by Darcia Helle
In 1870, New Orleans was a city divided by politics, class, and race. The Civil War had left much of the south reeling, and now the government’s Radical Reconstruction attempted to force change by integrating the black population into the white-dominated hierarchy. Some whites rebelled, clinging to their Confederate roots, while others who supported the change suffered ridicule and disdain within their community. The atmosphere was tumultuous. Racism was not only openly practiced but encouraged.
Former United States Supreme Court Justice John Campbell, who resigned in order to join the Confederacy, illustrates this point well. He had this to say to his fellow New Orleanians: “We have Africans in place all about us, they are jurors, post office clerks, custom house officers & day by day they barter away their obligations and duties.”
Racial strife was not the only or even necessarily the biggest cause of violence. New Orleans’ wealthy class had a hair-trigger temper when it came to real or perceived slights. Duels to the death continued to be a favorite way of settling these disputes, earning the city of New Orleans the title of ‘Dueling Capital of the South’. The reason for this ran to the core of their values. Class and reputation were vital to the people of New Orleans. They believed the way a person dressed, spoke, and carried him/herself to be a statement of character. A person’s reputation was unquestioned, upheld by the community, and so the residents held a zero tolerance policy toward slander.
By 1870, this self-appointed elite class had become the minority. Foreign born immigrants made up 75% of the city’s population. Prejudices went much deeper than skin color. Irish and German immigrants were considered lowlifes, their presence tolerated by the upper class only slightly more than the presence of African-Americans. This hostile environment made New Orleans one of the most dangerous places in America during the late 1800s.
Thomas and Bridgette Digby were two of the city’s Irish immigrants living in relative obscurity. They had fled their country during the mid-1800s, along with thousands of others known as the “Famine Irish”. By June of 1870, the couple had three children and were living in a working class section of New Orleans. Thomas drove a hackney cab, and Bridgette took in laundry and sewing from the wealthy residents. Nothing about them or their lives was remarkable at the time. Certainly nothing suggested that their names would be committed to history.
That all changed on the afternoon of Thursday, June 9. At the end of each workday, the Digby’s street bustled with activity as people made their way home from their various jobs. On this day, two of the Digby children were in their front yard playing while Bridgette cooked dinner. George Digby, age 10, was playing with a group of friends. Seventeen-month-old Mollie was being watched by Rosa Gorman, a white teenage neighbor who sometimes babysat for Bridgette. Rosa was standing by the sidewalk, holding Mollie in her arms and occasionally conversing with the passersby.
Two African-American women who’d been walking by stopped to chat with Rosa. This was not unusual, despite the racial tension within the city. Irish and German immigrants shared that part of the city with free northern blacks and former slaves. They frequently conversed and even did business with one another. The two women were familiar to Rosa. She’d spoken to them before, though she did not know their names.
As they stood talking, Rosa noticed smoke and flames coming from a storefront two blocks away. Soon the fire engine, pulled by a horse, raced by with its bell clanging. An excited crowd followed to watch Seligman’s Photographic Studio burn. Rosa wanted to join the procession to watch the firefighters at work. She called to George Digby to take his sister. While George grumbled, the taller “mulatto” woman extended her arms and offered to take Mollie so that Rosa could go. Rosa happily handed Mollie off, leaving the two children in the care of the two African-American women on the sidewalk.
In today’s society, this would seem an insane thing to do. We don’t leave our children with strangers, regardless of race or color. But communities were different in the late 1800s. Relying on one’s neighbors was not unusual. The main factor here was probably that these two African-American women were well-dressed, well-spoken, and familiar. In the city of New Orleans, where people based their opinions on appearance, this meant the two women were trustworthy.
This one incident on that June afternoon taught an entire community that looks are deceiving.
After Rosa raced off behind the horse-drawn fire engine, the shorter of the two women called to George, Mollie’s brother, and asked if he knew where a particular seamstress lived. He said he did, and so the woman took him by the hand and asked if he would take them there. The two African-American women, one holding Mollie in her arms and the other holding George by the hand, made their way through the crowded streets.
According to George’s later account, he soon pointed out the home of Mary Cooks, the seamstress in question. The shorter woman told George he was mistaken, that it wasn’t the home they were looking for. And so they walked on.
New Orleans in 1870 was racially divided, but it wasn’t unusual to see black women with white children. African-Americans and black Creoles often worked as nannies for white families. No one paid the four of them any attention as they joined the crowds on the busy streets.
Eventually they reached a public market. The woman holding Mollie, described as tall and wearing a “seaside hat”, handed George some money, directed him to a booth to buy some bananas for his sister, and said they would wait for him. When George returned, the women – and Mollie – were gone.
The events following Mollie Digby’s kidnapping created chaos within New Orleans. The city was in the midst of Radical Reconstruction, already bitterly divided by racial issues, and now two black women had stolen a white child. The rumors didn’t take long to start circulating. People claimed Mollie had been taken for voodoo sacrifice. Others said she’d been sold to roaming Gypsies. Then there were those who speculated that she’d been abducted as revenge against Thomas Digby for some perceived slight, or that she was being used to extort money from a former lover by claiming the child to be his.
