6 from 300: overlooked people and events from New Orleans history_lowres

Police Chief David Hennessy’s murder sparked a massacre of Italians who were charged in the crime but whose cases ended in acquittal or mistrial.

Joseph Shakspeare was mayor of New Orleans in 1891 when 11 Italians died in what is billed as America's largest-ever lynching.

Was it? It's hard to say for sure; maybe it was, if lynching is narrowly defended as homicide committed by vigilantes seeking vengeance for a real or imagined miscarriage of justice. But it was hardly the worst example of man's inhumanity to man in Louisiana, let alone America.

Was Shakspeare sorry? Not at all. In fact, the slaughter was largely his idea, and the pillars of local society, for whom Sicilian immigrants were the scum of the earth, made sure it was carried out. President Benjamin Harrison was not acting at the behest of New Orleans when, after a diplomatic standoff, he paid $25,000 in reparations.

Now, Mayor LaToya Cantrell plans to issue a proclamation apologizing for what was done under her long-ago predecessor, who would have been scandalized at the thought. He, like most everyone else, figured the Italians must have employed some dirty tricks when a jury failed to convict them in the slaying of Police Chief David Hennessy.

Shakspeare appointed a Committee of Fifty leading citizens to confirm his suspicions while the newspapers howled for blood. A newspaper notice, bearing the names of many leading lights in New Orleans society, announced a “mass meeting” at the usual spot — the Henry Clay statue then on Canal Street — and a huge crowd responded, eager to impose rough justice.

The solid citizens who incited the killings made no attempt to hide their involvement, the attorneys among them evidently believing that due process was not intended for the sons of Europe's more southerly latitudes. The defendants, some awaiting trial and some already acquitted, were still being held in the parish jail where the mob broke in and hunted them down. The general view was that they had it coming, and nobody was ever charged in the lynching.

Indeed, anti-Italian prejudice lingered for generations after the Hennessy murder, and the playground taunt, “Who killa da Chief?,” was routinely directed at children with names ending in a vowel.

If the Italian lynching was the largest ever in America, it was still far from Louisiana's biggest mass murder. The carnage was much greater on more than one occasion when white mobs set on largely defenseless black people during Reconstruction. Still, the Italian bloodbath went down in history as a major blot on the Louisiana escutcheon. Part of Decatur Street was evidently known as Vendetta Alley at the time after New Orleans became established as the Mafia's main redoubt in America.

Whether Italians were responsible for Hennessy's death we will never know; the evidence against those who were rounded up and charged on Shakspeare's orders was flimsy in the extreme. But the public had reached a verdict before the case came to court. Hennessy, as he lay dying after being ambushed on the walk home one night, allegedly told his companion that he had been shot by “Dagoes.”

When the idea of an apology was broached, Cantrell embraced it keenly, Michael Santo, of the order Sons and Daughters of America, said. Her proclamation will help salve “a longstanding wound,” he said. If it means that much to modern-day Americans of Italian descent, perhaps it would be churlish to refuse. Issuing an apology certainly does no harm, beyond, perhaps, distracting public employees from responsibilities of greater import.

But a facile apology from posterity sure looks puny in light of the horrendous crimes enthusiastically committed in Shakspeare's day. And the history of Louisiana is so replete with injustice that, if public policy were to oblige everyone with a case for a delayed apology, long lines would form outside City Hall. What helped set the Italian lynching victims apart, perhaps, was the color of their skin.

Had Hennessy not been assassinated a few months earlier, he would no doubt have attended the unveiling of the Liberty Monument Sept. 14, 1891, at the foot of Canal Street to commemorate the White League's short-lived victory over the Reconstruction government's Metropolitan Police in 1874. Hennessy had a personal connection to the Battle of Liberty Place; his father, also named David, was a Union veteran and member of the Metropolitans. The father would presumably have fought in it if he had not been shot dead in a barroom by a Confederate sympathizer five years earlier.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.