The Good, The Bad and the Really Bad: Death of a Special Officer

Cops in New Orleans have played a big part in the history of the New Orleans Family. I want to try to get some stories in on these guys from time to time in a series I’m calling The Good, The Bad and the Really Bad. Figured it was fitting to go back to the beginning and get some info out on a guy who is more known for who his son was.

Death of a Special Officer

On a Friday afternoon, around 3PM, in a coffee shop in the French Quarter a man is shot dead. A man who was a Special Officer of the Metropolitan Police Force. This man is not unknown today but not much is known about him. More is known about his son who would come to a very similar end a couple of decades later. But for now we’ll talk about this man. What little you do hear of this man puts him in a more sympathetic light than what you will read here. Maybe because of the way his son died. Or maybe because it seems as if the men of his family were all doomed to early deaths. His brother would die in battle during the Civil War and his brother’s son would also die an early death under mysterious circumstances. And of course his son died an early death as well. This is not to say that this man was an evil man or, maybe, even a particularly bad man. But he did have a reputation as a mean drunk, a braggart and for violence. The few accounts that you’ll likely find in books or online place the blame on the killer of this man, who himself had a much worse reputation for violence and murder, but in all likelihood the man brought this on himself.

Not a whole lot is known of this man prior to the Civil War so we’ll quickly cover the background.

David Hennessey and his first wife emigrated to New Orleans from Ireland (have seen mentions of Dublin but not sure how correct this would be) some time in the 1840’s (likely the latter half of the decade) due to the potato famine. His wife died of Yellow Fever in 1852. Margaret Finn arrived in New Orleans sometime in 1853 from Cork Ireland.They were married in the latter half of 1853/early 1854 in St. Patrick’s Church on Camp St. They would have a son, David, sometime in 1858. (Margaret Finn Hennessey would die on New Years Eve 1894). It’s not clear when his brother Michael made it to New Orleans but by the time of the Civil War he was on American soil. The Hennessey brothers decided they had had enough of the hard existence they were scratching out since the Irish were non too popular at this point in history and decided to become soldiers. BUT they decided not to fight for the side of their adopted hometown but rather for the Union.

Dublin in the 1890s

Dublin in the 1860s

Michael Hennessey did not come back from the war. David Hennessey fought with the 1st Louisiana Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army under the command of Algernon Sidney Badger first as a Corporal and later promoted to Sergeant. After hostilities were over he returned to live in New Orleans. At some point soon after his return he decides to take a job in law enforcement. During Reconstruction the Metropolitan Police Force was more of a political entity under the control of the Republican Reconstruction government. If you were on this force you didn’t have Confederate sympathies. It was strictly meant for those ruling over the defeated enemy. The next we hear from David is in July of 1865. It appears he’s not yet joined the force as their is no mention of it. The occasion is a trial in which David is the defendant accused of perjury. In the USA vs. David Hennessey the story was that when Brother Michael was killed David declared that he was the only living relative to Michael and collected benefits that Michael had from that. This despite Michael having a wife of 15 years and a son, Michael Jr. and even thought the evidence against him was pretty solid David was able to wiggle out of the charges with character witnesses from his military days giving shinning stories of his battlefield bravery.

David comes back into the light a few months later in March of 1866. He’s identified as part of the police force now and comes in on a story involving a few policemen and a murder. On the night of March 9 1866 in a place called Sam’s Saloon on St. Charles St. a local man, who also owned a saloon, named John Fred Gruber was stabbed. It appeared that he would recover but Fred, as he went by, died the next night on the 10th (some reports say the 11th). It seems Sam’s saloon was crowded that night as there were many witnesses but most stories vary in both minor and major details. Before he died Gruber swore out a statement on those who assaulted him. David Hennessey was one of those named in the statement. The other was Richard Murphy. Michael McLaughlin and Stephen O’Donnel were only referred to as “others”. I couldn’t find any kind of statement as to the exact motive for the attack but it seems that it may have just been a bar room argument. In any case, there was a trial for the four defendants. On December 24 1866 around 8PM the jury retired to consider it’s verdict. Around midnight they came back with a not guilty verdict.

