Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Mass Lynching Forgotten in American History

William S. Parkerson inciting the mob. Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1891.

While doing research for my next book, “A Hanging in Jackson Square”, I came across a very interesting story from the pages of our history. It is the story of the largest mass lynching in American history -and it’s not a pretty one. The story is all but forgotten now -it was certainly never mentioned in any of the history classes I took. I think that one big reason for that is the influence of the current batch of ‘politically correct’ zealots who try very hard to rewrite our history in an effort to serve their own agenda’s. You see, the people lynched were not blacks, they were Italians.

At any rate, I thought some of you might find this story interesting.

Assassination of David Hennessy 

On the evening of October 15, 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was shot by several gunmen as he walked home from work. Hennessy returned fire and chased his attackers before collapsing. When asked who had shot him, Hennessy reportedly whispered to Captain William O'Connor, "Dagoes" (a derogatory term for Italians and others of Mediterranean heritage). Hennessy was 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 Assassination of David Hennessy

There had been an ongoing feud between the Provenzano and Mantranga families, who were business rivals on the New Orleans waterfront. Hennessy had put several of the Provenzanos in prison, and their appeal trial was coming up. According to some reports, Hennessy had been planning to offer new evidence at the trial which 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. A policeman who was a friend of Hennessy's later testified that Hennessy had told him he had no such plans. In any case, it was widely believed that Hennessy's killers were Italian. Local papers such as the Times-Democrat and the Daily Picayune freely blamed "Dagoes" for the murder.


The murder was quickly followed by mass arrests of local Italians. Mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare (according to the Picayune) told the police to "scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across." Within 24 hours, 45 people had been arrested. By some accounts, as many as 250 Italians were rounded up. Most were eventually released for lack of evidence. Local Italians were afraid to leave their homes for several days after the murder, but eventually the furor died down and they returned to work.

Nineteen men were ultimately charged with the murder or as accessories and held without bail in the Parish Prison. These included Charles Mantranga, who was charged with plotting the murder, and several of the Mantrangas' friends and workers. Pietro Monasterio, a shoemaker, was arrested because he lived across the street from where Hennessy was standing when he was shot. Antonio Marchesi, a fruit peddler, was arrested because he was a friend of Monasterio's and "was known to frequent his shoe shop." Emmanuele Polizzi 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 calling upon the citizenry to "teach these people a lesson they will not forget." He appointed a Committee of Fifty 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. On October 23, the committee published an open letter to the Italian-American 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.

The Committee of Fifty hired two private detectives to pose as prisoners and try to get the defendants to talk about the murder. Apparently the detectives did not obtain any useful information, because they were not asked to testify at the trial. Only Polizzi, who appeared to be mentally ill, said anything to incriminate himself, and his confession was deemed inadmissible.

Meanwhile, the defendants were subject to extremely negative pretrial publicity. Across the country, newspapers ran headlines such as "Vast Mafia in New Orleans" and "1,100 Dago Criminals".

Several shotguns were found near the scene of the crime. One was a muzzle-loading shotgun, a type which was widely used in New Orleans and throughout the South, but which police claimed was a "favorite" of Italians. Another had a hinged stock. Local newspapers reported that such guns were imported from Italy; in fact they were manufactured by the W. Richards Company.

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.

Murder trial

A trial for nine of the suspects began on February 16, 1891, and concluded on March 13, 1891, with Judge Joshua G. Baker presiding. The defendants were represented by Lionel Adams of the law firm Adams and O'Malley, and the state by district attorney Charles A. Luzenberg. Jury selection was a time-consuming process: Hundreds of prospective jurors were rejected before 12 people were found 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. Afterwards, 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 the Mafia, 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. Luzenberg admitted that without a murder conviction, he would be forced to drop the "lying in wait" charges. Nevertheless, all nine men were sent back 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.


A group of about 150 people, calling themselves the Committee on Safety, met that evening to plan their response. The following morning an ad appeared in local newspapers calling for a mass meeting at the statue of Henry Clay, near the prison. Citizens were told to "come prepared for action." The Daily States editorialized:

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.

As thousands of demonstrators gathered near the Parish Prison, Pasquale Corte, the Italian consul in New Orleans, sought the help of Louisiana governor Francis T. Nicholls to prevent an outbreak of violence. The governor declined to take any action without a request from Mayor Shakspeare, who had gone out to breakfast and could not be reached. Meanwhile, at the Clay statue, attorney William S. Parkerson was exhorting the people of New Orleans to "set aside the verdict of that infamous jury, every one of whom is a perjurer and a scoundrel." When the speech was over, the crowd marched to the prison, chanting, "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 themselves as best they could.

Rioters break into Perish Prison
Although the thousands of demonstrators outside gave the sense that the lynching was a spontaneous outburst, the killings were in fact carried out by a relatively small, disciplined "execution squad" led by Parkerson and three other city leaders: Walter Denegre, lawyer; James D. Houston, politician and businessman; and John C. Wickliffe, editor of the New Delta newspaper.

