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In the hysteria following the murder of a New Orleans police chief, 11 Italian-Americans were lynched by a vigilante mob angry about the city’s influx of immigrants. Here’s how the past and future of American nativism may not be that different.

A light rain fell on New Orleans on October 15, 1890, as Police Chief David Hennessy left the central police station with his colleague and friend Capt. William O’Connor just after 11 p.m. The young chief turned toward Basin Street, heading for the home he shared with his widowed mother. O’Connor went in the opposite direction, up Girod Street. Hennessy rarely walked home alone; for the past three years, he had done so in the company of bodyguards. That night he was alone.

Not far from his mother’s doorstep, Hennessy staggered as gunfire ripped into his side. One of the bullets pierced his liver and settled in his chest, another shattered his right leg. The skin around his wounds cratered with bird shot. Hennessy drew his revolver as he turned to face his assailants and fired three or four times, but they had slipped into the night.

O’Connor, who heard the gunshots from blocks away, turned and ran through the fresh mud and found his friend bleeding to death on the ground. The way O’Connor remembered it, Hennessy called out, “Billy, Billy.” As O’Connor approached, Hennessy said, “They have given it to me, and I have given it back the best I could.”

“Who gave it to you, Dave?” O’Connor asked.

O’Connor said that Hennessy beckoned for O’Connor to bring his head closer, as Hennessy whispered one word into his ear.

“Dagoes,” he said.

David Hennessy

Hennessy didn’t die immediately. He didn’t think he was going to die at all. When his mother joined his bedside at Charity Hospital the next morning at 8 a.m., he told her, “I’ll be home by and by.” His colleagues sent for his priest. By 9, the chief was dead, and by 9:15, mourners were gathering outside the hospital. Police officers, according to press accounts, wept openly as they vowed revenge. Hennessy’s body was removed to his mother’s home, where a stream of mourners clustered.

Hennessy’s funeral was the biggest the city had seen since former Confederate President Jefferson Davis had been laid to rest. Mourners arrived as early as 6 a.m., a line of them had gathered around the block by 10. His casket lay open behind a glass display; his hat, belt, and club lay upon it. Newspapers described an “uninterrupted procession throughout the day,” lasting into the night. A band led the funeral procession to the cemetery, more than a mile long. The city’s fire stations rang their bells in requiem. Steamboats in the harbor flew their flags at half mast.

Although Hennessy had been unable to identify his assailants and O’Connor had arrived after they escaped, the word Hennessy had whispered to O’Connor told Mayor Joseph Shakspeare all he needed to know. At a city council meeting shortly after, Shakspeare declared, “We must teach these people a lesson that they will not forget by all time.”

New Orleans Picayune

“No community can exist with murderous societies in its midst,” Shakspeare said. “A Sicilian who comes here must become an American citizen and subject his wrongs to the remedy of the law or else there must be no place for him on the American continent.” The room erupted in applause.

Within hours of Hennessy’s death, the New Orleans police would raid the Italian colony in the city, arresting hundreds, according to the New York Times, and detaining them at the central police station. According to Richard Gambino, a historian and author of Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in US History, a crowd thronged outside the police station “screaming obscenities” and chanting “who killa da chief” at the prisoners as they were loaded into mule-drawn prison wagons to be taken to Orleans Parish Prison. When a largely female group of relatives of the Italian immigrants being detained arrived to call for the immigrants’ release, they were “pushed around, struck, and driven away by the crowd.” One of the suspects, Antonio Scaffidi, was shot in the face by Thomas Duffy, a friend of Hennessy’s who had come to the prison as a witness to identify suspects. Newspapers sympathetically called it an attempt to “avenge” Hennessy.

The press cheered the arrests, repeating Shakspeare’s contention that there was no doubt that Hennessy had been killed as a result of “Sicilian vengeance,” the victim of a mafia conspiracy. The anti-immigration movement of the time saw Italian immigrants as poisoning American racial purity and unfair competition for domestic workers, as dangerous foreign radicals and incorrigible criminals sent to the United States by a hostile foreign government. Religion, economic forces, and terrorism shaped white Americans’ views of Italian immigrants as fundamentally foreign, as unwanted competition for labor, and as carriers of violent radicalism.

