1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Camorra

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CAMORRA, a secret society of Naples associated with robbery, blackmail and murder. The origin of the name is doubtful. Probably both the word and the association were introduced into Naples by Spaniards. There is a Spanish word camorra (a quarrel), and similar societies seem to have existed in Spain long before the appearance of the Camorra in Naples. It was in 1820 that the society first became publicly known. It was primarily social, not political, and originated in the Neapolitan prisons then filled with the victims of Bourbon misrule and oppression, its first purpose being the protection of prisoners. In or about 1830 the Camorra was carried into the city by prisoners who had served their terms. The members worked the streets in gangs. They had special methods of communicating with each other. They mewed like cats at the approach of the patrol, and crowed like cocks when a likely victim approached. A long sigh gave warning that the latter was not alone, a sneeze meant he was not “worth powder and shot,” and so on. The society rapidly extended its power, and its operations included smuggling and blackmail of all kinds in addition to ordinary road-robberies. Its influence grew to be considerable. Princes were in league with and shared the profits of the smugglers: statesmen and dignitaries of the church, all classes in fact, were involved in the society’s misdeeds. From brothels the Camorra drew huge fees, and it maintained illegal lottery offices. The general disorder of Naples was so great and the police so badly organized that merchants were glad to engage the Camorra to superintend the loading and unloading of merchandise. Being non-political, the government did not interfere with the society; indeed its members were taken into the police service and the Camorra sometimes detected crimes which baffled the authorities. After 1848 the society became political. In 1860, when the constitution was granted by Francis II., the camorristi then in gaol were liberated in great numbers. The association became all-powerful at elections, and general disorder reigned till 1862. Thereafter severe repressive measures were taken to curtail its power. In September 1877 there was a determined effort to exterminate it: fifty-seven of the most notorious camorristi being simultaneously arrested in the market-place. Though much of its power has gone, the Camorra has remained vigorous. It has grown upwards, and highly-placed and well-known camorristi have entered municipal administrations and political life. In 1900 revelations as to the Camorra’s power were made in the course of a libel suit, and these led to the dissolution of the Naples municipality and the appointment of a royal commissioner. A government inquiry also took place. As the result of this investigation the Honest Government League was formed, which succeeded in 1901 in entirely defeating the Camorra candidates at the municipal elections.

The Camorra was divided into classes. There were the “swell mobsmen,” the camorristi who dressed faultlessly and mixed with and levied fines on people of highest rank. Most of these were well connected. There were the lower order of blackmailers who preyed on shopkeepers, boatmen, &c.; and there were political and murdering camorristi. The ranks of the society were largely recruited from the prisons. A youth had to serve for one year an apprenticeship so to speak to a fully admitted camorrista when he was sometimes called picciotto d’ honore, and after giving proof of courage and zeal became a picciotto di sgarro, one, that is, of the lowest grade of members. In some localities he was then called tamurro. The initiatory ceremony for full membership is now a mock duel in which the arm alone is wounded. In early times initiation was more severe. The camorristi stood round a coin laid on the ground, and at a signal all stooped to thrust at it with their knives while the novice had at the same time to pick the coin up, with the result that his hand was generally pierced through in several places. The noviciate as picciotto di sgarro lasted three years, during which the lad had to work for the camorrista who had been assigned to him as master. After initiation there was a ceremony of reception. The camorristi stood round a table on which were a dagger, a loaded pistol, a glass of water or wine supposed to be poisoned and a lancet. The picciotto was brought in and one of his veins opened. Dipping his hand in his own blood, he held it out to the camorristi and swore to keep the society’s secrets and obey orders. Then he had to stick the dagger into the table, cock the pistol, and hold the glass to his mouth to show his readiness to die for the society. His master now bade him kneel before the dagger, placed his right hand on the lad’s head while with the left he fired off the pistol into the air and smashed the poison-glass. He then drew the dagger from the table and presented it to the new comrade and embraced him, as did all the others. The Camorra was divided into centres, each under a chief. There were twelve at Naples. The society seems at one time to have always had a supreme chief. The last known was Aniello Ansiello, who finally disappeared and was never arrested. The chief of every centre was elected by the members of it. All the earnings of the centre were paid to and then distributed by him. The camorristi employ a whole vocabulary of cant terms. Their chief is masto or si masto, “sir master.” When a member meets him he salutes with the phrase Masto, volite niente? (“Master, do you want anything?”). The members are addressed simply as si.

See Monnier, La Camorra (Florence, 1863); Umilta, Camorra et Mafia (Neuchâtel, 1878); Alongi, La Camorra (1890); C. W. Heckethorn Secret Societies of All Ages (London, 1897); Blasio, Usi e costumi dei Camorriste (Naples, 1897).