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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
History of New Orleans

by
John Kendall

published by The Lewis Publishing Company,
Chicago and New York, 1922

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p128 Chapter VIII
Prieur

As a result of Roffignac's retirement, an election for mayor became necessary. This was called for April 7, 1828. At that time political parties in New Orleans were very evenly balanced. There were democratic and the federalist factions. The former supported General Jackson's candidacy for the presidency of the United States; the latter was for Adams, for the same exalted office. The campaign as waged in the newspapers was exceedingly bitter. Peter K. Wagner was the leading literary champion of the Jacksonians; John Gibson, in the columns of the Argus, advocated the election of Adams. Epithets like "turncoat" and "scribbler," "scoundrel," "coward," "rogue," were regular features of the editorial pronouncements. Castellanos, writing of this period, professes to be amazed that violence did not occur more often than it did, considering the provocation, and the fact that the editors and politicians habitually went armed.1 Denis Prieur was the nominee for mayor of the Jackson faction. He had served creditably as recorder, a position second in importance in the city only to that of mayor. From his candidacy is said to date the existence of the democratic party as an organization in Louisiana. Prieur himself was a man of chivalrous instincts, very popular, brave, charitable, and accessible to all.

The Adams faction named for mayor another Creole, A. Peychaud. His name was presented to the public by a small group of men who had fastened their control upon their faction, and against whom it was beginning to rebel. They were dubbed a "ring." They were not a "ring" in the sense in which the word has since been used. There was no attempt to organize the voters, or force them through mistaken notions of party loyalty to vote for a candidate whose fitness for office was questionable. In fact, every candidate ran on his personal record; if elected, he was in a special sense the choice of the community, and owed his post to the fact that he had more friends and well-wishers than his antagonists.

The election resulted in a victory for Prieur, who received 888 votes as against Peychaud's 531. Throughout the country the Jackson faction made capital of the result. It was acclaimed a crushing defeat for the Adams faction. It was declared to indicate the result which was going to occur in the presidential campaign. In this there was much exaggeration, but it is a fact that Jackson secured all five of the electoral votes of Louisiana in 1828 and again in 1832.

Prieur served till 1838. He was re-elected regularly by almost the unanimous vote of the city. His was an exceedingly eventful and important administration. Almost at its outset it was embarrassed by an event which threatened for a time to tie up the whole machinery of local government. Among the members elected to the city council at the same time that Prieur became mayor, was a Federalist named William Harper. He was chosen from the Sixth Ward. As his politics differed from that of the mayor, and as feeling was very high on the subject, it was expected that he would prove an active opponent of all administration projects. p129His elimination from the council was therefore desirable. It happened that Harper held an office under the United States. When he presented himself to take his seat in the council objection was made on the ground that the state constitution prohibited anybody from holding more than one office of honor and profit at a time. The objection was clearly well founded, and Harper was denied his seat. He instantly applied to the court for a writ of mandamus directed to the mayor and the council. The case was tried before Judge Lewis, who granted the desired writ.

The council, however, refused to recognize the mandamus, claiming with much show of reason that it alone was the judge of the qualifications of its members, and that the court was without jurisdiction. The Judge's reply was to order the sheriff to sequester all the revenues of the corporation. The matter reached a crisis on May 1, 1828. If the government were to function, the matter must be adjusted without delay. The case was hurried to the Supreme Court, which three weeks later rendered judgment in favor of the city. The court held that the mandamus issued in favor of Harper was ultra vires, and that the sheriff was guilty of trespass in executing the judge's orders relative to the sequestration. It was also held that the sheriff was bound to inquire into the validity of all orders addressed to him, and rendered himself liable if he executed illegal orders. There can be no question that the court was at least in part influenced in this decision by considerations of the political nature of the whole transaction; at any rate, the new administration was thus rid of a prospective antagonist. The affair illustrates strikingly the extent to which political animosities went in the early history of the city.

Another interesting situation followed. It appears that in the confusion following the burning of the state capitol, the state legislature had passed and the governor had inadvertently approved an act repealing all acts of a date prior to the promulgation of the Civil Code of 1824. This legislation was in the form of an act amending that code and the code of practice, but its effect was to annul the charters of many corporations, including that of the City of New Orleans, and threatened the courts, and many other departments of the government. The state was thrown into confusion, but a corrective measure was hastily prepared, the legislature convened in special session, and the mischief was undone as promptly as possible.2

The early days of Prieur's administration were troubled by a good deal of the same disorderly conduct on the part of the lawless element in the community, as had been the case under Roffignac. Incendiary fires and robberies were a frequent occurrence. The council authorized the mayor to organize more efficiently the "square watch," which at this time superseded the militia patrol. At the same time an effort was made to improve the fire department by raising the standard for the colored men permitted to join the fire companies. The prevailing spirit of lawlessness was shown by the fact that in April, 1828, one of the largest shops in town was broken into and robbed of a large quantity of goods; and the next month the postoffice was plundered and the registered mail carried off. A few days later the office of the Registrar of Conveyances was entered, two stores looted, and attempts were made to break into others. As the whole population of New Orleans at that time did not much p130exceed 40,000 souls, including slaves, the incessant chronicle of crime in the newspapers suggests a very low state of morals.

The same trouble continued under Prieur's successor, in spite of earnest and energetic efforts to cure it. In fact it persisted as long as gambling was permitted in the city. This vice flourished under licenses from the state, and the municipality was thus unable to do anything to reach the root of the matter. The policy of the legislature on the subject of gambling fluctuated in Prieur's time as in Roffignac's. In 1831, for instance, gambling was again permitted in New Orleans although forbidden elsewhere in the state. In the following year a tax of $7,500 was put on gambling houses in New Orleans. But in 1835 an act was passed under which to keep a gambling house was made an offense punishable with a fine of from $5,000 to $10,000 or imprisonment of from one to five years. The effect of this drastic measure, however, does not seem to have been all that its promoters hoped. The "sporting fraternity" continued to operate in New Orleans, perhaps not so openly and brazenly as before, but on a scale to affect injuriously the reputation of the city throughout the nation.

