by Michael Ross
Until their daughter was kidnapped in the summer of 1870, little distinguished Thomas and Bridgette Digby from other Irish immigrants living in New Orleans. They were just two of the thousands of “famine Irish” who arrived in the city in the 1840s and 1850s to escape the desperate circumstances in their native country.
The Digbys’ ordeal began late in the afternoon of Thursday, June 9, a day when the close heat of the sub-tropical New Orleans summer had already arrived. While Bridgette finished her household chores, prepared dinner, and waited for Thomas to return to their home on Howard Street, their two children played outside under the supervision of teenager Rosa Gorman, a next-door neighbor whom Bridgette sometimes paid to babysit.
Soon two African American women with whom Rosa had chatted several times before stopped once again to coo at 17-month-old Mollie. No one found this unusual, despite the racial tensions that plagued the city after the Civil War.
Rosa and the women spoke amiably about Mollie until Rosa noticed flames and smoke billowing from a storefront two blocks away. Seligman’s Photographic Studio was on fire. Soon a fire engine, its bell clanging and horses at full gallop, raced past, followed by an excited crowd running toward the conflagration. Caught up in the excitement, Rosa announced that she too wanted to watch the fire company battle the blaze. “Hold Molly,” Rosa said to George Digby, “while I see where the fire is.” Before she could hand Mollie to her brother, however, the mulatto woman interjected. “No bubby, I will take the baby,” the woman said, extending her arms. Accepting what she thought was a kind offer, Rosa passed Mollie to the woman. Leaving Mollie’s brother George in her care as well, Rosa joined the throng headed down the block toward the burning studio.
After Rosa left, the shorter woman asked George if he knew where Miss Mary Cooks, a neighborhood seamstress, lived and, if so, could he lead them there. When George said he did, the woman took him by the hand as the other cradled Mollie in her arms, and together they walked a block and a half to the house where George thought Miss Cooks lived. But once there, the short woman shook her head and said, “Oh no bubby, this is not the place,” and they led Georgie farther away from home. When they reached the public market on the corner of Dryades and Lafayette streets, the woman in the seaside hat handed a “two-bit bill” to George and sent him to a fruit stand to “get some bananas for his sister.” George did as he was told, but when he returned with the fruit both women and his sister were gone. George ran up and down the block searching for them, but they had vanished. He then hurried home to tell his mother what had happened. Bridgette was in the kitchen when her son brought the news that his sister was missing. She immediately rushed out to the sidewalk, looked up and down the block, and shouted her daughter’s name. She called to a neighbor to find her husband and alert the police. She then turned, looked down at her terrified son, ripped the bananas he was still clutching out of his hands, and threw them into the street.
Although Mollie’s disappearance created a stir in the Digbys’ neighborhood, it did not immediately warrant unusual notice in New Orleans. Hundreds of children went missing in the city every year. Most were later found and returned to their parents. In a metropolis plagued by crime and violence, moreover, Mollie’s disappearance was just one of many unsavory events that day.
The kidnapping of Mollie Digby would be different. Editors soon recognized sensational potential in the story. Although it was several days before the public made up its mind that the child was really stolen, interest in the case grew as readers learned that Mollie was abducted by a “fashionable, tall, mulatto woman, probably for the purpose of receiving a ransom.” Here was a storyline to strike fear in parents throughout the city. For elite white families in Garden District mansions and French Quarter townhouses who relied on African American nannies to care for their children, the idea of a seemingly respectable light-skinned woman abducting a white baby for ransom struck terror.
The Digby case unfolded at a time when Americans had become fascinated with true crime stories. Newspaper editors who had once emphasized business and political news had discovered that accounts of sensational crimes sold papers. Although the Digby abduction was not as lurid as the bloody homicides that garnered most national headlines, the rumors of voodoo, the large reward, and the sub-tropical setting made the tale exotic, while the crime itself touched Victorian sensibilities. The Digby investigation, with its false leads and scenes of domestic anguish, was unfolding like the popular serialized mystery novels of the day. Many Americans in 1870 were in the midst of reading Charles Dickens’ serial cliffhanger The Mystery of Edwin Drood, published in six monthly installments, when the kidnapping occurred.
