Our Darkest Hour: Anarchy, a Lynch Mob and 11 Souls Lost

How the murder of a New Orleans police chief gave way to a feverish vendetta against innocent Italians.

By: Roseanne Montillo, ISDA Contributor

Who Killed the Chief?

It was the evening of Oct. 15, 1890 in the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana.  The skies had opened earlier in the day, and by the time darkness fell, a heavy soaking rain washed over the city. Superintendent of Police, David C. Hennessy, 32 years of age, found himself returning home after attending a meeting held by the Board of Police Commissioners at City Hall.  Prior to going home, he had stopped for a few minutes by his office, located at the Central Police Station at south Basin and Common Streets.  He remained there less than an hour, tidying up some paperwork and speaking to the officers on duties at the station.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and at about a quarter past eleven he bid everyone goodnight and left the premises.

As he reached the door, he was met by his close friend, Captain William J. O’Conner of the Boylan Detective Force. Although it was getting late, Chief Hennessy invited Detective O’Conner to accompany him to eat some oysters, an invitation the detective accepted.  The two moved away from Basin Street, which became muddy on rainy nights, thus they walked over to South Rampart Street.  From there they turned further south on the lakeside of Rampart, crossed Gravier and Perdido, and just before Poydras Street, settled into Dominic Virget’s Oyster Saloon.

New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy

Inside the restaurant the two shared a dozen oysters, which the chief washed down with a glass of milk, and after finishing the two left Rampart Street, crossed over Poydras and Lafayette, and, on Girard Street, separated, Chief Hennessy heading west, then north toward 275 Girard Street, nearly halfway between Basin and Franklin Street.

As his home came into view, a barrage of gunfire was heard, and, moments later, Chief Hennessy lay on the ground gasping for air.  It was reported later in the papers that he had been able to unload his gun and shoot one of his assailants, of which, according to unknown witnesses who later decided to talk, there were three, or perhaps four; no one knew for sure, but these witnessed reckoned that up to seven could have been involved.

The chief’s neighborhood was densely populated, but as it is often the case, at the precise moment he had been gunned down no one had been walking the streets, it seemed.  Captain O’Conner, who had just left the Chief at the oyster house, heard the shots and quickly ran toward him, only to find him mortally wounded and slumped on the ground, gasping for air and whispering in a low, barely understandable voice.

Captain O’Conner asked Chief Hennessy who’d shot him. Had he seen the criminals?  Could he identify them?  Chief Hennessy motioned O’Conner to lean in closer, and placing his ear by Hennessy’s lips, O’Conner heard him whisper, “The Dagoes did it.”

He was then taken to the hospital, where family and friends had gathered, a priest found and last rights administered. Although his wounds were patched up, everyone knew that there was nothing to do.  As it happened, Chief Hennessy lingered through the night, dying the following morning at 9:06 a.m.

The death of a police officer always elicited the greatest response from the public and his own colleagues, and this was no different, particularly when, before dying, the chief himself had accused Italians of his own murder.  Mayor Shakespeare, who already despised the “breed,” swore in Captain John Journee as the new Superintendent, and together assigned every officer in the city with the task “to arrest every Italian” they’d come across.  The officers heeded the call and that day and into the night, while scouring New Orleans, they arrested dozens of Italians, the hunt bringing in over a hundred of them to be locked up into the city’s jails.  Although these Italian men were deemed suspects, the reality was that the police had nothing on them save for their nationality.

The suspects were interrogated for hours, some even days, but even Mayor Shakespeare and Superintendent Journee had to agree on certain facts: they had nothing to hold them on.  The majority of prisoners were released, but a good number of them remained in the city’s jails.

The general theory was that the Chief had been killed by a murderous organization transplanted to New Orleans from Sicily.  This had been done in retaliation to his efforts to rid the city of Italian criminals and counterfeiters.  According to the New Orleans Police Department, as of late most of the crimes committed in the city had been done by Italians, through their so-called vendettas.

Before becoming chief, Hennessy’s work as a detective had involved solving and investigating those crimes taking place in “vendetta alley,” a location between Dumane and St. Phillip Street.  Vendetta Alley was frequented by Sicilians who committed their deeds in bars and tenement houses located within this alley, the rumor went.  One of the families Hennessy had spent years investigating was the Provenzano family, and by some coincidence, the members of the Provenzanos were set to go on trial for murder around the time the chief was killed.

On the morning after the chief’s murder, a notice in one paper called on New Orleans’ people to meet “to assist the officers of the law in driving the murderous Mafia from our midst.”