The next time David makes the news is almost a year later in October of 1867 when he got into a bit of hot water and was called before the Police Board to face charges of dereliction of duty and false imprisonment. While there wasn’t an explanation of the second charge it seems David was caught sitting down while he was supposed to be walking the beat. The Board basically dismissed the charges. The year of 1868 was pretty busy for Hennessey. On April 7 he went to trial on charges of illegally arresting a black man named Stephen Washington. Hennessey was arrested for assault and battery on August 24 in an incident that happened in the bathroom of the Mechanic’s Institute between him and a man named Heidenhain who was a Representative from the 4th Ward. Of course the stories of the two parties differed. Hennessey’s version has him asking Heidenhain a question on a Bill concerning the police and police pay. Heidenhain’s response, according to Hennessey, was to flick him (Hennessey) on the nose and say “You are a rat anyhow”. Hennessey “hauled off and plugged him in the face.” Heidenhain’s version was that Hennessey attempted to bribe him to vote against the Bill for $1000.00. When Heidenhain refused the bribe the fight broke out. The next mention, this time a favorable one, is on December 16 when he along with another officer named Goeway, arrested three thieves when they raided the house at 148 Jackson Street they were using as their base of operation. Along with the suspects various tools of their trade were also confiscated. Then around midnight on December 24 the Hennessey’s awoke to their house on fire. David was able to extinguish the fire without raising an alarm.

House on Fire

House on Fire

Arthur Guerin was of Creole heritage and described as the only son of an ageing widow who showed great delicacy, gentleness and kindness to his old mother. Mostly anything good to say about Arthur Guerin stopped there unless you count the kindness shown to his friends. Though he would heap abuses on them he would tolerate no others to do the same. Guerin had a bad reputation as a killer and was a feared man. Guerin was short in stature and about 40 years of age at the time of all these goings on. He first made a name for himself in the early 1850’s during upheavals of political violence as a head basher for Democratic sympathies. (Some accounts of Guerin describe him as an ex-police officer. This certainly could be the case but I found nothing to support this in newspaper accounts of the time). Though he was suspected, and his reputation accredited him with, many murders he was arrested and tried 3 times. The first for killing a Greek sailor on Victory street, then in 1868 for killing Edward Forrest in the French Market and the third time for the killing of David Hennessey. Each time he was acquitted of all charges. Friends of Guerins told of how he would go into moods or fits and that when you saw these coming over him it was best not to cross him. It led many to believe Guerin was crazy. (To help confuse matters somewhat, it appears there were at least two Arthur Guerins in New Orleans. Ours and another of not that much better of a reputation who died of lockjaw resulting from a bullet wound in a bar fight in April of 1869).

Around 3:15PM on the afternoon of February 26 1869 three shots rang out in a coffee house on Ann St. called The Eighth District Court, so called as most of it’s customers worked in the nearby courthouse, sheriff’s office and the surrounding lawyers offices. As people from all the surrounding areas crowded into the coffeehouse they saw a lifeless David Hennessey sprawled out on the floor, his eyes still open and staring. A Dr. Capdeville, having been in the immediate area, already had Hennessey’s chest exposed and the crowd of onlookers could see the hole just above his heart. The city coroner, Dr. Avilla, came in not long after the shooting and started his investigation there in The Eighth District Court. First Hennessey’s pockets were emptied. Among the items were papers, shells for a pistol, a derringer in each front pocket,a revolver in the back waistband and a folding knife about 4 inches long. The body of the deceased was then placed on a door that had been taken off it’s hinges and brought into the yard. Here a Dr. Bayon started an autopsy. Besides the fatal heart wound another fatal shot was found in his right side that tore into his intestines. Both of the slugs were taken from the body. Hennessey was a man on his way out no matter Guerin’s help. Both his lungs were shown to be full of consumption (tuberculosis). After the autopsy a Sergeant Malone searched the coffeehouse and found a revolver behind a safe. Soon after the shooting Arthur Guerin was arrested on Royal Street without a struggle. Joseph Fernandez, the bar keep at the coffeehouse, was also arrested as a witness to the crime (this was common in those days). Hennessey was described as stout and well made, about thirty years of age.

