Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who Killa De Chief?: The Mafia, the assassination of David Hennessy, and The Crescent City Lynchings

On a rainy New Orleans evening on October 15, 1890, police chief David Hennessy was walking home after a board meeting. As the chief crossed the corners of Girod and Rampart St., he was struck down by the gunfire of unknown assassins. According to witnesses, even while being hit with a blast from a shotgun, Hennessy was able to return fire with his revolver before his assailants  fled. Hennessy clung to life for nearly a day before succumbing to his wounds. His last four words would unleash a wave of violence upon New Orleans unseen anywhere else in the country: “The dagos did it.”

The assassination of chief Hennessy is considered by most historians to be the first major publicized event involving the Mafia in the United States. To fully appreciate and understand the death of chief Hennessy, and the violence that would ensue soon after, a very brief history of the Mafia in New Orleans is necessary.

Sicilian criminals have been appearing in New Orleans since the start of the Civil War. As early as 1861 the New Orleans newspaper True Delta noted the presence of a large number of Sicilian thieves and assassins that operated in New Orleans. In 1869 the newspaper the Times would print: “well-known and notorious Sicilian murders, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and the disturbance of the city.” With the Mafia gaining a foothold in New Orleans, it was able to expand into New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other major U.S. cities. While gaining power in the city of New Orleans, the Mafia would keep the city’s Italian citizens in a state of terror. Mafia leaders would extort, rob, and assassinate fellow countrymen who would not pay their large sums of tribute. According to The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld by Herbert Asbury, there were about 70 such murders in the span of two decades. Most of the assassinations would involve what the New Orleans police would come to call “the Mafia gun”, which was a shotgun sawed off to about eighteen inches (similar to the weapons found not far from spot where Hennessy was assassinated).

It wasn’t until 1881 when Hennessy, who was just a detective at the time, and his cousin Mike first put themselves in front of the crosshairs of the Mafia. The two cousins captured and arrested Giuseppi Esposito, a violent Sicilian Mafioso, who fled to America from Palermo for mutilating a kidnapped English clergymen. According to Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia by Thomas Hunt, once he arrived in New Orleans, Esposito was recognized as a leader by the various Mafia factions already in place. Esposito, along with his trusted lieutenant Joe Provenzano, quickly took control of the profitable docks of New Orleans along with the city’s various produce markets. Despite his underworld success, Esposito was betrayed and the authorities were alerted to his presence in New Orleans. After the Hennessy cousins arrested Esposito, his organization split into two factions. One was headed by Joe Provenzano, whose organization sought support from the Giardinieri Mafia groups of Palermo. The other faction was headed by brothers Charles and Tony Matranga, along with their underworld associate Joseph Macheca; who sought support from the Stoppaglieri Mafia groups located in various parts of Sicily. This splitting of factions would lead to a number of deaths in New Orleans, including the assassination of David Hennessy.

The relationship between the two rival Mafia factions continued to sour after the Matranga organization was able to muscle in and take control of the docks of New Orleans from the Provenzanos. In the meantime, Hennessy left the police force after being tried for the murder of New Orleans Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux. Hennessy, who argued his own case before the court, received a verdict of “not guilty”. In 1888, Hennessy would rejoin the police force of New Orleans as Chief of Police, after being appointed by newly re-elected mayor Joseph A. Shakespeare. Soon after becoming chief, Hennessy met with the leaders of the Matranga and Provenzano gangs and both sides agreed to stop the violence and walked away shaking hands. This would end up being an empty gesture from both parties.

In 1890 the violence between the Matrangas and the Provenzanos came to a crescendo. According to The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith, as a cart carrying Tony Matranga, Rocco Geraci, Bastian Incardona, Salvatore Sunzeri, Vincent Caruso, and brothers Tony and Frank Locascio neared the intersection of Claiborne and Esplanade, they were ambushed and fired upon by six men armed with sawed-off shotguns. Two of the Matranga men were mortally wounded in the ambush, and Tony Matranga lost his leg. When questioned by Hennessy, the men first claimed that they didn't know the identity of their would be assassins. But they all soon changed their story the next day and identified: Joseph and Peter Provenzano, Tony Pellegrini, Nick Guillio, Tony Gianforcaro, and Gaspardo Lombardo as the six men who ambushed them the night before. All of the identified Provenzano men were arrested and brought to trial.

