When watching Marlon Brando hoarsely whisper about offers you can’t refuse in The Godfather, it’s easy for viewers to think that the mafia enjoyed an elegant lifestyle. But for the actual crime families who inspired this classic, every day was filled with brutality. Real-life gangsters weren’t so much gentleman outlaws as starving rats fighting over the same scraps of food. Theirs is a story of greed, betrayal, and constant bloodshed.

Amazingly, the general public didn’t know about the official existence of the mafia until 1963. Ex-gangster Joseph Valachi, staring down a life sentence, flipped on his pals and testified as a government witness. Even lawmakers had trouble grasping just how powerful the Mob really was.

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