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:

NEW ORLEANS DANCING ACADEMY

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:

PROPERTIES IN NEW ORLEANS IN THE 1800's WERE TAXED BY:

[ 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

ANSWER:

[ 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).  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 -


CINTHY.
NOTRE FIDÈLE SERVANTE


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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Madame Lalaurie - 1895

In 1892 a former attorney by the name of Henry Castillanos began a series of historical articles for The New Orleans Times-Democrat detailing life in Old New Orleans, "back in the day."  He was born in New Orleans in 1827 and many of his sketches are from personal memory and experience.  In three years time he had amassed enough material to have a book published.  The book is called "NEW ORLEANS AS IT WAS - EPISODES OF LOUISIANA LIFE" published in 1895.  Among the many vignettes in the book is a detailed account of the infamous Madame Lalaurie incident.

As a tour guide, one of my most difficult challenges is undoing the damage from stories told to entertain, versus stories told to inform.  Costumed tour guides have take the Lalaurie story to such extremes that the modern telling of it has spiraled out of control.  Broken bones, dead children, the "Crab Lady" and many other additions (many of which are positively stomach churning) are nothing more than embellishments added for the purpose of churning stomachs and are simply untrue.  I am often called upon to tell the story of Madame Lalaurie.  I dread doing it because the story we told thirty years ago is radically different from the inventions of current variations and people are often disappointed that I don't regale them with...well....to spare us a case of nausea, I will refrain.

My solution to the problem is to tell the story as Henry Castellanos told it in 1895.  I bring the book with me and show it as my source and invite people to read the tale for themselves.  To make it easier I present it on this forum.  In his account he includes the deposition of one of the participants at the official inquest as well as his personal memories.  American Horror Story aside - here is one of the earliest tellings of what happened at the Lalaurie Mansion on April 10th, 1834.


A TALE OF SLAVERY TIMES.

It was on the morning of the l0th of April, 1834, that from the comer of Royal and Hospital streets, crepitating flames were seen to burst forth, threatening the entire destruction of a spacious brick mansion that adorned that locality. It was an imposing family residence, three stories in height, and the resort of the best society of New Orleans. Within its walls, European notabilities, including the Marquis of Lafayette, had been housed and entertained with that munificence, easy grace and cheerful hospitality peculiar to a Creole generation, now so rapidly disappearing. Its furniture and appointments—exquisite and costly gems of Parisian workmanship — were cited as  chefs - d'œuvres” [masterpieces] in a city where objects of “vertu” [virtue] and princely elegance were by no means rare. (It is a mistake to say that the Orleans princes were ever guests in that residence, as their visit to our city had occurred long before its construction. The Marignys were their hosts.)

Postcard, 1920's
Around this house were congregated a dense and excited throng, apparently feasting their eyes on the lambent and circling streams of fire that with forked tongues were rapidly enveloping the upper portions of the aristocratic abode. Their frowning brows and fiercely glistening eyes bespoke the terrible passions that raged within their breasts, for, that house, according to common tradition, was a hot-bed of cruelty and crime, and bore upon its frontispiece the curse of God.

The entire width of Hospital Street was literally wedged in by a compact, surging tide, overflowing even adjacent thoroughfares. The pent-up blaze had burst forth from the kitchen above the basement, and from thence was rapidly ascending the story occupied by the family. The firemen, with their inadequate hand engines and equipments, were manning their brakes with might and main against the devouring element with only partial success, and were finally compelled to cut their way through the roof. On penetrating into the attic, and while ranging through the apartments, their blood curdled by the horrid spectacle which struck their view — seven slaves, more or less mutilated, slowly perishing from hunger, deep lacerations and festering wounds. In describing this appalling sight, Jerome Bayon, the proprietor of the New Orleans “Bee,” wrote: “We saw where the collar and manacles had cut their way into their quivering flesh. For several months they had been confined in those dismal dungeons, with no other nutriment than a handful of gruel and an insufficient quantity of water, suffering the tortures of the damned and longingly awaiting death, as a relief to their sufferings. We saw Judge Canonge, Mr. Montreuil and others, making for some time fruitless efforts to rescue those poor unfortunates, whom the infamous woman, Lalaurie, had doomed to certain death and hoping that the devouring element might thus obliterate the last traces of her nefarious deeds.”