Chief Badger’s decision to assign Jean Baptiste Jourdain, his top black detective, to the case added an extra twist. In 1870, police detective squads were just coming into their own, particularly in the South. Until the mid-1840s, American city police forces did not employ detectives; before then, the role of policemen, night watchmen, and town constables was to prevent crimes, not to solve them. After Boston introduced the first detective squad in 1846, other American cities including New Orleans followed, and detectives quickly became the most glamorous figures in law enforcement. Stories, both real and fictional, of whip-smart sleuths deciphering clues, using disguise, spotting telltale signs, and outsmarting wily criminals captured the American imagination. True crime tabloids like the National Police Gazette as well as the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe helped propel the national obsession with detective work.
Detective Jourdain’s race added complexity to the story. Until Reconstruction, all police detectives in the United States had been white. Even in 1870, police departments in the North still had not hired black patrolmen, let alone detectives. The Boston force would not add a black officer until 1878; in New York City, the ranks remained all white until 1911. But in the South, five southern cities employed black officers. Reconstruction, it seemed, had brought real change; only a few years earlier, the idea of a black man serving on a southern police force in any capacity would have been unthinkable. Now Jourdain, a black detective, was assigned to a major case in the South’s largest metropolis, following leads, interrogating white and black witnesses, and using his deductive skills in an effort to solve a sensational crime. The Digby investigation was the first case ever to make national news that featured a black sleuth.
Detective Jourdain was 40 years old and relatively new to the police force when he was thrust into the national spotlight. He was tall, grey-eyed, delicately featured, and dapper. The press described him as “intelligent and well-educated.” In an era obsessed with skin color and the traits many believed came with it, a federal official noted Jourdain was “slightly colored.” He displayed, one reporter wrote, “little…exhibition of African lineage.” Jourdain came from “a wealthy colored family, but slightly tinctured with Ethiopian blood,” the Daily Picayune added. Official antebellum documents listed Jourdain, and many other men and women of mixed-race, as being “mulatto,” while persons with darker complexions were labeled “black” or “negroe.” In casual conversation, many New Orleanians called all light-skinned persons of color “quadroons” even though that term was a legal designation for a person who had one grandparent of African ancestry.
For Jourdain and other Creoles of color, Radical Reconstruction provided a singular opportunity to prove that they were amongst society’s “best men.” Given the right to vote, hold office, and serve on juries, Creoles of color seized the moment. Confident that black men of their class could govern as well as (or better than) white men, mixed-race Creoles ran for office, accepted patronage posts, or, like Jourdain, joined the integrated police force. During Reconstruction, almost all of the black elected officials from New Orleans and 80 percent of the black officers on the Metropolitan Police came from the mixed-race Creole community. Creoles took on these roles knowing that their success or failure could affect the status of all black people in Louisiana. If they failed, they would confirm the prejudices of ex-Confederate reactionaries bent on restoring white supremacy. If they succeeded, they might convince moderate whites to join a biracial coalition committed to economic prosperity and democratic rule. Nowhere was success more crucial than in law enforcement. The Republican government had to prove that it could ensure the safety of persons and property. Detective Jourdain immediately helped the cause by leading several successful investigations that received notice in the newspapers including a larceny case that led to the arrest of two black women. But the public pressure to solve the Digby case would be far greater than anything Jourdain had experienced. The conservative press had turned the Digby kidnapping into a crime that could not go unsolved. “We may say to the police of New Orleans,” the Picayune warned, “that unless this child be found, they will suffer a burning disgrace—a lasting shame.”
With so much at stake, Jourdain’s performance in the Digby case would be weighted with political and social significance. If he could find Mollie Digby or her kidnappers, he might also buoy the spirits of those northern newspaper readers who hoped Reconstruction would succeed. In New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, Democratic editors had used the Digby story to criticize Governor Warmoth’s Metropolitan Police. In the North, readers of Republican papers like the New York Times—who had grown weary of reports from the South of Klan violence, Republican infighting, alleged corruption, and voter fraud—might find solace in a successful resolution of the Digby case. A true crime story from New Orleans featuring a dashing, young Republican governor, his Massachusetts-born police chief, and an expert black detective could cheer northerners who hoped that southern whites’ resistance to Reconstruction might fade as Republican officials demonstrated their competence. With the national press reporting regularly on the mystery, and with so much riding on the success of black police officers, the Digby kidnapping would become the most important case of Jourdain’s career.
Michael A. Ross is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland. To read more about the abduction of Mollie Digby and the trial that ensued after her return, read his book, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era (Oxford University Press, 2014), funded in part by a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. He is also the author of the prize-winning Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court during the Civil War Era (LSU Press, 2003).