How the Sicilian Mafia got started : The Indicator from Planet Money The essential ingredient in the birth of the mafia as we know it wasn't the threats or the murders or the other stuff that's great for Hollywood. It was...lemons.
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When Life Gives You Lemons...Start The Mafia?

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When Life Gives You Lemons...Start The Mafia?

When Life Gives You Lemons...Start The Mafia?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey, everyone. Things have been super serious lately and really all year, really intense with the U.S. election and, of course, COVID and the terrible economy. And so today on the show, we are going to pause for a break, and we're going to re-air a really fun episode, one of our all-time favorites from the early days of THE INDICATOR a few years back. It's about the origins of the Sicilian Mafia. Here it is.




GARCIA: The year's 1872, and the landlord of a lemon farm just outside of Palermo in Sicily is having trouble with a local Mafioso.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: The landlord is a surgeon named Gaspare Galati. And the Mafioso he was dealing with was the warden of Galati's own farm, the guy who was supposed to be protecting it. Instead, the warden was stealing from it himself.

GARCIA: So Dr. Galati fires him and hires a new warden. That new warden was promptly shot in the back and killed. The police didn't seem to care, so Dr. Galati hires the next warden. And that guy was also shot, though at least he survived.

VANEK SMITH: Did he have trouble hiring a third?

GARCIA: (Laughter) I don't think he had a chance.

VANEK SMITH: And all throughout this drama, Dr. Galati was reporting these events to authorities. Eventually, he and his family were chased out of Sicily. But that is the first detailed written record we have of the Mafia and how it operated.

GARCIA: A study about the origins of the Mafia reveals that the detail that matters in Dr. Galati's story is not the threats or the murder or all the other stuff that's great for Hollywood movies; the detail that matters is actually what Dr. Galati was trying to sell - lemons.


GARCIA: I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, a blast from the late 1800s - the rise of the Mafia.


GARCIA: In the 1700s, a British scientist named James Lind discovered that lemons were an effective cure for scurvy. The British Navy started requiring its ships to be stocked with lemon juice in 1795. And combined with rising global trade generally, there was a huge boom in demand for Sicilian lemons.

VANEK SMITH: Sicily was already known around the world for its citrus farms. And by 1850, Sicily was exporting almost twice as many cases of lemons as it had been 15 years earlier. And the expansion accelerated over the next few decades. Eventually, almost three-quarters of all lemons imported by the United States came from Italy, and most of those were from Sicily.

GARCIA: But Sicilian landlords had long operated under a kind of feudal system. Alessia Isopi is an economist at The University of Manchester in the U.K., and she wrote a paper on the Mafia along with her colleagues. She says that these landlords were making a killing on these lemons. The people who worked for them noticed.

ALESSIA ISOPI: From that time, you can see the villas out there, they were just fantastic in terms of painting, the arts. Culture was amazing because they were, like, having lots of profits from their activity and just investing for themself, not redistributing at all.

VANEK SMITH: Isopi says the landlords depended on a class of workers known as gabelloti to protect their farms and oversee their workers.

GARCIA: But in 1860, Sicily became part of a unified Italy. And these gabelloti lost their jobs because the government, the police, the courts were now supposed to be the ones protecting the farms from thieves.

VANEK SMITH: Alessia says a lot of these gabelloti then joined the police themselves. But at the same time, they also joined an early kind of proto-Mafia that already existed back then.

GARCIA: Which meant the very people meant to protect the farms during the day as police officers were often the same ones extorting the landlords at night, demanding money for - and I'm doing air quotes here - protection.

VANEK SMITH: He is doing air quotes.

GARCIA: This is roughly the point around the mid to late 1800s that the Mafia really started to thrive.

VANEK SMITH: Right. These early Mafia groups had formed to offer protection from brigands and thieves. But, of course, that also meant the landlords who didn't pay them would become targets.

GARCIA: And these local mafias were steadily becoming better organized. They had a kind of military structure, Alessia says, and they accepted recruits from all social classes.

ISOPI: One thing you have to remember is that from the very beginning the Mafia is characterized by having people from all sorts of class, we can say. So there were doctors. There were judges. There were policemen. So after a while, it became quite widespread.

GARCIA: So did the landlords essentially just leave? Or did they give up their farms? Or - where did they go?

ISOPI: They lost power.

GARCIA: I see.

ISOPI: Basically, they were just staying and doing the same activities, but they didn't have the political support from the previous institution anymore.

GARCIA: By the way, Stacey, you know that scene in "The Godfather"? There was this California film mogul who owned this beautiful horse and...


GARCIA: ...At first, he refused to do a favor for Marlon Brando...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Oh, yes.


MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) A month from now this Hollywood big shot's going to give you what you want.

AL MARTINO: (As Johnny Fontane) Too late. They start shooting in a week.

BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.

VANEK SMITH: I remember this. And then the guy wakes up in the morning...


JOHN MARLEY: (As Jack Woltz, screaming).

GARCIA: ...And the lopped-off head of his prize horse was at the foot of his bed.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: So it turns out that that was inspired by something that Sicilian Mafiosos actually used to do.


ISOPI: Sometimes you might find a dead head of an animal in front of the door.

GARCIA: That's crazy enough. But believe it or not, mutilated animal heads wasn't all they did.

VANEK SMITH: Kind of the least of your problems.

ISOPI: You might get shot in your leg or in your arm just as a warning sign.

GARCIA: Oh, my God. That's considered a warning, is just - is to get shot in the leg?

ISOPI: Yes, because you're still - you're alive, OK? So - yeah.

GARCIA: Alessia says that the weak Italian state - the corrupt bureaucrats and police, the lack of societal trust in the government - these were all necessary conditions for the Mafia to emerge. But they don't tell the whole story.

VANEK SMITH: Because those conditions apply to the entire island of Sicily. But in its early decades, the Mafia was only a powerful force in specific regions.

GARCIA: And what Alessia and her colleagues did was to look at the places where surveys of local judges were reporting high levels of Mafia activity. And they found that those were the same places where the lemon farms were, all of which suggests that even though the right circumstances already existed, the global boom in the lemon trade was the necessary spark that made the Mafia flourish.

VANEK SMITH: So here we have to ask - what is it specifically about lemons that led to the Mafia? For one thing, they were hugely profitable, which made them a tempting target for people to steal. But also, unlike other crops like wheat or something, they were really easy to steal. You could just pull them off the tree.

GARCIA: And they also needed to be transported gently to whoever was buying them because they went rotten whenever they were bruised. And that meant that lemons needed to be protected and lemon farms needed security guards.

VANEK SMITH: Especially because getting into the lemon business was an expensive investment. You had to dig an irrigation network, build a wall to protect the orchard and have a place to store the lemons.

GARCIA: That's why lemon farms were so vulnerable. And that vulnerability, combined with the lack of protective institutions and the huge profits available, was also the opening that the Mafia exploited to become a big societal force.


GARCIA: A word about our sourcing - Alessia Isopi's colleagues who wrote the paper with her were Arcangelo Dimico and Ola Olsson. That paper's title is "Origins Of The Sicilian Mafia: The Market For Lemons." In the paper, they reference a book by John Dickie called "Cosa Nostra: A History Of The Sicilian Mafia," and that's also where we found the detailed story of Dr. Galati. Finally, the clips were from Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather."


GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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