On Sunday Ideas ran a story by scholar Diego Gambetta about a newly discovered, encrypted document that details the secret initiation ceremony of the mob. It makes mob culture out to be every bit as cloaked and idiosyncratic as you'd hope (absent witnesses to the initiation rite are symbolized by knotted handkerchiefs).
A few years earlier Gambetta gave an interview with the website Five Books that was full of more strange, and strangely scintillating, facts about the mob. In discussing his five favorite mob books, which included a pair of histories and a book-length interview with the most important Mafiosi to turn state's witness, Gambetta dropped a number of mob trivia gems: how the mob developed as a protection racket out of the lawlessness of the post-feudal years in 18th century Italy; how a jack of spades dropped at your doorstep means mind your own business (and the queen of spades means something much worse); and how the mob has assassinated one dogged, anti-mafia judge after another.
One particularly important factoid from the interview is that the term "mafia" dates to the mid 1800s and is likely derived from the Italian word for "thug." The etymology is a reminder, as Gambetta points out, that real-life mobsters are less shadow princes like Don Corleone, and more Tony Soprano-style street toughs.
You can read the whole interview here.
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