Tuesday, August 21, 2018

When anti-immigrant rhetoric turned deadly

Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 5,000 vigilante murders that included shootings, hangings and other forms of mob “justice” were recorded in the United States. Most of their victims were African-American men. But on March 14, 1891 the target wasn’t Black people. 

Italians, considered “not quite white”, because of their dark skin, were often treated with the same contempt as Black people. The fate of Italian Americans was no different than that of Blacks targeted by lynch mobs. The most infamous lynching of Italians occurred in New Orleans.


In late 19th-century America, Italians were recruited to satisfy the demand for cheap labor. Sugar planters, in particular, who sought workers who were more compliant than former slaves, hired immigrant recruiters to bring Italians to southern Louisiana.

In the 1890s, thousands of Italians were arriving in New Orleans each year to fill the shortage of cheap labor created by the end of slavery. Many settled in the French Quarter, which by the early 20th century became known as “Little Sicily.” 

They were hardworking and religious. Still, they were viewed by many Americans as culturally backward and racially suspect even though many Italians had been living in New Orleans since before the Louisiana Purchase. 

In a letter responding to an inquiry about immigration in New Orleans, the Mayor expressed the common anti-Italian prejudice, complaining that the city had become attractive to

"...the worst classes of Europe: Southern Italians and Sicilians...the most idle, vicious, and worthless people among us." He claimed they were "filthy in their persons and homes" and blamed them for the spread of disease, concluding that they were "without courage, honor, truth, pride, religion, or any quality that goes to make a good citizen.”
On the evening of October 15, 1890, New Orleans police chief David Hennessy was shot by several gunmen as he walked home from work. Hennessy returned fire and chased his attackers before collapsing. When asked who had shot him, Hennessy reportedly whispered to Captain William O'Connor, "Dagoes" (a derogatory term for Italians). Hennessy was awake in the hospital for several hours after the shooting, and spoke to friends, but did not name the shooters. The next day complications set in and he died.

The “usual suspects”, in this case Italian immigrants from Sicily and the southern portions of Italy were captured and detained.

On the morning of March 14, 1891, thousands gathered by the Parish Jail, with many of them shouting, “Yes, yes, hang the dagoes!”


Italians standing nearby were shot.  More than a hundred rifle shots were fired into six helpless men. The eleven Italians were dragged from the jail and lynched, in one of the largest multiple lynchings in American history.

A New York Times headline announced, 

"Chief Hennessy Avenged...Italian Murderers Shot Down”.  

A Times editorial called the victims “desperate ruffians and murderers” the next day vilifying Sicilians in general:

These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they...Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.

The lynchings were the most violent expression of anti-Italian feelings in America, but far from an isolated event. Bigoted sentiments surged again during World War II, when Italy entered the war on Germany’s side. All things Italian became suspect and hated.  Their lives were disrupted and their civil rights were violated by the government.

This story is an important one frequently neglected in the narrative of American history.  Today the 1891 lynchings in New Orleans are a reminder of how quickly anti-immigrant rhetoric can turn deadly.


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