When every door had been forced open, the victims were carried off and escorted by an immense crowd to the Mayor's office, where their irons were immediately struck off. Among those piteous blacks, was an octogenarian whose tottering limbs barely supported his emaciated frame. Among them, a woman confessed to the Mayor that she had purposely set fire to the house, as the only means of putting an end to her sufferings and those of her fellow captives. From nine o'clock in the morning until six in the evening, the jail yard was a scene of unusual commotion. Two thousand persons, at least, convinced themselves during that eventful day by ocular inspection of the martyrdom to which those poor, degraded people had been subjected, while the ravenous appetite with which they devoured the food placed before them fully attested their sufferings from hunger. None of them, however, died from surfeit, as it has been erroneously alleged. Numberless instruments of torture, not the least noticeable of which were iron collars, “carcans,”[1] with sharp cutting edges, were spread out upon a long deal table, as evidences of guilt.

While these prison scenes were being enacted, supplying aliment to public curiosity, the excitement around the doomed building was increasing in intensity. As soon as the fact became generally known that Mrs. Lalaurie, with the connivance of the Mayor, had eluded arrest and effected her escape to a secure place of concealment, the howling mob, composed of every class, became ungovernable. They demanded justice in no uncertain tones, and had the hated woman fallen into their hands at that particular moment, it is impossible to say what would have been her fate. Actæon-like, she in all probability would have been torn to pieces, not by a pack of ravenous hounds, but by men whom rage had converted into tigers. During the whole of that exciting period, the populace awaited with anxiety, but without violence, the action of the authorities. It was the lull that precedes the coming storm. It was said that Etienne Mazureau, the Attorney General, had expressed his determination to wreak upon the guilty parties the extreme vengeance of the law. But when the shadows of night fell upon the city, and it was ascertained beyond a doubt that no steps in that direction had been taken and that powerful influences were at work to shield the culprits, their fury then knew no bounds and assumed at once an active form. At eight o'clock that night, the multitude having swollen to immense dimensions, a systematic attack upon the building was organized and begun. Their first act was the demolition of one of her carriages, which happened to be standing in front of Hospital street, and the same, it was said, that had borne her away. The sidewalk was literally strewn with its “débris.” Next came the onslaught on the main entrance on Royal street, the portals of which had been previously barred and fastened and seemed to bid defiance to the shower of stones and rocks hurled against it. Abandoning this attempt, they obtained axes and battered down the window shutters, through which a wild horde of humanity poured in. No earthly power at that moment could have restrained the phrenzy of the mob — people resolved on exercising their reserved rights. Their work was no child's play. Everything was demolished; nothing respected. Antique and rare furniture, valued at mote than ten thousand dollars, was mercilessly shivered to atoms. The cellars were emptied of their precious contents, and wines of choicest vintage flowed in copious streams, even into the gutters. Gilt panels, carved wainscots, floorings, carpets, oil paintings, objects of statuary, exquisite moldings, staircases with their mahogany banisters and even the iron balconies were detached from their fastenings and hurled upon the pavements. As crash succeeded crash, yells of delight rent the air. When Royal and Hospital streets became obstructed with the accumulating wrecks, the latter were heaped together in monticules and set on fire, which, together with the glare of the blazing torches, offered a sad and weird-like appearance. This first outburst of popular retribution, notwithstanding the efforts of our local magistrates, continued not only during the entire night — “noche triste” [“sad night”] — but long after sunrise on the following morning. Then came a calm, a deceitful calm. The fire had only partially destroyed the building, and to obliterate the last vestiges of this infamous haunt became now the object of the rabble. The work of demolition lasted four days, and only the charred partition walls remained standing, as a solemn memorial of a people's anger. Tacitus says:  Solitudinem faciunt, pacem vocant.” [“They make a desert, they call it peace”]  In the instant case, the work of destruction only ceased when there was nothing more to destroy. The story that human bones, and among others those of a child who had committed self-destruction to escape the merciless lash, had been found in a well, is not correct, for the papers of the day report that, acting under that belief, the mob had made diligent search, even to the extent of excavating the whole yard, and had found nothing. When, on the subsidence of this unwonted spirit of effervescence, reason had had time to resume her sway, the local troops, with U. S. Regulars to support them, were called out, headed by Sheriff John Holland, who proceeded to the scene of disturbance and read the “riot act” to the crowd of curiosity mongers who were loitering in the neighborhood.   Slowly and peaceably the people dispersed. Their anger was allayed and their verdict carried into effect. They now determined to wait and see what the constituted officers would do in furtherance of public justice.

