Thursday, July 12, 2007

I Know You Don't Love That Guy 'Cause I Can See Right Through You

By Kevin Guilfoile

Good stuff in the Family Secrets trial this week.

The prosecution played a recording of a conversation between alleged mob boss Frank Calabrese, Sr. and his son, prosecution witness Frank Calabrese, Jr., in which some of the details of the long secret initation ceremony of the Chicago Mob was revealed.

Much of this has showed up already in movies and television which, thanks to the natural craving of some mobsters for celebrity, are our primary sources of accurate Mafia information.

But there was one detail I'd never heard before. According to the Chicago Tribune:

The underboss, the Outfit's second-in-command, and capos, who led the street crews, initiated new members one by one, cutting their fingers and then burning a holy picture in their hands, the elder Calabrese said in the 1999 conversation.

The burning of "holy pictures" was apparently meant to convey to the largely Catholic membership of Chicago organized crime that loyalty to the mob came even before loyalty to God. And I suppose it was intended to be a fearsome moment. But as a Catholic myself, I can't help but find it a little ridiculous.

It reminded me a little bit of a story that I first heard in the bestselling book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. In a chapter about "information asymmetry," the authors describe what might have been the killing blow to the mid-century Ku Klux Klan.

In the wake of World War II, the Klan was enjoying a resurgence and Atlanta was its new base of operations. Atlanta was also home to a wealthy young man named Stetson Kennedy, whose ancestors included two signers of the Declaration of Independence and the founder of a famous hat company. Stetson's uncle had been a Klansman, but his family's maid had also been beaten and raped by a KKK mob for the crime of "talking to a white trolley driver who had shortchanged her."

Kennedy decided that, with the Axis defeated, bigotry was this country's fiercest enemy.

He attempted to attack the organization as a journalist, but he was chagrined by the lack of information about it. So he had an idea. As a southerner whose blood relative had been a member, he thought it would be a simple matter to infiltrate the group as a member and take it down from within.

Joining proved to be easy. The recruiting pitch at the time was simply, "Do You Hate Niggers? Do you Hate Jews? Do You Have Ten Dollars?" Stetson was able to join at the discounted rate of eight bucks, plus additional fees for dues and a sheet, etc.

Soon Stetson was attending regular meetings and jotting down their most secretive secrets. To his astonishment, the Klan secrets turned out to be almost infantile. Their most evident innovation was to affix a "KL" to the beginning of ordinary words, "thus two Klansmen would hold a Klonversation in the local Klavern."

Kennedy attempted to use this information to undermine the Klan locally, but it didn't work very well. Then he had an inspiration. He contacted the producers of the hugely popular Adventures of Superman radio program and asked them if they would be interested in doing some episodes about the Klan. Stetson handed over what he knew--real passwords and secret rites of the Klan--which the Superman writers incorporated into the show.

Within days, thousands of children all over the country were role-playing Superman vs. the KKK, using the Klan's actual, ridiculous vernacular.

According to Levitt and Dubner:

Of all the ideas that Kennedy had thought up--and would think up in the future--to fight bigotry, his Superman campaign was easily the cleverest and probably the most productive. It had the precise effect he hoped: turning the Klan's secrecy against itself, converting precious knowledge into ammunition for mockery. Instead of roping millions of members as it had a generation earlier, the Klan lost momentum and began to founder. Although the Klan would never quite die, especially down was also never quite the same. In The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, the historian Wyn Craig Wade calls Stetson Kennedy "the single most important factor in preventing a postwar revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the North."

I'm not suggesting, as some have, that the Family Secrets trial represents the end of The Outfit, and I don't want to suggest that mobsters have always been harmless buffoons. But I think it's true that every time we see a glimpse of the real mob, we find it a little less glamorous and a little more dreary and thuggish.

But no less fascinating for some reason.


Barbara D'Amato said...

Great stuff! And true. Maybe the most powerful tool against evil is ridicule.

tim foley said...

I've never had HBO, so this summer, my project has been to watch "The Sopranos" from beginning to end, courtesy of Netflix.

The ritual with the cutting and the holy card is in the episode when Tony's nephew becomes a made man.

I'm also following the FS trial; at the beginning, the jurors were told to forget what they knew about the Outfit from movies and TV. That this was nothing like that.

Are you kidding me?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

The cutting has been in a million movies and TV shows but I didn't remember the holy card from the Sopranos. Interesting.

You know I've found in doing research for stories that almost any person is enthusiastic about sharing the details of their profession if you just ask. People are proud of what they do and they love to talk about it.

I suppose that goes for mobsters too.