Monday, April 30, 2007

Who Kill-A Da Chief?

Come on in, the insane world of Louisiana politics, crime, punishment, lynching, looting, graciousness, rumor, and just plain interestingness is just fine.
It's the Beauregard- Keyes House on Chartres Street. Still there to this day. Fancy garden now. A museum to Pierre Gustave Toutant (P.G.T.) Beauregard and author Frances Parkinson Keyes. Here's the interior courtyard side:
The place is fascinating, and very New Orleans.

In 1826, wealthy auctioneer Joseph Le Carpentier hired James Lambert to build him an elaborate home. I don't want to know what or who exactly he got wealthy auctioning in New Orleans. It's not really straight up French; the building has been banged on and added to and changed quite a bit. The Greek Revival theme for the front is not French. But then again, like many things of that time and place, things change.

The house was built reversed from the original plan, for starters. All the outbuildings in the back, plus the back of the house was added later. The Greek portico and one of the flights of stairs in the front was a later addition. It's everything, like a place that washed back and forth in the wake of empires would be. But the bones of the wide center-halled house are still in there.
The little paired doors of the French style are everywhere.

And there's blood and sweat and refinement and conundrum all over the place.

Beauregard only lived there for two years, and never owned it. He was a big deal in New Orleans, and always was, so it's natural they'd play up the link. He took it over from a family of famous chess players, of all things, who had purchased it from Le Carpentier. The world's first chess champion, Paul Morphy, was born here. He was of Portuguese, Irish, Creole, and Spanish descent. Now that's New Orleans. He was a sensation, then he lost his mind. The coroner's report said Morphy died from taking a bath, after a long spell of wandering around the city talking to imaginary voices. That's pretty New Orleans, too.

So after the Civil War, Beauregard moves in, moves out, and a Sicilian family buys the place- the Giaconas. Wine merchants. Gangsters?

People thought they were. But people think everybody Italian is a gangster. There were all sorts of rumors about people being murdered in the house. But that's the essence of all secret crime societies. They don't announce themselves. Well, not exactly. They use barrels as a kind of semaphore.

There were a lot of Sicilians in New Orleans in the late 1800s, and the Black Hand followed them. What people never seemed to understand about the Black Hand, and other maffiyeh organizations, is that they existed mostly by preying upon honest Italian businessman. But many times the victims of the mobsters are simply assumed to be their compatriots by association, and end up on the wrong end of the backlash against the criminals. That's if they don' t end up stuffed in a barrel first.

In 1890, the Police Chief of New Orleans, David Hennessy, was murdered after he got to wondering why his men kept finding Italian-Americans strangled or shot or stabbed and stuffed into barrels, then left on the streetcorner. He was the first American to take on the association of mafiosi and their corrupt accomplices in the government. He paid for it with his life. His (likely apocryphal) last words were: "The Dagos did it."

They rounded up hundreds of people with a vowel at the end of their name, and indicted about a dozen for the murder. There was a riot, and a mob lynched the suspects, along with ten other Italians who were unlucky enough to be handy. For years after that, the local Italian-American children were taunted with: "Who kill-a da chief?"

After the Giaconas, the property was owned by a politician and his wife, Frances Parkinson Keyes, who wrote about Paul Morphy and the history of the house, among many other things.

The elegant home of a man with a triple barrelled name that fought like a tiger for the confederacy and then fought for the rights of blacks to vote; a lunatic genius chess player who died from taking a bath; a southern belle author that once occupied the Governor's mansion in New Hampshire; a wine merchant probably afraid of the Mob and the mob at the same time. Yup, that's one address in New Orleans.

And now it's a museum of sorts. But perhaps not of the the things they think it is.


Chris Byrne said...

Ahhh I see you're a T.J. English fan. Great book PaddyWhacked.

SippicanCottage said...

***sheepish grin***

I've never heard of either of those things.

***off to Google***

Anonymous said...

Just a note: Correct spelling is David Hennessy...not Hennessey. Trust me.

SippicanCottage said...

Well, I don't trust anybody, really, but you're probably correct.

Wikipedia has his named spelled Hennessey. Then they have another page and spell it Hennessy. Later on they link to sites selling it Hennessy. The street named after him spells it Hennessey. The local PBS station spells it Hennessey. The page for the newspaper clipping spells it Hennessey in the blurb, but the paper itself spells it Hennessy.

But you get the tiebreaker, so Hennessy it is.

I'm still not sure it's proper to call those Sicilians "Italians" though. Mah, va bene.