Italian Immigrants and Racial Politics in Alexandria

Many native-born whites feared Italian immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of their supposed foreignness and racial in-betweenness. Newspapers, including the Washington Post, Alexandria Gazette, and Evening Star, played on these fears by portraying Italians as morally suspect and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. To do this, newspapers mostly reported stories on Italians committing crimes or being the victims of violence. Many crime reports focused on incidents between Italian immigrants and African Americans, which play to racist and nativist politics of the time. In response, Italians claimed white privilege so that they could be protected from Jim Crown segregation.

In the early twentieth century, Alexandria was modernizing itself, which included railroad expansion. Both African Americans and Italians, along with other immigrants, worked on railroad construction together. White-owned newspapers took advantage of African American and Italian crime to affirm the fears of native-born whites. For example, after a case in 1904, in which a group of twelve African Americans returning from the railroad camps were seeking to avenge the death of their friend by way of lynching, the Alexandria Gazette took it as an opportunity to play on the nativist fears of white Americans. The story was used to advocate for increased police presence to defend against the common occurrence of crime between these two groups as they entered the city in large numbers from the railroads. The Gazette claimed that African Americans and Italians, who were “swarming” the city, “generally flock to certain places” and when they do, “disorder occurs.”1 Police officers were expected to practice “due diligence” to conserve the peace. In doing so, the Alexandria Gazette portrayed Italian immigrants as would-be-criminals and on the bottom of the social hierarchy along with African Americans. Furthermore, the paper exaggerated the incident, making it seems as though the increased presence of Italians and African Americans into the city would cause violence and disorder.

As African Americans and Italians worked side-by-side on the railroad construction sites, Italians accused African Americans of stealing their jobs. In response, Italians made the claim that these jobs were theirs due to their whiteness. For example, the 1904 case of assault on James Winkfield by Alfonso Dantonio demonstrates the importance of whiteness for Dantonio. This story appears in both the Washington Post and Alexandria Gazette, in which Dantonio shot Winkfield, an African American. Prior to the shooting, Winkfield said that Dantonio claimed that “black man [were taking] Italian’s jobs.”2 As the shooting of Winkfield by Dantonio portrays, there was also tension between African Americans and Italian immigrants, as the immigrants were vying for superiority over the other.

Ultimately, local newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century played on nativist and racist fears held by native-born whites by reporting on stories such as these.  They also point to the racial tensions between African Americans and Italian immigrants.

1 [no title], Alexandria Gazette, April 23, 1904.

2 “Shot by Italian,” Alexandria Gazette, December 5, 1904.

America Must Remain American

In 1924, one legislative action defined the new political and social attitudes toward southern and eastern European immigrants entering the United States. The National Origins Quota Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was designed to restrict what some native-born whites believed to be undesirable populations who were entering the country at the time. In effect, it’s “most basic purpose…was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”In other words, it encouraged western and northern European immigration and restricted all other groups through the creation of a quota system based on 2% of the 1890 U.S. Census.  All Asian were banned.1

White public opinion and tolerance for the law in Virginia can be ascertained by looking at local newspaper articles. One such article can be found in the Washington Post in 1927. On September 8, the Washington Post reported on an Italian man named Antonio Vacara, a shoemaker, who was arrested for “acting in a suspicious manner.”  Local authorities thought he was insane, believing that he was suffering from hallucinations for refusing to eat out of a fear of being poisoned.  A day later, the Post reported that Dr. J. S. DeJarnette, the superintendent of Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Staunton, Virginia, said that he would reject Vacara because he thought he was a foreigner and recommended that he be deported.  De Jarnette was also a supporter of eugenics, the idea that white elites needed to limit the reproduction of certain groups of humans whom they deemed inferior, including certain immigrants groups.  The Virginia state legislature had also passed the Virginia Sterilization Act, also in 1924, to allow the state to forcible sterilize men and women against their will, which DeJarnette supported. In 1927, DeJarnette was a key witness for the state in the case, Buck v. Bell, which upheld the constitutionality of such laws.

vacara1Vacara1_5

Vacara2vacara3

Whether insane or not, Vacara faced two-fold discrimination when he was arrested for “acting in a suspicious manner.” He was not only possibly mentally ill, but also an Italian immigrant. The overwhelming public opinion of the time was unfavorable towards men and women like Vacara. Madison Grant’s words are key to understanding white public opinion of the time. In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant proclaims that even under the best conditions, a “race” can only “achieve its maximum development, but the limits of that development are fixed for it by heredity and not by environment”.2   Like Grant, many white Americans believed that non-whites and even non-western European peoples could never become fully American. Grant’s book, which was written in 1916, concluded that mixing whites and non-whites together diluted the gene pool, creating humans that are more primitive than their pure blooded Western European ancestors.

