The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case by Michael a. RossIn Michael A. Ross’s book The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case he chose to write about the forgotten subject of Reconstruction. Portraying corrupt carpetbaggers, ignorant former slaves and southern whites angry about the Civil War’s outcome has depicted most of the historical information from the Reconstruction Era. Ross describes this limited time when black rights were being upheld and there was still an open mind as to where reconstruction would lead the country.
He details how advances seemed to have been made in a progressive Louisiana by relating the Mollie Digby case. He presents not only her kidnapping trial but also the social and political tensions of 1870.Ross’s book tells of how this case was swept up into political reconstruction. It was a sensational case at the time and the press, delighted to sell so many papers, brought this case to the forefront with all its interesting details. The papers told of the kidnapping, voodoo sacrifices, s©ances, and the newly appointed black detective.
The press also publicized the large rewards, which brought suspicion to all African Americans. Every white child spotted with black women was related to the police. The reward money of up to $5,000 brought many tips, which the newspapers dutifully reported to the authorities. The white controlled press also wanted to expose more black on white crimes to show the problems of integration. In 1870 radical reconstruction in New Orleans was at its height. The federal government was attempting to bring a new order in the south both socially and politically. It had passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which gave blacks freedoms includingthe right to vote hold office, be on juries, hold government positions, and in this case showcasing a member of the police force. What was important to the story is the Afro-Creole people in the book. Ross feels they are the best chance for reconstruction to succeed because they were not ignorant newly freed slaves but an elite class of people who were fashionable and educated. The story of Mollie Digby would have not received as much attention by the press if it did not involve a white child being kidnapped by a black women during this time of racial tensions.Mollie Digby was a 17-month-old daughter of Irish immigrants who was supposedly kidnaped by two Afro-Creole women in the summer of 1870. She was kidnapped in her New Orleans neighborhood known as the back of town. This case was one of the most famous kidnapping cases at the time and it sent fears throughout the country during this time of racial reconstruction tensions.The white population felt the crime rates would escalate since slaves were now free. This new racial equality was threatening and this case had it all, anger, optimism, confusion and anxiety. The two women who were arrested were Ellen Follin and her sister Louisa Murray, who were Afro-Creoles just like detective Jourdain. They were also described as stylish and fair skinned. Having the same Afro-Creole background it was thought Jourdain would favor them. Follin and Murray were members of a prosperous class in Louisiana and this stunned many, as they were unlikely suspects. The case also brought white upper class women into the scene where they demanded the Governor to solve the case. This was the first time in Louisiana elite white women expressed their opinions and are involved in politics.The governor of Louisiana of the time was Henry Clay Warmouth who was a young Union army veteran. He saw this as an opportunity to show skeptics that an integrated police department could work professionally and proficiently. He hoped his highly trained police force could work to help reshape the images of the Southern thugs who once policed the city. He also hoped the Republican party would participate in his Louisiana reforms and put aside their racial animosity in favor of economic development. Emphasizing the progression of Louisiana’s integration Warmouth and his Police Chief Badger hired Jean Batiste Jourdain as the first black detective to his force and the country. Jourdain was thrust into the national spotlight and he was scrutinized. Ross descriptions of Jourdain show there was a tier of the colored race in Louisiana the press described him as intelligent and well education and slightly colored (p.26). They also said he showed little exhibition of African lineage. The books tells of Louisiana elections and the governor’s fears that if Jourdain does not succeed the he would not be able to keep white voters on board with his progressive programs. The democratic press, who were opposed to reconstruction, were emphasizing the fact the black integrated police force was too inept to solve the crime of Mollies abduction. Ross states that a conviction might help convince white Louisianans that the Reconstruction governments judicial system dispensed punishments equally to both races (p.108). Just having black members seated the jury shows the possibility of change during reconstruction. In the past the law and legal procedures favored whites, justice for blacks was the exception, not the rule (p.4). The Reconstruction Act of 1867 had given Southern black men the right to vote and the Louisiana constitutionalconvention of 1868 also made it possible for black men to serve on juries. The jury in the case against Follin and Murray contained two afro-creole men.Ross says that the Northern readers of the New York Times would have viewed this case thought the lens of reconstruction politics (p.212) displaying in the book how the trial was more than about the kidnapping.The trial was very different from today’s procedures. The preliminary hearing dragged on with all of the grandstanding. Jourdain’s detective tactics were questionable and would have been thrown out of court today. He bullied, lied, and threatened witnesses. He informed the court he did make threats of putting the whole house under arrest (p.132) if they did not show the baby. This was not helpful to the Governor as he was trying to show an integrated police department was nothing to fear. Conflicting evidence, blatant lies and threats were uncovered during the proceedings. The jury only took eight minutes to find them not guilty which I believe was the correct outcome of this trial. All of the lies were never straightened out nor the motive exposed during the trial, which gave citizens and the reader no answers. One answer in particular never answered was it really the true Mollie, as her father did not recognized her Thomas examined her closely but was still unsure the girl was Mollie (p. 59).The acquittal in this story does suggest that the post-Civil War experiment in interracial democracy was not necessarily doomed. Reconstruction had a small period in the south where people were accepting a new order. It shows of reconstructions larger possibilities with the integrated police department and bi- racial juries. Reconstruction won in this case but also failed. It won in respect to theverdict but failed, as they women should never have been brought to trial at all with the lack of evidence still showing racial bias. If this case had taken place not during this time of reconstruction the outcome would have undoubtedly been different with the verdict ending in unfavorable outcomes for the accused due to their race.