America now stands more divided over immigration than it has since the 1920s, cleaved between two nationalisms — one pluralistic, one exclusive — each claiming to represent the country as it should be. These were placed in vivid contrast at the Republican and Democratic conventions, where the Republican nominee vowed to ban Muslim immigration and Democrats introduced the country to the father of a slain American Muslim war hero.

Left to right: Rudy Giuliani, Paul Manafort, and Chris Christie. Getty Images (3)

Donald Trump’s entire candidacy has been premised on purging the United States of the foreign enemies within as a means of restoring national greatness. Among his most trusted surrogates are men like Paul Manafort, Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani, who now speak of Muslims and Mexicans in the same tone and language that was once reserved for their Italian-American ancestors, targeted by the nativist movement that began in the late 19th century.

But this incident — and the way the accompanying fervor was spread in the national press — helped define the character of Italian immigrants for Americans for generations, providing proof of their fundamental dangerousness for the anti-immigrant backlash that followed.

Before long, the local police would whittle their list down to 19 suspects. By March, 11 of them would be dead, murdered in an act of bloody public rage so massive that weeks afterward, a grand jury would conclude that the entire city was to blame.

At first, Italians came to Louisiana to replace black Americans in the fields. According to historian Paolo Giordano, Louisiana attracted more Italian immigrants than any other state, more than 64,000 between 1860 and 1920, complicating white Southerners’ attempts to enforce the color line in the aftermath of Reconstruction.

A New York Sun article in 1899 described Italians as “a link connecting the white and black races. Swarthy in color the Sicilians are darker than the griffes and quadroons, the Negro half-breeds of southern Louisiana.” Many Italians seemed not to grasp the nuances and rituals of Southern white supremacy, and their willingness to hire, do business, and socialize with black Americans infuriated their white hosts.

The lynching of the 11 Italians in New Orleans is often billed as America’s worst mass lynching. In truth, it was not even New Orleans’ worst mass lynching — 34 black people had been killed in a white supremacist uprising in the city in 1866. (Although Italian immigrants in Louisiana continued to be subject to lynch law after 1891, it was in far smaller numbers than black Americans.)

At the time, the spirit of nativism — hostility to an internal minority based on the belief that it constitutes a foreign threat to the nation’s character — was growing all over the country. Labor unions feared the competition for low-wage labor. Anti-Catholicism, still a strong force in American politics, saw the Catholic Italians as a malevolent foreign force capable of undermining American democracy, while Irish Catholics were suspicious of Italians because the recently unified nation had dispossessed the Catholic Church of its territories during unification. Though the Irish had once been the main targets of American nativists, the story of American nativism is one in which the old immigrants, once objects of hatred, easily become the persecutors of the new.

Italians were also seen as intrinsically violent. “The disposition to assassinate in revenge for a fancied wrong,” remarked one Baltimore newspaper, “is a marked trait in the character of this impulsive and inexorable race.” Following violent labor conflicts, some involving immigrant workers, Americans began to see immigrants as importing a dangerous foreign radicalism. Nativist observers concluded that Italians were unassimilable, because they clustered into Italian neighborhoods.

Circa 1870: The docks of New Orleans, a major port on the Mississippi River, Louisiana. Otto Herschan / Getty Images

As it turned out, Italian immigrants in Louisiana were not content to confine themselves to the fields. If they weren’t exactly white yet, they definitely weren’t black, a reality that gave them freedom to move, to own property, to start and buy businesses that served white customers. According to historian John Baiamonte Jr., “by 1890 the Italians owned or controlled more than 3,000 wholesale and retail businesses in New Orleans,” and the city itself “relied upon the Sicilian-controlled market for a supply of fresh food.”

A labor feud between two Italian factions in the fruit trade would come to define the meaning of Hennessy’s death for New Orleans and the country at large for decades to come.

New Orleans in the 19th century was a violent place, from its culture of “chivalric honor” to the force required to maintain white supremacy, wrote historian Dennis Rousey. Even before the arrival of Italian immigrants, in the 1850s, New Orleans’ homicide rate was eight times greater than that of Philadelphia.

