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An Uncanny Resemblance 

New Orleans' criminal justice system in the Gilded Age offers a window on today's fractured efforts to cap crime.


(Photo of Hennessy) It is unclear whether New Orleans Chief of Police Dave Hennessy was killed in 1890 because he tried to defuse tension between the feuding Matrangas and Provenzanos or because he failed. (Photo of Riley) Like Police Chief Dave Hennessy in the late 1800s, Chief Warren Riley today has to contend with a rash of gang-related violence and general lawlessness. By On the night of Oct. 15, 1890, New Orleans' Chief of Police David Hennessy was gunned down as he walked to the house he shared with his mother on Girod Street near the site of today's Superdome. The neighborhood then was working-class shotguns, clapboard rentals and ramshackle Victorian houses. Overhead electric lights were a sign of progress, but the unpaved streets turned to mud after hard rain. As Hennessy lay bleeding, the officer who had walked most of the way with him dashed back and asked who shot him.

"Dagoes," exhaled the dying chief.

Sicilians were streaming into New Orleans in the decade after Reconstruction. Mark Twain called those years "The Gilded Age" because of the financial plunder by robber barons and corporate tycoons who amassed huge fortunes. New Orleans was an outback of productive wealth, as it is today. The streets closest to Esplanade in the French Quarter were a Sicilian ghetto that stretched across Rampart into TremŽ -- an area called Little Palermo, where entertainer Louis Prima would grow up in the early 1900s. By then, 30,000 Sicilians had put down roots here.

In 1890, Sicilian fruit, vegetable and meat markets abounded in the Quarter; the men worked as stevedores unloading cargo at the docks. A feud between two families, the Matrangas and Provenzanos, was building over control of the docks when Hennessy was killed. Local newspapers inflamed readers with coverage hostile to the accused. Police arrested Matrangas and Provenzanos, among others; but a hung jury resulted from a paltry case by the prosecution. A white mob, whipped up by a frenzied editor of the States newspaper, marched from Canal Street to old Parish Prison (behind today's Municipal Auditorium), broke in and murdered 11 men. Reporters covered the march and the killings in graphic, eyewitness detail.

In The Crescent City Lynchings: The Murder of Chief Hennessy, the New Orleans "Mafia" Trials and the Parish Prison Mob (Lyons Press), Connecticut journalist Tom Smith explores one of the darkest chapters of the city's post-Civil War history. Smith's viewfinder pans across the society with a fine eye for narrative detail. He draws extensive dialogue from newspapers of the day, a biased and brawling lot even by Fox News Network standards. Smith keeps the action moving with well-drawn set pieces that at times seem to shout from the past. All that to the good, Crescent City Lynchings sags with the weight of so many names -- so large a cast -- as to leave one wondering who is more important than whom, at least among the accused. Several of the city's most prominent citizens led the sadistic rampage at the prison, for which no one was prosecuted.

The lynchings caused a diplomatic furor between the United States and Italy and stained New Orleans with an image of lawlessness well into the 20th century -- an image we are reacquiring today, for different reasons.

One can read The Crescent City Lynchings as a parable about the failure of a criminal justice system, from cops to the courts to the streets. Sound familiar? Today's crisis features a different ethnographic cast -- from Irish-Italian tensions in the 1890s to convulsions within African-American society today. In both periods, a system that couldn't adequately prosecute homicides was the byproduct of an aristocracy that congenitally cut corners to prop up notions of privilege -- low taxes, horrific public schools, lax municipal codes, money packed into Carnival and the good life.

Nineteenth-century men from pedigreed families fomented mob violence when necessary in the White League; the police buttressed the white resurgence. The 1868 state constitution that mandated integrated schools and equal access in public facilities sank into a reactionary tide of Jim Crow laws. The courts failed to deter violence by whites who used it to degrade the status of ex-slaves and people of color who had been free before the war.

