Mussolini’s Hat, and the rise of the Mob (Revisited)

Mussolini’s Hat – How the Mob Came to America Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, we’ve got a little unfinished business from last fortnight’s episode, so I’m revisiting this older episode, and giving it a serious rewrite. Last fortnight we discussed the Black Hand organisations that pre-dated the Mafia. This time let’s look at how the Mob we’ve all come to know through the gangster films arrived in America.

But first, I do need to spend a couple of minutes on headwear.

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Setting aside resurgences in hat wearing in recent years – and no we’re not talking about the Orange guy today … there is a kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all bareheaded- surrounded by a sea of top hats. People commented this was how the new guard rolled, and many men followed suit. Milliners complained this was the death knell of their profession, and hat shops did close across the nation.

But this was only part of the wider picture. Like that gross, Orange guy; Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson going hatless was more a symptom than a cause of change.

As early as 1923, newspaper articles reported a growing dislike of hat wearing among the young. World War Two also had a measurable impact on hat wearing. In one postwar survey by The Hat Research Foundation which asked the hatless why they no longer wore a hat – one in five respondents claimed some bullying officer yelling at them for not wearing their hat during wartime was the main factor. As civilians no-one was ordering them to wear a hat. 

Also, less people worked outdoors, so needed a hat less. Popular culture was full of singers with quiffed hair, all ducktails and pompadours. As the black power movement came to prominence, so too came the Afro; and then there were those four British kids with their mop tops who took the world by storm on February 9th, 1964.

There were, of course a slew of other reasons why hats became less popular. Car culture taking off in a big way post World War Two cut down exposure to the elements when going out to work, shop or play. Similarly, improvements in air conditioning in offices and other large buildings saw a decline in hat, scarf and glove use.

Finally I should mention hats are less of a cultural marker now. Pre-war, high powered moguls wore top hats, working men wore flat caps – this was a kind of uniform. With all the other factors in play, this element of hat wearing got lost a bit – other markers of social capital taking it’s place. In this day and age, I struggle to think of too many of our most wealthy and powerful wearing hats – well there is that Orange guy we won’t mention today and his signature red trucker caps… But again he is not the hat-wearing fascist we are talking about today.

But it is fair to say, once upon a time hats were taken far more seriously. Mess with a man’s hat and he may just throw down over it.

Take, for example, Lee Shelton. Shelton was a gambler, a gangster and a pimp whose sartorial eloquence was a sight to behold. On Christmas Day 1895, Shelton sauntered into St Louis’ Bill Curtis Saloon adorned in a black dress coat, a high collared yellow shirt beneath a red velvet waistcoat. He wore gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, and jewellery aplenty. A cane with a glistening gold cap, and, most importantly, a white Stetson hat.
In the saloon that night, his rival – Billy Lyons. The two men put rivalries aside, and had a few drinks, till talk of politics got the better of them. First Shelton grabbed Lyons’ hat, caving it in, then Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson. Lyons drew a knife, Shelton a gun.
Lyons’ murder by that bad man Stagger Lee became the stuff of legend – giving life to dozens of songs, prison toasts, poetry – and even a breed of badass movie anti-hero (think Youngblood Priest on Superfly, Richard Shaft or Jules in Pulp Fiction.)
However you feel about Stagger Lee, everyone understands you don’t mess with a man’s hat.

Then there was the great straw hat riot of 1922.

In 19th Century big city America it was understood, though rarely discussed – the straw boater hats that were wildly popular among young men at sporting events should never be seen in the big city. This unwritten law was relaxed at the turn of the twentieth century, but only for summer. New York’s stockbrokers, stevedores, and sanitarians? Could wear their boater hats until felt hat day, September 15th. After this, you needed to leave the straw hat at home. If you were seen wearing a straw hat, you risked it being knocked from your head and stamped flat in front of you.

This tradition got out of hand September 13th 1922, when a gang of youths got started two days early, in Lower Manhattan among the working class folk. This escalated into a series of running battles over several days. Reports were made of at least one gang with a pole with a nail on it to skewer any straw hats they saw. Several young gangsters were arrested, one victim lost an eye, and one presiding judge – suitably named Peter Hatting – made the call one has the right to wear a straw hat any damn time they like – even in January if they wished.

All of this is to say I’m working towards a tale of a massive overreaction with global, long lasting ramifications – which, strangely may have seemed a little less so to your average Joe on the street at the time.

