The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era is a nonfiction work by a history professor at the University of Maryland, Michael A. Ross. This story, while nonfiction, has all of the elements of any great fictional crime drama that I’ve read, and as we say, sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. Set in 1870 in the Reconstruction Era, two multiracial women are accused of the abduction of a Caucasian 17-month-old Mollie Digby, who lived in New Orleans with her parents. This was the first kidnapping case that drew the attention of the national press, and it was sensational from the date of the crime in June 1870 until the resolution of the trial in January 1871. More than just the crime itself, Ross portrayed the fascinating complexities of the Reconstruction Era which arose at the end of the Civil War under President Andrew Johnson, failed in its goals of structuring social justice for the South, and came to a crashing end in 1877 with the onset of the Jim Crowe Era.
New Orleans was a unique setting for the story to occur. Originally settled by the French and Spanish, there was already a history of tolerance of multiracial relationships before the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. In racial terms, the Creoles, both white Creoles and Afro-Creoles, were in middle ground between whites and blacks. With the take over by United States, the government became dominated by southern white supremacists, and the relatively cooperative spirit among the races in New Orleans came to an end.
Had the kidnapping happened a few years earlier, or just a few years later, the outcome of the trial would surely have been different, but it occurred during the Reconstruction Era when Blacks could serve on juries and their testimonies were not automatically discounted. Interestingly, the Republicans at the time were connected to Lincoln, abolitionists, and the reconstruction movement, while Democrats were the party of the white supremacists that where working hard to reestablish the Old South, as it had been before the Civil War. Reporting in the news was sensational, at least as much as it is in this current day. Adding to the story were some of the characters involved, from the “boy Governor,” 28-year-old Henry Clay Warmouth, the DA, the Chief of police, the defendants’ attorneys, and others. Ross did a marvelous job of explaining their histories and importance to this case and the times.
I happened on the book in a review in the International New York Times, and I read it on the heals of a current-day fictional story of crime and racism by Greg Iles, Natchez Burning. Through the miracle of the Internet and Kindle, I was able to download the book from my location in Ubud, Bali. I love being able to do that, although I must also admit I miss spending hours rummaging through book stores, something I’ve not had to do in a while. If you’re a fan of American History, which I am, I highly recommend this book. I know too little about the Reconstruction Era, and this book helped enormously, especially with arriving at a better understanding of the unique history of New Orleans.