At War's Edge

"Thank you, sir. . . I am an Italian and proud of it."


In Tommoso Juglaris's personal memoir, health concerns became the rubric under which he began to actively contemplate a return to Italy.  Yet possibly deepening Juglaris’s discomfort in Boston and accelerating his plans to return to his native land was a huge political crisis that erupted between the United States and Italy.

In October 1890 nineteen Italians were indicted in New Orleans, Louisiana, for conspiring to murder the city’s police chief.  In March 1891, after trials had already exonerated six of those charged, an organized mob broke into the jail and in an act of vigilante justice lynched eleven of the Italian immigrants.  Another five were fatally wounded in the armed assault on the prison. The NAACP has called this incident the largest lynching in United States history. Demanding prosecution for the perpetrators and reparations for the victims’ Vigilantes ramming the door of the New Orleans prison where 16 Italians were incarceratedNewspaper headlines across the United States announced the mob lynching of 11 Italiansfamilies, an outraged Italian government recalled its ambassador from Washington, D.C.  Fanning the flames of anti-Italian prejudice, American newspapers suggested that Italy was ready to go to war.  In April 1891, the Illustrated American, a magazine competing with Harper’s Weekly, published with extensive photographs a lengthy account of Italy’s military might, “Armed Italy—Her Strength by Land and Sea.”  In ominous tones, it proceeded to detail the real or imagined Italian threat: “The growth of the Italian armaments has been one of the military and naval portents of the time.  It has been all out of proportion to that accomplished in other states… And it singular that this force should first have been turned against a country so distant as the United States.”

In this heated environment, Juglaris closed and packed up his household and moved quietly back to Italy.  Oblivious to the impact which diplomatic tensions might have on a native son of Italy, one Boston newspaper expressed open puzzlement and surprise at Juglaris’s swift departure, commenting: “Just why Tomaso [sic] Juglaris gave up his position at the Rhode Island School of Design, closed his Boston studio and sailed away to Italy for good has not perhaps been satisfactorily known to his friends.” However, in remarks that seem almost as much euphemistic and ironic as factual, Juglaris later reported in his memoir that after a decade he could no longer stand Boston’s cold winter weather.

A Mass Lynching and an American-Italian Diplomatic Crisis
The assassination of New Orleans Police Chief David C. Hennessy on October 15, 1890, has been described by one recent commentator, Jennifer Theriault, as “a major turning point in American history.”  Besides “precipitat[ing] the largest mass lynching in the nation’s history,” it “introduced Americans to notions of the Mafia, and incited a major standoff between Washington and Rome.”

Police Chief Hennessy was already a national figure, celebrated, in the words of historian Richard Gambino, “as a model of American manhood throughout the United States.”  As a police detective ten years previously, Hennessy had tracked down an New Orleans Police Chief David C. Hennessyalleged Mafia figure and charged him with murder and kidnapping, leading to his deportation to Italy.  After being gunned down by five assailants outside his home, Hennessy was treated for his serious wounds at a local hospital but died ten hours later.  Allegedly his very last words were: “Dagoes did it.”

Amid rumors about a bribed jury, the acquittal of or dismissal of charges against the nineteen Italians or Italian-American indicted for Hennessey’s murder drew a mob of 20,000 citizens, actively incited by community leaders.  The mob stormed the prison, fatally wounding five Italian defendants and seizing nine others, plus two other Italians incarcerated for entirely different, alleged crimes.  Those seized by the mob were all lynched on the spot in a public spectacle by a self-appointed twelve-man “Execution Squad.” 

As reported by the Boston Globe on March 18, 1891, 1,500 Bostonians of Italian heritage gathered for a three hour rally at Faneuil Hall to protest the senseless deaths.  From the podium an “assemblage of Italian lawyers, merchants, and musicians,” led by Juglaris’s own physician, Dr. Rocco Brindisi, voiced the outrage their countrymen felt.  Overseas, the Italian government demanded justice for all the victims.  U.S. President Benjamin Harrison decried the mass lynching as “an offense against law and humanity.”  But Theodore Roosevelt, who was to become president just three years hence, called the New Orleans lynching “a rather good thing.”  Meanwhile, obsessed with the specter of Mafia-related crime perpetrated by Sicilians and other southern Italians, newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, also endorsed or sympathized with the lynch mob.

As historian Stephen Puleo recounts in The Boston Italians:  “The virulent anti-Italian tone of the writing surrounding the New President Theodore RooseveltOrleans incident opened the verbal floodgates from the popular press and literati alike, who declared open season on Italians in general.  Harper’s Weekly accused Italians of ‘piling up a record of crimes….unparalleled in the history of a civilized country in time of peace.’  In a separate piece, Harper’s acknowledged that there were some good Italians, ‘but when he is bad he is bad in an underhand, violent, grand-opera way that is a scandal to our citizens.’”

In Congress there was a move afoot to impeach President Harrison for his criticism of the New Orleans mob, which was viewed as disloyal to American interests.  Amid the lingering controversy, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge of Boston, soon to be Massachusetts’s senator, took the opportunity to pen an article for the May 1891 issue of the North American Review loudly espousing new immigration restrictions.

Although the damage to the reputation of the Italian community in America was immense and anti-Italian stereotypes continued to proliferate in the succeeding decades, the diplomatic crisis between the United States and Italy that resulted from the latter’s demand for justice came to a head in 1892.  Aware that Italy had the third largest navy in the world and that America had virtually none to defend itself in case of outright war, the U.S. government agreed to pay Italy $25,000 in reparations.  The funds were, in Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge of Bostonpart, to be distributed to the families of the victims of the New Orleans mass lynching.  Exposing America’s own military vulnerability, the episode soon spurred the United States to build up a formidable modern navy of its own that was successfully deployed in the 1898 Spanish-American War, signaling America’s rise as a new world power.

As an Italian of northern heritage, Tommaso Juglaris may have been exempt from some of the American scorn being heaped upon his Italian compatriots.  In fact, Bostonians like Henry Cabot Lodge and William Dean Howells, the famous novelist and “Dean of American Letters,” distinguished between Italian “northerners who had German blood and beckoned to the people of Western civilization” and Italian southerners who “hailed from half-civilized stock.”  But the death of Italian nationals in New Orleans and the public shaming of Italians from any region of his native land could not help but grieve Juglaris too.  Whatever his disappointments and frustrations with the troubles of the Italian community in Boston and, more broadly, across the United States, Juglaris remained an ardent Italian patriot and nationalist with wide sympathies.