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Chapter 29

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of New Orleans

by
John Kendall

published by The Lewis Publishing Company,
Chicago and New York, 1922

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 31

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p468 Chapter XXX
The Y. M. D. A.

The election of 1888 was one of the most important ever held in New Orleans. Ever since the return of the democrats to power there had been in existence a state ring. Its first efforts had been to abbreviate Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Nicholls' term of office. Thereafter its labors had been chiefly directed to bring about the exclusion from power of the better element in the party. To that end it had co‑operated with the professional politicians in New Orleans whenever the need of their support was felt. Out of this alliance had arisen a city ring, leaning upon the state ring for support. Thus almost every political movement in state or city had ramifications that extended into unexpected places and occasioned the most unexpected results. After the defeat of General Ogden's candidacy for the gubernatorial nomination, in 1884, the ward leaders in New Orleans had come together and made common cause against the reform movement headed by Behan, with the result that the citizens' ticket was defeated, as we have seen, by "gross irregularities and criminal violation of the law."1 Four years later, when the contest over the state nominations came to an end with the second election of General Nicholls, city politics were in a state of chaos. Naturally the supporters of General Nicholls felt that they were under some obligation to the men in New Orleans who had exerted their influence to insure the success of their candidate. But these men were members of the city ring, and it was generally understood that their support of Nicholls had as ulterior object the election of their own ticket, on the assumption that Nicholls' name would be powerful enough to carry through any ticket which it headed, municipal as well as state. For this reason Nicholls' lieutenants, feeling that the material interests of the city were paramount, in spite of any sentiments of gratitude in the premises, were reluctant to commit themselves to the support of any candidate or policy which appeared to threaten the prosperity of New Orleans.

In this situation the younger element in the local democracy organized itself into what is known in history as the Young Men's Democratic League, with W. S. Parkerson as president and John M. Parker as secretary. It refrained from participating in the primaries of 1888, contenting itself with waiting to see what the regulars would do. The primaries were held on March 22 and "passed off quietly," according to the Picayune, which, nevertheless, in the same issue, chronicled numerous instances of what it termed "pugilistic encounters" and worse. In the Tenth Ward "some of the voters were driven away from the polls through fear of being injured if they voted the wrong ticket; others left with black eyes and bloody noses"; while at 4 P.M. a pistol shot in front of the polling place caused a stampede, "but no one was injured." Shooting scrapes also occurred at the corner of Magazine and St. Andrew streets, where a dozen men were involved, and also in the Eleventh Ward. "In both of these wards the toughs made themselves felt and were not backward in showing their weapons and brandishing them in the air." p469In many other wards fist fights took place, "but nothing of a serious nature" was discovered by the serious-minded reporter who investigated the matter.2 These incidents were as harbingers of what might be anticipated on election day.

The democratic nominating convention met in Odd Fellows' Hall on March 24 and was called to order by its youthful chairman, B. C. Shields. "The various factions of the party seemed to get along in harmony," was the Picayune's description on the following morning. The delegates were very evenly divided between the Nicholls and the McEnery factions, and the nominations for the general parish offices were arranged on that basis, but insofar as the city officials were concerned it was soon apparent that the city "ring" controlled the delegates and would pay no attention to any opposition. The convention therefore named R. C. Davey for mayor, G. W. Flynn for comptroller, Herman Meister for city treasurer, Peter Farrell for commissioner of public works and C. Taylor Gauche for commissioner of police and public buildings. Davey was one of the "Big Four," the little group of individuals who were reputed to control absolutely the regular democratic organization. The other three were John Fitzpatrick, Patrick Meallie and Tom Duffy. Davey was from the Second Ward. At the time he was nominated for mayor he was serving as recorder of the First District. He was not a lawyer by education, but was a shrewd, experienced man and with a remarkable talent for making and keeping friends and a large fund of sound common sense — which is, after all, the real essence of law — had been able to fill his judicial role acceptably.

The Picayune, which assumed an attitude of more or less independence, commended the major nominations. But when it considered the councilmanic nominations, put forth by the convention, it expressed strong disapproval. "They are not calculated to afford any guarantees that the cause of good government in this city will be promoted by their election," it observed, editorially, on the following day. These nominations were made by the wards individually, and the councilmen were chosen each in his own bailiwick, but it was inevitable that the city at large should estimate the character of the ticket from a scrutiny of these purely local candidates. The dissatisfaction of this one influential newspaper only faintly reflected the opinion of the mass of the people.

The feeling of indignation which greeted the ring nominations found vent at a great mass meeting called by the Young Men's Democratic League at Washington Artillery Hall on March 28. Parkerson presided and stirring speeches were made denouncing the ticket. "Whereas," ran the resolutions adopted at the close of this meeting, "the administration of New Orleans has fallen into the hands of men who have used their power to serve their personal and selfish ends, in total disregard of the financial and labor interests of the community [. . .] and put out a ticket which is an insult to the intelligence of this community and a menace to its progress and prosperity," action must necessarily be taken to avert the impending calamity.3 A complete city ticket was thereupon presented to the excited throng in attendance and ratified amidst scenes of wild enthusiasm.

