The lynching of the Italian Americans was a sad tale in the history of the US, and everything began when 11 Italians in New Orleans were murdered brutally. The mob was triggered by being accused of killing a police chief. In the history of the United States, there has never been a single mass lynching that has resulted in as many casualties. 

The Tale

The Sicilian peasants during the mid-19th century left the countryside of Italy looking for wealth and opportunity. The new government in Italy taxed the peasants heavily. This made the poor flee or choose to starve to death. Owing to this by the 19th-century’s fag end, Italians in massive numbers immigrated to the US and settled in New Orleans, aiming to work in the sugar and cotton industries that were booming at the time.

Gradually, the Sicilians in New Orleans became a big part of the population. The Italians by 1890 controlled or owned almost over 3000 retail and wholesale businesses in New Orleans alone. While the success of the immigrant group was purely industrious, it threatened the old-line establishment. 

The Sicilians who were threatened did not want to be the cause for trouble and decided to go back. Regrettably, this resulted in distrust within Italian population, and the newspaper capitalized on the media opportunity with stories involving crime and Italians paving the way to racial tensions. These stories reached top-priority when the Chief of Police, David C. Hennessy, was brutally murdered.  This was also the anti-immigrant sentiment period, and the police rounded up over 12 Italians.

A Dark Moment In History

Italians became regular victims and were lynched around the country in widespread episodes throughout the decade of the 1890s. To make matters worse, The Washington Post pegged the murder of the commissioner on the ‘Mafia.’ The New York Times editorial also proclaimed that the anti-Italian sentiment was ‘cowardly and sneaky Sicilians’ they were further described as being the inheritors of assassins and bandits, with lawless passion. The Italians were stereotyped as being pests without mitigations.

Aftermath of Assassination

The assassination of David C. Hennessy did not come as a shock as he was known for being tough on crime, especially with Italians. Hennessy was darling of America and one of the forerunners who propagated city reforms, and his assassination triggered outspread rage.

Newspapers condemned the commissioner’s murder and defined it as an ‘Italian assassination’ and went further to declare war. The mayor sent the police, and more than 250 Italians were taken into custody, while 19 of them were charged with murder. The press gave credibility and represented the Italians as the up-coming mafia in the newspapers and associated them to organized crime.

Eventually, the verdict was read ‘not guilty’ for the Hennessy trial. However, the city believed the Italians to be guilty and called for public action. The crowd turned into a vengeful mob and from the crowd came hidden guards with rifles and shotguns, aimed at the men. The Italians headed to the entrance gate, but some were dragged through the streets from the prison and were hung on lampposts or the great oak trees.

After the end of the mass lynching, the city’s newspapers declared “Chief Hennessy Avenged” – An act to contain the violence and restore peace with the public. The problem, however, was that the lynch mob included even the best law-abiding citizens. Therefore, there was no action taken against the multiple murders, and the lynching’s of New Orleans had a stark effect on the whole of the Italian community.