Monday, May 21, 2018

The Rescue Of Napoleon

The Rescue of Napoleon

As a tour guide my goal is to tell a story as accurately as possible.  Like many people, I research the stories of old New Orleans hoping to find evidence that backs up the tale.  I want all of the things that are repeated over and over to be true but as I go rooting through evidence I find that much mythology has become so deeply rooted that it is taken (and repeated) as fact.  Once in awhile, though, I find something that backs up a story and when I do, I feel as if I struck gold.  Sometimes the evidence backs something up entirely but more often I see the roots of a story that has become not so much embellished, but misunderstood over time.  One of the most enduring stories involves the rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile and his intended home in New Orleans.  For those who don’t know that story, here it is in a nutshell:

When Napoleon was exiled to the island of Ste. Helena there was a plot to kidnap him, rescue him and bring him to New Orleans to live in comfort and security.  The plot was hatched at (pick one) Pierre Maspero’s, The Old Absinthe House, The Cabildo, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, The Hustler Club,  (Fill In The Blank)________________________.  The pirate, Jean Lafitte, was enlisted in the coup to provide ships, supplies and sailing crew and Mayor Nicholas Girod offered an entire floor of his home to be Napoleon’s apartments.  Napoleon’s personal physician, who had made his way to New Orleans, was a key participant in the intrigue.  The plot was hatched, the ships set sail but before they could arrive to the island Napoleon had died and all was for naught.  Mayor Girod’s house became forever known as The Napoleon House and remains so to this day.

I’ve told the story many times.  I’ve never said that it is a myth but I’ve also never stated it as fact.  I’ve told people that, although we have no concrete evidence to back it up, there is plenty out there to suggest that story might ring with some truth.  Napoleon’s physician, Dr François C. Antommarchi, did make his way to New Orleans and brought him Napoleon’s death mask.  So, I call it a legend and tell it using the safety net of “The story goes...” 

And then -

When I actually found the orders for the rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile and his transport to the United States, my jaw dropped! 

It took a lot of digging and years of searching but they exist and it really did happen.  Although not quite the way “the story goes.”  The plot was not hatched in New Orleans, Lafitte (as usual) figures into a coup that did not involve him, the rescue was commanded by the French Government, not Mayor Girod, and it happened while Napoleon was being temporarily detained on the Île-d'Aix before his transfer to Ste. Helena.  In fact, the orders to orchestrate the rescue were given to the Duc Decres, the French Prefect of the Maritime, who issued them in strictest secrecy.  How they ended up being published in London would require more digging than I care to commit to.  But published in London they certainly were.  Nowhere is New Orleans mentioned in the orders.  The ports of entry specifically named were Philadelphia and Boston.  However, one phrase “or in any such other port of the United States as it would be quicker and easier to reach” is most interesting. Given the utmost secrecy of the affair this one phrase suggests that New Orleans was not specifically mentioned for security reasons.  It does stand to reason they would not say exactly where he was going nor in whose home he would dwell.  We may never know for certain that New Orleans or her Mayor were specifically involved but given the fact that this legend dates back two centuries now, it’s almost certain that Mayor Girod offered his home to become an Imperial Palace.

What events lead up to the affair and why the whole thing fell through is something I’ll leave to scholars.  My job is to give a tour, not to teach a history class.  All I will say is that the orders did exist and the plan was very real.  They were written and published in French. I’m sure native French speakers would cringe at my imprecise translation but the document was written in 1815 and even the French language has evolved since then.  Here are the orders, notated by me, published in London in 1819:

Instructions for captains Philibert, Commander of the Saale, and Poncé, Commander of the Méduse. 
Top Secret

The two frigates are appointed to transport the one who a short time ago was our emperor to the United States.

He will embark on the Saale with such people from his suite that he will designate[1]; the others will be on the La Méduse.

The baggage will be distributed on the two frigates as he orders.

If, either before departure or in the crossing, the Méduse has been recognized as being much better than the Saale, he will embark on the Méduse, and Captains Philibert and Poncé will change their command[2].

The greatest secrecy must be kept on boarding which must be done by the Maritime Prefect, as well as the personnel on board.

