Sometimes the work of a historian resembles old-fashioned detective work, gumshoeing through newspapers and public records, paging through old phone books.
That’s certainly how it was for Michael Ross, an assistant professor of the University of Maryland, in writing “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era” (Oxford University Press).
“I came across this story while doing research for another project,” Ross said. “I was sitting reading the original copies of the New Orleans newspapers from 1870 at the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane when the story of an alleged ‘Voodoo’ kidnapping caught my eye. ‘That can’t possibly have happened,’ I thought.”
But it did. In June 1870 — during the racially charged era of Radical Reconstruction — a 17-month-old named Mollie Digby was kidnapped in front of her New Orleans home. Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth, hoping to ensure greater acceptance of the integrated police force, made sure the case was assigned to an Afro-Creole detective, John Jourdain. Eventually, two Afro-Creole women were tried for the crime. The city was rocked and riveted by the case for seven months.
“To my amazement, the story grew bigger in each day’s papers and included accounts of the police rounding up Voodoo practitioners for interrogation,” Ross said. “The story became even more compelling when the New Orleans police chief assigned an African-American detective, John Baptiste Jourdain, to investigate the crime.
“I was hooked and began reading each day of the old papers just as someone would have at the time, looking for new revelations in the Digby case.”
That serendipitous discovery was added to another: When he was a professor at Loyola University, Ross lived in an Uptown house that was built on one of the important crime scenes in the book. So on he went, putting the case together.
The result, “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case,” is a dazzling work of Reconstruction history, a page-turner to match the best police procedural or legal thriller, and a compelling portrait of a city in transition, a city in crisis.
And it’s a story with a life that extends out of the book and into the present.
“Because I had never heard of the ‘Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case’ before, and none of my colleagues in the history profession that I spoke with had either, for a time I thought I was the only person alive who knew the full facts of the Digby case,” Ross said. “But then I opened the phone book and began calling people in New Orleans with the Digby surname, and I quickly reached Digby family descendants who had kept the story alive through family lore.”
And Jourdain’s descendants still abound, Ross said. “I was also contacted by a woman named Isabel Baquet, who lives in Atlanta. She had being doing genealogical research and discovered that her husband, Edward, was a descendant of Detective Jourdain.
“Through our conversations, I learned that Detective Jourdain was a forebear of the famous Baquet family of New Orleans that includes the restaurateurs Wayne and Janet Baquet, the New York Times executive editor, Dean Baquet, and the photographer Harold Baquet. “
The latter connection was especially meaningful to Ross.
“Harold had already agreed to take photographs for the book,” he said. “When we decided to work together, neither Harold nor I knew he was linked by blood to the story and that his photographs would also document an important part of his own family’s history.”
The two went together to the Jourdain family tombs.
“One of the most memorable parts of this project was the morning Harold and I spent photographing the Jourdain family tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1,” Ross said. “Not only did one of the book’s more dramatic moments take place on the steps of one of the Jourdain tombs (you need to read the book), but the family tombs of New Orleans are particularly evocative because of the way they tie the past to the present.
“Rather than being the gravesite of a single individual, generations of families rest in the same tombs. It is hard to explain exactly, but for me, when I stood with Harold at the Jourdain tombs, the past and present merged.”
Susan Larson hosts WWNO-FM’s The Reading Life and is the author of The Booklover’s Guideto New Orleans. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.