By Mike Scott
If you know anything about the Beauregard-Keyes house, it’s that former Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and celebrated “Dinner at Antoine’s” author Francis Parkinson Keyes once lived there.
(Not at the same time, though. That would have been weird.)
You might also know that it dates to 1826 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, regarded as one of the French Quarter’s best-preserved structures, a blend of Creole and American building styles.
What you might not know is that between the time Beauregard rented it for two years from around 1866 to 1868 and Keyes took up residence and restored it between 1943 and 1970, it was the site of a bloody showdown that shines an intriguing light on the Italian-American experience in early 20th century New Orleans.
Starting in the 1880s, Sicilians began immigrating to south Louisiana in numbers. With the city’s wealthier residents moving to more fashionable neighborhoods upriver, the newcomers settled in what had become a fairly rundown French Quarter.
There weren’t exactly “millions of Sicilians” (as much fun as that is to say) but there were enough for some to begin referring to the French Quarter as Little Palermo.
People being what they are, it also didn’t take long for anti-Italian sentiment to boil over.
The collective image of local Italians suffered a particular blow with the emergence in the late 19th and early 20th century of the so-called Black Hand Society, a criminal organization rooted in the old country and which specialized in extortion.
In a nutshell, Black Hand operatives would send a letter demanding cash from someone, often another immigrant. Failure to deliver the given sum would leave them, their family or their property at risk.
Newspapers had a field day with the number of Black Hand schemes playing out around the city, as well as with the often-violent aftermath. Buildings were being dynamited. Children were being abucted. People were being killed.
It was against this backdrop that Pietro Giacona, a Sicilian immigrant, bought the house at 1113 Charters around 1904 as a family home.
More Greek in influence than other buildings in the Quarter, it’s built on a ground-level “basement,” with living quarters located one story up. Out back, overlooking a courtyard, is a rear gallery running the length of the house.
It’s on this rear gallery that a bloody drama played out late the night of June 17, 1908. That’s when Giacona, who made and sold wine out of the house’s basement, was approached by Giovani Barreco and Ciro Cusimano, identified by police as Black Hand operatives.
Giacona knew the two men, having previously done business with them. It wasn’t a warm relationship, though.
They often failed to pay him what they owed. They also often showed up at his house demanding food, beds or money. Fearing they might hurt his family, he generally gave in.
Or, he did until that night in June 1908. As described in The Picayune, Barreco and Cusimano had showed up around 9 p.m. with two men Giacona said he didn’t know.
They were being typically belligerent, but he played it cool, entertaining them in the basement for a while and then, when they insisted they be fed, moving to the back gallery, where he asked his adult son, Corrado, to whip up some eggs.
Soon enough, Cusimano was demanding $50 from Giacona. Barreco chimed in, demanding $100 for himself.
Giacona, who had previously received – and ignored – two Black Hand letters, had enough. He excused himself, went inside and grabbed a recently purchased Winchester rifle.
While he was gone, Cusimano and Barreco continued trying to shake down Corrado Giacona. When Cusimano reached for a gun, Corrado sprang to his feet and dashed for the door. Cusimano shot at Corrado but missed – just as old man Giacona was returning with his rifle.
He did not miss.
“Ten minutes after the shots were fired, when the police reached the scene, the gallery was flowing with blood, while two bodies lay still and stark, an old man stood with rifle in hand, with his son beside him, and down in the yard, at the foot of the stairway leading from the gallery to the court, was another body,” read The Picayune’s account.
The dead men were Barreco and Cusimano, as well as one of the two men unknown to Giacona. (His name: Nuzio Barreco, a cousin of Giovanni’s). The other unknown man, wounded, had fled.
The next day, the city was abuzz with news of the shooting, with many in the Italian community praising the Giaconas for standing up to the Black Hand.
Peitro and Corrado Giacona were indicted by a grand jury and tried for the murder of the men, but they were found innocent. The family held onto the house until the 1920s.
By the 1940s, Keyes had moved in and began restoration of parts of the main house, a project she continued until her death in 1970.
Today, the Beauregard-Keyes House is a museum where visitors familiar with its history can stand on the very spot where Giacona made his.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archives, Library of Congress, National Register of Historic Places