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The Largest Mass Lynching in U.S. History

New Orleans, March 14, 1891.

The acquittal of 18 Italian-Americans falsely accused of murder led to 11 of them being beaten, shot and hung in the largest mass lynching in American history.

On October 14, 1890, just before midnight, police chief David Hennessy was gunned down by three men on the streets of New Orleans. He died 34 hours later. Although nobody saw who shot him, the day after the murder journalists wrote "It is supposed that it is the work of Italians", followed by a more direct “Killed by Dagos”. For people who are not familiar with this charming term, it was a derogatory way to call an Italian at that time, not precisely what you would expect from a newspaper title.

Eight years before his death, Chief Hennessy killed New Orleans Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux just before an election that saw both as candidates for the position of chief. He was found not guilty, but he had to leave the department and join a private security firm for a while.

At the time, The French Quarter of New Orleans was called little Palermo” because Sicilians were living and working there as fishermen, stores and clubs owners, longshoremen; a large community that during city elections moved votes to one political side or the other.

The New Orleans waterfront was infested by two Italian crime families in 1890, Matranga and Provenzano, much hated by the Irish gangs who ruled the docks before.

When Chief Hennessy was given back his job as chief of police, he became an ally of the Provenzanos against the Matrangas. As a matter of fact, he was going to testify in court against the Matrangas to help the Provenzanos a few days after his murder.

So, Chief Hennessy died in the hospital, supposedly whispering “Dagos did it” to one witness, and the police immediately arrested 250 (two hundred and fifty) people of Italian origin.

The mayor made a special committee to solve the case: they ordered the police to beat prisoners, pay informers, infiltrate and raid the Italian-American community and after three months of hell they decided to free 231 out of the 250 people arrested. They kept 19 men in jail, among them a fourteen years old boy.

Of the 19, only six had some ties with the Matranga family, while the others had no criminal past and no connections. No pity was shown to the 231 victims incarcerated and abused for months; they probably had to hide to avoid further retaliation. 

The prosecutor didn't have any evidence - Chief Hennessy was alone when he was killed, it was almost midnight and it was impossible to see the killers - but he went to court anyway, forcing the jury to a not guilty verdict for the first prisoners that were tried.

This happened after five long months of racist propaganda against the Italians orchestrated by  politicians, lawyers, wealthy businessmen, the newspapers, and the ignorant and violent people who fester any ethnic group. Could these greedy people with their fellow hate-mongers come up with something worse than arresting 250 Italians to find three assassins?

Of course they could. After the verdict the committee called for a public meeting and politicians incited the masses to rise. A crowd chanting “Kill the dagos” arrived at the prison but only a group of vigilantes entered it, took 19 Italian men and lynched them.

The victims were Manuel Polizzi, Pietro Monastero (mistrial), Antonio Scaffidi (mistrial), Joseph P. Macheca (acquitted), Antonio Marchesi (acquitted), Antonio Bagnetto (acquitted), Rocco Geraci (not tried), Frank Romero (not tried), Charles Traina (not tried), Loretto Comitz (not tried), and James Caruso (not tried). 

A survey of U.S. newspapers of the times showed 42 in favor of the lynching and 58 opposed.

The police knew who did the killings but a grand jury refused to indict because so many people were outside the prison that day protesting. The responsibility, they wrote, was "collective".



Pittsburg dispatch, March 15, 1891
New York Times, March 15, 1891
New York Times, March 16, 1891
The evening bulletin, March 16, 1891

Illustration: An episode of the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans after the murder of police chief David Hennessy. The citizens breaking down the door of the parish prison with the beam brought there the night before for that purpose. 
Source: Andrews, E. Benjamin. History of the United States, volume V. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 1912. 
From the Wikimedia Commons

Photo of New Orleans police chief David Hennessy, appearing in "Paddywacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster" by T.J. English, courtesy of the Tulane University, Louisiana Collection.
Subject of photo died in 1890, thus any copyrights have expired per US law.

Illustration in "The Mascot" newspaper, New Orleans, 1890. "Scene of the Assassination". Shows location of the murder of police chief David Hennessy and artist's conception of the event. At top left is a portrait of Hennessy. Location was at Basin & Girod Streets (this section of Basin since renamed "Loyola Avenue")
Published 18 October, 1890
This media file is in the public domain
December 8, 2012