Napoleon is to travel incognito and he will, himself, make known the title and the name under which he is to be called.

Immediately after disembarkation, all communication with land must cease.

Commanders of the frigates, officers and crew will find in their hearts that they must treat their person with the regard and respect due to his situation and the crown he has worn.[3]

On board the highest honors will be returned unless he refuses. He will have the interior of the frigates for housing without harming the means of defense.  His table and his personal service will take place as he will order.[4]

We will arrange for, and the Prefect has received the order, whatever may contribute to the convenience of his journey, without regard to expense[5].

The prefect will send as much provision for him and his suite, as the utmost secrecy is to be observed on his stay and his embarkation.

Napoleon being embarked, the frigates will have to sail within twenty-four hours at the latest, if the wind permits, and if the enemy ships do not obstruct the departure.  

We would only stay twenty-four hours after Napoleon's embarkation, as long as he would say so, for it is important to leave as soon as possible.   The frigates will sail as quickly as possible to the United States, and they will disembark Napoleon and his suite, either at Philadelphia or at Boston or in any such other port of the United States as it would be quicker and easier to reach.

It is forbidden for the commanders of the two frigates to engage in harbors whose exit would become slow and difficult. They are only allowed to do so, in the event that it is necessary for the salvation of the ship.

You will avoid all the ships of war[6] that you might meet; if you are obliged to fight superior forces, the frigate which does not carry Napoleon will be sacrificed to hold back the enemy and to give the one on which he is aboard the means to escape[7].

I need only recall that the Chambers[8] and the Government have put the person of Napoleon under the safeguard of French loyalty.

Once arrived in the United States, disembarkation must be done with all possible speed, and under any pretext whatsoever, unless the frigates are prevented by supreme forces, they can not remain there more than twenty-four hours, and they will immediately have to return to France.

The laws and regulations on the police of ships at sea, and on the military subordination of persons embarking as passengers towards the commanders of these war ships, will be observed in all their rigor.

I recommend to the sentiments that the captains have of their duty, as well as to their delicacy, all the objects which could not be foreseen by the present ones.[9]

I have nothing to add to what I said before, that the person of Napoleon is put under the safeguard of the loyalty of the French people, and this deposit is entrusted especially in this circumstance to the captains of the Saale and the Méduse, and the officers and crew of these two war ships.

Such are the orders that the commission of the Government charged me to transmit to the Captains Pilibert and Poncé.

                                                                                                Signed, Le Duc Decres.

[1] Interesting that Napoleon had personal staff with him in exile.
[2] I would love to know why it was so important that Philibert be the one who was to captain whichever ship Napoleon was on board.  Perhaps he knew how to make a quick getaway if necessary?
[3] It is interesting that it’s phrased as “you will find in your hearts to treat him with respect” and not as “you are ordered to treat him with respect.”
[4] Another reference to his personal staff. 
[5] Money is no object.  The French Government is footing the bill.
[6] The actual French word used here is bâtements which technically means buildings and could imply military forts.  However, it also means war ships and the same word is used to describe the Saale and the Méduse.
[7] Perhaps this is why it is essential that Philibert be in command of the bâtement carrying l’Empereur.
[8] Chambers meaning Governmental departments, i.e. Département de la Maritime, of which Decres was the Prefect.
[9] In other words, do what you have to do.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Steamboats Fact & Fiction

A question I am asked from time to time is "How long did it take to travel by steamboat?" Well, let's look at a random steam packet - we'll choose the Ohio Belle under the command of Captain John Sebastian.

In 1859 the Ohio Belle left New Orleans March 5th.  She arrived in CairoIL on March 13th and then arrived in CincinnatiOH on March 17th.  In 1860 she left CincinnatiOH at 5 pm on November 30th, passed by VicksburgMS on December 7th and arrived in New Orleans on December 10th.   (She left New Orleans for the return trip on December 12th.)   .......So:

            12 days to go upriver from New Orleans to Cincinnati.
            10 days to go downriver from Cincinnati to New Orleans.

On the 1860 trip to New Orleans she was fully freighted, carrying "moderate passengers."

