The nineteen men crowded into the jail cell, accused of killing a white police chief, David Hennessey. They stood shoulder to shoulder without enough room to sit or sleep and had stood all night. They acted with dignity as if a night in jail was nothing to them but Gaspare could smell the acid fear.
And no one was more afraid than he was. At fourteen years old, Gaspare fought to be a man like his father who stood next to him. His whole body trembled as he stood listening to the rumble of anger from a crowd outside the barred window. It came and went, each wave of noise grew louder until the walls shook with it.
Dawn hovered at the edge of the horizon; he felt it although he could not see it. If today was a normal day, he and his father would be on their way to the market to sell fruit. They missed one day of work already and now two.
Yesterday, he and his father were acquitted of the murder along with four other men. Three additional men were cleared when the jury couldn’t decide. He didn’t understand “acquitted” but his father whispered it meant freedom.
The rabble outside roared like an injured beast when the verdicts reached them. It was so loud that the judge couldn’t continue and they were herded back to the crowded cell. As they scurried from the courtroom building through the alley and back to the jail, people screamed at them. He’d never seen so many people in his life.
The anger on their faces made them look inhuman and they yelled horrible things. He wasn’t a “nigger” or a “brute.” Where did these names come from? He’d hoped to be released but the police said it was too dangerous. They said the mob outside numbered in the thousands.
When he got to the door of the cell, he gasped for air and his breathing became ragged. His chest hurt and he stopped to catch his breath. Someone shoved him and sweat rose on his chest and face. He struggled to get out of the cell and his father held him, calmed him. Eventually, the darkness in front of his eyes faded and he was able to stand calmly.
He remembered when his father had told them they were going to the City of New Orleans for new opportunities. How excited he’d been. He and father sent money home each week, proud to care for their family back home. Would his mother be proud of him today, in a jail cell accused of murder?
The uniformed man closed the cell door but Thomas noticed he didn’t lock it. And why should he? They were all innocent of the murder. Yesterday, the police rounded them up like cattle at the market and didn’t tell them why or where they were going. Nineteen men were as many as could fit in the wagon or they would have taken more. A boom shook dust out of the ceiling down upon them as Gaspare and the men in the cell held their collective breaths.
His father gripped his arm roughly and moved him out of the cell. He found a supply closet in the hallway and shoved him in, closing the door after him.
Gaspare heard the screaming hoard streaming into the jail. The floors shook and he squeezed himself into a ball and prayed for his father and the other men. His breath became labored. This time there were no kind hands to hold him. His vision narrowed to a single point and he lost consciousness.
He woke in darkness and whimpered until he realized he was still in the closet. He cracked open the door and saw a pool of blood on the floor of the cell. He stumbled out of the jail, the only person in a serene world and made his way back to the tent where he and his father slept.
At the cross street, he saw them. Eleven of the men he’d shared a cell with, shared every day of life in America at the market. They hung from ropes, still in the cool morning. They’d been beaten and their faces were barely recognizable. He saw his father, limbs at awkward angles and his face a red pulp.
A woman walked past him and spit on the ground in front of him. “Dago,” she said.
The largest mass lynching in America was March 14, 1891 when 11 innocent Italian Americans, some already tried and acquitted were killed by an angry mob for the death of a police chief. Lynching is more brutal than hanging. In hanging, the neck snaps and death is instantaneous. In lynching, the person is pulled up from the ground, struggling for air and slowly suffocates.
As a result of the lynchings, Italy cut off diplomatic relations with the United States, raising rumors of war. Theodore Roosevelt, not yet president, wrote to his sister: “Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.” The killing of David Hennessy introduced the word “Mafia” to the American public. Gaspare Marchesi, the boy who survived by hiding in the jail while his father was lynched, was awarded $5,000 in damages in 1893 after suing the city of New Orleans.
In April, 2019, the mayor of New Orleans offered an apology.