great new orleans kidnapping case

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.

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.


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.

The Afro-Creole Detective: John Baptiste Jourdain and The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870

In the summer of 1870, John Baptiste Jourdain became the first African- American detective ever to make national news. New Orleans Chief of Police Algernon Badger made Jourdain lead detective in the sensational Digby kidnapping case, in part, for political reasons. 1870 was the height of Radical Reconstruction and the New Orleans police force had just been integrated.  If a black detective found the Digby baby or her abductors, Badger hoped it might dispel white fears that black law officers were not up to the task.

Detective Jourdain was forty years old and relatively new to the police force when he was thrust into the national spotlight. He was tall, grey-eyed, delicately featured, and dapper. The press described him as “intelligent and well-educated.” Born in New Orleans in June 1830, Jourdain was the son of a free woman of color who had once been enslaved and a white Creole descendant of one of Louisiana’s founding families. Relationships like his parents’ were common in pre-Civil War New Orleans, where wealthy, white, Francophone men often had children with “mulatto” partners. Unlike the Americans who had settled in New Orleans after the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803 who opposed racial “amalgamation,” Jourdain’s parents were part of a lingering French and Spanish colonial culture that tolerated interracial relationships.

As a Creole of color, Detective Jourdain belonged to a class of mixed-race men and women unique to the Gulf Coast. Although the term creole had different meanings in different societies, in colonial Louisiana anyone born in the colony was called a Creole. Over time, Louisianans, black and white, who identified with French culture and language and feared being overwhelmed by the American parvenus who arrived in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, self-identified as Creoles. Black Creoles of Jourdain’s class considered themselves to be cosmopolitan gentlemen and ladies. Bilingual and mannerly, they looked to Paris for aesthetic inspiration. Many elite Afro-Creole men wore stylish silk pants, leather slippers, and fine jackets. They dined with silver utensils, filled their homes with books and mahogany furniture, attended the opera, published their own newspaper, studied classical literature, formed exclusive Masonic lodges, and drew inspiration from the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution. Their ranks included writers, poets, painters, sculptors, and composers, as well as doctors, merchants, and skilled artisans.

During Reconstruction, Louisiana’s Republican Governor Henry Clay Warmoth counted on educated Afro-Creoles to fill key positions in his biracial administration and Warmoth knew no roles were more important than those in law enforcement. The Republican government had to prove that it could ensure the safety of persons and property.  While rough and illiterate men had previously dominated the police ranks, Warmoth and Chief Badger wanted only educated, healthy, honest, and diligent officers who would lead by example and uphold Victorian ideals of manly self-restraint. New regulations prohibited officers from using “coarse, profane, or insolent language” and required them to “set an example of sobriety, discretion, skill, industry, and promptness.” Rules required officers to pay their debts on time, to “be quiet, civil and orderly,” and to “maintain decorum and command of temper.” These skills were second nature for Afro-Creoles like Jourdain who had long relied on their manners and erudition to distinguish themselves from slaves and poor whites. Jourdain could now use those skills to further his career and to demonstrate that African Americans deserved full equality.

For Jourdain and other Creoles of color, Radical Reconstruction provided a singular opportunity to prove that they numbered among society’s “best men.” Given the right to vote, hold office, and serve on juries, Afro-Creoles seized the moment. Confident that men of their class could govern as well as (or better than) white men, Creoles ran for office, accepted patronage posts, or, like Jourdain, joined the integrated police force. During Reconstruction, almost all of the black elected officials from New Orleans and 80 percent of the black officers on the Metropolitan Police came from the Afro-Creole community. Afro-Creoles took on these roles knowing that their success or failure could affect the status of all black people in Louisiana. If they failed, they would confirm the prejudices of ex-Confederate reactionaries bent on restoring white supremacy. If they succeeded, they might convince moderate whites to join a biracial coalition committed to economic prosperity and democratic rule. Jourdain immediately helped the cause by leading several successful investigations that received notice in the newspapers, including a case that led to the arrest of two jewel thieves. But the public pressure to solve the Digby case would be far greater than anything Jourdain had experienced. The press so sensationalized the Digby kidnapping that it became a crime that could not go unsolved.

(Note: No known image of Detective Jourdain exists. The drawing above is of Afro-Creole musician and composer M.Basile Barres and is included as an illustration of a member of the Afro-Creole class in Louisiana.)