Connected with the matter of police regulation, was, of course, the question of the slaves. In 1828 the city, in obedience to a mandate from the legislature, enacted regulations governing the traffic in slaves, especially forbidding the exposing of negroes for sale in the more frequented parts of the city. Two years later the community was greatly excited over the possibilities of a slave rising. It was, as Martin observes, "a time of vigilance." The first promise of trouble came from persons from other parts of the United States, presumably abolition agents, who were detected traveling around in the parishes, trying to incite the blacks to insurrection. Had these individuals been apprehended, the white population would probably have summarily disposed of them. They made their escape, however, but the legislature was led thereby to pass laws making it a capital crime to incite the slaves against the whites in any way, whether by word, deed, or merely by importing into the state pamphlets composed elsewhere which tended to that end. In fact, the danger being apparently apprehended chiefly from free men of color, a very severe law was enacted expelling all persons of this description from the state. Within a twelvemonth the excitement seems to have been allayed, as some of the harsher provisions in these laws were then modified, and the decree of banishment was limited to those half-breeds who were known to be "worthless."3

On the whole, the relations between the races in New Orleans appear to have been friendly, the masters kindly and considerate, the slaves loyal and devoted. Cases like those of Mme. Lalaurie and of Bras Coupé were exceptional. Mme. Lalaurie was undoubtedly demented. The rage exhibited by the white population upon discovering her cruelties, shows that the ill-treatment of slaves was condemned by public opinion. Her story is significant only because it has become, along with that of Bras Coupé, part of the legendary lore of New Orleans, and has a place in literature, thanks to the use which has been made of it by a celebrated American novelist.4 The woman had long held a prominent place in p131local society, was wealthy, and some say, beautiful. Her residence stood at the corner of Royal and Hospital streets. Fire was discovered there one day in April, 1834. While efforts were being made to extinguish the flames, a rumor spread that some negroes were confined in a part of the house menaced with destruction. Judge Canonge, of the Criminal Court, who was present, demanded of Mme. Lalaurie the keys to the attic. She refused to give them to him. Then he and some others burst into the building. They found seven slaves chained in various ways, all bearing marks of the most frightful ill-usage. One of them declared that he had been five months in confinement, most of the time with no food except a handful of meal once a day. Another was confined to her bed, suffering from a terrible wound on the head. A variety of instruments of torture, including one specially dreadful collar fitted with sharp points and edges, were discovered. It was Mme. Lalaurie's secret pastime to torment her wretched dependents. As soon as she realized that her crimes were discovered, she took advantage of a moment when the mob was occupied in the rear of her premises, to flee by the front door. It is said that her flight was aided by some of the very slaves whom she had mistreated in times past. The authorities made no effort to apprehend her. She remained in hiding for some days, then took passage on an outgoing vessel, went to France, and spent her later years in Europe. The infuriated populace, meantime, looted her residence, and set it on fire. It was entirely consumed, except the outer walls. The work of destruction there went on for several days uninterrupted by the authorities, either because they sympathized with the mob, or because they were afraid to intervene. Only when the anger of the crowd had completely satiated itself were the local troops called out, and, re‑enforced by the United States regulars, accompanied by the sheriff, John Holland, proceeded to the scene, and compelled a few last loiterers to disperse.5

Bras Coupé, on the other hand, represents rebellion against the whites. He seems to have been a wild, untamable soul, probably less the Robin Hood that he has been represented to be, than a natural criminal. His real name was Squier. His sobriquet was earned by the loss of an arm, amputated as the result of a gunshot wound. He belonged to Gen. William DeBuys, known as a humane and considerate master. He was DeBuys' hunting companion and personal attendant. But not could keep him at home. His frequent disappearances, the pursuits by the sheriff or a posse of citizens, his recapture — these were topics of constant discussion in the city. Finally, several serious crimes caused a price to be set on his head. He sought refuge in the swamps. In July, 1837, he was killed by a Spanish fisherman, in his hiding place on Lake Pontchartrain. Just how Bras Coupé came to his end was never clearly established. His slayer claimed to have been attacked while at work in his boat. Seeing Bras Coupé about to shoot at him, he seized an iron bar and beat him to death. On the other hand, there were not lacking those who said that the fisherman was in reality a confederate of the negro's, and murdered him treacherously in sleep. At any rate, the body was brought to the city and exposed to the public view in the Place d'Armes where it was viewed by thousands.

Bras Coupé's adventures had interest for his generation because he was the type of negro runaway from whom the whites felt they had p132most to apprehend. The newspapers of Prieur's time are full of notices of fugitive slaves, and of rewards offered for their capture and return. Sometimes these negroes turned bandit, like Bras Coupé, and from their hiding places in the swamps near the city issued at night to perpetrate the robberies so often chronicled in the press of that day. They were usually arrested through the efforts of the law officers; sometimes they returned voluntarily after a vacation more or less protracted. But always over the white population hung the threat of danger, which was slavery's menace to the slave-holding class.

