It used to be a secret ceremony built around the concepts of honor, loyalty and family.
But like so much else surrounding the American Mafia, it has now become part of pop culture. Ask anyone with even a passing interest in Cosa Nostra about the mob’s “making ceremony” and you’re likely to get chapter and verse on how it all goes down.
The once sacrosanct rite of passage has been written about repeatedly in newspapers, magazines and books and has been reenacted on-screen in mob movies and television series. Its value diminished, it has become window dressing, a tradition to which all members pay lip-service but in which fewer and fewer truly believe.
A proposed member swears to “live and die” by the gun and the knife that are lying on the table in front of him. His trigger finger is then pricked with a pin, blood trickles out onto a holy card or (more recently) a piece of tissue paper. The initiate then cups the card or paper in his hands. It’s set on fire and as he gingerly works the card or paper into ash, he swears that he will burn in Hell if he betrays any member of the crime family.
Joe Valachi was the first to publicly describe the Mafia blood oath when he testified before a U.S. Senate committee back in 1963. He was at the front of what is now a long line of Mafia informants who have provided details about the ceremony.
But even more disheartening for true believers is the recent phenomenon of law enforcement secretly recording the supposedly secret ceremony.
It happened in Bedford, MA, back in 1989 when members of the Patriarca crime family gathered in a home in that Boston suburb to induct several members into the organization. The feds got wind of the plan and managed to wire the house for sound. It was the first of four known instances of law enforcement recording and listening to an American Mafia induction.
And six years ago in Canada authorities managed to tape a ceremony conducted by members of New York’s Bonanno crime family, which has always had connections north of the border.
“The recording of a secret induction ceremony is an extraordinary achievement for law enforcement and deals a significant blow to La Cosa Nostra,” said the acting U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn whose office was coordinating a drug and weapons investigation that led to the taping.
The other two examples of this “extraordinary achievement” have involved the Philadelphia crime family.
The late George Fresolone, working for the New Jersey State Police, wore a body wire to his own initiation ceremony back in 1990. Fresolone, a member of the Newark branch of the Philadelphia crime family, was one of five members initiated that day. He wrote about it in his book “Blood Oath.”
Acting mob boss Anthony “Tony Buck” Piccolo conducted the service in a home in the Bronx, Fresolone said, and told the five new members that Cosa Nostra was a thing of honor, not a thing of business.
Piccolo was old school. Fresolone said he was living in the past.
“Nothing could have been further from the truth,” the Newark wiseguy wrote. “It might have been different in the old days, but I found very little honor in organized crime. It was every man for himself, every man trying to earn top dollar, doing whatever he had to do and not caring who he hurt.”
Fresolone’s tapes and testimony led to the convictions of dozens of mob members and associates, including Piccolo. The fact that he wore a wire to his own secret initiation was an embarrassment to the local crime family.
His then singular achievement has since been matched by Anthony Persiano, a federal informant, who wore a wire and recorded his initiation back in October 2015, according to documents in a racketeering case brought in Philadelphia late last year.
Most of the hierarchy of the Philadelphia crime family was on hand for the ceremony which, according to government documents, was conducted by acting boss Michael Lancellotti. Other mob leaders who were present included Steven Mazzone, Domenic Grande and George Borgesi. All have been described as “targets” of a major federal investigation along with crime boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, who now spends most of his time in Florida, and North Jersey mob capo Joseph “Scoops” Licata.
To date, only Steven Mazzone and Domenic Grande from that target group have been charged in a racketeering case which was announced with their arrests in November. Thirteen other mob members and associates have also been named in the indictment which focuses on allegations of drug dealing, extortion and gambling. The investigation is based on hundreds of tapes made by Persiano and an undercover law enforcement operative he introduced into the alleged criminal conspiracy.
The tapes figure to be the linchpin of the prosecution of Mazzone, Grande and any of the other defendants who opt to go to trial. In one motion filed late last year, authorities made reference to the staggering number of tapes that had been amassed by Persiano and the undercover and then pointed to the making ceremony
Mazzone, authorities said, “attended an official LCN induction ceremony for codefendant Salvatore Mazzone [his brother] and other new LCN members [including Persiano].”
During that ceremony, those being proposed for membership were shown a gun and a knife on a table in front of them and asked, “Now, you’ll use these, for us. Right?”
There is only one correct answer to that question, of course, and after answering in the affirmative, each proposed member was told to repeat the lines: “If I betray this family, betray my friends, I’ll burn in hell forever.”
Persiano was wired for sound and recording it all as he swore this blood oath. The fact that he was even at the table that day adds yet another embarrassing twist to the tale.
Fourteen years ago, Persiano, a con man and hustler with a checkered criminal past, was working for and aligned with Nicky Scarfo Jr. in a multimillion-dollar financial fraud case built around a struggling Texas banking firm known as FirstPlus Financial. At that point, Scarfo, like his father, had become persona non grata with the local mob.
Testimony in the FirstPlus case, which resulted in the convictions of Scarfo and his top associate, Salvatore Pelullo, referenced a making ceremony in which Persiano, Pelullo and Salvatore Piccolo (the nephew of Tony Buck) became members of a rump mob family linked to Scarfo and his jailed father. Pelullo was the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the FirstPlus scam, authorities said. Persiano and Piccolo worked for Philadelphia-based companies tied to the Texas bank. Many in the underworld described their making as bogus and called them pretenders.
Yet a few years later Persiano was able to insinuate himself into the local crime family, strap on a wire for the feds and make his way to the table for another mob initiation.
His tape from that meeting back in October 2015 will no doubt be played for the jury if and when Mazzone and Grande are tried. The tape is said to include Steve Mazzone, in a pep talk not unlike the one delivered by Tony Buck Piccolo, telling the new members that it wasn’t about what they would get from the organization, but rather what they would bring to it.
A cynic might suggest that in today’s Mafia, the only thing members worry about getting or giving is cash. Honor and loyalty are things of the past. So it was somewhat ironic that the making ceremony ended with Persiano, Mazzone and all the other “men of honor” shouting a toast to “La Famiglia!”
Like so much else in the Mafia in Philadelphia—and across America for that matter—it was little more than lip service paid to a value system that, if it ever existed, had long since been abandoned.