As rumors swirled and people pointed accusing fingers, the newly integrated police force struggled to gain traction in the case. In June of 1870, 28% of the New Orleans police force was African-American. While the majority, and all ruling officers, were white, this did nothing to ease the minds of conservative – bigoted – white New Orleans citizens. They wanted someone to blame for the police department’s failure to find Mollie and her kidnappers. White Police Chief Algernon Sidney Badger, along with Jean Baptiste Jourdain, the detective in charge of the case, became easy targets.
At a time when newspapers had limited circulation, before TV news gave us images of tragedies across the country, and long before the Internet put this all at our fingertips, the Digby case made national news. The missing child, however, was not the driving factor. Sadly, kidnappings and missing children were fairly common occurrences back then. The interest here stemmed partly from the circumstances, with well-dressed, well-mannered African-American women stealing a white child. But, more than that, the nation paid attention because this was the first case ever to be handled by a black police detective.
The details of this case are too complicated and convoluted to share here. For a full account of this story, as well as fascinating details of the historical period, I highly recommend reading The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Rage, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era by Michael A. Ross. The short version of this story is that the outraged and outspoken media and citizens pushed the police department toward an arrest. In fact, they demanded nothing less. The following is a typical newspaper quote during the weeks after Mollie’s abduction:
“We may say to the police of New Orleans, that unless this child be found, they will suffer a burning disgrace – a lasting shame.” ~ The Picayune
Nonexistent witnesses were conjured up, people embellished or outright lied, and police interrogated and threatened anyone thought to be even remotely involved. The intense emotions surrounding the case fractured the relationship between white and black Creoles. Before this, black Creoles and African-Americans existed on different planes, with black Creoles enjoying a higher status within their community. They were longtime residents, businesspeople, respected by the white-dominated population. With Mollie’s disappearance and the ensuing investigation, they found themselves scrutinized in ways they hadn’t experienced. Prejudice stung them as black Creole women became the lead suspects. The racial divide carried them along, lumping them in with the now freed slaves who couldn’t be trusted.
Eventually two black sisters – Ellen Follin and Louisa Murray – were arrested, after having been identified by three white ‘witnesses’. The preliminary hearing and criminal trial became the most talked about events in the city, as well as entertainment for the nation. The media was not so much concerned with facts of the crime, since the white-dominated papers, at least initially, assumed the women to be guilty unless proven innocent. The details the newspapers chose to share say much about the era and the mentality of southern society:
A reporter from the Picayune noted that Louisa Murray wore “a dress of brown checked summer silk and a very light brown and fleecy veil.” She was “a handsome quadroon” with “small features, thin drawn up lips”, and “a wealth of glossy hair”.
Another reporter noted that the two sisters were much alike. “Both are tall beyond the average women, and slenderly formed. They are… mulatresses, but are by no means deficient in good looks. They dress with exceeding care and evince in their appeal a great deal of taste.”
Perhaps the most astonishing part of this entire case, given the time period, the outright persecution of someone black to blame, and the lackluster defense, is that the two sisters were found innocent by a jury of ten whites and two Afro-Creoles. Not only were they found innocent, but the jury took a mere eight minutes to deliberate. Again, the newspapers played a large role here, though not in the way one might expect. As the investigative details became public, reporters latched on to the glaring improprieties made by police
The Commercial Bulletin wrote that it was “next to impossible that an inquest [could] be conducted with less regard to the rules of evidence, the suggestion of common sense, the proprieties of judicial proceedings, or the law indicating the duty of a committing magistrate.”
While the tumultuous times certainly contributed to Louisa Murray and Ellen Follin’s arrest, these same times also helped, on some subconscious level, to aid their defense. The sisters were well-known, well-respected, and well-educated Afro-Creole women. Had they been poorly educated African-American women, the trial’s outcome would likely have been far different. Also, Mollie Digby’s abduction came at a unique historical period. In 1870, New Orleans was a somewhat enlightened southern city. Just a few years earlier would have placed them in the midst of the Civil War, when Confederates demanded control and wanted to subjugate all people of color. Just a few short years later, this area of the south was taken over by White Supremists, ensuring no person of color held any position of power or authority. But during this seven month period, from June 1870 to February 1871, a racially divided city managed to look beyond color to see the core of injustice.
An especially intriguing aspect of this case is that, before the trial or even the arrests, Mollie Digby was found and returned home. Or so the story goes. A fair-haired child of the same age was certainly handed off to the Digbys, though we will likely never know for sure whether that child was indeed Mollie. When the child was first given to Thomas Digby, her father, a mere couple of months after her disappearance, he could not say for sure whether the child was Mollie. In fact, he initially denied she was Mollie and didn’t want to take her. With some cajoling from those who found her, he opted to take her back home to let his wife decide. Bridgette Digby saw her husband return home with the child in his arms, and she immediately declared that child to be Mollie. Most took her at her word, believing Bridgette Digby to know her own child. Others had doubts rooted in the fact that Bridgette had been institutionalized because of her inability to cope with the loss of her daughter. She’d only recently been released and, perhaps, was so desperate to have her child back that she deluded herself into believing the fair-haired stranger was hers. There appears to be no record of Mollie’s reaction to being reunited with her parents or, possibly, the two people who claimed her as their own.
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Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
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