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  • A History of Forgetting, and the “Awful Problem” of “Race”: A New Historical Note1
  • Matthew Wilson (bio)

Always historicize!

—Fredric Jameson

On March 15, 1891, a New York Times reporter described, in vivid detail, a killing in New Orleans:

The doors were flung open and one of the avengers, taking aim, shot him through the body. He was not killed outright and in order to satisfy the people on the outside who were crazy to know what was going on within, he was dragged down the stairs and through the door way by which the crowd had entered. A rope was provided and tied around his neck and the people pulled him up to the crossbars. Not satisfied that he was dead, a score of men took aim and poured a volley of shot into him, and for several hours the body was left dangling in the air.

(“Chief Hennessy” 1)

Knowing as we may think we do the history of lynching in the South during the post Civil War period, we would expect to know the “race” of the man being killed; we would expect the victim to be “black.” Instead the victim’s name was Pollize, and he was one of eleven Italian citizens summarily executed by what the Times headline characterized as “AN UPRISING OF INDIGNANT CITIZENS” (“Chief Hennessy” 1).

The cause of this outbreak of violence was the verdict in a sensational trial. The chief of police of New Orleans had been assassinated on the [End Page 20] doorstep of his own house, and eleven Italians had been arrested and charged with his murder. They were acquitted in a trial that was rife with charges of jury tampering. When the “not guilty” verdict was handed down, notices were placed in “every paper” in New Orleans “to take steps to remedy the failure of justice” in this case, and a “mass meeting” was announced (“Chief Hennessy” 1). The Times claimed that those who responded to this call to action consisted of “the best element” of the city, and this crowd of extra-legal executioners included a prominent lawyer and a politician whose names were given in the report (1).

More interesting, though, for my purposes in this essay, are the reactions to these killings. On the day of the Italians’ murders, the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans passed the following resolution: “Resolved, That, while we deplore at all times resort [sic] to violence, we consider the actions taken by the citizens this morning to be proper and justifiable” (“Chief Hennessy” 2). Two days after the killing, John P. Richardson, whom the Times characterized as the owner of the “biggest dry good house in New Orleans, besides thousands of dollars’ worth of other property there, and who is famous as the largest cotton planter in the world” was quoted as saying,

‘The lynching in New-Orleans Saturday is just the thing that should have occurred. It looks bad on its face to those away from there, but people who are acquainted with the status of affairs can do nothing but commend the action taken. The Italian colony in New-Orleans . . . is a menace to American citizenship and good government. Why, I had rather have a thousand Chinamen than one Italian. They are treacherous, revengeful, and seek their revenge in most foul and cowardly manners. They have no regard for the truth, and the Mafia is all powerful with them. The lynching, as terrible as it was, is a blessing for New-Orleans.’

(“Lynchings Justifiable” 1)

A New York Times editorial echoed these sentiments: “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians . . . who have transplanted to this country the lawless passions, the cutthroat practices, and the oathbound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they” (qtd in Jacobson 56). Another editorial, while deploring the killings, claimed that the violence was not “incited by any prejudice against Italians as such. Nationality had nothing to do with it” (Editorial 4). [End Page 21]

Rattlesnakes and Chinamen. The implications of the first metaphor are obvious—rattlesnakes are to be killed on sight—but the implications of the term “Chinamen”2 is...


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