by Mariah Fredericks
Around the age of 14, I started to fall in love with Italian men. I fell hard for 70s actors like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. I adored New York’s governor Mario Cuomo. I was mad for Martin Scorsese. But as the author of a mystery series, when I decided to tackle the Italian American experience at the turn of the 20th century, I became acutely aware of two things: most of my adored images came from mob movies—and many Italian Americans had serious issues with those movies and the way they sold the image of Italians as career criminals, incapable of following the laws and customs of the United States. Some of the books I read on the Italian American history in New York avoided all but the briefest mention of the mafia altogether, refusing to dignify what the authors saw as exploitative and damaging myth.
Before I started researching, I hadn’t quite realized how strong the prejudice against Italian Americans was at the turn of the century. Native-born Americans saw them not just as barbarically Catholic and suspiciously swarthy—H.P. Lovecraft insisted they “could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human”—but as actively dangerous, both in terms of revolutionary politics and organized crime. They were bomb-throwing anarchists. Kidnappers and extortionists. Italy, it was felt, was emptying her jails and sending her problems to American shores. (Or as our President might put it, “They’re not sending their best.”) They weren’t just unworthy of being American. They were dangerous to Americans.
The danger was seen as clear and present not just by your average bigot who threw around slurs like dago and wop. Politicians and media agreed. When eleven Italian men were lynched in New Orleans, Teddy Roosevelt called it “rather a good thing.” The New York Times, condemned not the mob, but the “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins,” concluding the following day that sadly, lynch law may have been the only way to deal with such people.
So how to write about a time when Italians were the terrifying other? I didn’t want to write about prejudice as a historical curiosity. I didn’t want the comfort of depicting those fears as limited to the narrow-minded few when even voices who might have identified as progressive sanctioned the deportation, even murder, of people of Italian heritage. I wanted the reader to recognize some expressions of prejudice as absurd. But I also hoped that there might be the occasional twinge of, “I’ve felt that.”
I was pondering how to make fear feel fresh and immediate when Sayfullo Saipov drove a truck down a bike path along the Hudson River, killing eight people and injuring eleven.
He screamed Allahu akbar as he ran people down. He left notes indicating allegiance to ISIS. He was the very image of a man dangerously in thrall to religion, caught up in murderous loyalty to malign foreign forces. He had come to America and he had attacked.
And he lived in Paterson, New Jersey.
In the aftermath of the attack, the media interviewed Muslim residents who spoke of their fears that this would lead people to believe there was a villainous hive of Islamic terrorists hiding out in Paterson. I happened to remember that a hundred years ago, Paterson was viewed with great suspicion as a hive of anarchism, specifically, Italian. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Gaetano Bresci who had settled there, returned to Italy to assassinate King Umberto in 1900. (Giuseppe Zangara who took a shot at FDR in the 30s was also from Paterson.) “Paterson,” said the New York Times in 1900 “is declared to be full of Anarchists.” And in fact, Paterson at this time did have a strong radical community. An anarchist spokesperson was asked by the Times if they believed President McKinley should be assassinated. The response? “That’s for Americans to answer.”
Barely a year later, McKinley was assassinated. Although not by an Italian from Paterson.
I remember the reaction to the 2017 truck attack as being somewhat muted. Perhaps because of the President’s “Muslim ban” earlier in the year, many Americans had begun to appreciate the evils that spread from scapegoating. Or perhaps, the truck attack paled in comparison to what had happened in France and Brussels. After the Bataclan and Bastille Day killings, attention shifted to the Muslim community in Brussels. The calls for action didn’t just come from the predictable sources. The Washington Post an article called, “Belgium’s Big Problem with Radical Islam.” Politico announced “Radical Islam on the Rise in Belgian Mosques.” What, people asked, should be done about Moleenbeek, now supposedly a hotbed of jihadist recruitment? Was Brussels capable of monitoring the radical elements it had allowed into the EU?
Implicit in the calm, rational discourse—let alone the more rabid commentary—was the concept of a cell of foreigners with different, dangerous beliefs. What will they do? How do they want to shape the country? That fear of the cuckoo in the nest. This, I thought, was how people who imagined themselves Americans without prejudice might have talked about Italians in 1912. Oh, of course, many of them are perfectly good fellows. But…
Perhaps it’s worth noting that another resident of Paterson, NJ was the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. Built by Samuel Colt, it produced the Colt First Model Ring Lever rifle in 1837. Colt went on to produce the Colt Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol and the Colt .45. In 1964, they began marketing their M16, once sold only to law enforcement and the military, to the general public as the AR-15. The rifle has gone on to become the weapon of choice in mass shootings, from Aurora to Newtown and Parkland, making this quintessentially American product by far the most dangerous threat ever to emerge from Paterson, NJ.
MARIAH FREDERICKS was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her family. She is the author of several YA novels. Death of a New American is her second novel to feature ladies’ maid Jane Prescott.
Tags: history behind the mystery, italian american, Mariah Fredericks, US history