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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 5, Slice 2 "Camorra" to "Cape Colony"

by Various

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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....