At the head of the ticket was the respected name of ex‑Mayor J. A. Shakespeare. Since leaving the mayoralty four years before he had p470figured in public life only as a member of the Board of Health and of the Shakespeare Almshouse Board and of the Board of Commissioners of the Charity Hospital. For comptroller Otto Thoman was named. Mr. Thoman was a prominent citizen of German descent, who had attracted attention in the Behan administration as a member of the council and as chairman of its Budget Committee. Thomas Agnew, who was nominated for one of the commissionerships, was president of the Screwman's Association and of the Trades Assembly and stood well with the laboring classes. James N. Harry was nominated for city treasurer. He had held this position in the preceding administration and given general satisfaction. The honored name of Gen. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.P. G. T. Beauregard, illustrious in the Civil war, and always a talisman in city affairs, lent strength to the ticket.

The other nominations for the more important position were equally good, but the Picayune criticised the names put up for the council. In a long editorial that paper gave as its verdict that there was small chance of the Young Men's Democratic Association's success. "A general fight against the whole ticket" named by the regulars "can accomplish little," wrote the sapient editor. "There are good men on the regular ticket whom no combination can possibly defeat. The ticket, as a whole, we believe to be stronger than any which can possibly be put up against it."4 Opposition to the Young Men's Democratic Association, however, was based upon something deeper than mere individual preferences. There was a feeling that the democracy was engaged in a state-wide contest for supremacy, and that to insure the re-election of Nicholls and the permanent discomfiture of the opposite party, it was necessary for him to have a majority of many thousands in the city. The republican party was alive in the country districts and it was feared by many cautious voters, like the Picayune's editor, that any division in the ranks of the democracy would furnish an opportunity for its effective revival in the city. This was not the case, as the event demonstrated.

The campaign committee of the Young Men's Democratic Association was composed of Ashton Phelps, J. M. Parker, H. Dickson Bruns, E. T. Manning, J. H. Lafaye, T. G. Hardie, W. R. Lyman, and other equally well-known citizens. The statement of principles which they drew up is interesting as affording, inferentially, a picture of the conditions in the city against which the association was battling. The platform declared for clean streets, good pavements, and "the best of levee and drainage facilities, to save the city from the overflows which made lakes of lands in the rear of the city, and brought desolation to the residents of those sections." This was in allusion to the overflow caused by the high-water in the Mississippi River in February, 1888. It pledged itself "to strike from the payrolls political deadheads, and to give employment to those who can and are willing to work [. . .] to have the police force purged and remodeled and so fairly paid that proper men may be induced to serve." It advocated good schools and competent teachers, the honest collection of taxes — "collected closely but fairly and without oppression." It promised that the public funds should be so appropriated that the city warrants would rise to par. It insisted that the taxes should be used to give protection to life and property, in a city "where real estate shall be worth owning, and where for every store there shall be a p471satisfied tenant or a contented landlord, and where for twelve months in the year those seeking employment may find it at remunerative wages or salaries. [. . .] Vice and corruption should be suppressed and all legitimate enterprises fostered and encouraged [. . .] the polls so guarded that good citizens shall be afforded every opportunity to cast their votes, and [. . .] they will be protected from any indignity or molestation while doing so." Finally, the platform promised that the association would be represented in every polling-place by commissioners who would be men of known integrity and would give them all protection in the discharge of their duties. In this document, no doubt, some allowance must be made for the exaggeration inevitable to a heated political campaign, but even with this reservation, it affords a startling picture of the community, where these things — for the most part the primitive possessions of a republican society — were so far lacking as to be the subject of itemized demand by a new political party.

The insistence of the Picayune on the necessity of revision led the leaders of the Regular Democracy to attempt in April to make such alterations in the ticket as would make it acceptable to this influential paper. Several of the councilmanic nominees withdrew, and by April the Picayune was able to announce that eight "good men and true" had been found to take their places. But the ticket was still unsuitable. Subsequent efforts to modify it seem to have been unavailing.

On April 15 the republican state and parish convention met and endorsed the Young Men's Democratic Association ticket. This action was, however, only taken under pressure. Warmoth, who was nominated for governor, announced that unless the endorsement was forthcoming, he would withdraw his name. However, the republicans ran true to form in other respects, nominating state senators and members of the Legislature in each of the city districts. Thus was injected a third element into a political situation already sufficiently complex. The convention was exceedingly unruly; it only completed its work after an extra force of police had been sent to the meeting-place on a riot call.

