It’s Election Day. Week. Month. Year. Decade – whatever – in America. The mood is not well.
Over the past five weeks, I have written a series of blog posts here at myneworleans.com which put forth a strange – and frightening – conclusion that 19th century New Orleans was a mirror, a harbinger, and perhaps a cautionary tale of what America has become today.
Much of the research for this project has come from a book written by Herbert Asbury in the 1930s, a book called “The French Quarter;” and specifically from two chapters in the book titled: “An Epoch of Degeneration” and “Hell on Earth.”
Asbury’s dead now. He was also the author of “The Gangs of New York,” but he split the scene long before what he wrote about became wrought unto our current existence. The 19th century was 200 years ago. But so much prevails today. His story is that reckoning.
For starters, here are the links to the first four posts, in order, to set the stage for this day, this week, this life. This moment. This story.
If you have chosen to bypass these episodes – and who could blame you – let me preamble: New Orleans, in the mid 1880s, was a cesspool of infestation, epidemics, political corruption and neglect. And then politics got in the way. And that’s where we pick up the final chapter of this sordid tale.
Mid-19th century in New Orleans, a political group calling themselves the Know-Nothings (Their term, not mine) rounded about the public squares and polling places on election day. They bore arms upon said spaces. They threatened those with intent to vote against their authoritarian ways and means of government with violence.
They were cool with the lawless and corrupt city government at the time, which allowed them to rape (literally) and pillage (literally) the city. They were united in control and violence.
As Asbury put it, the Know Nothing Party “engendered more discord and hatred than any other political development in the history of the United States.”
They didn’t really stand for anything. They just stood against government, civility and law.
Said Asbury: “The climax of Know-Nothing preparation came on June 1, 1858, when a gang of rowdies invaded the office of the Registrar of Voters and seized registration lists.
“With no interference from the Registrar or the police, they kept the rolls for several days, meanwhile busily striking from them the names of of voters who were known to be either Whigs or Independents.”
(For you young folks, Whigs back then was a for-runner of the Democrat party, not the name of a cool punk rock band.)
Asbury again: “Sometimes the confusion into which the affairs of this the city had been thrown, and the waste and inefficiency with which they were conducted, had dreadful consequences.”
That year, 1858, a group of armed men with long guns assigned themselves the name of the Vigilance Committee and took to protecting the polls. One of New Orleans’ more prominent newspapers at the time – the True Delta – called it a “reign of terror.”
Continuing: “At almost every precinct there occurred fighting and rioting, in which at least two men were killed and a score wounded.”
That was then. Blood was spilled. Those attempting to vote were killed. This is now.
An unsigned proclamation posted upon public squares and doorways of residents at the time said: “The ruffians who have dyed our streets in the gore of inoffending citizens and spread terror among the peacable, orderly and well-disposed must leave or perish. So the people have determined – Vox Populi, Vox Dei.”
First point of note: They sure did talk funny back then. Second, seems like the people had spoken. And apparently also God.
(Just breaking down that Latin for you folks.)
Blood was shed across the streets of the city during that election. People trying to vote. Others not letting that happen. Let’s just hope Asbury’s account was just that – a story from the past. A history. A cautionary tale.
I guess we’ll know in a few hours. Or days. Or weeks. Or…whenever.