"Through the Eyes
Francis Marion Crawford
Francis Marion Crawford (1854 –1909) was an American writer noted for his many novels, especially those set in Italy. He was among the first to write fiction dealing with the Mafia. The item below appeared in the New York Times on the date indicated. The introductory passage of the article (para. 1-5) was unsigned; the photo was in the original article.
- New York Times, May 12, 1907
Marion Crawford on the
Secret Societies of Italy
The Well-Known Author
Tells of the Government's efforts
to Suppress them in their Native Haunts
The Black Hand, if It Exists Here, Probably Modeled
on the Camorra of Naples and Not the Mafia
Francis Marion Crawford
year an army of 273,000 immigrants came to the
United States from Italy. Joining the millions of
their countrymen who were already here, the old
question has arisen with renewed force: Does this
immigration, the largest, in point of numbers, from
any country in the world, bring with it a menace to
There are not lacking certain peculiar facts of comparatively recent origin to add force to this query. Scarcely a week passes in this country that does not take with it its record of mysterious "Black Hand" murders. Recent arrests in this city due to a special police order have shown that the Italians are more prone than those of any other nationality to carry concealed weapons. Crimes savoring of the peculiar feuds and brigandage that popular romance and tradition have attributed to Italy for centuries past are not unfrequently [sic] chronicled in the news of the day.
New problems have thus been forced upon the police in those cities where Italians form a considerable part of the population, while Italy herself has very generally been accused of still maintaining among her peasantry and laboring classes conditions that prevailed in the Middle Ages, and of transmitting those conditions to-day to other countries through her great and increasing volume of immigration.
There is probably no American more thoroughly capable of pronouncing upon the truth or falsity of this accusation than Francis Marion Crawford, who recently arrived in this city from his home in Sorrento, Italy. Mr. Crawford was born in a suburb of Rome fifty-three years ago, and has traveled, oftentimes on foot, from end to end of the land of his nativity. With the exception of occasional visits to this country, Italy has been his permanent home for the last twenty-five years. He has studied her people, her institutions, her history with the passionate absorption of the literary artist. He has lived her life, he has shared her enthusiasms, at the same time that he has viewed her from the critical standpoint of the foreigner. As a result of this intimate relationship the pages of his romances and historical essays have furnished the English-speaking public with a series of pictures of modern Italian life and tradition unique in the literature of to-day.
No "Black Hand" in Italy
Speaking from this lifelong familiarity with a subject that has so constantly inspired his pen, Mr. Crawford, in giving his view to THE TIMES, is thoroughly aware of the conditions which have arisen in this country as a result of certain phases of Italian immigration. He knows also, as few foreigners can know, the real situation in Italy as regards those peculiar, secret criminal organizations which are said to be still active there, and although he doubts the existence of the Black Hand in Italy, he is able to trace its parentage thence to this country.
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"There is no Black Hand in Italy," said Mr. Crawford to a TIMES reporter. "If there is such an organization in the United States it is probably an offshoot, under a new name, of the Camorra of Naples, or possibly a debased descendant of the Mafia of Sicily. Whatever its origin, or however closely it may or may not be allied to either of these formidable secret societies of the Old World, its extirpation here, if it really does exist, is unlikely until the police authorities of America adopt something of the methods which the Italian Government is employing in the successful campaign it is directing to-day against organized brigandage and murder.
"As a matter of fact, I think those Americans who accuse Italy of producing the worst type of immigrant are guilty of a serious injustice. If other countries had the same facilities for immigration that Italy enjoys it is quite possible that there would be an altogether different story to tell. I admit, however, that it is probably true that much the worst class, the unthrifty, the ignorant class of Italians, may come to this country—a fact for which one must not blame Italy altogether, since quite an equal share of culpability belongs to the United States. In this whole question, also, it is well to remember that the money problem bears an important part.
"In Italy the highest wages paid for comparatively unskilled labor is 36 cents a day; here, I understand, it is not difficult for the same type of labor to command $2 a day. Well, there are two types of immigrants in Italy at the present time—the immigrant who has saved up a little capital which he wishes to invest in some country that offers better opportunities for profit than his own, and the immigrant who is practically penniless, through improvidence or lack or energy or ability. The first of these immigrants goes to South America, where he generally invest his savings to the best advantage in some agricultural venture which enables him to settle down in a permanent homestead of his own. The second type, the penniless, the thirty-six-cent type, is attracted by the high wages of this country. He leaves Italy, comes to the United States, where he lives almost as cheaply as he did at home, saves all the money he can, and returns to his native land as soon as possible.
