By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor
On April 12, 2019, the city of New Orleans issued an official apology for its role in the 1891 lynching of eleven Italian Americans who had been tried and acquitted in the murder of the city’s police chief, David Hennessy. Gunned down while walking home on a rainy evening in October 1890, Hennessy allegedly stated that “dagoes” had attacked him. In the days following Hennessy’s death, upwards of 250 of the city’s Italian Americans were arrested, and nineteen men—the youngest only 14 years old—were indicted for murder. A trial for nine of the suspects began in February 1891. Much of the evidence and testimony provided at the month-long trial was weak, contradictory, and overwhelmingly circumstantial. On March 13, 1891, a jury acquitted six of the men and declared a mistrial in the cases against another three.
The verdicts unleashed a fury in New Orleans, where anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant. A group known as the Vigilante Committee convened that same evening and published an announcement in local newspapers in which they called for a mass meeting to address the “failure of justice.” It advised those who planned to attend the meeting to “come ready for action.” On the morning of March 14, a mob of between 8,000 and 20,000 people gathered in the heart of New Orleans. As members of the Vigilante Committee addressed them, the crowd grew increasingly agitated. Amid calls of “Hang the dagoes!”, the mob, armed with pistols and shotguns, marched toward the prison where the exonerated men were being held. The execution squad stormed the jailhouse and shot nine men, including prominent merchant Joseph Macheca, shoemaker Pietro Monasterio, and fruit peddler Antonio Marchesi. Emmanuele Polizzi, who was known to be living with a mental illness, and Antonio Bagnetto, a fruit salesman, were dragged outside the jail and hanged.
The heinous crime was carried out with the tacit approval of local government, and those who participated included a city leader, a well-known attorney, and a local newspaper editor. The future governor of Louisiana and the future mayor of New Orleans were also members of the lynch mob. Astoundingly, many media outlets, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, praised the actions of the mob and even blamed the victims for their own deaths. The New York Times opined, “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 mitigation….Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.” The Los Angeles Times’ jubilant headlines read, “Slayers Slain—Leading citizens take part [in] a great popular revolt against the failure of law.” The Times proclaimed, “It served them right” and went on to describe the gruesome deaths with palpable glee.
News of the lynching resonated far beyond New Orleans. Italian American communities in the United States organized protests while the Italian media expressed horror and outrage over what had occurred. After the United States government refused to hold the killers accountable for their acts, Italy briefly severed diplomatic relations with America.
The New Orleans lynching, although relegated to a footnote in history, has long impacted the lives of Italian Americans, though, ironically, many Italian Americans remain unaware of the event. The lynching popularized the word mafia in the American vernacular and, from that point forward, crimes, including minor infractions attributed to Italians, were said to be the work of the “mafia.” With the advent of motion pictures, the mafia trope would be widely exploited by filmmakers, a phenomenon which goes hand-in-hand with a near obsession with the mafia that continues to this day.
Like many Italian Americans, I grew up without any knowledge of the lynching. It was not until I was in college that I first learned about the tragedy, not through a course or text book, but by reading the works of Italian American scholars Richard Gambino and Salvatore LaGumina. I came to understand how the circumstances that precipitated the New Orleans lynching extended far beyond the murder of the police chief. Many powerful New Orleanians resented the growing presence and economic might of Italian newcomers in the Crescent City. Among the victims were Italian Americans who had risen to prominence at the New Orleans waterfront, and, shortly after their murders, the city awarded control of the docks to a corporation led by members of the lynch mob, in an obvious attempt to eliminate the Italian American competition.
The New Orleans lynching was, in fact, one of several that claimed Italian Americans as victims. Between 1890 and 1910, Italian Americans, then a small percentage of the region’s population, comprised approximately 40 percent of the Caucasian victims of southern lynch mobs. This knowledge would help me develop a keener understanding of the complex history of race and ethnicity in America and the issues it encompasses that traverse far beyond black and white. It shed light on why many of our ancestors remained Italian in their private lives while adopting public personas that emphasized Americanism.
The New Orleans lynching also brought me closer to my own family’s history. Like thousands of Sicilians, my grandmother’s family immigrated to New Orleans in the late 1800s to fill the labor shortage that ensued following the abolition of slavery. My great-grandfather and great-uncle (then only 12 years old) entered the United States via the Port of New Orleans in 1897, approximately six years after the lynching. They worked in the sugarcane fields of Louisiana and sent for the family that remained in Sicily. Perhaps my great-grandfather saw the writing on the wall in New Orleans; anti-immigrant sentiment was among the reasons he elected not to remain there any longer than necessary. The family continued west to Pueblo, Colorado, a city then known as “the Pittsburgh of the West,” which, while offering an array of economic opportunities, was not devoid of racism. In the years that followed, the Ku Klux Klan seized control of the state’s Republican Party and came to dominate local politics. Italian immigrants, because of their Catholic faith and outsider status, were among the hate group’s targets.
In the weeks leading up to the city of New Orleans’ apology for the 1891 lynching, media outlets across the country and in various parts of the world covered the story, including CNN, The Washington Post, ABC, and the BBC. This chapter of United States history and Italian American history was finally being afforded some daylight. After receiving an invitation from the Calandra Institute on Tuesday, April 9, to attend the proclamation of apology to be held three days later, I decided that witnessing this historic event was too great an opportunity to miss and promptly purchased a plane ticket.
A standing-room-only crowd attended the event, which was held at the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans. New York-based attorney Michael Santo and members of theOrder of Sons and Daughters of Italy in America Social Justice Committee, who had spearheaded the effort, were the first to address the crowd. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell followed. “What happened to those eleven Italians was wrong, and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology. At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” Cantrell stated. “This attack was an act of anti-immigrant violence,” she continued. “New Orleans is a welcoming city, but there remain serious and dark chapters to our shared story that remain untold and unaccounted for.”
One thing that struck me about the event was the living history that filled the room. Sitting next to me were the descendants of lynching victim Joseph Macheca. They shared how the murder had deeply affected generations of their family. Also present was one of Chief Hennessey’s descendants and a descendent of one of the individuals who participated in the lynch mob. For over 100 years, the families had lived and worked in close proximity in the Crescent City. On that day, they found themselves in the same room to acknowledge a century-old tragedy that had affected their lives in diverse ways.
Later that day, I had the opportunity to discuss the 1891 lynching with Laura Guccione, a New Orleans native and friend, whose research examines the culinary legacy of Sicilians in the American South. While I had no knowledge of the lynching growing up on the West Coast, Laura offered a different perspective on the act of vigilante violence, which is known in and around New Orleans as the “Who killa da chief?” scandal. Phrased in a mockery of the Italian American dialect, “Who killa da chief?” remained a taunt used to insult Italian Americans in New Orleans well into the 1990s. It was one of her earliest lessons in prejudice directed at Italian Americans, specifically those of Sicilian ancestry, like her family.
At the heart of any apology is the commitment to not repeat a mistake. The newfound spotlight on the New Orleans lynching has the potential to bring Italian Americans closer to the varied nature of our experiences as immigrants in this nation. It also reminds us of the years when we were the Others, and when anti-immigrant rhetoric was employed against us with deadly results.