15 vintage photos of the American Mafia that show their lasting legacy

Chicago History Museum/ GettyThe Mafia has a long, bloody history.
  • The American Mafia started in the 1920s when the mob bosses ran the bootlegging industry during Prohibition.
  • From there, the Mafia became a national organisation dealing with prostitution, gambling, and bribery.
  • The mob is most well known for its brutal murders and beatings.
  • Al Capone was one of the most famous mobsters who brutally murdered his rivals.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

While many associate the Mafia with HBO’s hit show “The Sopranos,” the mob is a very real and ruthless organisation with a bloody history.

Headquartered in New York, the American Mafia got its start in the ’20s and hit its peak during the ’40s and ’50s, eventually reaching a downfall in the ’80s. Throughout that time, the mobsters ran a brutal, bloody, and illegal operation, mostly under the radar.

Keep scrolling to learn more about the Mafia’s gruesome history in the US.

The Mafia can be traced back to the 1800s on the Italian island of Sicily.

Bettmann/ GettyMafia members locked in jail in Sicily during the early 1900s.

Before being unified with Italy, Sicily was subject to a number of foreign invasions by the French, Spanish, and Arabs. The Sicilians rallied together in small groups to protect themselves and their families from the ongoing invaders. These groups acted as gangs, extorting money from landowners. Eventually, the groups infiltrated the government and influenced the economy.

To strengthen their power, these Sicilian gangs — now known as the Mafia — held induction ceremonies and relied on important codes of conduct.

Slim Aarons/ GettyMafia bosses meeting in Sicily.

The most important aspect of the Mafia at this time was known as the omerta, which said members should never turn to the police or the government for justice and that they should never cooperate with such agencies. In other words, it was a code of silence.

In the early 1900s, Italian immigrants flocked to the United States.

Apic/ GettyImmigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

In New York, there were 500,000 Italian immigrants by 1910. Although the vast majority of these immigrants were law-abiding citizens, some criminals did cross over to the States.

The Mafia first popped up in America during the 1920s, adopting the Italians’ strict code of conduct.

Organised crime and the American Mafia were born out of Prohibition. The Mafia became expert at transporting liquor and bribing authorities.

Quickly, the American Mafia was organised, with a national board that made New York its headquarters.

In New York, there were five Mafia families. Each other major US city had one family of its own. Overall, there were more than 20 crime families in the country by the mid-1900s.

Each family had a hierarchy, with the boss being the most powerful.

John Springer Collection/ GettyFederal agents arresting mobsters.

Below the boss was the underboss and then the captains. Soldiers were the lowest ranking members, while associates were those who worked for the Mafia but weren’t actual members.

Although they were called “families,” they were not actually blood-related. To become a member, men had to be inducted, which often included murder.

Bettmann/ GettyThe body of mobster Thomas Bilotti.

To be inducted into the Mafia, men had to have Italian heritage and agree to the loyalty oath. Typically, inductees would prick their fingers or burn a picture of a patron saint. Sometimes they would have to commit murder to officially join the family.

By the 1950s, there were 5,000 Mafia members in the US within 24 crime families.

Apic/ GettyMafia members leaving a New York court in 1936.

By the mid-1900s, the Mafia moved on from bootlegging to illegal gambling and prostitution rings.

While wealth was one of the big draws, the life of a Mafia member was often defined by death and murder.

Bettmann/ GettyPeople crowd around a Mafia boss’ casket.

To become a member, you usually had to kill someone. To eliminate competition, you had to kill someone. To stay on top, you had to kill someone. Death and murder were common tropes in Mafia families throughout the 20th century.

In fact, the Mafia was publicly viewed as a fearsome organisation because of its ruthless behaviour.

In 1964, for example, the mafia planted a car bomb in Lewis Barbe’s vehicle after he testified against the organisation in court. His left leg was shattered from the incident.

The organisation was able to rise to such power because authorities failed to understand how deep the Mafia really went.

Heritage Images/ GettyMafia members arrested in the 1930s.

Before the ’60s, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said he did not believe there was a national Mafia network that worked together to carry out crimes. Instead, he believed they were locally run and wrongly tried to stop them on a local level. With help from the organisation’s code of silence, the Mafia remained misunderstood and unregulated during the ’50s and ’60s.

One of the most famous Mafia bosses who escaped imprisonment for years was Al Capone. He rose to infamy in the crime world of Chicago.

New York Times Co. GettyAl Capone in his summer home in Miami.

Commonly referred to as “Scarface,” Capone ran the bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution franchises in Chicago. He rose to power after murdering all of his competition. When a target was placed on his own back, Capone moved with bodyguards and often travelled at night. By the end of his crime reign, Capone had earned $US100 million for himself.

Al Capone made headlines as a ruthless and feared criminal after the deadly St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

Chicago History Museum/ GettyThe bodies lined up after the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.

Capone devised a plan to murder his longtime rival, Bugs Moran. Capone first had his men lure Moran’s men into an alley on February 14, 1929. The crime boss then had another group dressed as policemen gun down Moren’s crew with a machine gun.

In another incident, Capone invited two other rivals to his home for dinner. He then proceeded to beat them to death with a baseball bat.

Capone was finally arrested on tax evasion and spent years at Alcatraz.

ullstein bild Dtl./ GettyMobsters hide their faces at Al Capone’s trial.

In 1931, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of tax invasion. At the trial, Capone attempted to bribe the jury, but the judge surprisingly switched the jury before the trial even started. The crime lord was sentenced to 11 years in prison, which was reduced to six for good behaviour.

When Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act of 1970, it marked the beginning of the end for the Mafia.

GettyJoseph Valachi was one mobster who broke the code of silence.

The government was able to take down many members during the ’70s and ’80s by focusing on their finances. As mobsters were faced with long prison sentences, many broke the code of silence for the first time.

Though the Mafia greatly lost power during this time, the organisation is still in operation today.

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