The Irish-American Hennessy was no stranger to that violence. His father, a Union Army veteran turned police officer, was shot dead in 1867 in a bar fight. Gen. Algernon Sidney Badger, the elder Hennessy’s former commander, took David Hennessy under his wing as he took charge of New Orleans’ integrated Reconstruction-era police force, the Metropolitan Police, and made Hennessy a messenger boy. Newspapers later described the young Hennessy as having a “particular aptitude for detective service,” even as a youth.

In 1874, 5,000 members of the white supremacist White League rose in open revolt against the state’s Republican government, successfully engaging the integrated Metropolitan Police in a bloody battle in which more than 60 were killed and temporarily driving the police from the city until federal troops arrived to restore order. Hennessy became a detective in the new force, whose organization was overseen by Gov. Francis Nicholls, a former Confederate general and Democrat supported by the White League.

David and his cousin Michael Hennessy became national heroes in 1881 after helping capture an Italian murderer named Giuseppe Esposito in New Orleans, who had been living in the US under a fake name. Esposito was returned to the custody of the Italian government and tried for murder, but his fate is unclear. Gambino writes that he spent life in prison; an 1892 New York Times obituary states he was executed by beheading.

Being a hero cop didn’t spare Hennessy from the same sort of bloody feuds that took his father from him. Michael and David Hennessy were later acquitted of murder after a fatal 1882 shoot-out with a rival cop. Michael later moved to Houston, where he was shot in the back four times by an unknown assassin in 1886.

David Hennessy resigned from the police department soon after and became a private detective, then was chosen by Mayor Shakspeare to be chief of police in 1888. Though portrayed in the press as a highly religious, straitlaced teetotaler, according to Baiamonte, Hennessy was invested in, and helped provide protection for, brothels in New Orleans’ red-light district, along with Joseph and Peter Provenzano, Italian immigrant businessmen involved in fruit shipping.

In 1886, the Provenzanos lost their contract with Italian-American fruit importer Joseph Macheca for unloading shipments on the docks to a rival Italian firm run by Tony and Charles Matranga. In 1890, a group of Matranga stevedores, including Tony, were ambushed by a group of men with guns. The Provenzanos were prosecuted, but the verdict of guilty was overturned by the judge, who ordered a new trial. Newspapers speculated that the Matrangas killed Hennessy because they blamed him for the Provenzanos’ acquittal, surmising that he had uncovered evidence that would also implicate the Matrangas.

The Matrangas and Provenzanos publicly accused one another of being mafiosi, which provided fodder for press reports concluding that New Orleans was subject to a reign of terror by the mafia. Although the Provenzanos and Matrangas were Italian and involved in a violent feud with one another, historians have noted that it was extremely un-mafia-like for them to violate the code of silence not only by speaking openly about the mafia, but also by seeking to prosecute one another in court.

Nevertheless, Mayor Shakspeare’s public declaration, echoed by the press, that the murder had been an act of “Sicilian vengeance” further fueled the notion that secret societies of Italian murderers had taken control of the city. Macheca had led a group of Italian volunteers known as the Innocenti in violently assaulting black voters in the New Orleans race riot in 1868, and fought alongside the White League in 1874. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a suspect in Hennessy’s murder.

Shortly after Hennessy’s death, Shakspeare appointed a committee of “50 leading citizens” to lead an inquiry into the activities of the mafia in New Orleans. The liaison between the committee and the council was William Parkerson, who, according to Baiamonte, was Shakspeare’s former campaign manager. Belmonte, citing historian John Kendall, describes the Committee of 50 as a “continuation” of the now-defunct White League. Their mandate was, in the words of one council member, to “thoroughly investigate the matter of the existence of secret societies or bands of oath-bound assassins” and to “devise necessary means and the most effectual and speedy measures for the uprooting and total annihilation of such hell-born association.” On October 23, the committee issued an open letter encouraging Italians to come forth with information on crimes involving Italians, warning, “We intend to put an end, peaceably and lawfully if we can, violently and summarily if we must. Upon you and your willingness to give information depends which of these courses will be pursued.”

