It’s a little-known fact that matadors once waved their red capes at real charging bulls in New Orleans.
Bullfighting became popular in the city during the 19th century, along with other controversial sports such as battles between tigers and grizzly bears. That history is chronicled on NolaDNA.com, a public history website working to archive and curate thousands of historic New Orleans newspapers published between 1885 and 1930.
Drawn by advertisements that promised “Grand Animal Combat,” thousands flocked to the Marine Hotel at Levee Street, the Arena at Algiers or Place Publique, later to be known as Congo Square, to see such clashes pitting bulls and matadors, or even bulls and dogs.
The Marine Hotel was then located on Old Levee Street, now North Peters Street between St. Philip and Dumaine streets, while the Arena at Algiers was located opposite Canal Street, where the First Municipality Steam Ferry would shuttle spectators across the river on Sundays for a special rate of just 5 cents.
“New Orleanians bet on anything from the earliest days, and sports were huge here — many sports that would have had PETA up in arms for sure,” said Connie Atkinson, director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans.
The bullfights may have started under Spanish rule, between 1763 and 1801.
Pepe Llulla, proprietor of the Arena at Algiers, promoted fights in the authentic style of Spain and Havana, billing Spanish matadors such as Don Guillermo Garcia and Don Francisco Guerra, and striking up the traditional anthems of the bull ring to complete the atmosphere.
“New Orleans was very connected to Mexico and Cuba, and the Spanish world was very close-knit in a lot of ways,” Atkinson said.
According to one 19th-century guidebook, “New Orleans has a history replete with strange and barbaric sports, brought to Louisiana by the French and Spanish, diversified by the Creoles, and added to by the Americans.”
Atkinson added that cockfighting, dogfighting and other such opportunities to wager were typical of any teeming port town.
“If you work on emptying these ships, you get a whole bunch of money, and you’re off for a couple of weeks,” she said. “It’s like working offshore. You get cash and you have this leisure time for leisure activities, so these things became practical: ‘How do you get money off this guy?’ Well, a card game.”
The bullfights of New Orleans quickly became the stuff of legend.
One tall tale, supposedly penned by Davy Crockett, recounts his visit to an arena some time earlier, when he had been on a trip to the half-moon city to “make sale of a few hundred barrels o’ allegator oil.”
Supposedly, the king of the wild frontier became so enthusiastic that he finally leapt into the ring, where, according to the tale, he vanquished three ferocious beasts with his bare hands.
By the turn of the century, most of the animal fighting events were phased out, and laws were passed against them in the Louisiana Legislature. Revivals were attempted thereafter without success.
J.S. Makkos is administrator of NolaDNA.com. Julien Gorbach also contributed to this article. For bullfighting advertisements of the period, an interactive map of bullfighting-related places in New Orleans and more, visit NolaDNA.com, a public history website working to chronicle thousands of historic New Orleans newspapers from 1885-1930.