The Grisly Tale of Sicilian Lynchings

The Grisly Tale of Sicilian Lynchings

One hundred and twenty-eight years ago this month, a mob of tens of thousands of angry men surrounded a New Orleans jail, shouting ethnic slurs and calling for blood. By the time they were done, 11 men would be dead – shot and mutilated in an act of brutal mob violence that took place in front of a cheering crowd. It was March, 1891 and the crowd was about to participate in the largest lynching in United States history.

Nearly 5,000 lynchings – vigilante murders that included shootings, hangings and other forms of mob “justice,” were recorded in the United States between 1882 and 1968. Most of their victims were African-American men. Although the New Orleans lynch mob had been driven by bigotry, its targets were not black, they were Italian Americans. March 14, 1891 would go down in history as one of the darkest moments in the United States’ long history of anti-Italian discrimination.

In late 19th century America, there was a growing prejudice against Italians, even though they were recruited to satisfy the demand for cheap labor. These Italians, often from Sicily, immigrated to the south in large numbers because of poor conditions at home and to fill the shortage of cheap labor. Often their destinations were Florida or Louisiana and in the 1890s, thousands of Sicilians were arriving in New Orleans each year.

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In a letter responding to an inquiry about immigration in New Orleans, then Mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare expressed the common anti-Italian prejudice, complaining that the city had become attractive to “…the worst classes of Europe: Southern Italians and Sicilians…the most idle, vicious and worthless people among us.” He claimed they were “filthy in their persons and homes” and blamed them for the spread of disease, concluding that they were “without courage, honor, truth, pride, religion, or any quality that goes to make a good citizen.”

The grisly incident began with the murder of New Orleans Police Chief, David Hennessy, himself a somewhat controversial figure. On the evening of October 15, 1890, Hennessy was shot by several gunmen as he walked home from work. The police chief returned fire and chased his attackers before collapsing. When asked who had shot him, Hennessy reportedly whispered to Captain William O’Connor, “Dagoes.” He remained awake in the hospital for several hours after the shooting and spoke to friends, but did not name the shooters. The next day complications set in and he died.

The slur was used often in New Orleans, which was home to more Italian immigrants than any other southern state at the time. Between 1884 and 1924, nearly 300,000 Italian immigrants, most of them Sicilian, moved to New Orleans, earning the French Quarter the nickname “Little Palermo.”

These immigrants were hardworking and religious, but they were not welcomed by New Orleans residents. Though Italians had been living in New Orleans since before the Louisiana Purchase, their language and customs were considered foreign and even dangerous by some.

At the time of Hennessy’s murder, a feud had broken out between two Sicilian families, the Provenzanos and the Matrangas. Hennessy had put several members of the Provenzano family in prison and their appeal trial was coming up. According to some reports, Hennessy had been planning to offer new evidence at the trial that would clear the Provenzanos and implicate the Mantrangas. If true, this would mean that the Mantrangas and not the Provenzanos had a motive for the murder. To further cloud the issue, a policeman who was a friend of Hennessy’s, later testified that the police chief had told him he had no such plans. Additionally, as chief of police, Hennessy had made a series of unpopular decisions to consolidate the police force and also helped to collect taxes on brothels and gambling houses. Regardless of the facts, local papers such as the Times-Democrat and the Daily Picayune freely blamed Italians for the murder and fueled the fire, demanding justice and declaring those arrested to be guilty before they were even tried.

The assassination fanned the flames of anti-Italian sentiment in New Orleans. The city’s police rounded up hundreds of Italians, even those who did not seem remotely associated with the attack. Eighteen men and one boy were ultimately charged with the murder, or as accessories to murder. They were held without bail in the Parish Prison. These included Charles Mantranga (charged with plotting the murder) and several of his friends and workers. Pietro Monasterio, a shoemaker, was arrested because he lived across the street from the place where Hennessy was shot. Antonio Marchesi, a fruit peddler, was arrested because he was a friend of Monasterio’s. Emmanuele Polizzi, who was mentally handicapped, was arrested when a policeman identified him as one of the men he had seen running from the scene of the crime.

A few days after Hennessy’s death, Mayor Shakspeare gave a speech declaring that Hennessy had been “the victim of Sicilian vengeance” and called upon the citizenry to “teach these people a lesson they will not forget.” He appointed a committee of 50 men to investigate “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 any such organizations.