Only to Make Money
"During his stay here this type of immigrant never regards this country as anything more than a convenient opportunity to make money. With this in mind he naturally has no use for American institutions, he distrusts Americans, he does not learn the English language, and remains unassimilated to the last, for the simple reason that it is not a part of his plan ever to become an American citizen. Manifestly it is as unjust to measure Italy by this type of Italian that comes to the United States as it is to measure all China by this type of Chinese who overrun our Pacific coast.
"Then, there is another factor influencing the Italian immigrant for evil when he has arrived in this country—a factor out of which arises, quite possibly, what is called here the Black Hand Society. I refer to the padrone system. The ignorant Italian immigrant is sent from his own country to some padrone, or Italian contractor, in one of the large American cities. These padrones are a law to the men who come under their control. The latter work under their orders, they are absolutely in their power in all the manifest affairs of their daily life, and they are thus kept strictly aloof from any touch of American influence. This of itself makes a strong Italian organization in the midst of what is to the immigrant an alien population—and the immigrant must adhere to this organization or starve. There you have all the conditions that go to make a genuine Camorra.
"Who are these padrones? I know nothing of the Black Hand Society, but I fancy, as I said, that it is an outgrowth of the Camorra of Southern Italy which has found its way, under another name, to congenial soil in America. Furthermore, I have not much doubt that many of these padrones are members of the Camorra who have been compelled to leave Italy and seek safety and a new field for their secret operations in this country—and for their sinister purposes the ignorant immigrant lends himself admirably.
"It is difficult to get anything like an authoritative account of what the Camorra really is. The term has come to be used in Italy as a designation for a band of men who have organized to obtain illicit control over lawful or unlawful trade, or to commit crime with immunity for their own advancement. As an institution it is peculiar to Naples, where it originated and whence it extended over the whole neighboring province. It is a powerful organization, and in the past has exerted a wide influence over the whole social and political life of Neapolitan Italy. It is so old, as things of this kind run in Italy, that there is no positive evidence of the date of its origin. Even the etymology of the name is shrouded in mystery. I am inclined to believe, however, that it was started in the middle of the sixteenth century, when Naples was under the rule of the Spanish Viceroys.
"It is impossible to say, of course, that the Camorra is thus of Spanish derivation; but there were many Spaniards in Neapolitan Italy when Spain was in the ascendant among European nations, and they have left their impress to this day in the number of Spanish words that are still in use in ordinary conversation from Naples as far south as Sicily. In the latter country one enters upon the land of the Mafia, an organization which is quite distinct from the Camorra of Naples.
"The Mafia, as I described it in 'The Rulers of the South,' is an institution founded for the purpose of dispensing a sort of mountaineer justice by means of tribunals and a code of laws which are entirely distinct from and independent of the laws of the country. It compels tribute from high and low in the sections where it is powerfully established, but it differs radically from the Camorra both in its practical methods and in having a supreme council, a supreme tribunal, and recognized leaders, who attain their commanding positions simply through the exercise of their own personal influence and prestige. In spite of its undoubted tyrannies the Mafia is really one of the most conservative self-governing systems in the world, and it is not at all Anarchistic in its tendencies. It is all-powerful politically, and the present government tolerates it simply because it cannot do otherwise.
"Brigandage does not form a part of the system of the Mafia, although the brigand of Sicily is often protected by some powerful member of the organization, while the legal authorities appear to be quite helpless in checking the occurrence of highway robberies in certain sections of the island—a helplessness which is abundantly indicated by the fact that in the province of Palermo alone there were 1,092 attacks of this kind between the years 1893 and 1899. But the Mafia is not to be confused with the Camorra, to which brigandage is a familiar form of activity, and should not be held directly responsible for these robberies.
"The Camorra is simply organized thievery and assassination, and to it, and not to the Mafia, should be attributed the famous murders which took place some ten years ago in New Orleans. As an organization the Mafia is unknown outside of Sicily.
"One would naturally suppose that with such powerful criminal organizations in existence lawlessness of the most dangerous character to the resident and to the traveler would be everywhere prevalent in Italy. This, however, is not the case. During the last twenty years the Italian Government has been most energetic in its efforts to suppress these societies, and to-day they are not at all what they were a decade ago. Only very recently twelve of the principal officers of the Camorra were arrested in Naples, and are now being held in prison there awaiting a trial. Then, the recent destruction of the crowded quarters in Naples. the tearing down of whole sections of the city that were formerly the squalid dwellings of the criminal classes and the erection in their stead of good substantial tenements has been an additional help in checking the power of the Camorras [sic].
