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Murder in Black and White: A Crime and Media Story in Antebellum Louisiana

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Murder in Black and White: A Crime and Media Story in Antebellum Louisiana
  Murder in Black and White: A Crime and Media Storyin Antebellum Louisiana Marianne Fisher-GiorlandoDaniel Dotter  ABSTRACT. In this paper we will tell the story of “The Poisoning of theLate Levi Smelser.”Throughdetailed examination ofboththemediareports and official documents, the ensuing narrative portrays how raceand gender influence the criminal justice processes of late antebellumNew Orleans. As the story unfolds, two types of accounts emerge. Wecome to know the major participants in this case, Kitty, the slave, LeviSmelser, the victim, Theresa Smelser, the widow, and Adam Scott, theyoung foreman of Smelser’s tin and copper shop, in their ordinary andcomfortable lives before the murder. Secondly, we see these same char-acters play shifting roles of guilt and innocence in the planning and im-plementation of the murder as the newspapers reveal, magnify andglorify new “particulars,” day-by-day. This story is actually composedof a number of plots and constitutes a “scenario” of crime creation by MarianneFisher-Giorlando,PhD,isProfessorofCriminalJustice,GramblingStateUniversity, Grambling, LA 71245.Daniel Dotter, PhD, is Professor of Criminal Justice, Grambling State University,Grambling, LA 71245. Address correspondence to: Marianne Fisher-Giorlando, Criminal Justice Dept.,Box J, Grambling State University, Grambling, LA 71245 (E-mail: authors especially wish to thank Wayne Everard and Irene Wainwright, archi-vists in the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library. The authors alsothank Mary Gehman, Katherine Senter, and Mary White of New Orleans. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Louisi-ana Historical Association, New Iberia, LA, March 6, 1998.Women & Criminal Justice, Vol. 14(2/3) 2003  2003 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.  59  sources of the mass media and related groups. As a scenario, the storyrepresents “an interactional moment or site of meaning creation.”  [Arti-cle copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service:1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <> Website:<> © 2003 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights re-served.] KEYWORDS.  AntebellumLouisiana,gender,race,criminality,labeling  INTRODUCTION  Levi Smelser, “a native of Pennsylvania, and for the last 18 years aresident” of New Orleans died on Monday morning, May 28th at 1o’clock (  Daily Picayune , May 29, 1855).Notice of Levi Smelser’s death was placed in the middle of the nineotherdeathslistedintheIntelligencecolumnfortheNewOrleans  Daily Picayune , the next day, on May 29, 1855. If you weren’t looking for it,you could miss the notice easily. This initial unassuming obituary no-tice gave no indication of the amount of space that the New Orleans’newspapers would eventually devote to the circumstances surroundingSmelser’sdeath.However,thenextshortreportintheSundaymorning,July15th  DailyOrleanian (1855)revealedthatLeviSmelserdidnotdieof natural causes. Accordingly, the article stated that:Kate, a negress, was arrested by the officials of the First District,accused of having poisoned her owner, Mr. Smelser, a coppersmith of Tchoupitoulas street, who was recently intered [sic]. And the  Daily Picayune  (July 15, 1855) of the same day added that themurder allegedly “was committed by administering either arsenic orchloroform.”Shockingly enough, a slave was charged with poisoning her master,but this was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next two and one-half years, the “Smelser Poisoning Case” would slowly unfold, as day-by-daythecontemporarymedia,theNewOrleansnewspapers,coveredtheensuing Coroner’s investigation, arraignment, examination, trials, andSupreme Court appeals of this sensational case. An antebellum versionof a soap opera played itself out in unbelievable and explicit detail forthe New Orleans public. 60 WOMEN & CRIMINAL JUSTICE  In this paper we will tell the story of “The Poisoning of the Late LeviSmelser” (  New Orleans Commercial Bulletin , July 28, 1855). Througha detailed examination of both the media reports and official docu-ments,theensuingnarrativeportrayshowraceandgenderinfluencethecriminal justice processes of late antebellum New Orleans. As the storyunfolds, two types of accounts emerge. We come to know the majorparticipants in this case, Kitty, the slave, Levi Smelser, the victim,Theresa Smelser, the widow, and Adam Scott, the young foreman of Smelser’s tin and copper shop in their ordinary and comfortable livesbeforethemurder.Secondly,weseethesesamecharactersplayshiftingroles of guilt and innocence in the planning and implementation of themurder as the newspapers reveal, magnify and glorify new “particu-lars,” day-by-day.Theinterplay oftheseaccountscanbestbeunderstoodasaninstanceof deviance labeling (Becker, 1973; Schur, 1980). The narrative is cre-ated over time in newspaper coverage, the primary mass medium of theday. It includes interpretations and judgments freely mixed with de-scriptionsofevents.ThecoverageoccursinvariousNewOrleansnews-papersduring1855,althoughtherearepiecesinthefollowingtwoyearsas well. The coverage of this case was unusual for newspapers of theera. Most of them devoted no more than a sentence or two to the dailycriminalevents.In1855,the  DailyPicayune devotedlittlespacetosuchnews.Foundinthecitycolumn,policeandcourtmattersgenerallytookup no more than half a column for all reports, in a newspaper that raneight pages and seven columns per page. National news, shipping re-ports, other business news, and ads took up most of the space in the late1850s  Daily Picayune . Yet the  Daily Picayune , and the  New Orleans Daily Crescent   devoted unusually long columns covering the coroner’sinquest, the examination, and the trial. Even the  New Orleans Commer-cial Bulletin  reported more information about this case than usual. Fur-thermore, not one of the other antebellum penitentiary women’s cases wasgivensuchcoveragebyanyoftheNewOrleanspapers.Suchnews-paper coverage indicates that this case was one of the most importantmurder cases of the time.The story is actually composed of a number of plots and constitutes a“scenario” of crime creation by sources of the mass media and relatedgroups. As a scenario (Dotter, 1997, p. 252), the story represents “aninteractionalmomentorsiteofmeaningcreation.”Actors,theiractions,and various social responses are constantly shifting as the tale unfoldsin a process of criminal labeling contextualized by race and gender im-ages (Dotter and Roebuck, 1988; Dotter and Fisher-Giorlando, 1997).  