Out of Darkness

What We Can Learn from a New Orleans Lynching
Rioters break into Parish Prison (Wikimedia Commons)

On October 18, 1890, New Orleans Mayor Joseph A. Shakespeare appeared before the City Council at noon in a special Saturday session. The city’s police chief, David Hennessy, had died of gunshot wounds two days earlier. Shakespeare was there to announce that the evidence showed “beyond doubt that he was the victim of Sicilian vengeance.” He added: “We must teach these people a lesson that they will not forget for all time.”

There was an enduring lesson to follow, but it was not the one the mayor had in mind. Charges were brought against eighteen Italian immigrants and one New Orleans native of Italian descent, but no one was convicted. In the first and only trial the jury acquitted three defendants—the unanimous decision of twelve men, none of them Italian, chosen from among 780 examined during an eleven-day selection process. The panel was unable to reach a verdict on three more defendants, and charges against two more were dismissed, one after the prosecutor acknowledged there was no case and the other by the judge, for the same reason. 

The next morning, responding to newspaper advertisements placed by the mayor’s friends and political allies, a crowd numbering somewhere between eight thousand and twenty thousand people gathered to storm the jail where the defendants were held. Most stood outside, but the leaders went inside to hunt down and shoot nine people in cold blood, then hang two more outside for the crowd’s benefit. This is one of the most notorious lynchings in American history.

One hundred twenty-eight years later, the City of New Orleans has offered a new lesson, one in repentance. On April 12, Mayor LaToya Cantrell visited an Italian cultural center to issue a formal apology for the lynching. “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.

The Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America had suggested the civic apology, and Cantrell readily agreed. That she is African American—as is the clergyman who offered a prayer for forgiveness, Auxiliary Bishop Fernand J. Cheri of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans—gave the event a special resonance. Cantrell said there are other atrocities to examine, an allusion to the many lynchings of African Americans.

“I’m here today because it’s not just about black and white. It’s not just about what happened then,” she said. “It’s about what we do, and what we do next.” She continued: “We reject anti-immigrant violence and anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

We have a responsibility to be inclusive, to be intentional and to be the kind of people that our children are not apologizing for.

As she spoke, a local television station carried live video of her remarks on its Facebook page. Many of the commenters scoffed at the mayor for worrying about such a long-ago event, but this criticism misses the point. The City of New Orleans was engaging in what the church calls the “purification of memory.” As the International Theological Commission put it in 1999, when it was under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the process for recognizing guilt for events far in the past “can have a significant effect on the present, precisely because the consequences of past faults still make themselves felt and can persist as tensions in the present.”

Mayor Cantrell, a Xavier University graduate who is described in local news coverage as a devoted Catholic, seemed to be saying the same.

The public reaction to the March 14, 1891 lynching captured the anti-immigrant sentiment that was growing in that decade of heavy migration from southern and eastern Europe. Many newspapers applauded the lynching, or at least accepted it as understandable under the circumstances.

“It is no time to sermonize about mob violence. An uprising of the people is not an outbreak of a mob,” the New York Herald said. “The safety of the community is the highest law, and when statutes and courts fail that higher law reigns.” The Philadelphia Inquirer: “The vendettas of Sicily cannot be allowed to prosper in a free country, even if they have to be put down by ‘mob’ violence.” The Richmond (Va.) Times took pleasure that “radical Northern journals” were so understanding of the New Orleans lynch mob. “The subject has been generally treated with far more reason than usually characterizes our Northern anti-South contemporaries, when furnished with an opportunity for the discussion of their favorite theme,” the paper editorialized.

The New Orleans Daily Picayune applauded the local citizenry’s restraint: “In any other city the popular indignation would have broken out in a fury of passion and violence that would have made it a race war.”

Others disagreed. “It was a case of high-handed murder, by the statutes of our own and of every other civilized country,” the Nation said. And the New York Evening Post called the lynching “mob government.”

The cover-up for the lynch mob’s murders, like the lynching itself, was carried out in broad daylight. A grand jury empaneled to investigate the incident praised the mob, saying it included “the first, best and even the most law-abiding citizens of this city, assembled, as is the right of American citizens, to discuss in public meeting questions of grave import.” Its May 5, 1891 report asserted that at least three trial jurors had been bribed to reach a false verdict; none was charged. And given the large number of participants in the lynching, the grand jury found it impossible to charge anyone. “The magnitude of this affair makes it a difficult task to fix guilt upon any number of the participants; in fact, the act seemed to involve the entire people of the parish and city of New Orleans,” its report said. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Louisiana, William Grant, reached much different conclusions in a report he submitted to the Justice Department as part of the process to pay reparations the government of Italy demanded for its wronged citizens. (The United States paid $25,000 in reparations.)

Grant said that while “voluminous” evidence was submitted to the trial jury, “as a whole and in detail it is exceedingly unsatisfactory, and it is not, to my mind, conclusive one way or another.” He added: “As to the alleged bribery of the jury which tried the persons accused of the murder of Hennessy, I have to report that my examination does not connect any of the persons killed with that charge, if true.” Nor did the U.S. attorney find evidence linking the lynched men to the Mafia or any other secret association.

