Friday, December 1, 2017

David Hennessy -- Murdered By The Mafia 1890

When I think of the Old West, I don't think of the Mafia. I do think of lynchings though, and in all, 19 Italian immigrants were accused of the murder of the New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy.

After their acquittal, 11 of them were either shot or hanged or both in what is believed to be the largest mass lynching in American history.

He was born sometime in 1858 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was only 31 or 32 when he was murdered on October 16th, 1890, right there in New Orleans.

In 1870, David Hennessy joined the New Orleans Police Department working as a messenger. It's said that he was a tough kid. In fact, it's said that he caught two thieves red handed in the act when he was only a teenager. That story goes that he actually beat up both of the men just using his bare hands.

The rest of the story goes that he then dragged both of them to the police station. The police department was said to be so impressed that they put him on as a beat cop at the time. If true, and he stayed as tough, then it's no wonder that he actually made it to the rank of Police Detective at the young age of 20.
In fact, as a young detective, he made headlines in 1881 when he captured a notorious criminal by the name of Giuseppe Esposito.

Esposito was an Italian immigrant who was a member or the Mafia in Italy and New Orleans. The story on that goes that with his cousin Michael Hennessy, who was also a New Orleans police officer, David arrested the infamous Italian criminal and head of an Italian crime family in 1881.

Among other crimes, Esposito was actually wanted in Italy for kidnapping a British tourist there. During that kidnapping, Esposito is said to have cut off his victim's ear. Because of Detective Hennessy, Esposito was deported back to Italy. He and other Mafia members were tried in an Italian court and given life sentences.

Detective David Hennessy was said to be a squeaky clean individual who was very well respected in his community. And while everyone agrees that was the case, there's no telling what sort of friction took place between him and his immediate supervisor Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux.

It is believed that Devereaux turned a blind eye to some of the dealings of two local Italian crime families. Yes, believe it or not, the Mafia in 1880s New Orleans.

As for the Mafia in New Orleans at the time, there were two Mafioso criminal organizations there trying to control New Orleans during the 1880s. In fact there was actually an ongoing feud between those two Mafia crime "families". The Mantranga and Provenzano crime families were rivals. They fought to control gambling, prostitution, on the New Orleans waterfront.

Devereaux was said to have been well connected politically with close ties to the local Democrat Party. He is said to also have had close friends who worked for the Matranga crime family. Because police officer Michael Hennessy was said to be looking into the nefarious activities of the Matranga family, Devereaux charged him with conduct unbecoming a police officer when he turned up supposedly drunk at Kate Townsend's Saloon. Devereaux is said to have tried to get Michael Hennessy fired from the department. This was an effort to end his investigation of his friends. But frankly, that didn't work out too well for Devereaux.

Chief of Detectives Thomas Devereaux and Detective David Hennessy became rival candidates for the position of Police Chief in New Orleans in 1881. The election was a bad one with a lot of name calling and accusations. At one point a gunfight broke out between the two men. Devereaux wound up dead on the floor of a brokerage house. Word circulated that he was shot at point-blank range in the head by Hennessy, but that was only a rumor.

In 1882, Detective David Hennessy was actually tried for the killing of Thomas Devereaux. Hennessy said that it was a case of self-defense. A jury looked at the evidence and agreed with him. They found him not guilty. Though that was the case, David Hennessy left the police department right after that.

After leaving the department, he joined a private security company. In those days private security companies had a great deal of leeway in dealing with criminal types. In fact the security company which David Hennessy was a part of had police powers by way of the City of New Orleans. And during his time with that agency, he was actually responsible for organizing and maintaining the security of the New Orleans World Fair which took place in 1884 and 1885.

It should be noted that The New York Times wrote about how Hennessy's security team was "neatly uniformed and are a fine-looking and intelligent body of men, far superior to the regular city force." This did not go unnoticed by the New Orleans city government and people with political power.

In fact, a couple of years later in 1888, Joseph A. Shakspeare became the newly elected Mayor of New Orleans. One of his campaign promises was to stop the graft and corruption within the New Orleans Police Department, and to end their inefficiency and incompetence. To accomplish that, newly elected Mayor Shakspeare immediately appointed David Hennessy as the city's new Police Chief.

It is said that Police Chief Hennessy arrived to inherit a police force that was seen as inept, incompetent, and plagued by graft and corruption. As for the city of New Orleans, he became the Chief of Police in a city ripe with organized crime.

His legacy is that of a Police Chief who started to modernize his department, to had started to make a number of improvements in the ways of accountability and code of conduct, to end the corruption that had festered within the department, and to instill a sense of public confidence in his department. As for fighting organized crime, Hennessy had put several of the Provenzanos crime family in prison while taking on the Mantrangas. Some say this is why he was murdered.

On the night of October 15th, 1890, Chief Hennessy was ambushed and shot by two or more assassins. Knowing that the Chief walked home from work, his killers waited for him and opened fire with shotguns as the Chief walked by.

He was less than a block from the house that he is said to have shared with his widowed mother when a number of shotgun blasts ripped into him from across Girod Street. The blasts are said to have knocked him to the ground. And it was then when he was on the ground that two other men with high-caliber rifles ran over to him and shot him twice each. 

Believe it or not, Chief Hennessy struggled for his pistol and returned fire on the two men with rifles. He then stood up and returned fire again with his bulldog revolver as his killers fled. It is also said that he tried to go after them when he finally collapsed to the ground around the corner from where he was first ambushed. When his fellow officers finally reached him, Chief Hennessy reportedly said he had been shot by "Dagoes."

