- Historic Sites
Vendetta In New Orleans
The city panicked with fear of the Mafia when the police chief was murdered
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
The lamplight filtering through the haze and drizzle gave the streets of New Orleans an eerie pallor that October night in 1890. It was nearing midnight when Dave Hennessy, the city’s thirty-two-year-old police chief, left his office and headed home, escorted by an old friend, Captain William O’Connor. There had been threats on Hennessy’s life, but the popular and respected chief took them lightly. When the two men reached Girod Street, where Hennessy lived, the chief told O’Connor it was not necessary to accompany him any farther. The two men bade each other good night, and Hennessy headed up the damp and deserted street alone.
He had almost reached home when the silence of the night was shattered by the roar of gunfire. The shots came from a shanty on the other side of the street where a recently arrived immigrant Sicilian shoemaker was living. Hennessy was hit, but he managed to draw his service revolver and get off three or four shots as his attackers fled.
Captain O’Connor heard the gunfire, rushed to the scene, and found Hennessy on Basin Street, where he had collapsed after gamely pursuing his assailants. “Who gave it to you, Dave?” O’Connor asked. “The Dagoes did it,” Hennessy murmured.
Within hours the police found five weapons abandoned in the gutters a block or two from the scene of the crime. One was an ordinary double-barreled shotgun. The others were curious pieces—shotguns with the barrels sawed off and the stocks hinged so that the guns could be collapsed to the size of a horse pistol and easily concealed.
These weapons had done their work well. Three large slugs had torn vicious wounds in the chief. His face, neck, arms, and legs were riddled with shot. Hennessy lingered through the night in Charity Hospital but died the following morning.
Hennessy’s body was taken back to the house on Girod Street where the bachelor chief had lived with his elderly mother, and later to City Hall, where it lay in state. The thousands that came to mourn him rivalled the crowds that had appeared there some months before to view the body of ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The chief’s brutal murder was on everybody’s lips. Feeling against New Orleans’ Italian community ran at fever pitch. One grief-stricken mourner, a news-carrier friend of the chief, went directly from the funeral to the Parish Prison, where he asked to see one of the arrested suspects, Antonio Scaffidi, and shot and wounded him in the neck.
The shots that killed David Hennessy in October were the belated echo of a salvo of gunfire that had split the New Orleans night five months before.
The right to unload fruit vessels landing in New Orleans had been fiercely contested by two gangs of Italian stevedores, the Provenzanos and the Matrangas, so called after their rival bosses. Initially, the Provenzanos had controlled the business. But Charles Matranga, the operator of a gambling den and dance hall serving New Orleans blacks, began to eye the fruit-handling concession covetously when police pressure on his other enterprises became too uncomfortable. Through persuasion and coercion Matranga managed to oust the Provenzanos and put his own men on the wharves.
Late one night in May, seven of Matranga’s men, including his brother Tony, were driving out Esplanade Street in a wagon after unloading a ship at the Levee. As the wagon reached a tree-lined intersection at Esplanade and Claiborne a fusillade of shotgun fire erupted, and three of the men fell wounded, including Tony Matranga, who lost a leg in the ambush.
At first the victims clung to the ancient Sicilian custom of silence and refused to identify their assailants. Later they relented and accused several members of the Provenzano faction. Six members of the Provenzano group were convicted in June.
The verdict left Chief Hennessy dissatisfied, and not merely because he was a personal friend of the Provenzanos. The attorneys for the Provenzano men had filed for a new trial, and in making an investigation relating to this appeal Hennessy had obtained damaging evidence of perjury by the witnesses for the Matrangas. Further feeding his suspicions that justice had been subverted was the fact that a key witness for the defense had been murdered before he could testify. Hennessy suspected the Matrangas of the deed. The Provenzano trial was, in fact, so redolent of perjury that the court did grant a new trial, set for October 22.
Hennessy’s probing had convinced him that the Matrangas were guilty of more than perjury and an isolated murder. In the course of his inquiries he had been in contact with Italian police officials and now had reason to believe that the Matranga faction represented the New Orleans branch of the Mafia.