“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations…These men of the Mafia killed Chief Hennessy in circumstances of peculiar atrocity…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.”
–The New York Times Editorial Board (March 16, 1891)
Following the murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy on Oct. 16, 1890, a feverish vendetta took hold and several Italian immigrants were rounded up and arrested without just cause. Nine of the 19 men who were indicted went to trial and the jury found none of them guilty of any crime.
In reaction to this — on March 14, 1891 — a mob formed outside of Parish Prison. The rioters broke inside and dragged 11 of the Italian immigrants out of the prison. Those Italians were hung, shot, and clubbed to death in the city streets—marking the largest lynching in American history.
None of the roughly 8,000 to 20,000 vigilantes — who were armed with Winchester rifles, axes and rope — were ever charged.
Reputable newspapers and politicians applauded the cold-blooded murders.
“CHIEF HENNESSY AVENGED,” read the front page of The Times following the lynchings.
According to The Washington Post:
“The Daily Picayune declared the violence a ‘marvel of moderation,’ while to the New Delta, the deaths were little more than a day’s work. ‘This done, the people hurried back to their usual avocations, and the sun went down upon a peaceful city,’ the paper wrote, before the bodies had even been buried.”
One of The Post’s headlines read: “Vengeance Wreaked on the Cruel Slayers of Chief Hennessy.”
Theodore Roosevelt, then serving on the United States Civil Service Commission, wrote to his sister Anna Roosevelt Cowles on March 21, 1891 (seven days after the murders):
“Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.”
128 years later, on April 12, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell offered a proclamation of apology for the lynchings at the American Italian Cultural Center. The proclamation was drafted and set in motion by special counsel Michael Santo, and Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America
Santo, along with ISDA, have requested that The New York Times issue an apology of its own, and acknowledge the grievous errors it committed in sympathizing with the lynch mob (other culpable newspapers should follow suit as well).
The Times is the world’s most influential and respected journalism institution, which now diligently works to shed light on, expose and delegitimize prejudiced people and groups in America. It would, at this point, behoove The Times to publish an apology in conjunction with the New Orleans proclamation.
The advent of Columbus Day celebrations, which began in earnest a year after the lynchings, was a massive undertaking by Italian immigrants to restore a sense of dignity and self worth for themselves in light of the rampant anti-Italian hostility that the lynchings precipitated throughout the country at that time.
The Times and its Editorial Board owe this apology to the victims and their families, and to Italian America at large, for spreading such ill-conceived remarks.
Please join us, and demand that The New York Times publish an apology:
Mail: The New York Times Company, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018
Click here to contact the paper’s Editorial Board