About The Crescent City Lynchings
I first became aware of the Hennessy murder and the Orleans Parish Prison lynching through The French Quarter, Herbert Asbury's "informal history of the New Orleans underworld." Initially - and mistakenly - I thought it was an all-but-forgotten local crime story.
Most period press accounts from the 1890s, slightly later scholarly works, and Asbury's 1936 retelling are variations on a common script. David Hennessy is usually described as the orphaned son of a brave Union army officer turned policeman. Young Hennessy follows his father's footsteps into the ranks of the New Orleans Police where he earns a spotless reputation and the undying enmity of Sicilian criminals for capturing the fugitive leader of a previously unknown organization called the Mafia, which is trying to introduce the concept of revenge murder to a peaceful and law-abiding American city. This experience later makes Hennessy a natural choice to keep public order by mediating a dispute between two families of immigrant stevedores. When he tries to prosecute one faction for its misdeeds, he is targeted, placed in the murderers' gunsights by a running boy who announces the chief's approach with a “Mafia whistle,” and killed. The plotters - all foreign-born Italians - are captured and tried, but thanks to a bribed jury they are acquitted. Justice arrives in the form of a regrettable but popular uprising and the public lynching of the accused murderers, which restores order and banishes the Mafia from New Orleans forever.
This romantic tale was the standard version of the Hennessy case for nearly a century. After that, the verdict became less unanimous.
The firmest dissent was Dr. Richard Gambino's Vendetta, published in 1977 during a resurgence of pride in and new scholarship about the Italian American experience. While Vendetta was the first book-length treatment of the story, shorter revisionist retellings of the murder and lynching multiplied. In these later incarnations, Hennessy was variously a murderer, extortionist, or partner in a French Quarter brothel, following in the footsteps of corrupt police commanders. The men accused of his murder were all law-abiding Italians or Italian Americans, the hapless victims of conspiracies to expel them from both the shipping docks and the voting rolls. New Orleans' city government, police, commercial elite, newspapers, and prison guards unanimously colluded in slaughtering innocents and then whitewashing the crime.
The tension between these contending views convinced me to research the case from scratch, with no preconceptions or agenda. I researched major and minor players alike and reconstructed the events, cautiously relying on first-hand accounts instead of oft-quoted and flawed versions assembled decades later. All dialogue in The Crescent City Lynchings comes directly from sources contemporary with the events.
The Hennessy murder set in motion one of the most painful episodes in Italian American history, a trial seen as the greatest legal event in Louisiana history by those who witnessed it, and one of the most fractious international diplomatic battles of the Gilded Age. I hope the book provides a clear narrative of the extraordinary sequence of violence, politics, legal warfare, racism, and deadly rumors that allowed the city to spin out of control.
If you want to know more about how the book was written, have a look at Laura James's CLEWS interview elsewhere on the website.