Dear Readers,

In exactly one week, I will be turning over my manuscript on the history of Bayou St. John to the publisher. You might be able to imagine the brain-fry that’s happening over here in order to make this deadline. The marathon stints of revising and citing and formatting have left me a little….blank. As in, I’m dreaming about the bayou—about writing about the bayou, in particular—but when it comes to crafting a short, interesting piece on some bayou anecdote: I’m coming up a little dry (no pun intended!).

Then I remembered a post I’d started and abandoned a few months ago. It quoted a Times-Picayune article featuring some of the most flowery language I’d ever heard in my life (appropriate to the 1890s). But I had forgotten to cite which article this was, and instead of digging through my copious notes, I decided to run a search by homing in on particular words in the article and searching for it in the database. It wasn’t hard to find unique words: hmmm…how about “bayou st john” and “sluggish,” or “bayou st john” and “flat-chested.” I finally found it, after coming across ads to fix a “sluggish” liver, and ads (beginning in the 1920s) for various breast augmentation solutions.

Without further ado, here is a bit of poetry to brighten your day. It will brighten your day because it’s absolutely ridiculous, typifying the romantic language (not to mention values) that defined the period. At the moment this article was written, City Park was experiencing a renaissance after decades of ad hoc development punctuated by years of neglect. Within thirty years, it would largely resemble the City Park we know and love.

Lying between Canal street and Esplanade avenue, with the city cemeteries pressing close on one hand, with the sweet, sunlit spaces and gabled roofs of the old soldiers’ home on the other, with the cypress swamps of the lakeshore trooping up to the line fence like a horde of curious aborigines, with the bayou St. John [sic] and its sleepy sloops protecting it like a moat of old, with here and there a quaint Creole home close to its limits, the city park lies like a fallow field that will readily become a place of great beauty.

It is situated on a ridge as if here the flat-chested earth was swelled into a gentle mound. Across its width creeps the sluggish brown bayou Solage [sic], all choked with sedges and set like an illuminated missal with purple flag flowers and the delicate Holy Ghost lilies that flutter on their pale stalks like the ghosts of dead white butterflies chained to earth for their sins.

The greening grass wears here and there a delicate broidery of daisies, and the rough, seamed roots of thorn and oak are festooned with the pale grace of the southern wild violet, more lovely than any other in color. In the far corners heaps of blackberry vines shine like free skies set with white stars. [1]

Did you catch the horde of curious aborigines part? Or the dead butterflies chained to earth for their sins? This thing reads like a bad creative writing exercise. But thank you, Catharine Cole, for loaning us some words—perhaps more than we needed—since I’m fresh out!

1. “New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden.” Times-Picayune, 13 Mar. 1892,p.20. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-1228BBD6E62774C0@2412171-122671E8E84CFC70@19-1241C360DC863233@New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 30 May 2017.


While combing through 150 years of Times-Picayune articles that mention Bayou St. John, I have learned of countless strange objects discovered in its murky “depths.” This week, I thought it would be fun to compile just a few. What do a locked safe, an unearthed coffin, a “nude stripper,” a stolen airplane, and a mermaid have in common?

In 1960, two fishermen discovered a locked safe in the bayou, and, after unsuccessfully attempting to haul it out, called the police. Last we heard of this safe, it was traveling in a “tow wagon” to the police station, at which point the police were going to attempt to find out who it belonged to. [1]

In an article from 1974, we find a comical photo of a naked man (buttocks to the camera) near the Magnolia Bridge. In front of him, thigh-deep in the water, a patient-faced, bespectacled man appears to be attempting to convince the naked man of something. Meanwhile, two police officers appear to be trying to pull the naked man from the water from behind with pieces of…string. On the bridge, onlookers crane their necks to get a better look. The caption reads: “While social worker Edward Buuens distracts a nude man who had waded into Bayou St. John, Ptn. B. B. Booth, of the New Orleans Police Dept. emergency unit prepares to pull the unidentified stripper from the cold water. The only explanation given by the man was that he was going to ‘stay in the water until I stop smoking.’” I wonder how that string strategy worked out for them…. [2]

