The First African-American Detectives, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, and the Fate of Reconstruction

When police departments in the mid-twentieth-century appointed African-American detectives, the nation took note.  Through countless books, movies, and television shows, detectives had become the most glamorous figures in law enforcement, and the appointment of black detectives—first in the North and then in the South—was seen as a sign of a transforming society. Sidney Poitier’s portrayal of Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night became iconic. But few commentators noted at the time that the trailblazing African- American detectives of the civil rights era were not the first black detectives in American History. That honor goes to the black “special officers,” as detectives were often called, who served in a handful of cities in the South during Reconstruction.  In Reconstruction-era New Orleans, for example, John Baptiste Jourdain, Jordan Noble, and other black detectives investigated high-profile crimes including the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870.

Until the mid-1840s, American urban police forces did not employ detectives at all; before then, the role of policemen, night watchmen, and town constables was to prevent crimes, not to solve them. Cities usually depended on common citizens to identify criminals. Even with the rise of professional policing in the 1830s, officers focused their energies on prevention and made most arrests based on evidence that witnesses had voluntarily brought forth. After Boston introduced the first detective squad in 1846, other American cities, including New Orleans, followed suit, and detectives soon became celebrated figures. Stories, both real and fictional, of whip-smart sleuths deciphering clues, using disguise, spotting telltale signs, and outsmarting wily criminals captured the American imagination. True crime tabloids like the National Police Gazette, as well as the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, helped propel the national obsession with detective work.

But until Reconstruction, all police detectives in the United States had been white. Even in 1870, police departments in the North still had not hired black patrolmen, let alone detectives. The Boston force would not add a black officer until 1878; in New York City, the ranks remained all-white until 1911. But in the South, five cities employed black officers. Reconstruction, it seemed, had brought real change; only a few years earlier, the idea of a black man serving on a southern police force in any capacity would have been unthinkable. But in 1870 in New Orleans, black detectives followed leads, interrogated white and black witnesses, and used their deductive skills in efforts to solve sensational crimes like the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case.  More was at stake, of course, than simply solving crimes.  If they succeeded, black detectives could help convince skeptical whites that biracial government could work.  If they failed, however, they would arm the critics who demanded the restoration of white supremacy.

Jake Gyllenhaal Is the Perfect Gumshoe in Prisoners, Says James Franco

Prisoners is awesome. I loved, loved, loved it. The atmosphere, the pacing, the framing, the acting, and the subject matter are all so good. I love that my man Jake Gyllenhaal is back as a hard-hitting actor. His portrayl of Detective Loki is mysterious, empathetic, tough, and believable—all  without a backstory. All we know about Loki is that he spends Thanksgiving alone at a Chinese restaurant and that he has never foiled a case. He is the perfect engine for this contemporary noir where each turn (well, almost each turn) in the narrative is believable and gripping. But more than that, he embodies the “complex simplicity” that Thoreau speaks of. He tells little with words but tells so much with presence and clues. Clock my man’s crazy tattoos and the erratic blinking he does whenever he is thinking hard about something. Scope his shirts buttoned esse-style, all the way to the top. These are the signals of a confident and searching actor and they signify to viewers that Detective Loki is a force to be reckoned with in his world. Even though Loki has a shadowy backstory, these little clues are all we need to fall in love with him. 

And just in case it isn’t clear: I LOVE this film. It is so dense with atmosphere and full of questions about who we are and what we believe in. It is so rich that it feels like a novel. I kept asking myself as I watched it: How did the screenwriter and director jump straight past conventional literature and create literature for the screen? Maybe someone will just have to do a book adaptation of this film. It’s that good.

Because it is so good, I want to ruminate on some things I found troubling. Think of this pondering as coming from your friend whom you saw the film with; you’re both in the car together on the way home and you’re just discussing what you liked and didn’t like about the film. It isn’t straight criticism, but rather a little detective work on the detective film itself.