(January 26, 2017) As explained in my last post, during his YouTube lectures Dr. Eric Foner erroneously identified the 1891 mob execution of “nineteen”—it was actually eleven—Italian immigrants in New Orleans as America’s biggest lynching. When lynching is defined as vigilante justice against anyone who has not been convicted of a crime, the biggest such episode happened in Los Angeles in 1871 when a crowd murdered eighteen Chinese immigrants. Nonetheless, the shameful New Orleans event warrants comment.
New Orleans had long been a destination for Italian fruit shipments. Sailors who accompanied the ships reported back to Italy that the New Orleans climate was more comparable to their homeland than was that of Boston or New York. Before the Civil War several thousand Italians lived in the city and by 1890 they totaled 25,000, which approximated 10% of the city’s population. Only a small minority became involved in crime, but they were not shy about representing—and misrepresenting—themselves as Mafia in order to be feared within their enclave.
Many Italians competed for work on the city’s docks, against whites, African-Americans, and Irish. Prior to 1888 the Provenzano family held a contract to unload all the fruit but they were completely displaced that year by the Matrangas. The result was a feud between the two Italian families, each of which accused the other of being Mafia.
In May 1890 three Matrangas were wounded in an ambush and six Provenzano men were convicted for the assault. Police chief David Hennessy was suspicious of some of the Matranga testimony and also suspected that they had murdered a witness. He therefore announced a new investigation. The Matrangas countered by accusing him of being corrupted by an alliance with the Provenzano’s.
While walking home one evening in October 1890 Hennessy was murdered. Before he died he identified his assassins as Italians. Although hundreds were rounded up and jailed, a “Committee of Fifty” leading citizens hired the then-prestigious Pinkerton Detective Agency to identify the culprits. Pinkerton sent Frank Dimaio who was an agent of Italian descent from their Philadelphia office. Dimaio pretended to be one of the many suspects and was jailed with the rest.
Dimaio’s weight dropped from 185 to 140 pounds as he remained in the vile prison long enough to gain the confidence of his jail mates. One simple-minded prisoner finally revealed the details of the assassination, which Dimaio wrote down in detail on scraps of paper. As a result, nineteen men were indicted and nine were put on trial. Among them was Joseph Macheca who was one of the city’s wealthiest Italians. In addition to Macheca’s resources contributors from other cities raised a $75,000 defense fund.
Word was out that a juror could make a bundle of money by voting to acquit. Ultimately the jury acquitted six of the nine and announced it could not decide on the remaining three. The public was stunned. About six thousand gathered outside the jail the following morning and soon stormed the building. Initially police prevented them from gaining access, but a large African-American man among the mob hurled a paving block against a side door thereby splintering it open. The police released the prisoners from their individual cells and told them to hide as best they could. Some went to the women’s quarters.
Eventually eleven, including Joe Macheca, were hunted down and killed. Although Macheca was a victim of racial violence that time, he had earlier been a leading perpetrator of anti-black violence in the city. In 1868 he led a group of Italian volunteers known as the Innocenti against blacks who were dubiously trying to re-convene a state constitutional convention. In 1874 he also fought alongside the White League against black militia in the battle of Liberty Place.
Newspapers across the country praised the lynch mob. “Slayers slain” blared The Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Daily Times headlined, “Mafia Murderers Slain: Eleven Sicilian Butchers Lynched at New Orleans.” The New York Times proclaimed Hennessy’s death avenged: “Eleven of His Assassins Lynched by a Mob.”
Boston Brahmin, prominent historian, and Republican Party leader Henry Cabot Lodge responded by recommending that immigration from Europe be made more restrictive:
Whatever the proximate causes of the shocking event at New Orleans…the underlying cause…is found in the utter carelessness with which we treat immigration.
The killing of the New Orleans prisoners was due chiefly to the fact that they were supposed to be members of the Mafia, but it would be the greatest mistake to suppose that the Mafia stands alone. Societies…which regard assassination as legitimate have been the product of [European] repressive governments. They are wholly alien to the people of the United States.
When Italy recalled her ambassador and sent a sharply worded note to Republican Secretary of State James G. Blaine, the “man from Maine” responded that the United States “had never taken orders from a foreign government and was not gong to start now.” Nonetheless, eventually the federal government paid $25,000 to three of the families of the eleven lynched men and President Harrison expressed his regrets.
Pinkerton agent Dimaio later went on assignment to hunt down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was among the posse about whom Butch and Sundance asked in the 1969 movie version of their story: “who are those guys?” He followed them to South America. During the first half of the twentieth century he worked undercover as “The Raven” to become a prime authority on the American Mafia. At the time of the 1957 Apalachin conference, which was a Mafia summit mimicked in The Godfather movie, the ninety-year-old Dimaio was alert enough to provide background for newspaper reporters.
In sum, at least three points about the 1891 New Orleans lynching don’t fit the habitual Foner race narrative. First, at least one of the most instrumental members of the mob was African-American. Second, at least one of the Italian victims was a leading perpetrator of racial violence against blacks in 1868 and 1874. Third, much of the reaction to the event outside the South was hostile to the victims. While none of the points excuse the lynch party, they do suggest that racism and xenophobia were not concentrated in New Orleans or among members of any single race, geographic, or ethnic group.
Sources: Thomas Reppetto American Mafia (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2004); Adam Serwer “These People are Among us but not of Us”, BuzzFeed (August 5, 2016)
My Amazon Author Page