“Water hyacinths blocking a steam boat on a bayou in Louisiana in 1920.” October 25, 1920, photo from Louisiana Works Progress Administration collection. Note: the bayou in the photo is not Bayou St. John.

In writing a recent post on fish in the bayou, I learned a bit about the decision to intermittently reopen, back in 2014, the lock separating the waters of Bayou St. John from those of Lake Pontchartrain. But apparently this most recent debate on a stagnant and unhealthy bayou was not the first of its kind—not at all!

I still have some research to do on the construction of the lock at Robert E. Lee, decisions surrounding bayou health over the course of the 20th century, etc. But until I have all the answers, here are some interesting tidbits on our troublesome friend:

In 1952, a Times-Picayune headline claimed: “Bayou St John Acting Up Again: Surface Scum Permeating Area with Bad Odor.” A caption beneath a photo of the weed-choked bayou read: “Malodorous Stuff Blankets Water Near City Park Entrance.” I’ve decided we don’t use the word “malodorous” enough anymore…. let’s resurrect it (just in time for Mardi Gras)!

The article goes on to explain: “Members of the Bayou St. John Improvement Association reported Friday that scum forming on the surface of the bayou has permeated the area with a gagging smell….” Public Buildings and Parks Commissioner Victor H. Schiro noted that this phenomenon was certainly not isolated (“‘We have [this] trouble every year…’”) nor was it a small problem: “‘All week we’ve had a crew of six to eight men collecting the scum off the water. They’ve moved six truckloads of the stuff all ready. We’ll probably be doing this for another month.’” Wow. That’s a lot of scum.

Schiro said he didn’t quite understand the phenomenon, but attributed it to vegetation growing on the bed of the bayou that, during certain times of year, rose to the surface. “‘It’s like a flower that comes to bloom,’” he said.

The article wraps up with a final thought from Schiro: “‘There’s not much we can do about this except to try to keep the bayou clean….Whenever we say anything about closing the bayou the people raise the devil, so we do the best we can under the circumstances.’” All around the city, open canals were being buried and covered over, including the bayou’s younger sister, the New Basin Canal. Therefore, filling in the bayou to avoid this kind of nuisance wasn’t a fanciful idea. Nonetheless, the bayou was clearly as beloved then as it is now, despite its smelly antics. [1]

One more fun fact: in 1953, they were back at it, trying to get rid of the problematic vegetation. A Times-Picayune headline read: “Bayou Clearing Work is Started, But Undergrowth’s Weight Brings Halt for Repair.” I will quickly summarize the gist of the article: a war surplus amphibious “duck,” a 2.5-ton, six-wheel “truck and barge combined, equipped with a propeller and capable of locomotion on land and water,” outfitted with a special metal basket at the end of a boom, was being used to clear the bayou of its organic mess. However, this amphibious behemoth was no match for the bayou’s impressive undergrowth. The weight of it broke the boom, and the “duck” had to be sent back to the Sewerage & Water Board for repairs. The bayou was said to have tweeted: #sorrynotsorry #iamwhoiam[2]

1. Times-Picayune 21 Jun. 1952: 6. NewsBank. Web. 7 Feb. 2017
2. Times-Picayune 23 Jul. 1953: 1. NewsBank. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.


For the past few weeks, I’ve been searching for images to use in the bayou book—combing the digital holdings of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Digital Library, the New Orleans Public Library and about a billion other institutions, not to mention desperately attempting to track down details about unattached (but often wonderful!) historic images on Wikimedia Commons and personal blogs.

In my travels, I came across a heap of digitized WPA photographs at the NOPL. The photos cover a huge variety of WPA projects unfolding all over the city in the 1930s and 40s, and many of them are fairly mundane—but a seemingly equal number are totally fascinating.

I hope everyone will forgive me if I stray a bit from the bayou in this week’s post….

The photos took me on an adventure, and I couldn’t resist!

I clicked around, and decided to present some gems I found—of women and children in particular.


