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Beware the queen of spades (and other facts of Mafia life)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 4, 2014 03:41 PM

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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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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