In 1829 the state capital was removed from New Orleans to Donaldsonville, partly, no doubt, because the legislature had no proper meeting-place in the city, as a result of the burning of the state house; but also because it was deemed unwise to expose the members to the distractions of city-life. The exile did not last long. In 1831 the seat of government was returned to the city. A year later the buildings previously occupied by the Charity Hospital, on Common and Baronne streets, fell vacant through the removal of this institution to its present site on Tulane Avenue. They were thereupon purchased by the state, and became the home of the various governmental departments and the meeting place of both branches of the legislature during the next sixteen years. As usual, a good deal of legislation followed regarding purely local matters. For example, in 1832, as part of the wild-cat speculation of the time, the municipality was invested with extensive powers to lay out streets, improve public places, and develop the suburbs. Fortunately, these powers were not very extensively utilized. Some attempt also was made to better the sanitary conditions of the city, which, while probably not worse than those of the average American city of the time, were undeniably bad. The population now numbered about 42,000. Life in the warm, moist climate, lived mainly on the ground floor of buildings erected directly upon an undrained soil, encouraged the existence of tuberculosis and malaria. Sanitary theories had not progressed much over those of Perier and Carondelet. The removal of the adjacent forests, and the digging of drainage canals were among the wisest measures advocated; but the former was not carried far, and the canals were few in number, and not very scientifically located. In 1835 the Municipal Drainage Company was incorporated with a capital of $1,000,000, both the state and the city being among the stockholders. Its object was to drain the area behind the city as far as Lake Pontchartrain and open it to settlement. It began operations with a drainage machine on Bayou St. John, but the general financial collapse which soon followed put an end to the enterprise.

The canals were excavated by hand. There was at that time no suitable machinery to perform the work. Irish laborers were the main reliance. It was noticed that whenever there was much disturbance of the soil, outbreaks of disease occurred. In 1811, for example, when the Carondelet Canal was cleaned, an epidemic of yellow fever carried off seven per cent of the population; the same thing occurred in 1818, and in 1822, when that work was repeated. In 1832, when the New Basin was cut through to the lake, the fever was attended by a mortality of 8½ per cent. Nothing was known of the mosquito theory of the propagation of the disease, but practical experience furnished hints which might have been advantageously followed up. However, the community was too busy with gainful pursuits to concern itself much about the p133fever, which was looked on rather as an established institution. Generous provision was made for the support of the hospital, but the only other recourse seems to have been the oft-repeated assertion that the climate was unusually salubrious, and that acclimatized were immune to the disease.

During Prieur's administration occurred an appalling outbreak of cholera. This happened in 1832. The disease visited the city both before and after that date, but never was the mortality such as to compare with that of this terrible year. The conditions described above favored in exceptional ways the spread of the plague. The defective water supply had much to do with it. The disease appeared in October on that year. The regular annual epidemic of yellow fever had been that summer very severe; it had not yet entirely disappeared, when on the morning of the 25th persons walking along the levee were surprised to find stretched out on the ground the bodies of two dying men. An hour or so later they were dead. They perished of cholera. The disease had reached the city the previous day on two ships among the passengers on which the disease had developed during the voyage from Europe. At the moment the idlers were inspecting the ghastly bodies of these two first two victims, few guessed the cause of their dreadful death. That same day, however, a few scattering cases of cholera were reported from different parts of the city. On the 26th the alarm became general, and from that time forward, with fearful rapidity, the terrible pest swept over the city and through all ranks of society.6 Many fled at once; the population was thus reduced to about 35,000 persons, yet 6,000 perished within twenty days. On some days the death rate was 500.


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A New Orleans streetcar in 1832
From an engraving in the Louisiana State Museum

Terrible scenes took place. Doctor Clapp, a young Protestant minister, who settled in New Orleans in 1822, tells how he was kept busy performing the burial service all day long; sometimes he did not leave the cemetery till 9:00 P.M., the interments were being made by candle light. One day, he writes, he went to a funeral at 6:00 A.M., but in spite p134of the early hour, on arriving at the cemetery, he found more than 100 uncoffined bodies waiting for burial. Trenches were dug, and on some days, at the height of the epidemic, the dead were unceremoniously tumbled into them. In the absence of gravediggers and undertakers, the chain gang was impressed into service. One of the hospitals, deserted by all the physicians and attendants, was found filled with corpses, and with its ghastly contents was burnt by order of Mayor Prieur. All places of business were closed. All vehicles were seized to be used to bury the dead. Strangely dramatic incidents are recorded; a bride died on the night of her wedding, and was buried in the wedding finery she had scarcely had time to doff. A man died while waiting for a coffin to be finished which he had ordered for a friend's burial. Three brothers died on the same day. A family of nine which sat down to the evening meal apparently in perfect health, were all dead the next day at the same hour. A boarding house where thirteen people were lodging, was completely depopulated. Corpses were found lying in the street in the early morning. Tar and pitch were kept burning to purify the heavy atmosphere. Cannon were fired at intervals with the same purpose. Priority of right to the employment of hearses became the subject of contention. Grim struggles for precedence took place between the various funeral processions resorting to the churches. The city council added a final touch to the horror of the situation by publishing hideous statistics and the most ruthless resolutions.

It is not wonderful that in the emergency the ordinary bonds of morality were loosened, and scenes of wild dissipation were enacted. Miss King, in her "New Orleans, the Place and the People," relates the story of a party of revellers, one of whom, after taking a hilarious farewell of his comrades, was found a few hours later in a public grave, still wearing his festal garb, but in posture indicating that he had been buried while still alive. There were rumors that many were thus prematurely hurried to a peculiarly agonizing death. Hundreds of bodies were weighted and sunk in the river.7 The mortality was especially heavy among the laborers on the canals, as it always was. In all, over eight per cent of the population died. The epidemic reappeared in the summer of 1833, and took a fresh toll of victims; so that there were 10,000 deaths within those twelve fearful months.8

Before passing to more cheerful themes, let us make brief mention of the death of two prominent citizens, although they did not die of the plague. Père Antoine passed away amidst the love and tears of the whole city, in 1829; and Dominique You, the ex‑pirate, went to his award in the following year. For three days Père Antoine's body lay exposed in the main aisle of the Cathedral, where 3,000 wax tapers shed a solemn light upon his pallid face and rude brown cassock. It was then borne to the grave followed by a heterogeneous multitude, not of Catholics only, but of Masons, avowed atheists, and everybody to whom the simple goodness of the venerable ecclesiastic had endeared him.