Photo #1: June 1941, from the series entitled, simply, “Mattresses.”

The finding aid explains a bit further: “WPA workers manufactured 17,682 mattresses and quilts to be distributed to the needy during 1939.”

I love how tangible this photo feels—those slats, the piles of fabric, the aprons!


Photo #2 & #3: September, 1937, from a series called “Archaeoconchology.”

I know, right?! Who is this amazing woman! To whom is she calling?! So it turns out “archaeoconchology,” when entered into the Google search bar, turns up a grand total of 9 (obscure) entries. One hesitates to say it’s not a real word…. The only quasi definition I was able to turn up said it was a branch of archaeozoology.

Basically, someone was collecting some sea shells, perhaps studying them, and otherwise having this woman in her amazing dress pose with them.


Photo #4: From September 1940, from series called “Household Aide”

The finding aid explains that these photos feature a “training center for household aid workers. Photographs show Mrs. Eva Blackwell, assistant supervisor, with workers in the ‘carpentry’ shop and Mrs. Leila Schneidau teaching workers the proper care of patients.” In this particular shot, we see what I assume is a “worker” leading a little boo into another room. This child has completely won over my heart! But what makes this photo *extra* special is what I believe is a mannikin lying in bed in the background. There were other photos of mannikin patients, so I think it’s a safe bet. Also, just look at her.…


Photo #5: From January, 1940, from a series called “Music.”

The following description confirms what you think you’re seeing: “Harmonica class at Robert C. Davey School, 1307 Dryades Street. Jimmy Dillon, 14, 1621 Dryades; Rita Van Court, 13, 1824 Terpsichore; Gladys Luc, 13, 908 Howard; Anna Paladino, 15, 1400 Baronne.” Why aren’t harmonica lessons a part of music class in public schools nowadays?! Practicing my scales with my classmates at the front of the room, with that wand waving about in front of me—what could be better?! What’s also wonderful is we have names and addresses for some of the students. If any readers recognize grandparents or addresses, please comment!


Next post, it’s back to the bayou—I promise! But I seriously recommend clicking around this collection at the NOPL in the meantime.


All photos from WPA Photograph Collection, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.

1. Mattresses, 27.03 “Matress Making Project,” 6/12/1941, #10.

2 & 3. Archaeoconchology, 04.02 , “Shell Project Story at the Louisiana State Museum,” 9/29/1937, #7 & #8.

4. Household Aide, 22.01, 9/18/1940, #10.

5.  Music, 30.07, “Federal Music Project,” 1/10/1940, #1.


Shipyard. Note: not on Bayou St. John.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, thanks in no small part to the New Deal, Bayou St. John got a huge makeover.

No more mudflats and sunken garbage! No more crumbling levees! No more broken shell roads! No more houseboats and boathouses and ramshackle wharves! All of those things, after all, do not befit the name “Bayou St. John Aquatic Park,” which is what the weed-choked small craft parking lot, crisscrossed with outdated bridges, would become over the course of a few short years.

This is not to suggest the “old bayou” didn’t go down without a fight.

Perhaps the most heated argument to come out of this transformation occurred between Walter Parker, President of the Bayou St. John Improvement Association, and Joseph Dupuy, owner of the last remaining shipyard between Esplanade and Hagan Avenues. You see, the bayou’s makeover wasn’t only cosmetic; its essential character and function needed an overhaul as well. Its very role within the city, according to those at the helm (no pun intended!), needed redefining. After all—the Carondelet Canal, which once extended the bayou to the French Quarter along the path of today’s Lafitte Greenway, was no longer in use, and by 1938 was completely filled in. Without its manmade limb, the bayou served very little commercial purpose. And yet, old habits die hard. Along with the vestiges of other miscellaneous industries once connected with the waterway, two large shipyards remained active along the bayou’s lower banks by the time its makeover was proposed.

What’s wrong with a couple shipyards, you ask?

In short, they require the wrong kind of bridges.