Ok, I cheated a little bit with the unearthed coffin. It wasn’t found in the bayou so much as in someone’s front lawn who lived close to the bayou. It just had to make it into this story! In 1968, a woman called the police after spotting “a rusting metal coffin that was ornate and quite expensive” sitting on her front lawn. The police arrived and opened it, only to discover a few bits of trash and a “large funeral flower arrangement, faded and yellowed with age.” [3]

In 1975, a man claims to have spotted a mermaid in the bayou. Twice. “While many folks are preoccupied seeking something hideous like the Loch Ness Monster,” R.C. Ryan decided to put “his phantom-seeking time to better use” by searching for beautiful mermaids. If you aren’t already skeptical, consider the description of Ryan’s mermaid: “‘She was reclining languorously on the bank….She was ravishingly beautiful with her raven tresses billowing in tangled disarray and framing her peach-blossom cheeks.’” She sounds like the type of mermaid one might find in a paperback romance novel, as opposed to in the bayou, but what do I know? [4]

Lastly, in 1983, a pilot “crashed-landed a stolen, single-engine plane in Bayou St. John…leaped from the sinking craft, swam to shore, and fled in soggy clothes….” Witnesses spotted the plane “sputtering” over City Park before it veered toward the bayou where it meets the lake, clipped the crown of an oak tree, and barely missed the footbridge that once spanned the bayou near Spanish Fort before it finally crashed into the water. The plane was discovered to have been stolen from Guadalupe County Airport in Sequin, Texas, over a year earlier. [5]


  1. Times-Picayune, 30 Jun. 1960, p. 2. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  2. Times-Picayune, 14 Dec. 1974, p. 2. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  3. Times-Picayune, 15 Jan. 1968, p. 4. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  4. Times-Picayune, 12 Sep. 1975, p. 20. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  5. The Times-Picayune The States-Item, 16 Jun. 1983, p. 1. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.


In my travels, I have heard tell of an inordinate number of cars ending up in the waters of Bayou St. John over the years. New Orleans residents may remember all the cars that searchers found submerged near Harrison Avenue when they were searching for Terrilyn Monette, who went missing back in 2013. Well it turns out cars in the bayou has been a thing since the advent of automobiles.

Consider this “wild ride” from the historic Times-Picayune database:

On February 23, 1958, Bobby Gray, age 18, was driving along the newly-paved Wisner Avenue near Mirabeau when supposedly his brakes failed and his car went “zigzagging crazily” for about 900 feet before plunging into Bayou St. John. As it sank to the bayou’s murky floor, to a depth of around 15 feet, Bobby rolled down his window. When he tried to swim out (he could not swim), his “trouser cuff…snagged on the handle of the sunken car’s window lift.”


Luckily, his 15-year-old cousin, Richard Holt, was following close behind in another car. When he saw his cousin’s car swerve into the water, he leaped out, dove in, and rescued Bobby.

Later on, the boys were taken to Charity Hospital. At this point, the article is a bit unclear: “Apparently neither of the youths was hurt in the incident about 2:30am.” Was it late at night when the accident happened? Or just late at night when they finally reported to the hospital? Did anyone check Bobby’s breaks when they pulled the car out of the water? Look, I’m glad the boys were alright, but I’m just wondering if a bit of teenage tomfoolery might have been at play here….

Also, can you imagine that murky bayou water in the dark? Or rather, illuminated by the warbled glow of submerged headlights?

Also, this: “Police said confusion arose at the scene when all three youths [the third being the driver of the second car] left the accident locale to change from their wet clothing.” A taxi driver had witnessed the accident and called the cops, and when they arrived on the scene they thought the driver was still stuck in the car. They were prepping a diver to go down and search for him when the three boys showed up.

Really? You just drove your car into the bayou and almost drowned, but you’re gonna head home and change your clothes before you go report the accident?

Maybe they were hiding their alcohol!

Did anyone think of that?!

