Although the feared influence of the Mafia has provoked some exaggerated and alarmist conspiracy theories (conspiracy theorists routinely suggest, for example, that the Mafia was involved in both the election and murder of John F. Kennedy, the murder of Marilyn Monroe, and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa), the Mafia in reality also constitutes a dangerous conspiracy. It has a basis in both myth and reality in that it is a false stereotype and a real organization intent on exploiting individual and collective vulnerabilities.
There is no controlling criminal conspiracy known as “the Mafia”; instead, the Mafia should be understood as the popular name for Italian American organized crime in all its forms. Numerous terms have been used since the beginning of large-scale Italian migration to the United States in the late nineteenth century. These include “the Black Hand,” “the organization,” “the mob,” “the syndicate,” and “La Cosa Nostra.”
The Mafia Conspiracy
Local, state, and federal crime-fighting agencies have long kept close tabs on Italian American organized crime. The Mafia has been implicated, occasionally with evidence, in numerous conspiracies. Known to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as La Cosa Nostra (or LCN), its members provide illicit goods and services while also using illegal means to control and distribute otherwise legal goods and services.
U.S. society and law have sent mixed messages about prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and gambling. These activities have all been legal at some moments and under certain conditions and illegal at others. In those times and places that they have been illegal, they remained widely available due to the infrastructure of the Mafia.
This infrastructure was first developed during the Prohibition era. Large-scale bootlegging, smuggling, and distribution organizations emerged in major U.S. cities to meet the demand for alcohol. The Treasury Department had little success curbing the supply or the demand, although Eliot Ness of the Prohibition Bureau of the Justice Department successfully built a case against Al Capone on tax evasion charges. With the end of Prohibition, some organizations turned to gambling.
Cooperation from criminal justice authorities ensured that there would be little opposition to the forerunner of casino-style gambling in towns like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Covington, Kentucky, Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Tampa, Florida. Criminal organizations from Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis would go on to develop some of the first casinos in Las Vegas.
The cold war era that followed World War II brought the largest investigations into organized crime up to that point. Senator Estes Kefauver led a widely publicized investigation into organized crime in interstate commerce in 1951.
Although the Kefauver Crime Committee did uncover real crimes, it also fantastically suggested that the Mafia was a shadow government controlling virtually every aspect of U.S. politics and commerce. Later in the decade, Senator John McClellan led an investigation into labor racketeering.
His committee’s chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, focused most of his energies on investigating corruption in the Teamsters Union, then the nation’s largest labor union. Kennedy’s interrogations of the Teamsters dynamic president, Jimmy Hoffa, proved extremely popular with TV viewers.