You died at his home at the corner of Love and Mandeville streets, in extreme indigence, too proud to let his friends know of his piteous situation. He had been pardoned for his youthful offenses in recognition of his services in the American army at the Battle of New Orleans, and p135thereafter lived in peace in New Orleans. He had even figured in local politics, as a valiant supporter of General Jackson. Old comrades rallied around him to see that he should have, dead, the tribute that carelessness and ignorance had failed to render him, living. The city council accorded him a military funeral, in which the Louisiana Legion — that famous organization of all the volunteer troops — took a prominent part. All places of business were ordered closed, flags were put at half mast, and salvos of cannon fired by the Orleans Artillery, of which he was one of the founders, thundered a requiem over the last resting place of Lafitte's ablest and most famous lieutenant.

Politics occupied a place in the social and intellectual life of New Orleans in Prieur's time to an extent which we of a later generation find it difficult to comprehend. The lines of cleavage followed national issues; the time had not yet fully arrived when there should be a definite alignment of parties over purely municipal questions. The incidents connected with the visit of General Andrews Jackson to New Orleans in 1828 illustrate these facts amusingly. His presence in the city afforded an opportunity for the exploitation of the old hero for partisan purposes of which the democrats were not slow to take advantage.

Jackson was a candidate for the presidency of the United States, but in coming to New Orleans, his prime object was to revisit the scenes of his celebrated victory over the British, to renew old friendships, and to enjoy himself. The invitation extended to him by the State legislature referred only to his distinguished services to his country, and was in line with similar resolutions passed by the legislatures in other southern states. The supporters of President Adams, who was a candidate in opposition to Jackson, saw in the invitation deep political significance. They determined to act on the defensive. Jackson landed in front of the city and was received by the state and municipal officials with appropriate ceremonies. He was made the recipient of the customary banquet, and attended the usual performances at the theaters. He was escorted through the streets in a splendid carriage drawn by six white steeds, acclaimed by the shouts of the multitude, and attended by the local soldiery. These celebrations lasted several days, and then the leading politicians of the democratic party in the city — Livingston, Davezac, Wagner, De Marigny — received him in turn as their guest at balls and receptions at their homes. This monopoly of the city's honored visitor aroused the ire of the excluded federalists. The newspapers printed abusive articles, and the Argus began the publication of a scurrilous biography of the old hero, so untruthful and offensive that Jackson, bitterly indignant, left the city in anger. His departure did not placate the federalists, whose animosities led them to make objection in the legislature to the bill for his entertainment when it was presented for approval. The account was only settled after much discussion and considerable curtailment.9

The ill feeling between the Creoles and the Americans, also, continued a fertile source of discord. At last, largely through the persistence of the American element, a new charter was procured for the city, which, it was hoped, would safeguard their interests by removing all control over their part of the town from the hands of the French. The latter, by virtue of their ownership of some of the most valuable real estate p136in the city, as well as by the facility with which they united with the foreign elements that flocked into the city from all parts of Europe,10 and not less by native ability, had succeeded so far in retaining power.11 When they were unable to control, they divided and paralyzed public sentiment, and met the most urgent demand for innovation with unyielding conservatism.12 The feeling between the two dominant races was very strong in 1836, as proven by the deplorable Giquel-Brooks affair. Brooks was a member of the Washington Guards and prominent in the American quarter. Giquel was a Creole, and equally well-known below Canal Street. A difficulty between the two men was followed by Brooks sending a challenge to a duel. Giquel's reply was to prefer charges against brooks before the Recorder of the Second Municipality. A few days later both parties met on Royal Street, an affray followed, and Brooks was killed. His slayer was, of course, arrested, taken to the mayor's office, and put under appearance bonds. The city was greatly excited over the affair. Brooks was followed to his grave by an immense concourse of friends and citizen soldiers.

Giquel was arraigned before Judge Préval, the privilege of bail was revoked, and he was committed to prison under charges of murder. Public opinion immediately divided as to the propriety of Préval's course. The American section warmly supported the judge's action; the Creole population as warmly attacked what they declared was a violation of a constitutional right. The friends, both of Brooks and Giquel, were active, the former determined, as they announced, to see that justice was done; the latter employed eminent counsel to see that every legal remedy should be employed to save their friend. One of these remedies was a writ of habeas corpus.

The writ was argued in the court of Judge Joachim Bermudez, a distinguished jurist, whose son later became chief justice of Louisiana. The atmosphere of his court room during the case was, it is said, filled with "threatening rumors and dire menaces." When the judge released Giquel on $15,000 bond "the muttered curses of the baffled enemies" of the accused preluded the stormy events that were soon to follow. It was evident that the judge's life was in danger. On the night of September 5, 1836, while seated with his family quietly in his home on Bayou Road, between Rampart and Burgundy, a mob composed of Brooks' friends, including members of the Washington Guards, attacked the place. The judge had been warned; some friends were present to protect him and the assailants, on bursting in the front door, were greeted by a volley of bullets. Two were shot by Bermudez; one expired immediately; the other mortally hurt, was carried away by his companions. The dead body of another of the mob was later found in Esplanade Avenue, and several others were ascertained to have been wounded. Mrs. Bermudez had taken a heroic part in the encounter, arming herself with her husband's sword and beating back the assailants as they attempted to enter the drawing room.

