David Hennessy

David Hennessy
David Hennessy
New Orleans Police Department
Born 1858
Place of birth New Orleans, USA
Rank Police chief
Relations Margaret and David Hennessy Sr. (Mother/Father)
Other work Killed in the line of duty 1890 (aged 31–32)

David C. Hennessy (1858 – October 16, 1890) was a police chief of New Orleans, Louisiana. His assassination in 1890 led to a sensational trial. A group of not guilty verdicts shocked the nation, and an enormous mob formed outside the prison the next day. The prison doors were forced open and 11 of 19 Italian men who had been indicted for Hennessy's murder were lynched. The leaders of the mob justified the lynching by claiming the jury had been bribed, but only six of those lynched had been put on trial. In addition to the 11 lynch victims, five prisoners were severely wounded in the attack and died soon afterwards. Charles Mantranga, believed to be a ringleader, survived. A grand jury investigated and cleared those involved in the lynching. The word "Mafia" entered U.S. popular usage due to newspaper coverage of the trial and lynchings. The U.S. government paid a $25,000 indemnity to Italy to repair and restore broken relations due to the anti-Italian sentiment raging across America.[1] The lynchings were the subject of the 1999 made-for-TV movie Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken.



Early life

David C. Hennessy was born to Margaret and David Hennessy Sr., 275 Girod St., New Orleans.[2] David Sr. was a member of the First Louisiana Cavalry of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. After the war, he was a member of the Metropolitan Police, a New Orleans force under the authority of the governor of Louisiana. This force was considered a form of occupation army by many citizens because part of the job of these so called "special officers" was to reject anyone from a polling place who they believed was not going to vote for their political masters. David Sr was murdered in a barroom (described as a coffeehouse by the Daily Picyune newspaper) in 1869 by a fellow member of the Metropolitan Police named Arthur Gurrin, leaving young David fatherless at the age of eleven.

Artist's conception of the Hennessy's murder. "Scene of the Assassination", The Mascot, New Orleans, 1890.

Hennessy joined the New Orleans police force as a messenger in 1870. While only a teenager, he caught two adult thieves in the act, beat them with his bare hands, and dragged them to the police station. He made detective at the age of 20.

He arrested the internationally notorious Italian bandit and fugitive Giuseppe Esposito in 1881. Esposito was wanted in Italy for kidnapping a British tourist and cutting off his ear, among numerous other crimes. Esposito was deported to Italy, where he was given a life sentence.[3] In 1882, Hennessy was tried for the murder of New Orleans Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux. At the time, both men were candidates for the position of chief. Hennessy argued self-defense and was found not guilty.[4] Hennessy left the department afterwards and joined a private security firm given police powers by the city. He handled security for the New Orleans World Fair of 1884–1885.[5] The New York Times noted that Hennessy's men were, "neatly uniformed and are a fine-looking and intelligent body of men, far superior to the regular city force."[6]

The New Orleans waterfront became the scene of a violent rivalry between two Italian criminal factions called the Matrangas and the Provenzanos. Fruit importer Joseph Macheca was associated with the Matranga gang and was also a leader of the Italian community and active in the city's Democratic Party. In 1888, Joseph A. Shakspeare, the nominee of the Young Men's Democratic Association, won election as mayor of New Orleans with Republican support, ousting the regular Democrats, or "Ring" faction.[7] Shakspeare's supporters were also known as the "Reform" or "Bourbon" faction. Shakspeare promptly appointed Hennessy as his police chief.[2] Hennessy allied the police force with the Provenzanos so as to gain their testimony and support against the Matrangas, which he considered to be the more dangerous of the two factions.


Hennessy was assassinated on October 15, 1890 outside his home as he was returning from a board meeting that had run late.[8] He was scheduled to give testimony at a trial of the Provenzanos later in the week and his killers may have wanted to prevent him from testifying. Macheca was immediately suspected as he had made threatening remarks about the chief prior to the assassination.[9] He had suffered losses at the hands of the Provenzanos and was anxious that they be convicted. The five weapons that were recovered all had unusual alterations made to them.[10] Several had hinges that allowed them to be folded up and concealed.[10] Hennessy was awake in the hospital for several hours after the shooting, and spoke to friends, but did not name shooters. The next day complications set in and he died. Hennessy's dying words, allegedly whispered to Captain William O’Connor, were, "Dagoes did it".


