Front Door to Cuba

Mob Violence in New Orleans

By José Martí | Published in La Nación, Buenos Aires, May 20, 1891

[From: Martí on the USA – Selected and Translated with an Introduction by Luis A. Baralt / Southern Illinois University Press, 1966]

Dated: New York, March 26, 1891


From this day on no person who has known pity will set foot in New Orleans without horror. Here and there groups of murderers still appear and disappear, their rifles on their shoulders. Another group made up of lawyers and tradesmen, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, can be seen with guns at their hips and a leaf on their lapels—a leaf from the tree on which they have hanged a dead man, a dead Italian, one of the nineteen Italians that had been jailed under suspicion of having murdered Chief of Police Hennessy. An American jury had acquitted four of the nineteen, the trials of others had been interrupted because of errors, still others had not yet been indicted.

A few hours after the acquittal a committee of worthies appointed by the Mayor to assist in punishing the assassination, headed by the leader of one of the city’s political factions, called a meeting of citizens by means of printed public convocations one day in advance. The meeting was held at the foot of Henry Clay’s statue. They attack the parish jail, with scarcely a semblance of resistance on the part of the police, the militia, the mayor, or the governor. The mob tears down the yielding doors of the jail; screaming they pour into the corridors along which the hunted Italians flee, with their rifle butts they smash in the heads of the Italian political boss and of a banker who was Bolivian consul accused of complicity with a secret band of Mafia assassins, …others are murdered against the walls, in nooks, on the floor, at guns’ end. The deed over, the citizens cheer their leader, the lawyer, and parade him on their shoulders.

Are these the streets of flowery homes with hypnaceae creeping up the white lattices, of mulatto women in turbans and aprons hanging out colored Indian baskets on trellised balconies, of Creole belles on their way to the lake to lunch on pearly, golden fish, a flowerlet pinned to their bodice and in their black tresses an orange blossom? Is this the city of oaks on which the Spanish moss grows like a silvery filigree, of honey-distilling date trees, of weeping willows mirrored in the river? Is this the New Orleans of Carnival mirth, all torch and castanets, which on Mardi Gras parades Mexico’s romance on a float festooned with lilies and carnations, on another the lovable heroes of Lalla Rookh in bejeweled costumes and on still another Prince Charming in orange satin walking a glittering-gowned Sleeping Beauty?

Can this be the Orleans of fishing canoes, of the charming suburbs, of the noisy, beaming market place, of dandies with felt hats down to their ears and grey goatees who gather at the Poetry café to chatter about duels and sweethearts? Shots blast out; Bagnetto, the dead Italian, is hoisted to a limb; they riddle his face with bullets, a policeman tosses his hat into the air; some watch the scene with opera glasses from balconies and roof tops.

The governor “cannot be reached.” The militia, “no one has called it out.” A branch is sawed down, another is cut down with an ax; they shake off the leaves which fall upon the compact crowd gathered to take home as souvenirs a splinter of wood or a leaf still fresh at the foot of the oak tree from which an Italian covered with blood hangs swinging.

The city of New Orleans, for the pleasure of it or through cowardice, headed by its leading lawyers and businessmen, marched to the jail from which were to be released the recently acquitted prisoners… The city led by lawyers, journalists, bankers, judges… truck down… the acquitted Italians: a New Orleaner of Italian descent; a rich man of the world who controlled the votes of the Italian colony; a father of six sons, wealthy partner of a well-known firm; a spirited Sicilian who a few months back had been fired at by an Irishman; a shoemaker who was influential in his neighborhood; a cobbler under suspicion of having killed compatriot of his; several fruit vendors.

