Monday, February 5, 2007

Deep Water story synopsis

Joseph P. Macheca served as a street warrior for the intensely corrupt New Orleans Democratic machine, as a pioneer of the Crescent City’s fruit trade, as a Confederate privateer in the Gulf and, according to legend, as the “godfather” of the first Mafia organization to germinate in American soil.

Macheca lives on in New Orleans legend as the criminal overlord whose 1891 lynching death atoned for the assassination of city Police Chief David C. Hennessy. However, Macheca’s death was less a spontaneous lynching than a cold-blooded murder. The gang leader's old political and underworld allies sacrificed him so their own roles in local intrigues might not be discovered and so they could assume control of his assets.

Deep Water is the historical biography of Joseph P. Macheca. It establishes the factual details of Macheca’s epic life story and sets them against the vivid backdrop of Gilded Age New Orleans.

Man of action

More complex than the one-dimensional villain of legend, Macheca was an attention-starved and publicity-seeking man of action.

As a young man, he enlisted in the Confederate army only to watch as his native New Orleans fell quickly to a federal invasion. As his military unit disbanded, he moved to Galveston, Texas, and continued to aid the South by running supplies through the Union's blockade of Gulf ports. After the war, he opposed Reconstruction efforts and served in a leadership capacity during an armed insurrection against Republican rule in Louisiana.

Macheca was among the first American businessmen to engage in the produce trade with Central and South America. The Macheca fruit trade brought goods into the American West, Midwest and Northeast. Macheca's efforts generated a vast fortune and won him the position of Consul of Bolivia. The direct beneficiaries of his commercial trailblazing, the Standard Fruit and United Fruit companies, live on today as Dole and Chiquita.

There was also a dark side to Macheca. He led a large gang in bloody rages against African Americans in New Orleans. He served as a patron of the city's Sicilian underworld, involving himself in gang feuds and in a broad Mafia conspiracy. He eagerly did the bidding of unscrupulous political leaders, who used embezzlement, extortion and murder to advance their personal agendas.


A branch of the Sicilian Mafia existed in New Orleans before the Civil War, when the underworld organization followed the lead of Palermo immigrant Raffaele Agnello and specialized in protection and lottery gaming. Agnello initially had trouble with the city's large contingent of Sicilian immigrants from Messina - eastern Sicily had no Mafia tradition. Separate Messina criminal gangs, who dabbled in counterfeiting and protection rackets, battled Agnello's Mafia for years.

Agnello was assassinated in 1869 just as final victory seemed to be in his grasp. Shrapnel from the blunderbuss blast that killed him crashed through the glass at the front of Macheca's fruit store.

The traditional Palermo-based Mafia was eventually replaced in New Orleans with the Stuppagghieri, a radical Mafia branch born in Monreale, Sicily. Macheca embraced the new underworld order and worked secretly with its leaders, the Matranga clan.

Old-line Mafiosi attempted again to take control of the city around 1880. A decade-long struggle between the Matranga and Provenzano clans featured grisly murders and the assassination of Police Chief David Hennessy, believed to be a Provenzano ally.

Though 1891 lynchings at Orleans Parish Prison, which claimed the lives of eleven men including J.P., were said to have been directed at the Stuppagghieri, the Matranga organization emerged from the experience stronger than ever.

Frontier town

The New Orleans of Macheca's time was very much a frontier town, prone to lawlessness and violence. Its rich colors, magnificent buildings and delightful tastes and sounds masked numerous dangers.

During his lifetime, Macheca witnessed the dramatic rise of the port of New Orleans, experienced the first Rex parades of Mardi Gras, attended annual fancy dress balls and socialized with the influential and wealthy men of the community. However, he also lived through the horrors of the Yellow Fever epidemics, the eruption of decaying corpses in city cemeteries and the devastation of war.

Macheca failed to keep up with his times. As New Orleans civilized and became genteel, he stood out as a throwback, a street thug in a business suit. His profitable business ventures failed, and Macheca was financially ruined. His black-and-white, friends-and-enemies view of the world became inadequate.

Old political and underworld allies, whose duplicitous natures allowed them to outwardly embrace progress and civility while inwardly retaining their greed and brutality, left him behind. Eventually, they conspired to eliminate him.


From Macheca's earliest days, death constantly lurked nearby, claiming his relatives, friends and foes. It finally came for him early in 1891. Trapped and helpless in a prison hallway, he tried in vain to open a locked cell door. A shot fired at close range entered the rear of Macheca's skull and ripped through his brain.

Historically, that shot has been blamed on a spontaneous uprising within the New Orleans community - a lynch mob. But Deep Water proves that the lynch mob was used to cover Macheca's premeditated murder and that Macheca's lone assassin was in league with his former friends.

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