Vigilante Justice Lynched 11 Sicilian Immigrants in New Orleans
New Orleans’ residents, politicians, and officials were all complicit
The Sentiment towards Sicilian Immigrants in America
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Sicilians immigrated to the United States in droves. In New York, between East 69th Street and Elizabeth Street was named Little Italy. Chicago had a Little Sicily developed in downtown Chicago. New Orleans became home to more Sicilian immigrants than any other Southern city. The French Quarter nicknamed Little Palermo. Living among their own gave them a sense of safety and familiarity in a new place during a nativist movement.
“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.” (Serwer)
“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.” (Serwer)
How the Economy Played a Role
By the end of the 19th century, New Orleans’, one of the most prosperous cities in the United States, port shipped most of the agricultural goods from the South and was the port of entry for most of the imports from South America and Europe. It had close commercial ties, including Sicily, where it bought lemons and oranges. It is also was the largest producer of sugarcane and cotton. (Norelli)
When many freed slaves moved North, Louisiana looked to Southern Italy to fill those jobs. Steamship companies recruited potential workers, and three steamships a month were running between New Orleans and Sicily by September 1881, charging forty dollars per person.
They hired Sicilians because they “would make better negros than the negros,” would work harder, “of better stock,” and would displace black workers.
However, Sicilians did not play by the unspoken rules. They lived among black Americans, worked with them, and hired them. Then they started taking the jobs that white Americans wanted to work.
“Many powerful New Orleanians resented the growing presence and economic might of Italian newcomers in the Crescent City.” (Johndeike)
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.”
Shakespeare also stated, “they don’t learn our language, and they monopolize the trade of fish, fruit, and oysters. The Sicilian community in New Orleans had become too prosperous. Mayor Shakspeare wanted to ruin their political and economic power.
1891 in New Orleans, Joseph Machecca owned the docks.
The Mantrangas ran the french market, and the Provenzanos worked the docks. These two families had a vendetta.
When the police began targeting Joseph Matranga’s gambling establishment and dance hall that served blacks, he wanted to be able to run the docks.
In May 1890, seven of Matranga’s men, including his brother Tony, were shot in a wagon three were wounded, and Tony lost a leg.
Police Chief, David Hennessey, investigated. They accused several members of the Provenzano faction, six convicted in June. Hennesey did not believe the correct people were convicted. The Provenzano’s attorneys filed for a new trial. An investigation for the appeal obtained evidence of perjury by the witnesses for the Matranga’s. Then a key witness for the defense had been murdered before he could testify. The Matrangas were suspected of the killing. The trial was so perjurous the court did grant a new trial, set for October 22.
Hennessy was murdered on October 15th, one week before the second Provenzo trial, and when Hennessey was going to make his case against the Mantrangas. The theory was that the Mantrangas were tipped off that Hennessy intended to arrest them.
There is also a theory that a New Orleans businessman and behind the scenes politician, Joseph Bishop, who wanted control of the shipping docks that Machecha owned, was behind the Sheriff’s assassination.
“His assassination — and accusation — fanned the flames of anti-Italian sentiment in New Orleans. Police rounded up hundreds of Italians, even those who didn’t seem to be associated with the attack. Local papers fueled the fire, demanding justice and declaring nine men who were arrested on suspicion of a connection to the murder guilty before they were even tried.” (Blakemore)
The Mayor said Hennesey was a “victim of Sicilian vengeance. We must teach these people a lesson that they will not forget for all time.” The Mayor appointed a committee of 50 prominent and influential residents for extrajudicial investigation of the shooting. 200 Sicilian residents arrested, 19 indicted.
“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 mafia funded the defense.) Italian-American newspapers correctly perceived the events in New Orleans as an attack not on the mafia, but on Italian immigrants.”
From the beginning of the trial, there were rumors that the jury was corrupt. When the jury found six defendants not guilty and unable to agree on three, giving them a mistrial, the public was outraged.
The judge ordered the defendants to stay another night in jail. They were expected to be released in a day or two.
