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The New Orleans "Mafia" Trial: 1891

The First, The Best, And Even The Most Law-abiding

The March 13 verdicts shocked the city. Monasterio, Bagnetto, and Scaffidi got mistrials on the murder charge. The other six defendants were acquitted. All nine were returned to the Orleans Parish prison, expecting the redundant "lying in wait" charge to be dismissed the next day. On the morning of March 14, however, an armed committee headed by two politically prominent New Orleans attorneys and a newspaper editor led a mob of over 6,000 people to the prison and smashed their way in. Macheca, Scaffidi, Monasterio, and Antonio Marchesi were shot to death. So were Geraci, Romero, Traina, Comitz, and James Caruso, none of whom had been tried. Polizzi was dragged out to the street, where a crowd hung him from a lamp post and emptied pistols into him. Bagnetto's broken body was strung up from a tree.

The surviving defendants were soon released by District Attorney Luzenberg, who denied the existence of Polizzi's "confession." A Grand Jury cleared the lynch mob's leaders, saying that "the first, the best and even the most law-abiding" citizens of New Orleans were driven to act because justice had been subverted by jury bribers, a jab at Adams & Henriques' slippery detective associate, Dominick O'Malley.

The Hennessy case jurors denied being bribed. The acquittals, they said, resulted from impatience in the jury room, the absence of Billy O'Connor and Officer Roe, and other holes in the state's case. Two men later got short prison terms for making suggestive comments to potential jurors, but no link between the defense and the chosen jury was unearthed.

Several of the lynched men were Italian subjects. A war scare swept America as the enraged Italian government broke off diplomatic relations. Two years later, the U.S. government paid Italy a $25,000 indemnity, and diplomacy was restored. Yet a national pattern of indiscriminately blaming violent crime in Italian-American communities on a single entity known as the Mafia had been set, helping to fuel anti-immigration sentiment. The anti-Italian insult "Who killa d' Chief?" lived on in New Orleans for decades. To this day, no one has proven who killed Chief David Hennessy.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestion for Further Reading

Asbury, Herbert J. The French Quarter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936.

Coxe, John E. "The New Orleans Mafia Incident," Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 20 (1937) 1067-1110.

Gambino, Richard. Vendetta: A true story of the worst lynching in America, the mass-murder of Italian-Americans in New Orleans in 1891, the vicious motivation behind it, and the tragic repercussions that linger to this day. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, & Co. 1977.

Karlin, J. Alexander. "New Orleans Lynchings in 1891 and the American Press," Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 24 (1941): 187-204.

Kendall, John S. "Who Killa de Chief?" Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 22 (1939): 492-530.

"The Mafia and What Led to the Lynching," Harper's IVeekly, Vol. 35 (March 28, 1891): 602-612.

Saxon, Lyle, et al. Gumbo Ya-Ya. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945.

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