Italians are prone to fight among themselves, as are the feuding gangs in Kansas, where no governor has been able to bring peace in half a century, as are the Southern creoles, who inherit their family hatreds. Twenty years ago the father of this Hennessy had fallen by the hand of a certain Guerin for meddling into the affairs of the Italians or for wanting to deprive them, on the pretext of their quarrels, of the ascendency they had gained by their voting power. The killer of the elder Hennessy had been shot to death by a trader in votes who marched as one of the ringleaders in today’s assault. The grey-eyed politicians hated the dark-eyed politicians. The Irish, who live mostly on politics, wanted to eliminate the Italians from politics.

Marti standing

They called them “Dagos,” a nickname that makes a Sicilian’s blood boil. If during these quarrels someone was killed they said he “had been sentenced by the Mafia.” They spoke of the political executions by the Mafia when it conspired a century ago against the Bourbons as though they were sheer crimes committed now.

In spite of the fact that Hennessy had once had no better friend “to make the rounds of the gambling tables in the clubs or to partake of the good gumbo” than Macheca, the stylish, wealthy Italian –the one whose head now lies all battered in – our Hennessy then declared war without quarter on the Italians. There had been some killing in the Italian section. The police had followed up the investigation until they got a statement from one Italian, who next morning was found dead, telling them all they wanted to know about a society of assassins called the Stiletto and another called the Stopaliagien. Now, they announced, they held “complete evidence about the terrible Mafia, its death sentences, its thousands of members.” One night, at the door of his house – a house with two rose bushes in the hallway – Hennessy fell brandishing his revolver against a band of assassins.

An impeccable jury was chosen from among the citizens with English family names.

They found eleven bullets in his body. His death was declared “a Mafia vengeance.” The most convincing proofs were promised. The Mayor himself appointed a committee of fifty citizens – politicians, lawyers, merchants, journalists – to assist the judiciary in its investigations. An impeccable jury was chosen from among the citizens with English family names. A few professional troublemakers among the Sicilians were jailed, along with two men who were the wealthiest and had the greatest control over the Italian voters.

The Italian population, from the Gulf to the Pacific, stood up for them; their press denied, as did their prominent men, that there was a Mafia, or a Stiletto, or a Stopaliagien society, or any possibility of proving such a thing, or any sense in holding for murder men of banker Macheca’s or merchant Caruso’s position. They insisted that the root of this vicious persecution was to be found in the political rivalries, in the determination to intimidate the Italians who would not submit to the will of their persecutors to get them out of New Orleans and out of the polls. They declared that a devilishly political conspiracy was being hatched.

The jury, after months of public trial, of reciprocal accusations, of witnesses going mad or committing perjury, talk of bribery, of scandal, acquitted the prisoners. Surely enough there were hostile bands among the New Orleans Sicilians… Surely enough the streets were often strewn with Italian blood shed by Italians. But… it does not follow that all “Dagos” who live as their burning sun commands, loving and hating each other, giving their life for a kiss or taking a life for an insult “are an organized school of murderers.”

New Orleans received the verdict with ire and threats… But in Chicago the red shirts’ neighborhood was aglow with lights; in the Providence suburbs they struck work to dance and make merry; the Bowery Italians in New York lined their fruit stands with fresh paper, stuck their flag in the burnished boots that hung to mark their bootblacks’ chairs and women paraded their well-combed hair and their coral earrings – until the telegraph announced the awful news! That New Orleans was in mutiny, that the jail was surrounded, that Bagnetto had been hanged, Macheca killed! Women ran out of of shanties and alleys screaming, or set down their babies and sat on the curbs to weep, or untied their tresses and pulled them, or waked their men, insulting them if they tarried, or ran about with their hands on their heads. In front of newspaper buildings the streets teemed with men and women. For the first time their journalists, as a rule disunited, gathered to harangue them; “Let us stand together, Italians, in this grief!” “Revenge, Italians, revenge!” And they read sighing the horrible telegrams. Women fell on their knees in the streets. Men brushed away a tear with their callused hands.

