Modern history


ON MONDAY EVENING, July 25, 8 P.M., one more meeting was held in the Canal Bank’s Room 326. Much had already happened in that room. Now, in its restrained elegance, gathered the political power of the state and the economic power of the city; the two powers would confront each other here. The confrontation would mark the peak of the power of New Orleans and its bankers. It also marked an exercise of power that was not atypical in the America of the time, although in few places was it as blatant as in New Orleans; such uses of power were beginning to ignite a larger political storm.

Governor Simpson had requested the meeting, hoping to find a solution to the partial-payments problem. Representing New Orleans were Butler, Monroe, Hecht, Dufour, and Lonnie Pool, along with the chairmen of Butler’s subcommittees, Mayor O’Keefe, three city councilmen, and the levee board. A dozen men represented St. Bernard and Plaquemines, including Manuel Molero and four others associated with his Acme Fur Company, which owned 127,000 acres of the finest trapping land in the world. Between them sat the Reparations Commission.

Simpson convened the meeting and got directly to the point: “I have requested the Executive Committee of the Citizens Flood Committee and the members of the Reparations Commission to get together to consider certain objections that the claimants have to Regulation No. 7 of the rules and regulations adopted by the Reparations Commission.”

C. A. Hartman, a member of the Reparations Commission, spoke first. He ran a large plant at Braithwaite—where the trappers had met at the baseball diamond to try to block the dynamiting—and had 400 men working now, even with part of his plant still underwater. The crevasse had caused tremendous losses and he was desperate for working capital. He explained, “The claim which we tried to enter in full was to May 31 and was not subject to additions or losses for the period covered.” But Monroe had refused even to accept the claim. To get anything Hartman would have to forgo compensation for losses after May 31—despite the fact that as of this day, July 25, water still covered part of his operation.

As a result of Monroe’s refusal, he continued, New Orleans banks would loan him nothing. His business was starving for capital, and, he said, many others were suffering in similar circumstances. He reminded those in the room of the promises made before the crevasse. Virtually every person in the room had pledged that no harm would come to residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines. But harm had come to them. Then he turned to Simpson: “We ask you, as Governor of the State, by whose authority the Caernarvon crevasse was created, to give whatever assistance is in your power in behalf of all individuals or corporations for similar claims.”

Then Hugh Wilkinson spoke. The Wilkinsons were the dark sheep of the city’s fine families. One hundred twenty-five years before, James Wilkinson and W. C. C. Claiborne had accepted Louisiana for the United States from the French. Ever since, the Claiborne name had been second to none in the state. But James Wilkinson had been court-martialed for his involvement in Aaron Burr’s treason. Though acquitted, neither he nor his descendants were ever fully accepted in the city. Now Hugh Wilkinson frequently represented the outsiders in New Orleans against the insiders. In this instance, he represented Molero, who faced devastating losses. There would be no fur season this year, and almost certainly none the next. In the meantime, the company had spent thousands of dollars building rafts covered with clumps of marsh grass in the hope of saving some muskrats. Monroe was refusing reimbursement for even these moneys. Wilkinson argued: “It is manifestly impossible to file, under oath, a complete claim which would reasonably estimate the amount of loss to the company. We simply need operating capital to meet our maturing obligations”—the company owed $124,000—“and unless this is furnished to us by some means, we are faced with ruin. If the company cannot file a partial claim we are going to be wiped out.” Then he too turned to the governor and pleaded, “In behalf of all the people of that section of the State of Louisiana, we come to you for help.”

The Reparations Commission itself concurred. Jahncke, the chairman, sided with the victims and their representatives. They were five votes, a majority. Yet they could effect nothing. They were supposed to have power, but they had none. Voting to change the rule meant nothing. The commission itself had no money. The cash to pay claims came from the New Orleans banks, which were loaning claimants 80 percent of their settlements. The commission could not order the banks to make these loans. The banks did what Butler’s executive committee told them to do.

Simpson turned to Butler for a response. Butler had one well prepared. He had met with the other members of his executive committee at seven-thirty that morning in his office next door to this room and, looking down upon the city of New Orleans, settled upon his answer. In that meeting they had privately agreed that they had a fiduciary responsibility to the City of New Orleans. If they allowed partial payments, then claimants could drag out their claims indefinitely and settlements would become infinitely more difficult. The Reparations Commission could make any policy statement it wanted. The banks would continue to pay nothing for partial settlements.

Butler now was hardly so blunt. Instead, he spoke of his eagerness to do what was right and his concern for the difficulties of the victims. But he was unyielding. The meeting continued for hours. Tall, gangly, cadaverous, Butler finally concluded it solemnly: “I want you all to know that as far as the New Orleans Committee is concerned, that we want to pay every just claim as promptly as possible and that we do not want any suffering afflicted upon anyone, but the money with which these claims will be paid is not our money. We have got to satisfy the members of the Orleans Levee Board.”

