An Oysterman Gets Shucked

The young woman sat outside her father’s bar on Rue Bienville.

She sat in one of several chairs lining the narrow walkway under the window of the bar that had Zimmerman’s Coliseum Saloon painted in red letters on it. The July heat was bad enough out here but it was much worse inside the bar. Add the exertion of serving customers, cleaning up and moving the crates of bottles around and it just made it miserable. The occasional breeze that moved through the opened front and back doors helped at times but not nearly enough. Besides, the breeze seemed to be mostly absent today. Though it was getting towards dusk and the sun was slowly going down it didn’t do much to relieve the heat.

Business had been a little slow most of the day until just a little while ago when a lot of Italians had started to walk through the door and order a drink or two. A couple of customers had also ordered something to eat. Business had been pretty brisk for awhile but was now slowing again so she decided to take a few minutes to escape the inside heat. She created a small breeze for herself with the hand fan her father had brought back from a business trip to Baton Rouge for her.

The street stank of trash and horse shit but it was still better than inside. Most of the customers that had recently been in her father’s bar had left for the upstairs hall above their bar. The Italians were having a community meeting. Inside the bar you could hear the movement from upstairs and out in the street you could hear the loud buzz of conversation through the opened windows of the hall. She had heard the story of the Italian man that had been captured in Jackson Square by the Hennessey cousins just a few days prior.

She hadn’t remembered his name but all the recent customers who were headed upstairs to the meeting were talking about it. She usually didn’t bother listening too closely to customer conversations, partly due to the fact that she didn’t understand what they were saying much of the time since she didn’t speak much Italian, but also because sometimes it was better not to know things that didn’t concern you. She did however hear the name of Vincenzo Rebello, many times that afternoon.

Rebello was the man captured and then sent to New York straight away.

They wanted to send him back to Italy, she had heard. Many, if not all, of the customers seemed very upset and angry about the events. She remembered hearing some gossip from others about how Rebello, was actually a pretty bad character and that he was hiding in New Orleans, using a false name. But she had also heard that the wrong man had been arrested and that many Italians, including some of their regular customers, planned on going to New York to testify for the wronged man. She had never been to New York, and wondered what a strange place it must be. In fact she had never been much further outside New Orleans, than Metairie, or Algiers, which was a short ferry ride across the Mississippi River. She could hear music playing not too far away as she fanned herself and started to get lost in her thoughts of New York City, but then a man exited the bar and distracted her from her daydreams. She knew him well enough by sight since he was a regular customer but wasn’t sure of his name. He always smelled of the river and fish. She remembered that well enough. “Anthony,” she thought, but wasn’t quite sure. She wouldn’t bet a nickel on it anyhow.

The man glanced at her on his way out but didn’t acknowledge her other than that. She gave him a quick smile anyways just before he turned back to the street in front of him. Always better to appear nice and maybe they would leave a penny or two on the bar next time they were in. She watched him cross the street and make his way towards Rue Chartres, but then stop to say something to some other Italian men. She wondered why he was heading away from the meeting. The men were still conversing when she started to drift again into her thoughts and wishing the heat away.

As she began to wonder if it was cooler in New York City, a loud crack sounded very close by. Before it could register in her head or she could turn to look in the direction from where the sound came from, she heard a buzz, like a bee, pass close by her head and then the glass window with Zimmermans written on it above and behind her head shattered sending shards, small and big, raining down on her. All at once it quickly and finally dawned on her what was happening.

Someone was shooting!

She let out a scream, dropped her fan and and scrunched down in the chair as much as she could. It wasn’t a completely unknown thing to hear shots around town but she had never been close to any happenings like this. So close that she could hear a bullet whiz by her head. No Sir! Never! Another crack, a bit smaller this time, sounded out and she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to scrunch down even further. As she made herself as small as possible in her chair she could hear people behind her and inside the bar yelling. Her father as well. She could also begin to hear people in the street yelling as well as those in the upstairs hall.