Captain Hozey of the Washington Guards took steps to prevent any further trouble. He tendered the use of his command to guard the judge's person. This put his men on their mettle and helped considerably p137to avert further trouble. The proposition was declined. A guard was unnecessary. Public opinion had been outraged; everybody was now on Bermudez' side and the danger passed.13 The prevalent antagonists of Creole and American expressed themselves constantly in the City Council. There the representatives of the two races divided sharply on every question of public policy. The aldermen from the ancient part of the city outnumbered two to one the members of what was termed "le faubourg Américain." "All paving and all improvements to the landings were made within the limits of the lower part of the city, while above, where already a vast proportion of the trade was located, although as heavily taxed as other parts, not a wharf was permitted to be made or even repaired, and the streets were left unpaved. In consequence of this, damage was sustained one year to an extent exceeding one million of dollars by the impassable condition of the streets. What made such a state of things the more insupportable was the fact that streets were being paved where a cartload of merchandise never passed, a mile distant from the center of commerce."14

The levee in front of the Faubourg St. Maryº wereº lined with vessels, but about 1835 the extension of the "batture" or river deposits became so great as to impede seriously the access thereto. A petition addressed by the merchants and real estate owners of this region to the City Council, asking that the wharves be extended, was unceremoniously rejected. This added to the resentment felt by the Americans. A meeting was held shortly thereafter, at which a proposition to solicit from the Legislature an act entirely separating this community from the rest of the city was enthusiastically received. It was opposed by Samuel J. Peters with grave and weighty arguments; but only when he personally undertook to secure from the city government such redress as his fellow citizens considered themselves entitled to did the agitation die down.

The matter was first carried to the Legislature and summarily rejected. Mr. Peters then exerted himself to influence the Council and when met by the objection that the municipality was without funds, offered, in conjunction with some of his wealthy friends, to lend the money at 6 per cent, to be repaid at the end of ten years. The Council then definitely refused to comply with any of Peters' suggestions, though by a majority of only one vote. "There was no longer any grounds for hope of justice and Mr. Peters determined, as he had pledged himself to do on such a contingency, to devise a plan for a city government which would secure all the advantages which the advocates of a separate and independent city expected, without incurring the dangers of such a project."15

The charter of 1836, which embodied the results of Peters' labors, was a "curious experiment in city affairs."16 It divided the city into three corporations, wholly distinct from one another, but subordinate to one mayor and to a General Council. The powers of the mayor and of the General Council, while superior, were limited. This council retained only authority to legislate on points of common interest to all the three p138municipalities. It could, for example, fix a uniform rate of wharfage, drayage and ferriage. It established the tax on carriages and licenses to be paid by peddlers, taverns, etc. But it had no financial powers. It could make no appropriations. Although it was privileged to determine the salaries of the mayor and of its own members, these were paid by appropriations made in their due proportions by the councils of the individual municipalities. All the other expenses of a general character were met in the same way. In fact, the only really important function with which the General Council was clothed was the supervision of the police. It could enact any legislation that might seem necessary for the regulation of the "city watch," the "operation of which should be uniform in all parts of the city." The Council, however, was made up of the entire membership of all the various municipal councils sitting together. Its resolutions, therefore, were generally effective, being followed by appropriate action in the individual councils. However, there was no very clear definition of the limit of powers either way, and the consequence was endless dispute and litigation.17 The General Council met only once a year, though the mayor had the right, which appears to have been frequently exercised, to convene it in extraordinary session, whenever in his judgment this was desirable.

The mayor was charged with a sort of general supervisory power over all the municipalities. He was required to be a citizen of the United States, at least thirty years of age, and own, in the city, property valued at not less than $5,000. The way in which the mayor's functions were circumscribed may be gathered from the fact that the charter permitted him to cause the removal of undesirable public servants by lodging with the council of the municipality concerned an "information" on the subject; but if the ejected official were thereupon re-elected by the Council, the mayor was than entitled to proceed further against him during the term for which he had been elected. As a matter of fact, practically all the power previously concentrated in the office of mayor was now parceled out among the Recorders, as the presiding officers in each municipality were called.

The first municipality was virtually the "Old Square" of the city. The upper boundary extended from the river along Canal Street to the New Basin Canal and thence to Lake Pontchartrain; thence along the lake to Bayou St. John, and thence along the bayou and Esplanade Avenue to the river. In the rear of the "Old Square" it included a vast area of almost wholly uninhabited swamp; but at the mouth of the New Basin Canal — called, somewhat quaintly, in the act, the "Canal of the Bank" was a small settlement which fell within the municipal boundaries. On the opposite bank another little settlement was similarly included within the frontiers of the second municipality. The boundaries of the second municipality were Canal Street, the New Basin Canal, the Lake, and Carrollton Avenue as far as the fauxbourgs of Nuns and Annunciation. This somewhat irregular boundary gave to the American quarter practically all the upper part of the present city except the thriving little town of Lafayette. The third municipality embraced all the rest of what is now New Orleans — that is, a region included within a line running along Esplanade Avenue to Bayou St. John and thence along the bayou to the Lake; thence along the Lake to Chef Menteur River, and p139thence to Lake Borgne; thence as far as Bayou Bienvenu and Fishermen's Canal; and thence back to the river and the point of departure. The upper boundary of the second municipality was the divisional line between the parishes of Orleans and Jefferson; and the lower limit of the third municipality was the divisional line between the parishes of Orleans and St. Bernard.

