June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
The city panicked with fear of the Mafia when the police chief was murdered
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.
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.
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.
Almost from the outset of the trial an undercurrent of insinuation and suspicion had swirled about the integrity of the jury. Gossip around the courthouse had it that “big money might be made by going on the jury and doing right.” The money reportedly pouring into New Orleans to finance the defense tended to substantiate widespread suspicion of jury tampering. Toward the end of the trial two agents of D. C. O’Malley, a private detective working for the defense, actually were arrested and charged with attempting to bribe prospective jurors.
On Friday, the thirteenth of March, an impatient throng milled outside the courthouse. The jury had been out since the previous evening, and its verdict was due soon. At 2:53 P.M. the jury re-entered the courtroom, and the foreman handed the verdict to Judge Baker. The judge stared at it a full minute before ordering the verdict read. In the case of Macheca, Matranga, Bagnetto, Incardona, and the Marchesis the jury found “not guilty.” In the case of Monasterio, Polizzi, and Scamdi the jurors had not been able to agree on a verdict and had declared a mistrial.
As the New York Times reporter saw it, “So strong a case had been made by the State, the evidence had been so clear, direct and unchallenged, that the acquittal of the accused today came like a thunder clap from a clear sky.” Among the crowd outside the courtroom disbelief soon gave way to outrage. The air was acrid with shouts and ominous mutterings. The frightened jurors prudently melted into the crowd.
But if, after the trial, the jurors worried about the public’s attitude toward them, they expressed no misgivings about their judgment. A reporter questioned them shortly afterward. Some refused to comment, citing a pledge they had all made not to discuss the case further. But others, including the jury foreman, were willing to talk and expressed a low opinion of the prosecution’s case. Why hadn’t the prosecution called such obvious witnesses as Captain O’Connor and another police officer who had happened onto the murder scene? How reliable were eyewitnesses late on a rainy night in a dimly lit street ? And hadn’t the prosecution let the defense alibis go uncontradicted? One juror, acknowledging that the verdict may have “astonished” people, concluded, “If anybody could do any better than we did with the evidence, let them try.”
The nine defendants could not be freed immediately after the trial, since technically they still faced another charge, “lying in wait with intent to commit murder.” But in a day or two the state could be expected to drop this charge and set them free. Back in their cells the nine who had just been tried and the ten men still awaiting trial rejoiced in the verdict.
Along the Levee, people from the Italian colony began to gather in a festive mood. Italian boat owners in Lugger Bay near the French Market hoisted two flags on their masts—the Italian flag above, the Stars and Stripes below, upside down.
But as Italians celebrated on the Levee angry men met in another part of town to denounce the verdict and ponder other paths to justice. Several members of the Committee of Fifty had reconvened to form a “Vigilance Committee. ” That the Hennessy jury had been tampered with, the jurors bought off, and justice perverted was outrageously obvious to these men. Hadn’t the defense somehow secured the list of prospective jurors even before the judge released it? Hadn’t they been approached at home or on their way to the courthouse by defense emissaries with insinuations or outright offers of payment? Hadn’t two of these bribers actually been arrested just before the trial ended? And what about the huge sums the defense had available to work its will?
Members of the Vigilance Committee labored until midnight drafting an appeal for a mass protest. It was signed by more than sixty prominent citizens. Their work done, the committee sent copies of the statement to the local newspapers.
Saturday, March 14, the morning after the trial, dawned cool, clear, and sunlit after a week of steady rain. Sheriff Gabriel Villère read in his newspaper the statement the Vigilance Committee had issued: Mass Meeting All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14 at 10 o’clock A.M. , at Clay Statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case. Come prepared for action.
If the call for action worried Sheriff Villère, he must have brushed his fears aside when he got to the Parish Prison and found nothing out of line. At 8:30 A.M. the sheriff left the prison in charge of his deputy, Captain Lem Davis, and headed for his office in City Hall.
Out on the Levee the city’s Italians renewed the festivities of the night before and prepared for a victory banquet. A mile away, at the statue of Henry Clay, the sun was drawing a crowd certain to please the Vigilance Committee. Just before 10 A.M. W. S. Parkerson, a leader of the committee’s call for action, a respected attorney and prominent politician, arrived on the scene. After leading a brief march around the base of the statue Parkerson mounted the pedestal and began to address the throng.
“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.”