In the meantime, thousands had been repairing to the police station to witness the condition of the slaves, and as the sickening sight only excited and increased their resentment, our denizens were not slow in expressing their contempt at the apathy and inaction of their municipal worthies. Judge Canonge, a man of strict integrity, and sound judgment, had not escaped the insults of the enraged populace on the night of the first attack, and while in the act of expostulating with them upon the impropriety of their course several pistols had been leveled at his head. Much, therefore, was yet to be feared from the general discontent, as it was reported that bodies of men had banded together for the purpose of looting several residences, where similar barbarities were said to have been commonly practiced. In fact, this report proved no idle rumor, for a gentleman's house in close proximity to Mrs. Lalaurie's was partially sacked, for which act the city subsequently was mulcted in damages.

To repeat what I have previously mentioned, nearly the entire edifice was demolished, the bare walls only standing to indicate the spot where the God accursed habitation had stood — walls upon which had been placarded inscriptions in different languages, conveying anathemas in words more forcible than elegant. The loss of property was estimated at nearly forty-thousand dollars. Says a contemporary:

“This is the first act of the kind that our people have ever engaged in, and although the provocation pleads much in favor of the excesses committed, yet we dread the consequences of the precedent. To say the least, it may be excused, but can't be justified. Summary punishment, the result of popular excitement in a government of laws, can never admit of justification, let the circumstances be ever so aggravated.”

At last the wheels of justice were set in motion and Judge Canonge proceeded to the office of Gallien Préval, a justice of the peace, and furnished under oath the following information. The facts therein stated may therefore, be relied upon as strictly true, and furnish data of a reliable character, of which some future historian of Louisiana may avail himself.

“Deponent (J. F. Canonge) declares that on the l0th inst. a fire having broken out at the residence of Mrs. Lalaurie, he repaired thither, as a citizen, to afford assistance. When he reached the place, he was informed that a number of manacled slaves were in the building and liable to perish in the flames. At first he felt disinclined to speak to Mr. Lalaurie on the subject and contented himself with imparting the fact only to several friends of the family. But when he became aware that this act of barbarity was becoming a subject of general comment, he made up his mind to speak himself to Mr. and Mrs. Lalaurie, who flatly answered that the charge was a base calumny. Thereupon, deponent asked the aid of the bystanders to make a thorough search and ascertain with certainty the truth or falsity of the rumor. As Messrs. Montreuil and Fernandez happened to be near him, he requested those gentlemen to climb to the garret and see for themselves, adding, that having attempted to do so himself, he had been almost blinded and smothered by the smoke. These gentlemen returned after a while and reported that they had looked around diligently and had failed to discover anything. A few moments after, someone, whom he thinks to be Mr. Felix Lefebvre, came to inform him that, having broken a pane of glass in a window of one of the rooms, he had perceived some slaves and could show the place. Deponent hurried on, in company with several others. Having found the door locked, he caused it to be forced open and entered with the citizens who had followed him. He found two negro women, whom he ordered to be taken out of the room. Then some one cried out that there were others in the kitchen. He went there, but found no one. One of the above negresses was wearing an iron collar, extremely wide and heavy, besides weighty chains attached to her feet. She walked only with the greatest difficulty; the other, he had no time to see, as she was standing behind some one whom he believes to be Mr. Guillotte. This latter person told him he could point out a place where another one could be found. Together they went into another apartment, at the moment when some one was raising a mosquito bar. Stretched out upon a bed, he perceived an old negro woman who had received a very deep wound on the head. She seemed too weak to be able to walk. Deponent begged the bystanders to lift her up with her mattress and to carry her in that position to the Mayor's office, whither the other women had been already conveyed. At the time that he asked Mr. Lalaurie if it were true that he had some slaves in his garret, the latter replied in an insolent manner that some people had better stay at home rather than come to others' houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people's business.”

In support of the above statement, which is merely the recital of the discoveries made by the Judge personally and does not purport to include the result of the investigations of others, the names of Messrs. Gottschalk and Fouché were appended as witnesses.