In order for bigger boats to travel to the shipyards for repair, they needed the bayou’s drawbridges to open—most notably, the old Esplanade Bridge and the present-day Magnolia (or Cabrini) bridge. But Parker and the rest of the BSJIA did not envision drawbridges in the new Aquatic Park: they interfered with City Park-bound traffic, and, as is illustrated below, required much planning and many resources to operate.

According to Parker, opening the bridges required the services of a “specially trained crew” of at least five men (members of the Public Service Organization, and therefore not available to the city at a moment’s notice), often took upwards of 30-45 minutes to complete, and required notifications of the police department (for assistance detouring traffic), the Public Service Transportation Department (to reroute buses), Charity Hospital ambulances, and the fire department. Traffic had to be detoured to the Magnolia Bridge, and then, half an hour later, rerouted again so that the Magnolia Bridge could be opened. All, as Parker added for emphasis, so that “one boat can go to one boatyard for repair.” [1]

By the early 1930s, the Mullens Shipyard (near Esplanade Avenue) had agreed to be moved, but up until 1936, much to Parker’s chagrin, Dupuy refused to be relocated. But how would they finish their revetment work? And how would they install the proposed “fixed-span” bridges, with enough clearance only for canoes and other such small “pleasure craft”?

It wasn’t until Congress declared the bayou a “non-navigable stream” in 1936 that the city finally claimed the right to put its foot down. Eventually, the Dupuy shipyard was forced to move lake-ward. The bayou, goshdarnit, was to be recreational! I have to admit to having a soft spot for this shipyard, or at least the memory of it. Every time I pass by Dumaine Street’s intersection with the bayou, I imagine its skeletal hulls-in-progress, its busy workers, its stubborn desire to stay put.

1. City Engineer’s Bridge Records, 1918-1967, City Archives, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.


Did you know that the historic, blue-tinted bridge spanning Bayou St. John across from Cabrini High School—colloquially referred to as the “Cabrini Bridge,” or Magnolia Bridge—has not always lived where it lives now? For decades, it spanned the bayou at Esplanade Avenue, serving as the last link along that bustling artery connecting downtown with City Park and Metairie Road.

Imagine how many thousands of buggy wheels have rolled across its stretch! How many clopping horse hooves and clattering streetcars!

photo from Wikimedia Commons

In 1909, before upgrading to a significantly larger steel trunnion bridge, they unhooked the Magnolia Bridge from its foundations and floated it down to its present location on a barge. The original idea was to re-erect it across from Grand Route St. John, but the curve at that spot in the bayou rendered the location less than ideal. So the bridge was set down in its current location, where it began its second life as a key artery for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods until it ceased serving vehicular traffic sometime in the middle of the last century.

The re-location of the old Magnolia Bridge in 1909 went off without a hitch, but the same cannot be said about the construction of the new bridge at Esplanade that same year. On May 19, 1909, the Times-Picayune reported that during a routine test during the bridge’s construction, “With a terrific crash, the span of the steel bascule trunnion bridge in course of construction at the Esplanade Street end, crossing Bayou St. John, snapped in twain, and the heavy superstructure fell into the bayou, effectually closing navigation of that waterway for some time to come. Five men were injured, one of them, Frank Cunningham, fatally, two others severely and two slightly….”

Frank Cunningham, originally from Oklahoma, Mississippi, was only 24 years old. Newly married, he had been living in New Orleans for eight years doing iron and steel work. When the new bridge “snapped in twain,” Cunningham “was struck on the head by a piece of iron…and, falling, the base of his skull was fractured. He lay there unconscious until he was carried to Picdeloup’s saloon, opposite, remaining there until the ambulance arrived and took him to the hospital.” [1]

The rest of the new bridge’s construction saw its fair share of mishaps and delays, even once repairs were made. In fact, its entire existence was besotted by inefficiencies, closures, and repairs. All in all, it seems our Magnolia Bridge was far more trustworthy—not to mention older and more unique.

This just goes to show you that a bridge, in all its day-to-day stillness, can be far more than it appears to be.