Marianne Fisher-Giorlando and Daniel Dotter 61  We concentrate primarily on newspaper reports, specifically on the tes-timonyofthewitnesses,andhowthattestimonycreatedanimageoftheparticipants in the media. As a scenario this homicide case containsmultiple levels of meaning. The dynamics of meaning-production, es-pecially the importance of mediated presentation, is situated in asocio-cultural context. We turn now to a description of that context inlate 1850s New Orleans, Louisiana.  SOCIO-CULTURAL CONTEXT  Nationally, slavery abolitionists were gaining political power, withthe enactment by Congress of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the result-ing evolution of the Republican party which was dedicated to prohibi-tion of slavery in the territories. By the 1850s many Southern statesconsidered succession. Although a few prominent leaders in Louisianaechoed this stance, most citizens of the state did not advocate succes-sionatthistime.Moreover,theRepublicanpartywasapurelysectionalpartyconfinedtotheNorth,andnoRepublicaneverappearedonaLou-isiana ballot until after the Civil War. Yet, local New Orleans newspa-pers devoted many editorials to discussions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its implications for the institution of slavery. The other emerg-ing political party, the Native-American or Know-Nothing party, wasviable in local Louisiana elections, however (Schafer, 1997, p. 127). Accordingly, the competing political parties in Louisiana (Demo-cratsandKnow-Nothings)didnotdebatetheissueofslavery,atleastonthe surface. Their debates centered around the immigrant question,namely the Germans and the newly arrived famine Irish. Immigrants were members of the Democratic party and the competing Na-tive-American or Know Nothing party had a nativist, anti-Catholic,anti-immigrant platform. Furthermore, one of the arguments used forcontrolling the immigrant population was the assertion that the immi-grants didn’t understand the country’s customs and were all pro-slav-ery. Beyond the other stereotypical portrayals of the Irish, as violentdrunks who nightly filled New Orleans local jails, the possibility of theimmigrant voting block which opposed slavery clearly threatened theSouth and New Orleanians in particular 1 (  NewOrleansCommercial  Bulletin , August 16, 1855; Schafer, 1997, p. 129).New Orleans clearly had an ethnically diverse population–“perhapsmore ethnically diverse than any other city in the United States”(Rousey,1996,p.89).ItwassecondonlytoNewYorkasaportofentry 62WOMEN & CRIMINAL JUSTICE  for immigrants in the 1850s and had a large transient population of sail-ors, boatmen, and commercial travelers (Rousey, 1996, p. 89). Louisi-ana’s total population in 1850 was 26 percent foreign born (SeventhCensus of the United States: 1850, 1853, pp. 474-75). In New Orleans,the foreign born population of 1850 was 49 percent with the Irish thelargest immigrant population in the city (Nieuhaus, 1965; Reinders,1964, pp. 18-19; Schafter, 1997, p. 130; Seventh Census of the UnitedStates: 1850, 1853, pp. 474-75).Even with these political and immigrant issues, antebellum Louisi-ana was in its “ . . . brightest [economic] years, a peak of prosperitythat would not be matched for nearly a century, [and which] lastedfromthemiddle1830suntiltheCivilWar”(Wilds,Dufour,andCowan,1996, p. 72). During this era Louisiana’s per capita income became thesecond highest in the nation. (Of course, slaves were a significant partof this capital.) New Orleans was the third largest American city in1840, with exports “that sometimes exceed[ed] New York’s” (Wilds,Dufour, and Cowan, 1996, p. 72).In the midst of this prosperity, perhaps the by-product of the eco-nomic success, New Orleans was besieged with a common problem of big cities-high crime rates. As reflected by arrest rates during thisera, crime made New Orleans “a perfect hell on earth” (Russell, 1863,p. 244). So the New Orleans parish criminal sheriff told WilliamHowardRussell,anEnglishjournalistwhowasvisitingNewOrleansin1861 (Rousey, 1996, p. 66). Closer to the time period of this case study,police statistics for July, 1856 illustrate that 2,343 people were arrestedin one month alone. Moreover, with a population approaching 170,000in 1860, the 18,509 arrests during the eight months period from July1856 to February 1857 suggest that more than 10 percent of the popula-tion had been arrested within less than a year (  DailyComet  , August 8,1856; Population of the United States in 1860, 1864, p. 195). The an-nual arrest rate, 194.4 per 100,000, for minor crimes of violence, as-sault, and assault and battery, for the years 1854-56, was also high.Furthermore, Rousey (1996, pp. 85-86) notes that because both privatecitizens and policemen in the Crescent City were likely to treat assaultsas affairs of honor to be settled privately without the intervention of thepolice and the courts, it is likely that the rates of minor violence weregreatly under reported. In the four years 1857-1860, at least 225 crimi-nal homicideswerecommittedinNewOrleans,anannualrateofabout35per100,000ofthepopulation(Rousey,1996,p.85).ViolencebetweentheKnow-Nothings and the Democrats also resulted in almost uncontrolla-bleviolenceduringtheelectionsin1854and1855.Riotingin1854was  Marianne Fisher-Giorlando and Daniel Dotter63
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