“Along the Levee, people from the Italian colony began to gather in a festive mood. Italian boat owners in Lugger Bay near the French Market hoisted two flags on their masts — the Italian flag above, the Stars and Stripes below, upside down.” (Persico)
While the Italians were celebrated a “Vigilance Committee ” was formed and planning a large protest. They sent the information to the local newspaper that said, “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 remedy the failure of Justice in the Hennessey Case. Come prepared for action.”
Another paper wrote, “Rise, people of New Orleans! Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization! Your laws, in the very Temple of Justice, have been bought off, and suborners have caused to be turned loose upon your streets the midnight murderers of David C. Hennessy, in whose premature grave the very majesty of our American law lies buried with his mangled corpse — the corpse of him who in life was the representative, the conservator of your peace and dignity.”
W. S. Parkerson, a respected attorney, and a prominent politician led a brief march around the Clay statue then spoke to the crowd. “What protection, or assurance of protection, is there left us,” he cried, “when the very head of our police department — our chief of police — is assassinated, in our very midst, by the Mafia Society, and his assassins again turned loose on the community? … Will every man here follow me and see the murder of D. C. Hennessy vindicated? Are there men enough here to set aside the verdict of that infamous jury, every one of whom is a perjurer and a scoundrel?”
“Hang the murderers,” the crowd shouted back.
Parkerson, James Houston, and John Wickliffe lead the crowd, now over six thousand, to the prison.
The Italian prisoners begged Captain Davis to let them out or give them weapons to defend themselves. Sheriff Villère was conspicuously absent. Davis barricaded the door and moved the men to the women’s side of the prison and told them to hide.
The prisoners hid in a trash bin, in the wash house, under a mattress, and two in an oversized doghouse, but most remained upstairs on the women’s side of the jail.
Pasquale Corte, the Italian consul in New Orleans, had also read the threats in the paper. At least three of the men were still Italian citizens and entitled to the Italian government’s protection. Corte learned the crowd did gather and headed to the jail. He raced to City Hall to find the Mayor. He talked with Sheriff Villère and the attorney general, Mr. Rogers, who said they too were looking for the Mayor. But in Corte’s judgment, “They appeared to me to be very calm and to be anticipating what was about to happen.”
Corte tracked down Governor Nicholls and pleaded with him to send troops or a force of police to head off possible violence at the prison. “Nicholls replied that he could do nothing until he received a request from the mayor.” (Persico)
The mob breached the barricade. Parkerson helped to lead a group of vigilantes across the prison yard.
“The avengers first discovered young Caspare Marchesi but spared the boy because of his youth. His father, Antonio, had fled with Scaffidi and Macheca to the gallery for condemned prisoners on the third floor. A grated gate slammed and locked behind them. The gate at the other end of the corridor was locked too, trapping the three men like caged beasts.” They were all shot. They then killed Joseph Macheca. Six prisoners ran down a back stairway and hid in a cell until the gunmen found them. They went into the courtyard and were trapped against a wall. They were shot while they were on their knees, hands over their heads, pleading for mercy.”
To satisfy the crowd, two men were dragged outside and hanged, one from a tree and one from a lamppost, as the crowd cheered.
“Eleven men lay dead. The other eight Italian prisoners spared, either because they had not been found or someone had vouched for their innocence. For those who still had not seen enough, arrangements were made for small groups of ten to fifteen spectators each to pass through the prison to witness the vigilantes’ handiwork.” (Persico)
Mr. Parkerson told the crowd, “I called you together for a duty. You have performed that duty. Now, go home, and God bless you.”
The crowd replied, “God bless you, Mr. Parkerson,” and lifted him to their shoulders for a triumphal return to Clay Statue.
“One of those who arrived too late to witness the spectacle, or to help avert it, was Pasquale Corte. On reaching the jail, the Italian consul realized the massacre was over and headed back to his office, where he would soon be occupied in the grim business of helping the families of the victims.” (Persico)
The Aftermath and Threats of War with Italy
That Sunday, twenty-five carriages of Joseph P. Macheca’s relatives, friends, and associates followed the hearse to his funeral in St. Louis Cathedral.
