The line between organized crime and local politics in Reconstruction-era New Orleans is blurred in this thoroughly researched but sloppily presented historical biography.
Those with a passing interest in the history of New Orleans or the history of organized crime will be familiar with the 1891 murder of New Orleans police chief David Hennessey by a group of Sicilian immigrants. Irate at the verdict–acquitted of all charges–a gang of New Orleanians hunted down the defendants and lynched them. Many consider the event the first major Mafia incident in the United States. Hunt and Sheldon take on this well-worn topic from a slightly different angle–through the life of J.P. Macheca, a prominent Sicilian fruit merchant and one of the murdered defendants (as well as Sheldon’s ancestor). Through a combination of historical records and family lore, the authors trace Macheca’s rise to successful merchant while concurrently describing the political and social changes in New Orleans in the last half of the 19th century. But the authors struggle to prioritize the importance of certain details–descriptions of parades and tangential biographical sketches of bit players can be interesting, but are too often included at the expense of integrative data about the main character. The lack of real narrative about Macheca’s life–other than references to his business records and a great deal of speculation by â€œfamily historians”–fails to convince that the grocer played anything more than a minor role in this history–or in the development of the American Mafia. The authors fare better in their depictions of a lively milieu and their convincing analysis of the inextricability of organized crime and local politics.
Occasionally interesting, but not for the reasons the title indicates.