Why the 1891 New Orleans Lynching Matters to NEPA’s Italian American Community

An episode of the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans in 1891 after the murder of police chief David Hennessy. The citizens breaking down the door of the parish prison with the beam brought there the night before for that purpose. This image is from E. Benjamin Andrews’s History of the United States, volume V. Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1912.

Today, March 14, 2021, marks the 130th anniversary of the largest mass lynching on American soil.

The 1891 New Orleans lynchings were the murders of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans, Louisiana, by a mob for their alleged role in the murder of city police chief David Hennessy after some of them had been acquitted at trial. Amid growing anti-Italian sentiment and rising crime rates, the general sentiment in New Orleans at the time was that an Italian network of criminals was responsible for Hennessy’s murder

Believing the jury had been bribed, a mob broke into the jail where the men were being held and killed 11 of the prisoners, most by shooting. The mob outside the jail numbered in the thousands and included some of the city’s most prominent citizens. This act of mob violence had surprising support: Future president Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to his sister referring to the Italians as “dagos” and called the lynchings “rather a good thing.” American press coverage of the event was largely congratulatory, and those responsible for the lynching were never charged.

The incident itself had serious national repercussions. The Italian consul Pasquale Corte in New Orleans registered a protest and left the city in May 1891 at his government’s direction. The New York Times published his lengthy statement charging city politicians with responsibility for the lynching of the Italians Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States, sparking rumors of war. Increased anti-Italian sentiment led to calls for restrictions on immigration. The word “Mafia” entered the American lexicon, and the stereotype of the Italian mafioso became established in the popular imagination of Americans. The lynchings are described in depth by Richard Gambino in his masterpiece, Vendetta.

In response to the lynchings, Columbus statues began to appear across the nation. Many Italians living in the United States were scared and wanted to find a way to be accepted in their new country. For many, the idea of placing a statue of Christopher Columbus in their adopted hometowns was the best response to what had happened and a constructive way to celebrate Italian pride in light of the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s fateful discovery of the New World.

On October 21, 1892 during an event that the Scranton Republican newspaper described as the “greatest holiday observance the city ever saw,” Frank Carlucci, master sculptor and president of the Christopher Columbus Monument Association, presented the Columbus monument that stands on Scranton’s Courthouse Square to the city. Carlucci’s masterpiece is the grand staircase at Ellis Island. Both the Columbus monument and the grand staircase were created with stone from Carlucci’s quarry just outside of Forest City.

The Christopher Columbus Statue on Scranton’s Courthouse Square stands at the corner of Washington Avenue and Spruce Streets.

“I hope and trust that this monument will be the means to bring in touch the people of Italy and that of America,” Mr. Carlucci is reported as saying as he unveiled the statue during an event that welcomed more than 14,000 people– 8,000 of whom were school children. In fact, then-mayor John H. Fellows even considered having the Scranton Fire Department open its hose on the “surging mass of people” that had overtaken the city during the celebration.

Representatives of all recently-arrived ethnicities—Irish, Polish, German, and French, to name a few—were present to celebrate the city’s Italian citizens and watch as the statue, which was sculpted in Carlucci’s front yard, was unveiled for all to see. It was, to many, one of the highest points in the city’s history.

In Nicolas Comforti’s remarks as he formally deeded the statue to the city and county, he stated that “Often the Italian element has been looked upon as unpatriotic and indifferent to the welfare of their adopted country.” He added that, “This monument may be a link in the chain that binds the two nations, Italy and America, in the sacred tie of friendship, a symbol of love between the Italians and Americans. I assure you; the children of great Rome are law-abiding citizens.”

Upon accepting the monument from Carlucci and Comforti, Mayor Fellows said to the Italian community, “On behalf of the people of the City of Scranton and of the County of Lackawanna, I accept this statue, this beautiful and appropriate gift, in the same spirit with which you have given it. It has been freely given and, I assure you, it is gratefully received. It will be forever treasured by the people of this city and this county and the more so because you people who have conveyed the gift have paid for it from the proceeds of your honest toil. In presenting this gift, you have honored the city and county, and so, accordingly, it is an honor to yourselves.”

Despite the tragedy of March 14, 1891, Italian Americans never stopped trying to secure a foothold in their adopted homeland. By erecting Columbus monuments throughout the country, Italians were not only condemning what had happened– they were also celebrating the positive contributions they bring to the American landscape: such as art, culture, and creativity– to name just a few. As a response to the lynchings, even though they took place more than 1,000 miles away, the City of Scranton and Lackawanna County received an amazing piece of art sculpted by an outstanding Italian American in his own right. In fact, in 1893, Frank Carlucci would place a statue of George Washington on Courthouse Square at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Linden Streets. And, as a celebration of unity, the unveiling of the Christopher Columbus Statue allowed Scranton and Lackawanna County to celebrate its immigrant community as a whole, regardless of where they came from.

In 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell formally apologized Friday to the families of the Italians who were lynched in 1891 while condemning anti-immigrant violence of all forms. Mayor Cantrell was the first mayor of New Orleans to issue an apology for the incident.

“What happened to those 11 Italians was wrong, and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology,” she said. “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward.”

And perhaps it is continuing to tell the story and remembering what happened that can help us all move forward to ensure that a tragedy such as this never happens again to anyone of any race or ethnicity. Today, let us remember:

  • Antonio Bagnetto
  • James Caruso
  • Loreto Comitis
  • Rocco Geraci
  • Joseph Macheca
  • Antonio Marchesi
  • Pietro Monasterio
  • Emmanuele Polizzi
  • Frank Romero
  • Antonio Scaffidi
  • Charles Traina

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