Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy
Who Killa da Chief?
After the shootout, Hennessey had the Provenzanos rounded up and taken to the Orleans Parish Prison. When a trial was convened two months later, over twenty police officers from the rank of patrolman up to captain stepped forward to offer alibis for the defendants. There were many police officers in the force that were Italian. It was hardly the finest hour in the history of the NOPD. Although a jury subsequently found the Provenzanos not guilty, the presiding judge overruled the verdict and ordered a new trial. The whiff of corruption was far stronger than the smells emanating from the docksides and fruit markets. The Provenzanos were remanded back into jail until their new trial convened.
Hennessey, determined to dig up evidence against the Matrangas, wrote to the police chief in Rome asking for dossiers on known Mafiosi wanted back in Italy. Clearly building up the pressure on them, he was also leaving himself open as a target of their revenge. Some of the Matranga followers rented a small room in a shack owned by a Sicilian shoe cobbler, near to the house where the police chief lived with his elderly mother. They started tracking his movements and began to establish his routine.
On October 15, 1890, a group of these men gathered, and at 11o'clock on that cold, windy and rain lashed evening, they struck. As Hennessey walked home from a late night police board meeting with two of his associates, the mob waited in ambush. A block from his house, the three men split up to go their separate ways.
Just as the police chief neared his home, a young Italian boy called Aspero Marchese ran skipping past him, whistling shrilly. On this signal, the gunmen opened fire from across the street with sawed-off shotguns, known in the Mafia as the lupura. Others shot at him with revolvers. Drawing his own gun, Hennessey returned fire. Three of his rounds struck the buildings close to where his assailants were crouching, and then he collapsed, shot at least six times. His two friends, both fellow police officers, rushed to help him. One of them, Captain Billy O'Connor cradled the wounded man in his arms and asked: "Who gave it to you Dave?"
Whatever Hennessey actually said, legend has it he whispered, "Oh Billy, Billy they have given it to me and I gave them back the best I could! The Dagos did it." He died the next morning at the New Orleans Charity Hospital.
His murder created a storm of protest, not just in New Orleans, but also across America. There were anti-Italian demonstrations in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco-cities with high Italian populations. Shakespeare, the mayor of New Orleans, placed the entire police force on an emergency footing, with orders to find the killers at any cost. Over one hundred men were eventually arrested, many of them just because they were street thugs, but particularly because they were Italian by nationality. One of the New Orleans newspapers fanned the flames of racial hatred and discrimination by a fire-and-brimstone type editorial that in part stated: "...Sicilians whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature."
The existence of a secret society of criminals, banding together in a unified group, became public for the first time in America. One of the two grand juries that investigated the death of Hennessey, reported:
"The range of our researches has developed the existence of the secret organization styled Mafia. The evidence comes from several sources fully competent in themselves to attest to its truth, while the fact is supported by the long record of blood-curdling crimes, it being impossible to discover the perpetrators or to secure witnesses."
Several of the Matranga mobsters were imprisoned in the same jail as the Provenzano men, still on remand and awaiting a re-trial. An undercover Pinkerton detective, Frank DiMaio, was introduced into the prison as a top-level counterfeiter, and made friends with Joe Polizi, one of the Matranga gang. He soon learned the background and details of the murder from Polizi, who identified Charles Matranga and Joe Macheca, a big time fruit importer and important Mafiosi, who had allied himself to Matranga, as the leaders of the plot to kill Hennessey.
This confession lead to a grand jury indictment and Matranga and Macheca and seven other men, including Polizi were sent for trial. It began in February 1891. Matranga's supporters urged fellow Italians across America to contribute to their defense fund, and money poured in. It was used to hire a team of five top trial lawyers lead by Thomas J. Semmes, considered one of the leading criminal lawyers in the country. It was also utilised to distribute a number of
Strategically-placed bribes. As a result, on Friday, March 13, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty against six of the defendants and Polizi and two others were granted a mistrial.