“The music stopped playing” she thought to herself.

After a few seconds of hearing people yelling and the absence of any further shots she opened her eyes and slowly sat up. “I almost got shot’ she thought, “I almost died”. Customers started to pour out the door of Zimmermans into the street. Her father wasn’t far behind. As he reached his daughter and called her name he was anxious since she didn’t turn to respond to him. Her attention was riveted on the dying man bleeding out onto Rue Bienville. The man who’s name she wasn’t quite sure of but always smelled of the Mississippi. She quickly wondered if people got shot in the streets of New York City.

Antonio Labousse, also known as Cacemino Labruzzo/Labuzzo, was an oysterman and a known ally of the Matrangas.

General area where Labousse fell on Rue Bienville. About 30 feet away from the intersection with Rue Chartres.
General area where Labousse fell on Rue Bienville. About 30 feet away from the intersection with Rue Chartres.

In 1879, upon the arrival of Guissepe Esposito, in New Orleans, Labousse, apparently at the direction of Charles Matranga, built a fishing lager (a smallish boxy type fishing vessel) for Esposito to help set him up in business. Esposito named his boat Leone (most likely after the Sicilian bandit Antonino Leone, who Esposito had worked under in Sicily) and by all accounts flew a bandito flag on it. One account of Labousse has him as head of the New Orleans Mafia at the time of Esposito’s arrival, Esposito displacing him and Labousse informing on him in outrage over being deposed of his position. While certainly possible I find it questionable as this is the only account so far that I’ve come across having Labousse in this position and the source has several other details that are sketchy). By 1881, however, a rivalry had developed between the two Matranga and Provenzano factions.

Joe Esposito had taken overall control of things in New Orleans, and started showing favor towards the Provenzanos. In July 1881, Joe Esposito was captured by the Hennessey’s in Jackson Square, and quickly sent to New York for an extradition hearing to Sicily, from which he was a fugitive. The reasons for it are apparently lost to history ( most likely resentment of Esposito’s takeover and favor of the Provenzano faction) but Labousse was accused by the Provenzano faction of being a traitor and giving information to the Hennessey cousins, David and Michael, that helped in the capture of the Sicilian bandit. There is evidence that there was an informer in the fact that the Italian government was looking for a Senior Panesolo, to reward for aiding in the capture of Esposito, but how it was determined Labousse was Panesolo is a mystery. Senior Panesolo, never collected from the Italian government.

Between July 5th, the time of Esposito’s capture, and July 15th, several minor clashes had occurred between the two factions. In an apparent attempt to come to terms over their differences, a meeting was set up for the evening of July 15th. Publicly the meeting was called a fundraiser for the defense of Vincenzo Rebello ( the alias Esposito gave at the time of his capture). Most of the Italian citizenry were not happy with the manner in which Esposito had been captured and whisked away since it set a precedence. If it happened to him it could also happen to them.

The meeting was to take place on the second floor of Screwmans Hall, above Zimmerman’s Coliseum Saloon, on the corner of Exchange Place and Bienville at 8.00 PM. There is no record of attendees but most likely the Provenzano’s, Matranga’s and Joseph Macheca were among them. As the meeting was coming to order and popular local businessman/auctioneer Benedetto Onarato was introducing some of the more prominent guests, shots rang out from the street below. The crowd quickly made it’s way out and to the street where they found Antonio Labousse, laying in the street towards the Chartres intersection. He was bleeding profusely from a wound to his midsection.

The corner of bienville and exchange place where the assassins shot labousse from

One account of things has Benedetto Onarato, who was a Northern Italian with a distaste of Sicilians, being worried about a rough element attending the meeting and asking Labousse a couple of days prior to stay away from the gathering as well as persuading his friends to do the same. Apparently he agreed and showed up prior to the meeting to ensure those others did’nt show up. This accounts for Labousse walking in the opposite direction when leaving Zimmermans.

