The Crusade Against Cosa Nostra

Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic

by Alexander Stille
Pantheon, 467 pp., $27.50


A few years ago it was fashionable to deny the reality of the mafia as an organization. In Italy, it was said, Mafia (rather than “the mafia”) was just a set of common values and attitudes which made it possible for Sicilian criminals to communicate and cooperate with one another. The mafiosi worked through informal relationships of kinship, friendship, and clientage.1 This view was a plausible reaction to theories of a vast, all-embracing criminal conspiracy, and was based on the well-founded observation that charges of mafia activity had often been made for political ends. Many scholars dismissed as pure fantasy the revelations of the American mafioso Joseph Valachi2 before a Senate committee in 1963 about the structure of the American mafia.

This minimalist thesis can no longer be supported. As Alexander Stille observes in his excellent book on the mafia in Italy, the skeptics were right on only one, purely nominal, issue. The word “mafia,” as the Sicilian boss Tommaso Buscetta explained in a famous confession in 1984, was “a literary creation.” The real name of the organization, in Sicily as in the USA, was Cosa Nostra (literally, “our thing”). But incontrovertible evidence has emerged that in both countries Cosa Nostra is a highly structured organization with precise rules, procedures for admission, and a hierarchy of authority.

New members have, until very recently, been admitted in an elaborate initiation rite. The finger of the initiate is pricked and his blood is spilled onto a paper image of a saint or the madonna. “The image,” Stille writes, “is placed in the hands of the initiate and lit on fire. The neophyte must withstand the pain of the burning, passing the image from hand to hand, until the image is consumed, while swearing to keep faith with the principles of ‘Cosa Nostra,’ solemnly swearing that ‘may my flesh burn like this saint if I fail to keep my oath.”‘ Stille’s account is based on Buscetta’s description, and although there are variations, there is remarkable agreement among the various accounts of the ritual. The earliest comes from Monreale in Sicily in 1877 and the latest I know of was recorded by the FBI in New England in 1990.3

The importance of the ritual has been twofold. The members of the society, the “men of honor,” are clearly distinguished from other criminals who may work for Cosa Nostra. The rite also makes clear that membership in Cosa Nostra is a lifetime commitment from which one may not withdraw. This sharply contradicts theories which portray the mafia as an ensemble of fluid, often ad hoc, relationships. In Italy every man of honor is admitted to a particular “family,” which has jurisdiction over a town, or a neighborhood of Palermo.4 The family is divided into decine (groups of ten), and the boss is elected by all the members. An average family would contain about fifty members. In the province of Palermo, the heart of Cosa Nostra, where from thirty to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.