Mussolini’s Hat, and the Rise of the Mob

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Now there is a tiny kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable he is – besides Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the man he beat for the job, Richard Nixon – surrounded by a sea of top hats. It was clear in the photo who the new stars, and who the old guard were. Milliners claimed this was the death knell – men everywhere chose to forgo headgear. Hat shops closed across the nation. Careful analysis does reveal a different picture. 

For one, newspaper articles from as early as 1923 show a growing disdain for hats among youth. Of particular note, World War Two had a measurable impact on hat wearing. The Hat Research Foundation (the very existence of a foundation looking into ‘hat research’ may suggest hats were already in trouble) surveyed male non-hat wearers across the USA to ask why they no longer wore a hat. Nineteen percent replied because some bullying drill sergeant yelled at them if they didn’t during the war. In civilian life they no longer had to put up with that kind of hectoring bullshit. 

The late 1940s and 1950s in general were a time when many could, and did, push back against established order and conventions. It was also a time when, for the USA at least, there was plenty of money, and lots of jobs to go round. Youth culture – this may seem strange to say now – was on the rise. I say ‘youth culture’, the term evolutionary psychologists used at the time to examine the lives of those not yet fully fledged adults, but not kids either – But from it’s coinage in 1944, the word ‘teenager’ is a far better fit for the point I’m trying to express. 

Let’s Sidebar this: The concept of the ‘teenager’ was one rooted firmly in marketing. High schoolers had new-found freedoms, coming from after school and weekend jobs. Technology was making huge leaps forward in every which direction at the time too. This led to the kids having their own money to buy their own radios, and record players for their bedrooms. A combination of the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s necessitating adult car ownership, and a sudden glut of new vehicles, as prewar car manufacturers returned to their original line of business – led to a teen car culture. Teens, with money in their pocket, bought up all the old cars.

 In short, as a new class of consumer; music, movies and fashion began reflecting their tastes in an effort to capture their money. The teenagers were now tastemakers – and they weren’t crazy about hats. Rock and roll is the thing this year Daddy-o. Did the rock and rollers wear hats? These new actors like Brando and James Dean? Frank Sinatra may have said “Cock your hats, angles are attitudes” once, but even he went bare headed on his own show in 1960 – when he welcomed the new King, Elvis Presley, back after his stint in the Army. Elvis of course had his magnificent quiff on display – a haircut which arose in the 50s, in defiance of the earlier ‘short back and sides’ of the past. It defied anyone to cover it with a stupid hat. 

And finally, it’s worth pointing out, hats of a certain kind were once popular because they denoted one of a certain social status. In recent years hats had become far more ubiquitous, diminishing that status. This is not to say when Gene Chandler donned a cape, top hat and cane to sing ‘The Duke of Earl’ in late 1961 people didn’t get the implication. In that garb he was Prince Charming “we’ll walk through my dukedom and a paradise we will share”. The fact remained, anyone could go buy a top hat and play the Duke of Earl – should they choose. 

In short, John F. Kennedy was, at most the final nail in the coffin of the hat makers. All this is to say the following tale may seem ridiculous now – I think in part that is because we’ve forgotten the importance of the hat in times past.

Today’s Tale doesn’t begin in an American milliner’s circa 1961, but in mid 19th Century Sicily. It will double back stateside before we’re done, however.


The Island of Sicily has always been exactly the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. In past blog posts, namely the episode on Hannibal and the blog post on the Bagradas Dragon, we’ve touched upon the way the island was invaded, then ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, pirates, Carthaginians and Romans – but that is only the beginning. Byzantium invaded in the 6th century – The Byzantine Emperor Justinian using Sicily as a staging post to attempt a reconquest of the Western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. The Muslims invaded in the 9th Century, bringing lemon, pistachio and orange trees with them. The Vikings were next – in their ranks, one Harald Hardrada. The Normans invaded in the 11th century- and brought Count Roger I, and his son Roger II, the latter of whom may get his own Tale of History and Imagination one day. 

They were ruled for a while by the Holy Roman Empire, and the French duke Charles I of Anjou. The Spanish colonised them for some time – and finally the French House of Bourbon. This never ending cycle of colonisation by one group or another led to groups of partisans developing – with the aim of protecting the locals from the next corrupt or cruel invader, and generally harassing whoever was in charge at the time. 

In 1282, the Anjou French, having deposed Roger’s grandson Manfred – colonised, then proceeded to treat the locals appallingly. After a Sicilian woman was raped and murdered by a French soldier, The Sicilian Vespers rebelled, killing 4,000 French colonists in retribution. After a long war with the French, they could have won their independence, but chose to put another relative of the Rogers back on the Sicilian throne instead. There is a legend the phrase Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia! – Death to the French is Italy’s cry arose at this time. The phrase later shortened to M.A.F.I.A. It is likely to be the origin of the term. 

