mollie digby

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.

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 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.

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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.

The Kidnapping that Captivated the Country

New Orleans was a city on edge in June 1870 when two African American women abducted 17-month-old Mollie Digby from in front of her family’s home in the working-class “back of town.” It was the height of Radical Reconstruction. Former slaves, freed during the Civil War, had poured into the city and African American men could now vote, serve on juries, and hold public office. Black men and women demanded service in formerly whites-only restaurants and saloons.  Many white residents, still emotionally wounded by Confederate defeat, seethed as the new order emerged.

When the police reported that Mollie Digby, the daughter of Irish immigrants, had been kidnapped by a “fashionable, tall, mulatto woman, probably for the purpose of receiving a ransom,” the white press seized on the case as an example of a world turned dangerously upside down. They demanded that Louisiana’s Reconstruction government solve the crime.

News of the kidnapping spread throughout the South and made headlines in Chicago, New York, and other cities as the story, and the efforts to find Mollie Digby, became intertwined with the fearsome politics of Reconstruction. “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case” had begun.

To be published by Oxford University Press, October 2014