Check out the freight that arrived in New Orleans.

MEANWHILE – From New Orleans to St. Louis...

In 1875 the Susie Silver, under the command of David H. Silver (do you think he named it after his wife or daughter?) left St. Louis for New Orleans on September 1...

The Susie Silver left St. Louis on Sept 1, 1875; arrived in Cairo on Sept. 3, departed Sept. 4; arrived & Departed Memphis on Sept. 6; arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 10.

On the return trip:  Departed New Orleans on Sept. 12; passed Vicksburg Sept. 14; departed Memphis, Sept. 17; arrived & Departed Cairo Sept. 19; arrived in St. Louis Sept 21
9 days each way.

Interesting little side note on the Susie Silver – just below Memphis was a treacherous little bar called Reeve’s Bar where the water was normally only about 4 ½ feet deep.  On this particular trip down, the Susie Silver lost her fuel barge.  Her fuel, of course, would have been wood or coal, not petroleum.  It did not, however, delay her progress.  Not sure how that happened.  According to the media – which, obviously, is not always trustworthy, the hull of the barge was formerly of a steamboat called The Armada which was said to be the first steamboat Abraham Lincoln ever traveled on.  Maybe, maybe not...

It’s fascinating that the newspapers of the day published the arrivals and departures of steamboats from city to city.  Today we can go online and track our FedEX shipping but back then this was the way it was done.  Imagine, you have family arriving from Cincinnati and every day you run to the newspaper to see where the Ohio Belle is.  Or you have a shipment arriving from St. Louis only to find out that the fuel supply sunk on a bar – then find it made it safely to Vicksburg on schedule!  Amazing stuff, this.  (Of course, it also increases newspaper circulation!  ‘Nuff said.) 

So many people want to think of steamboating as river pirates coming aboard to rape and loot and pillage or gamblers losing entire plantations in a poker game and challenging each other to duels.  Well, far be it from me to say stuff like this never happened but the day to day truth about steamboats was a little more mundane.  It was shipping, it was travel, it was (yes!) showboats – but generally speaking, it was watching the newspapers to track your shipment of pigs’ feet.  However, March 15, 1856 the Ohio Belle did have an amazing incident that made all the papers and is a prime example of media slant.  According to Capt. Sebastian’s statement, the Ohio Belle had just shoved out of Smithland Kentucky (which is located where the Cumberland River meets the Ohio River) when a man on the shore flagged her down.  She landed again and took him on as a passenger.  (Interesting that you could flag a steam boat down from the shore and board it.)  The man identified his name as Jones.  That afternoon he went to the ship’s barber (barber services aboard a steamboat - never thought about that but, of course!) and paid for services with a ten dollar bank note from a bank in ShelbyvilleTennessee.  The barber then took the bill to the ship’s clerk, whose name was Stephens. He deemed it to be counterfeit and, long story short, a fight between Jones and Stephens broke out during which Jones whipped out a pistol and fired at Stephens, fatally wounding him.  He didn’t live ten minutes.

After firing the pistol, Jones tried to run and escape but was apprehended by the crew.  At first, Captain Sebastian was afraid that some of the passengers may try to lynch Mr. Jones but Sebastian assured them that Jones would be handed over to authorities.  Jones was taken to the engine room and tied, bodily, to a staunchion as the Ohio Belle steamed ahead.  She reached Cairo where Captain Sebastian ordered a coffin for Stephens.  No family for Stephens is mentioned but friends will be receiving the coffin and arranging burial.  Sebastian notified the authorities.  Cairo, however, had no jurisdiction over the incident, having occurred elsewhere, so it was decided to head on down to HickmanKentucky and have him arrested there.  Mrs. Sebastian (the captain’s wife) was onboard and came to tell the Captain that Jones had begun to slump and the rope had slipped around his neck, putting him in danger of being strangled.  They went down, untied him from the staunchion, wrapped the rope around his hands and body and sat him in a chair, however not secured to the chair.  Nor, may I add, was anyone left to stand by and guard him.  At about 8:00 pm they went to check on him, finding the chair empty, the cut ropes laying on the floor and Jones gone.