1. “Bayou Bridge Wrecked, Killing One, Injuring Four. Steel Structure Across Esplanade Avenue Breaks Under Strain.” Times-Picayune 19 May 1909: 5. NewsBank. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.


In 1907, then Mayor Martin Behrman made a formal offer on behalf of the city for “four small islands” in Bayou St. John. When I first came across this story in the Times-Picayune I was flabbergasted. What islands?! I had never heard them mentioned before. And also, what does an “island” in a slack body of water, often only a few feet deep in places, look like? To me, growing up in Maine, an island is a large hunk of rock rising out of the ocean, or maybe a medium-sized hunk of rock rising out of a lake. They are stable, with lots of vegetation. Often they have piers. Often they have cemeteries. If not a pier and a cemetery, then at least a rope swing. Often there are blueberries.

I digress!

But it all comes down to my having misconceptions about a) islands, and b) the bayou.

See, I knew that Park Island (sometimes called Demourelles Island), located at roughly the midpoint between the lake and the foot of the bayou, isn’t really an island. Well, I mean, it’s an island in the sense that it’s a mass of earth surrounded by water, but let’s just say it wasn’t formed naturally and that mass of land didn’t always identify as an island.

Fun fact: in the mid-1800s, in order to avoid a sharp curve that was often clogged and impassable, they straightened the bayou. The bayou’s original bed forms the eastern channel that flows around today’s Park Island. The island itself is made up of the original bed’s western bank and the earth they dredged to make the new channel.

Which is all to say, I thought I knew something about the bayou and its island (singular).

But I didn’t!

When Behrman made his first offer on the islands, a couple years prior to his second offer in 1907, it was denied by the Register of the Land Office because the islands “had no official status” and were “therefore not subject to sale.” A clue in the subsequent sentence makes it clear why: “…1906, a bill passed by the General Assembly providing for the sale of lands formed by receding waters, whether navigable or unnavigable, became a law….” So these islands, in having no official status, had to have been recently revealed by the bayou’s waters, which were, for whatever reason, becoming shallower. [1]

A friend and fellow researcher in the neighborhood has uncovered some tidbits in his travels regarding these “four small islands,” which, when added up, were said to have encompassed 6.38 acres—an area roughly equivalent to the 200-foot-wide strip of the bayou’s western bank between Orleans and the bayou’s foot (where Bayou Boogaloo sets up every year). A document detailing ownership of this piece of land references a 1906 survey (which cannot be located) in which the bayou was described as splitting into an eastern and western channel in that location. Between these channels is where the four islands were said to reside. [2]

I haven’t been able to find these islands in any early maps, but nonetheless the maps make clear that the bayou once forked and split and spread its fingers in all kinds of directions as it approached what is now the heart of the city.

So, in other words, I was completely wrong to have assumed the bayou couldn’t have “real” islands of its own. This New Englander stands corrected.

1. “The Latest News In All Louisiana. Register Crandell Awards the Bayou St. John Islands to.” Times-Picayune 29 Aug. 1907: 16. NewsBank. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
2. Joseph Bologna, “Report and opinion as to ownership of title to Bayou St. John and greater portion of square no. 457 in the second district of the City of New Orleans, LA.” 1987.


Did you know Bayou St. John once had a career in silent film?

It’s true—our bayou served as the outdoor set to a number of films shot in New Orleans starting around 1911, including, but not limited to,  Heinie’s Pilgrimage, The Pearl from India, The Belle of New Orleans,  A Mardi-Gras Mix-Up, and Girls Strikers.

Kalem Company, a film company founded in New York City in 1907, set up a studio on the bayou’s banks, which it praised as “one of the most picturesque places in New Orleans.”[1]

In The Pearl of India, the bayou played a more prominent role—dare I say it was almost a character in itself?? The film’s climactic scene included a leap from one of the bayou’s bridges, and a collision of a speedboat and a skiff (containing “the detective,” presumably the film’s hero) on the bayou’s waters.[2]

How I wish I could find this film so I could see the bayou do its thing!