Hennessy memorial tomb

Hennessy's killing was the first widely publicized Mafia incident in the United States. The city's first response was to arrest 250 Italians in a broad sweep.[11] On October 18, the mayor appointed a "Committee of Fifty" to investigate the crime. This group sent a threatening letter to the Italian community and established a "system of secret and anonymous denunciation."[7] Some accusations may have been motivated by the desire to obtain reward money offered by the mayor.[7] A Pinkerton detective posed as a prisoner charged with counterfeiting so that the prisoners would talk to him candidly.[12] One of the prisoners, Emmanuelle Polizzi, told the detective that Macheca and Charles Mantranga, boss of the Matranga gang, were the ringleaders of the plot.[12]

Newspaper accounts at the time painted Macheca as the mastermind and claimed that Hennessy was about to expose Macheca's supposed counterfeiting and other rackets when he was killed.[13] Even Macheca's former allies in the Ring faction, such as machine boss James Houston, fell silent lest they be suspected as co-conspirators. On December 13, a grand jury indicted 19 Italians.[10] Six of these were associated with the Matranga gang, including Matranga and Macheca. The other 13 had no known criminal connections. Many of the names had been suggested by the Committee of Fifty. The grand jury foreman and one other juror were also members and financial contributors to this group.[14]

A trial for nine of the suspects took place February 16–March 13, 1891, with Judge Joshua G. Baker presiding. At the trial, it appeared that Polizzi was mentally deranged, so his testimony was discredited. Polizzi also tried to dive through the window of the sheriff's office, possibly in an attempt to avoid testifying.[15] Both O'Connor and Hennessy's bodyguard refused to testify. Mistrials were declared for three defendants: Antonio Scaffidi, Emmanuelle Polizzi, Pietro Monasterio. Not guilty verdicts were delivered for four: Joseph Macheca, Antonio Bagnetto, and Antonio Marchesi and Gasperi Marchesi. Matranga and Bastian Incardona, boss and second in command of the Matranga gang, were found not guilty by directed verdict, as no evidence had been presented against them.[16] Newspapers at the time blamed the outcome on bribery and jury tampering, although afterward the jurors themselves defended the verdicts and explained how they were based on evidence presented at trial.[10]

Rioters break into Parish Prison

William Parkerson, head of the Bourbon political machine, and several other members of the Committee of Fifty, responded to the verdicts by calling for a mass meeting at the city's statue of Henry Clay. No longer silent on this issue, Houston, as well as the pro-Ring Times-Democrat, fully participated in the incitement. While expressing the hope that the meeting would not turn into a mob, the newspaper editorialized, "Rise, outraged citizens of New Orleans!... Peaceably if you can, forcibly if you must!"[17] An extra edition distributed at the meeting featured the headline, "Who bribed the jury?"[17] Parkerson told the crowd that they needed to "remedy the failure of justice" that resulted from bribery of the jury. Shouting "Kill the Dagoes," a large crowd stormed Parish Prison. Eleven of the 19 men who had been indicted for Hennessy's murder were lynched. According to witnesses, the "cheers were deafening."

Although the thousands of demonstrators outside gave the sense that the event was a spontaneous outburst, the killings were in fact carried out by a relatively small, disciplined group organized by community leaders. There were probably about 150 vigilantes, and the actual killings were carried out by a 12-man "Execution Squad" led by Parkerson.[18] Those lynched were Polizzi (mistrial), Scaffidi (mistrial), Monasterio (mistrial), Macheca (acquitted), Antonio Marchesi (acquitted), Bagnetto (acquitted), Rocco Geraci (not tried), Frank Romero (not tried), Charles Traina (not tried), Loretto Comitz (not tried), and James Caruso (not tried). Matranga later claimed that he escaped the vigilantes by hiding under his mattress.[16] Incardona also survived.[16] The six who had been tried were selected because it was believed their jury was bribed. The other five victims were apparently just unlucky enough to be handy. Gasperi Marchesi, 14, had been tried and acquitted as the lookout, but was spared on the grounds that he was a boy following his father's orders.