The mayor appointed a committee of prominent citizens, which became known as the Committee of Fifty, “Whose duty shall be to thoroughly investigate the matter of the existence of secret societies or bands of assassins, which is openly charged  . . . in the assassination of the highest officer of the police department and to device necessary means and the most effective and speedy measures for the reproaching and total annihilation of such hell-born association.”

This was the excuse most city officials had been waiting for.  Up until this point, they had seen a great influx of immigrants, particularly Italians, coming into their city, their belief being that most of them were nothing more than criminals and paupers.  The murder of Chief Hennessy gave city officials an excuse to accuse everyone that up until this point they had thought of as having criminal inclinations.

Dozens of Italians were arrested and from the moment they were jailed, all of them were threatened with violence if they did not confess.  The Committee of Fifty ordered the reporters not to talk to the prisoners, nor to run articles about what was happening in the jails, but of course, this did not happen.

On November 9th, a grand jury began to examine witnesses in the case.  The courthouse was closed for hearings, and after eleven days they brought indictments against nineteen Italian individuals for murder and shooting; that said, most of the case was based on circumstantial evidence, as there was no real proof against any of them.

A trial date was set for February 16, 1891 in St. Patrick Hall.  Popular interest had intensified in the case, not only in New Orleans, but throughout the country, with the best legal minds chiming in.  Thus, the stage was set for one of the most spectacular trials the city had ever seen.

Nearly 1,400 individuals were summoned as potential jurors, all of them “conscientious” people.  After the jury was selected and seated, the trial formally got underway, with 67 witnesses for the state.  The days dragged on, with reporters having a field day covering the events.

Not a week after the trial began, Manuel Politzo confessed to the murder.  It was not what the public or the detectives had anticipated or expected, although he had a good story to back up his claim.  Politzo spoke of a meeting that was held in a seedy room on Vendetta Alley just the night prior to Hennessy’s murder, where lots were cast to determine who would be involved in the killing.  He’d been chosen as one of the ones to participate, and though he’d been reluctant at first, he had been paid a great deal of money to go through with the murder.  Although it was a great confession and all the pieces fit in nicely, it was also very timely, some said, and incredibly convenient.  Officers came to believe that this confession had been elicited by the true murderer in order to misdirect the investigation.

Although those who were seated as jurors were said not to fear repercussions from the so-called mafia, the state suspected that the Italians would find ways to intimidate jurors into a non-guilty verdict. A detective was placed behind the jury box to watch for suspicious behavior coming not only from the accused themselves, but also from those friends of theirs who sat in the courtroom.  Word also trickled in that while retiring home, money had been offered to the jurors by shady individuals to ‘act right,’ or else; or so the papers reported.  Vague descriptions of dark-skinned, dark-eyed men sporting mustachios and bowler hats were circulated, but nothing concrete materialized.

Despite the fact that jury tampering was never confirmed, the city assumed that it was true and in New Orleans, as in everywhere else where the trial was being followed, people were furious that these men would dare to try such tactics.  A further backlash of hatred grew against the Italian-American community everywhere.

Still, the reality was that the state had no proof that these men had killed the chief, or anyone else, for that matter, and when the verdict came down, it reflected so: not guilty.  The masses across the city showed their disapproval with outcries of “guilty as charged!” and “Who killed the chief!” as the prior suspects were hurried from the courthouse to a secure location, which turned out to be their former jail cells.

Although citizens had not gotten the results they had wished for, it didn’t mean that they weren’t about to mete out the kind of justice they believed was deserving.  And in some measure, it would resemble that “vendetta” they often chided the Italians of being guilty of.

On the day the verdict was read it had rained morning and afternoon, turning the streets to muck.  Still, as night fell a group of citizens gathered at number 7 Commercial Street in the office of W. S. Parkerson, who up until that point had been a member of the Committee of Fifty, one of those who had been assigned to gather the Italians for interrogation.  But the new group that got together had other things in mind.  They had allowed the law to run its course, they complained, but obviously it had not worked.  Perhaps there was something more they could do?  They spoke into the night and agreed on several things: one, they’d have to take the law into their own hands, and two, their new name would henceforth be the Vigilance Committee.

On the following day, they posted a notice in the morning papers: “All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14, at 10 o’clock a.m. at Clay Statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy Case.  Come prepared for action.”

Nearly 8,000 people amassed in front of the Clay Statue, then located near the corner of St. Charles and Canal Street. There, the people were addressed by W.S. Parkerson, Walker D. Denegre, and John C. Wickcliffee, who showed not only dissatisfaction with the outcome of the trial, but outright disgust. Their words further inflamed a crowd that had already reached the boiling point.

