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Has The Italian Mafia Ever Existed In San Francisco?

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I’m Italian on my mom’s side of the family, and everyone I know with even a drop of Italian blood has a fascination with the Mafia or its more spicy name, “Cosa Nostra,” which in Italian means “Our Thing.”

As someone from the West Coast, I couldn’t help but notice that pretty much all of the Mafia stories I read about primarily take place on the East Coast, and not just New York City; Philadelphia, New Jersey, Rhode island, Boston and Chicago (technically the Midwest) all have had major mafia families operating in them at one time or another. 

So, what about the West Coast? And, more specifically, what about San Francisco? 

When speaking about the Mob in terms of the West Coast, there has been more of an emphasis on Los Angeles. L.A was in fact home to notorious gangsters like Mickey Cohen and is where Bugsy Siegel was murdered, likely on order from Lucky Luciano due his inability to get the The Flamingo Hotel up and running in Las Vegas. Fun Fact: despite both being connected to the Italian Mob, Bugsy and Mickey were both Jewish.

Bugsy and Mickey were both representing interests back east, they were not running their own crime families similar to those synonymous with the East Coast. 

So, were there any Italian crime families operating on the West Coast? Yes. Where? San Francisco!

While they didn’t achieve the name recognition that the Five Families of NYC did, the Lanza Crime Family was an active Cosa Nosta family and the FBI had an eye on them for years.

FBI Leadership chart of the San Francisco Crime Family from the 1970s.

James Lanza, at the time, the underboss (second-in-command) of the family was one of the first Mobsters in American history to receive major media attention. However, the attention wasn’t flattering, Time Magazine described Lanza’s San Francisco-based family as “tiny and ineffectual.” according to Christina DiEdoardo’s book, Lanza’s Mob: The Mafia and San Francisco

While it is true that the San Francisco Family was small, only around 20 members were officially “made,” which means they were formally inducted into Cosa Nostra, and few associates, they exerted control over unions on Fisherman’s Wharf, ran successful gambling and loansharking operations and just like every other mafia family in the country, there were multiple killings. 

What San Francisco’s Crime Family lacked in headlines, it made up for by maintaining its secrecy. 

The story of the Mafia in San Francisco, while similar, is less dramatic than what was happening on the East Coast. There were no hits as big as the murder of Paul Castellano, no celebrity dons like John Gotti or famous informants like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, but what San Francisco’s Crime Family lacked in headlines, it made up for by maintaining its secrecy. 

It may be hard to envision this today, but the Mafia was intended to be a secret society.

It may be hard to envision this today, but the Mafia was intended to be a secret society. Members of the Mafia were never supposed to bring attention to themselves. However, as the years went by, the Mafia became central figures in American pop culture. John Gotti regularly signed autographs and wore handmade Italian suits with price tags north of $5,000. Joe Bonanno even wrote a book detailing how the Mafia was structured while he was still in the Mob. Rudy Giuliani credited Joe Bonanno’s book, “A Man of Honor,” with helping him create the RICO statute. RICO allowed the entire chain of command to be charged with the crime of one singular person as long as it could be proven that the crime was committed to favor the gang or criminal enterprise. In a more contemporary example of the Mafia being anything but a secret, former mobsters like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and Michael Franzese now have popular podcasts, Youtube channels and and book deals. 

The San Francisco Family, under James “Jimmy The Hat” Lanza, made their money and did everything they could to avoid law enforcement and media attention. While the New York mob’s modern history is littered with big hits and lengthy prison sentences, James Lanza died peacefully in his bed at 103 years old in San Mateo on February 14th 2006.

You could argue that the San Francisco Mafia was truer to the Mafia code than New York since barely anyone knows anything about them which, you know, was the point…

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Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff is a San Francisco-based writer, editor and digital content creator known for Bay Area Memes, a local meme page that has amassed nearly 200k followers. His work has appeared in SFGATE, The Bold Italic and of course, BrokeAssStuart.com. His book of short stories, personal essays and poetry entitled Don't Drown on Dry Ground will be available early 2022.

2 Comments

  1. Omerta
    January 6, 2022 at 3:48 pm — Reply

    those that know know that San Jose called the shots in San Francisco

  2. Windy Bloch
    January 6, 2022 at 5:32 pm — Reply

    My grandmother worked (as either a secretary or para-legal) for the SF mafia – until she found out who she was working for, and quit…their office was located in north beach, in the building where Francis ford Coppola’s restaurant was housed…she got involved, because someone (who rented a room in her mother’s boarding house, after her father had died) had taken an “interest” in her, and often invited her to be his companion at lavish dinner parties – which she claimed was how she learned good manners, this person also paid for clothing (including a full length blue velvet coat w/white fur trim) but she balked at accomplishing him on a trip to NYC…this man, set her up with a “good job” and I think paid for secretarial school for her – she had no idea he worked for the mafia, but apparently treated her very nicely (no sexual favors were involved, she said)…this would’ve occurred during the flu pandemic and into the early roaring 20’s

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