Although in his statement Sebastian makes no mention of what happened to Jones, newspapers tell a vivid tale of pure fiction.  They have Jones as the victim, his money was not counterfeit, he was lynched and thrown overboard, still tied to the chair, by the Captain and his angry mob.  In this drama, Captain Sebastian, standing like Basil Rathbone on the prow of the ship, shouts to people on the river banks “If you find a damned scoundrel floating by on a chair, take him out and hang him!”  (Although in some accounts there is the sound of a loud splash and the ropes are found on the floor but Jones and the chair have vanished.)  In his statement, Sebastian says the witnesses will attest to Jones not being secured to the chair and no word exchanged between Sebastian and anyone onshore.  The newspapers also say there was a man from California onboard who boasted that he’d hung over fifty men for as little as five dollars and he’d happily “dispose of this damned scoundrel for a damned sight less!”  Sebastian answers that the only passenger onboard who’d even been to California was a doctor from Philadelphia who was confined to his bed due to an injury – to which witnesses will attest.

Well, come to find out, Jones’ name was not Jones at all.  (Is anyone surprised?)  His name was Joseph Cooke, Jr. and he was a fugitive from the law, having also killed a man in Mississippi.  On March 18th it was reported that Jones-Cooke had jumped overboard to escape and drowned in the river.  AND YET – the media still makes him out as a victim and lays all the pity on Joseph Cooke, Sr. having to put his “ill-fated son” to rest.  The fact that Captain Sebastian had to order a coffin for Stephens and arrange to have his body shipped home for burial apparently means nothing.  There is no report on whether or not the ten dollar bill was or was not actually counterfeit.

So, of course, there are these stories and this is the stuff of showboat melodramas!  This is exactly how history becomes distorted and stories are told that have no bearing on reality.  All that's missing is for Captain John Sebastian (with a parrot and a peg leg) making poor ill-fated Mr. Jones walk the plank at Cave-In-Rock, followed by absinthe for the crew of the feared and notorious Ohio Belle as she heads down to wicked New Orleans to deliver her freight of cabbages, ham, butter and beef tongue before murdering a few pimps in a riverfront gin mill and then heading back up to Cincinnati.  In reality, this affair happened on March 15, 1856 and six days later, on March 21st, the New Orleans Picayune thanked the clerk of the Ohio Belle for delivering the latest newspapers from Cincinnati and Louisville (and other favors) and announced the Ohio Belle's departure for the return trip to Cincinnati on Saturday, March 22nd at 5:00 pm.

As scheduled.

Heroes and villains notwithstanding, the Ohio Belle toted that barge, lifted that bail and kept on rolling along.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The World of M. Devoti

We often speak of young women and girls going to “charm school” and learning how to walk gracefully and sit properly and to conduct oneself with poise and propriety at all times.  But the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t so much “Charm School” as it was lessons given in the home by a tutor or in the tutor’s home or studio.  A wonderful (if extremely archaic) word for it is “Deportment.”  No, it does not mean sending illegal immigrants back across the border (although it can).  In this case deportment means behavior and the way one conducts oneself.  Teachers of deportment, usually women, frequently single women, also often taught dance and music as well.  A romantic (if somewhat incorrect) notion has surfaced that dance academies were across the street from fencing schools and that young Creole men went from one directly to the other.  Another variant of this highly romanticized idea has the guys practicing their swordsmanship in the street, distracting the girls who are staring out the window instead of paying attention to the dance instructor.  Delicious, yes, but not true.  One of my favorite people from old New Orleans was a “professor of dance and deportment” known only as M. Devoti.