What was the final issue of the affair ? the reader will naturally ask. Nothing, absolutely nothing. From the l0th to the 15th of April, the day on which the riot was finally quelled by the intervention of the Sheriff, the inactivity of the government officials had been glaring.  The criminals, wife and husband, had been deftly smuggled through the unsuspecting throng, driven up Chartres street in a close carriage which I saw speeding at a furious gait and, after remaining in concealment some time hurriedly departed for New York. From that point they had continued their flight to Paris, which they made their permanent residence. There I shall not follow them, nor relate the effects of the ban under which refined society placed them, nor of the hissing and hooting with which the “parterre”[2] assailed her once at the theatre when their misdeeds became known. The woman, it was currently reported in New Orleans circles, finding every door closed against her, had subsequently adopted a strictly pious life and, spending her time in works of practical charity, was fast relieving her character from the odium that attached to it. A characteristic trait in this singular woman's history is, I am positively assured by persons who lived in her intimacy, that, at the very time when she was engaged in those atrocious acts, her religious duties, in external forms at least, were never neglected and her purse was ever open to the hungry, the afflicted and the sick, like Doctor Jekyl's, her nature was duplex, her heart at one time softening to excess at the sight of human suffering, while at another it turned obdurate and hard as adamant. In manners, language and ideas, she was refined — a thorough society woman. Her reunions were recherché affairs, and during the lifetime of her former husband, Mr. Jean Blanque, who figures so conspicuously in Louisiana’s legislative history, and whose important services to the State during a long series of years should be gratefully remembered, her home was the resort of every dignitary in the infancy of our state. There the politicians of the period met on neutral ground, eschewing for the nonce their petty jealousies, cabals and intrigues, to join in scenes of enjoyment and refinement; among whom I may cite Claiborne, the Governor; Wilkinson, the military commander ; Trudeau, the Surveyor General ; Bosque, Marigny, Destrehan, Sauvé, Derbigny, Macarty, de la Ronde, Villeré and others, all representatives of the “ancien regime;” Daniel Clarke, our first delegate to Congress; Judge Hall, Gravier, Girod, Milne and McDonough, destined to become millionaires, and hundreds of others whose names now escape my memory.

But “revenons á nos moutons.” [“Let’s go back to the point.”] There is a class of females, few in numbers it is true, the idiosyncrasies of whose natures are at times so strange and illogical as to defy the test of close analyzation, and to that class Mrs. Lalaurie, with her sudden contrasts of levity and sternness, melting love and ferocity, formed no exception. Whence proceeded this morbid spirit of cruelty? we ask ourselves. Was it a general detestation of the African race? No, for, of her large retinue of familiar servants, many were devotedly attached to her, and the affection seems to have been as warmly returned. All the theories, therefore, that have been built upon this particular case, from which deductions have been drawn ascribing exclusively the wrongs which I have just narrated to the baneful and pernicious influence of the institution of slavery, as some writers will have it, rest upon no better foundation than mere speculation. Slavery was a social device, replete, it is true, with inherent defects, but by no means conducive to crime. The system was patriarchal in its character, not essentially tyrannical. The master was not unlike the “pater familias” [“head of the family”] of the Roman Commonwealth, but more restricted in power and dominion. Hence, it is more rational to suppose, and such is the belief of many, that looking into the nature or “indoles,” as the Latins had it, of the woman from its different points of view, she was undoubtedly insane upon one peculiar subject — a morbid, insatiate thirst for revenge on those who had incurred her enmity. Our lunatic asylums, it is said, are filled with similar cases, all traceable to similar causes. 
 
Circa 1880's before the third story was added.
Upon the site of the old building, a fine structure, entirely new, was erected, noticeable in its design and architectural proportions. A belvedere was added to it. It has been named by some the “Haunted House.”  There is no reason for the appellation, and if several of its occupants, with whom I have often conversed, are to be believed, there is nothing therein to haunt its inhabitants save ghastly memories of a by-gone generation. No spirits wander through its wide halls and open corridors, but in lieu thereof there rests a curse — a malediction — that follows every one who has ever attempted to make it a permanent habitation. As a school house for young ladies; as a private boarding house; as a private residence; as a factory; as a commercial house and place of traffic, all these have been tried, but every venture has proved a ruinous failure. A year or two ago, it was the receptacle of the scum of Sicilian immigrants, and the fumes of the malodorous filth which emanated from its interior proclaimed it what it really is, 

 A HOUSE ACCURSED.