Each of these municipalities was governed by a recorder and a council elected by the wards. The qualifications for the recorder were that he should be at least thirty years of age, a "man of family" and own, in the municipality, at least $3,000 worth of property. The qualifications for aldermen were merely that they must be over twenty-one years of age and own property valued at not less than $1,000. The aldermen were not required to be "heads of families," a discrimination over which the local newspapers for years thereafter made merry.

The First Municipality was divided into five wards, the Second into three wards, and the Third into four wards. Each recorder was, in effect, the mayor of a separate city. He possessed all the functions that usually attach to that office except those which, by their nature, applied jointly to all three of the new divisions of the city. In fact, the new municipalities were expressly declared to be "separate corporations, with the usual rights and responsibilities of corporations, as possessed and exercised previously by the corporation of New Orleans."18 The Council of the first municipality consisted of twenty-four aldermen; of the second of ten aldermen; of the third of seven aldermen. The only restrictions on the ballot were that a voter must be a free white male not less than twenty-one years of age, residing in the State for not less than one year and in the ward not less than six months, and that he must have paid all the State taxes for which he was responsible.19

The adoption of the charter was hailed with satisfaction, especially by the American element in the population. But it will be seen that it contained ample provision for controversy between the municipalities. In fact, the discords which resulted were so pronounced that it is remarkable that an instrument so obviously impossible could have lasted, as it did, for sixteen years. Undoubtedly among the causes which, operated at this period, began to retard the growth of the city, may be reckoned this singular and cumbersome charter.

A period of great prosperity began in New Orleans towards the close of Roffignac's administration.20 In his message of 1820 Governor Villeré referred to the sudden increase in wealth and population which had taken place within the previous ten years. This was now to reach its zenith and progress to the disastrous result to which all highly speculative movements are doomed. Between 1820 and 1840 the commerce of New Orleans expanded marvelously. A great trade sprang up with Mexico, conducted largely through foreign resident merchants. Wares were made in Europe especially for Mexico. Shipped to New Orleans, p140they were forwarded through Matamoros, Vera Cruz and Tampico. In New Orleans the leading spirits in this lucrative trade were J. W. Zacharie, the two Hales, and F. de Lizardi. The returns were in gold, silver, precious woods, hides and tropical fruits. There grew up also a large business with the merchants of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, both wholesale and retail. An immense demand existed, for example, for stationery; entire shiploads of the Blue Back Speller were distributed from New Orleans over the whole Mississippi Valley. To these merchants long-term credits were extended, payable when the crops were harvested.

Chartres Street was the commercial center of New Orleans. There were located the dry goods stores, the shoe emporiums, the great establishments dealing in clothing, jewelry, notions, and English fabrics. Most of these places were found between St. Louis and Canal. The principal stores were owned by Parish, Gasquet & Co.; Hart, Labatt & Co.; S. W. Oakey; Bierne & Burnside; Paul Tulane; Hyde & Goodrich; Slocomb, Richardson & Co.; Opdyke, Whiting & Stark; Mayee, Kneass & Co.; Armstead & Otto; Barriere, Woodlief, and many others.21 The rents on Chartres Street were high, and the land, which was not for sale, was owned by absentees usually residing abroad, and not purchasable except on very rare occasions. One sale, which occurred in 1835, involved the payment of $50,000 for a frontage of 50 feet on Chartres between Customhouse and Canal. About 1838‑39 the agents of the foreign owners began to raise the rentals of the buildings. The advances were from 10 to 15 per cent. This was more than the merchants could pay. They determined to leave Chartres Street and locate on or above Canal Street. The first to go were Hart, Labatt & Co., who occupied "No. 8" Magazine Street on a three-year lease at $1,200 per annum. Soon the other leading business men followed, and thereafter property in Chartres Street declined in value and never afterwards commanded the fancy prices of the heyday of its commercial importance.

About this time the eastern side of Canal Street was built up with handsome residences, including that of Dr. W. N. Mercer, now the Boston Club. Camp Street, too, began to be of importance as a business center. The principal business men whose offices were to be found now on the upper side of Canal Street were S. J. Peters, John Minturn, A. D. Crossman, Joshua Baldwin, E. A. Yorke, Timothy Toby, James Robb, Peter Conery, James and William Freret, J. W. Breedlove and Henry Lockett.

The products of the whole State, which, like its capital, was prospering extraordinarily, converged upon New Orleans. In 1831 the total value of the imports and exports at New Orleans was $26,000,000. In 1832 the total was somewhat less, but in 1834 it rose to more than $40,000,000, and in 1835 to $53,750,000. Governor Derbigny, in his message to the Legislature, in 1833, estimated that in that year $20,000,000 of Louisiana products were exported from New Orleans, and the proportion probably remained about the same during the following four years. An immense expansion of the banking system of the city took place between 1820 and 1840. The credit system became universal among the state's cotton planters. Not they only, but also the planters of Arkansas and Mississippi, came to depend upon the New Orleans p141banks. The increasing demand for cotton in the world's markets made both the opportunity and the necessity for extensive credit operations, and New Orleans lent millions at high rates of interest. The whole agricultural community in these three Southern States became, as it were, the commercial creatures of the New Orleans brokers and bankers, and found themselves unable to buy or sell their plantations except with the consent and through the hands of the factors who held mortgages on the property.22 But this process was not an unadulterated advantage to the city; it stripped it of capital which might otherwise have gone into investments of permanent value. The wealth which did result was, as the event proved, largely fictitious. There was an immense amount of business but no corresponding accumulation of real values.


