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  • The Mafia, La Raza, and the Spanish-Language Press Coverage of the 1891 Lynchings in New Orleans
  • Sarah Fouts (bio)

On October 15, 1890, New Orleans police superintendent David C. Hennessy was shot six times in the French Quarter as he headed home from work. A dying Hennessy uttered to his captain that his murderers were "Dagos," using an epithet for the growing Italian population in the city. With headlines claiming Hennessy was "Ambuscaded" and a "Victim of the Vendetta," the local newspaper blamed the mafia for the murder, giving fodder to mounting stereotypes of Italian immigrants. In the coming weeks local law enforcement indicted nineteen Italians, allegedly mafia members, for their supposed involvement in the murder. When a trial of nine Italians ended without convictions on March 13, 1891, outrage ignited in New Orleans. The Daily Picayune's headline the following morning read "None Guilty!," and newspapers across the city printed announcements of a mass meeting scheduled later that day "to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case." Despite their acquittals, the Italians remained imprisoned along with others awaiting trial. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Italian consul Pasquale Corte summoned the help of Governor Francis T. Nicholls, who responded that he would intervene only upon Mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare's request.1 [End Page 509]

With no dispersal order from the mayor, a mob reportedly consisting of more than six thousand people gathered outside the jail to take their revenge. Militia members forced entry into the jail and fired point-blank, killing nine of the nineteen imprisoned Italians. To appease the demands of the mob outside, the militia brought two more Italians into the streets, hanging them to their deaths to the delight of the raucous crowd. In total, the lynch mob assassinated eleven Italians in what is often considered the largest documented lynching in U.S. history.2 Responding to the massacre, Italy, a fledgling nation that had unified only thirty years before, sought immediate justice. Italian ambassador Baron Saverio Fava demanded that the United States pay reparations to the victims' families. When the U.S. federal government failed to act, Fava considered it a breach of a treaty protecting Italian subjects in the United States. Accordingly, Fava withdrew his post from Washington, D.C., and issued a subtle threat of war. The two nations remained in a diplomatic standoff for more than a year, until the U.S. government partly conceded to Italy's demands by awarding $25,000 in total reparations to the victims' families in April 1892.3

Italy's bold retaliation to U.S. inaction led to a diplomatic debacle that resonated internationally. As one would expect, newspapers and magazines across the United States—the New York Times, the New Orleans Daily Picayune, the Illustrated American, Harper's Weekly—reported extensively on the lynchings, with reactions to the mob violence ranging from condemnation to support. But more surprising, Spanish-language newspapers from across the Americas showed genuine concern through extended coverage. For example, two weeks after the lynching, an editor from Panama City's La Estrella de Panama described in detail the mob's tactics: "[they] arrived in front of the prison [End Page 510] and when they tried to enter through the door, no one responded so they busted it open by ramming [the door] with a wooden stake."4 La Nación of Buenos Aires, Argentina, published a front-page editorial by Cuban writer José Martí that recounted the scene of the lynching. "Shots blast out," Martí wrote; "Bagnetto, the dead Italian, is hoisted to a limb. They riddle his face with bullets." Martí noted that lynch mob members "took home souvenirs of pieces of bark and leaves still fresh from the foot of the oak tree from which an Italian, covered with blood, hangs swinging."5 Through their prose, these writers captured with aplomb the barbarism in New Orleans, recreating the events with satire and imagery.

In some instances, the Spanish-language newspapers addressed racial constructions in the United States by centering on the vilification of Italian immigrants. An article published in El País in Havana, Cuba, explained that the mob targeted these individuals...


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