A Black Detective, an 1870 Trial and a What If

jpdetective1-master675

Fantastic. From the New York Times. My favorite part:  “the derring-do of a crack Afro-Creole police detective versed in the latest “French” techniques — seemingly the first black detective in the United States to take part in a case that received national attention”

Michael A. Ross’s ‘Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case

Michael A. Ross, the author of a well-regarded study of the Supreme Court during the Civil War, thought of himself as a “meat and potatoes” legal historian.

But a decade ago in a New Orleans archive, something a bit spicier caught his eye: an 1870 newspaper article describing the “voodoo abduction” of a white toddler by two mysterious black women.

“I thought to myself, ‘This can’t possibly be true,’ ” Mr. Ross recalled recently by telephone.

The voodoo angle turned out to be hysterical rumor. But as he read on, Mr. Ross, now a professor at the University of Maryland, discovered an all-but-forgotten story of a sensational investigation and trial that gripped New Orleans and the national press for almost seven months. “There were so many other twists and turns that I was hooked,” he said.

Those twists, recounted by Mr. Ross in “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era,”published this week by Oxford University Press, include psychic consultations, a shadowy “House of Secret Obstetrics” and the derring-do of a crack Afro-Creole police detective versed in the latest “French” techniques — seemingly the first black detective in the United States to take part in a case that received national attention, Mr. Ross says.

Photo

Michael A. Ross, author of “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case,” at home in Hyattsville, Md. CreditDrew Angerer for The New York Times

The story also offers something else that was all but unheard-of in pre-Civil Rights-era trials involving African-Americans accused of crimes against whites: genuine suspense about the outcome.

Alfred L. Brophy, a historian at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said in an interview that at virtually any other moment, such a case would almost certainly have ended in a “legalized lynching.”

“Ross has unearthed an important story,” Mr. Brophy said. “Historians are going to argue about its broader significance for a long time.”

Beyond academia, Mr. Ross said he hoped his whodunit would add complexity to the public understanding of Reconstruction, restoring a sense of contingency to a period that is too often read as leading inexorably to Jim Crow.

“It was not inevitable that Reconstruction was going to fail,” Mr. Ross said. “There was a moment of real possibility.”

That moment was certainly a fraught one. When Mollie Digby, the 17-month-old daughter of Irish immigrants, was reported to have been kidnapped by two African-American women on June 9, 1870, the case immediately became enmeshed in broader social and political tensions.

To the white press, it was more proof that Louisiana was descending into racial chaos under Henry Clay Warmoth, the Illinois-born radical Republican governor. But to the government, it was a chance to prove that a newly integrated and professionalized police force — 28 percent of New Orleans’s officers were African-American — would aggressively investigate crimes allegedly committed by blacks.

Category:

Leave a Reply