The American Gilded Age provided economic opportunities and living wages substantially higher than Europe. The rise of industrialization meant a demand for cheap labor. New Orleans, by far the most populated southern city, was ripe with economic opportunities from hungry factories and emptying plantations. Since busy trade routes already existed from Sicily to New Orleans, Italian migration was convenient. Italians poured into the city. Increase in labor competition outraged impoverished whites and the increase in Catholicization in an already Catholic dominated city incensed white Protestants, who had been migrating into New Orleans since the Louisiana Purchase. Italians were also known for their labor organization, inevitably upsetting those who control the means of production. Italophobia was rampant in 19th century New Orleans.
Thousands of Italians migrated to New Orleans. By 1870, New Orleans claimed the largest Italian-born populace in the United States. As Creoles were moving out of the dilapidated, less desirable French Quarter and into ritzier areas of the city, notably Uptown, poor Italians moved in, and the Vieux Carre was dubbed “Little Palermo”. By 1905, almost half of the French Quarter’s population was Italian-born or second generation Italian. As the Italian population boomed, so did the need for protection. Underground family and communal organizations emerged, birthing the first mafiosos in U.S. history.
The mafias soon did more than protect; they profited and competed. During the 1880s, two crime syndicates working on the waterfront by the French Market pioneered to the top- the Matrangas and the Provenzanos. The Provenzanos arrived earlier as they were directly from the Camorra, one of the oldest mafias in the world, originating in Naples. The Provenzanos’ monopoly over desperate stevedores (those who worked on docks) began to decline as the Sicilian-oriented Matrangas offered their workers a better salary and recruited directly from Sicily. The Matrangas, led by Charles Matranga, also teamed up with the Machecas, led by Joseph Macheca. The Provenzano’s eventually lost various contracts to the Matrangas, quickly starting a bitter rival between the two. The monopoly transferred to the Matrangas, and the Provenzanos were quickly losing capital. The Provenzanos would not go down without a fight.
One night, Tony and Charles Matranga and a few other stevedores were riding a wagon down Esplanade after a long days work. As they approached Claiborne, some workers with the Provenzanos pretending to be waiting for a street car opened fire, and those in the wagon retaliated. Tony died in the conflict, and almost all were wounded. Incidents quickly escalated. From the end of the Civil War to the early 20th century, the press coined the chaos as “the vendetta”. In order to keep the peace and halt the ongoing vendetta, David Hennessy, the new police chief, would hold meetings with both factions, who always cooperated. Witnesses to the murders never talked. Trials for all the incidents were difficult to prosecute as citizens feared being on the jury.
Hennessy increasingly found himself isolated as much of the police force was bribed or had ties with the mafia, whose power and influenced surpassed the police. Hennessy soon realized he needed to take down the strongest group, the Matrangas, to establish dominance. He struck a deal with the Provenzanos. The Provenzanos were to stand trial for one of the many murders for which they were most likely responsible. The Provenzanos offered Hennessy all the information and inner workings of the mafia if Hennessy testified in their favor. Hennessy agreed, effectively sealing his fate.
Rumors of Hennessy’s alliance simmered. Hennessy received a letter threatening his life unless he quit investigating mafia activity. A few weeks after the letter, a Mafia informant working undercover, Giuseppe Mattiani, was found headless and legless, and burned beyond recognition. This sent a clear message to Hennessy and the police department. Hennessy was undeterred. He was from a family of hard-working Irish immigrants, a migration that occurred a few decades before the Italian wave. He was appointed by Mayor Shakspeare as an effort to rid the city of its mafia crisis.
On October 15th, 1890, Hennessy and J.C. Roe, his bodyguard, were returning from a board meeting when they were ambushed and shot by two gunmen armed with sawed off shotguns. Astoundingly, after being struck and on the ground, Hennessy took out his pistol and fired back. He survived and muttered, “dagoes” (an offensive slur directed for Italians), to the first person who reached him. The escalated anger due to the violence and the sheer utterance of the term sparked a citywide manhunt resulting in the arbitrary arrest of over 250 Italian immigrants, many who didn’t speak English. Hennessy repeated the pejorative “dagoes” that night in the hospital. He died the next morning.
Mayor Shakspeare put detectives in prison as moles to listen to what imprisoned mafia members were saying. One man, Emanuele Polizzi, claimed he heard Joseph Macheca and Charles Matranga organized the assassination. An investigative committee eventually named 19 Italians in connection with the murder, with only six having any ties with mafias. Roe refused to testify out of fear. All of the defendants were exonerated due to lack of evidence. The verdicts infuriated much of the city as many felt the trial was mismanaged due to bribery and fear. Widespread Italophobia exacerbated the situation.
Irate crowds gathered at the Henry Clay statue on Canal Street (now located at Lafayette Square) to protest the verdict. Famous locals made appealing speeches to over 20,000 citizens forming a mob. Eventually the cry “hang the dago murderers!” made its way to the forefront. Another called for arming themselves. The mob made its way down Orleans Street in the French Quarter, passed Congo Square, and arrived at the prison (where the Municipal Auditorium is now located). They hounded to be let in. Some went to Treme Street to find an alternative entrance, and found a private entrance loosely guarded. They barged their way in, and found pistols and shotguns belonging to the police department. The mob leaders approached the warden, who was relaxed in his chair and simply asked, “What do you want?” They replied they wanted “the dagoes”, but the warden only gave up the keys after his life was threatened. The accused began running amok to hide from the vigilante hordes loudly approaching.