An old coffee house from the 1800's

An old coffee house from the 1800’s

James Brooks and Peter Freeman testified the next day that they were in the Eighth District Court when Guerin and Hennessey came in together in what appeared to be a friendly conversation. Guerin invited the two men to have a drink with himself and Hennessey which they did. Both testified that conversation was friendly all around. After another round of drinks had just been served the witnesses reported to having heard three shots but not knowing where they came from. They also reported seeing Hennessey drop to the ground and hearing someone say “What did you do that for?” Joe Fernandez, the bar keep, testified to basically the same thing but added that just when he was putting the bottle aside that he had just served drinks with he saw Guerin pull a revolver out of his pocket and shoot Hennessey, then throw the pistol behind the safe.

Hennessey fell to the floor and said “What did you do that for Guerin?”

In the preliminary exam for Guerin’s case the witnesses expanded on their statements somewhat in that, though friendly towards Guerin, that Hennessey seemed excited and gave a bullying attitude towards other patrons. One of the officials from the Coroner’s Office also added that Hennessey was in possession of a sword cane. On March 2 1869 a reporter interviewed Arthur Guerin in his cell at the Orleans Parish Prison. Guerin seemed confident that come the day of the trial a jury would find him innocent as he was in fear for his life from Hennessey and said he could produce 15 to twenty witnesses which would claim Hennessey had been making threats against him. Guerin also told of the day of the shooting. His story was that he was on Orleans Street when Hennessey approached him in the company of two other men and asked him, Guerin, why he was looking at him. Guerin said he replied that he had the right to look at anyone he thought proper to look at. Hennessey then replied to Guerin that he was as good a man as any and was afraid of no man on earth. A friend of Guerin’s then stepped into the mix and suggested that they all go have a drink somewhere and cease quarreling. After they had found a spot to drink Guerin and Hennessey had shaken hands and had another. After the second drink Guerin said he had to go as he had business to attend to. Hennessey followed him out to the alley and suggested they go to another place for another drink. Guerin agreed but said the suggested that the place Hennessey wanted to go to was too far and he suggested the Eighth District Court. Guerin claimed that just after the drinks had been poured…

Hennessey reached into a pocket saying “I’ve got you now just where I want you!” and that’s when he shot him in fear for his life.

Guerin pointed to the threats Hennessey had been making for a month or more against him and the fact that he was so well armed as proof that Hennessey meant to kill him.

The trial took place on July 2 1869 to a crowded courtroom with eager attendees standing outside the door to get a glimpse of what was happening. James Brooks and Pete Freeman expanded once again on their testimony claiming that Hennessey made a statement to the effect of

“Every son of a bitch should know me, I’m Dave Hennessey, I was arrested on the charge of killing Fred Gruber. I’m an Irishman, I don’t care for nobody!”

and that this seem directed Guerin’s way. Guerin’s reaction was to call quietly for another drink. It appeared he was not taking the bait. The bar keep Joe Fernandez, along with Brooks and Freeman, testified that Hennessey had no argument with Guerin nor made any violent moves against him though they did testify to Hennessey’s boisterous manner and reaching into his pockets many times. This was the States Case. Though it wasn’t the 15 or 20 witnesses Guerin had claimed in his jailhouse interview the defense did bring eight witnesses forward that testified to Hennessey making threats and showed that Hennessey hunted Guerin down. After the sides rested the jury left to deliberate at 5:50PM. At 5:55PM they were back with a not guilty verdict. Months later David Hennessey’s old commander from the 1st Louisiana Cavalry Regiment, Algernon Sidney Badger, took over the Metropolitan Police and would give a 12 year old David Hennessey a job in the police force as a messenger boy to help out the struggling family.

James D. Houston

It appears that Arthur Guerin continued to have troubles with shootouts and getting arrested until he met his fate on August 3 1871, somewhat ironically at the hands of James D. Houston (Houston played a part in the lynching at the Orleans Parish Prison a couple decades later in 1891 which was a result of the killing of David Hennessey in October 1890. Some theories even have Houston as a part of a conspiracy to kill Dave Hennessey Jr.)