Early in April Mayor Guillotte announced himself an adherent of the Young Men's Democratic Association, and, in fact, did yeoman's work for the ticket during the remainder of the campaign. On the 15th an effort was made to get the regulars and the young men's association to agree not to send bodies of armed men to the polls on election day, and that both would assist in procuring the arrest of all persons carrying weapons that day. The negotiations failed. The association recognized the proposals for what they were — traps; and would agree to no arrangement except to post their forces not nearer than one block from the polls.5 This failure was equivalent to a declaration of war. It meant that the Young Men's Democratic Association was arming, and preparing to see that the election was fairly conducted, if need be at the point of the bayonet.

The election took place on April 18. "New Orleans is to be congratulated upon the fact that the election was attended by scarcely any violence or serious disturbance of the peace," commented the Picayune on the next day. The Nicholls state ticket carried the city by large majorities, and as one of the newspapers said, jubilantly, "the old state ring is smashed." As far as the city ticket was concerned, the Young Men's p472Democratic Association candidates were successful everywhere by a heavy vote. Shakespeare received 23,288 votes, as against Davey with 15,645. Thoman ran ahead of the ticket. He received 25,715 votes as against Flynn, with 12,205. Beauregard received 23,039 votes, and his opponent, Farrell, 15,570. In fact, the only majorities scored by the ring were in the Second and Eighth wards. Every attempt was made to intimidate voters. "The almost countless questionable devices and election legerdemain," said the Times-Democrat, in its account of the election, "so familiar and so often practiced by the ring, were utterly and woefully futile on Tuesday last. In the First and some other wards, certain notorious hoodlums were reported as lurking around the vicinity of the polling precincts, armed and anxious for an affray."6 They did not, however, venture to provoke trouble, in view of the fact that armed squads of Young Men's Democratic Association men were posted not far away. From time to time during the day detachments of men were dispatched from the Young Men's Democratic Association headquarters at the Continental Guards armory, to help bring in the ballot-boxes from the various precincts where the henchmen of the ring might otherwise have caused trouble. In the Twelfth Ward, for example, a man who had been indicted a few years before for ballot-box stuffing, made himself conspicuous by kicking the box out of the carriage in which he and it were being conveyed to the City Hall. In several instances ring officials neglected to sign the returns, hoping in this way to complicate the count; and, in others, they absented themselves from the polls towards the end of the day, carrying off the keys, with the same reprehensible object. A ring leader, who was a candidate for an important position, had an organized shot-gun brigade stationed at a short distance from one of the polls, but the presence of thirty-six well-drilled Y. M. D. A. men, under John M. Parker, prevented him from using it to interfere with the voters. In only one case was a citizen actually attacked, and that was in the Second Ward, where T. S. Nobles was set upon and badly beaten when he presented himself at the booth to cast his vote. Nobles was subsequently lionized by the victorious party. As a victim of ring mispractices, he was made the recipient of a handsome testimonial from the Produce Exchange, in recognition of his services and sufferings on this memorable day.

The ballot boxes were brought in from many points under protection of the Y. M. D. A. forces, armed with rifles, and preceded by bands of music. The boxes from the Second Ward were thus escorted by forty men carrying Winchesters. They were delivered at the Criminal Court, where another division of the citizen army awaited in the clerk's office, to see that they were not tampered with there. It was understood that armed representatives of the Young Men's Democratic Association would remain on hand until the last ballot had been tallied and the totals promulgated. The resolute demeanor of the citizens effectually cowed the ring emissaries, and the result was really never in doubt. Even the reluctant Picayune, on the next day, "saluting the Y. M. D. A.'s triumph," said that the association had "vastly improved upon the present city government. [. . .] The regulars have only themselves to thank for defeat. If they had not embarrassed their friends by making absolutely unsupportable nominations, they might have been more fortunate. The p473good men they did nominate were crushed under the weight of their bad nominations."7

The new administration was inducted into office on April 26. The members of the just-elected government assembled at the Denegre Building on Carondelet Street, and in a solid column, headed by Mayor Shakespeare, marched to the City Hall. They were warmly cheered along the route, especially in front of the exchanges, the members of which had been especially in promoting what, in effect, was a revolution. A great crowd followed in their wake, and swarmed into the City Hall. The new officials were welcomed by Mayor Guillotte, and with the briefest and simplest of ceremonies, in the council chamber, were installed in office. Shakespeare had no message ready, and his inaugural address was very short, consisting only of a few words pointing out that the administration took office with no pledges or trammels of any sort.

