faces, broken hearts and meaningful eulogies.

All of a sudden, your memories of grandpa come rushing in. You walk through the attic and sift through his belongings. There’s a brown tattered scrap-book stuffed with sepia-toned and black-and-white photos of your grandfather throughout the different stages of his life.

 

Credit: Ekaterina, Bogdan.

From the day he met your grandma, to his first-time arriving at college, and getting his first car: a black 1925 Bentley. But there’s one strange photo where you see your grandfather with a group of people you’ve never seen before. The scrapbook is in a rugged and worn out condition. You wipe off the dust to get a better look, and whoosh! In an instant, you’re transitioned to another postal code. You’re automatically sucked into a portal that lands you in some year of the early 1920s in Sicily, Italy.

Looks like you’re no longer in the Big Apple!

Palermo coastline, 1845-1925 Credit: Giovanni Crupi - Ebay, Public Domain,

Bam! You hit the ground with a loud thud. Picking yourself up, you look down. You’re dressed in a grey houndstooth plaid suit with sharp lapels, and in the pocket, there’s a folded blue silk handkerchief. A weird feeling where suspenders are strapped around your shoulders. Atop your head, you’re sporting a black bowler hat and you’ve ditched your normal Air Jordans for dress shoes.

You’re standing outside a beautiful Italian café with a breathtaking view. The smell of homemade coffee and fresh out of the oven zeppoles (a mouthwatering Italian doughnut) is lingering in the air.

And your grandfather steps up to greet you. At first, he looks completely unrecognizable: so young! His hair is neatly slicked back, he’s wearing a striking black three-piece suit and there’s a cigar in his hand. A pretty bold fashion statement in the early 20s.

Interestingly enough, the two of you strike up a conversation and because you so strongly resemble the Italian side, he knows you’re a part of the family. He starts off in Italian—then shifts to English, sensing you’re an American cousin. You go by the nickname Tommy—after all you are his grandson from the near future, and you wouldn’t want to blow your cover.

Welcome to your Sicilian roots

To your shock, your grandpa is revealing a dark side of the family history. Turns out, your grandfather Bartolo is a part of the deadliest crime organizations in history: Murder, Inc. (a.k.a., the Mafia).

Your grandfather confides in you about his conversation with “the greats”—including Bugsy Siegel, one of the original American mafiosi—who was Jewish, just like you and grandpa. And your grandfather’s explaining why he joined them. “Join the family business and take the world into your own hands,” he says.

Bugsy Siegel Credit: Kirk Andreas-CC BY-SA 4.0,

The infamous group, Murder, Incorporated, was as the enforcement arm of numerous organized crime groups in the 1920s. The crime operation was run out of an unknown café, and murder-for-hire was common within the organization. Murder-for-hire. Meaning they punished people who they perceived as crossing betraying or standing up to their dominance in cities as far-flung as New York, Miami, Boston, Chicago, and L.A. For a price.

He reveals how the Mafia’s origins started off innocently in the 19th century, as a way for Sicilian groups to band together and protect themselves. It was then that these groups began to extort money from landowners and eventually became the Sicilian Mafia. Sicilians and other Italians spread across the sea to America in the early 20th century. A majority of Sicilians worked hard to build a new life for their families through legal means, pulling themselves by bootstraps.

But others were more concerned with making money. . .and protecting “their own”.

The American Mafia, a separate entity, became a force in the 1920s by adopting codes like omertà (a code of silence about criminal activity and the refusal to give any information over to the police). You learn new things about the history of your own backyard like mob’s illegal sale of alcohol; their hand in legitimate businesses to turn over the government’s authority and how much power they have.

 Overturning Legitimate Businesses

In the early 1920s, Prohibition took effect in the United States. The 18th amendment to the Constitution banned the production, sale or importation of alcohol. Every liquor bottle, wine and shot of booze was turned into contraband—it became illegal. Supplies had to be smuggled in. This crippled major businesses like nightclubs, bars and restaurants who made their money selling alcoholic beverages. Legitimate bars and breweries went financially bankrupt, thus putting the Mafia in an equipped position to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of the Roaring 20s.