Chicago Daily Tribune, October 21, 1890

The police soon whittled down the suspect list to 19 men of Italian descent, including Macheca and Charles Matranga, accusing them of organizing a conspiracy to assassinate Hennessy. Even though none of the witnesses had seen the suspects’ faces, historians write that the possibility that Hennessy’s assailants were not of Italian descent was never seriously contemplated.

The crackdown on Italian immigrants in New Orleans terrified Italians across the country. In New York City, the Italian-language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano excoriated English-language newspapers for assuming the guilt of the accused and tried to raise money for their defense. (English-language newspapers implied that the defense was funded by the mafia.) Italian-American newspapers correctly perceived the events in New Orleans as an attack not on the mafia, but on Italian immigrants.

As to why Shakspeare was so fixated on the Italian community, Gambino locates the conflict as rooted in a battle between two rival factions of the Democratic Party — one associated with Italian immigrants, “The Ring,” and Shakspeare’s faction, identified as “Reform Democrats.” According to Gambino, Shakspeare didn’t want to simply prosecute Hennessy’s potential murderers — he wanted to ruin the political and economic power of the Italian-American community.

“By destroying Joseph Macheca, New Orleans’ most prestigious and wealthy Italian, and by persecuting the entire Italian community, the ‘dagoes’ would be put in their place,” Gambino writes. “Many of their motives and interests were camouflaged as they portrayed their actions as a crusade against the ‘mafia.’” It wasn’t just that they hated Italians — it was that they were seen as a threat to the traditional racial and political hierarchy of the city.

Shakspeare’s personal animosity toward Italians, though expressed in the language of concern over crime and assimilation, may have been just the opposite. The problem wasn’t that Italians did not want to become part of American society, to work hard or participate in the political process. It was that they did.

An Italian immigrant family on a ferry from the docks to Ellis Island, New York. Lewis W. Hine / Getty Images

Beginning in the 1890s, Northeastern patricians embraced racial pseudoscience, arguing that America’s pure “Nordic” racial stock was being polluted by the detritus of Southern and Eastern Europe. They found common cause with the white supremacists of the American South, whose commitment to that principle had once strained their commitment to the Union. Now the old white families of Northern Republicans were united with the Democrats of the old Confederacy in their new nativism, and their shared commitment to the defense of the purity of the white race in America. The decades after were filled with breathless tales of mafia misdeeds, as almost any criminal behavior committed by Italian immigrants was attributed to mafiosi.

Then, as today, immigrants were having a tremendous impact on American politics and culture. Between 1880 and 1920, the percentage of Americans who were foreign-born hovered around 14%, similar to the proportion of Americans who were foreign-born in 2010, 12.9%. Then, as today, many Americans greeted the new immigrants with alarm, fearing that they were losing their country to foreigners.

If the charges against Italian immigrants were that they were criminals, kept to themselves, did not assimilate, and were prone to radicalism, other immigrants fared little better. Congress felt no need for any pretense toward racial equality as it passed one immigration law after another targeting Chinese immigrants. As immigration historian John Higham wrote, “The Jews, on the other hand, lost in reputation as they gained in social and economic status.” If immigrants appeared to resist assimilation, they were a nefarious foreign element that had to be purged. If they assimilated, they were vulgar and greedy and had to be excluded from polite society. Ultimately the only consistent principle of the nativists was their unwillingness to share the country with anyone deemed foreign.

The nativist movement that began in the late 19th century culminated in a series of restrictive immigration laws targeting Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans (particularly Italians and Jews) that sought to preserve the “racial character” of the United States. In 1924, Republican Sen. David Reed of Pennsylvania, the author of one of those bills, was clear about his intentions in the New York Times: “The racial composition of America at the time is thus made permanent.” They had taken their country back.

Higham writes that nativism, fueled by the nationalism of World War I, the failures of the progressive movement, and postwar depression, provided a ready answer to white Americans’ struggles. “Most important, perhaps, was the beleaguered feeling of so many old-stock Protestant Americans,” wrote historian Roger Daniels. “Immigrants and their non-Protestant cultures, they felt, represented a serious and sustained challenge to American values.”

That the immigrants themselves overwhelmingly embraced those values was utterly irrelevant.