It seemed that the Matrangas would come out on top of the assassination attempt since all of the key figures of the Provenzano gang were coming up for trial. Even though all six of the Provenzano men were found guilty of murder on July 20th, 1890, their band of newly hired lawyers were able to convince Judge Joshua G. Baker to give the six men a retrial. Their retrial date was set for October 17th, 1890. Apart from being granted a new trial, it was also discovered that Chief Hennessy would also testify in favor of the Provenzanos. This angered the Matranga brothers and Joseph Macheca, who openly made threats on Hennessy’s life if he chose to testify.

On October 15th, two days before the start of the retrial for the Provenzanos, Police Chief Hennessy was assassinated. The murder of Hennessy sent shock waves through the city, and rallied an anti-Italian sentiment that would end in bloodshed. One of the first responses from the city was the arrest of over 200 Italian men, who had no connection to the murder. On October 18th, Mayor Shakespeare appointed the Committee of Fifty to investigate the crime. Threatening letters were sent to various leaders of the Italian community. Pinkerton detectives even went undercover as prisoners so that the accused could talk to them more openly. It eventually came out that Charles Matranga and Joseph Macheca were the ringleaders behind the assassination. Eventually the suspects were narrowed down to nineteen men: Antonio Bagnetto, James and John Caruso, Loretto Comitz, Rocco Geraci, Bastian Incardona, Joseph Macheca, Gasperi and Antonio Marchesi, Charles Matranga, Pietro Monasterio, Pietro Natali, Charles Patrono, Charles Pietzo, Emmanuelle Polizzi, Frank Romeo, Antonio Scaffidi, Salvatore Sunzeri, and Charles Traina. Only six of these men had connections to the Matranga organization, the rest had no known ties to any criminal organization. Since there were a large number of defendants in the Hennessy case, the men would be divided up and tried separately with two trials. The first trial began on February 16th, 1891. All nine accused men received “not guilty” verdicts on March 13th of the same year.

Joy rang out in the Italian community. Everyone thought since the trial was over, and all of the men were found not guilty, that all of the animosity towards Italians would come to an end. Others were not so thrilled to hear the verdict. Determined that the Mafia either paid off or threatened jurors, a massive meeting was held at the statue of Henry Clay on Canal St. on the morning of March 14th. Enraged citizens, members of the Committee of Fifty, and community leaders were all in attendance. According to The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith, the most radical leaders of the lynch mob included: Walter Denegre(lawyer), James D. Houston(politician), William S. Parkerson(lawyer), and John C. Wickliffe(editor of the New Delta newspaper). By noon of that day eleven of the nineteen men accused would be murdered. The mob stormed the New Orleans Parish Prison and hung: Polizzi, Scaffidi, Monasterio, Macheca, Antonio Marchesi, Bagnetto, Rocco Geraci, Romero, Traina, Comitz, and Caruso. The eight other men were able to escape with their lives, including Charles Matranga.

The overall reaction to what would be called The Crescent City Lynchings divided the country. About half of the country supported the lynchings, while half were against it. Mayor Shakespeare himself was quoted saying: The Italians have taken the law into their own hands and we had no choice but to do that same. A New Orleans grand jury decided not to indict anyone because so many people took part. The Italian government was outraged. They demanded that the leaders of the lynch mob be brought to justice. Threats of war between the United States and Italy spread. Thousands of men started to enlist, causing this to be the first unified response from the North and South since the Civil War. Thankfully, war with Italy was averted and the families of the lynched defendants would receive $25,000 in reparations.

Because of the Hennessy assassination, the Provenzano trial was pushed back until January of 1891. Later that month all charges against all of the men accused of ambushing the Matranga cart were dismissed. The Provenzanos quickly returned to their war with the Matrangas over control of the docks, but were soon ironically stopped by mayor Shakespeare. According to The Crescent City Lynchings by Tom Smith, mayor Shakespeare threatened: “I will use every means at my command to wipe from the face of the earth every member of your gang who tries to raise a hand against a person of this community.” With that the Provenzano organization was finished. With complete underworld dominance, Charles Matranga would be the head of the Mafia in New Orleans until his retirement in the 1920s. His organization would evolve, modernize, and later be run by the likes of Sylvestro Carolla and Carlos Marcello.

-The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld-Herbert Asbury

-The Crescent City Lynchings: The Murder of Chief Hennessy, the New Orleans "Mafia" Trials, and the Parish Prison Mob-Tom Smith

-Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia-Thomas Hunt

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