The four years over which Shakespeare's second term extended were important years in New Orleans. The chief achievements of the administration were: the purchase of a site and the adoption of plans for a new criminal court house and jail, the new drainage act, the organization of the Orleans Levee Board, the establishment of the paid fire department, the re-organization of the police force, and the reduction of the tax rate. The first business which it had to perform was, however, to bring some kind of order into the sadly tangled finances. This was done by immediately curtailing the expenditures on behalf of schools, charities, police, and public improvements. Four months later the budget was revised downward. Mayor Shakespeare was doubtful of the expediency of this course, fearing the confusion which it might cause; but at the end of the fiscal year, its wisdom was abundantly evident, when all accounts were paid, excepting a few connected with the payrolls of the previous administration, regarding the legality of which there was some question. Money to cover these claims was, nevertheless, lodged in the banks to satisfy them in case they were affirmed by the courts, into which the matter was taken in a series of suits, in part instituted by the claimants, in part by the municipality. At the same time the mayor was authorized to borrow money from the local banks to meet the city's obligations in the months of April, May and June. Earlier in the year the city was able to count upon a revenue from the license collections, and later, when the taxes upon real estate and personal property came in; but in the interval there were not sufficient funds to defray the ordinary expenses of government. The small rate of interest paid on this loan, which ran for a period of only ninety days, was afterwards offset by the interest collected on delinquent taxes. In this way the city was put at once upon a cash basis. In March, 1890, the comptroller, Mr. Thoman, was able to announce that during the previous year the city not only had paid all of its obligations, but had a surplus of $30,000, in spite of the exceptional expenses incurred as a result of a destructive storm which visited the city in August, 1888. The financial operations connected with the maturing and refunding of the city's six per cent bonds were attended to by the Board of Liquidation, and form one of the most brilliant episodes in the history of municipal finance. The tax-rate was reduced to 2.02 per cent on an assessment of $129,638,500.8

p474 The plans for the new court house and jail were drawn by M. A. Orlopp. A site was purchased on Tulane Avenue, and an appropriation of $350,000 was made, but the work was not really begun until later, during the following administration, which saw it carried to a successful conclusion.

In May, 1888, largely through the exertions of Councilman Brittin, chairman of the budget committee, an act was submitted to the State Legislature to levy a small tax specifically for drainage purposes. This act was drawn up by Messrs. Fenner, Howe, and Morgan, representing the best legal talent in the city, and Maj. B. M. Harrod, one of its ablest engineers. For their important services on this occasion none of these consented to receive a fee. This act passed the state senate, but failed in the house. In 1890 an unusually high stage of water in the Mississippi River caused extensive crevasses in various parts of the state and much alarm in New Orleans. This sentiment verged on panic when, one night, a strong wind backed the water up against the temporary embankments of sacked earth which had been hastily erected along the river-front, and drove the water over into Canal and other important streets in the center of the business quarter, until it reached a depth of over eighteen inches and invaded some of the largest shops in the retail district. At this appropriate moment the act was revived. Judge Howe visited Baton Rouge and was instrumental in procuring also the passage of a bill levying a tax of two mills expressly for the purpose of drainage. With the proceeds of this tax the Melpomene Canal was culverted from Camp Street as far as Claiborne and other outfalls were deepened or reopened.

The organization of the Orleans Levee Board, which took place about the same time, and was largely the result of the unprecedentedly high water in the Mississippi in 1890, had important beneficial effects upon the city. The act under which it was instituted, in general terms, divided the state into levee districts and erected a levee board in each. Previously the levees had been in the care of the state engineers exclusively; but with the growth of the levee system it became impossible for their small staff to handle all of the work, and the boards were created to meet the obvious need. Each board maintained its own corps of engineers, but also relied upon the state engineers for technical advice. The Legislature authorized the governor to appoint the members; and Felix J. Dreyfous was made president of the Orleans board. Mr. Dreyfous was an attorney of high standing, a man of fine character, unflinching integrity, and great ability. Under his direction the board set to work at once to extend and strengthen the levees around the city.

The establishment of the paid fire-department likewise marked the beginning of a new era in New Orleans. Hitherto, the business of fire protection had been handled by volunteers. The city had for many years had a contract annually renewed with the Firemen's Charitable Association, by which that organization undertook this important business, at a cost to the city of $125,000. The association in its turn contracted with a large number — some thirty — of separate volunteer societies, which did the actual work. These societies received proportionate parts of the city payment; if they owned a steam engine, for instance, they received $4,000, and less was paid where inferior equipment was employed. The money went to buy apparatus, keep up the engine house, and pay the salaries of the engineer, stoker and two drivers — this in the p475case of a fully organized steam company. The remainder of the personnel served without compensation. There was never any question of the efficiency of the men, who took great pride in their companies. The leading citizens belonged and usually participated actively in the work of fighting fires. There are frequent instances of substantial citizens killed or injured while heroically discharging their duty as firemen. The other principal revenue of these organizations was derived from dues and fines. But the city was growing large; it was felt that this system was inadequate; the insurance agencies favored a paid organization, and a still stronger argument against the old system was that the firemen had got into politics, and their companies were strongholds of ring influence.9

On March 22, 1889, Councilman Clark introduced in the council an ordinance providing that the Fireman's Charitable Association should be paid as usual for the month of February. The amount involved was somewhat less than $14,000. Mayor Shakespeare vetoed the ordinance on the grounds that the association had not complied with its contract with the city, in that it had not maintained an adequate installation at various points, especially at Milneburg. Although relatively a small matter, Shakespeare contended that the city's money should not be paid out under any circumstances without the corporation obtaining an adequate return. The local papers generally supported the mayor's position, but pointed out that the firemen deserved well of the city, having done valiant service in many critical situations, in spite of inadequate water supply and often impassable streets. The city, however, sued the association for $142,745, alleging failure to comply with contractual obligations, entailing the payment by the municipality of that sum without a corresponding service having been rendered. It was specially asserted that the association was under agreement to maintain 124 men on its rolls, whereas it had never had more than seventy.