The New Orleans grand jury indicted 19 of the Italian immigrant suspects for Hennessy’s murder, but only nine were put on trial, for reasons Baiamonte writes remain unexplained. Those put on trial included Macheca; Charles Matranga; Scaffidi, who had been shot in the face by a Hennessy supporter; Bastiano Incardona; Antonio and Gasparo Marchesi; Antonio Bagnetto; Pietro Montaserio; and Emanuele Polizzi. Some of the men were Americans; several were Italian citizens.

The English-language press was certain the police had their men. “From what we have learned there is hardly any doubt but that the five men who committed the crime and the villainous brains that gave birth to the foul plot are among those now in jail,” wrote the Sun.

Chicago Daily Tribune, October 21, 1890

It took until February to convene a jury. More than 780 people were called over 12 days; historian Barbara Botein writes that it took that many jurors before they could find 12 men who did not oppose the death penalty or hate Italians.

Although the press had portrayed the police case against the accused as ironclad, at trial prosecutors had a much harder time proving their guilt. (A pretrial undercover sting by the Pinkerton Detective Agency successfully placed one of their agents in Orleans Parish Prison, but he failed to extract a single piece of incriminating evidence.) Several witnesses testified to seeing Italians leave the scene of the crime, but none of them had seen their faces. The defense provided alibis for many of the accused. The case against Macheca was largely based on hearsay, with witnesses saying they had heard him threaten Hennessy’s life over the outcome of the Provenzano trial. One of the men on trial, Emanuele Polizzi, confessed both to the murder and to being part of the mafia, but he displayed overt signs of serious mental illness. At one point during trial testimony, he began loudly clapping his hands and attempted to leave the courtroom before being restrained by the bailiff.

The people of New Orleans watched the trial with interest. The New Orleans Picayune reported that on the day of closing arguments, the court was packed beyond capacity, and “the rule as to standing room could not be enforced.”

By the end of the trial, the judge had told the jury to acquit Matranga and Incardona for lack of evidence. Although the Picayune had described the work by both the prosecution and the defense as “masterful,” it left no doubts about what the verdict should be.

On March 13, 1891, the jury declared a mistrial for three of the defendants and acquitted the other six. The judge nevertheless ordered them all confined to the Orleans Parish Prison. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, the “verdict was received by the great crowd outside the courthouse with shouts of rage” and “threats of lynching.”

Later that night, Parkerson said, about 150 men met to discuss the verdict. “We all signed a call that was published in the next morning’s papers, asking the citizens to assemble at 10 o’clock A.M., Saturday, at Clay statue, and saying that we would be prepared to carry out their instructions.” The call, which was appended with the full names of dozens of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, told readers to “come prepared for action.”

Pasquale Corte, the Italian consul in New Orleans, was already fearing for the lives of the Italian prisoners the night of the verdict, and responded with alarm to the “call to action” in New Orleans newspapers. Corte saw men gathering with Winchester rifles at the statue of Henry Clay in Lafayette Square as early as 9 a.m. He rushed to Mayor Shakspeare’s office for aid, but found only the local sheriff and district attorney, both of whom “appeared to me very calm and anticipating what was about to happen.” He sought out Gov. Nicholls, imploring him to send troops to the prison to protect the accused. Nicholls replied that his hands were tied until Shakspeare asked for his help.

The mob was growing. John C. Wickliffe, described as a “prominent attorney,” asked the crowd, “Shall the Mafia be allowed to cut down our citizens on the public streets by the foul means of assassination? Shall the mafia be allowed to bribe jurors, to let murderers go scot free?”

Parkerson also addressed the crowd. “I desire neither fame nor name, nor glory,” he said, according to the Sun. “I am a plain American citizen, and as such, and as a good citizen I am here. I am here to say that things have come to such a crisis that talk is idle. Action must be the thing now.” The crowd cheered.

The mob headed for the prison, stopping to gather weapons: “double barreled shotguns, Winchester rifles, and pistols were handed out to responsible and respectable citizens of the party.” The paper assured its readers that this was no “unruly midnight mob,” but “simply a sullen, determined body of citizens.” Parkerson would later tell an interviewer that the crowd was composed of “lawyers, doctors, bankers, and prominent citizens generally. It was the most obedient crowd you ever saw.” Only the best people.

