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Salvatore Lupo, The Two Mafias. A Transatlantic History, 1888-2008

New York (ny), Palgrave MacMillan, 2015, pp. 236, $ 90.


Beginning in the late nineteenth century, observers began discussing the presence of a secret criminal organization within the United States. This network was known as the mafia, cosa nostra, and the black hand. Salvatore Lupo’s The Two Mafias not only aims to define the transatlantic nature of this secret organization, but also attempts to dispel longstanding myths surrounding it. Lupo pays particular attention to the term «mafia» itself. According to the author, «from a historical point of view, it has been used as both a regional reference [in the Italian case] and an ethnic reference [in the American case]» (p. 1). In the modern context, Lupo believes the term has two purposes: first, to simply designate any «criminal brotherhood,» and second, to denote a «particular people and their cultural codes» (p. 1). Specifically, Lupo believes the term «mafias» now represents the way in which criminal gangs from less developed regions engage in criminal activities in more advanced countries. The modern adaptation of the word inspired the author to take an in-depth look into the historical association between American and Sicilian criminal brotherhoods. Was there a transatlantic connection between mob activities in the United States and Italy? How accurate are the stereotypes surrounding the creation of the mob in New York City? Did the transplanted Mafioso establish long-lasting migration networks between the two countries?

The main thrust of Lupo’s argument rests on the notion of a transatlantic bridge connecting Sicily and New York City that allowed for the transfer of people, ideas, and goods between the regions. Unfortunately, in this case, the thing being transferred was criminal activity. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, numerous criminals made their ways back and forth across the Atlantic, usually under the cover of an import business specializing in goods such as olive oil. According to Lupo, the transatlantic connection between Italy and the United States allowed this criminal organization to escape law enforcement for nearly a hundred years. Ethnic, cultural, and language barriers prevented authorities on either side of the Atlantic from working with one another to stop the flow of lawbreakers across the ocean. Typical of a transatlantic methodology, Lupo claims the mafia did not exist in New York as a direct transplant from Sicily, just as the Italian mobs did not remain static; instead, «the two mafias evolved in an ongoing process of interconnection and hybridization within an intercontinental network that linked individuals, interests, ideas, and places» (p. 2). 

Not only does Lupo focus on the development of a transcontinental network between America and Europe, he also directly addresses certain long-held beliefs pertaining to the American Mafia. He dismisses the idea that men associated with the creation of an American mafia were poor immigrants living in American slums. A large number of the Italians Lupo identifies as mafioso were documented as arriving in New York City in possession of funds ranging from four to eight hundred dollars, a large amount of money in the late eighteenth century. Lupo stresses the migrants most closely associated with criminal activity came to America having already achieved some level of financial success. This particular argument is in direct conflict with previous scholarship. In addition, Lupo argues against the idea of Sicily and the mafia as belonging to an antiquated and archaic past. He maintains that the mafia had to modernize in order to survive. 

Lastly, Lupo engages extensively with the topic of migration and the creation of migration networks between Sicily and New York City. The flow of ideas and criminal activity circulating between the two regions also stimulated the constant movement of people. Beginning in the late nineteenth century criminals began moving between the two countries as a way to establish the long-standing networks that have remained in place into the twenty-first century. As Lupo illustrates, the migration of Italians into the United States adapted to the changing times. During the 1920s the United States passed its first comprehensive immigration law designed to place restrictions on the number of migrants entering the country. Lupo states that the new laws «did not break the migratory chain, but instead put it all, from departure to arrival, under the control of Mafia transcontinental gangs» (p. 48). In addition to narcotics and alcohol, the mafia now began to smuggle people into the United States. Lupo also briefly discusses the second generation of Italian immigrants who were born into the United States. He explores the conflict between ethnic identity and the desire to Americanize, and the ways in which this tension affected the modernization of the criminal brotherhood.

Unfortunately, Lupo does not capitalize on the opportunity to explore more fully the subsequent generations of either Italians smuggled into the United States, or the Mafioso themselves. He also pays very little attention to the wives and children of the mobsters who took advantage of the transatlantic bridge. At times the author presents an almost overwhelming amount of information, often getting lost in nearly encyclopedic references to family trees, places, and events. While it is obvious that The Two Mafias will stand as one of the definitive scholarly works on the Mafia, it is not for the casual reader. Although Lupo engages with big academic names like Eric Hobsbawm, he does not provide much context for those not already well versed in the scholarship.

Nevertheless, Lupo’s impressive research encompasses an exhaustive amount of both Italian and American sources, including detailed examination of several famous autobiographies, biographies, and sociological studies surrounding famous names like Lucky Luciano. In addition, Lupo weeds his way through countless government documents including police reports and files from the FBI and Federal Bureau of Narcotics. One of Lupo’s biggest strengths is his ability to meticulously compare and contrast such a large pool of sources in order to separate fact from fiction. He also places his research in conversation with scholarship on migration and ethnicity from global names such as Donna Gabaccia and Eric Hobsbawm. Lupo’s arguments are grounded in exhaustive research, and this work firmly establishes the author as the leading authority on the Mafia.  

Staci Swiney
(University of Texas at Arlington) 



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