These events influenced very largely the decision to suppress the volunteer department. On July 23, 1891, the ordinance authorizing the change to the paid system was adopted. A board of fire commissioners was organized in October under an act passed by the State Legislature. The mayor appointed the first commissioners, with J. H. DeGrange as president and A. A. Rowley as secretary. He himself was a member of the board under the law. The process of acquiring the equipment of the volunteer companies was slow and complicated, but an agreement was reached on October 19 of that year, and on December 15 the transfer was completed. The city paid $118,160 for the material taken over by the city, and the sum of $247,000 was appropriated to meet the expenses of the new system during the ensuing year.10 There remained a good deal of detail to be settled before the acquisition of the apparatus was completed; this carried over into the next administration.

Mayor Shakespeare was a man of fine intelligence and splendid constructive ideas. He gave the city the best administration it had enjoyed in a generation. He accomplished much, and would have accomplished much more, but for the opposition of the council, where a coalition was formed towards the end of his administration which systematically and persistently overrode his veto on many of the most important matters of reform advocated by him. The effect was to discredit the administration p476with many persons, although not the mayor, whose sterling honesty and genuine enthusiasm for reform were never under suspicion. Unquestionably, the revulsion in public opinion which resulted from the action of the council helped materially in bringing about the election of the regular ticket in 1892.

Shakespeare, like most men of strong character, was somewhat set in his ideas. He was also prone to insist upon his prerogative as mayor. These qualities sometimes influenced unfavorably his relations with other departments of the city government; as, for example, in his relations with the Police Board. Towards the close of the Guillotte administration the State Legislature passed an act creating a Police Board, and thus relieving the mayor of the extensive powers which he had hitherto enjoyed as head of the force. Mayor Shakespeare disapproved of this arrangement, being, as he himself said, opposed to boards on principle. He contested the constitutionality of the act, but the courts decided against him, on the ground that the state, being the power from which the basic law of the city emanated, had the right to change it at pleasure. The act, however, left the mayor ex‑officio a member and presiding officer of the board. A board was appointed by the governor of the state, with J. C. Denis as vice-president and Messrs. Demourelle, Drolla and Borne among the other members. There was, otherwise, practically no change in the force.

The situation did not cause the best of feeling between the mayor and the commissioners; and when in June, 1889, during the absence of the mayor, Vice-President Denis called a meeting of the board at Mr. Drolla's office, the former strenuously objected, alleging that he only was invested with the privilege of issuing such calls. At the next meeting he protested against the adoption of the minutes of this anterior convocation, and on his refusal to put a motion to approve them, Mr. Denis did so, and the record was approved. The matter was then taken into the city council, where Councilman Clark introduced an ordinance charging the board with usurpation of the mayor's prerogative, and this charge being sustained, the commissioners were removed and a new board appointed. The unseated commissioners appealed to the courts, and in the following January were re-seated. The squabble, which led to nothing, is interesting chiefly for the light which it sheds upon one trait in the mayor's character, reacted unfavorably upon the discipline of the force.

In spite of the difficulties over the finances inherited by this administration from the preceding regime, considerable public work was begun and finished between 1888 and 1892. Much paving was done, chiefly with gravel and chert, asphalt being then little known. Coliseum was the first street paved with gravel; Foucher followed, and a number of other important up-town thoroughfares were also paved, which previously had been mere dirt roads. Many of the paving contracts were handled by Maurice J. Hart, an enterprising citizen, whose activities extended over into the following administration, who was also interested in the local street-car companies, and whose initiative was responsible for the building of the Coliseum street-car line, and for the first experiments ever made in New Orleans with electricity as a motor agent for street cars. Electricity, however, was not regularly introduced till 1894, when it was adopted by the St. Charles street car line. The electric light was another improvement which made its appearance in New Orleans in Shakespear's p477time. The first lights were located on Magazine and Dryades streets; in the area bounded by Canal, Rampart, Poydras, and Canal;º and along Royal Street, three to the square, between Customhouse and Bienville streets, the latter installed through the efforts of private parties, who personally solicited subscriptions for this purpose. By November, 1888, it was proudly boasted that there were in the city twenty-five miles of direct wires, and twelve machines at a central plant for the production of current. Early in 1892 the council decided that the new lighting should be used generally throughout the city, and directed the comptroller to advertise for bids for a ten-year contract for that purpose. Mayor Shakespeare vetoed the ordinance, but it was passed over his veto in February. A bid from a responsible company was accepted by the council, but the ordinance on this subject was vetoed, and on April 12, just before the administration went out of office, it was passed in spite of Shakespeare's disapproval.