Today's chaos stems partly from the Katrina flooding that destroyed NOPD's record system and washed away evidence against accused criminals, some of whom have since been released for lack of proof. But the erosion of NOPD began well before the flood, when Mayor Ray Nagin ignored policing issues and failed to expand the community policing strategies and internal reforms of the previous chief, Richard Pennington. Nagin's gamble that the poor would not return post-Katrina was the city's loss. Pushers and addicts returned to a rebounding drug economy, but with smaller turf. The killings draw greater media scrutiny as a symptom of the city's failure at its own recovery.

Substandard salaries for non-ranking prosecutors and public defenders fed a crisis before Katrina. Otherwise, today's system of criminal justice, albeit desegregated and more modern, bears an uncanny resemblance to the courts of Hennessy's day. As today's police fail to produce competent arrest reports on killers in the drug economy, cops of the 1890s yawned at crime and killings tied to the most pervasive crime: prostitution. The sex economy of the 1890s was a precursor of the drug economy today. Bordellos were widespread; most neighborhoods had at least one, which is why Alderman Sidney Story proposed a quasi-legal red light district in 1897. Nowadays, no one advocates an open zone for violence and drugs, though by default that's what much of Central City and the downtown wards have become.

Dave Hennessy personified a frontier approach to law enforcement. Many of the men who haunted the downtown saloons, gambling parlors and bordellos a few streets away from the Cotton Exchange carried guns. Hennessy's own father was a cop shot dead in a bar in 1869 by a man who previoiusly had killed five men. "These murders were allowed or sanctioned because of chaos in the courts, complained those who called [the killer] an insane thug," writes Smith. The elder Hennessy's assailant went free because of testimony branding Hennessy a bully. Self-defense and justifiable killing were common back then. Today most homicides don't get close to court.

In 1881, a former police detective ran a private investigative agency with a moonlighting special police officer by the name of Thomas Devereaux. Devereaux arrested Mike Hennessay (Dave's cousin) in a Basin Street brothel for conduct unbecoming an officer. Mike beat the rap. Intent on revenge, he lay in wait for Devereaux, who drew quicker and shot Mike in the face. Dave Hennessy, then working as a bank detective, had accompanied his cousin and immediately shot Devereaux. Mike Hennessy recovered; he and Dave went on trial for Devereaux's death. If you think now-suspended Judge Charles Elloie was soft on felons, consider that Judge Charles H. Luzenberg during the Hennessy's trial "told jurors that threats did not justify the taking of a life," reports Smith. "If an overt act like the drawing of a gun showed that a threat was an imminent reality, however, the threatened party was justified in killing in self defense."

"Self-defense" was quite a stretch for two guys waiting with guns, but Mike and Dave Hennessy were acquitted. Mike recovered from his wounds and moved to Houston where, as he stepped off a streetcar "someone shot him to death and vanished into the deep night," writes Smith. "Dave declared that he knew who killed his cousin, but could do nothing about it ... yet."

In 1890, Dave Hennessy became chief of the New Orleans police.

Sicilians pouring into the city were drawn into turf wars. Like most of today's blacks, the majority of Italians were simply trying to make a life in the melting pot -- but often got caught in a crossfire. Smith writes:

"At first, immigrants crowding into the French Quarter ghetto were happy to have any job a padrone gave them. They thanked God they were not starving at home, that is until they learned they were being paid pennies compared to the $50 and $75 a month that black and white roustabouts were earning on the cotton and sugar docks. Although the stevedores were illiterate and poor, they were proud men, and not stupid.

"Some of the more experienced hands grumbled discreetly that they were paid more when the Provenzano family ran the fruit-loading business a few years ago. ... The Sicilian workers may not have recognized the English word monopoly, but the men on the New Orleans docks knew the facts of life; the Provenzano brothers were out, Matranga & Locascio were in, and the workers would now get half the wages if they wanted to unload green fruit. They toiled, swearing to themselves that the Matrangas were sucking their blood."