Two local New Orleans women who once acted in these films were interviewed by the Times-Picayune in 1962. Lillian and Tillie Touzet (only the best names ever) appeared as extras in both Heinie’s Pilgrimage and Girl Strikers, at the age of 17 and 14, respectively. For Heinie’s Pilgrimage, they were each paid $5 per day plus a “noonday meal.” According to the article, “The Kalem studios consisted of one outdoor set and a combination office-dressing room-cafeteria building” on Bayou St. John. [3]

Lillian reflects, “I don’t think artificial lighting was used at all…although it does seem to me that reflectors were used to throw sunlight into the faces of those on the camera.” Tillie remembers, “Tom Moore was the leading man in both pictures, and Lottie Pickford was the leading woman. The heavy, or villain, was Stewart Holmes.” [3]

Silent film actress Lottie Pickford

Silent film actor Tom Moore

Silent film actor Stuart (sometimes credited “Stewart”) Holmes

The article goes on: “In ‘Girl Strikers,’ Lillian’s salary was doubled to $10 per shooting day, and she played the role of a young, tuberculosis-stricken girl in a cigarette factory. The story idea was simple. The girls…went on strike against factory owner Stewart Holmes for more pay and better working conditions.…Even though the films were silent, actors and actresses had to rehearse lines and gestures before each scene was shot.”[3]

Other tidbits:

1. In Belle of New Orleans, Moore and Holmes starred alongside an English actress whose name history has since forgotten. Lillian recalls, “Seems [the actress] couldn’t register shock or indignation to the director’s satisfaction. Holmes solved the problem. With his back to the camera, so lip readers couldn’t see his face, he insulted her and cursed her. She showed shock and indignation….The director said it was the best bit of acting she had ever done.” The Englishwoman promptly resigned once the film was completed. So it sounds like Holmes was the villain on-set as well—a “heavy” of the patriarchy, if you will. How meta! [3]

2. Belle of New Orleans was shot—gasp!—at the Old Jockey Club, aka The Luling Mansion, in 1912! Within a couple months of the film’s shooting, the estate was taken over by developers who hoped to turn the mansion into apartments and the land into “one of most beautiful residential parks in country”—and to connect this tract with other residential neighborhoods blossoming all over the newly-drained city. What I wouldn’t give to see just a single scene from that film![4]


1. “Sixth Kalem Company at New Orleans,” Moving Picture World, 1912:11 pp309]
2. ”News And Notables At The New Orleans Hotels. Kalem Moving Picture Studio Located Here Because.” Times-Picayune 28 Feb. 1912: 7. NewsBank. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
3. Times-Picayune 7 Jan. 1962: 125. NewsBank. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
4. “Real Estate. Arcadia Court Seeking to Purchase Myrtle Lane, Uniting the Two Splendid Tracts, and.” Times-Picayune 19 Mar. 1912: 10. NewsBank. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.


First, a couple quick notes:

*The author is desperately hoping that the lovely woman who approached her at the Studio in the Woods’ FORESTival this past Saturday, who once lived in the Luling Mansion (!), is reading this post. Dear Kind Woman, I have lost your business card! I have been searching for it all week! If you would email me, I would be so grateful and would love to talk to you about my favorite mysterious mansion.

**The author has been engaged with much post-election reflection, and is also currently reading Lydia Davis’ translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. This is probably evident enough in the post below.

As might be obvious by now, I am deeply interested in the history of spaces and places: what has unfolded in this exact spot—in this house, on this city block, along this bayou—since its beginning? What have time and time’s residents (that’s us) enacted upon this particular space?