Persisting through time, groups much like the Sicilian Vespers were always in the background. They were there to join up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860, hoping to free Sicily from the Bourbons. 2,000 mafiosi lent them their muscle, and were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis. 

From the 1870s onwards a power vacuum arose in Sicily. This led to an increase in violent crime, particularly a spate of violent robberies by highwaymen. Though the mafia were responsible for much of this crime, they were called upon by the king of Italy to bring the bandits under control. This era legitimised Mafia power in Sicily, laid the foundations for what they became (criminal overlords) – and would lead to the likes of Francesco Cuccia – both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

The 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce. Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who took over the nation following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian (put a pin in that one). Benito himself was a staunch socialist, renowned journalist and public intellectual until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To Mussolini God was dead, morality meaningless. Having fallen down that rabbit hole he was convinced he himself was the Ubermensch Italy needed to mold a new society.
Gone was any sense of egalitarianism, communal ownership and class warfare – replaced by a cruel, syllogistic, imperialistic, white supremacist style of ultra nationalism which came to be known as fascism.  

As a populist politician he got his foot in the door – backed largely by dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as ‘black shirts’.

Promising to resurrect the Roman Empire, Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – demanding the government resign and appoint him leader. 

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. As his was now that leading minority, this law gave him carte blanche to rule as he saw fit. This made Il Duce impossible to vote out for the rest of his life. From there he went about dismantling democracy and doing away with his enemies – and, not unlike Donald Trump, planning a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail. His first port of call was a meeting with Mayor Francesco Cuccia. The two men made small talk till Cuccia leaned towards Il Duce and whispered in his ear

You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?

Mussolini was taken aback by this, taking it as impudence he would need protection from a mafiosi. Cuccia felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways. Cuccia soon upped the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s upcoming speech. Mussolini was left preaching to what is variously described as around 20 ‘village idiots’ in a largely empty public square. Now this PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, or at least isolated to him, were it not for another incident, in another Sicilian town a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time full of inquisitive villagers. Sense the carnivalesque, that buzz in the air when large groups of people gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – there’s no agrarian land reform for these poor farmers, no socialism, no utilitarianism – not while under the yoke of the mafia overlords. This is just the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he ever hopes to outright declare himself dictator. Imagine if you will, Mussolini – self styled Ubermensch, stepping out to address the awed crowd- in full regalia. Topped off with a trademark black fez- worn by himself of course, and the elite Arditi shock troops who distinguished themselves in the Great War. A number of Arditi, decked out in their black hats and black shirts, followed proto-fascist poet and fellow Ubermensch Gabriele D’Annunzio into the Croatian town of Fiume in 1919. They laid claim to the town in the name of something very much like the Fascist regime Mussolini is so intent on creating – but THAT is yet another Tale I must cover sometime in the future.

There’s a hushed silence, Il Duce prepares to work the crowd up into a hate-filled frenzy

Then, some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it up to the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat. 

Imagine the pathos, this alleged strongman left bare headed in front of the large crowd. The police left dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square with his hat. I imagine the crowd bursting into peals of laughter as this ridiculous man is stripped of his plumage in front of everyone. This simple act is Emperor’s new clothes stuff. This is something equivalent to throwing a milkshake over, or cracking an egg on the head of a fascist today. Mussolini was furious.  

On 3rd January 1925, Benito Mussolini dropped all pretence that Italy was still a democracy. The fascist dictator, his hands already bloodied in the deaths of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy this age old society. Mussolini telegrammed Mori

 “Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without so much as a trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

This did not bode well across the Atlantic. The United States of America absolutely had some problems with criminal groups from Italy before Mussolini’s crackdowns. ‘Black Hand’ organisations, involved largely in shaking down members of their own community for protection money (most famously the opera singer Enrico Caruso) had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were leaving murdered opponents in discarded barrels for the public to stumble across well before this. Italian American detective Joseph Petrocino was sent to Sicily to investigate mob connections between the two countries in 1909. 

However, this mafia witch hunt undoubtedly escalated the growth of the mob in an unprecedented manner. The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, but numerous gangsters snuck in regardless – the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba a favoured method. 

To add to this, the USA itself had provided the mob with the perfect pathway these mobsters needed to grow their organisations exponentially. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities. 

This was a boom time for the likes of Joseph Bonanno – a 19 year old Sicilian kid who’d fled Mussolini’s purges and snuck into New York via Havana, Cuba. The nephew of the Don of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, he found a home in Salvatore Maranzano’s crime family. These rapidly gentrifying criminals would eventually expand to a point where they went to war with one another over their territories – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31. A lot of the ‘moustache Pete’s’, the more old school mobsters who didn’t believe in doing business with Irish or Jewish gangsters, were wiped out. This left the so called ‘Young Turks’, Bonanno included, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

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