Several days later, on September 13, the Post reported that Vacara had been “adjudged insane by a lunacy commission” and transferred to the State Hospital at Staunton.It is unclear what might have changed DeJarnette’s opinion on Vacara’s admittance.

1 “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act) – 1921–1936 – Milestones – Office of the Historian,” The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act (accessed October 2, 2014).

2 Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, Or, The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 13.

“Resolution Plans Annexation Move in  Alexandria Area,” The Washington Post Sep 9, 1927.

 

Dangerous Working Environments for Italian Railroad Laborers

The building of the Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Virginia required many unskilled and semiskilled laborers during its construction in the early 1900s.

Potomac Yards LOC

Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Virginia, ca. 1920, Creator(s): Theodor Horydczak, (ca. 1890-1971), courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/thc1995006802/pp/

Railroad contractors employed many Italian laborers to build railroads and make track improvements.    Railroad work, however, was not a safe or easy job, and many Italians were injured or killed.  Newspapers, such as The Washington Post, The Evening Star, and The Alexandria Gazette, documented many railroad accidents involving Italians in the early 1900s.  On December 18, 1903 The Evening Star reported the death of twenty-two year old Lorenzo Basque, an Italian laborer who was struck by one of the work engines at the rail yards. The Evening Star also reported that Basque was escorted with twelve fellow Italian laborers to the Alexandria Hospital “who were employed with him in the construction of the double track of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, about fifteen miles below the city.”1  Despite the large group that followed him to the hospital, little is known about where Basque lived, and if he had any family in the area.

The Alexandria Gazette reported the death of Antonio Taroborrelli, another Italian railroad laborer, on March 23, 1905. According to the article, Taroborrelli was struck in the head by one of the small cars and his “neck was broken and the back of his head crushed.”2 The article also mentions that this was the second death that week from railroad accidents.

The two incidents above are not the only railroad related accidents, injuries, or deaths among Italians in the early 1900s in and around Alexandria.  The Alexandria Gazette reported an Italian laborer employed by Reiter, Curtiss & Hill was “struck in the head by an engine” on April 6, 1906.3 Another incident occurred a month later with an Italian laborer’s foot being seriously smashed while working on the railroad.4

Despite the well-documented hazardous working conditions on the railroad, many Italians migrated to the area looking for work.  Perhaps the potential monetary benefits outweighed the risk; it also could be that there were few job opportunities for Italians. Railroad construction and maintenance required large amounts of labor that many migrating Italians took advantage of.

1 “Death From Injuries,” The Evening Star, December 18, 1903.

2 “Another Man Killed,” The Alexandria Gazette, March 23, 1905.

3 “Struck by an Engine,” The Alexandria Gazette, April 6, 1905.

4 “Local Brevities,” The Alexandria Gazette, May 09, 1906.

 

Danger: Labor Ahead

There are some that say history is written by the victors and largely ignores the common person; while this is certainly true in some kinds of historical documents, the common person may be found in the historical record through other means.  One example is late 19th and early 20th century newspapers.  Through reading newspaper articles, it is possible to get a sense of how everyday people–such as Italian immigrants in Alexandria, Virginia–lived, what types of experiences they may have encountered, and how those in control of the press viewed them.  Unsurprisingly, many of the articles on Italian immigrants refer to those men who worked on railroads and the dangers that they faced.  Many workers, based on local newspaper coverage, were severely injured or killed on the job.

