“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.” – Times editorial 1891
The very first case that brought “Mafia” to the American lexicon and received both national and international attention in the United States occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1890-91. It all started because of a rival business between two Italian immigrant families, the Provenzanos and Mantrangas. New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy had imprisoned several members of the Provenzano family for attempted murder of Mantranga longshoremen. Hennessy was preparing for their upcoming appeal trail, rumors circulated that he had new evidence that could clear the Provenzanos and implicate the Mantrangas of bringing in Italian and Sicilian criminals to work the docks.
However, during a late and rainy walk home on October 15, 1890, Chief Hennessy was ambushed and shot execution-style by several gunmen. He managed to tell Captain Bill O’Connor that the “Dagoes did it” (Dago: common slang for Italians). David Hennessy died the next morning.
Already vastly unpopular, Hennessy’s murder was followed enthusiastically by mass arrests of local Italians. People were terrified to leave their homes as their own Mayor Joseph Shakespeare demanded the police “scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across.” After releasing many due to lack of evidence, nineteen men were finally charged with murder or as accessories to murder. Mayor Shakespeare gave an impassioned speech filled with fiery language that heightened already present tensions. He believed the citizens of New Orleans needed to teach these people a lesson they would never forget; to uproot and completely annihilate these oath-bound assassins.
Spurred on by the frenzied antiforeign sentiments, Thomas Duffy walked straight into the jail and shot one of the suspects in the neck. Duffy was only given six months for assault.
Trials for nine of the suspects started in February 1891. It went as expected since the evidence against the defendants was either extremely weak, contradictory, or non-existent. Four defendants were judged not guilty, two were automatically found not guilty as there was no evidence at all against them, and a mistrial declared for the other three as the jurors could not reach a unanimous decision. When the jurors left the courthouse they faced an angry crowd that harassed and threatened them. Some jurors even lost their jobs for not convicting the Italians.
A group calling themselves the “Committee of Safety” organized a town meeting near the prison and instructed the huddled thousands to prepare for action. The Italian consul begged the governor to cool tempers and prevent a violent outbreak, but he would do nothing without Mayor Shakespeare who conveniently couldn’t be reached. The mob finally marched towards the prison chanting “we want the Dagoes!”
As the mob used a battering ram against the prison door, Warden Lemuel Davis let the nineteen Italians out of their cells to hide as best they could before the horde swarmed inside. Eleven of the Italians were lynched, beaten to death, or shot. The bodies were left to hang for hours. The remaining eight managed to survive in their hiding spots.
After this horrific incident, the survivors were released and all charges dropped. Media coverage and the American population at large assumed the prisoners were involved with the Mafia and deserved their fate. The lynch mob got away clean as a grand jury claimed they were unable to identify those involved.
Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster