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To become a full member of the Mafia or Cosa Nostra (both the original Sicilian Mafia or the Italian-American offshoot often known as the "American Mafia") – to become a "man of honor" – an aspiring member has to pass a Mafia initiation ritual. The ceremony involves significant ritual, oaths, blood, and an agreement is made to follow the rules of the Mafia as presented to the inductee. The first known account of the ceremony dates back to 1877 in Sicily.
The typical sequence of the ceremony according to several distinct descriptions has common features. First, the new recruit is led into the presence of other members and presented by a member; the association is explained including its basic rules; then his finger is pricked with a needle by the officiating member; a few drops of blood are spilled on a card bearing the likeness of a saint; the card is set on fire; finally, while the card is passed rapidly from hand to hand to avoid burns, the novice takes an oath of loyalty to the Mafia family.
The first known account of the ceremony dates back to 1877 in Monreale in an article in the Giornale di Sicilia in an account about the Stuppagghiari, an early Mafia-type organisation. Other early accounts were during a trial against the Fratellanza (Brotherhood) in Agrigento (1884) and the Fratuzzi (Little Brothers) in Bagheria (1889).
One of the first life accounts of an initiation ceremony was given by Bernardino Verro, a leader of the Fasci Siciliani, a popular social movement of democratic and socialist inspiration, which arose in Sicily in the early 1890s. To give the movement teeth and protect himself from harm, Verro joined the Fratuzzi in Corleone. In a memoir written many years later, he describes the initiation ritual he underwent in the spring of 1893:
[I] was invited to take part in a secret meeting of the Fratuzzi. I entered a mysterious room where there were many men armed with guns sitting around a table. In the center of the table there was a skull drawn on a piece of paper and a knife. To be admitted to the Fratuzzi, [I] had to undergo an initiation consisting of some trials of loyalty and the pricking of the lower lip with the tip of the knife: the blood from the wound soaked the skull.
Soon after Verro broke with the Mafia and – according to police reports – became their most bitter enemy. He was killed by the Mafia in 1915 when he was the mayor of Corleone.
The first known account of the ritual in the United States was provided in 1963 by Joe Valachi, who was initiated in 1930, in his testimony for the McClellan Committee, officially known as the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operation of the Senate in the United States. Valachi's was a high-profile case, and helped convince the country of the existence of the organization in the United States called the Cosa Nostra, also known as the Mafia. He provided the FBI with first-hand information about the inside of the Mafia, including one of the first ever descriptions of the induction ceremony.
The Mafia solicits specific people for membership—one cannot just choose to join up. In Tommaso Buscetta's testimony for the Pizza Connection Trial, he was asked what he did to get into the Cosa Nostra. He answered, "I didn't make out any application to become a member—I was called, I was invited." Joe Valachi had an extended courtship before he finally consented to join. He was eventually swayed by the argument of Mafioso Bobby Doyle, who said that a solo career of crime was much more dangerous. Doyle said to Valachi, "Join us and you will be made. You will earn money and you are not to steal anymore." Things had been getting difficult for Valachi in terms of frequent arrests and other consequences of his lifestyle, and he acknowledged the logic of Doyle's argument.
The ceremony is a dinner or a meeting. Several people may be inducted at once. When inducted, "... they are 'made' or 'baptized' or 'get their badges.'" Other terms used are wiseguys, a friend of ours, good fellow, one of us, and straightened out.
Valachi gave the most well-known description of the ceremony:
I sit down at the table. There is wine. Someone put a gun and a knife in front of me. The gun was a .38 and the knife was what we call a dagger. Maranzano [the boss] motions us up and we say some words in Italian. Then Joe Bonanno pricks my finger with a pin and squeezes until the blood comes out. What then happens, Mr. Maranzano says, 'This blood means that we are now one Family. You live by the gun and the knife and you die by the gun and the knife.'
Valachi was inducted with three others. There were about 40 members present, so the new initiates could "meet the family."
During the Patriarca crime family's induction of 1989 that was taped by the FBI, several other details were discovered. Before the inductee Tortora took the oath, he was told that he would be baptized. "You were baptized when you were a baby, your parents did it. But now, this time, we gonna baptize you." The baptism seems to represent the new stage of life that is beginning. This is one example of the family mentality of the Mafia. It is implied that the Mafia is taking the place of the member's family, of his parents. Further evidence of this mentality can be seen when Tortora is asked if he would kill his brother for the Mafia. This mentality most likely comes about because members are giving their entire lives to the organization. The oaths themselves talk about the family bond, and we can conjecture that the rules of secrecy represent the family loyalty as well as a sense of self-preservation. Despite rivalries, all mafia families are considered related. Even between groups in Sicily and New York City, there is a sense of brotherhood.
In another variation in Valachi's description in the 1989 induction recording, inductee Flamaro specifically had his trigger finger pricked—which affirms that there is symbolism in the gesture. After this, a compadre/buddy was chosen for him, and, unlike other ceremonies described, no mention was made of burning a picture of a saint. In Buscetta's testimony, he said that when his finger was pricked, the blood was transferred to a picture of a saint, which was then burned. Buscetta then swore that if he disobeyed the rules, "my flesh would burn like this saint." A variation on this oath is "As burns this saint, so will burn my soul. I enter alive and I will have to get out dead." Jimmy Fratianno, inducted in 1947, described the Capo pricking his finger and saying, "This drop of blood symbolizes your birth into our family, we are one until death." The ceremony is finished with a kiss administered to both cheeks of the new mafiosi.