If the murder of Hennessey had caused an outrage, the jury verdict was an act of injustice that burned through the population of New Orleans like a bush fire out of control. Macheca and Matranga, along with his men were returned to the prison to await another trial. They and another ten men already held there on remand, would be tried on different charges relating to the ambush of Hennessey.
On March 14, Italians throughout the world celebrated the birthday of Umberto I, then in his thirteenth year as king of the newly unified Italy. The Italians in New Orleans were no exception, and Umberto's royal banner fluttered through the city's "Little Italy." But the festivities were short-lived. Ironically, the flags flying in the Italian sector may well have helped provoke over eight thousand angry people, who gathered outside City Hall to hear a series of speeches by prominent citizens. Standing near the statue of Henry Clay in Canal Street, W.S. Parkeson, a famous New Orleans lawyer and renowned public orator, stirred the crowd with his vitriolic diatribe:
"When courts fail," he thundered, "people must act...what assurance of protection is there left when the very head of our police department is assassinated in our midst by the Mafia society ...will every man here follow me to see that the murder of Hennessey is vindicated."
With a deafening roar, the crowd responded, and with Parkeson in the lead, marched on the city armoury. They broke in and armed themselves with rifles and pistols, and then marched to the Old Parish Prison on Bienville Street.
As the mob poured through the streets of New Orleans, the prison warden, Captain Lem Davis, ordered all the prisoners, except the Italians, to be herded into the prison courtyard, and there to be kept under armed guard. He then went through the second floor cellblock, unlocking the men of the Mafia and urging them to hide or seek refuge where they could within the prison walls.
The nineteen men Frank Romero, Carlo Traina, James Caruso, Loretto Comitez, Aspero Marchese (the young lookout for the gang the night the murder was committed), Manuel Polizzi, Pietro Monasterio, Joe Macheca, Antonio Marchese, Pietro Natali, Charles Patorno, Bastiano Incardona, Salvatore Sunseri, Charles Matranga, Antonio Bagnetto, Charles Poitra, John Carruso, Rocco Gerraci and Antonio Scaffidi fanned out through the prison, desperately searching for a hiding place from the howling mob which was descending on the prison like some human tsunami.
Screaming and yelling, the crowd battered down the prison gates and poured into the building looking for their victims. Soon, the sound of gunfire echoed through corridors and courtyards. Joseph Macheca climbed to the second floor, hoping to lose himself in the general population, which of course had been removed. Here in the empty cells, he was spotted, and along with two other men, he went down under a hail of fire. Manuel Polizzi was pulled, screaming in terror from a dog kennel where he had crawled for safety. Dragged outside of the prison, he was hanged from a lamppost on the corner of St. Anne and Treme Streets. As he kicked and struggled against the rope that was strangling him, the crowd fired their guns and riddled him with bullets. According to a report of the time: "...the power of the Winchester bullets jolting his body and making it wriggle like an angle worm on a hook."
Six men were cornered in a courtyard of the prison and shot down like mad dogs. One of the victims staggered to his feet, his clothes and body covered in blood. He was Pietro Monasterio, an itinerant cobbler who had lived in the wooden shack that had served as the lookout post for Hennessey's killers. Another shot rang out, and he collapsed dead over the other sprawled corpses.
As the slaughter came to an end, men in the crowd began to whistle long, trilling echoes of the signal used by Aspero Marchese that fateful night. And from the angry throats of the crowd echoed over and over again, "Who killa da chief. Who killa da chief."
The attack on the prison had lasted a little over an hour. Sixteen men were either killed on the spot or wounded so badly, they later died. Two of the victims were not even connected to the murder of Hennessey, but they were Sicilians, and that was all the justification the lynch mob had needed. When the crowd had satiated their lust for vengeance, Parkeson again addressed them, shouting out:
"Mob violence is the most terrible thing on earth... I called you together for a duty... you have performed that duty, now go to your homes. God bless you."
