Lynching Italians: On American Nostalgia

The Mascot Newspaper, Late 19th century

In 1891 the New York Times, echoing the longstanding anti-immigrant sentiment of newspapers like The Mascot, expressed sympathy for a New Orleans mob that lynched nearly a dozen Italian-Americans. The Times immediately and with little evidence caricatured the Italian-Americans as “mafia” deserving of their extrajudicial fate.

According to writer David Pachioli, the lynching was in fact precipitated not by actions of the mafia, but “by a rivalry between two groups of Italian dockworkers. When the city’s police chief was shot and killed shortly before he was to testify against one of these groups, Italian males in the city were rounded up indiscriminately. The New Orleans Times-Democrat captured the mood: ‘The little jail was crowded with Sicilians,’ the paper reported, ‘whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature.’”

An organizer of the lynch mob went on to become governor of Louisiana. His view of Italian-Americans? They were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in habits, lawless and treacherous.”

The lynchings of Italian-Americans cannot be compared in scale or systematicity to the violence committed against African-Americans in the antebellum period or since. Even so, Heather Hartley’s account in her documentary “Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America” of some 50 lynchings of Italian-Americans by nativist white mobs across the country between 1885 and 1915 is hair-raising.

Italians, along with other Catholics, were vilified for their religion as well. Indeed Catholics faced no small level of persecution in the first century and a half of the Republic, in one instance forced to locate a Church outside of Manhattan for fear of spreading “popery.”

The election of a Catholic President in 1960 and an Italian-American to the Supreme Court in 1986 has helped erase memories of anti-Italian and other nativist waves in the American experience.

Given the history of violence against Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic and even German immigrants, not to mention Africans and indigenous peoples, the current nostalgia for a serenely homogeneous America seems largely misplaced.

6/10/2016

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store