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New mafia book stands out because of the background of its author, an ex-mobster

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: You could fill a whole library with books about the mob and the history of the Mafia. A brand-new edition stands out thanks to the background of its author, Louis Ferrante. His new book is titled "Borgata: Rise Of Empire."

LOUIS FERRANTE: I was a criminal from when I was 13. I hijacked my first truck when I was 17. I led a hijacking heist crew of armed robbers within the Gambino crime family. We would get tips on either a heist or a hijacking - a truck coming out of the airport, say, for example, and we took it. You know, even safes, vaults - we did everything. And that's the only life I knew. You know, every day you just wake up, and it's just another crime. And that's all I did. And I loved it. I did indeed love it, I have to say.

The FBI hunted me, and to their credit, they got me. I was hit with racketeering indictments. I had three indictments. I eventually did go to jail. And we were able to get a plea without cooperating. I never informed. I never cooperated. But - so I took the 13 years, and I docked a life sentence. And in that time, I began reading. I fell in love with books. I taught myself how to write and had an opportunity to reflect on all the things I had done. And obviously, the regrets began to pile up. But until then, I loved it.

MARTÍNEZ: So reading the book - I mean, it's volume one, and it seems like you really got down to basics, covering the first 100 years, from Sicily in the 1860s to the 1960s mob in the U.S. Why did you decide to start there?

FERRANTE: Every Mafia movie, documentary and book that I've seen or read - they never get deep into the the origins of the Mafia. They just sort of glaze over it and say, well, it began with feudalism. And then there's a word or two on the subject and they move on to the glory pots, which is quick reading, good casual entertainment for people. So I dug deep, and I spent over a year just researching and studying where it may have come from. And I did confirm that it did start with feudalism in Sicily, and I was able to make comparisons that people never did between the Mafia and feudal society, between a lord of a manor and his vassals being identical to the relationship between a Mafia don and his soldiers.

And the reason why it was so powerful in Sicily - it boils down to family life, the family structure in Sicily. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, the family unit is the strongest government in the world. And each family was its own sort of entity. An extended family gave the patriarch a lot of power, and I think that was the key to Sicilian bonding. And then, as they point out - Marc Bloch, who's a feudal historian - he said they were able in feudal times to have extended families who they considered blood even though they were non-blood relations. And that's how the families grew bigger and bigger and more powerful.

And what is a mafia? It's a mafia family. And it's basically just an extension. The Gambinos were a perfect example of how one family unit became this giant extended family - i.e., the Gambino crime family.

MARTÍNEZ: So then how did it evolve in America? Was it simply just a case like we think it is, where Italian immigrants just kind of came over and wanted to protect themselves in a brand-new world?

FERRANTE: Part of it is exactly that. The reason why they left Sicily was a lot of the Mafiosos were considered criminals by the new government after the unification of Italy. Before that, they were sort of like revolutionaries. They were people who defended the people. And then suddenly they were called criminals. So a lot of them - they were becoming fugitives and heading to the United States and making a new life for themselves here. And a lot of them just came during the massive immigrant waves from Sicily and southern Italy.

And as they came here, a lot of them - like you said, they just banded together. There was a lot of discrimination in the United States against Italians, and a lot of them banded together and said, hey, look, if we're going to survive this ordeal, we're going to have to stick together. But there were a lot of hardworking Italians - I do point that out throughout the book - that had nothing to do with the Mafia, and a lot of times they suffered because of things the Mafia did.

MARTÍNEZ: Was there a moment, an event, something early on in the history of the Mafia in the United States, where it cemented power, or at least it gave the Mafia a sense, like, hey, we're here to stay, we've got some juice and America and whoever else has got to deal with us.

FERRANTE: Yes, I would say it's during Prohibition. When alcohol was outlawed - that was a key moment because the public was against that, and the public wanted alcohol. They had the closest-knit underworld group, the Italian Mafia, and they were able to deliver alcohol to the people who desperately wanted it. And they weren't seen anymore as these animals who were killing people in the street, they were seen as just people supplying the public with a demand.

And because of all the people they were able to corrupt throughout the Prohibition era - the politicians they once had, the judges they once had - they were able to continue those corrupt relationships post-Prohibition, after it was repealed. You know, they just kept running with it from there, and - until they controlled political machines across the United States and metropolitan areas everywhere.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, back in the early 1990s, I was sucked into the saga of John Gotti. And around that time, the movies "Goodfellas," "Casino," "A Bronx Tale" came out - it felt like the Italian Mafia was just ubiquitous with America, just another slice of American culture.

FERRANTE: (Laughter) Exactly.

MARTÍNEZ: What's the biggest myth or misconception that most people have about the Mafia?

FERRANTE: A lot of people do think it's glamorous, given the movies and television shows, but it's brutal. There are a lot of people who get killed for no reason at all but greed, deceit, its ambition, and people die for nothing every day.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing, Lou. What do current Mafia members or past Mafia members or people you know that you've known in the Mafia - what do they think about what you've written down?

FERRANTE: You know, when I write, I have to be careful. I don't want to uncover anything new that might send somebody to prison. That would bother them, obviously. But so far they've been fine with it. They know that I never cooperated. I had every opportunity to snitch and I refused. I faced the rest of my life in prison.

I was in a maximum security penitentiary when I approached the bosses and underbosses who were with me, and I said to them, hey, look, if I never get out of here, if I have to leave in a pine box, I will. You know, I'll die in prison. I made this decision. I'm here. I'm not blaming anybody but myself. But if I can get out of here, I would like to go on my own. And they all said, sure. You know, with all the people snitching on them, they were happy to see somebody requesting an honorable discharge.


FERRANTE: And that's basically how I left the mob.

MARTÍNEZ: So you can get an honorable discharge from the mob - no blood in, blood out?

FERRANTE: It used to be - not anymore. And they've been fine with me ever since. So I was in Staten Island last month, and I bumped into a lot of guys, many of them who are active. You know, I kept it short - hello and goodbye, big hug and a kiss, and we kept moving. Yeah. And I'm careful not to say anything that would really, really upset them. But...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

FERRANTE: ...I do see people now. I mean, I bump into people...


FERRANTE: ...All the time, and they're fine with me.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Lou Ferrante, author of a new nonfiction trilogy about the mob. Volume 1 is out now. It's titled "Borgata: Rise Of Empire - A History Of The American Mafia." Lou, thanks a lot.

FERRANTE: Thank you so much, A. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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