If you were to ask any American who professes to have “some” historical knowledge of organized crime in the United States, “Which U.S. city gave birth to organized crime AKA “the mob”?, more than likely their reply would be, “New York City” or “Chicago”.
Actually, those are not bad guesses, considering the major impact that Hollywood has had on the American psyche. From movies like “The Godfather”, “Good Fellas”, “Donny Brasco” and the “Untouchables”, New York City and Chicago are forever embedded in the minds of most Americans as being the birthplace of the American Mafia.
However in our quest to always, “keeping it real”, it’s important that we lovers of crawfish etouffee and blackened catfish, amicably enlighten our Midwestern / Eastern friends that in reality the “New Orleans Crime Family” has always been known by crime historians as being the oldest criminal organization in the United States.
The Original Godfathers
At the top of the list of names of infamous New Orleans crime family Bosses / members are the names Carlo and Antonio Matranga. Born in Sicily, the two brothers along with their parents immigrated to the United States in the 1870s, eventually settling in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Seasoned and battle-scarred from running the family businesses in “the old country”, the Matranga family opened a gambling saloon and a brothel in New Orleans. Their business philosophy of “giving the people whatever it is that they want”, while enforcing the boundaries of their “entrepreneurial territory” with swift and deadly action, the Matranga family quickly made a name for their self in southeast Louisiana.
If an adventurous time traveler were able to teleport back-in-time to 1878 southeast Louisiana, and were able to mix in the company of people who had acquired a “taste” for Creole women, gambling, prostitution, and good booze, they’d be able to observe first-hand, the managerial genius of this extremely obscure and dangerous family from Sicily.
Ruthless and cunning, the Matranga family took the criminal world in southeast Louisiana by storm and literally kicked the areas’ “once-upon-a- time” most dominant gangs straight in the gut. Metaphorically, in the words of the immortal sports analyst Howard Cosell, “Down goes Frazier”.
In retrospect of a once powerful but now weakened crime syndicate, the “old gangs” of New Orleans whose own insidious roots originated and emerged from the dark and treacherous alleys of Spain and France were now by all measured standards, emasculated by the “new kids on the block”, and the new kids were fearless.
Included in the changing of the guard were the already established Italian gangs that had been run by Raffaele Agnello, Joseph P. Macheca and Giuseppe Esposito. All three men were Sicilian immigrants who came to New Orleans right at the start of the American Civil War or shortly afterwards and sowed the seeds that enabled the Matrangas and the Provenzanos to expand the profit and the legend of the Cosa Nostra in America.
Within a few short years, the Matranga brothers established a lucrative organized criminal syndicate that included extortion and labor racketeering. Like Romans emperors, they received tribute payments from Italian laborers and dockworkers, as well as from the rival Provenzano crime family, who at the time held a near monopoly on commercial fruit shipments from South America.
In a show of force, the Matranga brothers began “muscling in” on the Provenzano fruit loading operations / empire by intimidating the Provenzanos with threats of violence and death.
Although the Provenzano crime family submitted to the pressures of the Matrangas syndicate by giving the Matrangas a cut of waterfront racketeering, by the late 1880s, the two families ultimately went to war over the grocery and produce businesses held by the Provenzanos.
As both sides began employing a large number of Sicilian Mafiosi from their native Monreale, Sicily, to serve as frontline “soldiers”, their violent gang war escalated and intensified, bringing the unwanted heat of the press and police on them. As war raged on the streets of New Orleans and surrounding parishes, local and state police sat up and took notice. An investigation into criminal activity in New Orleans by Police Superintendent David Hennessy began shining light into places that were once dimly lit and were ignored and tolerated.
It was Superintendent Hennessy’s “opening of doors and windows” that secured his death sentence. The two feuding families, most likely acting in rare display of solidarity, took a “time-out” from their gang war and acting in unison, fulfilled an old Sicilian Cosa Nostra practice of eliminating and intimidating anyone that threatened daily “operations”.
On October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessy was murdered execution-style. To some historians, it’s still unclear whether Italian immigrants actually killed Hennessy or whether it was a frame-up against the despised Italian / Sicilian immigrants.
Immediately, hundreds of Sicilians were arrested, most were arrested on baseless charges, however in the end, nineteen were indicted for the murder of their beloved police superintendent. To the shock of most, the trial ended in an acquittal, with rumors of bribed and intimidated witnesses. Outraged citizens of New Orleans in a frenzied state of demanding revenge, organized a lynch mob and proceeded to kill eleven of the nineteen defendants. Two were hanged, nine were shot, and the remaining eight escaped. The lynching was the largest mass lynching in American history.
The question of who / what could influence so many jurists to look the other way against evidence that - in the mind of the DA - plainly illustrated the guilt of the defendants, led trial analysts back to the crime families and their use of “The Black Hand”.
The Black Hand was a name given to gangster assassins. Their legendary extortion tactics were well known in Italian neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century. The name “The Black Hand” has sometimes been synonymously used with the term “Mafia”, which it is not. The Sicilian Mafiosi which was imported from the “old country” and sent to New Orleans brought with them a high intensity level of violence that shocked even the most hardened New Orleanian.
Everyone in New Orleans understood that a letter received from The "Black Hand" was a a direct message from a crime boss that represented extortion. The intent of the letter was symbolized a black hand print on the stationary.
The context of the letter would simply ask for money. Everyone from the West Bank to the East Bank knew that ignoring the letter or refusing to pay what was demanded or involving the police in this “private matter” would ultimately cost them their life. The strong belief in such a terrifying “hit squad” was substantiated by the many “tales of the crypt” told by New Orleans police; tales that told the story of gruesome murder scenes whose “calling card” was a letter with the black hand print. The infamous letter / calling card was always found near the mutilated and bullet riddled body.
Another favorite intimidation tactic of the Black Hand of fear and intimidation was “Barrel murders”. The victims, usually Italian immigrants, would be found stuffed inside a barrel after being shot, stabbed, or strangled to death. The dead corpse would be left inside a barrel on a random street corner, back alley, or shipped to a nonexistent address in another city.
Such scenes whether real or embellished, enlightened New Orleanians to the fact that an ambitious and deadly gang of assassins by invitation of crime families like the Matrangas and the Provenzanos were not afraid to use whatever tactic that was needed in order to render payment to “Caesar”, in this case the New Orleans Syndicate.
In closing, when you think Mafia, set aside visions of tough guys from Jersey and New York City eating cannoli and sipping coffee inside a private club, rather, envision tough guys from Old Metairie and “Fat City”, eating sausage, red beans and rice while sipping on Old Dixie Beer at their favorite restaurant in the French Quarter.
So remember, the next time you’re down at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter and you’re eating some beignets and drinking chicory coffee and a New Yorker or a Chicagoan wants to tell you about the Sicilian gangsters from Brooklyn or Skokie, please inform them that just like jazz music, the “Goodfellas” were born in New Orleans. Oh…and tell them about Carlos Marcello the man that many believe orchestrated the assassination of JFK and his brother Bobby. They don’t “play” down here in the bayou chère, and you better believe it.
As always the New Orleans Examiner is interested in what you think. Is New Orleans still influenced by local gangs with ties to the Cosa Nostra? Inquiring minds want to know. Sound off.
Until next time Louisianans, Good day, God bless and Good fishing.