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In 1908, Father Leo Heinrichs was murdered at the Communion rail in Denver…

In 1908, Father Leo Heinrichs was murdered at the Communion rail in Denver…

Besides political affiliations, the climate continued to grow hostile to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. According to the March 6, 1908, Denver Post, people were even becoming hostile to Italian nuns. The Missionary Society of the Sacred Heart would often go through the neighborhood, asking residents for alms. After the murder, the nuns were turned away. The order claimed that one nun, Sister Anastasia, was struck dead by a broken heart after being denied aid and told, “An Italian has killed a priest.” It should be noted that the official cause of death was pneumonia, but prejudice was certainly on the rise against various ethnic groups. Such momentum continued to build and become more explicit with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Scare in the 1920s. 

As tensions rose across the country, having Father Heinrichs’ assassin in custody did little to clarify the full scope of the plot. At first, Alia claimed that, back in Sicily, his wife had left him after being denounced for his anarchism by a priest he thought to have been Heinrichs. When Alia was told Heinrichs had never been to Italy, he began screaming about having killed the wrong man and told a somewhat different story of what happened in Italy. Alia claimed to have been part of a violent Easter protest in Avola, Italy, 12 years prior, to have been decried by the community, and to have fled eventually to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where other members of his small cohort had already gone. Supposedly, the group in Buenos Aires then sent him to New York in order to track down and kill the priest that had targeted anarchists and socialists back in Sicily. 

Alia further claimed that, by the time he reached Denver he had largely lost any sense of mission, but his anger was inflamed on the morning of February 23, 1908, after hearing the church bells ringing. While deeply upset about killing the wrong priest, he said he felt no guilt about having murdered a priest more generally. Importantly, he said he was not part of any group since reaching Denver. This is relevant since law enforcement across the country was trying to tie him to violent plots in places as far-flung as Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Illinois. An interview with Alia covered in the February 28, 1908, Rocky Mountain News, conveyed yet a new story from the man facing trial for murder.

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