One by one the accused were rounded up and forced outside. Outside, the police attempted to break up the scene, only to be pelted with rocks from the crowd. The police did not try too hard after that. The Italians resisted and fought back, but it was useless against an armed, upset crowd of thousands. Polizzi, whose only crime seemed to be repeating a rumor, was the last to be caught. Tom Smith elaborates on his capture and murder in his book The Crescent City Lynchings:
Polizzi huddled in a ball under the rear staircase to the second floor, his eyes gripped shut against the cries and gunfire, but hands found him and pulled him to his feet. Hands with guns.
Dragging him out of the prison, men kicked and yanked him down the narrow lane of Treme Street to the corner of St. Ann. A thin cord dropped from the lamp post, hung by a young climber who adjusted it over a crossbar below the gaslight frame. The cord closed around Polizzi’s neck, and he struggled as men began to pull. The cord cut into his neck as he began to rise- then the cord broke. The crowd moaned with disappointment as Polizzi hit the ground. Someone found a clothesline, and soon Polizzi’s strangling face came into view above the heads of the crowd as he was pulled upward again. His untied hands flailed at the rope until he caught it and began to pull himself up.
The boy perched atop the street light punched Polizzi in the face, forcing him to lose his grip. He fell and dangled by his neck, but his fingers found the clothesline again. The men managing the rope lowered him and bound his hands with a piece of the broken cord. The struggling man was lifted a third time, and his body convulsed as bullets entered him, leaving puffs of blue smoke in the air. The bound figure writhed and swung, a moving target for the shots that ended his life.
Other lynchings before him were done in a similar manner. After many dangled they were shot as if target practice by the crowd just to ensure their deaths, such as Jim Caruso, who was found with forty-two bullet wounds. Most of the victims were unrecognizable. Five of the victims never received a trial. Polizzi and another were left hanging for hours to send a message. Others were displayed for public viewing, and an estimated 2,500 curious onlookers came to view the display. Ironically enough, Charles Matranga, ringleader of the Matrangas, hid under his mattress and escaped the hanging.
The murder of the police chief and the mistrials made national news, but the lynchings made international news. The Italian government was furious, and demanded reparations or they would retaliate by attacking American naval ships. Mayor Shakspeare eventually paid Italy $25,000 as solace. Subsequently, Mayor Shakspeare lost his reelection bid that year because of the decisive Italian vote, and he retired from politics. The city erected Hennessy a massive memorial in Metairie Cemetery. On one side it reads: “Mortally Wounded by Assassins.” His also had a street renamed after him. There are no markers or memorials for the 11 victims.
The legacy of the lynching was viewed favorably by many and a popular drinking song was penned and sung for decades:
Now we have shown our Southern blood- for nowhere will you find-
A Town that would have justice and fair play of this kind.
We would not have the verdict given by them men of nerve; It seems to us as if the case had quite a crooked curve.
The execution was gone through quickly, and done by gentlemen,
And everybody will agree it could never be a sin.
Lynchings of Italians in Louisiana did not cease. In Hahnville, 1896, three other Italians were lynched. Three years later in Tallulah, five more Italians were lynched. In almost all instances, they were in close economic competition with other, established whites. By 1900, Louisiana had per capita the second most amount of lynchings. Italians were lynched at a rate second highest than any other group in the state, albeit a far, far second to African-Americans.
Although anti-Italian sentiment was high, it did not alter the incoming of Italians seeking a better opportunity. Thousands poured in, including my great-grandfather, Pasquale Barranco, in 1894. He established himself as a shoe repairman and joined the new Società Italiana Di Mutua Beneficenza Cefalutana and then sent for his wife, Maria, and his son, Salvatore. According to my late grandmother, Concetta, Salvatore’s first site was the Chalmette Monument.
Hardships continued in other ways. John Parker, Louisiana’s 37th governor, proudly participated in the mob and refused to apologize for his role in the lynchings. Trials like Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists erroneously given the death penalty, plagued the early 20th century. In addition, thousands of Italians were put in internment camps during WWII.
Although Italians faced hardships, they eventually prospered in New Orleans with great effort of assimilation, and the national transformation of who was considered American and white. The city had two Italian mayors, Robert Maestri and Victor Schiro. Local Italian musicians such as Nick LaRocca and Louis Prima dominated national airwaves. Italian influence on Creole cuisine is renowned. St. Joseph’s Day is celebrated throughout the city. In 1996, the city built the Monument to the Immigrants to commemorate Italian immigrants.
The mafias in New Orleans also continued to prosper. Charles Matranga defeated the Provenzanos and led the Matrangas until his retirement during Prohibition. The Matranga empire switched names and leaders numerous times and existed until the 1990’s. Carlos Marcello is probably the most notable boss. Throughout much of its existence, police profited and cooperated with the ring.
The legacy of the engrossing lynchings remains unfamiliar. It remains in the dark behind the shadows of most other stories in the city’s historic narrative. I found two books published about the event and a surprisingly really well done movie, Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken.
The memory of the lynching, its victims, and the terrifying force of prejudice should never escape us, and we should always learn from it as we apply history to our own lives.