Ghosts haunt the streets of New Orleans, and a few months back I may have heard one.
It was nighttime, and my girlfriend Karen and I were walking through the dark spooky streets of the old Marigny neighborhood, headed to a birthday dinner. There was a house draped in Christmas lights and framed by palm trees dancing in the night wind. Karen took out her iPhone to record the scene. When she played the video back she realized she had captured something else: A haunting male voice saying what sounded like:
Karen thought she had captured a ghost. I remained skeptical. It’s the wind, I thought, or my own voice, somehow altered by the phone. But Karen was convinced, and the more we played the tape back, the more convinced she became. Suddenly, I too had a realization. The ghostly sound meant I am cold in Italian.
Could an Italian ghost somehow be stalking the streets of New Orleans? I had heard Sicilians were once treated brutally in New Orleans. Some quick research revealed a truth much darker than I ever could have imagined.
On March 14, 1891, the largest lynching—at least the largest one ever documented—in the history of the United States took place on the streets of New Orleans. Eleven men, Italians and Italian-Americans, were dragged into the streets and shot and hung from trees and lampposts, or clubbed to death. The perpetrators were never brought to justice. In fact, the city celebrated the brutal act. Even the New York Times, noted in an editorial a few days later, that the men deserved their fate:
These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans
How did this monstrous event come to happen?
On the evening of October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was shot down by gunmen. Before dying the Chief was asked who the shooters were. Dagoes, he whispered. It’s a disparaging name for Italians, who were reviled at that time in New Orleans, and across the country. Sicilians were considered to be especially loathsome, and in the skin color-obsessed Deep South, were not regarded as full-fledged members of the “white race.” But why would the Sicilians have murdered Hennessy?
The Police Chief was pursuing a criminal case against a prominent Sicilian family with business on the New Orleans waterfront, suggesting a possible motive. But there were also American families who wanted a share of the lucrative waterfront, and one can imagine they would have been happy to find a means of getting the Sicilians out of the way.
Within 24 hours of the murder, between 45 and 250 Italians were rounded up. Some 18 men and one 14-year-old (the son of one of the accused) were charged with murder or as accessories to the crime, and held without bail in the Parish Prison. Pietro Monasterio, a shoemaker, was arrested because he lived across the street from where Hennessy was standing when he was shot. Antonio Marchesi, a fruit peddler, was arrested because he was a friend of Monasterio’s and was known to frequent his shoe shop. Emmanuele Polizzi, who was mentally ill, was arrested when police identified him as one of the men seen running from the scene of the crime.
But this was America, there was a system of justice, and with time a jury was drawn up. The trial began on February 16, 1891, and concluded on March 13. There was a stunning lack of evidence, and all of the accused were acquitted or found not-guilty. Still, they were forced to remain in prison for the time-being.
Meanwhile, right after Police Chief’s murder, the Mayor of New Orleans, Joseph A. Shakespeare had given a speech declaring the Sicilians responsible, and calling upon citizens to “teach these people a lesson they will not forget.” He appointed a Committee of Fifty to investigate the city’s Italian community. The Committee penned an open letter to the city, encouraging residents to turn in their neighbors. So the city was already seething even before the trial concluded. And when the not-guilty verdict was read out, tensions exploded. The jurors were intimidated and harassed as they left the courtroom, and a frightening new committee was instantly formed, the Committee on Safety. They met the morning after the verdict was announced at the statue of Henry Clay, near the prison. The mob was thousands strong, and included young and old, black and white. A local newspaper sympathetic to the Committee gave an eloquent paraphrasing of their mayhem-choked message:
Rise, people of New Orleans! Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization! Your laws, in the very Temple of Justice, have been bought off, and suborners have caused to be turned loose upon your streets the midnight murderers of David C. Hennessy, in whose premature grave the very majesty of our American law lies buried with his mangled corpse — the corpse of him who in life was the representative, the conservator of your peace and dignity.
The Italian consul sought the governor’s help to disburse the mob, but the governor declined to take action without a direct request from Mayor Shakespeare, who apparently, was out to breakfast. The mob rallied on. They broke down the prison door with a battering ram. Warden Lemuel Davis let all 19 prisoners out of their cells and told them to hide as best they could. The mentally ill Polizzi was hauled outside, hanged from a lamppost, and shot. Antonio Bagnetto, a fruit peddler, was hanged from a tree and shot. Nine others were shot or clubbed to death inside the prison.
I found two things remarkable in reading about this terrible event. One is that the language of that day sounds disturbingly similar to some of the language being mouthed by certain politicians today. Just exchange Muslim for Sicilian and one realizes that “the mob” is still alive and well.
The second realization I had is that there very well could be Italian ghosts haunting the streets of this very haunted city.