The funerals of the other victims were less splendid. Most were simple family observances. No one attended Bagnetto’s body. Three of the men buried in potter’s field.
“The gunfire in the Parish Prison reverberated around the country and beyond.” Italian-Americans meeting in Chicago sent a telegram to Secretary of State James G. Blaine: “We, Italians by birth, Americans by choice, assembled in a mass meeting, unanimously protest against the cowardly and lawless act of the New Orleans mob, aided by the tacit consent of the local authorities. …” Six thousand Italians protested in New York. There were protests in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Kansas City.
In Italy, public opinion clamored for justice and the vindication of Italy’s national honor.
The Prime Minister of Italy demanded punishment of the murderers, and the US refused. Italy’s Prime Minister ordered the Italian ambassador home from Washington.
Rumors now began to spread of Italian warships headed for the American coast. Confederate veterans from Tennessee and the Shelby Rifles of Texas volunteered to fight for Old Glory against Rome. Uniontown, Alabama, offered fifteen hundred men. From Georgia the War Department received an offer of “a company of unterrified Georgia rebels to invade Rome, disperse the Mafia and plant the Stars and Stripes on the dome of St. Peter’s.”
On May 5, a New Orleans grand jury convened to look into the murders. The grand jury’s report concluded some of the jurors had been subject to “a money influence to control their decision.” As a result, six men indicted for attempted bribery and one person convicted (serving a short sentence).
As for the lynch mob, the grand jury decided that it “embraced several thousand of the first, best and even the most law-abiding citizens of the city … in fact, the act seemed to involve the entire people of the parish and the City of New Orleans. …” And after thoroughly examining the subject the grand jury reported there was no reason to indict anybody for the lynching.
However, due to the diplomatic sparring with Italy, the Department of Justice looked into the incident. After reviewing the eight-hundred-page transcript, U.S. attorney, William Grant, reported that evidence against the defendants was “exceedingly unsatisfactory” and inconclusive. And later, all charges outstanding against those who had survived the prison massacre were dropped.
Public sentiment across the nation viewed that justice had triumphed — in the streets of New Orleans, if not in its courts. Few did disagree; The Nation magazine said we had “cut a sorry figure before the civilized world.” But New Orleans was content. “The hand of the assassin has been stayed,” the New Delta reported. “The Mafia is a thing of the past.”
President Harrison would have ignored the New Orleans carnage had the victims been black. The Italian government made that impossible. It broke off diplomatic relations and demanded an indemnity that the Harrison administration paid. Harrison’s 1891 State of the Union called congress to protect foreign nationals — though not black Americans — from mob violence.
To appease Italian-Americans, Harrison gave a Columbus Day proclamation in 1892. The myth of Columbus as “the first immigrant” still told today. To learn more about how Columbus Day came to be click here.
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.
To read more about the prejudice Italian immigrants faced click here.
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Dier, Chris. “Vendetta: A Mass Lynching of Italians in New Orleans.” Chris Dier, 25 Mar. 2014, chrisdier.com/2014/01/24/vendetta-a-mass-lynching-of-italians-in-new-orleans.
Gatto, Marianna. “Dago! Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.” Google Arts & Culture, 2020, artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/dago-italian-american-museum-of-los-angeles/3AJigyt4JBtlIw?hl=en.
Norelli, Gianfranco. “Pane Amaro/Bitter Bread: The Italian American Journey from Despised Immigrants to Honored Citizens.” DVD, uploaded by Youtube, 1 Jan. 2009, m.youtube.com/watch?v=B911djBOwdM.
Johndeike. “Descendants of Slain Police Chief and Lynched Italian Unite in New Orleans.” Italian Sons and Daughters of America, 26 May 2019, www.orderisda.org/culture/stories/descendants-of-slain-police-chief-and-lynched-italian-make-amends-in-new-orleans.
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Thibodeaux, Anna. “St. Charles Parish Had Its Own Italian Lynchings in 1896.” St. Charles Herald Guide, 6 Sept. 2019, www.heraldguide.com/news/st-charles-parish-had-its-own-italian-lynchings-in-1896.