Then I find myself wondering: what makes a space the space that it is? What of its original properties does it retain, given the assault of time? For example, a three hundred year old house. What about it hasn’t been changed? What, as they say, is still “original”? Let’s say that, except for in one room, the flooring is no longer original. Nor is the sheetrock, moulding, windows, doors, or any of the exterior features. Say the house has had a hard life, and has required resuscitation by modern hands. What makes this house this house then? Where in its tangible body is its three-hundred-year history housed? A few beams and studs, hidden beneath the house’s skin? A few floorboards, refinished, but nonetheless holding the energy—the DNA even—of the many hundreds of feet that have crisscrossed its surface? Perhaps a few bricks in the foundation, perhaps they remember all the way back to the beginning, having napped in the dank clay since then, sinking imperceptibly deeper and deeper as the house thrums with activity above….

Or take a bayou, for example. A swampy trickle; a river’s flung-off limb; the tiny drainpipe of a brackish estuary slithering through the clay in myriad directions: this was our bayou to begin with. Now it’s a frozen feature of a previous landscape, a feature as common to that previous landscape as a single capillary among millions. Now, at least within city limits, it’s the only one left.

But it’s been dredged, widened, straightened, leveed, drained, cleaned up and hosed-down, laced with pipes, stitched with bridges, fixed with locks. Slack as it may be, its water has turned over probably a million times by now. A thousand generations of fish. And yet, I remain convinced that, like a house, a bayou remembers.

A bayou remembers all the boats: smooth-bottomed, keeled and un-keeled, some with groaning motors, some with oars. It remembers every submerged grocery cart, every beer bottle, every car. It remembers every alligator, turtle, catfish, every bear sipping at its edge. Every stray bullet, every fishing lure. All the human bodies—some naked, some dressed in layers of fabric, the limbs jerking and flailing, the fabric swirling. It remembers, right now, as we speak, the duck’s floating oval of feathers, the measured shushing of its webbed feet.

* Photo by Andreas Steinhoff, Wikimedia Commons


At last, we come to the surprising final act in the saga of Virginia Reed and Charles E. Letten. Finally we get to hear Reed herself speak! And her eloquence, as surely as it will win you over when you read an excerpt below, ultimately won over the judge in the case.

Reed’s testimony was said to have lasted several hours, and apparently her composure never wavered.

First, we hear about Reed’s early life: she explains that her mother took her to live with a rich banker at the age of 13, and that a few years later “he moved [her] into a private residence, and visited [her] there.” Several years later, she joined her mother in New Orleans, and her wealthy banker “friend” set her up with other wealthy friends—thus beginning Reed’s life as the mistress to wealthy white men in New Orleans (although she also ran a successful boarding house in town as well).

Then, we learn more about the nature of her relationship with Letten: “‘[He] used to frequent the corner opposite to where I lived. He flirted with me, and I encouraged him.…[he said] he had been watching me for several weeks, and asked me if he could be a friend…. He told me that his name was Charles Lloyd.…He said that…he was engaged in the cotton business, and that he was a very wealthy man.…He always told me that he had an aunt who was very dear to him, and that she was the cause of his not being able to call on me more frequently.’” (A likely story!)

Upon being asked when she learned his real name was Letten, she replied, “‘About two years ago. We were seated in one of the rooms at my house, when a friend of mine called. When she saw him she said: “How do you do, Mr. Letten.” When I was letting her out of the door she said: “I didn’t know that he was your friend. He works in the tax office. I pay my taxes to him.”’” (Ruh roh!)

Reed maintained that “only in his mind” did Letten give her $118,000 dollars over the course of their relationship; that she only learned of his being married when his name came out in the papers regarding the supposed embezzlement; and that she was concerned for his wife most of all upon receiving the news. Reed shed a “real tear” at this moment in her testimony, describing the pain she felt for his wife, for the “disgrace he had brought down upon her….I tried to die for her. I felt for her every minute, and I tried to blot out the shame by drowning myself [in the bayou].’” [1]

Finally, Reed’s fate was decided: “In a sweeping decision rendered yesterday, Virginia Reed…scored a decisive victory over Captain John Fitzpatrick, Tax Collector of the First District.…The trial of the case was one of the most sensational that has been held in the civil courts….” Throughout the trial, Letten claimed again and again that he stole money from the tax office “to satisfy the whims of the woman.” And yet, “The defense proved that the woman was a hardworking and thrifty individual, and that she accumulated [the] money [on her own] by working day and night.” [2]