"But the mainstay of the Government in this fight with organized lawlessness is the admirable police force that is maintained in Italy. The Italian police, the carabinieri, as they are called, are physically and morally a body of picked men. For three generations back a man has to show a spotless record before he can hope to become a member of the force. These carabineers form a regular army corps and patrol the entire country. They are dressed in a peculiar uniform, which has been in vogue with them for over a century, and the mere sight of the queer cocked hat of one of these men, with all that it suggests of astuteness and irresistible energy to the credulous peasant, is often sufficient to stop a riot. Indeed, it is difficult to convey an idea of the unbounded respect which an Italian of the lower class has for the uniform of the carabinieri. He knows that the latter at a moment's notice are liable, on the highways or on the streets of the cities, to search him for concealed weapons, and the salutary fear of being found out and summarily dealt with keeps him for the most part unarmed.
A Mania for Weapons
"When the Italian leaves his country, however, he feels that he is out of the reach of the dread [sic], ubiquitous carabinieri, and he arms himself accordingly. So prevalent has this custom become that on some steamship lines the Italians are invariably searched for concealed weapons; I have seen a goodly heap of knives collected in this way from a shipload of immigrants. But once in New York, the second or third largest Italian city in the world, by the way, there is not a carabineer in sight, and so the immigrant, not knowing the ways or the possible prowess of the New York policeman, feels that he is emancipated from further restraint and invests in whatever knives or pistols his fancy, or his padrone, may suggest.
"Imagine a squad of Irish policemen maintaining law and order in Rome! And yet New York is next to Rome in size as an Italian city. The Italian in this country is quite as much in need of proper surveillance as he is in his native land, and until he is taken out of the clutches of the New York padrones, with their probable Camorra affiliations, and until we have a sufficient number of uniformed Italian policemen, chosen and equipped as they are in Italy, it is quite possible that the city will continue to suffer from outbreaks of so-called Black Hand crimes.
"The true Italian peasant in his native environment I have always found to be a most amiable character, very hard-working and honest according to his lights [sic]. His regular workday, beginning usually at 3 o'clock in the morning, is longer than that of any laborer in the world. One gets a bad impression of these people, of course, from what one sees of them here. In Italy they show a sunny disposition, dress themselves tidily, and their neat little houses, overrun by clean, healthy-looking children—they are the most prolific people in the world—give a truthful impression of the happy family life that reigns within. I have known peasant households where a husband and wife have raised a family of as many as twenty children, and even among the upper classes I know of families of fourteen and fifteen children. Thus, no matter how many immigrants come to the two Americas, one need not fear that the resident population of Italy will ever do anything but increase.
"While the population, as a whole, is thus steadily growing, there is a decrease in numbers among the agricultural sections of Southern Italy. The Government is doing all it can to remedy this by offering bonuses for the improvement of land and the building of houses. It is also trying to improve sanitary conditions. An immense amount of work in this direction has been going on for the last twenty-five years, the good results from which are now very much in evidence. Certain districts near Rome which were formerly uninhabitable for six months of the year have been drained, and foreigners who live there tell me that the deadly fevers of the old days have become practically unknown.
"One drawback under which Southern Italy labors arises from the inordinately large holdings of land by absentee landlords. The reverse of this condition is true of the fruit-growing country around Sorrento. There, owing to the continued presence of the Napoleonic Code with its peculiar decree to the effect that each piece of real estate held by a family must be divided equally among the children of that family, one runs across land holdings that have shrunk almost to the size of a pocket handkerchief. These two opposite conditions in Southern and Central Italy undoubtedly have their influence on the increasing volume of Italian immigration.
"As for the ridiculous tradition that the Italians of the lower and middle classes are 'bad' and 'dangerous,' in spite of all the tales of the Camorra and the Mafia, I can simply say that I have not found them so. The three causes that make bad Italians here—the padrone system, with its possible connection with the Camorra; the lack of Italian police, and the poor character of the immigrants and their failure to become assimilated to American conditions—would make a bad population of any nationality, but they do not exist in Italy. Sicily is generally held up as the bugbear of Italy. I have been all through Sicily, and as a result of my experience I believe that even in its proverbially worst sections it is absolutely safe for foreigners—safer, indeed, than the outskirts of many of our great American cities.
Foreigners Seldom Molested
"Italy is really the easiest country to live in, and is under the most excellent police protection. During all my long residence there I have never had any trouble with anything approaching interference on the part of the Camorra, and my home is in the reputed Camorra district. As a young man I traveled through the wildest regions of Italy, often alone and on foot, and have only the pleasantest recollections of the experience. Of course, I have witnessed quarrels of a more or less violent character among the natives; but I have never known a foreigner to be molested or interfered with in any way. Nevertheless, one can never really know all of one's Italy—never pierce to the inmost heart of her beauty and mystery.
"This year I will publish the first volume of a 'History of Rome in the Middle Ages,' a work upon which I expect to be engaged for the rest of my life. And yet I feel that one can never really know even Rome. It is as the historian Ampere said: Ten years of the closest study will give only a smattering of the real Rome—it would take more than lifetime to penetrate to the almost limitless centuries of glory and decay upon which modern Rome has been reared."