An Assassination and a Massacre

Outside the Orleans Parish Prison on March 14, 1891, shortly after 11 Italian immigrants, including Joseph Macheca, were lynched.

Six years after stepping away from the New Orleans Mayor’s Office, Joseph Shakspeare retook City Hall in 1888, promising a series of reforms intended to modernize and improve infrastructure and clean up corruption. He’d proven himself capable before, and if there was any doubt that he meant what he said, that ended when he announced the appointment David C. Hennessy as the city’s next top cop.

New Orleanians were familiar with Hennessy. When he was a boy, his father had been shot and killed, the result of a barroom brawl, and his widowed mother arranged for her son to take a job as a messenger with the Metropolitan Police. Over time, the young Hennessy earned a reputation as a law enforcement wunderkind. He was only 17 when he officially became an officer. At 23, he and his cousin Mike, a fellow officer, helped authorities in New York track down and apprehend Giuseppe Esposito, considered to be the most infamous bandito in Sicilian history. Esposito had evaded arrest in Sicily and set sail for New Orleans, where he had been living under an assumed name, Randazzo.

“When Hennessy returned to New Orleans from New York (after transporting Esposito for extradition), the citizenry of New Orleans hailed him as a crime-fighting hero and the number one nemesis of the Italian underworld,” writes Gautheaux in Italian Louisiana.

Years later, as the superintendent of police, Hennessy became almost singularly-focused on ending a dispute between two Italian “families” who battled for control over the city’s port: A faction led by shipping magnates Joseph Macheca and the Matrangas brothers, Tony and Charles, and another faction led by members of the Provenzano clan. The rivalry eventually became violent when several members of the Provenzano family shot and wounded Tony Matranga. Investigators quickly discovered the culprits, and prosecutors were able to win a conviction against them. But, because of procedural issues, on appeal, the Provenzanos were granted a new trial.

“While there was no proof positive, many New Orleans believed that a powerful criminal organization led by Sicilians existed in their city,” explains historian Barbara Bostein in The Hennessy Case: An Episode in Anti-Italian Nativism.

“David Hennessy had been particularly active in apprehending Sicilian criminals ever since he had broken up the Esposito gang in 1881,” Borstein writes. “More recently, an alleged Mafia vendetta between the Provenzanos and Matrangas— the two most powerful Sicilian families in New Orleans— had resulted in the conviction of several Provenzanos. Despite a strong personal friendship with the Provenzanos, Hennessy insisted that all Sicilian criminals be brought to justice.”

It may be true that Hennessy was earnest, but because when he was gunned down and killed four days before he was scheduled to testify in the Provenzano retrial, police immediately suspected that it was the work of the Macheca-Mantraga faction.

From left to right: Italian businessman Joseph Macheca, New Orleans Police Superintendent David C. Hennessy, and New Orleans Mayor Joseph Shakspeare.

Following Hennessy’s death, police rounded up 45 Italian immigrants, eventually charging 19 of the suspects in connection with the murder, including Charles Matranga and Joseph Macheca (who had voluntarily turned himself after learning of his pending indictment). One of the suspects, Antonio Scaffeldi, was shot and nearly killed by Thomas Duffy, a mentally unstable newsboy who had convinced prison guards to bring Scafffeldi close to the prison gate so he could get a better look at him.

Meanwhile, Mayor Shakspeare responded to the assassination by launching the Committee of the Fifty, a group of prominent businessmen he tasked with exposing members of the criminal underworld and “(devising) necessary means and effectual and speedy measures for uprooting and (causing the) total annihilation of such hell-born associations.” Ironically, the meetings of the Committee of the Fifty were all held in secret.

Matranga and Macheca hired an all-star team of lawyers, and very quickly, it became obvious that the case against the men was flimsy and riddled with inconsistencies, built largely innuendo and testimony that shortly before his death, the mortally-wounded Hennessy cried out, “The dagoes shot me.”

Front page of the Daily Picayune, Oct. 16, 1890.

“During the hours that (Hennessy) lay in a hospital bed, he was questioned by a police sergeant about the shooting,” writes John V. Baiamonte, Jr. in “Who Killa de Chief” Revisited: The Hennessy Assassination and Its Aftermath, 1890-1991. “Suffering from intense pain, he only shook his head in a negative manner to the questions of identifying his attackers. Hennessy repeated that ‘The dagoes shot me,’ but at no time did he name his assailants or state that the Mafia was involved. No one else attempted to get Hennessy to identify his attackers, which was strange because it was well known that the chief was very familiar with members of the Sicilian community.”

Six of the first nine trials, held in early March of 1891, ended in an acquittal; the judge actually ordered an acquittal for Charles Matranga for lack of evidence. The other three were declared mistrials. Of the prosecution’s 319 witnesses, only one of them claimed to have seen three of the defendants at the scene of the crime, but even that seemed dubious.

The public was outraged, and almost immediately after the verdicts were announced, the Committee of the Fifty advertised a protest the following day. “Come prepared for action,” the committee implored. More than 1,000 people gathered in the neutral ground at the intersection of St. Charles and Canal, near the monument to former Speaker of the House Henry Clay.

The monument to Henry Clay at the corner of St. Charles and Canal in New Orleans, ca. 1898. Photo credit: W.H. Jackson. Source: Library of Congress.

“When the law is powerless, rights delegated by the people are delegated back to the people,” roared organizer William S. Packerson, “and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do.”

Emboldened and enraged, the armed mob stormed into the parish prison and murdered 11 of the accused, including three of the men who had just been found not guilty. Nine were savagely beaten and shot to death inside of the prison; two others were hanged outside. By then, the crowd swelled to nearly 8,000 people.

It was the single largest lynching of whites in the country’s history, and at the time, most of the New Orleans business establishment and the press agreed with the “vigilante justice.” No one was ever charged in connection to the crimes.

But the consequences of the massacre extended far beyond Louisiana. The Italian government had already condemned the United States for the mass detentions of Italian immigrants in New Orleans, expressing serious concerns about how they were being treated in jail and, more generally, about the safety and wellbeing of the larger Italian community. After the lynchings, diplomacy between the two countries nearly collapsed, eventually forcing President William McKinley to pay $25,000 ($780,000 in today’s dollars) in reparations to the Italian government.

It would take nearly 130 years before New Orleans officially acknowledged the atrocity. Last April, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a formal apology for the city’s complicity in the murders.

In addition to dramatically changing the city’s attitude toward Italian immigrants, there’s another aspect of the Hennessy Assassination that helped to define both the way Carlos Marcello perceived the world around him and how the world would eventually perceive of him.

Next: America’s Original Mafia | A Portrait of a Mobster as a Young Man

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.