Last fortnight we mentioned how the Island of Sicily was just the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. This was due to a merry-go-round of oppressive conquerors. The island was perfect for agriculture, was strategically important, and a beautiful place to live. From Roman times onwards a large number of mostly North African Berber slaves were brought in, setting the pace for all those working the land. I won’t rehash it all, if you haven’t yet please check out The Black Hand first. Hannibal in Bithynia and the blog post The Bagradas Dragon also fill in a lot of background on Sicily. I did particularly zero in on the reign of Charles I of Anjou – also king of Naples. In 1282, one of his soldiers raped and murdered a Sicilian woman, leading to a large number of cells of Sicilians rising up against the French, killing 4,000 of them, and expelling them from the land.

This was the first indication to the world at large there was anything like a Mafia in Sicily. These ‘Sicilian Vespers’ who may or may not have coined the phrase mafia there and then – were a collection of like-minded locals who banded together to oppose cruel behaviour and disrespect from the colonizers. From everything I’ve read I understand these groups to be more like a series of mutual aid societies than an army of criminal geniuses. Nor were they terribly interested in self determination at the time. The Norman rulers that preceded Charles, had done well for the nation, so were invited back.

These groups well preceded the War of the Sicilian Vespers, and continued well beyond that. They joined up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860. 2,000 mafiosi fought alongside the red shirts, expelling the Bourbons. The Mafia were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. By now this was the name these groups went by. They were families, run by capos. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis of the rest of us. 

I also mentioned the power vacuum that arose in the 1870s onwards, and how this increase in violent crime, particularly of violent robberies by highwaymen, was our first indication the Mafia had turned to crime. Playing on both sides of the law, they became criminal and enforcer. A number of Capo also became extremely rich and powerful in this climate. These were generally not the guys fleeing to America – life was too good where they were.

Now, a small handful of bona fide Mafiosi did leave for America. Last episode we mentioned Giuseppe ‘The Clutch Hand’ Morello – the nephew of the Don of Corleone Sicily. He was charged with killing a man, so at some time between 1892 and 1894, he fled for the USA. His tale is worth a closer look some time, but suffice to say he set up a number of rackets in New York which would seem familiar to us now. His ruthlessness – He personally ordered more than 30 men stabbed to death, stripped naked then crammed into barrels – was excessive by Black Hand standards. Morello, later in his life, bought a pig farm – I’m sure everyone can imagine what happened there – and saw his family morph into the first of New York’s Five Families – The Gambino Family.

But back home you had the likes of Francesco Cuccia. Cuccia used his power and influence to become both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and a mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

Unfortunately for Don Francesco, 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 ran the nation immediately following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian. Benito was a staunch socialist himself, a renowned journalist and a 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. God was dead, which to Benito meant he was free to put his moral compass in a draw somewhere and do whatever the hell he felt like – so long as it furthered the cause.
The more he stared into the abyss, the more Mussolini became convinced liberalism and individualism had lead Italy down the wrong path. He dreamt of moulding Italy into a new society, based on an imagined Ancient Rome no less syllogistic than that Orange guy’s imaginary 1950s America.
Order, discipline and hierarchy were the words of the day. Extreme corporatism was essential – his belief the modern day plebeian needed to give their all, unquestioningly to their job was much admired by many American one percenters and British aristocrats at the time.
Ignoring anything beautiful about Italy’s past – Mussolini aspired to do one better than the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, briefly Duce of the regency of Carnaro – a proto- fascist state which existed in Fiume, Dalmatia in 1920. Like his hero and role model, he saw Italy as an expansionist power, out to regain lands it once ruled over. Mussolini was also a deplorable, racist man, and though less specifically anti-Semitic than Hitler – his treatment of ethnic minorities set a standard for the early Nazis.

As any fascist, Mussolini’s phrase, Benito believed in extreme, unquestioning nationalism (so long as he was the guy in charge,) and in isolating and punishing any and all dissenters, all talk of equity, or any diversity. He insisted a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and the LGBTQI+ community’s place was on prison islands like San Domino, Lampedusa and Ustica. The arrest and forced relocation of gay and trans people was horrific, but in another way empowering for some people on these islands, as Mussolini unwittingly created spaces where you were free to be your authentic self, free of the shackles hetero-normativity (the prison guards aside) but that is a whole other story.