At the start of the 20th century, many Italian immigrants were employed on the railroads in northern Virginia, working primarily on the expansion of various rail lines or the creation of new ones.  Out of a small sampling of newspaper articles from 1903-1905, nine stories reported accidents involving Italian laborers working on the railroads.  Of those nine, five of the accidents were fatal.  One Washington Post article published on August 8, 1905 involved five laborers who were shoveling dirt from a flat car.  Upon hearing an oncoming train, they attempted to jump, fearing that they were about to be struck, but ended up jumping in front of the train.  Four workers were killed and one hospitalized with a broken leg.  Another article published in the March 23, 1905 edition of the Alexandria Gazette described an accident in which Antonio Taroborrelli, another railroad worker, was struck by an earth hauling car and was killed after his neck was broken and head crushed.  What is also shocking about this article is that it mentions that this accident was the second one in just one week.  These are just a couple examples of the dangerous situations that railroad workers faced.

Despite being a relatively small sample size, these articles reflect a history that is often ignored.  The jobs these immigrants were working were very dangerous, and yet they built the railroads that were so heavily relied on in the 20th century.  Many of these accidents were far from uncommon in railroad jobs across the country, but the fact that they happened so frequently in a town as small as Alexandria shows just how dangerous these jobs really were.

Perceptions of Italian Immigrants in Alexandria, VA

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants were considered “white but not quite” amongst native-born whites, leaving Italians at the bottom of a racialized social hierarchy, arguably only a notch or two above African Americans. The little acknowledgment that Italians did receive often came in the form of negative stereotypes, particularly within newspapers targeted at a white middle class audience. Examples of such discrimination can be seen particularly in Alexandria, Virginia, with a substantial Italian immigrant population during this period.

In the Washington Post from 1885 to 1942, most articles reported that Italians were suspected (or convicted) criminals, victims of criminal acts, and/or killed or maimed while working in railroad construction. In Alexandria, a June 4, 1885 news snippet described “Pietro Leone, an Italian . . . [who was] charged with attempting to commit outrage upon a little girl aged eleven years.”1  The article mentions how several witnesses claimed to have seen Leone’s attempted assault, while the girl herself denied that Leone ever did such a thing. A second news report, dated November 9, 1920, described Joseph Caersar, an Italian fruit seller, who was arrested for the alleged assault of a girl; Caersar was “waived a preliminary investigation and was immediately sent out of the city to avoid any attempt at mob violence.”2  Both of these articles seem to be set-ups for lynching in the South—African American and Italian men were often accused of sexually assaulting young white girls or women with little to no evidence as support.

A handful of articles also make mention of violence between Italians and African Americans. A Washington Post article dated December 5, 1904 accounted Alfonso Dantonio, an Italian laborer, shooting James Winkfield, who was African American. According to Dantonio himself, Winkfield reportedly robbed him “on three different occasions,” causing Dantonio to retaliate as a means of self-defense.3 The article described that Dantonio was “under the influence of liquor, and decided to have vengeance on the spot.”4  However, a previous Washington Post article, dated just one day prior, mentioned how Dantonio, only referred to as “an Italian,” also commented that a “blacka [sic] man taka [sic] white-a [sic] man’s job.”5 This reinforces the racialized social hierarchy that dominated the South; Italians recognized that they were in competition with African Americans for jobs and embraced their “white enough” status to justify their employment over others.

These reports furthered negative stereotypes of Italians as hot-headed, aggressive, drunken, and impulsive people in comparison to the supposedly “civilized” white middle classes who read the Washington Post and similar newspapers that circulated at the time. Because most native-born whites saw Italians represented in such a manner, their “white but not quite” status hindered their acceptance.

1 “Alexandria,” Washington Post, June 4, 1885.

2 “Alexandria News,” Washington Post, November 9, 1920.

“Alexandria News in Brief: Senator Daniel Makes Address at Elks’ Memorial Session—Italian Laborer Claims Negro He Shot Had Repeatedly Robbed Him,” Washington Post, December 5, 1904.

4 Ibid.

5 “Alexandria News in Brief: Italian Fires Two Bullets Into Negro, Seriously Wounding Him,” Washington Post, December 4, 1904.

 

 

 

The Racial Tensions Between African Americans and Italians in Alexandria

One issue that appears upon close readings of the Washington Post during the early twentieth century were conflicts between African Americans and Italians in Alexandria, Virginia. Because of local racial attitudes, Italians and African Americans were likely to live in close proximity to each other and competed for jobs in railroad construction.