Spurred to action by the popular accounts of Hennessy’s murder, a 29-year-old newspaper salesman named Thomas Duffy walked into the prison on October 17, 1890, sought out Antonio Scaffidi, whom he had heard was a suspect and shot him in the neck with a revolver. Scaffidi survived the attack, only to be lynched a few months later. Duffy was eventually convicted of assault and sentenced to six months in prison.

On October 23, the aforementioned committee published an open letter to the Italian community encouraging them to inform on each other anonymously. The letter ended on a menacing note:

We hope this appeal will be met by you in the same spirit in which we issue it and that this community will not be driven to harsh and stringent methods outside of the law, which may involve the innocent and guilty alike…Upon you and your willingness to give information depends which of these courses shall be pursued.

The letter was signed by the committee’s chairman, Edgar H. Farrar, who later served as president of the American Bar Association. Other prominent members of the committee included General Algernon S. Badger, Judge Robert C. Davey, politician Walter C. Flower, Colonel James Lewis and architect Thomas Sully.

A trial for nine of the suspects began on February 16, 1891 and concluded on March 13, 1891. Jury selection was a time-consuming process. Hundreds of prospective jurors were rejected before they found 12 people who were not opposed to capital punishment, were not openly prejudiced against Italians and were not of Italian descent themselves.

Much of the evidence presented at trial was weak or contradictory. The murder had taken place on a poorly lit street on a damp night, in a notoriously corrupt city and the eyewitness testimony was unreliable. Suspects were identified by witnesses who had not seen their faces, but only their clothing. Captain Bill O’Connor, the witness who claimed to have heard Hennessy blame “Dagoes” for the assassination, was not called to testify. There were numerous other discrepancies and improprieties. At one point, two employees of the defense law firm were arrested for attempting to bribe prospective jurors. Afterward, when federal district attorney William Grant looked into the case, he reported that the evidence against the men was “exceedingly unsatisfactory” and inconclusive. He could find no evidence linking any of the lynched men to any form of organized crime or to any attempts to bribe the jury. The bribery charges were eventually dismissed.

Mantranga and another man, Bastian Incardona, were found not guilty by directed verdict, as no evidence had been presented against them. The jury declared four of the defendants not guilty and asked the judge to declare a mistrial for the other three, as they could not agree on a verdict. The six who were acquitted were not released, but were held pending an additional charge of “lying in wait” with intent to commit murder. The district attorney, Charles A. Luzenberg, admitted that without a murder conviction, he would be forced to drop the “lying in wait” charges. But all nine men were returned to the prison, a decision which would prove fatal for some of them.

The jurors were given the option to leave by a side door, but chose to walk out the front door and face the angry crowd. Several defended their decision to reporters, arguing that they had “reasonable doubt” and had done what they thought was right. Some were harassed, threatened, fired from their jobs and otherwise penalized for failing to convict the Italians.

When news spread that the trial had resulted in six not-guilty convictions and three mistrials, the city went wild. They assumed that organized crime leaders had somehow influenced jurors or fixed the trial and that justice had not been served. “Rise, people of New Orleans!” wrote the daily state’s newspaper. “Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization.”

The message was clear: If the New Orleans justice system couldn’t punish Italians, the people of New Orleans would have to do so instead. In response, thousands of angry residents gathered near the jail. Impassioned speakers whipped the mob into a frenzy, painting Italian immigrants as criminals who needed to be driven out of the city. Finally, the mob broke into the city’s arsenal, grabbing guns and ammunition. As they ran toward the prison, they shouted, “We want the Dagoes!”

Inside the prison, as the mob was breaking down the door with a battering ram, prison warden Lemuel Davis let the 19 Italian prisoners out of their cells and told them to hide as best they could. Although the thousands of demonstrators outside gave the sense that the lynching was a spontaneous outburst, the killings were carried out by a relatively small, disciplined execution squad led by lawyer William S. Parkerson and other city leaders – James D. Houston, a local politician and John C. Wickliffe, editor of the New Delta newspaper. Other members of the lynch mob included John M. Parker, who was elected as Louisiana’s 37th governor and Walter C. Flower, who was elected as the 44th mayor of New Orleans.

