indictment and prosecution impossible
On this date (May 5) in 1891...
A grand jury, tasked with examining the March 14 riotous attack on Orleans Parish Prison that left eleven inmates dead, issued a final report that not only refused to indict any involved in organizing and performing the prison break-in and killings but also rationalized and defended the acts of those who took the law into their own hands.
(Pittsburgh Dispatch coverage from May 6, 1891, shown at right.)
|An execution squad cornered its helpless|
targets in the prison yard and opened fire.
The prison raid occurred the morning after a trial jury failed to convict nine men accused of conspiring in the Mafia assassination of local Police Chief David C. Hennessey. Six defendants in that case were acquitted. A verdict could not be reached on the remaining three. The defendants all were held in the prison overnight, March 13-14, to await the dismissal of a related charge in another court.
According to reports, the organizers also selected an execution team of at least a dozen men, provided them with repeating rifles and instructed them on the list of prisoners who were to be killed.
Though deliberately planned and carefully executed, the killings at Orleans Parish Prison were classified as lynchings - casualties of irrational mob violence. The incident has since been regarded as the largest lynching in American history. Of the eleven men killed within the prison walls, just six had been among the defendants in the recent trial. The other five were accused Mafia conspirators who had not yet been brought into court. Most of the victims were immigrants from Italy, though a majority had achieved or taken steps toward U.S. citizenship.
As it probed the complete breakdown of local law and order, the grand jury heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses through a period of more than three weeks. Long before its findings were made public, there were indications that the panel would take no action against anyone involved in the March 14 killings. The only indictments it returned during its investigation were against six individuals accused of plotting in the selection and bribery of assassination trial jurors: private detective Dominick C. O'Malley, Thomas McCrystol, John Cooney, Bernard Claudi, Charles Granger and Fernand Armant.
The panel's final report, delivered to Judge Robert Hardin Marr on May 6, 1891, decided that the March 14 raid on the prison was "directly traceable to the miscarriage of justice as developed in the verdict rendered on March 13." It criticized abuses of the jury system by the Mafia secret organization and its associates in the New Orleans community.
The grand jury harshly criticized the combined interests of private detective O'Malley and defense attorney Lionel Adams, who represented the assassination trial defendants: "Such a combination between a detective and a prominent criminal lawyer is unheard of before in the civilized world, and when we contemplate its possibilities for evil we stand aghast."
It accused several on the assassination trial jury of selling their verdict: "...the moral conviction is forced upon us that some of the jurors impaneled to try the accused on the charge of assassination of the late chief of police were subject to a money influence to control their decision. Further than this, we may say it appears certain that at least three, if not more, of that jury were so unduly and unlawfully controlled."
The grand jury referred only in the most glowing terms to those who participated in the break-in at the prison and the killings of helpless inmates held there. It justified the March 14 violence as a correction of wrongdoing:
It is shown in the evidence that the gathering on Saturday morning, March 14, embraced several thousands of the first, best, and even the most law-abiding of the citizens of this city, assembled, as is the right of American citizens, to discuss in public meeting questions of grave import. We find a general sentiment among these witnesses and also in our intercourse with the people that the verdict as rendered by the jury was contrary to the law and the evidence and secured mainly through the designing and unscrupulous agents employed for the special purpose of defeating the ends of justice. At that meeting the determination was shown that the people would not submit to the surrender of their rights into the hands of midnight assassins and their powerful allies.
The grand jury dismissed as impossible the notion of bringing any charges against the March 14 killers, as it was a popular movement and prosecutors could not hope to bring an entire city to trial. The panel claimed to be unable to determine the identities of the vigilante leaders:
We have referred to the large number of citizens participating in this demonstration, estimated by judges at from 6000 to 8000, regarded as a spontaneous uprising of the people. The magnitude of this affair makes it a difficult task to fix the guilt upon any number of the participants - in fact, the act seemed to involve the entire people of the parish and City of New Orleans, so profuse is their sympathy and extended their connection with the affair. In view of these considerations, the thorough examination of the subject has failed to disclose the necessary facts to justify this grand jury in presenting indictments.
The grand jury included foreman W.H. Chaffe, Geo. H. Vennard, O. Carriere, D.R. Graham, David Stewart, T.W. Castleman, G.A. Hagsett, Jr., W.L. Saxon, E. Gauche, A.S. Ranlett, G.C. Lafaye, H. Haller, John H. Jackson, W.B. Leonard, P.J. Christian and Emile E. Hatry.
Coverage of the grand jury report and U.S.-Italy relations:
- "The grand jury," New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "The grand jury," New Orleans Times-Democrat, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "Can't indict a whole city," New York Evening World, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "Popular will pleaded," New York Sun, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "That grand jury report," New York Times, May 7, 1891, p. 1.
- "Lynching all right," Pittsburgh Dispatch, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "No indictments," Pittsburgh Post, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "No consolation for Italy," Rochester NY Democrat and Chronicle, May 6, 1891, p. 1.
- "The diplomatic controversy...," Glasgow Scotland Herald, May 5, 1891, p. 6.
- "Italy in a hurry," Marion OH Daily Star, April 1, 1891, p. 1.
Joseph P. Macheca and the Birth of the American Mafia
by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon