New Orleans and Huey Long
COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The first colonists to arrive in New Orleans were the French, but the
explorers had come first. They included men like LaSalle, who came
down the Mississippi River in 1682 and claimed the land where the
river ended for France. In 1699, two French-Canadian explorers named
Pierre le Moyne and Jean Baptiste le Moyne sailed in from the
Caribbean and landed on a tiny bayou they called Pointe du Mardi Gras
as the Catholic holiday of Fat Tuesday was to fall the next day.
However, exploring the New World was an expensive proposition and the
French were broke. Enter a Scottish man named John Law, who created a
New World company in which the French could invest and thereby settle
the Lower Mississippi Valley. In reality, the plan was a scheme to
bilk money from the investors in return for selling them Louisiana.
Law was given a monopoly on trade as well. Later, when it turned out
that Law's company was merely and early version of a "pyramid scheme",
many of the settlers decided to stay on anyway.
During the first year of Law's operation, he decided that a town
should be founded at a spot which could be reached from both Lake
Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. In 1718, this town became La
Development of the city began that year, but work was slow, thanks to
brutal heat and the rising and falling waters of the Mississippi.
There was talk of moving the city because of the danger of flooding,
so levees were constructed, which spread out as the city and the
plantations of the area grew.
At the same time, John Law was attempting to fulfill his promises to
investors that he would have the colony settled with 6,000 settlers
and 3,000 slaves by 1727. The biggest problem seemed to be the
shortage of women. "The white men," wrote the colony's Governor
Bienville," are running in the woods after the Indian girls".
There was also a lack of education and medical care in New Orleans.
Finally, Governor Bienville coaxed the Sisters of Ursuline to come
from France and assist the new city. The first Ursulines arrived in
1727 and set to work caring for orphans, operating a school, setting
up a free hospital and instructing slaves for baptism. They also
provided a safe haven for the young middle class girls who had come in
answer to the call for suitable wives. They first arrived in 1728 and
continued to come until 1751, marrying those single male colonists who
had been unable to snag one of the "professional" girls who had been
sent from the Paris jails around 1720.
But things were far from perfect in New Orleans. Problems had started
with the local Indian tribes and combined with political problems, the
investors in John Law's company petitioned France to get rid of the
unprofitable Louisiana colony. And so they did, leaving behind a
sturdy and hard-bitten group of 7,000 colonists with a thriving
business industry and an uncertain future.
In 1762, France passed the ownership of Louisiana to Spain in the
secret Treaty of Fontainebleau. That same year, Spain entered the
Seven Years War (the European arm of the French and Indian War) just
in time to share defeat with France. As part of the Treaty of Paris at
the end of the war, France had to give up its holdings in North
America... however they had just given New Orleans and Louisiana to
Spain the year before.
No one in Louisiana had any indication of this for months, when
suddenly the colonists found themselves under the control of the
much-hated Governor Don Antonio de Ulloa.
In 1768, 600 New Orleans citizens mounted the first revolutionary
expedition of Americans against a European government. The ranks were
made up of Acadians (French-speaking immigrants from Canada), who had
been told they were going to be sold into slavery by the Spanish and
German immigrants, who believed the Spanish were going to default on
money owed to John Law's company. By November 1, Don Antonio had
escaped to Cuba and his three aides were taken prisoner by the rebels.
His Majesty Carlos of Spain did not find this event amusing in the
least and sent a 2,600 man mercenary force to New Orleans to re-take
the city. The army was led by Don Alexander O'Reilly, an Irishman in
the service of Spain. He later earned the nickname "Bloody O'Reilly"
after he sent all of the revolutionaries before the firing squad.
The Spanish took the city back, but not for long. In 1800, the people
of New Orleans discovered that the city had been given back to
Napoleon of France as a result of the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso.
But Napoleon was busy that year conquering the Turks, the Austrians
and the Italians, plus ending a slave uprising on St. Domingue. And
since New Orleans was struck with a terrible yellow fever epidemic, he
allowed the Spanish to continue governing the colony.
Soon, another group began to influence the culture of the city. The
residents called them the "Kaintocks" and these buckskin-clad American
frontiersman descended on the city in force. The shrewd Americans had
realized the thriving port of the city and began bringing keelboats
loaded with goods down the Mississippi.
By 1804, the city would belong to America. Napoleon needed money and
thanks to some stiff bargaining by President Thomas Jefferson, the
Louisiana Territory, which was over 600 million acres, was soon in the
possession of the United States. The cost of the territory, which
stretched from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean was around $15
million, which makes it one of the greatest land deals in history!
In 1810, with its mixture of French and Spanish speaking Creoles,
Anglo-Americans, slaves and free people of color, New Orleans was
established as the largest city in the South and the fifth largest
city in America. Louisiana would become the 18th state on April 30,
1812, and barely a month later, Congress declared war on Britain. A
few weeks after Mardi Gras in 1814, rumors filled the city that the
British were going to attack New Orleans.
The city was defenseless.... word had reached Louisiana that the
Capitol and the White House in Washington had been burned and that
President James Madison was unable to raise an army because the United
States Treasury was empty. This was enough to rally the men of New
Another hope arrived... General Andrew Jackson. The crusty Indian
fighter came in December was racked with illness. Despite this, he
quickly organized a defense of the city. He imposed martial law and
enlisted the aid of not only the free people of color in New Orleans,
but the nearby Choctaw Indians and the pirate Jean Lafitte as well.
On December 23, 1814 Jackson attacked the British troops who were
camped along the banks of the Mississippi. The battles raged back and
forth for many days, but finally on January 8, Jackson's army
prevailed. His ragtag troops were made up of Kentuckian Long Rifles,
ill-prepared militia men, Indians, Creoles, free men of color and
pirates but they savagely attacked the British with only 15 men dead
and 40 wounded.
The British were not so lucky. The carnage on their side consisted of
858 dead and about 2,500 wounded. They had nowhere to turn for medical
care and legend has it that they sought refuge with the Ursuline
Sisters, who would turn no one away. The stories say that many enemy
troops were hidden within their walls.
Shortly after the battle, news reached the city that the British had
signed a peace treaty at Ghent on Christmas Eve, two weeks before the
Battle of New Orleans.
Following the Battle of New Orleans, during the War of 1812, the city
was placed under siege once again.. this time by the Protestant
Americans who came south to enjoy the new, French-speaking city. New
Orleans was already considered the most important city in the south
and the Americans were determined to enjoy it. They came in huge
numbers and ended up offending the sensibilities of the Creole
families of the Vieux Carre, who promptly slammed shut the
wrought-iron gates of the Quarter.
After the Louisiana Purchase, altercations between the Catholic
Creoles and the Protestant Americans became so frequent that a strip
of land between the French Quarter and the American Sector was
designated as a "neutral ground". This literally was an act of
Congress in 1807 and the strip later became known as Canal Street.
In 1812, the steamboat NEW ORLEANS arrived in port and ushered in a
new age for the city, and a new period of prosperity. The aristocrats
of the city filled their lavish mansions with the finest Persian rugs,
crystal chandeliers, and the best French wines that money could buy.
However, luxuries aside, New Orleans was not a place for the weak.
Located below sea level, in a hot and humid climate, it was a place of
oppressive humidity from June to October and was infested with
mosquitoes. The city was often hit with terrible cholera and tropical
illness epidemics and was labeled a "damp grave" for those foolish
enough to live there.
And that's not to mention the hurricanes, thunderstorms from the Gulf
of Mexico, and the frequent floods. The spring flooding was usually
pour about two feet of muddy water and debris into the city, not to
mention snakes and rats. New levees were constructed each time the
devastation would hit the city but each time, the damage was horrible.
In 1832, New Orleans was savaged by a cholera epidemic and in
addition, between 1817 and 1860, there were 23 outbreaks of Yellow
Fever. This wicked disease was spread by mosquitoes, which bred in
household cisterns. The most serious epidemic of yellow fever hit the
city in 1853, sending thousands to higher ground in surrounding cities
like Natchez and Mobile. Over 8,000 people died before the cool months
of Fall arrived.
THE CIVIL WAR IN NEW ORLEANS
In 1860, New Orleans had the largest cotton market in the world and
was, by far, the wealthiest city in America. It had been an American
city for just over 50 years before it found itself at war. On February
4, 1861 Senator Judah P. Benjamin announced to Congress that Louisiana
had seceded from the Union. The state would stand alone for three
entire months until it joined the Confederate States of America. When
the war began, it would be General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard
and his regiment of Louisiana men who would open fire on Fort Sumter
on April 12, 1861.
The war in New Orleans came early and the city spent the greatest
amount of the war under Union control, despite being located so far
into the enemy territory of the Confederacy.
In April of 1862, a fleet of 24 ships, under command of David G.
Farragut, was ordered to sail up river and seize New Orleans. The
Confederate defenders did everything they could to stop him. To reach
the city, Farragut's ships had to get past Fort Jackson and Fort St.
Commander David Dixon Porter, Farragut's younger foster brother, came
up with a reckless plan. They would send a collection of small sailing
vessels, each bearing a huge mortar, into the harbor and anchor them
below the forts so that they could pound the defenses in advance of
the fleet. They tried this but after six days of battering, the forts
remained standing. Farragut decided on an even more daring scheme.....
under the cover of night, they would run past the forts, smash the
barricades and steam into New Orleans.
At two o'clock in the morning, Farragut's warships started past the
forts. The forts opened fire and the lead ship was hit 42 times. It
caught fire but they managed to quench the flames and start forward
again. It was a test of sheer will, but the four flagships somehow
made it past the forts.
As they approached New Orleans, a makeshift Confederate squadron of 8
ships sailed out to meet them. Farragut sank all but 2 of them and the
city surrendered without a shot.
After the surrender, Lincoln named Benjamin F. Butler the military
governor of occupied New Orleans. Butler saw no need to be gentle in
his position and his methods earned him both admiration and scorn on
both sides. He hanged a man suspected of desecrating the American
flag, closed a secessionist newspaper and confiscated the property of
anyone who would not swear allegiance to the Union.
The women of New Orleans insulted Butler's men in the streets, calling
them names and screeching at them. When a woman in the French Quarter
opened her window and emptied the contents of a chamber pot over
Admiral David Farragut's head, Butler issued General Order Number 28.
It simply stated that any woman who insulted a member of the United
States Army would be treated from that point as a prostitute, in the
midst of plying her trade.
Needless to say, the men and women of the south were outraged and
called Butler everything from "unchivalrous" to "Beast". Butler
refused to back down and the harassment of his men stopped and no
woman was ever arrested.
Butler also tore apart two other old New Orleans institutions... a
historical landmark and the institution of slavery.
The statue of Andrew Jackson had been standing in the city's Jackson
Square for six years when the Union troops arrived, honoring the fact
that Old Hickory had saved the city from the British in 1815. Butler
order these words carved into the pedestal, calculated to enrage the
citizens of New Orleans: "The Union must and shall be preserved."
Butler also quickly turned the friction between masters and slaves to
the Union's advantage. He declared the plantation owners to be
disloyal to the Union and he confiscated their property, in this case,
their slaves, and set them free. The freed blacks left the plantations
and fled behind Union lines. "I was always a friend of southern
rights, " Butler said, "but an enemy of southern wrongs".
Congress re-admitted Louisiana to the Union in June of 1868. The
period from the end of Reconstruction to the depression of the 1890's
was marked by social and political upheaval, a failing cotton market
and the loss of the major ports. It would not be until World War I
before New Orleans would again be considered a major shipping port.
In 1929, the Great Depression hit America, spelling catastrophe for
many New Orleans banks and businesses. Following close behind the
disaster came the voice of change for the desperate times. A former
patent medicine salesman from northern Louisiana named Huey P. Long
suddenly appeared on the scene and made a bid for the position of
governor of the state. Long (who would later be nicknamed "The
Kingfish") promised to break that hold that big business had on the
wealth of the state and see it re-distributed back among the people.
In a state where nearly 12 percent of the population was on federal
aid, Long's promises found an eager audience!
From the day that Long won office as the railroad commissioner at age
25, he set out to break the back of Standard Oil, the
Rockefeller-owned driller who was one of the largest in the state.
Long was a revolutionary and the people at it up.
After Long was elected governor in 1928, the state legislature in
Baton Rouge came under his control. He used his power to revenge
himself on the New Orleans politicians and newspapers who had opposed
him. After serving as governor, he ran for and won a seat in the US
Senate. Before leaving for Washington, he fired the legally elected
lieutenant governor and replaced him with two designated successors,
thus continuing to control the state from Washington. He even convened
11 special sessions of the state legislature, which passed every bill
that he proposed. Long was out of control.... but his reign was
quickly coming to an end.