December 4, 1904

Violence between African Americans and Italians went both ways, with African Americans attacking Italians and vice versa. And economics was often a driving force.  One example is the case of Alfonso Dantonio and James Winkfield. Dantonio reportedly shouted, “Blacka man taka whitea man’s job,” before opening fire on Winkfield and shooting him twice.1 Dantonio’s  statement highlighted how Italians viewed themselves as “white;” however, native-born whites and blacks did not necessarily have a similar attitude.  Italians were often seen as foreigners who were unable to be Americanized because of their racial in-betweeness–they were somewhere between white and black.

December 6, 19042

In the article, “Italian Fires Two Shots into Negro”, Winkfield claimed that he had never had an encounter with Dantonio before the shooting, not even while they were inside the saloon where they both had been drinking. Dantonio claimed that a week before shooting he had been held up by “four negro men,” one of whom was Winkfield, and robbed of $25. Dantonio also claimed he had been shot by the robbers, but the police were unable to find any wounds.3 Upon further inspection, the police discovered that Dantonio had started the day off with $9, loaned $5 to a friend, and drank the rest away at the saloon.4 Although the police did not discover a bullet wound on Dantonio, that does not mean four African Americans had not assaulted him; however, the article showed that Winkfield was more than likely a blameless victim of the racial tension between African Americans and Italians. Dantonio could have been harboring ill feelings toward Winkfield because of other interactions and misconceptions of African Americans.

In Alexandria, Italians and African Americans were competing for the similar jobs on the railroads. Italians’ attitudes about their white privilege could have fueled racial tensions between the two groups. Whatever the reasons, racial tensions and violence were a prominent feature in the Washington Post in the early twentieth century.

 

1 “Alexandria News in Brief: Italian Fires Two Bullets Into Negro, Seriously Wounding Him,” The Washington Post, December 4, 1904.

2 “Alexandria News,” The Washington Post, December 6, 1904.

3 “Alexandria News in Brief: Italian Fires Two Bullets Into Negro, Seriously Wounding Him,” The Washington Post, December 4, 1904.

4 Ibid.

 

Nativism and Sterilization

From the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, there was a stream of Italian immigrants driven to come to the U.S. for the opportunities the American economy provided.  In Alexandria, Virginia, large numbers of Italians came to town to work on various railroad projects starting in the 1880s.  Most came only temporarily, working on the railroad construction and then moving to other jobs along the line.

The local white population, however, did not always view Italians living and working in Alexandria in a positive way.  According to the racial hierarchy that emerged in southern cities at this time, Italians were perceived to have a higher standing than African Americans, but also seen as unassimilable foreigners who could never truly become American. Evidence of this can be found in the news coverage on Antonio Vacara.  Arrested for “peculiar behavior”, Vacara later attacked a police officer with a razor on the way to the police station. While imprisoned Vacara could not identify the police officer he attacked and began a hunger strike because he feared his food was being poisoned. Although Vacara was deemed psychologically unstable by local authorities, he was refused institutionalization because it was presumed he was Italian citizen and therefore did not have the same rights as an American. What is significant was not the law, but the fact that Dr. Joseph Spencer De Jarnette, the director of the state mental hospital at Staunton, assumed Vacara was an alien without confirming his status.

De Jarnette represented a more extreme forms of nativism tied to the eugenics movement, which believed that human intervention was required to deter the numerical expansion of supposedly inferior races.  De Jarnette was a firm believer in eugenics and even acted as a witness in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it was constitutional for the state to forcible sterilize a disabled person. This legalized compulsory sterilization to the “intellectually disabled”. De Jarnette even wrote a poem about eugenics, known as “Mendel’s Law: A Plea for a Better Race of Men”.

Although many southerners did not share De Jarnette’s extreme ideas, nativism was a prevalent concept in Southern society that hindered the acceptance of Italians in the early twentieth century.  Vacara, despite comments questioning his immigration status, was eventually sent to Western State Hospital in Staunton where De Jarnette worked.1

 

1 “Tract near Alexandria Bring 75 cents an Acre,” The Washington Post September 13, 1927.

A City Divided, A Death Undecided

Archived newspapers have always been useful sources for learning about historical events. They provide a look into not only the details of a variety of past events, but also–through their tone and focus–provide a glance at what society was like in the past. Their accuracy, however, must be called into question. While newspapers are essential to historians, they must be widely consulted and not be used as evidence alone. As I found with the 1905 news coverage of the “murder-suicide” of George Malcolm and Joseph Leanto in Lorton, Virginia, each newspaper only provided part of the story leaving it up to the researcher to piece together the most factual information while utilizing other resources to fill in the rest.

