Saturday, October 15, 2011

121 years ago: Attack on Police Chief Hennessy

One hundred and twenty-one years ago on this date, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was shot and mortally wounded a short distance from his home. He succumbed to his wounds the following morning.

Chief Hennessy
Hennessy (left) attended a meeting of the Police Commission during the evening of October 15. The meeting broke up at about nine o'clock. Hennessy was driven back to police headquarters at the southwest corner of Common (Tulane Avenue) and Basin Streets. Captain William O'Connor of the private Boylan Protection Agency met him there and was to escort the police chief home. Hennessy had received a number of death threats from the local Mafia and the city fathers hired the Boylan agency to keep him safe.

Though Hennessy had a reputation for punctuality (he lived with his widowed mother and reportedly tried not to give her reason for worry), the chief did not immediately head home. Instead, he and O'Connor chatted at police headquarters for more than an hour. They left the building a few minutes after eleven.

While Basin Street was the most direct route between Hennessy's office and his home on Girod Street, heavy rains of earlier in the day had made the road unpassable. Hennessy and O'Connor took a significantly lengthier route, riverward on Common Street and then up Rampart Street to the intersection with Poydras Street. At that corner, the two men stopped into Dominick Virget's Oyster Saloon for a late snack. A teetotaller, Hennessy had a glass of milk with his plate of oysters.

At eleven-thirty, the men stepped out of Virget's and continued up Rampart Street. They paused in front of the McDonough schoolhouse at the corner of Rampart and Girod, about one and half city squares from Hennessy's home. O'Connor said goodbye to Hennessy at that point, though he had been charged with seeing the chief all the way home. O'Connor crossed the intersection diagonally to his left - his intended destination is unknown - while Hennessy turned right on Girod.

The chief took only a few strides and then halted as a young man darted out of a Girod Street doorway and ran toward Basin Street whistling loudly. The youth turned right onto Basin and disappeared around the side of Mrs. Ehrwald's second-hand store.

Girod Street shed roof.
Hennessy managed just a few steps more. As he reached the front of the residence at No. 269 Girod Street, shotgun pellets tore into him from his left. The initial blast, originating from the darkness under a shed roof on the opposite site of Girod (right), shredded his umbrella, disabled his left hand and knocked him backward. Hennessy instinctively drew his ivory-handled Colt 45 revolver. Another blast of shotgun pellets ripped through his slacks and shattered his right knee. On his way to the ground, the chief was struck by pellets in the chest and abdomen and then in the face and neck. Hennessy fired his revolver into the darkness across the street as he struggled to stand up.

Two shadowy figures stepped into Girod Street. Illuminated by a streetlamp, they advanced toward the fallen police chief. They fired large-caliber slugs into Hennessy's midsection and then ran off.

Hennessy miraculously managed to rise to his feet. He stumbled a few yards to the corner of Basin Street and dragged his disabled leg a few more paces down Basin. He collapsed onto the front steps of No. 189 Basin Street. Captain O'Connor, at most only a single square away when the gunfire erupted, reached the chief's side far too late to fulfill his function as bodyguard.

"They gave it to me," Hennessy mumbled, "and I gave it back the best I could." O'Connor asked if the chief could identify his attackers. Hennessy said, "Dagoes."

Read Deep Water: Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia, 2d edition.