On September 8, 1935, Huey Long was murdered by a Baton Rouge doctor
named Dr. Carl Weiss. The doctor's motive has never been clear and
been much debated, although some have stated that he was blackmailed
by Long. The stories go that the Kingfish planned to reveal that the
doctor's wife, who came from a prominent St. Landry Parish family, had
However, the family of Dr. Weiss, who was killed during the
assassination attempt, still maintain that he was not the killer at
all. They say that he was killed in the crossfire of an assassination
by the bodyguards of Huey Long himself!
The people of New Orleans are as strange and wondrous a mix as the
city itself, reveling in its French heritage and its segregation from
American culture. The melting pot of the city is European, African and
Cuban, creating a strange blend of style and usually Catholic-based
traditions which sometimes puzzle the outsider.
Of all of the various cultures however, the most famous remain the
Creole and the Cajuns...
THE FRENCH CREOLES
In the early days of New Orleans, the French Company if the Indies
needed to colonize the territory, so they accepted just about any
able-bodied volunteers. As Louisiana was known for being a lawless and
distant frontier, it was soon realized that no decent folks would want
any part of it. So, the eager "volunteers" usually came from French
debtor's prisons and houses of correction. Among them were 88 "working
girls" who were given a choice between prison and the New World.
In 1720, an agent of France named Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans, put a stop
to the practice of flushing out the unsavory elements of France and
sending them to New Orleans. Of course, this may be why, among modern,
upscale residents of the city, you can rarely find anyone who claims
an ancestor in New Orleans prior to 1727!
One of the city's preeminent cultures are the Creoles, although this
is confusing as two distinctly separate groups claim the title. White
Creoles use the word to describe themselves as people of European
colonial ancestry, while the other group are the "mulattos",
"quadroons" and Octoroons" - the light-skinned, part African, Catholics.
Both groups use the word to differentiate themselves as people
descended from the European colonists and as long-time familial
residents of New Orleans. Both are very proud of their heritage and
their culture often sets them apart from other residents of the city,
especially in the historic years of the city.
The term Cajun is actually from the word "Acadian". Acadia was the
French Canadian colony founded in 1604 by Samuel de Champlain and now
called Nova Scotia. Champlain was joined in 1632 by 300 settlers who
were fleeing from religious persecution and they lived in isolation
for almost 100 years until the French and Indian War in 1754. After
the war, the British demanded the Acadians pledge allegiance to
England and give up their Catholic religion. When they refused, they
were rounded up separated and deported. Many of them were sent back to
France; others to the American colonies and other remained in hiding.
They would have remained a lost group had not the Spanish invited them
to settle in Louisiana. As Catholics and enemies of the British, the
Acadians were ideal Louisiana settlers.
By 1763, the first Acadians had burrowed deep into the Louisiana
swamps, living in the swamps and with the Indians, learning to eat
crawfish and alligator and building canoe-like boats called
"pirogues". They were isolated from the urban French in New Orleans
(and what they considered the uppity Creoles) and their language
remained much like the 17th century French of their ancestors. This
makes their culture so separate, even today.
CARNIVAL AND MARDI GRAS
Another (huge) part of New Orleans culture is Mardi Gras. In many
Catholic dominated cities around the world, the days preceding Easter
are called Lent, a period of fasting and penitence. Lent begins with
Ash Wednesday, which reminds believers of their own mortality... but
in New Orleans, the Tuesday before Lent is Mardi Gras... which
literally means "Fat Tuesday"... the last gasp of frivolity before a
period of austerity.
In New Orleans, the term "Carnival" refers to the season of balls and
parades which begin on Twelfth Night (January 6) and continues through
Mardi Gras. On that day, one krewe (or club) hosts the first ball of
the season. The high point of Carnival is the parade -filled, 4-day
weekend that begins on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and ends in
an all-out bash on Mardi Gras day.
That final day (and frankly, the days before it) are a literal riot of
people, colors, and of course, copious amounts of alcohol. I can say
that everyone should experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans at least one
time in their lives... that is if you are not uptight, and if you have
no objections to viewing all manner of female anatomy! I don't
recommend it for married men (unless you wife is really free-thinking)
or for those who want to enjoy sight-seeing in the city (historical
sight-seeing, I mean)
THE PIRATES LAFITTE
Isn't it interesting how disreputable (albeit colorful) characters of
yesterday are often turned into heroes many years later? It's true
that Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre did help to save the city of
New Orleans during the War of 1812.... but why not? They had been
plundering and robbing the region for years?
