The people of New Orleans are as strange and wondrous a mix as the city itself, reveling in its French heritage and its segregation from American culture. The melting pot of the city is European, African and Cuban, creating a strange blend of style and usually Catholic-based traditions which sometimes puzzle the outsider. Of all of the various cultures however, the most famous remain the Creole and the Cajuns...


In the early days of New Orleans, the French Company if the Indies needed to colonize the territory, so they accepted just about any able-bodied volunteers. As Louisiana was known for being a lawless and distant frontier, it was soon realized that no decent folks would want any part of it. So, the eager “volunteers” usually came from French debtor’s prisons and houses of correction. Among them were 88 “working girls” who were given a choice between prison and the New World.

In 1720, an agent of France named Phillipe, Duc d’Orleans, put a stop to the practice of flushing out the unsavory elements of France and sending them to New Orleans. Of course, this may be why, among modern, upscale residents of the city, you can rarely find anyone who claims an ancestor in New Orleans prior to 1727!
One of the city’s preeminent cultures are the Creoles, although this is confusing as two distinctly separate groups claim the title. White Creoles use the word to describe themselves as people of European colonial ancestry, while the other group are the “mulattos”, “quadroons” and Octoroons” - the light-skinned, part African, Catholics.

Both groups use the word to differentiate themselves as people descended from the European colonists and as long-time familial residents of New Orleans. Both are very proud of their heritage and their culture often sets them apart from other residents of the city, especially in the historic years of the city.


The term Cajun is actually from the word “Acadian”. Acadia was the French Canadian colony founded in 1604 by Samuel de Champlain and now called Nova Scotia. Champlain was joined in 1632 by 300 settlers who were fleeing from religious persecution and they lived in isolation for almost 100 years until the French and Indian War in 1754. After the war, the British demanded the Acadians pledge allegiance to England and give up their Catholic religion. When they refused, they were rounded up separated and deported. Many of them were sent back to France; others to the American colonies and other remained in hiding. They would have remained a lost group had not the Spanish invited them to settle in Louisiana. As Catholics and enemies of the British, the Acadians were ideal Louisiana settlers.

By 1763, the first Acadians had burrowed deep into the Louisiana swamps, living in the swamps and with the Indians, learning to eat crawfish and alligator and building canoe-like boats called “pirogues”. They were isolated from the urban French in New Orleans (and what they considered the uppity Creoles) and their language remained much like the 17th century French of their ancestors. This makes their culture so separate, even today.


Another (huge) part of New Orleans culture is Mardi Gras. In many Catholic dominated cities around the world, the days preceding Easter are called Lent, a period of fasting and penitence. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which reminds believers of their own mortality... but in New Orleans, the Tuesday before Lent is Mardi Gras... which literally means “Fat Tuesday”... the last gasp of frivolity before a period of austerity.

In New Orleans, the term “Carnival” refers to the season of balls and parades which begin on Twelfth Night (January 6) and continues through Mardi Gras. On that day, one krewe (or club) hosts the first ball of the season. The high point of Carnival is the parade -filled, 4-day weekend that begins on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and ends in an all-out bash on Mardi Gras day.

That final day (and frankly, the days before it) are a literal riot of people, colors, and of course, copious amounts of alcohol. I can say that everyone should experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans at least one time in their lives... that is if you are not uptight, and if you have no objections to viewing all manner of female anatomy! I don’t recommend it for married men (unless you wife is really free-thinking) or for those who want to enjoy sight-seeing in the city (historical sight-seeing, I mean)


Isn’t it interesting how disreputable (albeit colorful) characters of yesterday are often turned into heroes many years later? It’s true that Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre did help to save the city of New Orleans during the War of 1812.... but why not? They had been plundering and robbing the region for years?

The brothers Lafitte were known to have been in New Orleans as early as 1805 and were most likely French. The pirate’s base of operations was in Barataria Bay , near New Orleans, and within striking distance of the Gulf of Mexico, where trading ships made their entrances and exits from the Mississippi River. By 1811, this was a thriving pirate community with 32 armed warships... more than the entire American navy at the start of the War of 1812!