According to the April 7, 1905 edition of the Washington Post, a man “deputy sheriff George W. Malcombe” was shot attempting to arrest “Joseph Lee, a negro.”1 On the same day, the Alexandria Gazette reported that a deputy sheriff, “George W. Malcombe” was shot by an unnamed Italian.2 A day later, the Post amended the name of the victim from “Malcombe” to “Malcolm” and announced that the murderer, an Italian named “Joseph Lanto,” had committed suicide to evade arrest.3 On April 9, the Italian’s name changed again in the Post to “Joseph Leanto.”4  Through further research using outside sources, one discovers that the Post never actually managed to get Malcolm’s name completely correct. His real name, as listed in the 1900 U.S. Census, was George A. Malcolm, something that only one newspaper, the Evening Star acknowledged.5 His death record reveals that he was twenty-four years old.6 His picture and gravestone, which is located at Pohick Episcopal Church Cemetery in Lorton, Virginia, are both easily accessible online.

For Joseph Leanto, however, as with many immigrants, records are a lot harder to locate. The only primary source I could find outside that given in the newspapers was his death record: he was a twenty-five year old man and, according to his death record, known as “Joe.”7  His body was buried in the Potter’s Field, most likely in Blue Plains, which could have represented Leanto’s lack of money, status as a criminal, or, according to the April 9th edition of the Washington Times, implied that his body had not been claimed or identified by any friends or family.8

Another important fact that I hoped to clear up is the idea that the crime was a “murder-suicide.” The basics of the original story as reported by the Post were that school teacher and deputy sheriff Malcolm had been shot while trying to arrest Joseph Leanto, an Italian laborer, for allegedly assaulting school girls. Leanto, in fear of capture, quickly fled the scene and later shot himself with his revolver as armed pursuers neared. Both men died at a hospital within an hour of each other.9  This story was quickly called into question by the Italian ambassador who, within a few days, called for an investigation into Leanto’s death. According to the ambassador, there was sufficient cause to believe that Leanto had been murdered by a mob; a wound to Leanto’s hand did not make sense with the suicide theory.10

The results of the investigation, while reported, were not widely covered and demonstrate that for the most part, local, white readers had moved on to other things. In response to the ambassador’s interests, the governor ordered an investigation of Leanto’s death.11 Contrary to the initial report of suicide, two reports quickly surfaced. The first, according to the Evening Star was that of an agent who determined that Leanto was killed by gunshots while attempting to evade arrest and that the “result that the theory of suicide was negatived.”12 The other, mentioned in early May by the Times Dispatch, extended upon the Evening Star’s report. The final statement of the Governor, the Dispatch states, would be sent to the Italian ambassador as the final verdict: the District Attorney was in agreement with the state agent’s findings that Leanto had been “shot with his own pistol while resisting arrest.”13

While this final report seems definitive and enough to prove that Leanto had not committed suicide but was either shot by his own gun on accident, as the citizens claimed, or by another party, one final report reopened the question of Leanto’s death. The yearly recap edition of the Evening Star from January 1, 1906, reported that “Joseph Leanto, an Italian, resisted arrest in Virginia and killed Deputy Sheriff Malcolm. He was shot by a posse of citizens and died at the Emergency Hospital in this city. His victim died in the same hospital.”14 Whether the Star had more evidence than they had previously provided or just interpreted the death of Leanto as a murder, the case’s depiction as a “murder-suicide” was called into question. While there is still a lot of information missing from the case as well as mystery surrounding the identity of Leanto, by combining the information provided by a wide variety of archived newspapers and other outside resources, the idea that Leanto’s death was a suicide is still controversial even today.


“Alexandria News In Brief: Deputy Sheriff Desperately Wounded by a Resisting Negro,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 7, 1905, http://www.newspapers.com/image/19496088/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

2 “Shot by an Italian,” Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, April 7, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85025007/1905-04-07/ed-1/seq-3/  (accessed October 1, 2014).

