Mob Justice: 5 of the Most Shocking Lynchings in America

Speaker inciting a mob in New Orleans, March 14, 1891, Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain

Mass Lynching: Italians in New Orleans, 1891

At the end of the nineteenth century, European immigrants flooded into the United States. Agents, working on behalf of industrialists, traveled to Europe to recruit people to come to America to be factory workers. The massive industrial revolution that took a hold of America required cheap labor. This ensured that the industrialists would turn a profit and that goods would be cheap enough for the growing middle class to purchase.

Many Europeans happily came to America to take factory jobs. These late-19th century immigrants often arrived speaking a language other than English and an overwhelming majority were Catholics. An increase in the Catholic population was disheartening to many protestant groups such as German Lutherans and Protestant Irish. The Protestant German and Irish had been established in the United States as far back as colonial times. They believed that Catholics would follow the Pope before they would follow the democratic laws of the land. As such, a wave of xenophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment swept across the country.

Italians were viewed as particularly harmful to the American way of life during the late-19th century. Often called dagos, the Italians were Catholic and spoke little to no English. They also worked cheap. Since the American Civil War ended, slavery had been outlawed. Now that all people needed to earn a wage, former slaves, many believed, demanded too much money. When Italian immigrants arrived in southern cities, such as New Orleans, they fulfilled a need for cheap labor. To them, working for low wages in an American factory was far better than starving in a poor, newly unified Italian state. Additionally, factory recruiters repeatedly told immigrants that they had the potential to advance into the growing middle class. After all, America was a land of opportunity.

New Orleans had a strict hierarchy. French Creoles, who spoke French, were at the top of the hierarchy and typically resided in the French Quarter. Americans remained mostly in their own section, and freed blacks and other immigrant groups remained in their own section of the city. Despite the ethnic diversity of New Orleans, it experienced waves of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements like most of America. This wave of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant played out in October 1890.

Italians were viewed as black. Through the 1920 US census, Italians were officially classified as colored. Some people viewed them as dirty, stupid, and poor. Italians were stereotyped as being a part of the Italian Mafioso and were repeatedly called dagoes, a derogatory name for Italians and ethnic groups from the Mediterranean region. On the night of October 15, 1890, the police chief of New Orleans was walking home. As David Hennessey walked home, several gunmen attacked him. Hennessey returned fire as he chased his attackers, but eventually he collapsed declaring that dagoes had attacked him. He died in the hospital the following day due to his injuries.

The mayor of New Orleans, Joseph A. Shakspeare, ordered the police to search all neighborhoods and “arrest every Italian” that they came across. The police arrested as many as 250 Italian immigrants. Most Italians were afraid to leave their homes. A few days after the murder of the police chief, the Mayor declared that Hennessey had been a victim of “Sicilian vengeance” and asked the citizenry to teach the immigrants a lesson that they would never forget. Appointing a committee of 50 men to investigate and totally annihilate all Italian secret societies—real and perceived—an open letter was presented to Italian-Americans. In it, the committee encouraged all Italian-Americans to provide the police with any information they had on secret societies, people who vowed to kill law officers, or any other illegal behavior.

Of the 250 Italians arrested, only nineteen were charged with crimes related to the assassination of the police chief. A trial began on February 16, 1891. A jury of 12 people who were not of Italian descent, had no problem with capital punishment, and showed no open prejudice toward Italians, listened as witnesses identified the suspects in the courtroom and claimed that before Hennessey died he stated that dagos had gunned him down. In a city that was known for its corruption, people believed that the law firm defending the suspects had actively attempted to bribe the jurors in exchange for a verdict of innocence.

Nine of the 19 suspects were on trial. When the jury reached its decision, it declared four defendants not guilty. The jury could not reach a decision of guilt or innocence for the other suspects and asked the judge for a mistrial. With their job done, the jurors left the courthouse through the front door to face questions. Some jurors stated that they could not convict the suspects because they had a reasonable doubt. Protestors outside of the courthouse viewed the jurors as not doing their jobs. To the protestors, the Italian suspects were guilty.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered at a Henry Clay statue near the prison. As they began to march toward the prison, they chanted, “we want the dagoes.” The jail warden feared for the safety of the Italian prisoners. He opened their cells and told them to hide themselves as best they could. In the meantime, the angry mob had begun to beat down the prison door. A few men from the mob took hold of two prisoners. One was hung from a lamppost and shot. A second one was hung from a tree and shot after he died. Both bodies were bullet-riddled and left hanging for hours for all to see. Other Italian prisoners were shot and clubbed to death inside the prison by members of the angry mob.

Those that survived the lynching and murder were set free and those that had not been tried saw the charges dropped. Eleven Italian prisoners had been murdered, yet no one was convicted of the murders. Newspapers reported the events in New Orleans as sympathetic to the lynchers and not the Italian prisoners. In the aftermath of the trial, lynching, and murder of prisoners, politicians began campaigning for tougher restrictions on immigration, particularly for Italians.

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