[1] An iron collar and chain, placed around the neck and attached to a wall or post.
[2] The part of the ground floor of an auditorium in the rear and on the sides, especially the part beneath the balcony.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Charles Gayarré...and son.



Who's ready for a little Créole dirt?  Here are a few interesting tidbits about Charles Gayarré.  
Charles Gayarré

Ok, for those of you who don't know, Charles Gayarré was the grandson of Etienne DeBoré, sugar pioneer and first American Mayor.  Gayarré wrote a History of Louisiana (very detailed and a total snooze) and he is buried in the Boré tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1 along with his wife, Sarah Anne Sullivan Gayarré whose “tribulations were her glory.”  (The Boré tomb is a stop on pretty much every cemetery tour.)  The marriage of Charles Gayarré and Anne Sullivan is quite an interesting love story.  He was a confirmed bachelor until he was 51 years old.  She was a wealthy widow from Mississippi.  She moved to New Orleans with her husband and 2 children and lived next door to Grace King.  In 1851 their son fell off the balcony and died (it made the papers) and later that same year her husband died.  According to Grace (whose romantic view of history is far from trustworthy) Gayarré saw Anne at the opera and he fell in love with her at first sight.  “Who is that enchanting woman?  Present me to her."

The ever moonstruck Grace King
The story goes (as told by the poetic Grace King) he had been told by a fortune teller in Paris that he would marry a wealthy widow.  Opera, fortune tellers, tragic deaths – La!  Histoire!  Here are few things Mrs. King leaves out.  Although they married in Mississippi, their marriage contract dated January 28, 1856 stipulates that their marriage will fall under Louisiana law.  It also contains a very interesting note:  “the following terms and conditions and stipulations, (shall) be forever binding on themselves, their heirs, successors and all other persons whatsoever who may pretend to derive any claims or rights from said parties.”

Gayarré's Marriage Contract*
Did you get that?  “...all other persons whatsoever who may pretend to derive any claims or rights from said parties.”  What is up with THAT?  Well, you see – Charles Gayarré had a natural (read: illegitimate) son.

With a slave.

Her name was Delphine LeMaitre, she was an octoroon and she was owned by Gayarré.  Together they had a son named Charles Nicolas Arthur Gayarré.  He was born August 3, 1825 and baptized March 5, 1826 in St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine.  Apparently, Delphine had a violent temper and was sold to a planter in Mississippi by the name of Cerf where she allegedly set fire to the plantation house and burned it to the ground.  (What is it with women named Delphine and house fires?)  By 1850, however, she is listed as a Free Woman of Color (how that happened is anyone’s guess) living in New Orleans with an Edward Marc, F.M.C. (presumably married, since she took his name) and her son, Charles Gayarré, age 25.

As for Charles, fils, a couple of interesting little bits of info – according to Gayarré biographer, Earl Saucier, there was a letter written in 1844 by some unknown person in Paris to Gayarré stating that "pauvre Charles" (poor Charles) is very ill.  If this is true then Gayarré sent the kid to Paris and he was 19 at the time of the letter.  There is no known response from Gayarré.  We do know that the son was alive and well and living in New Orleans with his mom and stepdad by 1850.  Ok, ready for this? There is a letter in the Louisiana State Museum written in 1859 from Gayarré, the father, to Gayarré, the son, in which he acknowledges Junior as his natural son but (take a deep breath – here it is...) he challenges the lad's attempt to passé blanc.  (Pass for white.)  Let's keep in mind that Mama, as an octoroon, was probably very Caucasian in appearance, therefore little Charlie would have been even more so.

Hmmmm....  this brings us back to that 1856 marriage contract and concerns over “pretenders.”

One can only wonder about the relationship Gayarré had with his son.  He cared enough to send him to Paris (to be educated or to get him out of the way?) but when it came to the young man's passin' for white  – well – as a white natural son he may have tried to claim more of his legal share of Daddy’s estate than he would have been entitled to as a Free Man Of Color.  This is interesting considering that Charles Gayarré Jr. was Charles Gayarré Sr.’s one and only child.

*Special Collections, LSU Library, Baton Rouge; the quoted passage is at the end of the first paragraph.