3 “Both Die of Wounds: Deputy Sheriff Malcolm and Joseph Lanto Succumb,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 8, 1905, http://www.newspapers.com/image/19496655/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

4 “Shooting of Leanto: Italian Embasst Investigating Lorton Tragedy,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 9, 1905, http://www.newspapers.com/image/19497670/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

5 “Excitement at Lorton: Citizens Declare Leanto Was a Desperate Man,” The Evening Star (Washington D.C.), April 10, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1905-04-10/ed-1/seq-8/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

6 “George A. Malcolm, 1905.” District of Columbia Deaths, 1874-1959, index and images, https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/F7TJ-Y9M (accessed October 1, 2014).

7 “Joe Leanto, 1905,” District of Columbia Deaths, 1874-1959, index and images, https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/F7TJ-YH4 (accessed October 1, 2014).

8 “Remains of Malcolm Taken to his Home: Those of His Murderer, Joseph Leanto, Remain at Morgue Unclaimed,” The Washington Times, April 9, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1905-04-09/ed-1/seq-21/ (accessed October 2, 2014).

9 “Both Die of Wounds,” The Washington Post (1877-1922), April 8, 1905.

10 “Gov. Montague to Investigate: Italian Ambassador Wants to Know How Joseph Leanto Met His Death,” Tazewell Republican, April 13, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95079154/1905-04-13/ed-1/seq-4/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

11 “Will be Investigated: Gov. Montague’s Assurance Regarding the Death of Leanto,” Evening Star, April 15, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1905-04-15/ed-1/seq-1/ (accessed 1, 2014).

12 “Death of Joseph Leanto: Acting Secretary Loomis Receives Report of a Special Inquiry,” Evening Star, April 20, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1905-04-20/ed-1/seq-1/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

13 “Case of Leanto: Governor Montague Makes Final Reply,”The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), May 7, 1905, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038615/1905-05-07/ed-1/seq-19/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

14 “Crimes and Criminals: Unusual Number of Cases of Murder and Suicide,” Evening Star, January 1, 1906, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1906-01-01/ed-1/seq-12/ (accessed October 1, 2014).

A Mysterious Suicuide: Joseph Leanto

On April 6, 1905, George Malcolm, who worked as both part-time police officer and school teacher, was shot in Lorton, Virginia while trying to make an arrest. The entire affair was recorded in four local newspapers: The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Evening Star, and Alexandria Gazette. The circumstances of the event–from the names of the individuals involved to the death of the perpetrator–were covered in these papers, but there was significant conflicting information. As the papers also reported, the Italian ambassador became quite suspicious of the event and complained to the State Department, forcing the governor and Justice Department to investigate. In the end, no foul play was found but the incident remained suspicious.

The confusion about the event began with the initial reports. The first reports of the incident were published in the April 7 editions of the The Washington Post and Alexandria Gazette. The Washington Post article stated that a police officer named “George W. Malcombe had been shot and seriously injured by Joseph Lee, a negro for whom he had a warrant of arrest.”1 The article from the Alexandria Gazette said, “George W. Malcombe, a deputy sheriff at Lorton, Fairfax County had been shot and seriously injured by an Italian, for whom he had a warrant of arrest.”2 There is a clear contradiction between the two articles about the race and ethnicity of the aggressor. Interestingly, ethnic/racial confusion between African Americans and Italians were common in early twentieth-century newspapers. Also, the Alexandria Gazette article provided readers with additional details about the event. It said that the assailant “made undue remarks concerning the young lady scholars.” This is the reason that the newspaper claimed Malcombe obtained an arrest warrant. The article then notes that Malcolmbe and two officers went to Lorton Station to arrest “the Italian” when a shoot-out occurred. During the shoot-out, “the Italian” shot Macolmbe in the abdomen. The officers then retreated, Malcombe was taken to the hospital, and “the assassin made his escape.”3 Furthermore, the article said that he had “secured two revolvers” and “returned to the scene of the shooting, defying arrest, and flourishing the pistols, acting like an enraged fiend.”4 The details in the article get even more unclear as one reads on. It says that “the Italian” attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself, and at first was believed to be dead, but later showed signs of life. He was sent on a train to Washington Hospital. It is important to notice that in this article “the Italian” was called “an assassin” and “an enraged fiend,” but his name was never given.  Many white middle-class readers would have embraced these derogatory terms, which reinforced the attitude that Italian immigrants were see as dangerous and uncivilized.

