A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Reading the history Organized Crime in Chicago: Beyond the Mafia by Robert M. Lombardo, I am particularly struck by how the author explains the role of organized crime in city life. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many citizens were employed for low wages in factory jobs and had little joy in their lives beyond petty vices. Cheap drinks helped them forget the monotony and weariness. Gambling let them dream of escaping. Both were under the control of corrupt aldermen and ward bosses – not Italian gangs that might be called the Mafia, the Syndicate, or the Outfit. The Italians came later and did not unseat the politicians as crime lords until Prohibition.
Throughout the decades, organized crime was able to flourish in Chicago because it had much support in the neighborhoods. Corrupt aldermen might demand political donations from shop owners but then fixed streets, provided jobs, or even paid for funerals. Members of criminal gangs might spread their wealth among family and friends. Youths aspired to grow up to be in gangs for the prestige.
The violence during Prohibition scared many but did not alter community reliance on criminals. Even as late as 1971, the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission reported the following:
Statement three seems incongruous after statements one and two. Obviously, people did not see that they held the key to reducing organized crime by their own consumer habits. Habits, of course, are hard to break.
In his history, Lombardo chronicles many decades of criminal activity and identifies many of the neighborhoods in which conditions supported the formation of gangs. While he mentions contemporary African-American gangs and Mexican cartels, the bulk of the text concerns pre-Italian and Italian crime. The introductory chapters and the conclusion address theoretical models of how criminal organizations work. The middle part of the book is straight history and will be of interest to many general readers.
Review by Rick