David Hennessy, the son of a Civil War veteran, lived his entire life in the city of New Orleans. Like his father, David Sr., David was a police officer. He also unfortunately followed in his father’s footsteps in another, darker way. Both David Sr. and his son were murdered in cold blood. The murder of the son, however, set off a chain of events that shook New Orleans and culminated in an violent execution that scarred the city.
The elder Hennessy was murdered in 1869, leaving the young boy without a father. As a very young boy, David Hennessy joined the New Orleans police department, working as a messenger. He quickly worked his way up the ranks and became a detective at the young age of 20. In 1888, Hennessy rose to the highest office of the department and was named Superintendent and Chief of Police. At the time, the NOPD had a bad rep. It was widely known that the department was both incompetent and corrupt. Under his supervision, however, its behavior and reputation began to improve.
During this era, prejudice against Italian immigrants was strong in New Orleans. As in many other American cities, Italian immigrants arrived in large numbers, seeking a better life in the states. By 1890, roughly 30,000 Italians called New Orleans home. On the docks, many Italians found work unloading ships.
However, in the Big Easy (as in many other American cities at the time) Italians were viewed with prejudice and suspicion, seen as outsiders with strange customs and habits by many of New Orleans’ white citizens.
An ugly feud between two Italian families, the Provenzanos and the Matrangas, was in full swing when Hennessy began his term as Chief of Police. The families were fighting for control of the docks on New Orleans’ waterfront, an important source of income for Italians throughout the city.
The feud turned violent in 1890 when a group of Matranga dock workers were ambushed and shot. Members of the Provenzanos were prosecuted and stood trial, but their guilty verdicts were overturned by a judge. Rumors of a mafia war splashed across newspapers throughout town and anti-Italian sentiment grew stronger.
On October 15, 1890, Chief Hennessy was walking to the house he shared with his mother when an unknown number of assailants emerged from the darkness and riddled him with bullets. As Hennessy lay dying, his friend and fellow officer William O’Connor asked him who was responsible for the shooting. Hennessy said, “Dagoes,” a crude slur for Italians. Some newspapers blamed the acquittal of the Provenzano gunmen as the reason for the assassination. Others thought Hennessy may have uncovered damaging evidence against the Matrangas. Either way, the city and citizens of New Orleans quickly focused in on the local Italian citizens.
New Orleans police raided Italian neighborhoods in the hours after Hennessy’s murder, arresting hundreds of men and holding them for questioning. Large crowds descended on the police station, furious and looking for revenge. Eventually, the police charged 19 Italian men with David Hennessy’s murder.
Since no one had seen anyone on the night of Hennessy’s murder, the evidence against the defendants was suspect. Nine men went on trial in February 1891. On March 13, 1891, six of the men were found not guilty, and the jury asked the judge to declare a mistrial for the other three defendants. All nine men were sent back to the prison, a decision that would prove deadly for some of them.
White citizens of New Orleans were outraged at the jury’s decision, and the next morning, March 14, the following ad appeared in local newspapers:
“Rise, people of New Orleans! Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization! Your laws, in the very Temple of Justice, have been bought off, and suborners have caused to be turned loose upon your streets the midnight murderers of David C. Hennessy, in whose premature grave the very majesty of our American law lies buried with his mangled corpse — the corpse of him who in life was the representative, the conservator of your peace and dignity.”
The people of New Orleans took up the call and thousands gathered in the streets to protest the decision. Many started to congregate outside the city’s prison, armed with guns. The mob grew in numbers and the rage intensified. Angry citizens started calling for a lynching. Police tried to stop the mob from entering the prison, but ultimately the bloodthirsty crowd forced its way inside.
There were still 19 Italian prisoners inside and they were trapped with nowhere to go. One by one the angry mob hunted, shot, and killed 10 of the Italian men inside the prison. One man, Emanuele Polizzi, was dragged outside and hanged from a tree. The remaining eight men successfully hid from the angry mob. The mob finally dispersed after these 11 Italian men were brutally executed.
A grand jury investigated the lynching and concluded that none of the members of the mob could be identified. No charges were ever brought against anyone for the vigilante mass execution of March 14, 1891.
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