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Words: The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case

Will Coviello on Michael A. Ross’ new book about a 19th-century crime in New Orleans

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American newspapers had just begun splashing crime stories on their front pages to sell newspapers in the decades after the Civil War. In 1870, Mollie Digby, the 17-month-old daughter of an Irish family living in New Orleans' Backatown, was kidnapped and the case eventually made national headlines. New Orleans newspapers speculated two black women abducted her for use in voodoo sacrifice. Much of the story could only have happened in New Orleans, where, under Reconstruction, blacks served in political office, on the police force and on juries. The officer put in charge of the case was the first nationally known black detective, John Baptiste Jourdain (a distant relative of the Baquet family, including New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Wayne Baquet, owner of Lil' Dizzy's Cafe). In The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case (Oxford University Press), Michael A. Ross, a former professor at Loyola University, chronicles the national hunt for the kidnappers and subsequent trials. Local newspapers' pandering to white fear of voodoo and black enfranchisement in government reflects the tumultuous and complicated politics of the era (Louisiana's governor at the time was a 28-year-old former Union soldier). The book explores the unique aspects that elevated Digby's abduction into a bigger story with political implications and how Reconstruction could have turned out differently.

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