“The Lynching of Italians at New Orleans: The Lynchers Breaking Into the Prison.” Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Outside, police attempted to prevent the mob from entering. Parkerson sent a group to break in the side door, while the main mob tried to break down the front door. According to the Atlanta Constitution, the mob, at the prison to avenge the murder of a police officer in the name of law and order, easily overpowered the police guarding the prison. The crowd, “swelling all the time like a mighty, roaring stream, surged around the door and crowded the little band of bluecoats away.” Inside the prison, the guards released the Italian prisoners, allowing them to find hiding places. Gasparo Marchesi, the 14-year-old boy the prosecution had accused of being the lookout for the hit squad that killed Hennessy, hid under a box across the hall from his father Antonio, waiting for the mob to reach them.

As the mob broke open the side door to the prison, a detachment of police arrived, but were driven off “under a fire of mud and stones.” When the mob broke into the yard, some of the prisoners indicated to the armed men where the Italians were hiding.

Trapped with nowhere to run, the Italian prisoners were slain one after the other. Rocco Geraci was killed by a shot to the back of the head. Antonio Scaffidi was shot in the eye. Frank Romero was gunned down on his knees with his face pressed into his hands. Pietro Monastero and James Caruso were gunned down together, as were Charles Traina and Loretto Comitz. According to Gambino, Joseph Macheca was shot in the head while raising a club to defend himself. Hiding under a box, the younger Marchesi almost certainly would have heard the blast that killed his father. Afterward, as the mob pulled him from his hiding place, the New York Times reported that he “tried to tear out his eyes” in grief, having learned that his father had been killed.

Sem / Getty Images

Antonio Bagnetto was shot in the head, but the crowd dragged his body outside and hung his corpse from a tree anyway. The New York Times reported that most of the Italians “had been shot through the brain, and made a horrible sight as they lay weltering in blood and brains.”

As described by Once a Week: The Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, the crowd pulled Emanuele Polizzi outside and strung him up by a tree. The rope broke. They strung him up again but Polizzi pulled himself up the rope by his hands. One of the mob climbed up and punched Polizzi in the face, but Polizzi kept pulling himself up, so the crowd bound his hands. Finally, Polizzi hanged. The crowd cheered, fired a volley of bullets into his corpse, then grabbed at his body for macabre souvenirs. By the time Corte arrived, he saw bodies hanging in the trees, the mob already beginning to disperse. Terrified, he retreated to his office where Italian residents were already gathering to beg for his protection.

Some of the prisoners survived, either by hiding, or were simply spared by the mob. The press insisted that some of the men had been spared because they had not been tried, but several of the dead had also not faced trial.

Outside, their bloodlust satisfied, Parkerson ordered the mob to disperse. The New York Times reported that the crowd lifted him on their shoulders and cheered, marching down the street. The Sun wrote that “the avengers” marched to the Clay statue and then melted away. According to press reports, after the lynching, the jury foreman, a jeweler named Jacob Seligman, was pushed out of his job and himself nearly lynched by a mob as he fled town.

Once a Week: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper (1889–1895), March 24, 1891

Parkerson insisted that despite leading the mob, he did not get his hands dirty. Nevertheless, his interviewer asked, “Did it not strike you as not courageous to shoot the lot of unarmed men in a hole?”

“There was no doubt of the courage of any man in our party. Of course, it is not a courageous thing to attack a man who is not armed, but we looked upon these as so many reptiles,” Parkerson replied.

Asked whether he regretted the incident, Parkerson offered a novel constitutional theory for justifying the lynching of eleven unarmed men — that the passion of a mob superseded any law that might bind them.

“I recognize no power above the people. Under our Constitution the people are the sovereign authority,” Parkerson explained. “And when the courts, the agents, fail to carry out the law the authority is relegated back to the people, who gave it.”

The mass lynching of the 11 prisoners in New Orleans sparked an international incident. Italian diplomats demanded that the United States protect the Italian residents of New Orleans and punish the lynch mob, as a condition of a treaty between the two countries guaranteeing Italian subjects in the US the same rights as American citizens. US Secretary of State James G. Blaine insisted that, despite the treaty, the federal government had no jurisdiction to punish those responsible for the massacre. Gov. Nicholls assured Blaine that the matter was being investigated, but that “the action taken was directed against particular individuals, and that the race or nationality of the parties did not enter as a factor into the disturbance.” This conclusion was at odds with the declarations of the mob itself.