Outside of Zimmermans bar his daughter was fanning herself in a chair.

A street musician with an organ grinder played close to the entrance of Exchange Alley. A peddler named Adolph Weiland, was also heading towards Zimmerman’s. As he did so he caught sight of two figures in the shadows of Exchange Place, as they steadied a shotgun on an iron railing at the corner of the alley. A shot burst out, ripping through Labousse, going over Zimmerman’s daughters head, shattering the window behind her along with several bottles, and finally lodging in the bar of the saloon.

As a witness to the shooters, Weiland described the second man rising up and firing a pistol into his kneeling companion with the rifle and then fleeing the scene as meeting attendees filed down the stairs from the hall to the street. Labousse’s friends tried to render aid but he was dead when police arrived quickly after the shooting. Police quickly arrested an hysterical shoe cobbler named Pietro Samorini, who rushed up to them with a rifle in his hands. A man found a short ways away on the corner of Royal and Bienville named Vincenzo Vasso was also arrested.

Vasso had a pistol in his pocket with one round that had been fired. The man who had been shot in the back was Gaetano Arditto ( A.K.A Joseph Florada who had links to the previous underworld killings of the Agnello brothers a decade earlier). Arditto was a lemon merchant and successful stevedore (also a probable Mafia hitman) due to Esposito’s help. He and Labousse had had an encounter a couple of days prior at Arditto’s stand in the market due to the suspicion of Labousse’s complicity in Esposito’s capture but Arditto was no match for the larger Labousse and was disarmed of the pistol he carried and then soundly beaten. Threats had gone back and forth since the encounter. Arditto was taken to Charity Hospital to be treated for his back wound. Police found no weapon near Labousse but surmised that he probably had had one since his life had been threatened but that one of his friends had likely taken it before they arrived. His body was loaded into a wagon and taken to a nearby police station to await the coroner. Friends and family of Labousse filed in to have one last look at their friend and say goodbye. Several apparently swore to avenge him.

the corner of bienville and exchange place where the assassins shot labousse from
the corner of bienville and exchange place where the assassins shot labousse from

Antonio Matranga was the older brother to Charles Matranga but apparently had little to do with his father’s and brother’s Mafia business. He was more interested in running his dance hall/saloon that catered to the lower classes of New Orlean’s citizens. Shortly after arriving at his home after the events of the evening a messenger knocked on his door telling him that Arditto was asking for him. Though Arditto was with the rival Provenzano group he and Antonio were old boyhood friends and Arditto wanted to possibly send a message to the Matranga’s through their brother/son. No one knows what was said between the two but it’s possible Arditto confessed his role in the killing of Labousse (possibly as a hired hitman?) and pleaded for mercy of the Matranga’s for him and his family. I would hazard a guess that being shot in the back by your partner in crime sent a message to Arditto that it was intended to get rid of him and lay the sole blame at his feet by whoever it was that was truly behind the shooting.

Esposito was deported to Italy on September 21. It was finally realized that the shoe cobbler Samorini was only trying to help by handing in the rifle he found. Weiland was suspected of planning to leave town and was held as a witness in the Parish Prison until trial (the custom of the day to keep witness’s safe and readily available).

Two accounts of Arditto’s fate are out there.

One, he recovered from his wound and lives another decade, at least, and at some point apparently goes to work for the Matranga’s before disappearing around 1890.

In the second version Arditto is convicted of the murder of Labousse and sentenced to life (this seems more likely). Weiland and the organ grinder musician, who turned out to be a down on his luck steamboat man named John Kenny, testified to seeing Arditto shoot Labousse. Neither could identify Vasso as the one who shot Arditto in the back however and Vasso was aquitted after a short trial.

The Matranga’s, Provenzano’s, David Hennessey and Joseph Macheca would all be involved a decade later in one of New Orleans biggest and most notorious events.