The ringleaders against the court were court people – judges, district attorneys, defenders. The leaders at the killing were delegates of the Mayor who abstained from sending his own forces against the killers. Not a call for pity, not a woman’s supplication, not a clergyman’s petition, not a protest from the press: just: “Kill the Dagos.” “To arms, good citizens!” … At one o’clock the streets leading to Clay’s statue were crowded. They say the militia was with them, that militiamen in plain clothes were around, that there was a house full of picks and axes, that a carload of beams to knock down doors was dumped yesterday behind the jail, that the plan was all laid down yesterday by the committee of fifty, the leaders appointed, the arms distributed. Some cheer Wyckliffe; all, Parkerson….Parkerson, a man of law, a political leader, a young man, speaks: “To arms, citizens! Crimes should be speedily punished, but wherever and whenever courts fail or juries break their oath or bribing appears it behooves the people to do what courts and juries have left undone!” “We’re with you, Parkerson!” “What will our resolution be? Action?” “Action! You lead! We’re with you!” “Ready?” “Ready!”

Then appears Denegre, a lawyer and proprietor… Then Wyckliffe speaks, a lawyer and newspaper owner…

The column marches at a rapid pace. Parkerson, the Democratic boss, leads. Tehre’s also Honston, another boss, the man who twenty years ago killed the first Hennessy’s killer. Wyckliffe, former district attorney, is second in command. There are three wagons in the lead with ropes and ladders. From a post on one hangs a noose.

Two hundred men shouldering rifles bring up the rear in warlike formation. They are followed and surrounded by crowds, some carrying shotguns, others revolvers. There is a stamping of feet. They smile, as on the way to a picnic. When they reach the jail, a masonry building with balconies, each door is stormed by a different picket, evidently following orders. Amidst yelling and whistling the warden denies them the keys. They ram the main door with the beams. Its panels begin to yield and then a Negro hacks them down with an ax. Fifty enter; all would like to. “Here’s the key,” cries the deputy warden…

The fifty hold council. From an open cell come some prisoners’ trembling voices. A deathlike face can be seen through the bars of another. “Those ain’t the ones,” says one of the custodians politely, “they’re upstairs in the women’s department,” and hands them the appropriate key. “Easy, gentlemen, easy!” cries Parkerson. “Anybody knows them? Only the Dagos.” They overrun the empty corridor; the scaly, whitish hand of an eighty-year-old negress points to a corner and a fight of narrow steps up which the quick stamping of feet is soon heard. “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah!” cries one of the hunters; the rest, waving their hats, repeat the three hurrahs and follow him up. “Let ‘em have it!” yells one. A volley is heard and the last of the fugitives reels in the air and falls with a bullet in his skull. The uproar outside drowns the noise of the shooting: “Hurrah for Parkerson!” “Hurray for Wyckliffe!” They haven’t even time to beg for mercy. Guachi and Caruso fall riddled like sieves. Romero is on his knees, his head touching the ground when he is killed. His hat is like a mesh of ribbons, the back of his jacket is ripped to shreds.

Bullets fly everywhere. Macheca, corralled, falls under a blow on the head and is finished off amidst the feet of men – businessmen, lawyers – who crush him with the butts of their rifles. Angry shouts rang horribly from without: “Bring them outside! Kill them where we can see!” The square is full, the surrounding streets are full. There are women and children: “Bring them out to us! Bring them out!”

A squadron appears at one of the doors pushing before them Polozzi, the mad witness who reels as though he were drunk. They can scarcely hold him on his feet.

Two men insult and strike each other over which can handle the noose better. A cluster of men are strung on one rope. Those standing around empty their revolvers upon them. There are streams of blood on their chests. Bagnetto is carried out, his face covered with wounds. Around his neck, still warm in death, the new noose is placed. They leave him swinging from the branch of a tree. Later the adjoining branches will be pruned off and they will wear the leaves as emblems –women, on their hats; men, on their lapels. One pulls out his watch. “We’ve made good time: forty-five minutes.” From roof tops and balconies people look on through their opera glasses.

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