The mentally handicapped Polizzi was hauled outside, hung from a lamppost and shot. Antonio Bagnetto, a fruit peddler, was hung from a tree and shot. Nine others were shot or clubbed to death inside the prison. The bullet-riddled bodies of Polizzi and Bagnetto were left hanging for hours.

The other men who were lynched included: James Caruso and Rocco Geraci, both stevedores and both not tried; Loreto Comitis, a tinsmith, also not tried. Frank Romero, who was a ward politician and Charles Traina, a rice plantation laborer, were clubbed to death. Each of these men were not tried. Joseph Macheca and Antonio Marchesi were fruit importers. Each had been tried and acquitted. Shoemaker Pietro Monasterio and fruit peddler Antonio Scaffidi each had a mistrial. Eight others escaped the lynching by hiding within the prison, including 14-year-old Gaspare Marchesi, who had been tried and acquitted, but whose father was one of the lynching victims.

Outside the jail, the larger mob cheered as the mutilated bodies were displayed. Some corpses were hung; what remained of others were torn apart and plundered for souvenirs.

The act of vigilante justice was decried by the Italian government, which demanded the lynch mob be punished. All of those lynched were Sicilian immigrants except for Macheca, who was a Louisiana native of Sicilian descent and Comitis, who was from the Rome area. The Italian Consul in New Orleans, Pasquale Corte, registered a protest and left the city in May, 1891 at his government’s direction. The New York Times published his lengthy statement charging city politicians with responsibility for the lynching of the Italians. Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States, sparking rumors of war. Increased anti-Italian sentiment led to calls for restrictions on immigration. The word “mafia” entered the American lexicon and the stereotype of the Italian mafioso became established in the popular imagination.

Many Americans swept up on a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, applauded the killings. An editorial in the New York Times called the victims “desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins…are to us a pest without mitigations.”

Many commentators offered a pro forma condemnation of vigilantism, before ultimately blaming the victims and defending the lynchers. Massachusetts representative Henry Cabot Lodge, for example, claimed to deplore the mob’s behavior and then proceeded to justify it while proposing new restrictions on Italian immigration. Even the London Times expressed approval.

When President Benjamin Harrison agreed to pay a $25,000 indemnity to the victims’ families, Congress tried unsuccessfully to intervene, accusing him of “unconstitutional executive usurpation of Congressional powers.” The United States ultimately paid $2,211.90 to each family of the 11 victims.

The contrasting American and Italian attitudes toward the lynchings are perhaps best summarized by Theodore Roosevelt, then serving on the United States Civil Service Commission. He wrote to his sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles on March 21, 1891:

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.

The lynch mob, composed of some of New Orleans’ most prominent residents went unpunished. Though the grand jury said the crowd included some of “the first, best and even the most law-abiding of the citizens of this city,” it claimed that none of the killers could be identified.

The real identity of Hennessy’s murderer was never determined. However, the lynchings that his death inspired had lasting repercussions for Italian Americans. The supposed (and unproven) conspiracy behind the acquittals was used as an excuse to discriminate against other Italian Americans for decades afterward. Most anti-Italian hostility in the United States was directed at southern Italians, particularly Sicilians. This was especially true in the American south, where southern Italians were not considered full-fledged members of the “white race.” The U.S. Bureau of Immigration reinforced this distinction, classifying northern and southern Italians as two different races. Between 1890 and 1910, Sicilians made up less than four percent of the white male population, yet were roughly 40 percent of the white victims of southern lynch mobs.

In the 1977 book, “Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in U.S. History,” Richard Gambino, a professor at City University of New York, raised numerous questions about the investigation and trial. Among other things, Gambino noted that Hennessy had a rather colorful past that provided any number of possible motives to be subject to murder, none of which the police chose to investigate. The 1999 HBO movie Vendetta is based on Gambino’s book. It portrays Macheca and several of the other lynched men as innocent victims. It is narrated by the character of Gaspare Marchesi, the boy who escaped being lynched by hiding in the prison.

The lynchings were the most violent expression of anti-Italian feeling in America, but far from an isolated event. Bigoted sentiments surged again during World War II, when Italy entered the war on Germany’s side. Today, 128 years later, the 1891 lynchings in New Orleans are a reminder of how quickly anti-immigrant rhetoric can turn deadly, even in a city that now proudly celebrates its Italian heritage.

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