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.