On the following day, the reports changed the identities of the men and various details of the event. The Washington Post said “George W. Malcolm, the deputy sheriff who was shot in the abdomen while attempting to arrest Joseph Lanto, an Italian at Lorton, Alexandria County, Va.”The Washington Post also identified the aggressor as Joseph Lanto rather than Joseph Lee. It also said that he was originally to be arrested because he “attempted to assault some little girls.”This is different than what was said in the Alexandria Gazette just a day earlier when it was alleged that he had only made “undue remarks.” The Washington Post also stated that “an armed posse yesterday went looking for the Italian.”7  Similarly, The Washington Times reported “Assassin Joe Leanto [as opposed to Lanto or Lee] falls fatally wounded in encounter with posse,” but that the posse claimed the wounds that killed Leanto were self-inflicted.”It is possible that this “posse” was actually a mob looking for vengeance against Leanto for his alleged crimes against the girls and the shooting of Malcolm.

On April 9, reports regarding the identity of “the Italian” again changed, and the suspicions were raised surrounding the cause of his death. The Washington Post also began to call “the Italian” “Joseph Leanto” rather than “Lanto” or “Lee.”  Furthermore, the article says that the Italian ambassador, Baron Mayor des Planches, went to Alexandria to inquire about the nature of Leanto’s death. He was suspicious about the suicide story and believed that a mob had killed Leanto. The article continues, “[i]f Leanto was hunted down and shot by a posse, the Alexandria police are not aware of it, and the report is not credited.”9 The Alexandria police–who possibly knew Malcombe since he worked in law enforcement in the neighboring jurisdiction–might have been intimately knowledgable of the incident and the people involved.  This cryptic sentence appears to be an attempt by the press at undermining the possibility that a mob murdered Leanto.

The men who participated in the posse told their story on April 10 to reporters at the Alexandria Gazette. The Gazette identified the mob as J. M. Springman, John Plaskett Jr., Lindsey Dawson, Peter Hall, Elmer Mallory, George Bayliss, A. W. Grimsley, and R. L. Harrover.10 The men claimed that they went to the Commissary Department where Leanto was employed and “secured possession of the Italian without resistance.”11 Then, they claimed that they allowed him to return to his workplace where he sat in a train car for half an hour.  The men became impatient and “Mr. Springman rushed upon him from the rear, seizing both arms. The Italian drew a revolver, with which he attempted to shoot over his head at Mr. Springman.…The Italian fired but the ball went crashing through his own brain.”12 This story is somewhat unbelievable because it is unlikely that they would have allowed Leanto to return to the Commissary Department once they had him in custody for both murder and assault.  It also would have been difficult for Leanto to attempt to shoot Springman if both of his arms were seized.

On April 12, The Washington Post reported that des Planches took the issue of Leanto’s suicide to the State Department, and the Department requested that the Governor of Virginia investigate. The ambassador was skeptical that Leanto had killed himself because of “the character of the wounds on Leanto’s body, one in particular being on the hand.”13 The ambassador had reason to believe that an armed mob killed Leanto because the wounds on his body could not have been self-inflicted.  They also might make firing a gun difficult.  Seven days later on April 19, the same newspaper published an article that stated Governor Montague requested that Commonwealth Attorney, Vernon Ford, investigate the incident. After Ford’s investigation, he responded, “the posse which attempted to place Leanto under arrest was legally organized and that if Leanto was shot by one of the officers, the shooting was justifiable.”14 Ford submitted this information to the State Department as requested by the Italian Ambassador.  Then, on May 7, the final report on the Leanto investigation was published in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and Evening Star. All papers stated that the Governor’s office and the Department of Justice found that Leanto was shot with his own pistol.

The last time the incident was reported was in the Evening Star on January 1, 1906 as part of the newspaper’s year in review.  Despite the reports from the state and federal authorities, it reported that Leanto “was shot by a posse of citizens and died at the Emergency Hospital in this city.”15

The lynching of Italian immigrants was not unheard of in the Mid-Atlantic and South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  For example, Janice Hittinger Barrow discusses lynching and mob attacks in her essay, “Lynching in the Mid-Atlantic, 1882-1940.” She writes about a mob killing an Italian immigrant named Boleta after allegedly shooting into a crowd of people and injuring a white man in 1916. After a mob of 500 people found Boleta and beat him, he later died in the hospital.  Barrow writes, “The New York Morning Telegraph described Boleta as a ‘poor Italian immigrant,’ and compared his standing in the community to that of ‘an ignorant friendless Negro.’”16 This is important because the local newspapers used similar terms when describing Leanto. It is evident that many native-born whites did not see Italians as equals, but identified them with African Americans. You can read Barrow’s entire essay here.

