One of the largest multiple lynchings in American history was not of blacks but of Italian immigrants in New Orleans.
The catalyst was the murder of popular New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, who was ambushed by five gunmen outside his home on Oct. 15, 1890. As he lay dying, Hennessy reportedly blamed “the dagoes,” and the killing was widely believed to be a Mafia hit.
Immediately after the shooting, 250 Italians were rounded up, virtually all without probable cause. Of this group, 19 men were eventually indicted. A jury trial of nine of them in 1891 ended with only mistrials and acquittals.
Outraged residents called for a meeting on Canal Street the next day “to take steps to remedy the failure of justice.”
A mob some 20,000 people formed in front of Orleans Parish Prison on this day in history.
About twenty-five well-armed men from the mobs’ leaders forced their way inside. They dragged most of the defendants from the jail, along with two other Italians being held on unrelated charges. In the prison yard, the hit squad opened fire from about twenty feet away. More than a hundred rifle shots and shotgun blasts were fired into six of the helpless men at one end, tearing their bodies apart.
Three others were shot while turning to face their pursuers. The two remaining victims were found inside prison cells, where they were also shot. Several of the men’s corpses were displayed to the mob outside the prison and hung on lampposts for all to see. Witnesses said that the cheers were nearly deafening.
The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans, and waves of attacks against Italians nationwide.
The local press and the mayor defended the mob action as justifiable, but the federal government paid reparations to the families of the men. However, no one was ever tried for the lynchings.
National reaction wasn’t much better. Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said the lynching was “a rather good thing.” A March 16, 1891 editorial in “The New York Times” referred to the victims of the lynchings as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the next day argued that: “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans. …”
The incident caused an international diplomatic conflict, and heightened the association of the word “mafia” with Italian immigrants.
John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”