Tom Smith was kind enough to spend some time discussing his latest book The Crescent City Lynchings. This is a factual account of New Orleans in the 1890’s, a city where violence and corruption were the way of life. Forget the Wild West, the Wild South is much more entertaining!

When did you start this project, and where did you get the inspiration from?

I started the research at the very beginning of 1989 after a friend who knew how much I love New Orleans remarked that I should write something about the city. When I replied that I couldn’t imagine what episode in local history hadn’t already been covered, he asked me what I was reading right now for fun. It happened to be Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, so he suggested I write a crime story. On the way home I wondered what the most notorious crime in the history of the city might be?

I remembered the Hennessy case from a 1936 book, “The French Quarter” by Herbert Asbury, who is best known for stories about the gangs of New York. I started poking around, spent a few weeks in the New Orleans public library, came home with a suitcase stuffed with photocopied newspapers, and completed the first draft about two years later.

With the amount of detail and research that you have committed to this book it is almost as if you have a personal interest. Is one of your ancestors somehow involved?

I have no personal connection to any of the participants, but I wanted to get the story right. I was amazed at how many retellings of the case were based on myths and misinformed earlier versions. After awhile, this stuff took on the weight of truth.

There was such a gulf between the writers who saw the men killed at the parish prison as villains versus victims. It was clear that I’d have to start from scratch. I read everything I possibly could about the case, and then ignored it. I went back to the primary sources to do my own investigating.

This is a wonderful book, but it obviously is a niche subject, was it difficult to find a publisher?

It took about 15 years and was harder than I had expected. Given the public fascination with organized crime, New Orleans, notorious murders, and other threads in the book. It’s just as well though, for it turned to be a better book because of the delay. It’s certainly shorter than the original version!

How are early sales going?

Actually I have no idea. I’m just happy to have it out of the house. I’ll be pleased if the book itself does well. But it’s also an important story more people deserve to know about, particularly Italian Americans. I am very pleased about that.

Hindsight is 20/20 if you knew then what you know now, would you have tackled this project?

Probably, because I still think it is a great story on its own merits. I couldn’t do it now  though. It involved reading hundreds of newspapers with print smaller than pinheads. My eyes aren’t up to doing that again.

I saw many analogies in your book that apply to today’s world, although the ethnicity has changed, there is still much racial intolerance to be found. Are we still in 1890’s New Orleans?

The fear and rhetoric about stamping out secret oath bound foreign “murder societies” looks familiar, doesn’t it? There’s a lot of nastiness in the book that you’d never get away with now, particularly in the courtroom.

Modern federal civil rights laws would have prevented the local grand jury from exonerating the mob’s leaders. But to me the heart of this story is about honoring the rule of law and paying more than lip service to the Constitution. This is one of those recurring paranoid nightmares in our history. When the rule of law gets thrown out the window, the people who do the heaving walk around congratulating themselves until history catches up with them, and then everyone pays.

I have a family member who spent WW II in an internment camp in Arkansas, so when I read about President Harrison paying reparations to the Italian government over the kvetching of Congress and remember what went on in the U.S. in the early 1980s, it felt familiar.

You also have to remember, I wrote the book before 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Rita, and this recent ruckus about immigration came along, so any resemblance was unplanned. My sole intention was to tell the story of the Hennessy case and the lynching. I didn’t tailor the book to fit contemporary issues.

If these issues do resonate with modern readers, however, we have to ask why?

Do you have another book in the works, and if you do, would you share a little info about it?

As matter of fact, I just started something this week. Same century, different city, and even more appalling behavior. I think I’ll leave it at that!

My review of The Crescent City Lynchings can be found here. If you are heading out to the bookstore, this is one that you should pick up!

Simon Barrett



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