During Shakespeare's administration Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy, died and was given a magnificent public funeral. Mr. Davis passed away on the night of December 6, 1889, in the mansion at the corner of First and Camp streets. The body lay in state at the City Hall, where thousands of people filed past the coffin to look their last upon the man who had presided over the destinies of the Confederacy during the whole of its brief existence. The body was subsequently interred in Metairie cemetery, and a few years later transferred to Richmond, Virginia, where it now lies.

The higher life of the community manifested itself during these eventful years in various important ways. The Howard Library, given to the city by Mrs. Annie Howard Parrott, in memory of her father, Charles T. Howard, was opened on March 4, 1889. William Beer was made the librarian and set himself with remarkable industry and great skill to build up a first-class institution; an endeavor which, after years of earnest and self-sacrificing labor, was brilliantly successful. The Louisiana Historical Society was organized in March, 1889, to collect and preserve relics of the Southern Confederacy. In January, 1891, this organization occupied an annex to the Howard Library, erected for its use through the liberality of members of the Howard family. Through the generosity of Mrs. J. H. Harris, a beautiful chapel was erected beside Christ Church, on St. Charles Avenue; and in July, 1890, the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College for young women, the foundation of another generous woman, Mrs. J. L. Newcomb, opened the doors of a magnificent building bought for its use on Washington Avenue.

The most sensational episode during the Shakespeare administration was the assassination of the chief of police, D. C. Hennessy, the arrest and trial of a number of Italians charged with the crime, and the execution of eleven Mafiosi at the hands of a mob.

On the night of October 15, 1890, the Police Board held its regular weekly meeting. As customary, the chief of police was present. A few minutes before the board adjourned, he withdrew, went to his office, and about 11 o'clock started home. He was accompanied by a friend, Captain O'Connor, of the Boylan Agency, as far as the corner of Rampart and Girod. Thence Hennessy started home, walking at a rapid pace towards Basin. As he hurried on, a boy ran by, whistled, and disappeared. Almost instantly thereafter, from a building near the corner of Girod and Basin streets, and from the shed in front thereof, a volley of slugs p478and buckshot was discharged at the solitary man. Hennessy received six wounds, four of them unimportant, one serious, and the last mortal. Bleeding, wounded to death, he yet managed to keep his feet, and drawing his revolver returned the fire. One of the murderers, bolder than the rest, jumped into the brightly-lighted street, and fired, and ran. Hennessy endeavored to reach the corner. He was followed by his assailants along the opposite sidewalk, firing as they advanced with sawed-off shot-guns, the favorite weapon of the Mafia. The sound of shooting brought a Boylan officer to the scene, but before he could render any assistance, he was shot through the ear, compelled to fly in order to save his own life.

Hennessy made his way to the residence of Mrs. Henry Gillis, on Basin Street, where he was found by the ambulance surgeons, and whence he was brought to Charity Hospital. Three men, who, so far as known, were the actual murderers, were seen to leave the spot, hurrying down Girod to Franklin, where they were lost in the darkness. The neighborhood where the crime was committed was densely populated, but the street was apparently deserted at this particular moment. However, the fusilade drew several persons to the scene, who were later able to identify the assassins with entire accuracy.

Hennessy was a native of New Orleans. His father had served in the Union army during the Civil war, and afterwards was a member of the city police force. One day in the latter part of 1871 he was invited into a saloon by an acquaintance, Arthur Guerin, and while Hennessy was drinking, his companion, without a word of warning, shot and killed him. This was the first assassination in the Hennessy family, all the prominent members of which were destined to meet the same fate. Mrs. Hennessy took her young son to the then chief of police, General Badger, and asked that the youth be given employment. He was made messenger to the chief. Fate had projected him into the profession for which his aptitudes intended him. Such was his activity, intelligence, and devotion p479to duty, that the rapidity of his promotion was out of proportion to his years. He was soon a detective, then aide to the chief, and regarded as the leading authority on all matters relating to Italian crime and criminals in the country.

In the early part of June, 1881, Hennessy, then aide to Chief of Police T. N. Boylan, arrested at the entrance of Jackson Square the notorious Italian bandit, Esposito. Esposito had terrorized the vicinity of Palermo. From boyhood he had been a criminal. In his maturity he was a mountain desperado, plundering, burning, and murdering. Captured by the Italian police after a desperate battle, in which his band of brigands was destroyed, he escaped from custody, and fled to America.a The press teemed with stories of his terrible exploits in Italy, and he was sought throughout the world, but his whereabouts remained unknown until Hennessy put him under arrest. The capture was the result of a clever piece of detective work. Under the name of Raddozo, the ex-bandit had entered the oyster trade in New Orleans. He owned a lugger which he audaciously named Leone, in honor of a fellow-brigand. With this as a clue Hennessy tracked him down, and was awarded by a positive identification.

