The Saturday after our liaison all New Orleans went insane. A month earlier, the chief of police, a man named Hennessey, had been murdered, and with his dying breath he accused the Italians who controlled the dockworkers. In truth, there had been a small war brewing between two groups of Italian immigrants for control of the docks. Chief Hennessey seemed to favor one group over the other. Several Italians were arrested and tried for the murder, but the jury failed to convict any of them. As a result, thousands of New Orleanians took up arms, stormed the jail, and murdered the acquitted men. But that wasn’t enough for the mob. It moved from the jail through the city like a wild beast, ferreting out Italians and beating or lynching them. And one of the accused men had the same name as my Peter.
I was upstairs in the piano room, practicing my lessons, when I heard about the riot. I’ll never forget the look of horror on Lisette’s face when she burst into the room to tell me.
“They are killing the Italians,” she shouted.
My hands froze, suspended above the keys. “Who?”
“The city. My God, the city has gone mad.”
She went to the window and opened the storm shutters, and then I heard it—the sound of the mob, not as individual voices, but as one angry scream. I raced down the stairs and into the streets, where I fought my way through the crowds to the Astoria Club, hoping that Peter was dealing faro that day. The place was deserted, the front door boarded up, and I dove back into that sea of killers, mostly men but some women, too, all carrying clubs and guns and ropes already tied into nooses. Peter’s apartment was empty. The door had been taken from the hinges and the room ransacked. The mattress had been pulled onto the floor and Peter’s clothing, torn from his closet, heaped on the mattress. One hairbrush remained on his dresser, and I took it with, clutching it to my bosom as I wandered the streets, not knowing where to search but hoping that chance would help me find him. On the crowded sidewalks I was bumped and jostled, and when the crowds thinned out I was confronted by angry, glaring faces—men who bent low to search my features for a trace of Italian blood.
It was well after midnight when I finally found my poor Peter. They had beaten him and stabbed him and hung him from a lamppost. His coat and vest were gone. One foot was bare. His handsome face was frozen in a rictus of fear, but his beautiful hair was hardly mussed. I sat on the ground under the lamp, too numb to cry, until morning when Madame Broussard and one of the teachers found me and brought me back to the school.
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