On March 14, 1891, prominent New Orleans citizens — including future mayors and governors — led the largest lynch mob ever to assemble on U.S. soil.

Numbering in the tens of thousands and wielding torches, rifles and rope, the mob of vigilantes stormed into Parish Prison and murdered 11 Italian immigrants, all of whom had either just been acquitted or were falsely implicated in the 1890 murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy.

The victims included:

  • Antonio Bagnetto, fruit peddler: tried and acquitted
  • James Caruso, stevedore: not tried
  • Loreto Comitis, tinsmith: not tried
  • Rocco Geraci, stevedore: not tried
  • Joseph Macheca, fruit importer and Democratic Party political boss: tried and acquitted
  • Antonio Marchesi, fruit peddler: tried and acquitted
  • Pietro Monasterio, cobbler: mistrial
  • Emmanuele Polizzi, street vendor: mistrial
  • Frank Romero, ward politician: not tried
  • Antonio Scaffidi, fruit peddler: mistrial
  • Charles Traina, rice plantation laborer: not tried

Mob conspirators claimed that mafia influence swayed jurors, despite no evidence; and according to History.com, the court proceedings surrounding Chief Hennessy’s murder marked the genesis of Italian American mafia tropes that persist today (from boorish Saturday Night Live sketches, to Hollywood’s repetitive stereotypes).


 A lynch mob breaks into Parish Prison on March 14, 1891 to abduct and kill 11 Italian immigrants who were wrongfully accused in the murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy. (Credit: E. Benjamin Andrews)

Italian Americans and leaders of the Kingdom of Italy were outraged by the mass lynching. Italy broke off diplomatic relations and recalled its ambassador from Washington, D.C. Then-President Benjamin Harrison, in turn, removed the U.S. legation from Rome. The lynchings even touched off talk of war between the U.S. and Italy, according to The Washington Post.

Prominent U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times, praised the lynchings. Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to his sister, sided with the mob, writing: “Personally, I think it a rather good thing.”

Related story: New Orleans Mayor Apologizes for 1891 Mass Lynching of Italians

With a looming presidential election and a deepening diplomatic crisis, President Harrison urged communities across the nation to celebrate Columbus and show their patriotism. It was a major success, as more than one million people gathered in New York City on Oct. 12, 1892, to honor Columbus Day and cheer on the 40,000-strong parade (the larger-than-life NYC celebration took place exactly 400 years after the navigator first landed in what was deemed the New World, and it also jumpstarted the mass dissemination of the freshly scripted Pledge of Allegiance).

The next day, on Oct. 13, 1892, the towering Columbus Circle statue was unveiled in front of thousands of people. And just like that, the deep cultural connection between Columbus and Italian Americans was cemented.

Harrison had successfully quelled the boiling diplomatic tensions, but he would ultimately lose the presidency to Grover Cleveland.

Despite the outpouring of support, Italian Americans would go on to experience crushing suppression across the U.S. At least 40 more lynchings of Italians took place on U.S. soil, and during WWII, 600,000 Italian immigrants and Italian Americans were deemed enemy aliens by order of the U.S. government — despite the fact that more than one million Italian American soldiers were fighting and dying in Europe and the South Pacific to protect America’s freedoms.


 Notice from the Department of Justice declaring that all enemy aliens must register at their nearest post offices for a certificate of identification. (Credit: National Archives)

Many of these “enemy aliens” were surveilled, stripped of their livelihoods and native language, and were forced to leave their homes; and some were even sent to internment camps. Infamously, Joe DiMaggio’s father, a fisherman in California, had his boat commandeered by the U.S. government.

Columbus statues and monuments were installed in Italian communities across the U.S. to fuel assimilation and combat discrimination during this decades-long period of widespread racism and sedition. They were paid for, in large part, by poor Italian Americans who spent years rounding up funds to pay for the statues.

Columbus Day became a permanent national holiday in 1934 when Congress, after lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, authorized President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare Oct. 12 as the designated date. In 1971, Columbus Day was made a federal holiday on the second Monday in October.

Despite this history, Columbus statues have been reinterpreted as symbols of hate, enslavement and colonialism by misguided reformists (the irony is astounding).

If only everyday folks knew the full story, they’d understand why a large segment of today’s Italian Americans are fighting to preserve the Columbus statues and parades.

In 2022, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations (led by Italian Sons and Daughters of America President Basil M. Russo) worked directly with the White House in crafting the latest federal Columbus Day proclamation, which examines and clarifies this overlooked and under-appreciated history.

The Conference of Presidents is also working closely with the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission (NJIHC) on the national rollout of an equitable, diverse and inclusive curriculum model that uses heritage as a guide to better educate U.S. students in both public and private schools. It is titled: The Universality of Italian Heritage.

The Legal Fight for Our Cultural Legacy

Today, the Conference of Presidents — through its National Counsel George Bochetto — is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a federal, pro-Columbus lawsuit that seeks to declare Italian Americans as a protected class under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Such protections would aid in the preservation of Columbus statues and holidays throughout the country.

In late 2022, Bochetto won a contentious, years-long battle to save Philadelphia’s Columbus statue, which originally went up in 1876. The legal defeat was a bitter one for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who was openly criticized by Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick in 2021 over his attempt at removing the statue.

In Syracuse, N.Y., the Columbus Monument Corp. won a lawsuit in March 2022 that blocked the removal of the city’s Columbus statue. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh has appealed the ruling, and, in the process, is spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on the misguided legal effort.


 Chicago’s Grant Park statue, along with two others, were taken down by Mayor Lori Lightfoot as rioting gripped the city in the summer of 2020. (Credit: tupungato, iStock)

In Chicago, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans is working with city officials in the hopes of promoting Columbus and easing the violent crime that has plagued the city. JCCIA President Ron Onesti told WGN that Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas has agreed to hear arguments over returning a historic Columbus statue to Grant Park.

In Pittsburgh, Italian Sons and Daughters of America is suing to save the city’s Columbus statue. The suit is currently in the appeal process.

And finally, after a decade of holding class on the second Monday in October, Columbus Day will once again be celebrated during the 2024-25 school year in New Canaan, Conn.

The New Canaan Board of Education passed a motion 5-4 this past January to reestablish the holiday.

(To dig deeper into Columbus’s history, consider reading Carol Delaney’s “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem.” Delaney is a Professor Emerita from Stanford University.)

A Bright Future

Italian American Future Leaders — a brand-new fellowship and networking collective that’s empowering younger generations who wish to promote Italian American culture and elevate their standing in the community — was established in late 2022 by Basil Russo, ISDA New York District VP John Viola, ISDA New Jersey District VP Patrick O’Boyle and Stephanie Longo, chief of staff at The Italian American Podcast.


 Participants at the inaugural Italian American Future Leaders (IAFL) Conference, held in January 2023 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., sit down for roundtable discussions.

The inaugural IAFL Conference, held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. in January 2023, was a bellwether of cultural progress that energized a new generation of young Italian American leaders.

Several more annual IAFL conferences have been slated, and the next major IAFL event will take place on Saturday, July 1, in Toledo, Ohio, during the IFL Italian Bowl. Click here for initial details.

There’s much to fight for — and much to look forward to — as Italian Americans young and old come together to honor their ancestors.

Formed in 1975 and based in NYC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations is comprised of 61 of the most influential, cultural, educational, fraternal and anti-defamation groups in the nation. The Conference of Presidents is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution.


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