I’m sure these “youths” learned their lesson, but still. In the pixelated photo of the boys included with the article, the two of them look like regular James Deans, leaning up against a brick wall in their denim jackets. And is that a cigarette one of them is rolling?!


  1. Times-Picayune, 23 Feb. 1958, p. 12. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12C117247468B7DF@2436258-12BE1FE9DC6DD045@11-12C1421E02A381B0@?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.


You all, I found my poetic-historian soulmate!

Over the past two years, I have skimmed the headlines of nearly 10,000 Times-Picayune articles from 1837 to 1988. I have come across articles on subjects ranging from the mundane to the fantastical, and nearly every one of them was interesting in some way.

However, I have never found (nor would I have ever expected to find) a journalist whose writing voice I could relate to. After all, I’m not a journalist; a stylistic comparison has never felt relevant. What’s more, until I hit the 1970s and 1980s, most articles were noticeably (and understandably) dated.

And yet, I discovered a piece tonight called “New Orleans’ Canals Go Underground,” from February 1950, and was amazed to discover a voice with both drama and intelligence, poeticism and fact. I was riveted from beginning to end, and was even shocked to learn a new fact about the Old Basin (Carondelet) Canal I’d never come across before—something that happens less and less the more research I do, although of course one always has more to uncover. You can imagine my further delight in learning the writer was a woman (!) which was very rare up until more recent decades.

Here are a few excerpts from Diane Ferrell’s 1950 article for your reading pleasure, with a few of my comments woven in:

“Drownings, freak automobile accidents—many of these will end when the canals in New Orleans are subsurfaced. [Love that word “subsurface”! Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize it!]

“But with them an era will also close—an era which has been marked by the birth of commerce and the death of men. [Yus. Love the drama.]

“The long period from the building of the first canal in the mid-1700s belongs to cotton-laden steamboats, Zulu kings, battles for the city’s existence, to the kids who learned to swim in the canals, to those who died in them. It belongs to the 10,000 Irishmen who were gobbled up in the disease-ridden muck of the New Basin canal.…

“Ten thousand foreigners are buried in the banks of the New Basin canal. Working in the cholera-laden swamp they dug the canal and their graves with the same hands, with the same shovels. [So dramatic! Not to mention, I’ve always wondered why slaves weren’t made to build the New Basin Canal (dug in the 1830s) like they were forced to dig the Old Basin, and Ferrell explains later in the article that they were too valuable to be sacrificed, unlike the thousands of immigrants, the “dispensable” labor, who were trying to call New Orleans home at that time.]

“The first police force New Orleans ever had owed its saber-swaggering existence to a canal. [Wuuuut? First of all, I love this “saber-swaggering” image. Second of all, Ferrell explains later a tidbit of history I hadn’t yet come across in my research about the Old Basin: that Gov. Carondelet charged landowners for the right to use the canal to drain their plantations, and used the funds to create the city’s first police force at the end of the 1700s.]

“Twelve years ago, the dug-up gunnels [Such poetic sounds!] of an old flatboat brought to light a mystery waterway that few knew ever existed. [Wuuuut? A mystery waterway? Ferrell explains elsewhere in the article that a partial barge was unearthed beneath the intersection of St. Charles and St. Andrew back in the 1930s, the vestige of an old canal that used to trickle through the area.]

“A New Orleans canal had one of the first two women in the United States who were employed by the government as lighthouse keepers.…” [WORD! I’m fairly certain she is referring to Bayou St. John here—I remember coming across a mention of a female lighthouse keeper in another article from somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, but I hadn’t realize she was such a pioneer. More on this soon!]

Farrell closes out the riveting piece with the following: “…it is…the open canals that have mirrored our history and washed away our dead. Every time the city fills in or subsurfaces one of them—we are healing a scar, closing a chapter, covering a grave.” [Mic drop.]


Times-Picayune, 12 Feb. 1950, p. 148. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12B0D8D602B78CC5@2433325-12B096409BA28E03@147-12B17A511651CE34?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.


“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.


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.


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.