In short, the man stared too long into the abyss, and when the abyss stared back it saw an amoral ghoul with an insatiable Will to power.

Unfortunately for the world, his words found an audience, in the dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as his ‘black shirts’. Many of these Black Shirts had fought in the Arditi, Italy’s elite troops, in World War 1 – and wore a distinctive fez hat we’ll all come to know, thanks to another man.

With a ludicrous promise to resurrect the Roman Empire – to make Italy Great again – Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – and demanded the government resign immediately and appoint him leader. Terrified, they did so.

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. With a two thirds ‘majority’ he was free to do whatever he wished. As an unimpeachable faux super-majority we went about enacting his cruel policies – but first – like another bloviating orange demagogue, he planned a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail in tow. 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 – how impudent to think a Mafioso could offer him protection. Cuccia, similarly felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways – each man plotting revenge for the perceived sleight. Cuccia was the first to up the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s speech that day. Il Duce preached his gospel of hate to a group described as around 20 ‘village idiots.’ The large public square was otherwise deserted. This PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, were it not for another incident a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time it is full of inquisitive villagers. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere, that buzz in the air you get when large groups gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – and probably not unlike the crazies echo show up to the other guy’s rallies… though I doubt Mussolini has a fedora wearing financial services manager whom the crowd are convinced is John F Kennedy Junior reborn.
But this place is the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he hopes to declare himself dictator outright.
Picture if you will, Mussolini – the self styled strongman – in full regalia. On his head that trademark black fez- worn by the elite Arditi shock troops who follow him, and underpin his tough guy cred.

There’s a hushed silence, all eyes on Il Duce. Any moment now the tough guy is going to feed their rage and indignation. He will also give them answers – for they are the greatest people brought low by minorities, people who believe in kindness, and those who believe in rule for the people, by the people…

Il Duce clears his throat….. Just as some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it onto the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat from atop his head. 

In that moment the strongman is laid bare; left bare headed in front of the large crowd. His police escort are dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square. I imagine a gasp of horror from the crowd, and whether some burst into peals of laughter – it was sufficient this ridiculous man felt impotent, stripped of his plumage. We’ve all seen something like this in our time, right? In 2019, if protesters had come out swinging at the racist British demagogue Tommy Robinson, bloodying his nose, it would have made him a man of action. Douse him in milkshake two days in a row, it just makes him look ridiculous. When racist Australian senator Fraser Anning showed up at a press conference to blame the Christchurch terror attacks on the Muslims who were murdered, a young man named Will Connolly took the wind out of his sails by pelting the senator with an egg. Needless to say, 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 by the murder of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local thug and police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy the mob. 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. They couldn’t go outside without being harassed for some crime, alleged or otherwise. 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 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’. 

Picking up on last fortnight’s Tale – Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the suspected mastermind behind the murder of New York police officer Joseph Petrosino, was charged with an historic murder in June 1930. He got a trial, with an iron cage, as Iron Prefect Mori wanted to make an example of him. On the 69th charge to be laid against him in his lifetime, he was finally found guilty of something and sentenced to life imprisonment. The only words he uttered in his defence were “Gentlemen, as you have been unable to obtain proof of any of the numerous crimes I have committed, you have been reduced to condemning me for the only one I never committed.”

While in jail, he shared with others the only man he killed by his own hand was Joseph Petrosino – though he was one of a number of people who have done so over the years, and as such not taken seriously as the trigger man. His ultimate fate is murky, but there is a possibility he died of dehydration after the prison was cleared of everyone but him, in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Mussolini’s purge did not bode well across the Atlantic. The USA were well on their way to contain the ‘Black Hand’ organisations who had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were still a problem – and it turn out, a sign of things to come. The Mafia did very well for themselves in the wake of the power vacuum left by the liberation of Sicily. By fleeing to a land with a similar power vacuum in it’s crime networks, they’d become bigger than U.S Steel by the 1960s.

The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, and must’ve felt pretty sure Petrosino’s lists would protect them from any mobsters arriving at Paris Island – but gangsters snuck in regardless – mostly via the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba. 

To add to this, the USA gave the mob with the perfect pathway to massive growth and prosperity. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty; and largely through the rallying of religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment. This banned 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 the 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 sending hard working civilians blackmail letters. 

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 a number of ‘Young Turks’, many refugees from Mussolini’s wrath, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s