Twelve Years A Slave, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, and the Ghosts of the Past in the Louisiana Cane Fields

Today, much of Rapides Parish, Louisiana seems just like everywhere else.  Around Alexandria, the suburban subdivisions, box stores, and crowded roads could be anywhere in the South. But, outside the city, there are still rural roads that run through the sugar cane fields where the past is close at hand. In the nineteenth century, the famous memoir Solomon Northrup wrote about being kidnapped and sold into slavery—Twelve Years a Slave—made the Rapides Parish cane fields synonymous in the North with harsh servitude and injustice. And today when the wind whips up before a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon, it can feel as if the ghosts of Northup and the other men and women who toiled in those fields still haunt the land.

Less well known, but also evocative, were the events of 1870, after the Civil War and emancipation, when the cane fields of Rapides Parish became part of the frenzied pursuit of two African American women accused of abducting a white baby in what became known as the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case. The case made national headlines after rumors had circulated that Mollie Digby, the daughter of Irish immigrants, had been abducted for use as a human sacrifice in a Voodoo ceremony. A huge reward offered by the state’s Republican governor added to the intensity of the search.  In August 1870, a deputized posse from New Orleans arrived in Rapides Parish after a tip reached police that Mollie Digby’s abductors were hiding her in the former slave quarters of the Compton plantation, near Bayou Boeuf and the town of Cheneyville.

When the posse reached the Compton place, they proceeded directly to the former slave quarters where many of the freedmen and freedwomen still lived. Once home to over 400 slaves, the plantation had been one of the largest in Rapides Parish before the war. Solomon Northup noted in Twelve Years A Slave the large number of his fellow bondsmen the Comptons bought at an auction where he was also sold. Following emancipation, some of the Comptons’ slaves stayed on, now working for wages.

Because the posse reached the quarters in the afternoon when almost all of the residents were still in the fields, the only person in sight was a young black girl, about eleven years old. To their surprise, the child seemed to know precisely why they were there. The visitors had not yet uttered a word when she asked, “Where is that little white girl?” “What do you know about a white child?” a posse member replied. Two women, she said, had been there with a white baby several times and had that morning left for a secret spot on the plantation, saying that someone was after them. That, she said, was all she knew. Elated by their good fortune and convinced they were close to capturing the kidnappers, the posse headed for the plantation’s “big house” to alert the Comptons that fugitives were hiding an abducted child on the grounds.

Toche Compton, the plantation’s owner, agreed to aid the investigation. Louisiana planters strived to keep their work force, now free, under tight control, and Compton must have been alarmed when emissaries from New Orleans arrived to tell him that black kidnappers were hiding on his land. Springing into action, Compton summoned some of his most trusted black employees and offered them cash rewards if they could find out where the kidnappers were concealed. He and his men also paid their own visit to the old slave quarters to interrogate the girl who had reportedly seen the women with the stolen baby. The frightened girl initially denied knowing anything, but after close questioning claimed “that the lady had given her some money and promised her a new dress” to keep quiet.

By Tuesday morning, word of the search for the kidnapped baby had spread. The Comptons’ neighbors had followed the story—and news of the mounting rewards—in the newspapers, and they “flocked in from all points” to assist. When the initial search of the Compton estate failed to turn up the kidnappers, the dragnet expanded to include the surrounding plantations, roads, and piney woods. “Before night,” a posse member reported, “the whole section of the country was aroused into action.”

For three days and nights, search parties fanned out across the parish, questioning field hands and any black people walking on public roads. For African Americans along the Red River, it must have been a harrowing week. At a time when terrorist organizations such as the Knights of the White Camellia were prowling the countryside, parties of white men on horseback with torches could not have been a welcome sight, even if in this case they were aiding a search authorized by the Republican governor.

Late in the afternoon on August 12, a traveler arrived claiming that he had seen two black women with a white baby driving in an old wagon on the road to Alexandria. A half-dozen riders rode off to overtake them. Reports also circulated that clothing belonging to Mollie Digby had been found near the road a few miles away. Certain they were “only three hours” behind the culprits, additional rescuers began “saddling horses to proceed with the search.”

Standing on those same roads today in August at dusk in the cane fields, it is easy to imagine that scene in 1870, the armed men on horses at full gallop riding off shouting about kidnappers and rewards.

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.

The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: The Cast of Characters

NEW ORLEANS, Summer 1870—On June 9th, 17-month-old Mollie Digby was kidnapped from in front of her house by two African-American women while her mother was inside. The case soon made headlines as rumors swirled that the child had been abducted for use as a Voodoo sacrifice.  The search for the child and the media coverage expanded far beyond New Orleans, with leads arriving from as far away as Cincinnati.  

At the heart of the mystery of Mollie’s kidnapping that is the basis for my book THE GREAT NEW ORLEANS KIDNAPPING CASE are some compelling characters.  Below is a look at some of the key figures in the case:

Mollie Digby was 17-months-old when she was kidnapped from in front of her house in a working class neighborhood of New Orleans.  Her abduction quickly became intertwined with the tumultuous politics of Reconstruction as many residents saw it as a sign of a world turned upside down by the Civil War and emancipation. Her story would make the front pages again in 1932 when another baby was kidnapped from his home—the Lindbergh baby.