After a month of confusion, the final reports ruled that Leanto had committed suicide and there was no foul play. Yet, there is evidence of mob violence if one reads between the lines and look at the experiences of other Italian immigrants in the region.  Furthermore, the Evening Star report from January 1 is explicit about the cause of Leanto’s death. Mob violence, as highlighted by Borrow, was usually to discipline and intimidate minorities and enforce white supremacy. If white men believed that Leanto had tried to assault young white girls and killed a police officer, then these acts would have been their reason for hunting him down and killing him. The newspapers showed bias in their description of Leanto by calling him names like “assassin” “enraged fiend,” and even simply referring to him as “the Italian.” White supremacy–although used to justify Jim Crow segregation–targeted other populations as well.

1 “Deputy Sheriff Desperately Wounded by Resisting a Negro,” The Washington Post, April 7, 1905.

2 “Shot by an Italian,” Alexandria Gazette, April 7, 1905.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

“Both Die of Wounds, Deputy Sheriff Malcolm and Joseph Lanto Succumb Result of Lorton Shooting,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1905.

Ibid.

Ibid.

“Murder and Victim Die in Same Hospital, School Teacher Malcolm’s Wounds Prove Fatal-Assassin Joe Leanto Falls Fatally Wounded in Encounter with Posse,” The Washington Times, April 8, 1905.

“Shooting of Leanto, Italian Embassy Investigating Lorton Tragedy, Was He Killed by Deputies?” The Washington Post, April 9, 1905.

10 “Dual Tragedy at Lorton,” Alexandria Gazette, April 10, 1905.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 “Doubts Theory of Suicide, Italian Ambassador Makes Complaint in Leanto Case,” The Washington Post, April 12, 1905.

14 “Alexandria News in Brief,” The Washington Post, April 19, 1905.

15 “Years Events in District of Columbia,” Evening Star, January 1, 1906.

16 Janice Hittinger Borrow, “Lynching in the Mid-Atlantic, 1882-1940” American Nineteenth Century History, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005) 263.

Native-Born White Attitudes towards Italians in Local Newspapers

When Italians arrived in the American South, they were treated with disdain and suspicion by native-born whites who saw them as “foreign” and “not quite white.”1 One of the most common and most devastating phenomena was the practice of framing Italians for morally outrageous acts, such as sexual assaults or harassments of white woman or girls.  These statements–which circulated in the local press–fueled anxieties about racial mixing and often incited mob violence against Italian immigrants.  Although Italians had emigrated from Europe, they were often viewed as in-between white and black as well as perpetually foreign.

Newspaper articles on race relations in Alexandria, Virginia during the years of 1890-1910 reveal a myriad of supposed criminal acts that were committed by Italian immigrants against the native-born white population, which were sometimes met with violent reprisals. The question of which acts were legitimate and which were pure fabrications is not difficult to distinguish. One example was a report on June 4, 1885 in the Washington Post of an Italian immigrant named Pietro Leone sexually assaulting an eleven year old girl.  Although many adults testified in court about the assault, the young girl “stoutly denied that he had taken any liberties with her or attempted to assault her.”2 Another attack took place on December 8, 1920.  Joseph Caesar, against a fifteen-year old girl named Jessie Garland. What makes this account problematic was that it took over a month before it was reported.  The newspapers then reported that law enforcement had to remove Caesar from Alexandria so that he would not be lynched.  He was eventually found guilty and fined.3

It is clear that further research needs to be done on this subject, and there is no doubt much more to be known about the history of Italian immigrants in the U.S. South.

1 Gary Mormino, The Immigrant World of Ybor City: Italians and Their Latin Neighbors in Tampa, 1885-1985 (Champagne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) 237.

2 “Alexandria,” The Washington Post, June 4, 1885.

“Alexandria News,” The Washington Post, November 9, 1920; December 5, 1920; and December 8, 1920.