Bayou St. John near Spanish Fort

As I mentioned in my last post, the number of newspaper articles on Bayou St. John drowning victims I’ve come across in my travels continues to astound me. Victims of all ages, classes, and colors; victims of foul play, suicide, accidents, and mysterious circumstances. Even a waterbody as current-less and shallow as Bayou St. John can claim lives: water is water to those who can’t swim. Or, as in the case below, even to those who can.

For me, these articles are interesting for the stories behind them. Depending on the victim, a reader might get a nearly complete story—say, if the victim were sympathetic to those doing the telling (i.e. white, male, and at least somewhat respectable). Otherwise, we might only get a glimpse: a “pink calico dress” on the unnamed woman found in the bayou in 1852, for example. Or else we might get virtually nothing. Nothing beyond a dead body and various descriptors, depending on the time period, of his or her decidedly brown skin.

Below is one of the more vivid stories I’ve come across recently. What happened to young Quincy Koy, “expert swimmer,” in his improvised bathing suit? What could account for his inexplicable disappearance beneath the bayou’s slack surface?

“Good Swimmer Drowns—Quincy Koy Attempts to Cross Bayou St. John—Feat He Had Often Accomplished, and Disappears to Death Without Previous Warning:

“Within a few feet of his home and in full view of half a dozen people, Quincy Frank Koy, an expert swimmer, was drowned while attempting to swim across Bayou St. John yesterday at 3p.m.

“Young Koy…suggested yesterday to Thomas Maher, a younger boy…that the two take a swim in the bayou. The day being almost of summer temperature, the proposition was quickly agreed to, and, putting on improvised bathing suits, the two youths walked out in front of the Porteous home [where they both lived], which is at 1054 Moss Street…and waded into the stream.…

“Then Koy announced his intention of swimming across the bayou, which is about 150 feet wide at that place. Koy had performed the feat many times, and Maher thought nothing of the announcement….

“A few feet from the place where the boys were, Theodore Grunewald’s yacht Josephine was tied up. As the boys began their sport one of the members of the crew remarked sportively:

“‘Get the boat read [sic]; there is a boy getting ready to drown.’

“The other members of the crew laughed at the joke, little thinking that in five minutes they would actually lower a boat and go to strive with their might and main to save a drowning boy.

“Koy, when he struck out across the bayou, swam rapidly and easily until he had reached the middle of the stream. Without a cry or other sign that he was in distress the boy turned over on his back, floated for a moment on the water, and sank out of sight.…” [1]

1. “Good Swimmer Drowns. Quincy Koy Attempts to Cross Bayou St. John. Feat He Had Often.” Times-Picayune 9 Mar. 1907: 7. NewsBank. Web. 20 Sep. 2016.
Image info: “VIEW OF FORT LOOKING WEST ACROSS BAYOU ST. JOHN”; Richard Koch, 1934, National Park Service employee; public domain


I just plunged down a deep, deep rabbit hole, and am now writing myself out. Yesterday, I stumbled across a mention of the Luling Mansion, located on Leda Court near the Fairgrounds. This 1865 Italianate behemoth, built by the famous architect James Gallier, Jr. for cotton merchant Florence Luling, now stands faded and almost abandoned-looking, hidden from view just off Esplanade.

photo by author

Its interior has been converted into apartments, and as recently as January 2015, a few of them were up for rent. What inspired the rabbit hole for me, though, was the mention of Bayou St. John in this story.

photo by author

In 1871, Luling sold the mansion to the Louisiana Jockey Club, which had recently acquired the race track we all know today as the Fairgrounds. The mansion and its 80 acres fronting Esplanade became the Jockey Club’s headquarters, in which they threw fancy parties of all kinds. Why would Luling sell the mansion he’d just spent $24,000 to build after only six years? Because, according to all the sources I came across, Luling’s two young sons drowned in Bayou St. John soon after they moved into the mansion, prompting him to sell it.

Oh! I thought to myself. Maybe I can find the newspaper article on the boys’ drowning to flesh this out a little bit. Over the course of my bayou research, I’ve been simply amazed by the number of bayou drownings mentioned in the newspaper—freak accidents of all kinds, involving members of all classes, with the most bizarre circumstances surrounding them. And yet, no such article appears to exist—or at least I can’t find it. So the story is left to its bare bones.

Luling Mansion in its heyday; 1908 postcard by C. B. Mason, New Orleans; public domain

The poet in me (sometimes inclined toward the morbid and occult) considered writing a post in which I reimagined the boys’ death—playing on the edge of their property (did their property extend to the bayou?) one day in, say, 1870, maybe searching for turtles in the grass along the shore, digging their little sticks in the mud. I’m imagining them as twins now, each in his own little nineteenth-century suit, maybe four or five years old. They’re speaking to each other in nonsense phrases that are nonetheless completely clear to each of them, since they’re twins, and since the adults are often too busy filling ships with cotton (their father), or else fulfilling domestic duties (their mother) to speak to them much. But where is the governess meant to be looking after them? Who is she? What is she up to? The day is warm. The bayou slips along, brown and sluggish….

Louisiana Jockey Club House (Luling Mansion), New Orleans, 1884; from souvenir booklet “New Orleans,” unknown author; public domain

Ok! I just did what I said I wasn’t going to do. Really I’d planned on including another Times-Picayune article of a sad and mysterious drowning, hoping that others would find it as interesting as I did.

To be continued….