I know very little about him beyond what I write about here.  He was not from New Orleans and, although Devoti is an Italian name, was very likely born in (and probably returned to) France.  He first shows up in the 1841 New Orleans City Directory on the page of REMOVALS AND NAMES OMITTED, which means he arrived in New Orleans after the information was compiled but before it went to print.  It simply lists him as “Devoti, Dancing Master, Strangers’ Hotel, Chartres near St. Louis.”  The Strangers’ Hotel, better known as The St. Louis Hotel, was on the site of the current Omni Royal Orleans.  He was a tenant in rentals and tended to move around quite a bit, never owning property.  Much of what I can gather about him comes from newspaper advertisements for his business.  The earliest I have seen is January 2, 1842:


Mr. Devoti has opened a Dancing Academy at No. 6 Tchoupitoulas street,[1] opposite St. Mary’s Market.  He will give instructions there every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 9 o’clock, P.M.
            Mr. Devoti’s Dancing Academy in the First Municipal District is always in Royal Street, No. 102.

For the uninitiated, let’s take a moment to go over a very important fact.  The purpose of this ad is to announce that M. Devoti has opened an academy on Tchoupitoulas Street and that he continues to operate on Royal Street in the "First Municipal District," a.k.a. The French Quarter.  Later, as we shall see, he has one on Chartres Street in the French Quarter and one on Julia Street.  The two academies are not necessarily indicative of his great success as a teacher nor that he is expanding to accommodate a great demand.  It is further proof that there existed between two very different cultures an intense (some would say fierce) rivalry.  From Canal St. down (meaning downriver) was the Franco Creole population and from Canal St. up (upriver) were the Anglo Americans.  Differences in language, culture, religion, politics, etc., not to mention stubbornness and bald faced bigotry, kept the two from mixing.  Smart business people often opened two locations – one in the French Quarter and one in the American Sector.  (And, interestingly, one is more likely to find French speakers courting American business than vice versa.  A French chocolatier by the name of Daniel Lopez stressed his two locations in his newspaper ads, as well.)  In 1842 Devoti’s French Quarter studio was at the corner of Royal and St. Louis Streets while his American academy was on Tchoupitoulas Street between St. Joseph Street and what is now Andrew Higgins Street. (Formerly Delord St.)

Although Devoti is in City Directories fairly consistently from 1841 and is gone by 1849, apparently he left New Orleans, briefly, and returned.  Two advertisements in La Courrier de la Louisiane (each appearing twice - once in French and once in English) announce his return and, when he does, he opens at 123 Chartres Street, for his Creole Pupils, and on Julia Street for his American Students.  I also know that, for a time, he taught dance at the Orleans High School on Esplanade and is listed in their roster of faculty, but very briefly. (Interesting to note that the high school was not co-educational; it was a public boys school.)

English Advertisement, Nov. 13, 1843
French Advertisement, Nov. 13, 1843

Advertisement, Nov. 23, 1843
So, what is it about this man that fascinates me so and why have I devoted so much to M. Devoti? Well, you see, M. Devoti was what is known in today's parlance as a flaming Queen!  He was an effeminate fop, affected and prissy, who first came to my attention in the memoirs of a woman who was one of his pupils.  Eliza Ripley writes about him in "Social Life In Old New Orleans" in a chapter titled "Schools And Teachers Of The Forties."  Let me just publish her complete account:

M. Devoti, with his violin in a green baize[2] bag, was a professor of deportment and dancing. He undertook to train two gawky girls of the most awkward age in my father's parlor. M. Devoti wore corsets! and laced, as the saying is, "within an inch of his life." He wore a long-tail coat, very full at the spider waist-line, that hung all round him, almost to the knees, so he used it like a woman's skirt, and could demonstrate to the awkward girls the art of holding out their skirts with thumb and forefinger, and all the other fingers sticking out stiff and straight. Then curtsey! throw out the right foot, draw up the left.

A coat similar to Devoti's skirt-like frock.
Another important branch of deportment was to seat the awkwards stiffly on the extreme edge of a chair, fold the hands on the very precarious lap, droop the eyes in a pensive way. Then Devoti would flourish up[3] and present, with an astonishing salaam, a book from the center table. The young miss was instructed how to rise, bow and receive the book, in the most affected and mechanical style. Another exercise was to curtsey, accept old Devoti's arm and majestically parade round and round the center table. The violin emerged from the baize bag, Devoti made it screech a few notes while the trio balanced up and down, changed partners and promenaded, till the awkwards were completely bewildered and tired out. He then replaced the violin, made a profound bow to extended skirts and curtseys, admonished the pupils to practice for next lesson, and vanished. Thus ended the first lesson. Dear me! Pockmarked, spider-waist Devoti is as plain to my eye to-day as he was in the flesh, bowing smiling, dancing with flourishing steps as in the days of long ago.

