The Murder of Police Chief David Hennessy
The Murder of Police Chief David Hennessy
Death of David Hennessy. On 15 October 1890 New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was shot as he walked home in a light drizzle. He died the next morning. Deeply shocked, the people of New Orleans paid their respects (more filed past his casket at City Hall than had paid similar respects to former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, whose body lay in state there a few months earlier). City officials vowed to punish his killers.
Who Killed Hennessy? Shortly before he died, Hennessy whispered to a bystander, “The Dagos did it.” Hennessy was involved in a dispute between two rival groups of Italian immigrants working on the New Orleans docks. For years, Joseph Provenzano had a monopoly on the fruit trade from Central America. Provenzano owned ships that brought bananas, coconuts, and pineapples to New Orleans, where longshoremen in his pay unloaded the produce and then sold it. In 1886 Carlo Matranga had started a rival company. When city merchants gave Matranga a monopoly on their trade, Provenzano decided to retaliate against the competition. On 6 May 1890 Provenzano gunmen opened fire on seven Matranga longshoremen; several people died on both sides. In August seven Provenzano loyalists were convicted of attempted murder. They were granted a new trial, which was scheduled for 22 October. Chief Hennessy planned to testify on behalf of the Provenzano faction. He told the press he had uncovered the existence of a I crime syndicate known as the Mafia. He believed that
the Matrangas were bringing Italian and Sicilian criminals to New Orleans and warned that as many as one hundred such criminals were at work on the docks. He was gunned down one week before the trial, and his dying declaration raised suspicion that the Matrangas had arranged his killing.
Public Reaction. Hennessy’s murder came at a time of great antiforeign sentiment in the United States. Many Americans feared Italian immigrants and perceived them as common thugs. In December 1890 Popular Science Monthly ran an article, “What Shall We Do with the Dago?” The author haughtily suggested that laws were inadequate to prevent immigrant criminals from terrorizing Americans because the immigrants would find an American jail a great improvement over life at home. The police quickly arrested scores of Italians in the wake of Hennessy’s death. Nineteen men described as Mafia members were indicted as principals and conspirators in the Hennessy murder; most of them were allied with the Matrangas. Mayor Joseph Shakespeare vowed that “We must teach these people a lesson they will not forget for all time.” Perhaps with this in mind, Thomas Duffy, the son of a prominent businessman, went to the prison on the day of Hennessy’s funeral and shot one of the prisoners in the neck. “I’m willing to hang if one of those Dagoes dies. . . ,” Duffy said as he was sentenced to six months in jail.
Arraignment and Trial. On 16 February 1891 the nineteen accused appeared in court. The trial was viewed by most people as a farce. Many of the sixty witnesses were threatened, and several jury members took bribes from the Mafia. Lionel Adams, former district attorney appointed to defend the accused, forced the state to drop charges against Matranga and Bastian Incardona, as it had no evidence against either. The charges against Asperi Marchesi were also dismissed in exchange for his cooperation with the prosecutors. Despite overwhelming evidence against eleven of the defendants, all but three were acquitted (Antonio Scaffidi, Manuel Politz, and Pietro Monasterio), and the jury could not reach a verdict on these men. The judge remanded all the defendants to jail for their own protection. As the men were led from the courtroom a stunned and angry crowd taunted them, shouting in mock-Italian accents, “Who killa da chief?”
Reaction to Verdict. Unwilling to accept the court’s verdict, a prominent New Orleans lawyer named W. S. Parkerson formed a “movement to correct justice.” On 14 March, two days after the verdicts, Parkerson led an angry mob to an arsenal, where every man grabbed a weapon. “When courts fail the people must act!” Parkerson shouted as the mob marched on the prison. In a frenzy of violence, the crowd shot nine of the defendants and hanged two from lampposts. The crowd released the other prisoners because evidence against them was weak. The armed citizens then searched for Detective Dominic O’Malley, suspected of aiding and abetting the defendants.
New Orleans Congratulates Itself. Parkerson dismissed the mob after the day of carnage. “I have performed the most painful duty of my life today. Now let us go home, and God bless you and our community.” Mayor Shakespeare, when asked if he was sorry to see a mob usurping the role of the courts, said, “No sir. I am an American citizen and I am not afraid of the Devil. These men deserved killing and they were punished by peaceful, law abiding citizens. They [the accused] took the law in their own hands and we were forced to do the same.” The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce congratulated the citizens of New Orleans for restoring order. On 6 May a grand jury indicted Detective O’Malley and several others, including two jurors, for obstructing justice by allowing the accused Italians to be acquitted. The grand jury also considered evidence against the lynch mob, but in the end praised Parkerson and the other leaders.
Repercussions. The acquittal and lynching of the suspects had repercussions far beyond New Orleans. The Italian government recalled its ambassador to the United States and demanded that the American government compensate the lynched men’s families. Secretary of State James G. Blaine telegraphed Louisiana governor Francis Nichols: “The President deeply regrets that the citizens of New Orleans should have disparaged the purity and adequacy of their own judicial tribunals as to transfer to the passionate judgment of a mob, a question that should have been adjudged dispassionately and by settled rules of the law.” Most Americans supported the New Orleans mob. In West Virginia coal miners went on strike when their foreman refused to fire two Italians. Many called for a stronger navy to prevent Italian criminals from entering the United States and to guard against a Catholic army the Pope was supposedly planning to raise. The United States government, unable to restrain the lawlessness of its own citizens, decided to compensate the Italians for the death of theirs. Ironically eight of the eleven murdered men were American citizens. Congress appropriated $25,000 for the families of all the victims. No one else was charged in the death of Hennessy.
James D. Horan, The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty that Made History (New York: Crown, 1967);
Luciano J. Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello, The Italian-Americans, revised edition (Boston: Twayne, 1980).
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