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Canal Street, Looking Toward Baronne, 1840

The expansion of the banks to meet the situation began in 1828, when the Planters' Consolidated Association was permitted by the State Legislature to increase its capital stock to $2,500,000. It was then that the State adopted the dangerous precedent of pledging its faith to secure the payment of borrowed capital as well as the interest thereon. In return for this assistance, the Planters' Association turned over of the State $1,000,000 in stock, and allowed it a credit not to exceed $250,000 at any one time. The significant feature of the transaction was that it pointed to other institutions the way which they now proceeded to follow in hot haste. The Union Bank was established in 1832 with a capital of $8,000,000 guaranteed by the State. Then came the Citizens Bank, in 1833, with a capital of $12,000,000; the Commercial Bank, with a capital of $3,000,000; the Merchants & Traders Bank, in 1836, with a capital of $2,000,000, and many others, the majority linked up in some way with the State. The p142financial policy adopted by the United States in 1833 helped to make money more plentiful,23 and thus stimulated the frenzy of speculation which now involved every kind of business. New Orleans had already a fair quota of banks. The Louisiana Bank, with a capital of $2,000,000, had been established in 1804, and the Bank of Orleans, the capital of which was $5,000,000, dated from 1811, and there were other old and reliable institutions also with large capital. But the mushroom growth of new banks continued from year to year. The Legislature chartered insurance companies, building associations, drainage schemes, hotel enterprises, and railroads with the utmost prodigality. The total capital of the companies incorporated by the Legislature in 1833 was $18,984,000; in 1836, $39,345,000 — respectable figures even for the present age, but in that day of small things these figures were astounding. Most of the banks were authorized to issue bills in various denominations. They were expected to retain $1 in specie on hand for every $3 in currency issued. This was deemed ample protection in ordinary times, and probably was. All told, then, New Orleans at this time had a total paid-up banking capital of $40,000,000.

Much of the capital employed in the various enterprises launched at this time was raised in Europe by the sale of mortgages. The Citizens Bank, for instance, in 1837, obtained large sums this way. Probably nearly $21,000,000 of European money was thus attracted to New Orleans prior to 1837. The banks usually assumed an obligation in their charters to carry out some important enterprise, or create some public utility, or perform some function ministering to the public comfort or the betterment of commercial facilities. Thus, the Improvement Bank, organized in 1834, erected the St. Louis Hotel, at a cost of $900,000; the Exchange Bank in 1834 built the St. Charles Hotel, first of the great buildings constructed in the American Quarter; and the Commercial Bank in 1833 undertook to install the water works and lay a system of drains made of perforated cypress logs. This works involved an outlay of $708,000 by the Commercial Bank, which also undertook to spend annually $100,000 in maintenance. Unfortunately, not all of the banks carried out their agreements as faithfully as these, and in this respect the corporation other than banks which accepted charters imposing similar obligations, proved still more remiss.24

One consequence of the immense speculative movement was the inflation of land values. Real estate in the city was sold at extraordinary prices. One bank paid $500,000 for a piece of ground which but a short time before might have been bought for $50,000 or $60,000.25 Towns were laid out in the vicinity of New Orleans, and the purchasers of lots there did a lively business in reselling their holdings, often realizing twice, ten times, or even a hundred times their actual investment; yet nothing was ever built on them. There was a boom in railroads. In 1836 the New Orleans & Plaquemine was chartered to construct a railroad from the city to English Turn. The Pontchartrain Railroad, which was incorporated in 1830, was actually built. It does not seem to have been touched by the prevailing mania till 1836, when it obtained banking privileges, and added $1,000,000 to its capital. Of the other type was the scheme to dig p143a waterway from New Orleans to Lake Borgne by way of Bayou Mazant; a majestic enterprise which was never carried out.

The financial situation of New Orleans in 1837 was, therefore, not sound. Matters were shaping themselves towards a great commercial and mercantile disaster. One symptom of the deeply-rooted financial disorder was the flood of paper money with which the city was deluged at this time. There was, first of all, an immense currency issued by the banks. In addition, there were three kinds of municipal currency, collectively denomination "shin-plasters." These bills were issued in vast quantities by each of the three municipalities, to pay their employes, to settle their routine debts, and to satisfy their contractual obligations. In 1836 they were accepted by everybody except the banks as legal tender. The banks, better informed, perhaps, regarding the resources of the respective municipalities, handled them reluctantly, if at all. But as their volume mounted, their value decreased. Brokers were active in manipulating the depreciated notes. Counterfeiters found it easy to imitate them. These conditions did not add to the financial security of the city.

The inevitable disaster occurred May 13, 1837. On that day fourteen New Orleans banks suspended specie payment. The immediate result was a wave of bankruptcy which swept over the city, leaving chaos in its wake. House after house went into liquidation. In the emergency the three municipalities into which the city government had just been divided, issued bills varying in amount from 25 cents to $4. At once private institutions claimed a similar right. These measures were designed merely as temporary relief. The situation, however, was prolonged by the fact that a new tariff had been adopted by the national government which affected disadvantageously the sugar market; planters were beginning to abandon the cultivation of that staple, and turn their attention to cotton, and the financial crisis in New Orleans struck them in this interval of transition. The immediate cause of the collapse was the action of the Second Bank of the United States, which withdrew its deposits from its fiscal agencies; and this came at a time when the directors of the Bank of England, hoping to force the exportation of gold from the United States to Europe, suddenly contracted their business. Business was paralyzed for some months; credit fell to nothing; real estate lost its value; agriculture languished for want of stimulation.26 Out of the general ruin emerged a feeling of intense resentment against the banks. At the constitutional convention which met shortly thereafter, this feeling was expressed in a proposition to prohibit the formation of any new institutions of the sort. Fortunately, this legislation was not adopted, but stringent provisions were enacted for the government of the banks, and many of their most valuable privileges were suspended until the resumption of specie payment. This, however, did not take place till the end of the year 1838. The effects of the great crash in New Orleans was felt not in the city only, but throughout the State, for many years. In fact, Louisiana did not fully recover till 1845.

