By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Little has been mentioned in American history books about an event that occurred in New Orleans on March 14, 1891. Following the shooting death of the city’s police chief, hundreds of Italian Americans were arrested in connection with his murder. Of them, 19 were indicted. However, for a 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 murder 11 men.
Since that horrific day, the memory of
the March 1891 attack has preyed on the minds of the Italian-American community.
After more than a century, the mayor of New Orleans has officially apologized for this event. On April 12, 2019, Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued an official Proclamation of Apology to the Italian-American community: “What happened to those 11 Italians, it was wrong, and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology,” Cantrell stated. “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 often 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.
At the time of this incident, New Orleans was home to the South’s largest community of Italians, most of whom were from Sicily. Many had managed to integrate into the life of the city. They found work and started their own businesses, but nonetheless they were not universally welcomed. Regardless of their attempt to assimilate, Italians who had been living in New Orleans, some even prior to the Louisiana Purchase, were considered foreign and even dangerous by some. To this day, it is still believed this hatred and distrust of Italians during that era was a result of their different language, customs and appearance.
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 Orleanais, pushed into the prison and shot and mutilated 11 men.
Written records list the victims as “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.
Once the massacre was underway inside the prison, outside the prison, a large mob cheered as the mutilated bodies were displayed.” Some corpses were hung; while remained others were drawn and quartered.
The way the local and national media covered the event also clearly showed a biased press toward Eastern and Southern European immigrants, particularly the Italians. “Rise, people of New Orleans!” wrote the Daily States newspaper. “Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization.” The message was clear: If the New Orleans justice system couldn’t punish Italians, the people of New Orleans would have to do so instead. Another example was in the Washington Post,
which described the lynching as “work
This was not the only act of mob violence that blighted the U.S. during this period. “An unknown number of African Americans and more than 400 black Louisianans were lynched in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Violent vendettas against Italians in this country continued well into the 20th century as was demonstrated by the frenzy that resulted in the wrongful execution on Aug. 23, 1927, of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco e Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the interment of Italian Americans during World War II. Many of these internees had sons and grandsons on active duty in the American armed forces fighting in the Pacific and Europe.
Speaking before the audience, Mayor Cantrell called attention for the need to speak out today about these past injustices that in far too many cases “have not 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 many members of Italian-American communities across the country. Though some may think that it’s too little too late, Mayor Cantrell’s official apology was something that needed to be heard. IAH