Recently I made a trip to the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. Now, normally I detest all things Mafia related but some things can’t be avoided forever (especially if it means research for a story). While sitting through the little intro movie that the museum presented the narrator proclaimed “But some wanted to take a shortcut to the American dream.”
It’s worth noting that at that moment my rational husband put a hand on my knee to keep me from hijacking the audience and giving my own history lesson on immigration in relation to the socio-economic factors that allowed crime families to take shape in the first place.
You see, Italy in the 19th century was what our current President would classify as a shithole country. Famine, devastating war, a corrupt government pushed Italians to emigrate in droves. Many of which came here, though they weren’t welcomed.
But like my Aunt Judy always told me: Dolly, there are two sides to every story and in between them is the truth.
However, while touring the Mob Museum it was evident that I was seeing only one side of the Mafia’s story.
Case in Point: The Death of Sheriff David Hennessy
On the morning of October 15, 1890, Sheriff Hennessy was gunned down in a suspected mob hit in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were so many Italians in the area that the French Quarter was nicknamed Little Sicily. On the sheriff’s deathbed, he whispered in his friend’s ear, “The dagoes did it” (Dago is a derogatory term for Italian)
Now, if you have ever watched an episode of Law and Order you’ll recognize this as circumstantial evidence. Not always viable in a court of law…but that didn’t matter to the people of New Orleans at the time.
When we look at the events leading up to and following the murder in 1890 we see a much different story…
There were two Italian Families competing in the fruit import business in Provenzanos and Matrangas. The competition got heated causing fights to break out between the two families and Sheriff Hennessy got caught in the middle.
After the Sheriff’s death, chaos ensued. Hundreds of Italians were rounded up but only 45 men were arrested and tried. However, after numerous mistrials and acquittals t, e charges were dropped.
Most of the men were released but 19 stayed the night in prison, with a scheduled release in the morning. Only, they didn’t make it to morning.
Several thousand people invaded the prison and pulled the men out of prison. 11 of the 19 men were killed in the lynching. It was and is the largest lynching in United States history.
The incident created huge shock waves. The American public, in fear of these new immigrants, called for tougher immigration laws. Newspapers swarmed with anti-Italian sentiment.
The Italian government was outraged and demanded justice. When that didn’t happen they pulled their ambassadors from the US. Diplomatic tensions were so strained that there were rumors of war.
President Theodore Roosevelt, then serving on the US Civil Service Commission wrote:
Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of Italians in New Orleans. Personally, I think it rather a good thing, and said so.
But the Mob Museum didn’t talk about any of that. They only showed the death of Hennessy at the hands of an alleged Mob hitman. I say allegedly because historians aren’t even convinced that it was a mob hit…but again, the museum didn’t talk about that.
History is not black and white. It’s messy and complicated. Of course, there were Italians involved in organized crime and there is no denying that some of the things that they did were awful but if we look at history through only one lens from only one perspective, we lose sight of all the things that make us what we are.
Those of us who love history love it because of the lessons it can teach us. A biased historical narrative teaches us to be biased in our present and future. And that is a stance that we can’t afford to take.