Esposito had established in New Orleans a sort of society, or group of semi-criminal followers, known as the Mafia. It reproduced here all the characteristics of the Sicilian society of that name, but appears to have had no other connection therewith. The members now attempted to bribe Hennessy to bring about the release of his captive, and it is said offered first $30,000, then $50,000, and finally any sum that he cared to name to consent to swear that Esposito was not Esposito, but the oyster fisherman, Raddozo. Hennessy refused the bribe, was successful in getting his charge to New York, whence he was extradited by the United States officials to Italy, and punished.

Hennessy was elected chief of police in 1889 preliminary to a campaign to rid the city of gamblers. But he continued active in his interest in local Italian crimes, and figured prominently in the investigation of such notorious murders as the Uttomvo case, in January, 1889, and the Mattaine case, in the following month, both deeds which were obviously the work of the Mafia. He next interested himself in the Caruso-Provenzano shooting case. This shooting grew out of quarrels between local fruit-handling firms, and involved Italian citizens of considerable wealth and prominence. Hennessy was considered a friend of the Provenzanos. He sent for all the parties implicated, and warned them that no further such incidents must occur; otherwise he would prosecute them all; while as for the Mafia, that he was determined to break up. The feud, however, was continued, and in May, 1890, several Italians belonging to one of the warring factions were waylaid and fired on at the corner of Esplanade and Claiborne avenues. At the trial which followed Hennessy announced his intention of going on the stand and exposing the workings of the Italian secret societies. After that, it is said, Hennessy's death was determined upon.11

Hennessy's death the day after he was shot, brought directly before the community the whole matter of the Italian societies. Several members of the city council went to Mayor Shakespeare, and requested him p480to call a special meeting of the city council to consider the subject. At this meeting, which took place that afternoon, the mayor stated that he had been warned that an attempt would be made upon his life.12 The police had already begun to arrest suspects. In all nineteen men were taken into custody — eleven on charges of murder or shooting with intent to murder; and the remainder, as accessories. On November 20 indictments were returned against all of these, and on March 1, 1891, nine of them were brought to court, and the trial, one of the most sensational in the annals of local criminal jurisprudence, began. The state made out a good case against all of the accused except one, named Incardona, and another, named Matranga. The case against the former was abandoned by the state, and the judge ordered the jury to bring in a verdict of acquittal with regard to the latter. But of the remainder, the majority were identified as having been connected with the murder in one way or the other; particularly Scoffidi, Marchesi, Monasterio, and Politez, who were pointed out as the men who actually did the deed. When, therefore, at the end of two intensely interesting weeks, the trial ended in a disagreement as to Scoffidi, Politez and Monasterio, and an acquittal for the other six defendants, popular indignation ran high. It was felt that a grave miscarriage of justice had occurred, and that, unless something were done to punish the guilty, even extra-judicially, the danger of further crime on the part of the low-class Sicilians of the city was great and immediate. Feeling on the subject was stimulated by rumors that the jury had been tampered with.13

That afternoon a meeting of prominent citizens was held in the law-offices of W. S. Parkerson. Another meeting assembled at 9 P.M. in a hall on Royal Street. At these gatherings it was decided to call a mass-meeting for the following Saturday, at Clay statue, in Canal Street, and secure the endorsement of the people of a movement looking to the punishment of the guilty. A call to that effect, signed by sixty of the best-known names in the city, appeared in the newspapers the following morning; and on Saturday, at 10 o'clock, an immense concourse of armed men assembled at the designated point. Parkerson, who made one of the principal addresses, expressed the prevailing sentiment. "When the law is powerless," he said, "the rights delegated by the people are relegated back to them, and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do. The people of America are defied by the infamous Mafia. What protection or security is there left for us, when the very head of our police department is assassinated by an organized band? Shall their assassins be turned loose on the community?" Walter Denegre following and J. C. Wickliffe, who also spoke, said: "If such actions as the acquittal of these assassins are to be tolerated; if nothing is done to forcibly portray the disapproval by the public of this infamous verdict, no man can expect to carry his life safe in the face of organized assassination;" and he demanded that the crowd follow him and his associates to the prison, there to execute the accused Italians.


[image ALT: A long 3‑story building, with an arcaded ground floor and two symmetrical octagonal lanterns, fronting on an otherwise unbuilt street — although a low warehouse is dimly visible in the background — planted with regular rows of low trees. It is a view of the Parish Prison of New Orleans in the late 19c.]

