New Orleans has known riots over its 303-year history, but none like the one that took place in March 1891 when the brutal mob seen in this photograph rushed the Orleans Parish Prison and lynched almost a dozen Sicilian immigrants and New Orleanians of Italian descent who were accused, but cleared, of murdering the city’s police chief.
The trouble began in 1889. Reacting to crime and the growing anti-Italian sentiment in the city, Mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare appointed David Hennessy chief of police and announced he intended to rid the city of secret Sicilian gangs who battled for control over the produce business on the city’s wharves. Hennessy met with the warring families and demanded they stop the violence, stating – “The Mafia cannot flourish while I am chief of police.” The feud continued. Late on the night of October 15, 1890, waiting assassins murdered Hennessy as he walked home on Girod Street. As he lay dying, Hennessy allegedly whispered to a friend that the Italians (he used a more derogatory description) had shot him. He died the next day.
That night, Shakspeare ordered the arrest of every Italian found out on the streets. Nineteen were indicted but only 10 were actually charged. Nine others were indicted as accessories. After a long trial that ended on March 13, 1891, the jury acquitted seven and declared a mistrial for the remaining three. The next day, at the call of local newspaper ads, thousands of New Orleanians, including many prominent in social and business circles, gathered on Canal Street at the Henry Clay statue (then located there) where fiery speeches urged the mob to march on the prison to exact revenge for Hennessy’s murder.
Meanwhile, prison guards learning of the approaching trouble released the prisoners to hide themselves within the prison compound. Denied entrance, the marchers battered down the doors and by the time it completed its rampage, 11 prisoners laid dead. Italy protested the lynching and the United States eventually paid the Italian government $24,303 in reparations. On May 5, 1891, an Orleans Parish grand jury, seeming to rationalize the lynching, not only claimed the “Mafia” existed in New Orleans but also failed to indict any member of the mob. No one was ever charged.
Built in the 1830s, the grim, Medieval-looking parish prison seen here was then located on Orleans Street bounded by St. Ann and Tremé and Marais streets behind today’s Municipal Auditorium. A clergyman who visited the prison in March 1891 described it as “a hard-looking mass of weather-stained and disreputable brick and mortar” that “leers and stares at you as you approach it.” The prison closed in early 1895 with the opening of a new parish prison and courthouse on the site of today’s New Orleans Public Library.