- 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 public’s vengeful feeling against the Matranga-Macheca faction now seemed to work to the advantage of the rival Provenzanos. When the Provenzano members were finally retried in January, after postponement of the October trial date, they were found not guilty of the ambush on the Matrangas.
The date set for the Hennessy murder trial was February 16, 1891, with Judge Joshua G. Baker, a gentleman described as “pleasant, dignified and punctual,” presiding. The defense retained a blue-chip battery of five lawyers led by Thomas J. Semmes, one of the South’s most distinguished attorneys, a former Louisiana attorney general and Confederate senator. The defense also boasted a former district attorney and crack trial lawyer, Lionel Adams. The high quality of counsel tended to confirm accounts that the defense was lavishly financed. The New York Times reported that Italians all over the country had been asked to contribute two dollars apiece to help defend their countrymen. Sums large and small flowing into New Orleans were estimated to have swelled the defense war chest to seventy-five thousand dollars or more.
The Hennessy trial seemed to offer a clear-cut confrontation: a contest between a society based on law and a society rooted in evil, and the case commanded nationwide attention. The New York Times billed it in advance as “one of the noted criminal cases of the age.” The selection of a jury foretold the intensity of the coming struggle. More than 1,300 prospective jurors had to be summoned, and 780 were examined. It took eleven days to select twelve jurymen.
On February 27 spectators packed the courtroom as the trial began. An uneasy stillness fell over the crowd as the first witness, Dr. Paul Archinard, assistant coroner, recounted the terrible wounds in Hennessy’s body. Then the prosecution produced four witnesses who testified that “Peter Johnson,” the man who had rented the shanty from which the shots were fired, was actually Joseph P. Macheca. The rent had been paid in advance by Macheca, who installed Monasterio in the shanty as a shoe-maker shortly before the ambush.
A Mr. Peeler, a painter who lived on the corner near the murder scene, testified that on hearing the first shots he had sprung to his balcony and seen Scaffidi, Incardona, and Bagnetto firing from in front of Monasterio’s shanty. He had seen Scaffidi fire twice at Hennessy with a double-barreled shotgun, reload, and fire again.
A black youth, Amos Scott, told the tense courtroom how Hennessy had been set up for the kill. Amos said he had talked to Caspare Marchesi, the son of Antonio Marchesi, in Poydras Market three days after the shooting. Young Marchesi told Amos that on the fatal night he had been stationed by the men to watch for the police chief. When Hennessy appeared, Caspare ran ahead of him and whistled to signal his approach.
Altogether the prosecution produced sixty-seven witnesses, including several who identified some of the accused as the men they had seen actually firing weapons or fleeing the murder scene.
In building its case the state had enjoyed unusual extralegal support, since the Committee of Fifty disclosed later that a spy had been planted as an employee of the defense team. This man was actually on the city’s payroll, and his duty was to file a daily report of everything seen and heard in the defense camp.
The antics of one defendant, Emmanuele Polizzi, provided lively copy for the journalists covering the trial. Polizzi, a short, swarthy man in his late twenties who was described by a Times reporter as “dull and ignorant,” had already interrupted the trial earlier with his ranting and had been taken into the judge’s private chamber, where, it was rumored, he had offered a confession implicating the other defendants for an assurance of immunity for himself. On March 6, the day the defense was to begin presenting its case, Polizzi rushed to a window and shoved his foot through the glass in an attempt to escape to the street outside. Deputy sheriffs finally subdued him, but only after having their hands bitten and their clothes torn in a fierce struggle. Court was adjourned to give the coroner time to determine Polizzi’s mental condition.
On March 7 the defense finally called its first witnesses, and the weight of evidence began to seesaw. Where the state’s witnesses had Antonio Bagnetto firing at Hennessy, defense witnesses had him watching over some fruit stands in the market-place during the attack. Others swore that the Marchesis, father and son, were at their home, four blocks away. Still other witnesses placed Scaffidi at home, nursing a sick wife, at the hour Hennessy was attacked.