Needless to say, I am left with many questions. Why did Letten claim to have stolen the money for Reed? Because he really did steal it, and needed a cover story to hide the real reason—since the news of his affair with a woman of color was made public anyway, and since she, and her “mesmerism,” would be the easy scapegoat? What ended up happening to Letten, and what happened to the money? Moreover, is this the same Virginia Reed, the same “negro female hoodlum,” that the papers spoke of before their affair was made public? Who was it, then, that was leading a double life—Letten, Reed, or the public itself, whose sentiments shifted so drastically over the course of this case?


1. “Virginia Reed Tells Story Of Her Life, Furnishing an Indictment Against White Men’s Immorality, Denies.” Times-Picayune 30 Apr. 1908: 11. NewsBank. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
2. “Virginia Reed Wins In Civil Court, Judge St. Paul Deciding Against Tax Collector Fitzpatrick To.” Times-Picayune 17 Jun. 1908: 4. NewsBank. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
Image info: from Wikimedia Commons, author: bropho.


Part two of the Virginia Reed embezzlement scandal (for part one, click here) involves our beloved bayou.

Here’s what we know so far: Virginia Reed, a woman of color, was known to the Powers that Be as a “lewd and abandoned woman” and a “notorious negro female hoodlum.” Because of those labels—“negro” and “female”—we may never know much more about her.

Charles E. Letten, white employee of the State Tax Collector’s office, admitted to embezzling $116,000 over a period of years (over two million dollars by today’s standards!) for Reed, his mistress, despite being “happily married.” Reed, he alleges, put him under a “mesmerism” that not only convinced him she was beautiful, but convinced him to put the money in his pocket and bring it to her doorstep twice a week. It wasn’t him, it was the voodoo!

At this moment in the story, Letten has just told the Times-Picayune the aforementioned tall tale from his cell in the Parish Prison. The day before, after catching word Letten had been charged, Virginia Reed left her house in the French Quarter around 8:00 a.m. to supposedly go to the market. She caught a streetcar at Orleans, and headed to the bayou. When she arrived at its banks, she threw down her basket and leaped into the water. A man jumped in and pulled her out. While he was reviving her, she broke free and leaped in again. Once she was pulled out a second time, they bought her to the police station and she was locked up for disturbing the peace and attempting suicide. Before she could get out on bail, she was re-arrested for “receiving stolen property [from Letten] when it was known to be stolen.”

The officers on duty at the station were very preoccupied by the group of female friends that came and stayed with Reed all day, and especially by the pile of bayou-soaked clothing her friends replaced with a dry set. It was composed of a “handsome silk skirt and underclothing made mostly of lace. All the garments of the negro woman were of the finest material, and very expensive.”

When told of Reed’s suicide attempt in his own cell, Letten’s “small, colorless eyes snapped, but he made no comment until he was asked: ‘Had you heard of the attempt?’ ‘No,’ declared Letten. ‘I had not.’ ‘What have you to say regarding the attempted self-destruction?’ ‘Nothing.’”

He then elaborated on the “remarkable influence” Reed had had over him:

“I met the woman eighteen years ago.…From that moment I was conscious of a peculiar spell, which I knew was due to a certain influence which she had over me. It is to that mesmerism, or whatever it may be called, that I owe my downfall.” [1]

She requested larger and larger sums of money, and then, he claimed, she threatened to blackmail him if he didn’t bring it.

I keep wondering about those trips from Letten’s office to his mistress’s doorstep, just a few blocks away. The sun burning down. His hat tilted to avoid the glare. A wad of pilfered bills in his pocket. Were the cobblestones and balconies along the way imbued with excitement—he’s on his way to see Virginia! Or else imbued with guilt and shame at his attachment to this woman who represents everything he’s not supposed to be attracted to? Were perhaps these the emotions he is now attributing to a “dark spell”? Dogged desires that slip between the constructs we set up for ourselves, that cross the boundaries we draw between what is “good” and “right” and what is “forbidden”—a distinction, particularly in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, that was literally black and white?