Both countries recalled their ambassadors, and rumors of war between Italy and the United States began to fly. According to Higham, “Italians within the country now appeared as a potential fifth column” and rumors of Italian immigrants secretly preparing for armed conflict against the United States spread throughout the country. Botein writes that “The New York Times reported that eighteen hundred Italians in West Virginia were arming and drilling. Twenty thousand Italians allegedly were planning to attack New Orleans in order to avenge their countrymen. Another newspaper wrote that Italian railroad workers were deliberately wrecking railroads in New York and Chicago.” Gambino writes that “thousands of individuals and groups sent telegrams pouring into the White House volunteering to fight in a war against Italy!”

Newspapers across the country praised the lynch mob. “Slayers Slain,” blared the headline of the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Daily Tribune announced, “Mafia Murders Slain, Eleven Sicilian Butchers Lynched at New Orleans.” The New York Times declared that Hennessy had been avenged: “Eleven of His Assassins Lynched by a Mob.”

Clockwise from left: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Daily Tribune, March 15, 1891.

New Orleans Judge Robert Marr, who described himself as “close personal friends” with several of the leaders of the lynch mob, wrote an article for American Law Review about the case. Marr justified the lynching by arguing that the Italian community constituted a state within a state. “These people are among us, but not of us,” he wrote. Marr added that lynching the prisoners was a rational response because “Sicilians” are so good at lying that it would be impossible to convict them in court.

In the meantime, Shakspeare and his political allies moved to further dispossess the Italian community of New Orleans of their political and economic power. Gambino writes that the city council passed a law granting control of the docks to a new company run by one of the lynch mob leaders. The local longshoremen’s union barred Italians from membership, and then asked the city to only allow union members to work the docks. When the state constitution was later amended to disenfranchise black Americans, it also made it harder for Italian immigrants to vote.

A subsequent federal investigation that examined the evidence against the dead Italians determined that it was “exceedingly unsatisfactory” and “not conclusive one way or the other.” That same investigation looked into the mafia in New Orleans, and was similarly inconclusive as to whether it even existed. The US government provided an indemnity to the dead Italian immigrants’ families of close to $25,000 and President Benjamin Harrison called the lynching “a most deplorable and discreditable incident.” According to Gambino, Harrison’s empathetic behavior prompted brief talk of impeachment in Congress.

As for the grand jury in New Orleans empowered to look into the lynchings, their report demanded that Congress enact tougher immigration laws, concluding that Italy had conspired to send its criminals to the United States. “We doubt not that the Italian government would rather be rid of them than charged with their custody and punishment,” the report reads. “The time has passed when this country can be made a dumping ground for the worthless and depraved of every nation.”

The mob itself could not be punished, the grand jury concluded — there were simply too many people involved: “The magnitude of this affair makes it difficult to fix guilt upon any number of participants, in fact the act seemed to involve the entire people of the parish and city of New Orleans, so profuse is their sympathy and extended their connection with the affair.” Mayor Shakspeare, whom Corte had begged to intervene, told newspapers there was nothing regrettable about the lynching. “They were punished by lawful means,” Shakspeare said. “The Italians had taken the law into their own hands, and we had to do the same.”

And so the mob of people in New Orleans, in defiance of “secret societies of assassination” and the supposedly congenital Italian thirst for revenge, murdered 11 people in broad daylight and punished no one for it. The lesson much of the public drew was not the irony of that bloody and misplaced vengeance, but that the Italian immigrants were to blame for coming here.

Echoing the immigration argument of his era — and foreshadowing the dividing lines of our own — Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts faintheartedly condemned the “wild justice” of the mob, but explained that the underlying cause was “the utter carelessness with which we treat immigration to this country.” Unless the United States enacted more restrictive immigration laws, he warned, “we must be prepared for just such events as that at New Orleans, not merely bringing in their train murder and sudden death, but breeding race antagonisms and national hostilities which never existed before, and which need never have an existence if we deal properly with this momentous problem.” •




























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