Three of the Italians in the prison escaped the mob. Ironically, one of them was Charles Matranga, one of the masterminds behind the murder of the police chief. He had spent that terrifying sixty minutes huddled under a pile of rubbish in a corner of one of the prison yards, praying for his life, with a crucifix pressed to his lips.
One local newspaper, The Item, viewed the whole affair with great satisfaction. In an editorial the next day it stated: "The military precision, skill and rapidity with which the prison was stormed and taken, the care exercised to do no harm except to the guilty parties, the wonderful forbearance of the angered populace, all are commended: while no complaint is uttered against the officials for their failure to interpose resistance to the avengers of outraged justice."
None of the vigilantes was ever brought to justice; the ringleaders, including Parkeson, in fact became local heroes. To the Italian government however, they were all murderers and Baron Forva, the Italian ambassador, and Marquis Rudini, the Italian foreign minister, lodged official protests at the White House. At one time it was rumoured that Italian warships were steaming towards America's shores and that a full-scale international incident would develop. Eventually, after demands for some form of retribution, President Benjamin Harrison went before Congress on December 19, 1891 to denounce the tragedy and later Secretary of State James G. Blaine authorized that compensation of $25,000 be paid to the relatives of the men murdered by the mob.
The massacre of the Mafiosi was not the first time a mass killing had occurred in New Orleans. On July 30th, 1866, hundreds of black and white activists gathered outside The Mechanic Institute. They were protesting for legislation that would ensure black suffrage as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The crowd was attacked by an organized mob, supported by the mayor and aided by the local police. The protestors were shot, stabbed and bludgeoned by the angry mob; forty people were killed and one hundred and forty were injured.
Richard "Rabbit" Brown, the famous black Louisiana songster, composed a ballad in honour of the murder of Hennessey. He called it The Downfall of the Lion. Although the song has long since vanished into obscurity, Lemon Nash, the famous blues guitarist recalled for posterity, one of the verses:
"I'm gonna tell you racketeers, something you can understand. Don't let your tongues say nothin' that you head can't stand."
The chief protagonists in the saga of 1890 obviously took great heed of the advice. The Provenzano brothers and their co-defendants were acquitted in their second trial for the attempted murder of Tony Matranga. Highly sensitive to the anti-Sicilian sentiment in New Orleans, they moved their operation to a suburban parish across the Mississippi River.
After interest in the attack on the Parish Prison died down, the local newspapers The Picayune and The Times-Democrat - boldly announced, "The Mafia exterminated," and "Never to raise its ugly head again." The newspapers were wrong on both counts. Charles Matranga had his charges dismissed and faded into the background to consolidate his power and rebuild his organization. Some of the $25,000 retribution money awarded by the US government was sent to the Italian consulate in New Orleans to be distributed to the families of some of those killed in the lynching. Most of this was then confiscated by Matranga and his men to help finance their business growth.
Biding their time, the family regrouped and by the end of the century had over one hundred members. They soon had re-established themselves and taken control over the docks and produce markets, and branched out into more traditional Sicilian Mafia activities such as kidnapping for ransom, extortion and intimidation. In addition, the gang generated revenues by controlling the trafficking of drugs, particularly marijuana or "hoota" as the Negro population knew it.
In the red light district of New Orleans called "Storyville," people were attracted not only to the exotic ladies of the night, but also by the strains and melodies of a new type of music called "jazz." This was played exclusively by black musicians, who regularly used marijuana to help them overcome the exhaustion of playing continuously for many hours. It also seemed to help make the music more unique and pure in tone, at least to the people playing and listening to it, while under the sensorial influence of the drug. Marijuana became a major currency in the trading lives of brothels, bars and clubs, and as a result, guaranteed great profits for those controlling its demand and supply.
And so for the next thirty-four years, the Louisiana Mafia flourished and prospered under the leadership of the man who almost brought it to the brink of destruction. By the time Carlos Marcello was touching base with it for the first time, it was as well established a part of life as gumbo, etoufee, crawfish, andouille and po' boy sandwiches, and Charles Matranga was calling it a day.