March 14, 2011

The Murder of Sicilians in New Orleans

Among the Largest Mass lynchings in American History
Storming Parish Prison
By Lucian

When one thinks of frontier justice or violent lynchings in the United States, it conjures the specter of lawlessness in the old West or the anti-black intolerance of the Deep South. This is inevitable, not only because of the magnitude of such atrocities, but because of the attention brought to them by modern American society, which largely sprung from the political machines of the victorious North after 1865. Historical violence outside these categories, such as the New York’s Draft riots, is not censored, but neither are they given as serious attention. Of the lesser know violent events in America's past, one in particular attracted my attention several years ago. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I spent time in both Public and Catholic schools. Never once did they mention to me that one of the largest mass lynchings in American history was directed against Southern Italians, Sicilians specifically.

On October 15th, 1890 unknown assassins mortally wounded New Orleans Police Chief David C. Hennessy. It would be incorrect to state that the seeds of anti-Italian sentiment were sown on that day. It would be more accurate to say that this incident was used as a catalyst for feelings already being promoted by some American leaders at the time.

After being gunned down, one witness claimed that Hennessy said that “Dagos” were responsible for shooting him. After hearing this, New Orleans Mayor Joseph A. Shakespeare gave his police force the order to round up every Italian they came across. The spirit of his orders was followed and within a week, after several instances of brutality and illegal actions, hundreds were interrogated. This resulted in 18 Italian men and one 14-year-old boy being arrested and detained.
“We owe it to ourselves and to everything that we hold sacred in this life to see to it that this blow is the last. We must teach these people a lesson they will not forget for all time. What the means are to reach this end, I leave to the wisdom of the council to devise.” Pre-trial quote by Mayor Shakespeare. (From The Innocent Lynched, by Joseph Gentile, pgs. 16-17)
The 19 detainees were regularly beaten in an attempt to extract confessions. A confession was dragged from one of the men, Manuel Politz (Emmanuele Polizzi), but he was so obviously mentally ill that judge Baker ruled his testimony inadmissible during the trial. Jury tampering occurred even though there was not a single Italian on the jury. Several of the prosecutions “witnesses” could not keep their stories straight. Despite torture, fabricating evidence and other illegal tactics, the case was so weak that on March 13th, 1891 the jury members voted either not-guilty or mistrial. A second charge of “lying in wait to commit murder” had not been settled, but Judge Baker chose not to pursue it. He ruled, “their lives cannot be again imperiled by the law, and the State will in a day or two nolle pros the case and the men will go free”. 

Mayor Shakespeare and the council, which orchestrated the arrests, were not pleased by this result. The council, also known as the Committee of 50, arranged a rally to rectify the problem.
“All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14th, at 10 o’clock A.M., at Clay Statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case. Come prepared for action.” (The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith, pg. 213)
Approximately 10,000 people were to have attended. A leading New York City newspaper wrote: “There was a crowd of young and old men, black and white, but mostly of the best element.”

The crowd was riled into a murderous rage by men such as William Parkerson (a crony of the Mayor) and John Wickliffe (a Kentucky lawyer who was expelled from West Point). The lynch mob proceeded to march on Parish Prison to impose their will with violence.

Elements of the police force tried to deter the lynch mob, but were overwhelmed. Warden Lemuel Davis tried valiantly to stop the angry mob from reaching the Sicilian prisoners, but failed. Eleven of the prisoners were killed. Their bodies were publicly displayed and each member of the mob was allowed to pass and view them, thousands took part in the gruesome procession.

No one was arrested. To add to the insult, William Parkerson one of the leaders of the lynch mob, enjoyed his freedom with celebrity status. The Federal government refused to interfere. Secretary of State Blaine even told the Italian ambassador “It is absolutely impossible for the federal government to interfere with the administration of justice in a single state.” Perhaps Secretary of State Blaine had forgotten about the politics surrounding his country’s Civil War less than three decades earlier.

The American reaction to the incident was varied; however, the Italian government suspended diplomatic relations with the U.S. because of it. Many American leaders and future leaders condoned the lynching; even Teddy Roosevelt was quoted as saying that it was “…rather a good thing.”

The unfortunate jurors were either bullied into leaving New Orleans or ruined financially. Predictably members of the Committee of 50 appeared to profit the most from the lynching and the seizure of Italian business interests afterward.

After learning about the events that took place on that fateful day I was reminded of other injustices that the U.S. government has recently apologized for; namely the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932-1972) and Guatemalan syphilis experiment (1946-1948). If they haven’t apologized for experimenting on 4,000 U.S. soldiers with mustard gas before the end of WW2, at least they finally officially admitted it in 1993. There are people who would call me un-American for bringing all this up, but if other demographic groups can say it then why can’t I, why is one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history just a footnote?

Before I began researching the lynching in New Orleans I asked people if they knew anything about it. Few did, and most of them believed that the Ku Klux Klan or a similar group organized it. I’m sure there must have been people like that who attended; the size of the crowd alone would almost guarantee it. However, after looking into it I found that the lynch mob consisted of both blacks and whites, and both participated directly in the killings.

Considering the “politically correct” stance that it currently promotes, it is not surprising that the American government overlooks the fact that the largest mass-lynching on it’s soil was organized by Capitalist political leaders and carried out by a multiracial mob against a small Southern European ethnic group. On the other hand, there could be a simpler reason for the lack of publicity; maybe they don’t feel that we are important enough to care about.

Unfortunately, New Orleans wasn’t the only place that this happened. In addition to Louisiana, Italians were lynched in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

I knew that we were discriminated against, but the magnitude of the violence against Italians in America was also something that I never learned about in school or from the media. I did not know it until I read the article Just Another Day in 'The Big Easy' — How an Entire City Committed Murdeby Niccolò Graffio. For a more detailed description of the mass lynching in New Orleans, and an interesting summary of the city’s history leading up to that point, I recommend reading it.

• The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith
• The Innocent Lynched by Joseph Gentile
• Vendetta by Richard Gambino
• Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick (p193)

Amended on March 27, 2017