Corte, a tough and determined agent of his government, then asked where he might find Governor Francis Nicholls. Told to try a certain lawyer’s office, Corte hurried back to the carriage and tracked Nicholls down. The Italian diplomat pleaded with the Louisiana governor to send troops or a force of police to head off possible violence at the prison. Nicholls replied that he could do nothing until he received a request from the mayor; that he had already telephoned Mayor Shakspeare at the Pickwick Club and asked him to come over at once. Nicholls suggested that Corte sit down and wait with him. Twenty-five agonizing minutes passed; then the telephone finally rang, and someone reported that the mob had reached the prison. Corte sprang to his carriage and headed at full speed to reach the scene of the trouble.
The mob arrived at the Parish Prison and demanded the keys from Captain Davis. He refused. The ironbarred main gate looked formidable, but the barricaded wooden door on Treme Street offered the vigilantes a more vulnerable target. A pile of wood on the street provided handy battering-rams. Neighbors volunteered their axes for the task. A black man brought a heavy stone crashing down on the door. It burst open, and a roar went up from the crowd.
John Wickliffe stood guard at the shattered entrance and allowed sixty armed men to enter. The merely curious were excluded. Sentries were posted at every exit to shoot down any prisoner trying to escape.
Parkerson helped to lead a group of vigilantes, rifles slung over their shoulders, across the prison yard. The guards quickly backed out of harm’s way. As the vigilantes entered the prison building they saw in one cell a face frozen in terror. It was Scaffidi, somebody said. Shots rang out and the man dropped, though they had missed him. He was not one of the nineteen Italians. The leaders asked for someone to come forward who could identify the right prisoners. Somebody shouted, “Go to the female department.” The door to the women’s section was thrown open, and an old black woman told the vigilantes they would find the men they wanted upstairs.
The avengers first discovered young Caspare Marchesi but spared the boy because of his youth. His father, Antonio, had fled with Scaffidi and Macheca to the gallery for condemned prisoners on the third floor. A grated gate slammed and locked behind them. The gate at the other end of the corridor was locked too, trapping the three men like caged beasts. They tried to protect themselves by lining up behind a pillar in the gallery. The mob reached the third floor, but the locked gate kept them from getting directly at the prisoners. Scaffidi peered out briefly, and he was shot through the head. Marchesi stumbled over Scaffidi’s fallen body and, while struggling to his feet, was riddled with buckshot. Someone unlocked the gate for the vigilantes. They moved in and made short work of Joseph Macheca. He slumped to the floor, and the avengers passed over him.
Six other prisoners had fled down a back stairway and hidden in a cell until discovered by half a dozen gunmen. They then burst into the courtyard, where they were finally trapped against a wall. The six huddled piteously on their knees, their hands over their heads, pleading for mercy. The executioners poured a deadly rain of fire into the crouching figures, who fell in a blood-soaked heap. Monasterio, still alive, raised a hand. “Give him another load,” someone shouted. A revolver shot dispatched the shoemaker for good.
To satisfy the crowd, which had missed the action within the prison, Antonio Bagnetto was dragged outside and hanged from a tree, although the man was probably dead already from gunshot wounds.
The crazed Polizzi was found crouched under a staircase, babbling to himself. He too was dragged before the mob. A rope was thrown around his neck, and he was hoisted to a lamppost. Polizzi managed to grab the rope and pull himself up, hand over hand, until he reached the crossbar and hung there gasping. A young man climbed the post and beat him in the face until the prisoner lost his grip and fell to the ground. Finally, on the fourth attempt, with his hands tied behind him, Polizzi was hanged. The crowd gave out a deafening cheer.
One of those who arrived too late to witness the spectacle, or to help avert it, was Pasquale Corte. On reaching the jail the Italian consul realized the massacre was over and headed back to his office, where he would soon be occupied in the grim business of helping the families of the victims.
Twenty minutes after the Treme Street door had burst open, it was over. Eleven men lay dead. The other eight Italian prisoners were spared, either because they had not been found or someone had vouched for their innocence. For those who still had not seen enough, arrangements were made for small groups of ten to fifteen spectators each to pass through the prison to witness the vigilantes’ handiwork.
Mr. Parkerson addressed the crowd once more: “I called you together for a duty. You have performed that duty. Now, go home and God bless you.”
“God bless you, Mr. Parkerson,” they shouted back, lifting him to their shoulders for a triumphal return to Clay Statue.
Among the original nine defendants who survived were Bastian Incardona and Charles Matranga. Incardona had hidden in a box of rubbish. Matranga, one of the suspected ringleaders, had taken refuge under a mattress, a crucifix pressed to his lips. His deliverance, he later told reporters, had confirmed his innocence. He expressed some doubts, however, about the innocence of the less fortunate prisoners.
