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Past Perfect

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In my musings on religion " which are, predictably, almost nonstop " I have come to a few conclusions. One of these is concerning perhaps the oldest of all forms of religion, that of ancestor worship. I find ancestor worship an attractive type of veneration, probably because it lacks an attendant clergy and most forms of donations. With my ancestors in mind, I recently read and enjoyed a book by Tom Smith titled The Crescent City Lynchings. The book deals with the infamous murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, the sensational trial of 19 defendants and the subsequent lynchings and killings of 11 of those defendants by a mob of vigilantes.

Please do not allow your imaginations to get too far in front of you on this one. My ancestors rated only a sentence on one page of Smith's book and a paragraph on another.

Here's how. On the rainy night of Oct. 15, 1890, Hennessy and a friend left a meeting at the police headquarters just after 11 p.m. and headed down Rampart Street. Smith writes:

The lights of Dominic Virgets' saloon shone ahead, and Hennessy proposed a stop. The men stepped into the warmth of Virgets' place and ordered a dozen oysters. Hennessy washed his down with a glass of milk.

It was not the combination of oysters and milk that proved fatal. After the two men said goodnight, Hennessy headed home to Girod Street. Assassins stepped out of an alley and began banging away with shotguns. The chief fired back and the gunmen ran. Later, a neighbor described what he saw:

Ice dealer and former Criminal Court Clerk Nick Virgets, who lived across the street from the Hennessys, said he heard the first loud report, a volley, then scattered shots. There was a thick mist on the street when he came out onto his gallery. Three men — two with glistening shotguns — were past him, running for the dark Liberty Street corner. He could not see their faces. He swore at them and told them to stop. When Virgets looked back at the corner of Basin and Girod, he said the light there was "like a red ball of fire" throwing no light. He did not see — any policeman at the corner. "The lamp at that corner is a bad one," the ice dealer added. "It's not unusual for it to go out."

What was also not unusual was for Dave Hennessy to be embroiled in some of the most violent and controversial chapters in New Orleans police and legal histories. His father had the same name and occupation and was a drunken bully once arrested for stabbing a man to death. In 1869, he got into a barroom argument with an ex-cop named Guerin, who had killed seven men and served no time. Dave Sr. made eight and Guerin still had served no time.

Dave Jr. was 12 and dropped out of school to work as a police messenger. A dozen years later, he and his cousin, Mike, got involved in a street brawl with Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux. The chief shot Mike in the face, and Dave blew Devereaux's head off.

The Hennessys pleaded self-defense and were acquitted, but they had to look for other work. Dave became a security advisor, including a job with the famous Cotton Exposition of 1884. That was the same year a New York Times reporter wrote: 'They are a mild and feeble folk, the New Orleans police, apparently harmless and useless."

According to Smith, that all began to change with the 1888 election of aristocrat/reformer Joseph Shakespeare. The new mayor promptly named 30-year-old David Hennessy chief of police. The new chief was sober and single and lived in a small cottage on Girod with his mother. 'My mother is old. I'll stay with her," Hennessy said.

'Hennessy began reforming his department, firing bad cops and arresting bad people " more than 20,000 in 1889. His directive concerning the street gangs terrorizing St. Mary's Market: 'Don't take 'em to jail. Send 'em to the hospital or morgue."

Yet, he was not too fussy about his acquaintances. For example, he was an active member of the Red Light Club, a downtown social club whose members included Tom Anderson, later renowned as 'Mayor of Storyville." And the Provenzano brothers. And that may have had something to do with what came next.

By this time, New Orleans already had a sizeable Sicilian population and many of the men found work unloading fruit-bearing ships from Central America. (Other stevedores, white and black, thought the pay miserly.) Two factions, the Provenzanos and the Matrangas, competed for the work.

Smith notes that many native-born New Orleans residents were suspicious of the newcomers. Sicilians who were killed were always described as having died in a 'vendetta."

After a group of Matranga laborers were ambushed one night at Esplanade and Claiborne avenues, some Provenzanos were arrested and for the first time in American history, the word 'mafia" was used in their trial. The accused were found guilty, but a retrial was ordered.

It was against this background that David Hennessy was shotgunned that rainy October night. When asked who had done the dastardly deed, the chief supposedly muttered, 'Dagoes." He was waked at City Hall, where Jefferson Davis had been laid out the year before. The body was taken to St. Joseph's church. From there, a procession featuring Hennessy's riderless horse and 50 carriages traveled to Metairie Cemetery.

Multitudes of people with Italian surnames were questioned and 19 were arrested. Parish prison at that time was a two-story former soap factory, 80-by-50 yards wide, bordered by Treme, St. Ann, Marais and Orleans streets.

The trial began on Feb. 16, 1891, and verdicts were announced on the afternoon of March 13. Some of the defendants were found not guilty, and mistrials were declared for the others. No one was judged guilty. Half the defendants had not been tried and the ones who had were returned to jail for the night.

The next day was Saturday, and the morning newspapers cried foul and announced a mass meeting at 10 a.m. at the Henry Clay statue on Royal and Canal streets. More than 8,000 men showed up, and several prominent citizens urged them to action. The mob headed for parish prison. The jailers let the accused out of their cells and told them to hide; a couple of them even crawled into a doghouse seeking safety. The mob broke down a door, passed on a 14-year-old boy whose warning whistle had reputedly alerted the assassins, and hunted down 11 others. Nine of those were shot to death; the other two were dragged outside and hung.

No vigilante was arrested. Mayor Shakespeare told a reporter: 'The men who did it were all peaceable and law-abiding. The Italians had taken the law into their own hands, and we had to do the same." For years, Italians were mocked by the schoolboy taunt: 'Who killa da chief?"

The book has the names and details of dozens of associated characters, like reputed jury-fixer Dominick O'Malley. Surely one of the most dramatic civic dramas ever recorded in U.S. history.

Ah, yes, you may be saying. Remind us what vital roles your faraway relatives played in this drama. Served a man his last meal? Walked out on his gallery and yelled, 'Stop"?

Ancestor worship can be like many other kinds of human religion. Sometimes it's not easy.

The murder of Police Chief David Hennessy in 1890 sparked a bloody public uprising that ended with a mob of vigilantes shooting to death or lynching 11 men suspected in the slaying, the story of which is detailed in The Crescent City Lynchings. Ronnie Virgets' ancestors played small  and nonviolent  roles in the story.
  • The murder of Police Chief David Hennessy in 1890 sparked a bloody public uprising that ended with a mob of vigilantes shooting to death or lynching 11 men suspected in the slaying, the story of which is detailed in The Crescent City Lynchings. Ronnie Virgets' ancestors played small and nonviolent roles in the story.

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