Against this background of ethnic infighting and general lawlessness, Chief Hennessy was murdered.

Irish, Anglo and white Creole hostility toward Sicilians surged during the police dragnet after Hennessy's death. Members of both the Matranga and Provenzano clans were among those arrested in a chain of events that led to two trials, which failed to produce a conviction. The 11 accused Sicilians were put back in prison after the second trial when the mob led by prominent attorneys and businessmen -- prodded by a daily States editorial -- broke into the jail and killed them. The deeper story was how badly the prosecution and cops bungled the official investigation into the lynchings. Italy's consul-general in New Orleans was horrified after his pleadings with Gov. Francis Nicholls to intervene were ignored.

In the years that followed, New Orleans became synonymous with mob violence and a broken legal system. New Orleans today is undergoing a shift in media image from a disaster-zone, victimized by federal indifference, to a violent, rudderless city whose recovery is plagued by its own inept politics. The surge in drug crimes and homicides is driving people out of the city, according to a recent New York Times report.

As the late 19th century internecine strife among Italians reflected the burgeoning influence of the Mafia, today's homicides register the battles within an African-American mob culture for supremacy in a flood-tightened urban drug economy. The reluctance of witnesses to testify is more than a result of fear. For some, drugs represent an economy of scale, putting money into streets where schools failed and the city gave up on programs to train young men in the building trades that the recovery now so desperately needs.

"Disputes in the illegal drug trade can't be resolved in court, so users, dealers and wholesale suppliers force compliance through the use of violence, and that results in wider intimidation geographically," says Larry Preston Williams Sr., a former detective in the NOPD unit that monitored the activities of traditional organized crime (email: "Addicts often turn violent after ingesting certain drugs, or if they're in withdrawal and need drugs. Some users, because of the expense of maintaining a habit, commit robberies, burglaries, credit card scams, auto thefts and sometimes murder for hire. In this category, we can include crimes by corrupt cops to assist street dealers. Katrina left unprecedented physical neglect and unpopulated neighborhoods. With fewer law-abiding citizens to alert police, law breakers have a freer hand."

Williams, who also does opposition research work in political campaigns, sees the NOPD crisis as a failure of fundamentals. "We're talking about identifying the specific motives for each killing where possible, assigning officers to homicide investigating duty who have good analytical and writing skills, making each crime of violence the subject of an aggressive follow up investigation, creating a 'to do' list in investigating homicides. Some cases will require deviation from the written protocol, but it's consistent approaches that over time will improve the solve rate."

That analysis could have been applied to a more heavily Irish police force of 1890. In Policing the Southern City: New Orleans 1805-1889, Dennis C. Rousey writes that the misuse of deadly force among New Orleans police in the 1880s "in most ways set an example for other cities not to follow." Bolstering a system of racial supremacy created a double standard. "The city's elite did little to offer a good example of nonviolent self-restraint. Respectable gentlemen were often among the legions of illegal bearers of concealed weapons."

Hennessy's background for the job was seriously flawed. Warren Riley, the current chief, was suspended three times while rising through the ranks.

"When the Provenzanos lost their stevedoring contract to the Matrangas, Hennessy tried to defuse the tension between the two families by bringing them together," writes Smith. Whether Hennessy was killed for trying, or because he failed, we will never know. The cops stood back as prominent citizens murdered the accused men.

Today, too many of those who commit murders are not even accused -- because they aren't arrested in the first place.

Jason Berry is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Tulane this semester and author of the novel, Last Of The Red Hot Poppas.

click to enlarge The lynching caused a diplomatic furor between the United - States and Italy and stained New Orleans with an image of - lawlessness well into the 20th century  an image we are - reacquiring today, for different reasons.
  • The lynching caused a diplomatic furor between the United States and Italy and stained New Orleans with an image of lawlessness well into the 20th century an image we are reacquiring today, for different reasons.
click to enlarge news_feat-15061.jpeg


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