On March 14, 1891, the largest mass lynching in American history took place in New Orleans. An angry mob of thousands stormed the Orleans Parish Prison. Of 19 imprisoned Italian males, 11 were killed on the spot: two were hanged and nine were shot. And eight escaped the lynch mob’s fury.
The violence stemmed from the acquittals of alleged Sicilian gang members who had been accused of the October 15, 1890, assassination of New Orleans Chief of Police David C. Hennessy.
New Orleans Dock Wars
In the late 19th century, Sicilians and southern Italians (mostly immigrants) dominated fruit and vegetable commerce on the New Orleans docks. By 1890, a longstanding and sometimes bloody business rivalry between two groups of Italian fruit importers and their dockworkers had escalated. These groups included the Matranga & Locasio fruit importing company and wealthy importer Joseph Macheca versus the Provenzano fruit importing company. The Matrangas were allegedly part of what became known as La Mafia, while the more established Provenzanos were believed to be unaffiliated with any Sicilian crime organization.
The Metrangas were led by brothers Antonio and Charles (Carlo) Metranga. Tensions started when the Metrangas attempted to muscle in on the Provenzanos’ long established importing business. They extorted “protection” money from freighter companies and other dock businesspeople. The rivalry exploded into war when two Provenzano group members were murdered by Metranga gang members in 1890. This caused the Provenzanos to take their revenge, attacking Antonio Metranga and three of his men.
The Provenzanos were brought to trial and eventually acquitted. The Metrangas accused Police Chief Hennessy of siding with the Provenzanos.
David C. Hennessy
As a New Orleans police detective, Hennessy came to fame in 1881 when he single-handedly captured notorious Sicilian gang leader, Guiseppe Esposito. The gangster was convicted and deported to Italy, where he faced murder charges.
Because Detective Hennessy went over his superior’s head to get Esposito, Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux tried to get him fired from the force. Devereaux was allegedly affiliated with Esposito’s group.
Tensions within the police department led to a street gun battle between Hennessy and his supporters versus Devereaux and his supporters. During the battle, Detective Hennessy’s cousin Mike was critically injured by Devereaux himself.
Hennessy then shot and killed the Devereaux. Hennessy was brought to trial and the jury bought his plea of self-defense, acquitting him.
David C. Hennessy left the police department for a period of time, becoming a private detective. The wealthy Provenzanos were among his key business relationships. He saw them as legitimate businessmen, while seeing the Matrangas as immigrant thugs.
When Hennessy returned to the New Orleans Police Department as its Chief of Police, he launched an investigation into Metranga gang activities, actually contacting Rome’s Chief of Police for dossiers on Italian-born New Orleans gang members. The Metrangas accused Hennessy of favoritism toward the Provenzanos.
On October 15, 1890, David C. Hennessy walked home from work at night. A teenaged Italian boy whistled to signal gunmen with sawed-off shotguns and revolvers. Hennessy was shot at least six times as he reached his house.
As he lay dying, the Police Chief said, “The dagoes did it.”
This triggered anti-Italian demonstrations across the country. New Orleans Mayor Shakspeare appointed a “Committee of Fifty,” a group of prominent citizens, to investigate all circumstances related to the assassination.
The New Orleans Police made mass arrests, over 100 Italian men. The police then used Frank DiMaio , an undercover Pinkerton agent, to infiltrate the arrested men in the prison. He made friends with a Matranga gang member who identified Charles Matranga and Joe Macheca as the leaders of the plot to kill Hennessy.
Nineteen men went on trial, including fruit importers Charles Matranga and Joseph Macheca; as well as Matranga dockworkers James and John Caruso, Rocco Geraci, and Bastian Incardona. The other 13 Sicilians were poor men arrested on circumstantial evidence or crowd hysteria. For example, Pietro Manasterio was beaten and arrested simply because the assassins had fired near his cobbler shop. And Pietro Natali was grabbed at random at the train station simply because he was a Sicilian.
The first nine defendants went to trial in February, 1891. Thanks to fund contributions from Italians around the country, they were able to hire three of the best criminal attorneys in the country. On March 13, the jury acquitted six of the accused and declared mistrials on three. Upon receiving the verdicts, the Committee of Fifty ordered a meeting of “the people” on Canal Street for the following day.
On March 14, an estimated 8,000 people gathered in front of the Henry Clay statue on Canal Street. According to The New York Times, the Committee of Fifty ringleader, prominent lawyer William Parkerson addressed the crowd, “What protection or assurance of protection is there left us when the very head of our Police Department, our Chief of Police, is assassinated in our very midst by the Mafia Society and his assassins.”
An expert orator, Parkerson whipped the mob into a fury.
Even though the Sicilians had been acquitted, they were still at the Orleans Parish Prison when the mob headed in that direction.
Prison warden Captain Lem Davis anticipated violence and ordered all prisoners, except the Sicilians, into the prison courtyard. He told the Italians to hide or take refuge anywhere they could inside the prison. They desperately searched for hiding places. Joseph Macheca was found and shot by the mob. Polizzi was pulled out of a dog kennel where he was hiding. They hung him from a lamppost. Six more were cornered and shot in a courtyard. As they hunted for Sicilians, the mob chanted “Who killa da chief? Who killa da chief? Who killa da chief?”
In all, sixteen men were either killed on the spot or later died of their wounds. Two of the Sicilian victims had no connection to the Matrangas, Provenzanos, or Chief David Hennessy.
Three Italians escaped the mob, including Charles Matranga who had hidden under a pile of trash.
As the crowd dispersed, Committee of Fifty leader Parkerson addressed the lynch mob again. “Mob violence is the most terrible thing on earth. I called you together for a duty. You have performed that duty. Now go to your houses. God bless you.”
President Benjamin Harrison denounced the tragedy, while local New Orleans newspapers almost jubilantly announced that the Mafia was “exterminated.”
Not yet president, Teddy Roosevelt said that the lynchings were “a rather good thing.” Even an editorial in The New York Times stated “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.”
The Italian government protested because three of the murdered men were Italian citizens. Congress awarded $25,000 for the families of the three men.
In 1911, John Parker who helped organize the mob became governor of Louisiana.