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New Orleans Apologizes for 1891 Lynching of Italian-Americans

Eleven people accused of killing the city’s police chief were murdered by a vigilante mob

Illustration of the lynchers breaking into the prison in 1891 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

On March 14, 1891, a mob of thousands stormed a prison in New Orleans, demanding blood. The city’s police chief had been shot to death, and hundreds of Italian-Americans had subsequently been arrested in connection with the murder. Of them, 19 had been indicted. But for the mob of vigilantes, fired up by anti-immigrant sentiment, due process didn’t matter. After six acquittals and three additional mistrials, they stormed the city jail and proceeded to brutally murder 11 men.

For nearly 130 years, the memory of the March 1891 attack has weighed heavily on members of Italian-American community.

Last Friday, the mayor of New Orleans officially apologized for the shameful event. According to Chris Finch of the local Fox 8, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued an official Proclamation of Apology to the Italian American community that morning: “What happened to those 11 Italians, it was wrong, and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology” Cantrell said in her address. “At this late date, we cannot give justice. But we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward.”

“This attack was an act of anti-immigrant violence,” Cantrell continued. “New Orleans is a welcoming city … But there remain serious and dark chapters to our shared story that remain untold and unaccounted for.”

Immigrants who came to the U.S. from Europe and Asia in the late 19th century often confronted hostility in their new homeland. They were accused of taking “American jobs” during a time of economic depression. Italian immigrants, who often had darker complexions, became the focus of pseudo-scientific theories that trumpeted the superiority of individuals of northern European heritage over “Mediterranean types,” according to the Library of Congress.

New Orleans was home to the South’s largest community of Italians, most whom were from Sicily. Though many managed to integrate into the life of the city, finding work and eventually building their own businesses, they were not universally welcomed. “Though Italians had been living in New Orleans since before the Louisiana Purchase, their language and customs were considered foreign and even dangerous by some,” writes Erin Blakemore for History.com.

It was amid that tense climate that New Orleans police chief David C. Hennessy was gunned down by unknown assailants while walking home from work. Rumors began to swirl that as Hennessy lay dying, he used a derogatory slur for Italians to identify his murderers. The fallout was devastating: individuals of Italian descent were arrested en masse and 19 people, including a 14-year-old boy, were indicted in connection to the crime, reports Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post. There was no solid evidence against them; of the nine sent to trial, six of the accused were acquitted and the attempt to prosecute an additional three men ended in a mistrial. And yet, they were thrown back into prison with the rest of the accused, making it impossible for them to escape the violence that was to come.

News of the acquittals unleashed a fury in New Orleans. Residents speculated that the Mafia had influenced jurors, and local papers urged citizens to gather in the streets and “take steps to remedy the failure of justice,” reports Flynn. The mob, which included a number of prominent New Orleans, pushed into the prison and shot and mutilated 11 men.

According to Jessica Williams of the Advocate, the victims included: "fruit peddlers Antonio Bagnetto, Antonio Marchesi and Antonio Scaffidi; stevedores James Caruso and Rocco Geraci; cobbler Pietro Monasterio; tinsmith Loreto Comitis; street vendor Emmanuele Polizzi; fruit importer Joseph P. Macheca; ward politician Frank Romero; and rice plantation laborer Charles Traina.” Some of them had not yet been tried in court, others had already been acquitted.

“Outside the jail, the larger mob cheered as the mutilated bodies were displayed,” writes Blakemore, describing the grizzly scene. “Some corpses were hung; what remained of others were torn apart and plundered for souvenirs.”

Michael Santo, special counsel to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy, told Flynn that he’s not just upset by the brutality of the attack, but also by the way the national media covered it. Take a 1891 article in the Washington Post, for instance, which described the lynching as “work of vengeance.”

The mass lynching was, of course, not the only act of mob violence that blighted the U.S. during this period. “[A]t least several thousand African-Americans and more than 400 black Louisianans were lynched in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Michael J. Pfeifer, a historian who studies collective violence in America, tells the Associated Press

Speaking before the audience on Friday, the Advocate noted that Cantrell called attention to the need to speak out about today about these past injustices that “have never … [been] addressed.”

“This is not something that’s too little, too late,” Santo told the Post’s Flynn.

For nearly 130 years, the memory of the March 1891 attack has weighed heavily on members of Italian American community. In turn, Santo welcomed Cantrell’s official apology. “This is something that has to be addressed,” he affirmed.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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