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The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case

Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era

By Michael A. Ross

In June 1870, the residents of the city of New Orleans were already on edge when two African American women kidnapped seventeen-month-old Mollie Digby from in front of her New Orleans home. It was the height of Radical Reconstruction, and the old racial order had been turned upside down: black men now voted, held office, sat on juries, and served as policemen. Nervous white residents, certain that the end of slavery and resulting “Africanization” of the city would bring chaos, pointed to the Digby abduction as proof that no white child was safe. Louisiana’s twenty-eight-year old Reconstruction governor, Henry Clay Warmoth, hoping to use the investigation of the kidnapping to validate his newly integrated police force to the highly suspicious white population of New Orleans, saw to it that the city’s best Afro-Creole detective, John Baptiste Jourdain, was put on the case, and offered a huge reward for the return of Mollie Digby and the capture of her kidnappers. When the Associated Press sent the story out on the wire, newspaper readers around the country began to follow the New Orleans mystery. Eventually, police and prosecutors put two strikingly beautiful Afro-Creole women on trial for the crime, and interest in the case exploded as a tense courtroom drama unfolded.

In The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, Michael Ross offers the first full account of this event that electrified the South at one of the most critical moments in the history of American race relations. Tracing the crime from the moment it was committed through the highly publicized investigation and sensationalized trial that followed, all the while chronicling the public outcry and escalating hysteria as news and rumors surrounding the crime spread, Ross paints a vivid picture of the Reconstruction-era South and the complexities and possibilities that faced the newly integrated society. Leading readers into smoke-filled concert saloons, Garden District drawing rooms, sweltering courthouses, and squalid prisons, Ross brings this fascinating era back to life.

A stunning work of historical recreation, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case is sure to captivate anyone interested in true crime, the Civil War and its aftermath, and the history of New Orleans and the American South.

Michael A. Ross at home in Hyattsville, Md. Photo by Drew Angerer; courtesy of The New York Times.

Michael A. Ross is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland in College Park. His first book, Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court During the Civil War Era (LSU Press, 2003), was hailed by James M. McPherson as a “splendid biography [that] will greatly enhance our understanding of the era.” The book won the George Tyler Moore Civil War Center’s Seaborg Award for Best Civil War Non-Fiction (2004), and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award (2005), awarded once every three years for the best history book authored by a faculty member at a Jesuit institution (Dr. Ross was then affiliated with Loyola University in New Orleans). Dr. Ross’s articles have appeared in the Journal of Southern History, Journal of Women’s History, Journal of Supreme Court History, and Civil War History, and he reviews books regularly for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 2007, he delivered the Leon Silverman Lecture at the United States Supreme Court.

Reviews

“Mr. Ross decisively helms the story, introducing a sparkling cast of characters and turning the pages with just the right mix of action, suspense and intrigue.” The Wall Street Journal

“This true crime page turner puts the reader at the center of one of the most compelling—and complex—kidnapping stories in American history. Ross reconstructs the events surrounding the 1870 abduction of a toddler in New Orleans, bringing t0 life the accusation and trial of two Afro-Creole women and the social upset that ensued.” Bazaar

“Impeccable research and crisp, compelling writing … Recommended for American history students and enthusiasts.” Library Journal

“When little Mollie Digby went missing from her New Orleans home in the summer of 1870, her disappearance became a national sensation. In his compelling new book Michael Ross brings Mollie back. Read The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case for the extraordinary story it tells—and the complex world it reveals.” —Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

“Has all the elements one might expect from a legal thriller set in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Child abduction and voodoo. ‘Quadroons.’ A national headline-grabbing trial. Plus an intrepid creole detective. … A terrific job of sleuthing and storytelling, right through to the stunning epilogue.” —Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans

“Michael Ross’s account of the 1870 New Orleans kidnapping of a white baby by two African-American women is a gripping narrative of one of the most sensational trials of the post-Civil War South. Even as he draws his readers into an engrossing mystery and detective story, Ross skillfully illuminates some of the most fundamental conflicts of race and class in New Orleans and the region.” —Dan T. Carter, University of South Carolina

“A masterwork of narration, with twists, turns, cliff-hangers, and an impeccable level of telling detail about a fascinating cast of characters. The reader comes away from this immersive experience with a deeper and sadder understanding of the possibilities and limits of Reconstruction.” —Stephen Berry, author of House of Abraham: Lincoln and The Todds, a Family Divided by War

The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case is such a great read that it is easy to forget that the book is a work of history, not fiction. Who kidnapped Mollie Digby? The book, however, is compelling because it is great history. As Ross explores the mystery of Digby’s disappearance, he reconstructs the lives not just of the Irish immigrant parents of Mollie Digby and the women of color accused of her kidnapping, but also the broad range of New Orleanians who became involved in the case. The kidnapping thus serves as a lens on the possibilities and uncertainties of Reconstruction, which take on new meanings because of Ross’s skillful research and masterful storytelling.” —Laura F. Edwards, Duke University

“A dazzling work of Reconstruction history, a page-turner to match the best police procedural or legal thriller, and a compelling portrait of a city in transition, a city in crisis.” New Orleans Advocate

“Ross delivers a compelling, even intimate story that deals intelligently with broad regional and national political matters at the same time. Few if any historical treatments of Reconstruction have achieved the same measure of analytical clarity in such an attractive and compelling package.” Nashville Scene

“As much a lively portrait of a unique city as it is a suspenseful mystery and a political history of an all-but-forgotten era. The exotic atmospherics include rumors of voodoo human sacrifices, yellow-fever epidemics, Mardi Gras parades, and the nuanced relationships of Afro- and white Creoles. Ross set out to mine ‘a single historical moment for insights into both the history of New Orleans and the Reconstruction era.’ He succeeded.” Washington Independent Review of Books

“Ross slowly reconstructs the case and describes the trial, allowing the mystery of guilt or innocence to crescendo. He also demonstrates how a kidnapping case featuring a disbelieving immigrant father, exotic race and legal systems, and a crime-ridden city known for debauchery captivated national attention. Ross poses relevant questions that show this nearly forgotten case’s significance to American history.” Publishers Weekly

The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case

WINNER, New Orleans Public Library Choice Award (best nonfiction book, 2014)

WINNER, Kemper & Leila Williams Prize of the Louisiana Historical Association and the New Orleans Collection (best book on Louisiana history, 2014)

A selection of the History Book Club (featured alternate), Quality Paperback Book Club, Military Book Club, and Scientific American Book Club

Visit Michael A. Ross on Tumblr for updates and posts by the author. Read “The Great Voudou Kidnapping?,” which looks at the sources of the moral panic surrounding the news of infant Mollie Digby’s abduction in 1870.

See the cool infographic on the Oxford University Press blog and watch a powerful video about the book.

Read the New York Times write-up by Jennifer Schuessler that prompted Anne Rice to share a Facebook post attracting 1.1 million Likes and propelling the book to #389 on Amazon.com.

 

Oxford University Press paperback (2017)