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The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891

Who Killed The Chief?

In May 1890, stevedores of the Matranga & Locasio fruit importing company were ambushed at midnight on their way home from the New Orleans docks. Information was rarely volunteered by crime victims in the Italian immigrant community and, at first, this shooting was no different. However, after first denying that they had recognized their attackers, the stevedores fingered six men. The accused included members of the Provenzano family, who had lost the fruit-unloading work to Matranga & Locasio.

When the "midnight vendetta" trial came to court "Chief Hennessy's men were strangely absent from the prosecution's case. In fact, most police witnesses were called by the inept defense lawyers. Two Provenzano brothers and the other four defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Yet Judge Joshua Baker ordered a retrial when affidavits surfaced from witnesses who heard the wounded stevedores say at the ambush scene that they had no idea who had shot them. Baker also ruled that "disinterested" testimony by police officers proved that two of the accused were elsewhere when the shooting occurred.

Popular interest in the "midnight vendetta" faded, but those watching the case closely believed that Chief Hennessy himself would take the stand on the Provenzanos' behalf in late October. When he was gunned down a few days before the retrial date, many people assumed that he had been silenced by the Matrangas. Little attention was given to the fact that the coming trial was no secret, giving anyone with a grudge against the chief a perfect opportunity to throw the blame on the city's Italians and Italian-Americans.

At the crime scene and at the hospital Hennessy gasped that "dagoes" had shot him. Friends repeatedly asked him to identify or describe his attackers, but he lived until the next morning without doing so. The dying man was taken at his word. Mass arrests, forced searches, and beatings shook the immigrant community.

Nineteen men were ultimately charged with planning or executing Hennessy's murder. Charles Matranga and Joseph P. Macheca were well-to-do fruit importers. James and John Caruso belonged to Matranga's dock crew, as did Rocco Geraci and Bastian Incardona, two of the men ambushed the previous spring. Most of the accused were poor men whose arrests were based on circumstantial evidence or outright hysteria. Pietro Monasterio, a shoemaker, was clubbed and arrested because Hennessy's killers had fired from a gateway beside his shack. Pietro Natali was arrested at the railway station "on suspicion" because his suit fit him badly.

To reduce the number of pretrial challenges, two successive trials were planned. The first nine defendants were Macheca, Matranga, Monasterio, Incardona, Antonio Scaffidi, Antonio Bagnetto, Emmanuelle Polizzi, Antonio Marchesi, and Marchesi's 14-year-old son, Gasperi. With the exception of Charles Patorno, who hired his own counsel, the accused were collectively represented by Adams & Henriques, the same law firm the district attorney's office had allowed to help prosecute the Provenzanos in the "midnight vendetta" shooting.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891 - Who Killed The Chief?, Absent Conspiracy, Missing Witnesses, The First, The Best, And Even The Most Law-abiding