One of the most fascinating mysteries about M. Devoti is that almost every reference to him simply identifies him as "M. Devoti."  The "M" is an abbreviation for both Monsieur and Mister (Mr.) and in all of the City Directories and newspaper advertisements that is how he is identified - that, or simply Devoti.  Finally, after much digging, I was able to uncover one source that gave me his first name: Jean.  It amazes me that, in an age when men were men and women were women, this man who was clearly what would eventually be identified as a "sissy" lived his life and taught the children of wealth and society, not only in his home and private academy, but in the public school where he taught young men and no one batted an eye.  (Well, he may have batted his eyes a bit.)  Sadly, the buildings where he lived and taught are mostly gone now.  The Royal Street address was razed in the early 20th Century to build the Supreme Court Building and his Chartres Street location fell with the St. Louis Hotel around the same time.  There is, however, one intriguing remnant; the Chartres Street address was a unit in row houses adjacent to the hotel.

Red box indicates Devoti's Chartres St. location
Five remaining doorways from the Chartres Street Rowhouses

Entrance to M. Jean Devoti's residence.

When the hotel was raised they were able retain a portion of the wall and incorporate it into the modern structure that stands today.  Directories from the 1890's identify 123 Chartres St. as a printer's shop and on the existing historical wall is the hand-painted sign for that very print shop.  This was the entrance to M. Jean Devoti's residence and Academie Devoti, Danses et Belles Manieres.

Where he came from, where he went and what became of him, however, remain mysteries that will require more extensive research.  I, however, will stop right here because my romantic mind loves this Sapphic fragment of history and this foppish dandy, most likely Gay, who came to New Orleans and taught social graces to the children of wealthy Creole and American families.  Did he have friends?  Did he participate in a social whirl, attending balls and operas and soirees?  Or did he live alone and lonely, immersing himself in his vocation? And, most importantly - who laced him into that corset?  Hmmmmmmmmm?

Let me allow Eliza Ripley herself to conclude this vignette.  She puts it more succinctly and eloquently than I ever could:   

Were those shy girls benefited by that artificial training? I opine not. This seems to modern eyes, mayhap, a whimsical exaggeration; nevertheless, it is a true picture. Devoti's style was indeed the "end of an era"; he had no successor. Turveydrop, the immortal Turveydrop himself, (see illustration) was not even an imitator. These old schools and teachers march before my mind's eye to-day; very vivid it all is to me, though the last of them, and perhaps all those they tried to teach, have passed away.

Illustration from Charles Dickens' Bleak House; Turveydrop is at right.

[1] Probably a misprint because No. 6 Tchoupitoulas Street was a block off of Canal Street while the St. Mary’s Market was closer to where the World War II museum is today.  I suspect the St. Mary’s Market location is accurate, since Devoti eventually had a studio on Julia Street in that same vicinity.
[2] a coarse, feltlike, woolen material that is typically green, used for covering billiard and card tables 
[3] of COURSE he did!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Property Taxes in the 19th Century

Get ready for a Pop Quiz. 

Please answer the following question:


[ A ] Number of Doors - that's why you go out to the porch through a window
[ B ] Number of Rooms - that's why there are no closets
[ C ] The Property's Width - that's why they're all long and narrow 
[ D ] The Property's Height - that's the reason for camel-back houses
[ E ] The Number of Columns/Poles/Posts/Pillars - that's why galleries became more popular than balconies - they were a show of wealth; the more poles in front of your house, the richer you were.
[ F ]  All of the Above
[ G ]  None of the Above



I was at a historic house recently and, to my surprise, the downstairs docent (tour guide) said that taxes were based on the number of doors.  Then we went to the second floor and the upstairs docent said taxes were based on the number of rooms. Then, out on the street, a tour guide was telling his visitors that taxes were on the width of the house.  And finally, a carriage driver told his passengers that taxes were based on the number of poles that held up the galleries in front of the house.

