Celebrate! October is Italian-American Heritage Month!

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of illegal lynchings between 1882 and 1962 was 4,736. This data was compiled by the Department of Records and Research, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama; and published in: Ploski, Harry, and Williams, James; The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on Afro-American, 4th ed. New York: Wiley, 1983. As you might suspect most of these lynchings (roughly 73%) were perpetrated upon blacks. It might astonish you, however, to learn the largest lynching event in U.S. history contained no black victims. Here’s how I discovered this fact.

A couple of weeks ago, Tim and Deb Smith’s “Mendon’s Historic Hamlets – Rochester Junction, Part 2” told the story of the death of Spencer Howe. The suspect, Nicolo DeNardo, fled the scene, but was later captured by police. The headline in the Democrat and Chronicle shouts “Struck Down by a Dago.” The casual use of that ethnic slur got me curious. Did other newspapers of that era also use it?

I quickly found out there’s an island called Dago in the Baltic Sea near the Gulf of Finland. Apparently, it was quite the popular place to wreck your ship in the eighteenth century.

I landed closer to my mark when I saw the following page two of the Friday, January 2nd, 1835 edition of The New York Evening Post. Here’s what it said: “Five Dollars Reward, for the recovery of a Spanish Hound, strayed or stolen from the Washington Hotel, marked in colours brownish red, answers to the name of Dago, ears and head very long, small white spot on his forehead, body long and remarkable large legs. The above reward will be paid to any person who will return the said dog to the barkeeper, at the Washington Hotel.”

Alas, until the late nineteenth century, the term “Dago” usually referenced a Spaniard and tended to appear in (fictional) stories of sailors on the sea. For the most part, “Dago” usually referred to that island and, yes, ships continued to flounder there.

The first non-fictional use of “Dago” comes with the arrest of Frank (a.k.a. “Dago Frank”) Williams as reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune on January 11, 1871. Later that year in that same newspaper (May 31, 1871) we have one of the first truly derogatory uses of the term in the following short item: “A lady yesterday was purchasing fruit at a stand on Camp street, when making some remark about its quality, she was brutally assailed by the ‘Dago’ dealer and struck in the face.”

While it’s not clear the ethnicity of this fruit vendor, it is clear New Orleans may be the epicenter for all things “Dago.” The November 28, 1871 issue of the New York Times reported, with great lament, “There has been a considerable yellow fever in New Orleans since the 1st of August, and, strange to say, instead of breaking out in the neighborhood of the French Market, as usual, among the inhabitants of the low ‘dago’ slums, it took hold among the fashionable and well-to-do people of the Fourth District, better known as the Garden District…”

Leave it to the Times-Picayune to give us a better explanation of the etymology of “Dago.” On page 2 of it’s Saturday, July 20, 1872 edition it states in an article about “The Fruit Trade:” “For a long time it has been in the hands of foreigners of the Latin race, who native country is on the shores of the Mediterranean – Sicilians, Greeks, Spaniards, French, etc., known among Americans by the common name of Dagos. This is a corruption of Diego, which is the name among the Spaniards as common as James or John among Americans, and on that account came to be applied to all these people as a class.”

Within two years, the same paper clearly linked the term to Italians. On Saturday, May 23, 1874, The Times-Picayune led a murder story with this sentence (and you thought mine could be long): “If there is one thing mysterious and terrible in the police records of our city over  another, it is the Italian vendetta indulged by a large portion of the lugger fruit men and others of the “Dago” population of the city; the which is the more to be deplored owing to the fact that they are of respectable and hard working class of citizens.”

Within a decade “Dago” would become a internationally recognized Italian ethnic slur. Here’s a portion of what appeared in the Wednesday, August 24, 1881 issue of The Manchester Guardian out of London, England under the headline “The ‘Dago.’ (From an occasional correspondent.) – New Orleans:” “…the true ‘Dago’ of today must be of the Latin race, and something more. He must be in the fruit trade, and as this business has fallen almost entirely in the hands of the Italians, the Dago is Italian. More, as of the Italians so engaged the majority are from Sicily, the Dago is Sicilian. Caeum non animan mutant. I regret to say that “Dago” is by no means a pet name. The ways of the Dago are dark.”

Shortly thereafter, the term found itself in this headline in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Wednesday, August 27, 1884): “The Dago Shooting to Result Fatally.” In case there are any questions, the surnames of the parties involved were Paoli and Bennardini, and the story includes this sentence: “… it was next to impossible at the time to get any correct details owing to the drunken condition of the several Italians on the scene.”

Of course, the greatest umbrage in this story takes place in New Orleans, following the 1890 murder of Chief of Police David C. Hennessy. After being ambushed and shot on his way home, according to the October 17, 1890 Cincinnati Enquirer, “He was rational to the last and declared that the murder was committed by ‘dagos,’ as the lower class of Italians are called.”

The Saturday, October 18, 1890 edition of the Buffalo Express reported the story in bold typeface “DAGO VENGEANCE. – Did the Mafia Order Hennessey’s Death?” The same day on page one, The Times of Philadelphia reports one Thomas Duffy went to the prison holding one of the suspects, asks to see “one of the ‘Dagos’ arrested for the assassination of Chief Hennessy” and coldly shoots him. The Times goes on to say, “While in the station Duffy said that if the Italian died he was willing to hang. He said: ‘I only wish there were about seventy-five more men like me.’”

The following March, the 11 indicted Italians were acquitted. This extended headline from the Saturday, March 21, 1891 The Dickinson Press of Stark County, Dakota Territory (now North Dakota) tells you what happened next: “VENGEANCE OF A MOB – Murderers of Chief Hennessy at New Orleans Lynched – Eleven Dagos Shot or Hanged by a “Committee” of 8,000 Citizens – A Storm of Indignation From Italians All Over the World – International Complications Probable.”

Eleven men lynched by an angry mob. That was one of the largest lynching in American history, but not the largest. (That honor goes to the October 24, 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles.)

Like many of you, I am very proud of my family and my heritage. I am deeply moved by their tenacity in the face of prejudice. I am honored to come from an ancestry that shunned the shackles of victim-hood. They ignored and persevered. They sought and eventually gained a better life for themselves, their children, and all their descendants.

They are Italian-Americans.

They changed our families. They changed our communities. They changed our country.

This month, a month traditionally set aside to recognize the courage of Christopher Columbus and his vital part in initiating the great American Experiment, we dedicate to all Italian-Americans. Over the next several weeks, we’ll highlight a different Italian-American that has had a dramatic impact upon American culture.

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