- 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
Opinion differed as to whether the Mafia actually existed in America. However, ever since Italy had been united in 1861, her government had conducted a vigorous, often ruthless, crusade to stamp out the ancient criminal fraternity. In Sicily, Mafiosi were gunned down like dogs. Surely, some authorities believed, among the thousands of Italians then streaming to America there might be Mafiosi fleeing the harsh hand of the Italian police. In New Orleans, according to a grandjury report, the Italian consulate had the names of over a thousand fugitives from Italian justice living among the city’s twenty-five-thousand-member Italian colony. The city’s total population was then about a quarter of a million.
The Sicilian criminal element had captured Hennessy’s interest long before, and the young chief had carved out a national reputation as an authority on the Mafia. Nine years earlier Hennessy, then a detective, had scored an impressive coup by arresting the internationally notorious Sicilian bandit Giuseppe Esposito in New Orleans. This brigand was wanted in Italy for premeditated murder, robbery, and extortion. British authorities were after Esposito for mutilating a curate in a £5,000 ransom scheme.
But arresting a suspected Mafioso proved far simpler than getting a conviction. American police, trying to solve crimes believed committed by the Mafia, ran into the ancient Sicilian code of omerta , meaning, literally, “connivance.” Omerta held that justice was a personal matter, not something to be delegated or entrusted to outsiders. A man’s first duty was to avenge himself for any injury. To appeal to the public, the police, or the courts for redress was contemptible, the act of a traitor. The customary Mafia penalty for giving evidence to the authorities was death.
Thanks to this near immunity from the testimony of their neighbors, blackmailers and extortionists exploited their fellow countrymen virtually at will in the New Orleans Italian colony. Authorities pointed despairingly to ninety-four murders involving Italians in the twenty-five years preceding the Hennessy assassination; only five had resulted in convictions, and the other cases had been dropped for lack of evidence.
The deadly feud between the Matrangas and Provenzanos hardened Hennessy’s determination to break the Mafia in his city. He had obtained from Italian authorities criminal histories of several immigrants now residing in New Orleans. His investigations convinced him that Charles Matranga, Joseph P. Macheca, a well-to-do merchant, and several other Italian-Americans were the leaders of a Mafia family operating in the city. He had planned to destroy this criminal cabal by sending its leaders to prison for perjury in the first Provenzano trial.
In ferreting out the motive behind Hennessy’s murder, the chief’s fellow officers theorized that the Matranga leaders had been tipped offthat Hennessy intended to put them behind bars. Hennessy was, in fact, murdered on October 15, exactly one week before he was expected to unveil his case against the Matranga gang at the second Provenzano trial.
Of those suspected as Mafia kingpins only Macheca was a native-born American. He gave every outward appearance of being a substantial and enterprising member of the community. Twenty years before, Joe Macheca had pioneered the steamship fruit trade between New Orleans and Central America. He owned the first ship to make the run and had founded the firm of Macheca Brothers. He was prominent in Democratic politics and often served as a delegate to the party’s state conventions. Ironically, seventeen years earlier he had saved the life of a New Orleans police chief by his conspicuous heroism during a civil riot. Now middle-aged, Macheca was a portly, pleasant-mannered, and popular gentleman, father of six, owner of a handsome house on Bourbon Street, and believed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was now a suspected architect of assassination.
The New Orleans populace was so enraged at the brazenness of the Hennessy killing that the mayor, Joseph A. Shakspeare, felt compelled to take extraordinary measures. Shakspeare described the murdered chief as a “victim of Sicilian vengeance” and warned, “We must teach these people a lesson that they will not forget for all time.” The mayor appointed a committee of the city’s prominent and powerful to help bring Hennessy’s assassins tojustice and to root out any “oath-bound” or “hellborn” societies in New Orleans. The appointees, who came to be known as the Committee of Fifty, put up a substantial sum of their own money to engage the best detective skills and the sharpest legal talent in the case.
After scores of initial arrests nineteen men were finally indicted on December 13, 1890, for the murder of David C. Hennessy. Later, the state obtained an order of severance, and only nine of the nineteen were scheduled for immediate trial. The nine were the alleged ringleaders, Joseph Macheca and Charles Matranga; Pietro Monasterio, the shoemaker living in the shanty from which the attack had been staged; Bastian Incardona, an Italian criminal fugitive; Antonio Marches!, a fruit vendor; his fourteen-year-old son, Caspare; Antonio Scaffidi and Antonio Bagnetto, also fruit vendors; and Emmanuele Polizzi, an unstable Sicilian who had once been fired by the Provenzanos for blackmailing them.