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1899 - THE LYNCHING AT TALLULAH

On July 20th five Sicilians from Cefalù were lynched in the little town of Tallulah, Louisiana. Tallulah is a town of 250 people, 21 miles west of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Tallulah contained five Italian residents. They were above the average in intelligence and progressiveness, and were fairly well-to-do. Landing originally at New Orleans, they had worked their way up to Vicksburg, and thence had moved to Tallulah, where they were doing a good business in fruit, vegetables and poultry, having four small stores in the town.

There were two other Italians in Madison, with a store in Millikens Bend, on the Mississippi, several miles away. These seven constituted the entire Italian colony of Madison. All were from the little town of Cefalù, Sicily, and all save one were relatives. The Tallulah colony consisted of Frank "Joe" and Charles Defatta, brothers, a cousin, Rosario Fiducia (generally known as "Zi" Defichi), and Giovanni Cirano. At Millikens Bend lived the Definas, cousins of Defatta. All the Italians spoke English, had adopted the American dress and habits, and were desirous of becoming American citizens, and it is claimed that three had been naturalized.

Next to Frank Defatta's store lived Dr. J. F. Hodge. Dr. Hodge and his Italian neighbor had been on the best of terms. The Doctor had attended Defatta when sick, and the Italian seemed to appreciate his kindness, and would not allow him to pay for fruit afterward.

Latterly some goats belonging to Defatta disturbed Dr. Hodge by running up and down his porch at night. After several complaints, which received no attention, the Doctor shot one of the offending goats. Defatta was much excited by this, but the matter was smoothed over.

When the Doctor was returning home on July 20th, as he was passing in front of the store of Joe and Charles Defatta he was surprised to see Charles rush on him and grapple with him.

Dr. Hodge, who is a very powerful man, knocked the Italian down with a blow of his fist, and then hit him on the head with a pistol used as a club. Joe Defatta, standing in his store, saw the fight and seized a gun. The Doctor fired his pistol, and Joe replied with both barrels of the gun, the shot striking the Doctor in the stomach. The shot did not penetrate far, and the Doctor found no difficulty in walking to his office. He declared the wound not dangerous, and he was diagnosed by a Vicksburg doctor.

The noise of the shooting brought a crowd to the scene. Among those who came were the other Italians, carrying guns. Whatever their intention may have been, they did nothing.

The crowd from the courthouse, however, was excited and threatening, and the news circulated that the "Dagoes" had assassinated Dr. Hodge. There were cries of "Lynch them," and the Italians, seeing the danger, fled. They were promptly overpowered, disarmed and locked up in the parish hall. The two other Defatta barricated themselves in their house, but made no further efforts to protect themselves. The mob battered in the window and door, and shot Joe three times before he surrendered.

There was some little talk of the law being allowed to take its course, but the sentiment was very nearly unanimous in favor of lynching, on the ground that the Italians had been guilty of conspiracy and assassination. Death was voted to Joe and Charles first, as the most guilty. They were taken to the cattle pen, a few hundred yards from the jail where Joe was first hanged, and then Charles. The mob then hesitated. Some were for stopping just there, but at second thought it was concluded to lynch two others of the prisoners, Frank Defatta and his cousin Rosario Fiducia. It looked for some time as thought Cirano, the last of the five, would escape; but it was finally decided to exterminate the entire crowd and Cirano was strung up by the side of the other two, to a cottonwood tree in the jail yard. As for the Definas, they escaped to Vicksburg the next day in a skiff, Joe Defina turning over his store to a neighbor.

These are the fact as to the trouble which led to the lynching and the lynching itself. Since the affair, and the discovery that it was likely to cause trouble to the United States, to Louisiana, and to Madison Parish, a case has been built up to excuse the lynching by proving that the Italian hanged were "bad men" - a very strong expression in Louisiana - and that a conspiracy had existed for the assassination of Dr. Hodge. As every white man in Madison - so the sheriff’s deputies - was implicated in the affair, the lynching is condoned and justified by the District Judge, District Attorney, Senator, Sheriff, and other officials, and as the witnesses who might testify on the other side, the Italians, are dead, this case would seem to be easily made. But it is not. On the contrary, my impression is that it disproves itself.

The real cause lies in the peculiar conditions of society in Madison Parish. It is the blackest district in the United States. In a population of 10,000 there are only 160 white families. There are 20 negroes to one white, and in some sections they stand 100 to one. Yet the entire power is in the hands of the whites. They own all the land and other property. They alone vote: they alone sit on juries. They elect all the officers and administer all the affairs of the parish.

Their administration is excellent; the schools are good, the courts fair and competent, and justice rarely miscarried. But with so small a white population in the midst of such an overwhelming majority of negroes, "a strong hand" has been deemed necessary to keep the latter in subjection; and, accordingly, in causes arising between whites and negroes, the most summary method is resorted to rather than the ordinary slow processes of the law. When a planter was killed by a negro in 1891 nine negroes were lynched for it, and a short time ago a negro was lynched for shooting a white man. The Tallulah affair has brought out the fact that there have been several recent lynchings in Madison which the papers did not report - one only two months ago in Omega.

When the Italians first came into Madison, a few years ago, they were a puzzle to the white people of that parish. Like the bat, they were difficult to classify, and this was more difficult because they dealt mainly with the negroes, and associated with them nearly on terms of equality. They could, therefore, hardly be classed as "white men," and yet they were certainly not negroes. Just how to treat them was a difficult problem. It has finally been settled. They are to get the justice awarded a negro in Madison who assaults, or shoots at, or kills a white man - lynching, not a trial. The whites who rule and administer Madison are not willing to admit the Italian to their ranks.

