- 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
“What protection, or assurance of protection, is there left us,” he cried, “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 again turned loose on the community? … Will every man here follow me and see the murder of D. C. Hennessy vindicated? Are there men enough here to set aside the verdict of that infamous jury, every one of whom is a perjurer and a scoundrel?”
“Hang the murderers,” the crowd shouted back.
By now the crowd had grown so great that the trolley cars circling Clay Statue could not move. Spectators clambered on top of the blocked cars and cheered the speaker on.
Two more speakers followed Parkerson, but the crowd was growing impatient. “We have had enough of words,” men shouted, “now for action.” The last speaker, a newspaper editor, John Wickliffe, was unable to finish. “Very well, then, gentlemen,” he said, “let’s go and do our duty. Mr. Parkerson is your leader. Mr. James D. Houston is your first lieutenant. Your second lieutenant is myself.” The leaders then walked over to Royal and Bienville streets, where about fifty men armed with pistols and shotguns joined them. The crowd, now swollen to well over six thousand and whipped to a righteous fury, began to march down Rampart Street toward the Parish Prison.
At the prison a swelling mass of onlookers now lined both sides of the street in front of the main gate. The Italian prisoners had learned of the mass meeting and begged Captain Davis to let them out, or else give them arms to defend themselves.
Davis was becoming edgy. Why wasn’t his superior on the scene? He phoned Sheriff Villère to tell him of the surging crowd. He kept the night watch on duty when the day watch came to relieve them. He sent a runner out to bring in deputies who lived nearby. The crowd hooted and jeered as the prison gate clanged shut behind these reinforcements.
The prison that Davis was trying to secure was a bleak fortress occupying an entire city block. The main gate on Orleans Street was guarded by iron bars an inch and a half thick. But on Treme Street only a small wooden door gave entry into the prison. Davis ordered his carpenters to barricade this doorway. Each report of the carpenters’ hammer blows was echoed by more yells from the crowd.
Davis’ strategy to save the nineteen prisoners was first to lock all the other inmates into their cells. He then transferred most of the Italians to the women’s side of the prison, where they were released and allowed to fend for themselves within the prison compound. Several of the men bolted for hiding places—in a trash bin, in the wash house, under a mattress. Two even managed to cram themselves into an oversize doghouse that had been made out of an old box for Captain Davis’ bull terrier, Queen. But most of the Italians remained upstairs on the women’s side of the jail.
By now all four streets surrounding the prison were thick with people. Davis checked the carpenters’ work on the Treme Street barricade and decided it would hold. Suddenly a new sound riveted the captain’s attention. He could make out in the distance the muffled roar of an approaching mob, the steady tramp of marching feet. As he listened two detectives pulled up to the main gate in a horse-drawn cab and shouted to him that the Vigilance Committee was headed for the prison “to lynch the Dagoes.” Davis answered, “Let them come, they won’t get in. ”
Pasquale Corte, the Italian consul in New Orleans, had also read the Vigilance Committee’s call to action that morning in the papers. To Corte this threat was a direct summons to duty. At least three of the men accused of the crime were still Italian citizens and entitled to the Italian government’s protection.
When Corte learned that a crowd was indeed gathering at Clay Statue, he raced his carriage to City Hall to find Mayor Shakspeare. There he met Sheriff Villère and the attorney general, Mr. Rogers, who told the consul that they too were looking for the mayor. But in Corte’s judgment, “They appeared to me to be very calm and to be anticipating what was about to happen.”