All of this on the same day! 

It never ceases to amaze me how much misinformation is out there and is passed on to the public by others who don't know how to research responsibly. This city kept detailed and scrupulous records and they are available in the easiest locations for all to see.  The tax records, for example, are in our Public Library and even the most casual perusal of them will reveal how property in New Orleans was taxed in the 19th century:

Property was taxed the same way it is today:
Taxes were based upon the assessed value of the property.  

It’s as simple as that.  The only architectural tax ever levied on houses was after the fires of 1788 and 1794, which destroyed 856 buildings out of 1100. In order to keep fires at a minimum, the Spanish government taxed chimneys, hence many houses shared a chimney to keep the taxes down.  Beyond that, houses were never taxed on architecture, be it width, height, windows, doors, rooms, posts, poles or columns.  Let’s take a stroll through 1836, shall we?

In 1836 New Orleans was the Queen of the South.  She was the 3rd largest seaport in the world (New York, Liverpool, New Orleans), the wealthiest city in the United States and 1836 was the pinnacle of Creole wealth and prosperity.  It was also a time of political upheaval; due to the animosity between Creoles and Americans 1836 was the year that the city divided into separate municipalities with separate city councils presided over by one bilingual mayor. The property tax base in 1836 was 0.2%.  Ok, yeah – let me say that again: zero point two percent.  I can hear the weeping and wailing of the people of 21st Century New Orleans over that one.  0.2%.  Sheesh!  An 1836 dollar in 2016 is roughly $21.75.  That said, let’s have a look at the property taxes of some of our most notable citizens.  These records are for the first municipality - the French Quarter - only.  Before we begin, let's take a moment to understand them.

First you see the record number - No. 680.  Then you see the property owner's name, in this case Veuve (Widow) Fce (Francoise - or Frances, in English) Juncadella.  Below that you see 1st District (Municipality - French Quarter) followed by Islet 53; each city square (bounded by four streets) was called an "islet." The exact address of the property being taxed was not recorded, only the number of the square in which the property is located.  Next you see the value of the property followed by the tax paid – in this case you see it as:  $10000$        20  - the second dollar sign is actually for the $20.00 – that’s just the way they wrote it.  You’ll see that in most of these records.  Finally you see the word Paye or, more usually, Payé – this is French for “Paid.”  This particular record is for the building that is now The Old Absinthe House at Bourbon & Bienville St.  Ok, got it?  Let's get started and we'll begin with the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba:

In 1836 she owned all of the properties on either side of Jackson Square, but her famous buildings were not built until 1850.  Since she owned two entire city blocks, the entire blocks are assessed. Interesting that one block was assessed at $150,000 and the other at $160,000.  In 1850 her buildings cost her $150,000 and $140,000. Talk about increasing the value of a property!  Next, let's have a look at the publisher of the New Orleans Bee, Jerome Bayon. (Much of the Lalaurie story came from this newspaper's confusing, conflicting and not entirely accurate account.)

Please note he was also taxed for "2 esclaves" - slaves. Remembering that slaves were property, slave taxes in 1836 were $1.00 per slave.  

Here is Nicolas Girod, the man who gave us Napoleon House:

The first entry is most likely the house at St. Louis and Chartres that we know and love for the Pimm's cup and toasted muffulettas.  

Anyone recognize this name...?

This is our beloved Marie Laveau.  This would be her house on St. Ann St.  In today's money it would be valued at $62,250.00. Apparently, not all slaves were taxed; although Marie Laveau was a slave owner she did not own any taxable slave property in 1836. Also note the letters fcl - femme de couleur libre - Free Woman of Color. This next one is for J. B. Leprêtre - he eventually purchased and resided in the house that is now (erroneously) identified as "The Sultan's House" at the corner of Dauphine and Orleans.  This particular record is for the building on St. Louis St. which now houses Antoine's Hermes Bar. (There is an interesting entry that says: "$2500 deducted and paid to the account of Mme. Prospere Marigny" and $5.00 tax was deducted.  Although it would require some digging to find out what that as about, it's interesting to note the Prospere Marigny was the son of that rascally Bernard deMarigny.)

