The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era by Michael A. Ross

New Orleans

In 1870, New Orleans and Reconstruction had it so right and the best example of this I have ever come across is this case and this book. I wanted to cry; not because there was a kidnapping, but because for a few shining moments, our country was trying so hard to live the ideal of freedom and justice for all.

Two African American women kidnapped wee Mollie Digby from her front yard in June of 1870. I say African American, however at the time they were called many things, some nice and some that are derogative now. It may seem strange to us now, the “N” word was seldom one of them. We tend to look at the American South as rabid racists in the late 1800’s. New Orleans was different though. It was special and in many ways a utopian sort of place where people of different races and nationalities lived side by side and often mixed and mingled. There were slaves pre-war, so it wasn’t perfect.

New Orleans had a long history as a French Colony before the US made their little ‘ole Louisiana Purchase and the French had always had a better attitude about race than most countries, way ahead of their time. There was this idea of Creoles; French Creoles, Afro-Creole, Louisiana Creole, etc.  The precious gift of New Orleanians was that they were all Creoles. They all got along and for the most part, it looks like it was copasetic until the war or really after the war…or really until people that didn’t understand the concept of Creole moved on in after the war and tried to shape New Orleans based on their old fears and belief systems. If what I am trying to say is coming out like a hot mess, it’s because my thoughts get all muddled and well, it was a hot mess at the time.

Half of the population of New Orleans jumped on this kidnapping because it was two African Americans and the other half were busy trying to use it to show that Reconstruction was working. The problem is that it was the media that was doing the hating and people pay attention when the news shoves crazy stories in their faces all day-all the time. (much like now) The Republicans that really believed in Reconstruction and supported equality got it a bit muddled as well. Instead of finding dear Mollie Digby, they were busy attempting to prove a point and that never works well.

What matters is that for one brief shining moment Justice was truly blind and fair. It was hard won, never assured, and probably the last time that African Americans got a fair shake in a courtroom for decades, but it happened. The story of it is glorious and heart breaking and will make you mad and will make you look back at the political parties and what they stood for and a million other things.

And then, that other political party got busy, there were black codes and Jim Crow then the KKK drew members like a dead skunk in the road draws maggots and it all went to hell for way too long.

An amazing book about a not so amazing crime that highlights not only the great New Orleans culture, but a time when everything and anything was possible.

{Insert apology here because I get really worked up whenever one of the two R’s comes up, Racism & Rape. Those are things that shouldn’t be happening and there is no valid excuse or for them other than ignorance and hate. Not acceptable.}

Much Like Gwen's Signature


Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

Tinseltown

There are many keywords that will lead any reader to pick up a book. For me, the list seems a bit endless with history, murder, and classic or silent Hollywood somewhere near the top and that is why when I saw Tinseltown on the Harper’s upcoming books I did a wee bit of a jig.   Being a reformed classic movie junkie and having a festering obsession with John Barrymore (really, I have photos and trading cards of him on my walls) this was a great fit with the other books on my shelf covering this very same subject- the murder of William Desmond Taylor. {insert ominous da, da, da, dum}

Taylor and Jack the Ripper have quite a bit in common; both unsolved, everyone has a theory, pre-modern forensic science, evidence gone missing, and even their own exhaustive websites with information and groupies. Taylor’s murder has something that I don’t see the Ripper as having, it happened at the same time as the birth of Hollywood, which was arguably the the major cultural and entertainment powerhouse of the 20th century.

What is slightly different in Mann’s take on the case is that he comes to the conclusion that the culprit was someone that, while a suspect in most treatments, has not been confidently fingered before, there is a lot more talk of drug use, it’s the most complete picture of Paramount mogul Adolph Zuckor that I have ever read, and he makes many interesting word choices throughout.

A friend reminded me the other day that if there is no controversy of some sort or one can’t be created, the media will not cover it and that really applies to Tinseltown. Mann give the impression that every single person tangentially related to Hollywood had major skeletons in their closets and 99% of them had to do with drugs. Now, I wasn’t there and it was the wild 20’s and yet, I am not a fan of painting an entire industry or time period as drug and sex-crazed.  You might be tempted to throw the 60’s at me after reading that, but do you really think that everyone…your parents or grandparents, if you are younger, were out “turning on, tuning in, or dropping out”? I didn’t think so.

Zuckor? That was probably the most well done part of the book. It will leave feeling grateful for never having worked for the man and perhaps, insight into characteristics were almost vital to have in order to become the leader in many business at the time. His life is the embodiment of immigrant success that makes America great and also proves, yet again, that one doesn’t necessarily have to be likable to succeed.

Word choices? This was interesting and while I need to make note of it, I also need to mention that I have lately been on a lot of rants about this from authors and copywriters in general.  His use of words like clew and athwart might not sound to you like the nails on a chalkboard that they were for me. Think of this as a big case of it’s not Mann, it’s me.

His fingering a culprit? Like the Ripper, there have been so many theories that it is really hard to separate the wheat from the chafe. It’s completely possible and still unable to move beyond reasonable doubt for me based on the few facts that are left.

Tinseltown is like the 1920’s and Hollywood was, one heck of a ride. So much has been written about the murder that I really don’t have a favorite book in the race. If the case is new to you and you don’t have any pre-conceived notions, this wouldn’t be a bad choice and would treat you to a fair amount of somewhat unrelated Hollywood history, which is nice. Like the Ripper, the chance of fingering the dastardly murderer and pleasing everyone at this point are akin to finding a victim’s bloody sweater with DNA on it over a hundred years later. Oh…wait…that’s been done…and debunked. (My family has passed down many things, nothing as strange as a bloody sweater though. Seriously, not one generation thought it weird?)

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

by William J. Mann

  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (October 14, 2014)
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers

Much Like Gwen's Signature

Tinseltown fell into my hands like manna from heaven from HarperCollins. As always, the gift has no effect on my personal thoughts regarding the book.