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...
THE FRENCH CREOLES
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
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,
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.
CARNIVAL AND MARDI GRAS
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)
THE PIRATES LAFITTE
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.
CASKET GIRLS AND PROSTITUTES
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
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.
THE MOB IN NEW ORLEANS
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
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.
COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY
TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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