Nevertheless, the era of inflation left behind it some positive results. The parish prison, which stood for more than fifty years on Orleans, near Congo Square, was built in 1830, at a cost of $200,000. Several markets were erected about this time — the French Market, in 1830; St. Mary's and the Washington, in 1836; and the Poydras, in 1837. p144The United States Government, having sold its property in the center of the Vieux Carré in 1828, built the Jackson barracks in 1832‑1834. At that time the buildings stood three miles below the city; now they are well within the lower boundary of the settled area. The Charity Hospital, built at a cost of $150,000, dates from 1832‑1834. Between 1832 and 1835 two large cotton presses were added to the city's commercial facilities, one at a cost of $500,000, and the other at $758,000. The water works in 1835, and the gas works in 1837, were enterprises carried through by two of the big banks. The New Canal was begun in 1832 to give an outlet to Lake Pontchartrain from the American quarter; it was finished three years later.a It afforded access to an artificial basin excavated immediately beyond Hercules (Rampart) Street, between Julia and Delord. Deep enough for coasting schooners, this spot soon became a busy one. Work was begun on the United States branch mint in 1836, and it was opened in 1838, in the square bounded by Esplanade, Barracks, Decatur and North Peters streets which had been the site of Fort St. Charles, and which, after the removal of that tiny fortress, had for a time rejoiced in the name of Jackson Square, until that name was transferred to the Place d'Armes.

In 1833 Thomas Banks built on Magazine Street, between Gravier and Natchez, the three-story edifice known as Banks' Arcade, with a glass-roofed court, which combined an auction-mart, a bar-room, and some of the features of a modern office building. Here were held the public meetings in favor of the independence of Texas, in which figure T. Toby, James Reed, H. G. Hart, A. C. Labatt and other prominent men, who not only lent their sympathy to the cause, but sent the insurgents supplies, arms, and ammunition. The Merchants Exchange, completed in 1833, stood on Royal, just below Canal; in it was located the postoffice. The first St. Charles Hotel was completed in 1838 at a cost of $600,000. Diagonally opposite, on Common Street, stood the celebrated Verandah Hotel, erected in the same year, at an expenditure of $300,000. In 1834 the First Presbyterian Church was built on Lafayette Square. Three years later the Carondelet Street Methodist Church on the corner of that street and Carondelet Street, opened its doors. In the same year the old Christ Church replaced the ancient octagonal structure, with its cupola, irreverently known as the "cockpit," which had been the worshipping place of the Episcopalians of the city since 1809. In 1835 the St. Charles Theater was built at an outlay of $350,000. Many important bank buildings, and some handsome charitable institutions — notably the Poydras Orphan Asylum, the Female Orphan Asylum, the Asylum for Destitute Orphan Boys, and the Circus Street Infirmary — came into existence between 1830 and 1840. It may be that this list, though confessedly not exhaustive, shows an activity by no means as great as one might anticipate in a growing and wealthy American city; but it at least gives evidence of substantial development along certain highly desirable lines.


The Author's Notes:

1 "New Orleans as It Was," 132.

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2 Castellanos, "New Orleans as It Was," 137‑138.

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3 Martin, "History of Louisiana," 431.

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4 See Cable, "Strange True Stories of Louisiana" and "The Grandissimes," Chaps. XXVII‑XXIX. A very satisfactory account of Mme. Lalaurie will be found in Castellanos' "New Orleans as It Was," 53‑62. Castellanos was an eye-witness of the flight of Mme. Lalaurie. He also gives a full account of Bras Coupé, pp210‑216.

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5 Bee, April 11, 1834; Castellanos, 52‑62.

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6 J. S. McFarlane, M.D., "A Brief Description of the Cholera," in Louisiana Recorder, c. 1840.

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7 King, "New Orleans, the Place and the People," 282‑287.

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8 Waring and Cable, Social Statistics of Cities (Washington, 1887), 46.

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9 Castellanos, "New Orleans as It Was," 141‑142.

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10 De Bow's Review, VII, 413.

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11 Waring and Cable, Social Statistics of Cities, History and Present Condition of New Orleans, 50.

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12 Ibid.

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13 Castellanos, "New Orleans as It Was," 260‑264.

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14 G. C. H. Kernion, "Samuel Jarvis Peters," in Publications of the Louisiana Historical Society, Vol. VII, 1913‑1914, pp62‑96.

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15 Ibid., 75‑77.

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16 Howe, "Municipal History of New Orleans", 15.

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17 Leovy, "City Laws and Ordinances," Introduction, 22.

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18 Summary of the Charter in the City Directory of 1838.

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19 A curious feature of the division of the city under this act was, that it appeared that there was no common insignia which might be used by the police. It was therefore decided that each member of the force wear a silver-plated badge in the form of a star and crescent. This was the seal used by the mayor, and therefore seemed appropriate for an organization the functions of which ran in all municipalities. The insignia are still used by the New Orleans police. — Statement of Gaspar Cusachs to author.

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20 Gayarré, "History of Louisiana," IV, 636.

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21 Memoirs of Louisiana, I, 184.

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22 Waring and Cable, Social Statistics of Cities, 46.

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23 S. A. Trufant, "Review of Banking in New Orleans," 4.

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24 Trufant, "Review of Banking in New Orleans," 8‑15.

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25 Martin, "History of Louisiana"; Condon's Annals, 436.

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26 Governor White's Message, 1837; Gayarré, "History of Louisiana," IV, 658.


Thayer's Note:

a Its Chief Engineer was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Harford.


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