‘Beyond cheap amusement’: Mafia tourism is on the rise but may not a boon for the mobsters themselves

[STAND FIRST] Adrian Humphreys has covered Canada’s underworld for 25 years and written three bestselling books on the subject. In this occasional series, he dissects the histories, mysteries and quirks of organized crime in Canada and beyond.

The car could barely fit down the cluttered, narrow streets but as I passed a courtyard on the western edge of Cattolica Eraclea, a small, hilltop village in Sicily, in Italy’s south, I could hardly believe what I saw.

In town, some years ago, to research the birthplace of Vito Rizzuto, Canada’s most powerful Mafia boss until his death in 2013, the stern bronze face atop a stone pedestal was unmistakable.

Two young children down the street were kicking a soccer ball back and forth when I climbed out with my camera for a closer look. The moment they spotted me they stopped and stared, letting their soccer ball bounce away. Then they ran to their bikes and peddled away, presumably to warn someone a stranger was in town.

Turning to the statue, I read the inscription. The English translation is: “Giuseppe Spagnolo, mayor, political leader, killed by the Mafia.”

It surprised me — a public tribute blaming the Mafia for the murder of the town’s first democratically elected mayor who was shot as he slept in 1955 by Rizzuto’s relatives, who then fled to Canada.

It was a special moment among my trips to Sicily, visits interspersing fantastic food with friendly hosts and phenomenal landscapes dotted by ruins of Greek temples with sites of important Mafia meetings, brutal murders, mobsters’ homes and the graves of mafiosi and their victims.

For me, the adventures are partly professional, and more off the beaten path than most travelers might venture, but Mafia tourism is a way many true-crime aficionados frame their vacations across several countries.

When you’re standing at the site of a bloody Mafia massacre, or the grave of a victim from the 1920s, and they’re covered in fresh flowers, you can’t help but be moved by the tragedie

It is a form of travel becoming more prominent and seemingly more popular.

“There’s no question that much of Mafia tourism is rooted in a morbid curiosity. It’s why we consume so much mob-related pop culture, and why true-crime podcasts rule the internet,” said Carl Russo, the San Francisco-based author of The Sicilian Mafia: A True Crime Travel Guide.

“But if the tour is done right, with respect and accurate context given, it moves beyond cheap amusement. When you’re standing at the site of a bloody Mafia massacre, or the grave of a victim from the 1920s, and they’re covered in fresh flowers, you can’t help but be moved by the tragedies.”

Russo documents several sites of Mafia outrages now marked with civic plaques erected in a wave of anti-Mafia activism in Sicily, such as the statue I stumbled upon when poking around the hometown of the Rizzutos.

Visitors interested in having a less stressful peek at Mafia lore while visiting Sicily often head to Corleone, Russo said. The town is famous partly because its name was used as the surname of the most famous fictional Mafia family, that of The Godfather movies. There is much more to Corleone than chuckling over the town’s venders selling wine and pasta sauce branded with The Godfather’s famous logo.

“It’s the historical heart of the Mafia and the home of the Riina and Provenzano families, which have become household names to true-crime fans because they were behind the mob wars of the 80s and 90s,” said Russo.

“The bombings, the numerous assassinations, the war they waged on the Italian state was so insane it turned the whole country against them. But in that cemetery in Corleone, where the godfathers are buried, you have a pair of beautiful new mausoleums with the remains of two politicians that gave their lives in the anti-Mafia struggle. And in the old town you can visit the anti-Mafia museum, and on the hill above that you can see that Riina’s tacky mansion has been turned into a police station.”

Many towns in Sicily, and especially its largest city of Palermo, have deep and intriguing Mafia ties, although in many places the wounds are too fresh and the mobsters still too real to exploit it openly.

The town of Cattolica Eraclea, hometown of longtime Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto. Adrian Humphreys/National Post

“I’d also recommend Caccamo on the north coast, which is dominated by a dramatic Norman castle but has a more recent history of a thoroughly corrupted city hall,” said Russo. “You can see the local godfather’s house just a few blocks from the reformist politician he ordered to be killed.”

In Sicily, the Mafia’s birthplace, a vibrant and youthful anti-Mafia movement has led to Mafia property being seized and repurposed for community businesses and tourism, such as homes and vineyards. Many stores display an Addiopizzo logo, meaning they refuse to pay the “protection” money extorted by the Mafia.

This allows tourists to support the fight against the Mafia as they travel the island.

There are important underworld sites that true crime buffs and mob researchers gravitate to in other countries where the mob seized an outsized share of underworld attention.

In Canada, for example, visitors to Montreal sometimes take a drive to a strip mall at 4891 Jarry St. E., which once housed a social club called Club Social Consenza, used as the headquarters for the Montreal Mafia.

Club Social Consenza at 4891 Jarry St. E, Montreal, known as the headquarters for Montreal mafia. Postmedia

In the 1980s, 90s and into the 2000s, this is where Mafia patriarch Nicolo Rizzuto came most days. A lucky visitor could watch him wander in, looking like any elderly man, and hang his fedora on a coat rack. Inside he would meet with a rotating cast of many of the most powerful mobsters in the country.

Few tourists ventured inside. When I did they claimed the coffee machine was broken but all the men seated at the tables had a warm cup in front of them.

Eventually, the RCMP installed hidden cameras and audio recorders in the club and the evidence against the Rizzutos and their red-faced visitors, including prominent businessmen, was explosive. After the Rizzutos’ arrest and several murders, the club shut down.

At last check, it housed a woman’s clothing boutique.

In New York City, one of the big draws for mob tourists is 247 Mulberry St., once home to the Ravenite Social Club in the heart of the city’s old Little Italy.

This was the headquarters for John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family. As wth the Consenza in Montreal, the Ravenite was a revolving door of mobsters coming and going, often being quietly photographed by the FBI hidden across the road.

The FBI wired up an apartment above the club where Gotti would go to discuss important business and the evidence would finally help bring the Teflon Don down in the 1990s. The building was seized and auctioned off.

The site of the Ravenite is now a trendy women’s show store.

In Chicago, the site of one of the favourite hangouts of Al “Scarface” Capone, a leading Prohibition-era mob boss, remains much closer to its roots than other former mob clubs.

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge at 4802 N. Broadway Ave. was once partially owned by Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, a Capone henchman who was charged, but not convicted, with orchestrating the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a mass murder of Capone’s rivals in 1929.

The Green Mill remains a nightclub featuring live jazz, some Capone memorabilia and the circular, green-upholstered booth where Capone held court.

While some places try to hide mob connections, Las Vegas, of course, brashly boasts its tawdry past. Many popular movies document the mob’s interest in the city’s casinos and Vegas hosted a parade of American gangsters, including Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

Today, the Mob Museum is a popular tourist destination in a city that seems to be nothing but. It has interactive exhibits and artifacts of both the mobsters and law enforcement trying to fight them, appropriately housed in a restored 1933 former courthouse at 300 Stewart Ave.

The mob continues to play an evolving role in the history of cities around the world. Reliving it, especially when it is in the distant past, can be kitschy and fun.

In places where people still live in the shadow of powerful crime figures, where the Mafia’s reign has not yet waned, it is a far more visceral, emotional and dangerous experience.

But even in Sicily, the birthplace of the Mafia, there is wide-spread and public anti-Mafia activity and seeing and experiencing that resistance, that defiance, is as uplifting and beautiful as any vista a tourist could hope to see.

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