The politics of reconstruction had turned the world upside down."
This is part four in a five-part series on The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era, by Michael A. Ross.
Chapters 5 to 7 of The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case reveal that who you were - your color, position, gender, political affiliation, personal history, and where you were from - mattered. These attributes became the basis for how society judged an individual's motives or trustworthiness. One's credibility and reputation rested on these factors more than the substance of what you said or did.
Suspects Ellen Follin, a Creole, and her sister, Louisa Murray, are arrested for the kidnapping of Molly Digby. As a Creole, Ellen had greater status than former slaves in New Orleans society. She owned a Lying-In Hospital, which was what one newspaper referred to as a “house of secret obstetrics,” a questionable profession even then.
Theodore Gallier Hunt, an ex-Confederate and defender of slavery, is hired by Captain Broadwell to represent the sisters in the case. Hunt was a highly respected New Orleans attorney, and had served as a district attorney, criminal court judge, US Congressman, and an officer in the Confederate Army. One's identity seemed to change with the times.
This realization caught me up in my own preconceptions. I found myself surprised that someone like Hunt would be the defense attorney. What were his motivations given his background, color, status and that he was once described as a "defender of slavery"?
There is a life lesson here about the importance of seeking to understand the complicated and more nuanced elements of an individual, rather than placing them into pre-established categories or adhering to "common stereotypical assumptions."
The fact that Hunt could be the one defending these two women gave people in New Orleans at that time a sense that Reconstruction could be successful. On one hand, Hunt's role brought "new legitimacy to reconstruction justice guaranteeing all of Louisiana's citizens, black or white, equal protection under the law" while on the other hand, the verdict of this case would reach new political heights with charges of blacks "out of control" should the sisters be found guilty or charges of "shabby black police work" with a failed conviction of the sisters.
I came to understand more than ever before how important this experiment in southern interracial democracy was in the formation of a new and different America - an America in which newly freed black slaves could be very much a part of what it means to be an American citizen as contributors to a democratic society. If more people had believed in those ideas, the positive impact of Reconstruction could have been so much greater than it actually was.
What becomes really clear in the book is that this case was the right case at the right time for many people to hang their hats on the verdict, to prove a larger point on the question of the success or failure of Reconstruction itself.
As we come to the end of this book, join me in thinking and sharing ideas about what connections can be drawn from this book in relation to the questions of justice and race in our country today.
- Share your thoughts below.
- Read chapters 8-10 and look for the final book post on June 5th!
- Click here to read all of the posts on The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case