The grand-jury report was, as the historian Barbara Botein wrote, “possibly one of the greatest whitewashes in American history.” She added, “Nationalism and nativism flourished during the Gilded Age, and the Hennessy case accentuated this already exaggerated spirit.”

Just in case anything went amiss, Mayor Shakespeare had a blue-ribbon “Committee of Fifty” report to him on the “existence of secret societies of New Orleans.” Its top recommendation was to restrict immigration. “The only radical remedy which suggests itself to us is the entire prohibition of immigration from Sicily and lower Italy,” the committee urged, saying Congress should limit southern Italian migration in the same way it had excluded the Chinese.

Opponents of immigration seized on the New Orleans case to promote their movement that eventually led to restrictive immigration laws passed in the 1920s. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 reduced the number of Italians permitted to migrate to the United States annually from 42,057 to 3,845. 

The New York Times said it was “inevitable” that the New Orleans lynching would compel new attention to restricting immigration; “foreign cutthroats” had forced the citizenry to riot. “If we really needed immigrants, it would be next to impossible to exclude those immigrants whom we do not need. But everybody will agree that we do not need more immigration,” the paper editorialized on April 27, 1891. This was thirteen years before Italian immigrants finished digging the tunnel that would bring New York’s first subway to what became known as Times Square.

Representative Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts Republican who became a key anti-immigration player in the Senate, denounced the lynching but used it to argue for restrictions on immigration. “The killing of the prisoners at New Orleans was due chiefly to the fact that they were supposed to be members of the Mafia, but it would be a great mistake to suppose that the Mafia stands alone,” he wrote in the North American Review. “Societies or political organizations which regard assassination as legitimate have been the product of repressive government on the continent of Europe. They are the offspring of conditions and of ideas wholly alien to the people of the United States.”

Immigrants were not Lodge’s voters. And while he decried lynching—“there is no doubt that every intelligent man deplores the lawless act of the New Orleans mob”—there were deep political implications behind the violence. “Lynch law” was essentially a statement of who was in charge, no matter what the real law said. That is why African Americans were so often lynched in the post-Reconstruction South, subverting the constitutional rights created following the Civil War.

Historians have noted that New Orleans’s Sicilian and black populations mixed fairly well, both at work and socially. The immigrants accepted African-American farm supervisors and were known during the 1890s to protest legislation aimed at blocking blacks from voting. Historian Alan G. Gauthreaux wrote that the Sicilians didn’t support white supremacy. And they voted. One of the murdered “Sicilians,” Joseph Macheca—he was actually a U.S. citizen born in New Orleans—was a successful businessman who organized voters in his community. Another of the victims, James Caruso, was the elections commissioner in his ward. Another, Frank Romero, was described in federal documents as “a noted character in local politics in this city for years.”

Lynching was ultimately about holding power. “Back of the failure of justice in New Orleans there looms one great cause which of itself makes the search for others unnecessary,” the Century magazine declared in 1891. “The State [of Louisiana] has a reckless naturalization law which allows immigrants to vote in State elections as soon as they have declared their intention to become citizens…. We find this haste to get votes the corrupting and demoralizing touch of ‘politics.’” The magazine called for “far more stringent regulations for admitting foreigners to the suffrage” and said that “if we are content to allow our cities to be governed by the least intelligent and least moral elements of their population, we must be prepared to face, sooner or later, the crisis which will come when the laws cease to give the community that protection upon which its very independence depends.”

The question one hundred twenty-eight years later is whether we live up to this in our new Gilded Age.

The March 15, 1891 edition of the Washington Herald carried a dispatch from New Orleans that recalled how Know Nothings used violence to snuff out a growing Sicilian political organization in 1856. The spark for the rioting was a fight at the polls after a Sicilian voter was turned away. “One night during an election, the Sicilians attempted to take possession of the polls,” the newspaper said. “A riot followed, and ten or fifteen of them were either shot or thrown into the river. The event had a wholesome effect. It kept them quiet until within the last few years.”

In the same period, large numbers of Mexicans were being lynched in the Southwest, for the same political reasons. According to a 2003 study by William Carrigan and Clive Webb, mobs lynched at least 597 Mexicans in the United States from 1848 to 1928. Sixty-four of the lynchings occurred in the West before courts were created, but the practice persisted long after. “Anglos refused to recognize the legitimacy of these courts when they were controlled or influenced by Mexicans,” they wrote. “Determined to redress the balance of racial and political power, they constructed their own parallel mechanisms of justice.”

After the New Orleans lynching, the Vatican publication La Civiltà Cattolica spoke up for the American people in a dark moment. It said that “true Americans” rejected “la legge di Lynch.” Furthermore, the paper said that while European newspapers had ridiculed American institutions because of the lynching, America was in fact “a people that deserves praise for its respect for authority and for the freedom it enjoys, and which generously grants the oppressed of every nation a refuge in its bosom.”

The question one hundred twenty-eight years later is whether we live up to this in our new Gilded Age. Or, as Mayor Cantrell put it: “We have a responsibility to be inclusive, to be intentional and to be the kind of people that our children are not apologizing for, one hundred twenty-eight years from now. That’s what this is about.”

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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