On March 14, 1891 an angry mob of several thousand people descended on the jail in New Orleans, Louisiana intent on administering rough justice on nine inmates who had just been acquitted of murdering the chief of police. Barred from the front door, they gained entrance through the back and immediately shot the nine men. They then dragged two other inmates, who were there on unrelated charges, out of their cells and hanged them. One choked to death after a long struggle and the other was shot while hanging from a tree. This was one of the largest mass lynchings in the Jim Crow South but the victims were not blacks, they were Italians, Sicilians actually, but close enough. (Sicilian lynchings in New Orleans)
I relate this tragic piece of Americana not to equate the appalling plight of black Americans with that of Italians but to illustrate that Italians, our parents and grandparents, suffered terrible discrimination when they first arrived in l’America.
The Italians of the North End were confronted with this prejudice in the early years of the Twentieth Century when they tried obtaining a cemetery for their deceased relatives and friends. The established Catholic cemeteries like Holy Cross were expensive and didn’t take kindly to Italians and their burial customs. The North End Italians met with fierce opposition from both the neighboring community and the Boston newspapers. Unsubstantiated charges of Mafia murders and double burials were levied in an attempt to deny them a cemetery. Finally, the pastors of the City’s four Italian churches succeeded in obtaining a plot of land in the Forest Hills section of Jamaica Plain and St. Michael’s Cemetery opened in 1906 to great fanfare. In their letter of appeal to the Board of Aldermen the pastors stated, “We are proud to say that no people on God’s earth better adorn or decorate the graves of their dead than do the Italians”. (Italian Cemetery – St. Michaels)
No truer words were ever spoken because as soon as burial plots became available they were eagerly bought by the aspirational Italian/American middle classes.
The largest and most conspicuous plot was purchased by a well known North End merchant named Francesco (Ciccio) Sessa who immediately erected the grandiose memorial, which is illustrated here, in honor of his parents. This monument became the topic of conversation throughout the North End and people would take the train out to Forest Hills just to admire it. The Olmstead designed Forest Hills Cemetery right across the street had nothing to match it which gave smug satisfaction to the North Enders.
The Sessa monument started a veritable arms race of funerary ostentation with each family trying to outdo the others in showing respect to their departed loved ones and displaying their financial success. These monuments were incredibly expensive and families would think nothing of spending much or all of their savings on building one.
According to nonna Colomba, Sessa was a thrifty man who went to great lengths to hide his wealth. He lived a very modest life and denied his family even simple luxuries he could easily afford. Everyone was shocked when he spent a small fortune building such an elaborate memorial. Maintaining a “bella figura” was very important in Italian culture.
When a friend visited your home only the best food and wine would be served and no expense was spared on a perfect wedding for ones’ daughter or an elaborate funeral for mamma or papa. Only a “cafona” would do less. Ciccio Sessa was the antithesis of this and for years, whenever a North Ender was particularly stingy and served a friend re-percolated coffee or mortadella instead of prosciutto, he would be cursed with suffering “la morte di Ciccio Sessa”, hoarding all ones money in life only to build a monument to death.
Thinking about Francesco Sessa motivated me to visit St. Michael’s Cemetery. Several of my relatives are buried there and I hadn’t been there in many years. In my last article in this series we will take a walking tour through St. Michael’s which is like taking a walk down Hanover Street only quieter and without the double parked cars.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.