I would love to know more about the history of the Italian Mafia in New Orleans. I have heard that this is one of the first places it sprang up but am having trouble finding anything more than information about the murder of David Hennessy. Any thoughts?
The reputation of the Mafia in Louisiana began developing many years ago. Before the Immigration Act of 1924, more than 100,000 Italian immigrants had come through the Port of New Orleans. And about 90 percent of all Italian immigrants to Louisiana were Sicilian. Most who didn't stay in New Orleans settled in the sugarcane parishes of south and south-central Louisiana.
The Sicilians of the late 19th century left a homeland of social and political injustice and corruption and the highest homicide rate in Europe. A tight-knit family system developed to protect against injustice, and violence became an accepted solution. Frequently there were organized bands of vigilantes that administered their own justice. The name "Mafia" grew from the Sicilian bandits who, beginning in the early 19th century, operated against the authorities and dominated the peasants through terrorism and the tradition of the vendetta.
When the Sicilian immigrants came to America, the criminals came with them. And the Black Hand -- Mano Nera in Italian -- was one of the extortion rackets run by immigrant Sicilian and Italian gangsters in the Italian communities of New Orleans, New York, Chicago and other United States cities from 1890 to 1920. The group sent threatening extortion notes to local merchants and other well-to-do people -- notes printed with black hands, daggers or other menacing symbols.
Sicilians arriving in America were already labeled as criminally inclined. Many still had a distrust of authority and attitudes that favored lawbreaking when there was a feeling that justice was not being served. When newspapers like the Daily Picayune reported crime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- the peak immigration period -- they often connected criminal activities with the Italians. For example, a headline over a story in 1892 about a fight between two Italians read "The Crime of Dago Pete."
Of course, the assassination of Police Chief David Hennessy -- who reputedly whispered, "The Dagoes did it" before he died in 1890 -- did nothing to enhance the reputation of the Italians. As a result, 11 Italians who had been arrested but not convicted were dragged by a mob of 6,000 from Parish Prison in 1891. Nine were shot on the spot, but two were lynched first. The whole affair received worldwide attention, and there was talk of a vendetta against Hennessy.
Claims of organized crime in Louisiana in the 19th century have come from many sources: political officials, crime commissions and the FBI. However, in the 20th century a man came to New Orleans accused of a host of crimes that included the conspiracy to assassinate both John and Robert Kennedy. This was the infamous Carlos Marcello, who went to prison twice in the 1930s for assault, robbery and drug charges. Soon after he became associated with Frank Costello, recognized Mafia leader in New York. He eventually became head of gambling operations in Louisiana and owner of two of the biggest casinos in the state.
When U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver and his crime commission came to New Orleans to investigate in 1950, the committee decided that Marcello was able to maintain his domination of organized crime by paying off corrupt politicians and policemen.
Attempts were made in the 1950s and 60s to deport him, and in 1961 he was forcibly removed to Guatemala. He quickly returned. No conclusive evidence was found linking him to organized crime, and that same year the FBI admitted that it had no evidence to prove that Carlos Marcello, who claimed he made his living as "a tomato salesman and real estate investor," was the "boss" of a "Mafia family."
Federal authorities did, however, finally manage to convict Marcello in the infamous BRILAB (Bribery and Labor) scheme, and in 1981 he went to federal prison, only to be moved to a federal medical center after a series of strokes. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the 1981 conviction, and in 1989 Marcello, age 79, was freed