The meeting ended at 10:15, and as soon as the last words were spoken, the crowd made a mad dash toward the prison, where the Italians who’d been accused of the crime were staying.

The Treme Street entrance of the prison was guarded by heavily armed guards, but nearly two dozen men gained entrance and made their way down its corridors.  Captain Davies, aware of what was happening, opened the doors to the cells and allowed the Italians freedom to escape.  Fearful, the men scampered outside, unsure of where to hide, ten of them concealing themselves in the women’s wings of the prison.  But the mob was adamant and searched everywhere, finding every single one of them and killing eleven of them on the spot.

Of the rest of the Italian men, two were roped, taken outside and hanged, one to a tree and one to a lamp-post.  Of those who died, three had been tried and acquitted, five had never been tried, and three more had been tried and found innocent. The rest escaped.

After the lynching, with the dead on the ground and the two hanging in the square, the mass dispersed into the night.

On the following morning, editorials began to appear and some of them supported the event.  The Item wrote, “The military precision, skill, and rapidity with which the prison was stormed and taken, the care exercised to be no harm except to the special object of their vengeance, are all commended . . .”

And The Times Democrat had this to say: “Desperate diseases require desperate remedies . . . we are sure to have plenty of censure and vituperation heaped upon us by outside communities for our yesterday’s proceedings, but the censures and vituperation will not hurt, emanating either from ignorance or from malice.”

Although most newspapers approved of the actions taken by the citizens of New Orleans, others did not.  Newspapers across the state and the country denounced the behavior of these individuals, The St. Louis Dispatch declaring, “It is hoped that the leading citizens will get the same punishment they meted out to the Mafia,” though none of those who’d died had been involved in organized crime activities.

For the most part, international papers were outraged.  The London Times reported, “Italy’s indignation is shared by the whole civilized world.”

Although a Grand Jury was convened, it reported that the assembly at Clay statue “embraced several thousand at first, the best and even the most law-abiding citizens of the city.”  No one had been hurt in the gathering on Canal Street, and no property had been damaged.  The Grand Jury report continued: “The magnitude of the affair makes it a difficult task to fix guilt upon any number of participants.”  Everyone had participated, and no particular guilty party could be found.  The examination of the affair “failed to disclose the necessary facts to justify this grand jury in presenting indictments.”  What it really meant was that no one would be charged with murdering the Italians.

Secretary of State James G. Blaine assured Pasquale Corte, the Italian Consul in New Orleans, that this incident was not directed against the Italians as “a race,” but only toward a specific few.  An earlier correspondence between the two had been less than cordial.  Weeks earlier, Corte had written to Blaine and explained his fears that his countrymen were being maltreated while held prisoners.  But Blaine, in a less than polite note, had replied: “The Sicilian who comes here must become an American citizen and subject his wrongs to the remedy of the law of the land, or else there must be no place for him in the American continent.”

Now, these Italians were dead, thanks in part to the laws that handful of them had taken into their own hands.  And no one would pay for those crimes.

Given that no formal indictment was brought against the guilty party and that Secretary Blaine had been unable to remedy the situation, on March 31st, 1891 the Italian Minister Baron W. Faic, announced that upon instructions from the Italian government, he was withdrawing from Washington and severing diplomatic relations with the United States.  This turn of events caused not only a great stir politically, but also much frenzy throughout the country, where many Italians were immigrating.

On December 9, 1891, in a message to congress, President Benjamin Harrison declared that the Italian incident was a “most deplorable and discreditable incident,” and “an offense against law and humanity.”  It did not “have its origin in any general animosity to the Italian people, nor in any disrespect to the Government of Italy, with which our relations were of the most friendly character.”

To further show that there was no animosity toward the Italians, President Harrison subsequently paid reparations of $25,000 to the Italian government.  He announced this on his annual message of December 6, 1892.  Although this appeased the Italian community in the United States and abroad, President Harrison was heavily criticized for it, particularly by the New Orleans papers, who did not appreciate their actions being referred to as “a most deplorable and discreditable incident.”

From afar, leaders read the papers and kept abreast on the occurrences in New Orleans.  There were several things that struck them, one of them being that now there was something new to worry about: what the vigilance committee had done in New Orleans seemed to reflect the mob mentality they had lately seen in other cities as well.  With the influx of immigrants gaining ground daily, how long before citizens such as the vigilance committee took matters into their own hands and lynching became the law of the land?  They feared the answer to that.

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