The brothers Lafitte were known to have been in New Orleans as early
as 1805 and were most likely French. The pirate's base of operations
was in Barataria Bay , near New Orleans, and within striking distance
of the Gulf of Mexico, where trading ships made their entrances and
exits from the Mississippi River. By 1811, this was a thriving pirate
community with 32 armed warships... more than the entire American navy
at the start of the War of 1812!
Andrew Jackson enlisted the aid of the pirates in fighting the British
at the Battle of New Orleans, after which the men were pardoned of
piracy charges. The Lafittes then went right back to piracy. By 1818,
they had established a colony of privateers off the coast of Galveston.
CASKET GIRLS AND PROSTITUTES
As mentioned already, some of the very first female settlers in New
Orleans were prostitutes who were released from French prisons. For
those men not "lucky" enough to snag one of these fine catches, there
were also the "casket girls"
These young ladies were imported by the Ursuline sisters to provide
suitable wives for the male colonists. These upstanding, middle0class
ladies were called "casket girls", either because of the style of hats
they wore, or because of their government issue chests of clothing and
linen (it all depends on what history you read). Anyway, they first
began arriving in 1728 and continued to come until 1751.
However, prostitution had its roots in the very foundation of the city
and continued to play a prominent part for many, many years to come.
In 1744, a French officer commented that there were not 10 women of
blameless character in the city of New Orleans, in reference to the
many houses of prostitution which operated there. We have no idea if
he meant this as a criticism or a compliment!
In 1803, after the puritanical Americans took control, they attempted
to clean up the bawdy houses and rowdy atmosphere of the city. The
practice of prostitution was then prohibited on the ground floors of
any building... so saloons and gambling parlors opened on the ground
floors instead! By 1857, madames and their girls were also required to
obtain licenses to work.... a service which was personally
administered by the mayor!
During the Civil War, the occupying Union Army found the bawdy houses
to their liking and a string of them opened along the old basin canal.
In the 1870's, New Orleans' most famous madame, Josie Arlington,
formally opened her own bordello in this neighborhood.
Around the turn-of the-century, Alderman Sidney Story proposed an
ordinance to rid the better residential neighborhoods of the
bordellos. The sporting houses were then restricted to a single area
on the far side of the French Quarter. Ironically, the area came to be
called "Storyville" after the alderman.
In Storyville, women such as "Countess" Willie Piazza and Josie
Arlington ran pash and luxurious houses with oil paintings, fine wines
and potted palms. Many of the houses were staffed by the madame's
stunning octoroon and quadroon "nieces", who were usually girls whose
families had fallen on hard times. The popularity of female Creoles of
color in the bordellos caused many old-line Creole families to send
their strictly raised daughters to convents until they were old enough
When World War I began, Josephus "Tea Totaling" Daniels, Secretary of
the Navy, threatened to close down the New Orleans naval base if
Storyville was not shut down. Because of this, the district was
officially closed in 1917 and prostitution once again became a
Most of the area of Storyville was torn down in the 1930's to make way
for the Iberville Housing Project.
THE MOB IN NEW ORLEANS
One of the most notorious crimes of the 19th century involved the 1890
assassination of David Hennessy, the first superintendent of the New
Orleans police department. Nineteen members of a Sicilian gang were
accused of the crime but they were acquitted of the crime in 1891. An
angry mob then proceeded to break into the Parish prison and hang 11
of the accused men. For years afterward, the slur "Who Killed the
Chief?" could lead to an outbreak of violence against Italians.
The upstanding Italians of New Orleans have long been plagued by the
reputation of their notorious kinsmen... as New Orleans was a port of
entry for many Italians into the United States. It also served as the
beginning for many of America's first Mafia families, who later moved
on to Chicago and New York.
The most famous Mafia boss to stay in New Orleans was Carlos "Little
Man" Marcello. His family settled in Algiers, the community across the
river from New Orleans, and he started out as a small-time hood. By
the 1940's, he had moved into the big business, when he went to work
for New York gangster Frank Costello in the slot machine racket. In
May 1947, he was made head of the local Louisiana crime family and was
said to have organized a number of murders, including the Kennedy
At his federal bribery trial 34 years later, Marcello swore that he
was nothing more than a humble tomato salesman employed by the Pelican
Tomato Company... although he did own a little property which was
estimated to be worth $30-$40 million. His eventual conviction kept
him in jail for six years but in 1989 he returned home to resume his
life as a husband, father and grandfather of 11.
Carlos Marcello died in his sleep in 1993 at the age of 83. Many
called it the end of the "Godfather" era.