Immigration and Intolerance: A Lesson from History

In October of 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was mortally-wounded in a confrontation with unknown assailants. While he lay dying, Hennessy was reported to have identified his killers only as “dagoes”. Based on that cavernous description, local police quickly rousted the city’s sizeable Italian-American population, apprehending scores of Italian-born residents.

Ultimately, nineteen Italian men were slated to be tried for Hennessey’s murder, split into two trials. In mid-March of 1891, the trial of the first nine concluded. Given the flimsiness of the case brought, the unsurprising verdict was six acquittals and three mistrials. Infuriated, the New Orleans’ citizenry’s hostility rapidly gave way to brutality.

Almost immediately, a massive mob took to the streets and stormed the prison looking for retribution. Before the nightmare of March 14th ended, 11 Italians had been shot, hanged, and mutilated. Yet in the aftermath of the carnage, much of the expressed public sentiment—over arguably the largest mass lynching in American history—was not only marked by indifference, but anchored to the era’s prevailing ethnic attitudes. An editorial in The New York Times commented on the murders, stating,

Nor can there be any doubt that the mob’s victims were desperate ruffians and murderers. These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they. Our own murderers are men of feeling and nobility compared to them.

Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge quickly opined that,

The killing of the eleven prisoners had in it no race feeling whatever. There has been no hostility to the Italians in America, as such….The men were not killed in the New Orleans prison because they were Italians, but because they were believed to be members of a secret-assassination society responsible for a brutal murder.

Unfortunately, Lodge’s rationale was flawed. The reality is that Italians, like many other southern and eastern European immigrants were subjected to extreme levels of animosity by established Americans. They were viewed as criminals in disguise, lecherous people determined to steal jobs from the native-born, wholly-ignorant souls inherently incompatible with American culture. And with little hesitation, aspiring politicians sought to constrain their integration, arguing that there was a “very earnest desire on the part of the American people to restrict further, and much more extensively than has yet been done, foreign immigration to the United States.”

However, the purpose of this journey into the late-19th century is not to engineer an act of revisionist history, nor view a bygone American epoch through the lens of modern morality. The purpose of this expedition is to harness the instructional prowess of mankind’s greatest teacher, history. To provide an introspective reference point for a society that views itself as “evolved”.

Because now, over a century later, we’ve heard a man elected president call Hispanic migrants rapists, and a sitting congressman allege that they’re drug mules. On a daily basis we hear pundits speak of changing demographics resulting in the loss of old America, and we see policymakers using the law as a cudgel against people they regard as an infestation. To that, only two questions need to be asked.

What really distinguishes the Italians of yesterday from the Hispanic migrants of today? And finally, can anyone really convince themselves that we’re not, at least in part, willfully-reliving some of the most depraved experiences of our past?


(Featured image “Here the Blame Lies“, by Grant Hamilton, image is in the public domain/cropped from original.)