He was taken to a local hospital and some say he was awake for hours. Others say he was in and out of consciousness. He is reported to have spoke with friends and his own investigators. While not being able to name his killers, the story goes that when his close friend and fellow officer Police Captain William O'Connor asked who had tried to kill him, Chief Hennessy supposedly replied, "Dagoes!"

If you're reading this and it sounds very familiar, remember that assassins in the Old West usually did their dirty work from ambush. Of course, reading this sounds very similar to what took place in Tombstone Arizona in December of 1881 and what happened to Tombstone City Marshal Virgil Earp when he was going home one late night after making his rounds.

After the shootout in the lot near at the OK Corral, all of the Earps moved into the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Some say this was done for mutual support. Others believe the the Earps didn't trust anyone other than their own family to protect them from retaliation. They knew vengeance over the killings of Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury, was in the cards.

But while knowing that is fine, Virgil also knew that he couldn't stay holed up in a hotel forever. Being the truly seasoned lawman of the Earp family, Virgil knew his duties couldn't be put off until times were "safer." That is if or when that would ever be. 

At about 11:30 pm on December 28th, 1881, it is believed that at least three men hid out in the darkness of an empty building that was under construction. That building was on Allen Street right across from the hotel where the Earps were staying. 

After making his rounds, Virgil stopped at the Oriental Saloon. As he walked to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, City Marshal Virgil Earp was hit in the back and left arm by at least three loads of buckshot from about 60 feet away. A few men in the Crystal Palace Saloon playing faro were almost hit with stay shot. One stated later that he head "four shots in quick succession." 

Virgil's arm was shattered and he was shot in the back, but he was still able to make it into the Cosmopolitan Hotel before collapsing. It's said Dr. George E. Goodfellow removed 4 inches of Virgil's shattered left arm and over twenty buckshot from his side. Incredibly, Virgil Earp, though left permanently crippled, would live and even return to take on other jobs as a lawman. 

New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was a real fighter. Some say he was as tough as they came back in the day. Because of the huge loss of blood, the fact that he had been shot multiple times both with shotguns and high powered rifles, it was a small miracle that he lived as long as he did after he was attacked. After hours of agony and complications, David Hennessy died of his wounds on October 16th, 1890.

Police Chief David Hennessy was a very popular man in New Orleans. Because of that, there was a great deal of pressure on the New Orleans Police Department to catch his killers. In return, the police arresting dozens of known criminals with connections to Italian criminal families.

Over six months of investigations go by until 19 men were arrested for the murder of Chief Hennessy. Because the killing of a lawman was seen as being as heinous as could be, the accused were held without bail. By March of 1891, nine of the accused men who were tried were acquitted or were declared mistrials.

Unlike what took place in Tombstone, New Orleans residents organized and formed a vigilante group the size and scope of a small army. In fact, their anger came to a head on March 14th, 1891, when thousands of vigilantes gathered outside the prison.

Once there, they demanded that the killers be handed over and the prison officials declined. It was then that the citizens forced their way into the prison looking for those accused of murdering Chief Hennessy. It was then that those angry citizens found 11 of the 19 Italian men who were accused of murdering their beloved Police Chief.

For the next little while, no one spoke of the legal technicalities that prompted their acquittals or what led to the mistrials, There was only a seething emotion of desire to rid New Orleans of the killers of a man who they saw as someone only doing his duty.

David Hennessy was from there. He was one of their own. He was a friend and a neighbor. He was a protector who was trying to clean up things and make their city a better place. Those citizens saw their job as being no different than that of a surgeon cutting out a cancer growth, and this pushed them. Believing the jury had been bribed or coerced, the citizens hanged all 11 of the men accused of Chief Hennessy's murder. That mass lynching is considered the largest known mass lynching in American History.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is that there was all sorts of press coverage of the trial and what took place afterwards. The assassination was connected to the Mafia, the Italian criminal element. The trials and then the mass lynching was sensationalized and actually stoked the anti-Italian sentiment in New Orleans at the time.

I read where one writer about this said that those reporting what took place would not meet modern journalistic standards, but I think they certainly would as sensationalism is widespread these days. Yes, to the point where Americans today have less trust in the press than ever before.

While the murder, the brutal assassination, of Chief Hennessy is said to have led to a sensational trial that made national headlines. Part of the sensationalism came directly as a result of the acquittals and mistrials. No one believed such a thing would take place after the evidence was presented. The idea that the justice system was corrupt angered the citizenry.

Their anger also made headlines. After all, it's not everyday in America, even back then, when thousands of residents turn into vigilantes to do what the courts didn't do. Those vigilantes were not going to let acquittals and mistrials cheat them out of seeing justice being had.

At the time, it was believed that those lynched were indeed men who worked for the Mafia as killers. Subsequently, citizens believed that those assassins deserved their fate.

It is interesting to note that New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy is today credited with "being the first law enforcement professional to identify the Mafia in America and attack it with some degree of success." Some believe that, "He must be viewed as law enforcement's first martyr in the fight against organized crime."

And imagine, that was in New Orleans in 1890. The year 1890 is not exactly a year when most think of the Mafia being in American cities. Yes, especially in cities West of New York City. It's certainly not a year that most think of as a time when the Mafia already had a foothold in America.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. I think this information is really interesting and i appreciate that Tom Correa posted this for us to read. Thank you Sir and i hope to see more of this type of information.


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