Thomas and Bridgette Digby were immigrants who had fled the Irish potato famine and settled in New Orleans.  Living in the flood prone  “back of town,” Thomas drove a hackney cab and Bridgette took in laundry and sewing.  The Digbys aspired to a better life for their three children.  When their 17-month-old daughter, Mollie, was kidnapped, they were thrust into the spotlight.

Ellen Follin was an attractive, well-dressed, mixed-race widow with three children.  After the police received a tip that a white child fitting the description of the Digby baby was seen at Follin’s house, she became one of the prime suspects in the case.  The press became fascinated by her style, erudition, cool demeanor, and the “scandalous” business she operated. 

James Madison Broadwell was once the captain of the Eclipse, the grandest and fastest steamboat on the Mississippi. He was so esteemed that his endorsement appeared in ads for cold remedies and other products. Fiercely proud and quick to defend his honor, he threatened violence when reporters suggested he may have masterminded the crime. 

John Baptiste Jourdain was 40-years-old and relatively new to the police force when he became the first African- American detective ever to make national news. Born in New Orleans in June 1830, Jourdain was the son of a free woman of color and a white Creole descendant of one of Louisiana’s founding families. New Orleans Chief of Police Algernon Badger made Jourdain lead detective in the sensational Digby kidnapping case, in part, for political reasons. 1870 was the height of Radical Reconstruction and the New Orleans police force had just been integrated.  If a black detective found the Digby baby or her abductors, Badger hoped it might dispel white fears that black law officers were not up to the task.

 Thirty-one-year-old, Massachusetts-born Algernon Sidney Badger was the new police chief in new Orleans. A tall, powerfully built Union Army veteran, Badger oversaw the integration of the city’s police force during Reconstruction and he was eager to demonstrate that his black officers and detectives could effectively and fairly protect the public’s safety.  When the kidnapping of Mollie Digby made headlines that spring, Badger appointed his best black detectives to the case.  Although many ex-Confederates could not stand the thought of armed black policemen patrolling the streets with full authority to arrest whites, Badger hoped that by solving a high-profile, racially explosive case his men could build public confidence in his integrated force.

Henry Clay Warmoth, was the 28 year old “boy governor” of Louisiana.  Democrats labeled the young, Illinois-born, Republican governor a “carpetbagger” who was foisted on the state by federal bayonets and the votes of former slaves. Warmoth believed he could win over the population with pro-business policies and Northern-style efficiency including skilled law enforcement.  He also became personally involved in the Digby case, offerring a large reward for the capture of the  kidnappers.

The “Carpetbagger” Police Chief and the Dream of an Integrated New Orleans.

White southerners called them “carpetbaggers.” They were Yankees in the post-war South: former Union Army soldiers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, lawyers, and businessmen who, white southerners alleged, were there to enrich themselves at the expense of the defeated Confederate states. Many of the so-called carpetbaggers, however, were principled men who believed they were doing God’s work. They hoped that with northern guidance the old slaveholding South could be reconstructed in the North’s image and might soon be crisscrossed with railroads and filled with mills, factories, public schools, and prosperous free laborers.

Included in this idealistic group in 1870 was the Massachusetts-born police chief in New Orleans, thirty-one-year-old Algernon Sidney Badger. A tall, powerfully built Union Army veteran, Badger oversaw the integration of the New Orleans police force during Reconstruction and he was eager to demonstrate that his black officers and detectives could effectively and fairly protect the public’s safety.  When the kidnapping of Mollie Digby made headlines that spring, Badger appointed his best black detectives to the case.  Although many ex-Confederates could not stand the thought of armed black policemen patrolling the streets with full authority to arrest whites, Badger hoped that by solving a high-profile, racially explosive case his men could build public confidence in his integrated force.  

 Badger was not naive.  He knew well the challenges he faced; he had seen firsthand the ferocious animosity many white southerners held for northerners. In April 1861, an angry, gun-wielding mob had attacked Badger’s 6th Massachusetts Infantry as the men changed trains in Baltimore en route to Washington in response to President Lincoln’s first call for volunteers. Four of Badger’s comrades had died in the Pratt Street melee. As a civilian in New Orleans after the war, he had witnessed ex-Confederates shooting unarmed black men and their white allies during the 1866 New Orleans Riot. Badger nevertheless believed that in a city long known for its corrupt and thuggish police force, professional and honest policing could help win over moderate whites.  Successfully solving the Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case of 1870 became key to Badger’s campaign.