Part three will reveal what ultimately befell the two lovers, although we may never know the true nature of their relationship.…

1. “Virginia Reed Attempts Suicide In Bayou. Terror Stricken at the Exposures She Roasts Letten and.” Times-Picayune 14 Sep. 1907, |: 1. NewsBank. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
Image info: from Wikimedia Commons, author: Paul Burani.


If you take gender and race relations of early twentieth-century New Orleans and add a healthy dose of drama, you get the story of Virginia Reed and her embezzling sugar daddy, Charles E. Letten. Get ready for this one, folks. It’s definitely at least a two-parter!

First, a little backstory, as reported to us by the (white men) of the Times-Picayune. Virginia Reed appears a grand total of 75 times in the T-P between 1882 and 1909, and my goodness does the drama escalate. First, a little petty larceny, a little “lewdness” here and there:

“Virginia Reed, arrested for stealing 50 cents, was sentenced to 20 days….” [1]

“Virginia Reed…was fined $25 or 30 days for violating the ordinance relating to lewd and abandoned women.” [2]

“Virginia Reed and Mollie Robinson, notorious negro female hoodlums, were fined $5 each for fighting.” [3]

“Last Sunday night a Chinaman named Mar Shing…was inveigled into the notorious negro den, No. 114 Dauphine street, kept by the ebon nymph, Marie Davis, alias Black and Tan, and was robbed of $50 by two of the thieving inmates named Virginia Reed, alias “Long Luey,” and Carrie Knight. The former escaped and…the others were fined $5…for violating the ordinance relative to lewd and abandoned women.” [4]

Long Luey, this isn’t the last time you stick it to the man and get away with it! But that’s giving away too much of the story already.

Where were we? A smattering of mentions until 1899, and then from 1899-1907, silence. No mention of Virginia Reed anywhere.

And then this:

“Following two unsuccessful attempts by Virginia Reed, the 43-year-old negro mistress of Charles E. Letten, to drown herself in Bayou St. John yesterday morning…Letten, who is in the Parish Prison…on the charge of having stolen at least $116,000 from the funds of State Tax Collector John Fitzpatrick, made an astounding statement to the Picayune, in which he alleged that for eighteen years he had been under a mesmerism which forced him to steal the sums of money which he gave as semiweekly presents to the negress…; that under the influence of the spell he regarded the almost black, ungraceful African as not only good looking, but beautiful; that her charm for him was like ‘the pulling of an octopus;’ that despite the influence of the woman there was no effect on his home life, which continued to be ideal, not a cross word having passed between himself and his wife since their marriage thirty-one years ago; that he almost invariably went to the woman’s house at 323 Dauphine Street in broad daylight after leaving his office…; that he could feel the spell of her influence at his office, and would put the money in his pocket and take it to her, when she invariably smiled and said, ‘That is right.’” [5]

Yep! An unwitting white gentlemen, in the midst of marital bliss, was put under an evil African spell for eighteen years that had him believing—gasp!—that a black woman could be beautiful! That had him returning again and again to her doorstep with what adds up to over two million dollars by today’s standards!

Even the T-P guys sound skeptical.


1. Times-Picayune 5 Dec. 1882: 3. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
2. Times-Picayune 13 Dec. 1884: 2. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
3. Times-Picayune 2 May 1889:  NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
4. “The Prey Secured and the Trap Set Again.” Times-Picayune 14 Sep. 1886: 8. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
5. The Daily Picayune 14 Sep. 1907: 12. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
Image info: Charles Bevalet – Fibuier, Louis (1868) Ocean World : Being a Descriptive History of the Sea and its Living Inhabitants, New York: D. Appleton & Co. from the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington