What comes to mind when you think of the Southern U.S. in the early 1870s? If you’re like me, you probably have to scramble to come up with an answer. Filling this void is one of two reasons to pick up Michael Ross’s The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, which includes data about the South during Reconstruction. The other reason is that this book chronicles a mystery, which is all the more fascinating because it is true.
In the afterword to this absolutely gripping book, Ross describes several of the coincidences that brought him to the largely forgotten story of the kidnapping of a New Orleans toddler in June 1870 that caught the attention of a nation, as did the subsequent manhunt and trial.
Ross was reading the column-inches of New Orleans newspapers published in 1870 in search of coverage about attempts to obstruct postwar Reconstruction efforts when he was hooked by the mention of police officers arresting and questioning practitioners of voodoo.
It is our good fortune that Ross is such a thorough researcher, and that he didn't simply gather some notes on what became known as the Digby case and set them aside for some indeterminate future follow-up.
Instead, Ross combed contemporaneous newspapers and conducted other research, and produced what he calls a micro-history. It is that, of course, and by dint of the generous footnotes and careful delineation of the New Orleans of 1870, obviously an academically sound tracing of the events of the case, as well as the historical, economic, societal, and political factors that contributed to making these events possible only at that particular time and place.
The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case is gripping, captivating, and evocative of a time none of us will ever know. Somehow, though, Ross has managed to stitch ephemera and minutia onto a solid, supportive backing of context. These are real people, largely forgotten by succeeding generations, who occupied headlines around the country for a brief moment in time.
Indeed, as Ross points out, fellow author William Faulkner's words about another time and place are equally fitting for New Orleans: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This book earns my highest recommendation for your bookshelf or that of a fellow history buff.
THE GREAT NEW ORLEANS KIDNAPPING CASE:
Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era
by Michael A. Ross
Oxford University Press
Oct. 14, 2014