Andrew Jackson enlisted the aid of the pirates in fighting the British at the Battle of New Orleans, after which the men were pardoned of piracy charges. The Lafittes then went right back to piracy. By 1818, they had established a colony of privateers off the coast of Galveston.


As mentioned already, some of the very first female settlers in New Orleans were prostitutes who were released from French prisons. For those men not “lucky” enough to snag one of these fine catches, there were also the “casket girls”

These young ladies were imported by the Ursuline sisters to provide suitable wives for the male colonists. These upstanding, middle0class ladies were called “casket girls”, either because of the style of hats they wore, or because of their government issue chests of clothing and linen (it all depends on what history you read). Anyway, they first began arriving in 1728 and continued to come until 1751.

However, prostitution had its roots in the very foundation of the city and continued to play a prominent part for many, many years to come. 

In 1744, a French officer commented that there were not 10 women of blameless character in the city of New Orleans, in reference to the many houses of prostitution which operated there. We have no idea if he meant this as a criticism or a compliment!

In 1803, after the puritanical Americans took control, they attempted to clean up the bawdy houses and rowdy atmosphere of the city. The practice of prostitution was then prohibited on the ground floors of any building... so saloons and gambling parlors opened on the ground floors instead! By 1857, madames and their girls were also required to obtain licenses to work.... a service which was personally administered by the mayor!

During the Civil War, the occupying Union Army found the bawdy houses to their liking and a string of them opened along the old basin canal. In the 1870’s, New Orleans’ most famous madame, Josie Arlington, formally opened her own bordello in this neighborhood.

Around the turn-of the-century, Alderman Sidney Story proposed an ordinance to rid the better residential neighborhoods of the bordellos. The sporting houses were then restricted to a single area on the far side of the French Quarter. Ironically, the area came to be called “Storyville” after the alderman.

In Storyville, women such as “Countess” Willie Piazza and Josie Arlington ran pash and luxurious houses with oil paintings, fine wines and potted palms. Many of the houses were staffed by the madame’s stunning octoroon and quadroon “nieces”, who were usually girls whose families had fallen on hard times. The popularity of female Creoles of color in the bordellos caused many old-line Creole families to send their strictly raised daughters to convents until they were old enough to marry.
When World War I began, Josephus “Tea Totaling” Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, threatened to close down the New Orleans naval base if Storyville was not shut down. Because of this, the district was officially closed in 1917 and prostitution once again became a clandestine activity. 

Most of the area of Storyville was torn down in the 1930’s to make way for the Iberville Housing Project.


One of the most notorious crimes of the 19th century involved the 1890 assassination of David Hennessy, the first superintendent of the New Orleans police department. Nineteen members of a Sicilian gang were accused of the crime but they were acquitted of the crime in 1891. An angry mob then proceeded to break into the Parish prison and hang 11 of the accused men. For years afterward, the slur “Who Killed the Chief?” could lead to an outbreak of violence against Italians.

The upstanding Italians of New Orleans have long been plagued by the reputation of their notorious kinsmen... as New Orleans was a port of entry for many Italians into the United States. It also served as the beginning for many of America’s first Mafia families, who later moved on to Chicago and New York.

The most famous Mafia boss to stay in New Orleans was Carlos “Little Man” Marcello. His family settled in Algiers, the community across the river from New Orleans, and he started out as a small-time hood. By the 1940’s, he had moved into the big business, when he went to work for New York gangster Frank Costello in the slot machine racket. In May 1947, he was made head of the local Louisiana crime family and was said to have organized a number of murders, including the Kennedy assassination.

At his federal bribery trial 34 years later, Marcello swore that he was nothing more than a humble tomato salesman employed by the Pelican Tomato Company... although he did own a little property which was estimated to be worth $30-$40 million. His eventual conviction kept him in jail for six years but in 1989 he returned home to resume his life as a husband, father and grandfather of 11.
Carlos Marcello died in his sleep in 1993 at the age of 83. Many called it the end of the “Godfather” era.

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