As the New Delta , the city’s leading Democratic daily, later described that March morning, “The work was rapid and comprehensive. The guilty were stricken, the innocent were spared.” Perhaps so. But of the eleven dead men now stretched out in the prison, three had been acquitted, the jury could not agree on a verdict for three others, and five had never been tried at all.
When word of the lynching reached Lugger Landing, flags were quickly lowered, some to half-mast. By Sunday the only Italian flag still flying was one from the masthead of a steamship of the Macheca line. That Sunday afternoon the founder of the firm was carried from his Bourbon Street house in an expensive silver-and gold-trimmed casket. Twentyfive carriages bearing Joseph P. Macheca’s relatives, friends, and associates followed the hearse to the funeral in St. Louis Cathedral and then to the cemetery.
The funerals of the other victims were less splendid. Most were simple family observances. Bagnetto’s body was attended by no one. Three of the men were buried in potter’s field.
The gunfire in the Parish Prison reverberated around the country and beyond. Italian-Americans meeting in Chicago fired off a telegram to Secretary of State James G. Blaine: “We, Italians by birth, Americans by choice, assembled in mass meeting, unanimously protest against the cowardly and lawless act of the New Orleans mob, aided by the tacit consent of the local authorities. …” In New York six thousand members of the Italian community massed at Cooper Union in an orderly but angry demonstration. Outraged Italians gathered in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Kansas City.
In Italy Premier Antonio Starabba di Rudini now faced a threat to his political survival. In office only one month, possessing only the slenderest parliamentary majority, Rudini was already in trouble on a tax-reduction pledge when the New Orleans incident broke. Since some of the victims were still Italian citizens, public opinion clamored for justice and the vindication of Italy’s national honor.
Rudini took a time-honored stance, a show of strength abroad to mask his faltering grip at home. He demanded punishment of the murderers and indemnity for the families of the victims. In a lengthy exchange of diplomatic notes Secretary Blaine lectured the Italians on the fine points of American federalism, under which Washington could make no such assurances in a matter essentially involving the state of Louisiana. Naturally, this answer could not satisfy the embattled Rudini. He ordered Baron Fava, the Italian ambassador, home from Washington in order to register Italy’s official displeasure.
Rumors now began to spread of Italian warships headed for the American coast. The threat, however fanciful, was just the tonic the American spirit thirsted for in 1891. The war scare, fanned by a jingoistic press, gave Americans a chance to demonstrate, after a quarter of a century, that the deep wounds of the Civil War were healing nicely and that the nation was, once again, whole. Confederate veterans from Tennessee and the Shelby Rifles of Texas volunteered to fight for Old Glory against Rome. Uniontown, Alabama, offered fifteen hundred men. An ex-Confederate wrote the Secretary of War, ”… I will … fight for the old flag as willingly as I fought against [it].” From Georgia the War Department received an offer of “a company of unterrified Georgia rebels to invade Rome, disperse the Mafia and plant the Stars and Stripes on the dome of St. Peter’s.” Not until the Spanish-American War would America have a better chance to satisfy the country’s longing for a true test of renewed national unity.
On May 5 a New Orleans grand jury, convened to look into the Parish Prison murders, issued its report. As for the trial, the grand jury concluded that some of the jurors who had served on the Hennessy jury had been subject to “a money influence to control their decision.” As a result six men were indicted for attempted bribery, including the private detective, D. C. O’Malley. Only one person was actually convicted, and he received a short sentence.
As for the lynch mob, the grand jury decided that it “embraced several thousand of the first, best and even the most law-abiding citizens of the city … in fact, the act seemed to involve the entire people of the parish and the City of New Orleans. …” And after thoroughly examining the subject the grand jury reported there was no reason to indict anybody for the lynching.
Not everyone who studied the case shared this judgment. During the diplomatic sparring between the United States and Italy, the Department of Justice had been ordered to look into the incident. After reviewing the eight-hundred-page transcript of the Hennessy trial, a U.S. attorney, William Grant, reported that the evidence against the defendants was “exceedingly unsatisfactory” and inconclusive. And later, all charges outstanding against those who had survived the prison massacre were dropped.
No matter. The mass of public sentiment across the nation leaned to the view that justice had triumphed—in the streets of New Orleans, if not in its courts. A scattering of civil libertarians might shake their heads sadly. The Nation magazine did say we had “cut a sorry figure before the civilized world.” But New Orleans was content. “The hand of the assassin has been stayed,” the New Delta reported. “The Mafia is a thing of the past.”