The official version: On the day of the shooting around 2PM Arthur Guerin walked into a court room where a jury in a larceny case was just returning with it’s verdict. Guerin walked up to a spectator in the crowd, a stranger, and started talking loudly to the man. The judge directed two deputies to remove Guerin from the court room. Guerin put on his hat and the two deputies took him by the arms to lead him out. James Houston, who was a Chief Deputy Sheriff of the Court fell in behind them. When almost to the door of the hallway outside the courtroom Guerin jerked away from the deputies and put his hand behind his back like he was reaching for a weapon. Houston fired his pistol three times. Guerin was hit in the arm near the left shoulder and in his back near the spinal column. He was put on a stretcher and moved to another building to await doctors. Guerin requested that he be taken to his home but those in charge thought it better to not move him any more. Dr. Capdeville was soon there to examine Guerin but came to the decision it was better to wait on Dr. Avilla but the doctor was nowhere to be found and at four O’Clock the decision to bring Guerin home was made. Dr. Avilla finally showed up at his home at 6:30PM that night. The late Dr. gave the opinion that internal hemorrhaging had set in and that death was only a matter of time. Guerin was also almost completely paralyzed by this time. James Houston had been arrested and in his statement he claimed that Guerin had appeared drunk and that in the hallway Guerin was arguing with him and then tried to strike him with his left hand while his right hand reached for a weapon behind his back. A boy who was near the incident was also hit in the calf, was treated and released.

Felix Conrad made the statement that he saw Houston deliberately fire the third shot at Guerin when he was already down and say “You son of a bitch, you’ll remember me!”

Felix Conrad’s statement was probably true. Some weeks before Houston and Guerin had become entangled in a dispute. Two weeks before his shooting Guerin went to the courthouse and stuck a pistol in Houston’s chest saying “I have a great notion to kill you.” “Put that pistol up or I’ll kill you.” was Houston’s reply while staring him in the eye (Houston was apparently a genuine bad ass having survived several shootouts but he was also not known as an upright honest type either). So Houston may or may not have had reason to believe Guerin meant to kill him. He may have just taken the opportunity to get rid of someone he was in a dispute with. Guerin lingered but on August 21 he felt death drawing closer and made a public dying declaration. In it he claimed that Houston shot him for no reason and in the back while he was on the ground (backing up Conrad’s statement). That he had never threatened Houston or had any argument with him.

Could Houston possibly have taken revenge for the Hennessey killing?

I’ve never seen any evidence that they even knew each other but given their professions it’s likely they did at least know one another in passing at the least. But Houston, by descriptions I’ve seen, doesn’t seem like the type that would worry about an old killing. Guerin died on August 25 between 7 and 8AM.

James Houston’s trial started on December 6 1871 for the murder of Guerin. On 8 December Houston was acquitted of all charges despite V.F. Daunoy’s testimony that backed Conrad’s claim. Daunoy was one of the deputies removing Guerin from the courtroom. By December 10 Houston was back at his position.

So ends the first Hennessey story. As mentioned above, Houston would be back in the second Hennessey story.

The sources this information was taken from mainly consist of period newspaper accounts (largely the Times Picayune) but also a few various sources online and a great book that goes into the Hennessey Jr. case and the resulting lynching in 1891, by Thomas Hunt and Martha Macheca Sheldon.


About the Author

Ronald Rawson
Ron Rawson, has held an interest in the Italian Mafia, for over 20 years. After moving to New Orleans in 2012, he decided to pay particular attention to the rich OC history that the Crescent City has to offer, and he began sharing his NOLA findings on his Crescent City Mafia, Murders and Mysteries, Facebook page last November. "I'm always learning something new," he says. "Often when I think I have the whole story down on a subject, some new bit of info will pop up and lead off into another interesting direction." Among the tales of pirates, voodoo priestesses, and vampires, New Orleans holds a long Mafia history. Most people will automatically think of Carlos Marcello, as the father of the New Orleans Mafia. Most people will also assume that the first Mafia family was in New York City. Even many locals don't know that New Orleans has Mafia roots predating the Civil War, giving their wonderful city the distinction of being home to the first Mafia family in the United States. So let's explore the lesser known stories, facts, and even some OC fiction in a little space of the NCS Ron calls, the Crescent Corner.