21 Club, New York City Credit: David Shankbone - English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,

The prohibition of any liquor fueled public demand for it, which led to the rise of “bootlegging”. The name is said to derive from the practice of American frontiersmen who carried bottles of illicit liquor in the tops of their boots. The practice boomed after Prohibition took effect, and members of organized gang “bosses” became powerful in the process. In the 1920s and 1930s, gangs made up of thugs employed by political “machines” intimidated opposing political candidates and corrupted voting for elected office.

Politicians and police chiefs, in on the action, turned a blind eye towards illegal gambling and prostitution rings. FBI agents would patrol and eliminate any bootlegging alcohol rings, which spread across big cities within the U.S.

During the early 1920s, profits received from illegal production and trafficking liquor was immensely popular, allowing Mob gangsters to become more official and organized. They employed lawyers to accountants, brew masters, warehousemen and more. They employed torpedoes (armed thugs who intimidated, hurt, bomb and killed an opposing threat). They bought closed breweries and hired experienced brewers. The Mafia went to the ends of the world to find, and sell illegal liquor, buying from both Great Britain and Canada.

They paid citizens to operate stills inside their homes to help make gallons of bad tasting liquor. From illegal beer to watered down whiskey and even rotgut (poor quality liquor, potentially high in toxins). This was sold in thousands of illegal bars better known as speakeasies (nicknamed because you needed to quietly speak a secret password, before a bouncer, checking through a tiny peephole in the door, would let you in). These were raided periodically by the police. Often, low-level officers of the law would turn a blind eye.

At times, though, the law charged in to raid such establishments. In an attempt to get people to stop drinking, law enforcement poisoned alcohol with menthol, benzine, mercury and other heart stopping formulas. As a result, more than 10,000 people died, bringing a new case of alcohol related death into the hospital every day.

 Back to the Present

Although the breaking of the code Omerta (based on respect and loyalty) of several members to avoid longer prison sentences weakened the Mafia in both Italy and the U.S., the group hasn’t been eradicated completely. The Mafia still remains in business today.

Now, here you are, learning the truth about your heritage. You’ve learned so much about Italy’s culture, linguistic style and fashion by “time traveling” back to your grandfather’s youth.

And now, you’ve made the connection: Grandpa was somehow connected to the Mafia! It’s shocking to learn that your grandfather was part of organized crime. The grandfather you knew and loved was a quiet, and humble man, who had put his long and illustrious past behind him.

More importantly, you understand the origin story of the Mob, and how much power it had. And most of all, you’ve got to have a front row seat to one of the most influential crime organizations in history.

Want to Learn More?

"Facts About Organized Crime In The 1920s." Criminal, Vocal Media, 2018, vocal.media/criminal/facts-about-organized-crime-in-the-1920s.

Grabianowski , Ed, and John Donovan. "How the Mafia Works." People How Stuff Works , 30 July 2021, people.howstuffworks.com/mafia.htm.

Kim. "Top 20 Italian Desserts (+ Easy Recipes)." Insanely Good: Let's Eat, Insanely Good Recipes, 9 June 2022, insanelygoodrecipes.com/italian-desserts/. Italian Recipe List.

Lopez, German. "The US government once poisoned alcohol to get people to stop drinking." Vox, 8 Aug. 2014, www.vox.com/2014/8/8/5975605/alcohol-prohibition-poison.

McManus, Melanie Radzicki, and Melissa Phillips. "10 Businesses Supposedly Controlled by the Mafia." People How Stuff Works, 1 Dec. 2021, people.howstuffworks.com/10-businesses-supposedly-controlled-by-the-mafia.htm#:~:text=The%20Mafia%20favors%20unregulated%20or,synonymous%20with%20%22the%20Mob.%22.

The Mob Museum. "Albert Anastastia." The Mob Museum, themobmuseum.org/notable_names/albert-anastasia/. Case Files: Notable Names.

Prohibition the Mob Museum. "Prohibition Agents Leaked Training, Numbers to Battle Bootleggers." Prohibition An Interactive History, prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/enforcing-the-prohibition-laws/law-enforcement-during-prohibition/. Additional Info.

Prohibition the Mob Museum. "Prohibition Profits Transformed to the Mob." Prohibition An Interactive History, prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/the-rise-of-organized-crime/the-mob-during-prohibition/#:~:text=They%20sold%20illegal%20beer%2C%20watered,them%20or%20letting%20them%20in. Additional Info.

Take the Quiz

Sign Up Now