great new orleans kidnapping case

The Remarkable Detective Noble: Former Slave, Drummer Boy, Union Soldier, and Trailblazing Sleuth

In mid-July 1870, the lead detective in the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, John Baptiste Jourdain, received a tip that a former slave named Rosa Lee knew of the whereabouts of the kidnappers he sought. Because policemen were “invariably met with silence and suspicion” in black neighborhoods, Jourdain hoped he could dress in workman’s clothes and trick Lee into divulging what she knew about the case. As a light-skinned Creole of color from a privileged background,  Jourdain would need to play his role well by adopting the mannerisms of a freedman. To lend authenticity to his disguise, Jourdain brought along gray-haired Detective Jordan Noble who, at age seventy-two, was the oldest man on the force and one of the few former slaves in the ranks of the Metropolitan Police.

Detective Noble was famous in New Orleans and perhaps an odd choice for an undercover assignment. Born into slavery in Georgia, Noble had earned his freedom after serving as Andrew Jackson’s drummer boy at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He later accompanied Louisiana troops in the Everglades during the Seminole War, as well as serving as drummer for the elite New Orleans-based Washington Artillery during the Mexican War. In the 1850s, Noble regularly marched with his drum in patriotic parades alongside white veterans who nicknamed him “Old Jordan.” When the Civil War began, he helped organize one of the regiments that volunteered to fight with the Confederacy, but he later switched sides and served in the Union ranks. Like Jourdain, Noble seized the opportunity during Reconstruction to join the Metropolitan Police as a detective, and despite Noble’s celebrity Jourdain believed that he and Noble, like the famous French detectives they emulated, could be “masters of disguise.”

Dressed in grubby work clothes, the two detectives made their way to the neighborhood near the back-swamps where Rosa Lee lived. When they found Lee standing outside of her house, the detectives’ deception began.

Allegations of Voodoo and human sacrifice in the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case (Mobile Register 1870)

During the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870, the rumor circulated that Voodoo practitioners had abducted Mollie Digby for use as a ceremonial human sacrifice.  The rumor tapped into white New Orleanians’ longstanding fear of Voodoo priests and priestesses. Before the Civil War, government officials worried that Voodoo leaders such as Marie Laveau and her daughter Marie the Second could incite slave revolts. Their presence destabilized the racial status quo that had bolstered slave society.

After Appomattox, Voodoo men and women took advantage of freedom that came with Reconstruction to practice their religion openly. Although Voodoo practitioners considered themselves to be Catholics, many frightened white residents saw the postwar Voodoo renaissance as yet another example of impending social chaos. White reactionaries, vowing to fight the “Africanization” of the city, used sensationalized accounts of Voodoo rituals to malign black culture and to portray black people as unfit to vote or govern. White editors demanded that Voodoo priests and priestesses “be closely observed by the police to prevent the intolerable excesses to which their ignorance and fanaticism lead.” For many of the city’s white residents, the Digby rumors confirmed those fears. During Reconstruction, one commentator warned, black people had “passed so much out of, and beyond the influence of white civilization” that “Voudouism” was flourishing. “It is horrible to think,” he added, “that the little child of Mr. Digby has been sacrificed to this savage superstition.”

As the hysteria grew, one editor after another demanded that what became known as “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case” be solved.

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The Elite Women of New Orleans, the “Boy Governor,” and the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870.

As coverage of the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case became more sensational, prominent white women from the most famous New Orleans families adopted the Digby case as their own. In late June and early July wealthy women of New Orleans would usually be preparing to leave town for cooler climes. Just as many theaters and restaurants closed for the season each summer, elite families put linen covers on furniture, packed white dresses, suits, and Panama hats into trunks, and set off by rail and steamboat for the coast, the North, or Europe. But in 1870, Matilde Ogden, Armantine Allain, Louisa Huger, and wives of dozens of the city’s other richest financiers, merchants, and cotton factors took time to march to police headquarters to demand resolution of the Digby case.

By intertwining themes of motherhood, crime, and race, the Digby case provided an opportunity for the city’s elite women to enter the public debate over Reconstruction and to express publicly their anger at Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, his biracial police force, and the emerging racial order in Louisiana. Raised in a culture that required them to behave as traditional ladies, most elite women left public commentary on politics, business, and civic affairs to men. But in early July, sixty-one prominent women presented a petition to Warmoth urging him to do something to solve the case.

Warmoth knew that many white Louisianans questioned his qualifications and abilities. He had just turned twenty-eight years old that May and was one of the youngest governors in United States history. His critics dubbed him “the boy governor.” Wanting desperately to prove the competence of his integrated government to the city’s elite, Warmoth responded by becoming personally involved in the Digby investigation. Shortly after receiving the women’s petition, he offered a state reward of $1,000 (about $20,000 in 2014 dollars) in the Digby case—$500 for recovery of the child and $500 for the arrest and conviction of the abductors. He also ordered New Orleans’s chief of police to put the city’s entire police force “on watch” for the baby and kidnappers, and to send handbills describing the crime, the perpetrators, and the reward to postmasters and police authorities in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and the rest of Louisiana.