The mentally ill Polizzi was hauled outside, hanged from a lamppost, and shot. Antonio Bagnetto, a fruit peddler, was hanged 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 following people were lynched:
Antonio Bagnetto, fruit peddler: Tried and acquitted.
James Caruso, stevedore: Not tried.
Loretto Comitz, tinsmith: Not tried.
Rocco Geraci, stevedore: Not tried.
Joseph P. Macheca, fruit importer: Tried and acquitted.
Antonio Marchesi, fruit peddler: Tried and acquitted.
Pietro Monasterio, cobbler: Mistrial.
Emmanuele Polizzi, street vendor: Mistrial.
Frank Romero, ward politician: Not tried.
Antonio Scaffidi, fruit peddler: Mistrial.
Charles Traina, rice plantation laborer: Not tried.

The following people managed to escape lynching by hiding inside the prison:
John Caruso, stevedore: Not tried.
Bastian Incardona, laborer: Tried and acquitted.
Gaspare Marchesi, 14, son of Antonio Marchesi: Tried and acquitted.
Charles Mantranga, labor manager: Tried and acquitted.
Peter Natali, laborer: Not tried.
Charles Pietza (or Pietzo), grocer: Not tried.
Charles Patorno, merchant: Not tried.
Salvatore Sinceri, stevedore: Not tried.

The survivors were set free after the lynching, and the charges against those who had not been tried were dropped.

One of the victims, Polizzi, had a police record in the U.S., having reportedly cut a man with a knife in Austin, Texas, several years earlier. Two others had police records in Italy: Geraci had been accused of murder and had fled before he could be tried, and Comitz had been convicted of theft. Incardona was wanted in Italy as a petty criminal.

Three of the men—Comitz, Monasterio, and Traina—had not applied for U.S. citizenship and could still be considered Italian subjects.

All of those lynched were Sicilian immigrants except for Macheca, a Louisiana native of Sicilian descent, and Comitz, who was from the Rome area. Shortly after Hennessy's death, the Daily States informed readers that the suspects were "a villainous looking set" and described their appearance in racist terms, concluding, "They are not Italians, but Sicilians."

Most anti-Italian hostility in the United States was directed at southern Italians, particularly Sicilians. This was especially true in the American South, where Sicilians 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 4 percent of the white male population, yet were roughly 40 percent of the white victims of southern lynch mobs.


Press coverage

American newspaper accounts at the time were largely sympathetic to the lynchers, and anti-Italian in tone. The victims were presumed to have been involved with the Mafia and therefore deserving of their fate. A New York Times headline announced, "Chief Hennessy Avenged...Italian Murderers Shot Down". A Times editorial the next day vilified Sicilians in general:

“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. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they...Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.”

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.

Not all editors were convinced of the mob's innocence. The Charleston News and Courier argued that murder by vigilantes was no more acceptable than any other kind. The St. Louis Republic wrote that the men were killed "on proof of being 'dagoes' and on the merest suspicion of being guilty of any other crime." Some Northern newspapers also condemned the lynchings. Many others, however, implicitly or explicitly condoned them. A Boston Globe front page headline read, "STILETTO RULE: New Orleans Arose to Meet the Curse."

Following strong protests by the Italian government and the Italian-American community, the press eventually became less supportive of the lynchers.

Criminal charges

A grand jury convened on March 17, 1891, to investigate the lynching. Judge Robert H. Marr, who presided over the jury, was a longtime personal friend of several of the lynch mob participants. On May 5, 1891, the grand jury published a report concluding that several jurors in the Hennessy case had been bribed. No proof was offered and no criminal charges were pursued. The grand jury claimed that it could not identify the participants in the lynching. In the same report, the lynching was described as a "gathering" of "several thousands of the first, best, and even the most law-abiding, of the citizens of this city." No one was indicted. Only Thomas Duffy, the newspaper salesman who had shot Scaffidi in October, was penalized. In fact, in an ironic twist, Duffy was serving time in the Parish Prison at the time of the lynching.

After the Hennessy case, at least eight more men of Italian descent were lynched in Louisiana. In each case, local authorities claimed to be unable to identify anyone involved.

Political repercussions

The incident strained relations between the U.S. and Italy. The Italian government demanded that the lynch mob be brought to justice and reparations be paid to the dead men's families. When the U.S. declined to prosecute the mob leaders, Italy recalled its ambassador from Washington in protest. The U.S. followed suit, recalling its legation from Rome. Diplomatic relations remained at an impasse for over a year. There were rumors of war. 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 contrasting American and Italian attitudes toward the lynchings are perhaps best summarized by Theodore Roosevelt's comment. Roosevelt, then serving on the United States Civil Service Commission, 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 incident has mostly been forgotten in the U.S., relegated to the footnotes of American history texts. It is more widely known in Italy.

Mayor Shakspeare was narrowly defeated for reelection in 1892, with the Italian vote a decisive factor. Gaspare Marchesi, the boy who survived by hiding in the prison while his father was lynched, was awarded $5,000 in damages in 1893 after suing the city of New Orleans.

The death of Hennessy became a rallying cry for law enforcement and nativists to halt the immigration of Italians into America. Henry Cabot Lodge claimed that "the paupers and criminals of Europe" were "pouring into the United States" and proposed a literacy test to keep out the poorest immigrants.

Live Long and Prosper...

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