The FBI, the Boston Mafia, and the Scapegoating of Italians

About the FBI, the Boston mafia, how the mob operated, and how the stereotypes of the Italian criminal emerged.

The Mafia--Menace or Myth?

By Hank Messick

Such men as Patriarca tried to overcome the lack of soldiers by following the tradition of the old city-states of Italy--the hiring of mercenaries.

FBI wiretaps on Mafia telephones revealed discussions that went on for years about the need to have some punk "hit." The bosses just couldn't get anyone to do the job, and they weren't about to undertake such adventures in their prosperous old age. When circumstance demanded a death, however, a mercenary such as Joe "the Animal" Barboza was employed. He killed for cash, or for favors, but with Barboza it was strictly a business proposition. Unlike the traditional Mafia killer he was bound to his employer by no bond of brotherhood, no code of omerta, no sense of loyalty or even respect. Upon being rewarded with a personal interview with Patriarca, Barboza had eyes only for the Capo's diamond ring. He told his friends later he was preoccupied with the thought of biting off Patriarca's finger to get the ring.

No Godfather figure was Patriarca insofar as Barboza was concerned. He killed for the Capo when it seemed to his advantage to do so, and, later, when the situation changed, he testified against him. Patriarca went to prison as a result of that testimony.

Yet the FBI, brought belatedly into the battle against organized crime after denying its existence for decades, clung to the notion that 39 Mafia members controlled crime in New England. On the national level, the same blind approach was used, and everything that conflicted with the theory was ignored. In Boston and across the country, the press and the public cooperated. The Mafia was built up to Super Menace status, and the real leaders of crime were bypassed unless they happened to have Italian names. The public ate it up. Where crime was concerned it didn't know the difference between fact and fiction, and really didn't care. A romantic novel such as The Godfather, to use Mario Puzo's description, shaped public opinion far more effectively than a hundred factual books.

The idea that organized crime could be blamed on one ethnic or national group is, of course, absurd. It smacks of fascism. If one can ascribe all evil to one race, it can also attribute all that is noble to another, a master race. And if the Mafia is so powerful, and so dangerous, how can so many write so freely about it?

In fact, the Mafia is and has often been a handy whipping boy, a scapegoat. The 1st Mafia hysteria in this country began in 1890 in New Orleans where 2 Sicilian factions were enjoying a typical vendetta for control of the docks. The Irish police chief took sides and branded the opposing "family" as the Mafia. When the chief offered to testify on behalf of his friends in a murder case, he, too, was killed. Officials blamed "the Mafia" and indicted 19 members of the rival group. The trial jury acquitted the defendants. Enraged, some of the city's leading citizens led a lynch mob to the jail where the prisoners were executed with rope and gun. The leading citizens were highly praised for this murderous stunt, but Italy broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. over the incident. Eventually, to avoid an investigation, the U.S. apologized and made reparation, but writers have been hailing the affair ever since as the beginning of the Mafia menace in this country.

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