Ain't heard much about Pepe Llulla lately, have you?
That may well be because the world has changed a bit since Llulla's best days. As Saul Bellow noted in his final years: "Such simple, romantic standards of personal dignity and of the respect due to privacy are to be found today only in remote corners of backyard countries. Maybe in the Pyrenees or in the forgotten backlands of Corsica."
But there was a time and place when such standards were fussily, often foolishly and sometimes fatally enforced. The time was the early 19th century, the place was New Orleans and enforcement was the code duello.
The code was embraced to the point of absurdity by our town's Franco-Spanish population. Any insult or slight was sufficient to lead to a challenge and acceptance of a duel, e.g. many a New Orleanian -- almost always Creole -- fought duels over opera singing. Like in 1857, when Mlle. Bourgeois, a contralto, chose Mme. Breti-Baille over Mme. Colson to sing the title role in Galatea. This led to plenty of hissing, which led to a duel with cavalry sabers the next morning, which further led to the crippling of a young gallant named Bozonier.
Yet in the early days, there was a surprising lack of fatalities, largely because the sense of honor so easily offended was also easily satisfied. A simple scratch from a deft coup de pointe would usually suffice. But that all changed when Anglo-Americans came to town. Noted believers in efficiency, the newcomers seemed to think the primary purpose of a duel was to kill your opponent. Therefore, when challenged to a duel, they chose the efficient new pistols over the rapier. Eventually, some would opt for double-barrel shotguns. Not very graceful, but decidedly efficient.
In time, certain men became masters of the dueling arts and opened "academies," usually on Exchange Alley. These maitres d'armes were patronized and lionized by the aristocrats of the day, though not introduced to the lady folk. They were the rock stars of the day, rock stars with a license to kill.
Onto this stage one day sauntered Pepe Llulla.
He came from the Spanish island of Minorca, which he left early to seek sea-wings. After tours on whalers in the North and slavers in the South, he found his way to New Orleans.
He worked as a bouncer, but in his spare time he hung around the fencing establishments, where he was like Babe Ruth picking up a baseball bat. He soon bested the salon master, a man named L'Alouette, but they remained friends until L'Alouette's death, when Llulla took over the business.
In many ways, Llulla was atypical of his type. He didn't speak much, and when he did, it was mild. He was sallow and thin, long-faced and hollow-cheeked. He was neat, but stayed away from the theatrical clothes and conspicuous strutting of so many dueling masters.
In time, he married and proved to be a one-woman guy, again atypical for his calling. Other maitre d'armes took secret commissions from men who were hiring them to pick quarrels with a business or amatory rival; if especially sleazy, he might later blackmail his employer.
Llulla -- pronounced You-ya -- stayed above such scandals. He didn't even drink.
Of course, he had some flaws. Today's rules of proper parenting would probably frown on his fondness for balancing an egg on his son's head -- and then shooting it off at 30 paces. Of course, many of the onlookers sometimes would hold a silver dollar between thumb and forefinger and trust Llulla's aim to blow it away.
Oh yeah: Pepe Llulla sometimes killed and frequently wounded his neighbors. How many? Nobody actually knows. There was no ESPN to keep track, and Llulla didn't like to brag. He certainly fought well in excess of 30 duels and certainly a fair number of his opponents weren't around to issue or accept further challenges.
At least one of the deaths had a political cause. In the 1850s, New Orleans was a hotbed of revolutionary fervor against Spanish rule in Cuba and was even the launch site of a failed invasion. When a Spanish-language newspaper was wrecked by rioters, the Spanish consul prevailed on Llulla to walk beside him in the streets, a sword in each hand. Seeing posters insulting the Spanish king, he had broadsides printed in three languages offering to fight any and all enemies of the crown.
An Austrian ex-officer and Latin-American Democrat accepted. The pair met near Lake Pontchartrain with guns at 30 paces. On signal, they were to advance and fire. This the Austrian did, advancing to within 10 paces while Llulla stood, half-turned away. As he lifted his pistol to fire, the Austrian was stunned as his foe whirled and fired a bullet into his chest.
Llulla was called by many the greatest swordsman ever to unsheathe a colchemarde in New Orleans. Though he seldom displayed any temper, one time he was particularly angered by one insult and vowed to run the insulter precisely through the vest button. He did exactly that the next day. One of his fans took the shirt as a souvenir, sword hole exactly through the vest button.
All along, Pepe Llulla had been a businessman of sorts, investing in lumber, real estate, even a Spanish bullring. And finally, that graveyard.
Yep, the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery on Louisa Street. It sounds like the plot from some over-excited romantic novel, but here was the expert killer and his very own cemetery. Punsters -- no, they never did have any shame -- claimed that Llulla would run his sword through corpses and then charge a "cut rate."
By the 1870s, dueling was becoming a thing of the past. Tourists, those eternal darlings, used to show up at St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery and ask the soft-speaking bearded old man working around the tombs if he knew how many here the legendary Senor Llulla had actually killed. The old man would just smile and shrug his shoulders. Touristas.
Llulla died in March 1883. He was 73 years old, old indeed for a dueling master, and most of his adopted city had forgotten who he was. In his late days, a questioner asked if his skill with a sword and pistol led to his longevity. The old man just smiled -- you know there must be some irony developed in such a life of death -- and softly said, "It was just that I never drank."
There. For those who ain't heard much of Pepe Llulla lately. Hope you learned a little something. If you didn't, meet me under the oaks in City Park -- fried sweet-potato pies at 30 paces. Pour garder intact le nom de la famille.