Parish Prison

Twenty minutes later Parkerson, Denegre, Wickliffe, and others, followed by a large party of men armed with rifles and shotguns, appeared before the parish prison, on Orleans Street, corner of Treme. A demand for the keys was refused by the prison captain, Lem Davis; but the door p481of his apartment was immediately battered down, a wave of armed men inundated the interior of the building, and the authorities found it folly to offer any resistance. The prisoners, however, had been freed from their cells; some succeeded in hiding themselves and either passed unnoticed in the excitement, or were not among those for whom the mob was seeking. Of the remainder, two were dragged into the street and hanged; seven were shot in the yard of the women's prison, whither they had fled for safety; and three others were shot to death in an iron-grated gallery on the uppermost story of the building. In all, eleven perished — Politez, Bagnetto, Macheca, Scaffidi,º Marchese, Comitz, Romero, Caruso, Traima, Geraci, and Monasterio. The young Marchese, supposed to be the boy who gave the fatal signal on the night of the murder, was not harmed. Incardona likewise was not molested. Among those slain were five who had not been put on trial. It was the original intention to bring each man out before the crowd, give him a sort of trial, and execute him with some appearance of legal formality; but the way in which the victims were discovered, one after the other, made this impossible.14

The affair did not end here. Although the citizens, satisfied with their work, dispersed promptly, and there was no further disorder in the city, the Italian government, through the foreign minister, Marquis Rudinì, immediately took action to bring the matter before the Department of State, in Washington. The Italian minister, Baron Fava, requested that the competent authorities in Louisiana be made to realize it was their duty to take special care of the lives of Italian citizens, and that the leaders of the mob be brought speedily to justice. The manner in which the demand was made was unfortunate, but was natural enough under the circumstances, in the excitement and indignation the event occasioned in Italy. Although the questions involved were not presented in a way to promote calm discussion, Secretary Blaine took the matter up with Governor Nicholls, on March 15, expressed the President's regret at the incident, and asked co‑operation in protecting all other Italians from dangers.15 The governor replied that the disturbances were over, that they had never been directed against the accused as Italians, but wholly as individuals; and that the matter was under the investigation by the grand jury.16

The Italian government insisted upon a promise that reparation would be made, and, failing to get assurances to that effect, removed its minister from Washington. This step led to the withdrawal of the American ambassador from Rome. Blaine subsequently informed the Italian chargé d'affaires that the United States recognized, in principle, the justice of a claim for indemnity for injury suffered by the subjects of a friendly power, but did not imply that compensation was due in the case under discussion; nor could the United States in such a grave matter consent to be unduly hurried. Only when the President had before him all the facts could a decision be reached.17

On May 5, 1891, the grand jury in New Orleans reported. It held that the evidence showed that the Mafia actually had existed in New Orleans, and that Hennessy had been done to death by its agents. The p482lynching of the accused Italians was justified, and no indictments were returned against the leaders of the mob.18 This stopped all further legal proceedings, inasmuch as the United States courts were without authority to interfere.

The subject was referred to by President Harrison in his message of December 9, 1891, where he expressed regret that the lynching had taken place, and pointed out that it was not due to any special animosity against the Italian people, but through fury over the murder of a city official.19 The Government of the United States, however, in April, 1892, paid an indemnity to the Italian government of 125,000 francs. In making the payment Blaine explained to the Italian chargé that while the injury had not been inflicted by the United States, the National Government felt constrained to make the payment "as a solemn duty." In his message in December President Harrison alluded to this satisfactory termination of the incident, which led to the prompt resumption of friendly relations between the two countries.20


The Author's Notes:

1 Picayune, April 18, 1888.

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2 Picayune, March 25, 1888.

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3 Times-Democrat, March 29, 1888.

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4 Picayune, March 29, 1888.

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5 Times-Democrat, April 16, 1888.

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6 Times-Democrat, April 20, 1888.

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7 Picayune, April 19, 1888.

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8 Campbell, "Manual of the City of New Orleans," 1901, p36.

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9 Statement of Otto Thoman to author.

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10 Campbell, "Handbook of the City Council, 1908," p18.

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11 George Van Dervort, in Picayune, March 29, 1891. Van Dervort was Hennessey's private secretary and intimate friend.

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12 Times-Democrat, October 19, 1890.

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13 Picayune, March 14, 1891.

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14 Picayune, March 15, 1891.

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15 Blaine's dispatch was published in the Picayune for the following day.

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16 Delta, March 22, 1891.

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17 Moore, "Encyclopaedia of International Law," VI, 837‑839.

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18 Picayune, May 6, 1891.

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19 Richardson, "Letters and Papers of the Presidents," IX, 182.

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20 Moore, "Encyclopaedia of International Law," VI, 340. Richardson, "Messages and Papers," IX, 316.


Thayer's Note:

a Giuseppe Esposito, according to this page at the FBI, is actually the earliest known Italian mafioso to have emigrated to the United States; for a fuller biographical sketch, see Tom Hunt's American Mafia site.


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Page updated: 22 Mar 11