In the past, it was said that to complete the induction process, the potential member was to kill someone, though the practice seems to have died out for the most part.
The Mafia Code is remarkably similar to that of not only other crime organizations and societies, but also to that present in American prisons. Donald Cressey notes that it is basically the same as the thieves code, which he outlines as having five basic parts:
1. Be loyal to members of the organization. Do not interfere with each other's interest. Do not be an informer. ...
2. Be rational. Be a member of the team. Don't engage in battle if you can't win. ... The directive extends to personal life.
3. Be a man of honor. Respect womanhood and your elders. Don't rock the boat. ...
4. Be a stand-up guy. Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut. Don't sell out. ... The 'stand-up guy' shows courage and 'heart.' He does not whine or complain in the face of adversity, including punishment, because 'If you can't pay, don't play.'
5. Have class. Be independent. Know your way around the world.
The members were also instructed at the Patriarca ceremony to not let this whole thing inflate their egos and change them. The mafia wanted them for who they were when they were chosen; humility is implied.
Jimmy Fratianno was inducted to the mafia in 1947, and swore an oath similar to Valachi. Three rules were given to him: "You must never betray any of the secrets of this Cosa Nostra. You must never violate the wife or children of another member. You must never become involved with narcotics."
In the Patriarca ceremony, Joseph Russo also explained that you do not mess around with sisters, wives, or girlfriends, unless you have "honorable" intentions.
Buscetta also related how he was instructed about the "appropriate manner" to act. He said he was told to "be silent, not to look at other men's wives or women, not to steal and especially, at all times when I was called, I had to rush, leaving whatever I was doing." The penalty for breaking these laws was death.
The most important rule is the Omertà, the oath of silence. It is a frequently broken rule, as seen by FBI informants, but also punishable by death. Biagio DiGiacomo emphasized the severity of Omertà when he said, "It's no hope, no Jesus, no Madonna, nobody can help us if we ever give up this secret to anybody, any kinds of friends of mine, let's say. This thing cannot be exposed."
Rules about drugs are reiterated in many accounts, where it is detailed that members must abstain from both using and selling drugs of any kind. In Joe Bonanno's 1983 autobiography he stated that neither he nor his family participated in the drug trade, calling it a "filthy business." These rules are often broken, as evidenced by the FBI, and it has been questioned whether this rule was ever enforced, or if it is simply a myth. Regardless, in more recent times there is little support for any abstinence from drug rackets on the part of the mafia. In New York City, the five crime families had a monopoly on the drug trade.
Introductions were very particularly laid out. People not of the Mafia were introduced as "a friend of mine." Members were referred to as "a friend of ours." Never were they allowed to say who they were in an introduction, except in particular circumstances. When introduced, members no longer follow the tradition of kissing, because it attracted too much attention from authorities.
In 1963, former mobster Joseph Valachi provided his testimony for the McClellan Committee, officially known as the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operation of the senate in the United States. Valachi's was a high-profile case, and helped convince the country of the existence of the organization in the United States called the Cosa Nostra, also known as the Mafia. He provided the FBI with first-hand information about the inside of the Mafia, including one of the first ever descriptions of the induction ceremony.
The validity of Valachi's testimony in this area is an issue, as it is with any case of this sort. Many other secret societies have similar rituals, and given the secrecy and sacredness surrounding the induction rites, Valachi could potentially have been drawing from other groups' ceremonies and rituals. It is also possible that the nature of secret societies makes their rituals similar. Other accounts since, particularly the actual recording obtained of such a ceremony, have more or less confirmed Valachi's testimony.
On October 29, 1989, in Medford, Massachusetts, the FBI successfully taped an initiation ceremony of New England's Patriarca crime family. There had been some controversy surrounding this bugging, given that the warrant for the 'roaming bug' used to tape the ceremony was given on false information.
One source details that the members involved in this ceremony were the consiglieri Joseph Russo, who conducted parts of the ceremony; mobster capos Biagio DiGiacomo, who administered the oaths; Robert F. Carrozza; Vincent M. Ferrara; Charles Quintina—all from Boston—and Matthew Guglielmetti, from the Providence, Rhode Island area; and inductees Robert DeLuca, Vincent Federico, Carmen Tortora, and Richard Floramo. Another newspaper article states that there were 17 mafiosi present, including the current boss, Raymond Patriarca, Jr., and other high-ranking officials in the family.
The FBI surveillance of this ceremony was the tailend of a five-year investigation about the crime families in the area, which resulted in a host of indictments and arrests. Among those indicted were Patriarca, DiGiacomo, Russo, Tortora, Ferrara, Carrozza, and Guglielmetti, all of whom were present at the ceremony. Additional big names of those that were indicted are Antonio L. Spagnola, Nicholas Bianco, Louis Failla, and John E. Farrell. Information from the ceremony was used in the case against the Mafiosi.
FBI Boston Mafia specialist Thomas A. Hughes speculated that the Patriarca crime family lost honor and favor as a result of the sacred ceremony being taped under their watch.
In November 2015, Damiano Zummo, a reputed acting captain in the Bonanno crime family was involved in the induction ceremony of an undercover police agent, which was secretly recorded, in Canada. Zummo played a major role in the ceremony and named others at a higher level in the organization on the recording. A Brooklyn court official later said, "The recording of a secret induction ceremony is an extraordinary achievement for law enforcement and deals a significant blow to La Cosa Nostra." The recording also led to the arrest of 13 mobsters in November 2017, including Domenico Violi of the Luppino crime family in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, who was named underboss of the Buffalo crime family in October 2017.