Norman Walker in Harper's Weekly - The Times, August 10, 1899

TESTIMONY OF ONE OF THE SURVIVORS, GIOVANNI DEFINA:

I emigrated to America in the year 1889, going at first to New Orleans, and, in 1892, I went to reside at Millikens Bend, Louisiana, where I opened a provision and miscellaneous store. By my good conduct I soon acquired a reputation as being a more honest man than any of the others engaged in similar business, and thus I secured numerous customers and I soon found myself in an enviable position, being able to make loans and to sell my goods on credit to the families of the place, who paid for the goods when they had gathered their cotton crops.

On the night of July 20th, at Tallulah, after the lynching of my unfortunate brothers-in-law, the lynchers, who knew me well, because I frequently came to Tallulah on business, having accomplished their cruel deed, decided to go to Millikens Bend for the purpose of lynching me, wishing to kill the last Italian that still lived in the country.

Mr. Ward, an owner of real estate at Millikens Bend who that night was on the road between Tallulah and Millikens Bend fell in with a group of armed men to whom, I believe, he was known. He asked them where they were going, and they said: "we are going to Millikens Bend to lynch the Difinas."

Ward, who had always been very friendly to me, was greatly surprised and displeased at the plan which those men proposed to carry out. He implored them in my behalf, praising me highly, but could get no promise from those ruffians, who were still thirsting for our blood. He pleaded so hard, however, that he induced them to promise that I should have two hours to leave the country, in default of which I should be lynched.

As Mr. Ward could not go to my house, he fell in with Dr. Ganes after he had induced the lynchers to withdraw. Dr. Ganes is a resident of Millikens Bend, and had just returned from Tallulah, where he had visited Dr Hodge, who was the cause of the lynching.  He was then going to his own house, and was requested by Mr. Ward to inform me of the decision of the murderers, viz, that if I had not got out of the way in two hours I should be lynched without mercy. When I received this unwelcome information I understood that Dr. Ganes, without I having himself seen the band that Mr. Ward had met, had been informed of the threats made by the lynchers against me even before he had left Tallulah that night.

A few minutes before the doctor’s arrival at my house, I had been informed of the occurrences of that night by a negro who accompanied the doctor on his trip to Tallulah and back, and while I was awaiting more precise information I observed that various persons living at Millikens Bend had assembled in a group, and that they were secretly talking to each other about the lynching at Tallulah; and also, I think about the threats of the lynchers to kill me. I observed that those persons felt very badly about the plight in which I was in, but I do not believe that if the lynchers had come to Millikens Bend those people would have resisted the assassins in order to save me and my children.

Having been informed by Ganes that Hodge was dying, and that if he died my life would certainly not be spared by the lynchers, I decided to flee with my children without loss of time on board of a small boat, having been told by Ganes and others that it would be exceedingly dangerous for me to leave Millikens Bend by land.

I went to Vicksburg, sailing along the Mississippi River. You know that you saw me there in a deplorable condition, and suffering from a burning fever. You remember that I told you all what had happened to me. Of course, I left to its fate a well-furnished house, which was full of all kinds of merchandise, household furniture, three horses, four carts, and eleven acres of land planted with indian corn and cabbages, together with other garden stuff which was entirely destroyed by the thieves.

I had, moreover, outstanding debts to the value of more than $2,000 as my book will show, without counting various sums, both in money and goods, loaned to persons with whom I did not have an account opened. I have several times reckoned up my losses conscientiously, and have found that I had suffered a loss amounting to about $6,000, but having recovered, through honest persons, the three horses that I had lost which were in the woods dying of hunger and three damaged and useless carts together with some boxes of old merchandise of no value, which had been left by my nocturnal visitors, because the articles of good quality fell into the hands of the conscienceless thieves; thus, having recovered those articles, together with the animals in question I compute my losses as amounting to not less than $6,000.

I have inquired of several influential persons living at Millikens Bend whether I could return to that place in order to settle up my affairs without being disturbed by the enemies of the Italians, but they have all told me that if I should return I would certainly be maltreated and even mercilessly lynched, because those people are no jokers. The consul at New Orleans interested herself in procuring an order for me from the governor of the State authorizing me to go to Millikens Bend to settle up my affairs, promising me protection by the local authorities. I have not been willing to accept this, because if those authorities can not prevent a lynching like that which took place at Tallulah, they certainly can not prevent one in the woods at Millikens Bend, through which I should he obliged to pass in order to settle up my affairs.

Having been advised, as I have before remarked, by influential persons of the locality, to abandon everything and not go there if I care for my life, I think that the part of a prudent man is to follow this advice.

A few days ago my son Matteo, a highly respectable youth who was always well liked before our misfortune at Millikens Bend, desired to go to a farm near there to collect a debt from a farmer who owes me $350. Scarcely had he been seen by some person of the neighborhood when they came to him and urged him as friends to keep out of the neighborhood, and to go away quickly because, as they said, the hatred of the Italians was constantly increasing and, if he should he seen, it would be a serious misfortune to him (observe that the persons in question are friendly to us and owe us nothing); consequently you can understand that my flight from the place was not caused by fear, but by the reality of the threats of those cruel people.

In view of my serious loses owing to this unfortunate affair, I find that I have suffered damage to the amount of not less than $5,000, and feeling certain that the Government of my native country will not fail to support my claims, I have, through Mr. Baisini, my representative, made a statement to his excellency the minister of foreign affairs of Italy, setting forth with truth and sincerity all the painful misfortune which I have suffered.

I have made a statement of the foregoing, by means of the present procès verbal, which, after having been read and ratified, is subscribed by the deponent in my presence.

The deponent - GIUSEPPE DEFINA

The royal consular agent -  N. PIAZZA.

The acting chancellor - A. L. TIRELLI. [L. S.]

 

SOURCE:

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~lamadiso/articles/lynchings.htm