Ok, time to have a look at Prospere's cher papa, Bernard deMarigny.

He owned beaucoup property in the French Quarter as well as in the outlying areas; these are the records on just three of his many, many properties.  Please note that in 1836 he was far from poor. In 2016 dollars these three properties alone would be valued at approximately $2,131,500.00. Marigny was also a large slave owner but none of his slaves are recorded on this record.  Despite the stories and the legends, Marigny was never destitute - the family has his records and they reveal a very different picture of his financial life.

Here we have John McDonough, (above) funder of our public school system. The fourth notation down has the note "nord ouest" - northwest - meaning a property on a corner.  Like Marigny, McDonough owned many slaves but none of them are recorded on this record.

Below is a very interesting one.  Nancy O'Hara.

She is remarkable in that she is, not only an Irish woman, but an extremely wealthy one. The three properties listed are for two at Dauphine and Barracks St. and one at 622 St. Peter St. (now M. S. Rau Antiques - at which, by the way, she ran a snuff factory!)  Please note that she was also taxed for 12 slaves. This is the largest record of taxable slave holding we have seen so far.  

Our city's Mayor was not above taxation:

Denis Prieur, mayor of New Orleans for several terms, probably made a bigger impact on our city than any other 19th century mayor.  This is a record for slave taxes for both he and his brother (together on one record) and his widowed mother.  

Financier and future bankruptee, Thomas Toby:

Two years after this was recorded Toby sold all of his city properties and moved out to the country. His house was on the Livaudais plantation; S. J. Peters subdivided the plantation into a city named Lafayette which, in turn, was swallowed up by the city of New Orleans and became our Garden District.  In the 1850's Toby went belly up and lost his Lafayette house at sheriff's auction.  That house, the oldest in the Garden District, still stands and is known as "Toby's Corner."  The gentleman in the next record is a stop on my St. Louis Cemetery #1 tour:

Seaman Field, a native of Westchester County, New York, came to New Orleans where he became a prosperous merchant and slave owner.  In this record we see that he was taxed for 6 slaves.  On his tomb is engraved -


Slowly being dissolved by the sun, Cinthy's name is very difficult to read on Seaman Fields' tomb.
I point out that Cinthy, with no last name, was a slave.  One wonders if Cinthy was one of the slaves in the tax record or if she was purchased at a later date. One is also left to question if Cinthy was either a.) in the family for a very long time or b.) had a "special" relationship with Seaman Field....if you know what I mean...and I think you do.....!

Finally, a record that many will find both enlightening and disturbing.  These are records for two Free People of Color.

The first is a record for Judith Mandeville, fcl (femme couleur libre - free woman of color) and the second is for Philippe Ross, hcl (homme couleur libre - free man of color).  M'sieur Ross, particularly, shows that many Free Africans were often people of considerable means - his property would be valued at $163,125.00 modern dollars.  M'me Mandeville, however, not so affluent; her propery clocks in at $54,375 in today's money.  Where these records often perplex (and frequently offend) people of today is that they reveal the cold, hard fact that Free Africans were slave owners, just like their white contemporaries.  Pointing this out does not justify or make anything right - it simply expands the story and makes it bigger.

History is complex and often discouraging.

These tax records are fascinating on many levels.  For one thing, they put to bed any erroneous notion that taxes were assessed by any means other than economic assessment. But also they are a glimpse into the personal lives of the people we often romanticize. We talk about Bernard Marigny and his exploits, Nicolas Girod offering asylum to Napoleon Bonaparte at his house, The Baroness Pontalba returning to New Orleans amidst cheers and fanfare to build two of our most famous structures.  But here they are human beings; here they have real lives.  Here we see the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, going down to City Hall to pay her taxes!  We see our Mayor, his mother and hundreds of others accounting for their slave property and we see the enormous wealth of some of our most famous citizens.  Here, in the records of their day-to-day existence, they are people - just like us - who had bills to pay, property to manage, business to conduct, season tickets to the Opera...

...and, of course, taxes.  I wonder what they would say if they could see their city today.