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.