by Bluto Ray
The Mafia, it can be argued, begins and ends in prison. Creation myths abound about the criminal organization as a widespread social phenomenon, the most mystical and romantic tales believed by many self-justifying “men of honor” over the ages. The reality is no less colorful: a motley crowd was cast into Sicily’s dank jail cells during the tumultuous nineteenth century—street toughs and town bosses, revolutionaries and soldiers of lost causes—creating a peculiar Petri dish of hybrid criminal culture.
Numerous violent uprisings jolted the island after Ferdinand III consolidated the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1816. The royal descendant of the Spanish branch of Bourbons (who changed his name to Ferdinand I of Sicily) was viewed as only the latest of conquerors by a people who had known oppressive foreign occupation for millennia. Fittingly, Ferdinand’s most lasting legacy is a massive stone fortress in Palermo that has served as a prison since 1837. Originally called La Vicaria, its current name evokes the notoriety of Sing Sing or Alcatraz to Italians: Ucciardone Prison.
Though the Bourbon regime fell in 1860 after Garibaldi’s forces raided Sicily and Naples, thus pulling the two kingdoms into the country we know today as Italy, Sicily remained a powder keg politically. Revolutionaries split into pro-unity and Sicilian autonomist camps, with Bourbon loyalists conspiring at the edges. Battles in the streets of Palermo broke out in a lawless bandit-ridden landscape. An autonomist rebellion in 1866 waged against government soldiers erupted both outside and inside the walls of Ucciardone, where imprisoned rebels battled the guards. It was, according to the city’s prefect at the time, a Mafia-led uprising.
Mafia. The buzzword of the 1860s that encapsulated both the tough-guy swagger of dandified hoodlums and the secret “brotherhoods” that provided stronger community protection than a brutal or distant government. The term spread beyond Sicily with the smash success of a stage play debuted in 1863 called I mafiusi di la Vicaria. The plot concerns the Sicilian patriotism shared by a revolutionary lawyer and his mafiosi cellmates in Ucciardone. The theme resonated with audiences; the prison populations of Sicily and Naples were known to be surrogate states run by the underworld bosses housed within.
James Fentress’ crucial history, Rebels and Mafiosi, characterizes the period’s strange bedfellows: