The Crescent City Lynchings: The Murder of Chief Hennessy, the New Orleans “Mafia” Trials, and the Parish Prison Mob
The record surrounding lynchings, race killings and mass crowd hysteria in American history has grown exponentially in the past ten years. Smith’s book, however, deals with an ethnically charged episode in New Orleans, which allows him to examine the attitudes and characters of the post-bellum CrescentCity.
One hallmark of the lynching narrative is the story a community tells itself after such an episode, which largely casts its citizens in a favorable light as having established ad-hoc justice to a momentary eruption of chaos. The truth beneath the surface is usually much more complicated.
There is plenty of local flavor to spare in this well-researched volume, which covers the events following the 1890 murder of Police Chief David Hennessy. When the bleeding Hennessy whispered vaguely that Italians were responsible for his death, it was largely blamed on the infiltration of the Mafia. Suitable suspects were rounded up for trial, but the defendants were acquitted. The “mob” that responded to this was not a foreign-born criminal conspiracy but a homegrown one. The end result comes through in this book, with the right mix of scholarship and storytelling.