The headline in The New York Times read, "Chief Hennessy avenged...Italian murderers shot down."[19] "The Italians had taken the law into their own hands and we had no choice but to do the same," said Mayor Shakspeare.[20] A survey of U.S. newspapers showed 42 in favor of the lynchings and another 58 opposed.[21] Opinion in the East and Midwest was strongly critical.[22] A grand jury refused to indict any individuals on the grounds that responsibility was collective because so many had participated.[7]

Following the lynching, American newspapers reported that Italy might retaliate with a naval attack on the United States.[23] Thousands of Americans volunteered for military service in response.[23] It was first time that popular feeling in North and South united on an issue since the Civil War.[23] The matter was eventually settled with the payment of a $25,000 indemnity. Shakspeare was narrowly defeated for reelection in 1892, with the Italian vote a decisive factor.[24]


The death of Hennessy became a rallying cry for law enforcement and nativists to stop the immigration of Italians into America. For decades after, New Orleans children of other ethnicities would often taunt Italian-Americans with the phrase, "Who kill-a the chief?" The murder of Hennessy had been in keeping with the Mafia custom of killing any government official who dared cross them. However, the backlash led the American Mafia to adopt a hard and fast rule that policemen and other law enforcement officials were not to be harmed. The Matranga gang developed into the New Orleans crime family, with Charles Matranga as boss until he retired in 1922.

Hennessy is buried in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans.

See also


  1. ^ Smith, Tom, "The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891 - The First, The Best, And Even The Most Law-abiding"
  2. ^ a b "American Mafia: TIMELINE". Deep Water. 2008. http://www.jpmacheca.com/df-tim.html. Retrieved 2008-05-01. "David C. Hennessy is born to Margaret and David Hennessy Sr., 275 Girod St., New Orleans." [dead link]
  3. ^ "Giuseppe Esposito", The American "Mafia", 2007.
  4. ^ Gambino, Richard, (2000) Vendetta, p. 39. ISBN 1550711032.
  5. ^ "The New Orleans Exposition; Active Preparations for Its Opening To-day", The New York Times, December 16, 1884.
  6. ^ Hunt, Thomas, Martha Sheldon, Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia, p. 180. ISBN 0595414168.
  7. ^ a b c d "Signore Corte's farewell", The New York Times, May 24, 1891.
  8. ^ Blake Pontchartrain (03 02 04). "New Orleans Know-It-All". bestofneworleans.com. http://www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2004-03-02/blake.html. Retrieved 2008-05-01. 
  9. ^ Hunt, p. 270.
  10. ^ a b c d Persico, Joseph E., "Vendetta in New Orleans"; American Heritage Magazine, June 1973.
  11. ^ Maselli, Joseph and Dominic Lawrence Candeloro, (2004) Italians in New Orleans, p. 35. ISBN 0738516929.
  12. ^ a b Jones, Thomas L., "Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy"
  13. ^ Hunt, p. 269.
  14. ^ Hunt, p. 274.
  15. ^ "The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891 - Absent Conspiracy, Missing Witnesses"
  16. ^ a b c Hunt, p. 340-342
  17. ^ a b Gil, Jamese, (1997) Lords of misrule: Mardi Gras and the politics of race in New Orleans, p. 151. ISBN 0878059164.
  18. ^ Hunt, p.338.
  19. ^ "Chief Hennessy avenged", The New York Times, March 15, 1891
  20. ^ Gil, p. 152.
  21. ^ Tedesco, Larie, "Anti-Italian Mood Led to 1891 Lynchings"
  22. ^ Nelli, Humbert S., (1981), The Business of Crime p. 64. ISBN 0226571327.
  23. ^ a b c Wooodiwiss, Michael, (2001) Organized crime and American power, p. 100. ISBN 0802082785.
  24. ^ Nelli, p. 65.

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