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.)