Since the unification of Italy in 1861, the island of Sicily, as well as the southern half of the mainland, has always had an ambivalent relationship with the Italian state. Fiercely independent, they have often resented central government interference in their affairs. Moreover, the island of Sicily has always had a reputation for criminality. It is, after all, the island in which mafia gangs first emerged. This is what happened after the German and Allied invasions of Italy in 1943: the German puppet state called the Italian Social Republic controlled the northern half of the country, while the southern half continued as the legitimate Kingdom of Italy. But with all of the turmoil, government infrastructure and law and order began to break down. It is at this point in time that Salvatore Giuliano (1922-1950), the ‘last people’s bandit’, flourished in Sicily.
Giuliano was born in Montelepre, Sicily to a peasant family on 16 November 1922. He received a rudimentary education by attending the local school, but he was forced to leave the school in 1935 to help his father on the farm when his older brother joined the army. He soon grew tired of farm life, however, and decided to set up his own business in trading olive oil. When World War Two broke out, he supplemented his income by working as a labourer building roads, although he left this job after a dispute with his employer.
During the war, Giuliano often traded on the black market. Indeed, the existence of the black market was vital for many of the peasants so that they could obtain cheap food, and up to seventy per cent of food was supplied to Sicily through the black market. After the Allied Invasion of Sicily, however, the authorities were determined to stamp this out using both of Italy’s police forces, the Carabinieri and the Polizia. On 2 September 1943, Giuliano was stopped at a Carabinieri vehicle check point. His baggage was searched and he was found with two sacks of grain. Giuliano offered to just give up the grain to the authorities in return for his release, but the officer was having none of it. Giuliano therefore drew his pistol and shot the officer dead. Afterwards, he took the mountains and hid out there for a while.
Deprived of both his legitimate and illegitimate incomes, Giuliano became an outlaw, and soon gathered about him twenty men in similar circumstances. He genuinely only ever stole from rich travellers, although this was for practical reasons as well as humanitarian ones. The rich had more money that could be plundered, whereas it was pointless taking from the poor peasants as they had very little. He then redistributed this stolen money to the poor, like a true Robin Hood, which earned him allies among the local populace. The rich were just a convenient cash cow, however, and his main enemies were members of the Carabinieri, and throughout his career he and his men killed over eighty seven of these law enforcement officers.
He became something of an international star, and held numerous interviews with journalists. The noted U.S. journalist Mike Stern published many of his pictures of Giuliano in the American press. In addition, poems and songs were sung about him. For this reason, Eric Hobsbawm says that Giuliano was the last true Robin Hood type of outlaw.
After the war, prominent Sicilian politicians began agitating for Sicilian independence: in their eyes the island had always been treated badly, it had a different culture, and it had been neglected under fascism. Union with Italy had not benefitted it either socially or economically. Demands for autonomy were denied by all three of the main political parties in central Italy: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Consequently, instead of being a small scale highwayman, eking out a living by plundering, in 1945 he got political and publicly declared his support for the Sicilian Independence Movement. As we noted earlier, Sicilians’ relationship with the central Italian government has always been fraught with tension. His main enemy was still the Carabinieri, and now his attacks upon them were justified because they were the representatives of the central Italian state.
The Carabinieri responded to these attacks by often imprisoning and interrogating members of his family. Indeed, his home town of Montelepre was placed under siege and occupied by the law. But still they could not catch him; neither the family nor the villagers would betray him. The only way to apprehend him was to do what law enforcement officers have always had to do when they need to arrest bandits: they convinced one of Giuliano’s gang, Aspanu Pisciotta, who had been Giuliano’s closes friend, to betray him.
Consequently, on 5 July 1950, Pisciotta shot Giuliano while he was sleeping, although the police lied and told the public that Giuliano died in a gun fight with a fellow gang member. Hardly anyone believed the official account, however. The Carabinieri commanded that the funeral be held in private, so as not to heroise the young outlaw in the public eye any further than he was already.
Pisciotta was never granted immunity by the authorities. And he was killed by poison in his cell on 10 February 1954 by a member of the mafia. The last member of Giuliano’s faithful band of men was released in 1980.
Giuliano, as the last ‘good outlaw’ the world has ever seen, was quickly mythologised in popular culture: the film Salvatore Giuliano was released in 1961; Mario Puzo, the author of the Godfather, has written a novel entitled The Sicilian (1984), which was made into a film a few years later in 1987, starring Christopher Lambert as Giuliano, while the opera Salvatore Giuliano opened at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in 1985.
Billy Jaynes Chandler, King of the Mountain (Northern Illinois University Press, 1988)
Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London, 1969)
Gavin Maxwell, God Protect Me from My Friends (London, 1956)