Butler was being disingenuous. Every man in the room knew it. Butler’s group had repeatedly made decisions that directly involved the levee board without consulting any member of it. Only five days earlier the board had “respectfully” asked Butler to provide minutes of his meetings so the board could document the expenditure of public money it had given him to care for the refugees. He had refused. The levee board chairman had then explained to his colleagues that Butler “did not want to give out too much information for if the people in the country found out there might be trouble at the polls.” The board took no offense and promptly voted Butler’s committee another $50,000; in total, it would give Butler $340,000.

Now Butler stated: “Since we are administering public money, we have got to be very careful, and we have got to be guided by the opinion of Mr. Monroe, representing the city of New Orleans…. I can only say we will be very happy if we can find some solution of this problem, and we will do all we can to that end, but we want to say to you frankly that we cannot have a solution that is going in any way to run counter to the advice of…Mr. Monroe as to what procedure can be worked out.”

The meeting was over. Butler and Monroe had conceded nothing.

THE FIGHT had not been over principle; it had been over money and control. Less than a week later Butler agreed to make a partial payment to a single claimant, the British-owned Louisiana Southern Railroad, which went from New Orleans sixty miles downriver to Point à la Hache. No representative of the road had bothered to attend the July 25 meeting. Its attorney was George Janvier, who had a better way of making its case. His father had been president of the Boston Club, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Butler’s mentor and predecessor as president of the Canal Bank; when the senior Janvier had left the Board of Liquidation, Butler had also filled that seat. In a file of Butler’s correspondence with a hundred people, only Janvier addressed him as “Jim.” It was also in the city’s interest to rebuild the railroad; without it virtually no one else in the two parishes could rebuild. On August 3, Butler and Janvier met in Butler’s office. Though the railroad did not file a complete schedule, New Orleans banks loaned it the money for repairs.

Then came a final deal. In early September, Simpson called the state legislature into special session to pass a constitutional amendment to authorize legally, if retroactively, the Reparations Commission and to govern judicial procedure for cases about the Caernarvon crevasse. In the weeks since the July 25 meeting, crevasse victims had focused what political power they had on getting the legislature to force New Orleans to compensate them fairly. Immediately before the legislature convened, the St. Bernard Voice bitterly complained: “The City of New Orleans promised and pledged itself to stand the loss and to repay each individual his actual damage. But the city is not doing this. The city’s reparation committee has been cutting and slashing each claim in half and less than half, even though these claims be absolutely accurate and justified…. Not one claimant is satisfied with his ‘settlement.’” It then pleaded, “Here is an opportunity for a New Orleans newspaper, unafraid to lose some prestige with the bankers and financiers, to ascertain the true facts and publish the real story of the manner in which the city is repaying the residents of St. Bernard Parish.”

The Voice was a tiny paper, but this time its audience was state legislators. Hugh Wilkinson, a state senator, distributed a copy to every member of the legislature.

The next day the New Orleans papers, far from taking up the Voice’s appeal, fired back. Thomson’s Item and Tribune ran identical headlines: “Orleans to Make Good on Pay Promise; Banks Loan Currency Without Collateral Other than Spoken Word…History records few instances of voluntary offers such as this.” The New Orleans States bragged, “New Orleans Makes Good on Flood Pledge; Pays Claims Although Not Liable Under Law.” The Times-Picayune proclaimed, “City Keeps Faith Assuming Burden…[t]hough under no legal obligations to pay for the losses of Plaquemines and St. Bernard citizens.”

New Orleans legislators made sure all these papers were widely distributed as well. The Voice, a weekly, could not respond.

Meanwhile, Butler had asked Dufour and Esmond Phelps to draft legislative language that a New Orleans legislator introduced. It stipulated that in any lawsuits the report of the Reparations Commission “shall be prima facie evidence of the facts.” In addition, any suit would be tried without a jury in Orleans Parish—the City of New Orleans—and any appeal also had to remain in Orleans Parish.

Wilkinson had his own ideas about the wording of the legislation and drafted language that said victims would be “justly, fairly and fully compensated for losses sustained.” He planned to offer his language as an amendment in committee. City representatives lobbied desperately against it, arguing that the amendment would cost the city $15 million. The day before the committee was to vote, a state senator repeated that figure on the senate floor. Wilkinson sprang to his feet, shouting, “That statement is not true! It has been widely circulated by Mr. Blanc Monroe. I object to the claims of those people in St. Bernard and Plaquemines from being prejudiced.”

The fight intensified. The lieutenant governor appointed a St. Bernard representative to fill a vacancy on the committee considering the amendment. Wilkinson pushed hard, demanding equity. Butler had O’Keefe “send word to New Orleans delegates to stand firm for the Act as drawn.” Still, New Orleans Senator William Davey, offended over the deduction of the cost of food and housing from the victims’ settlements, seemed swayed. Butler and Hecht asked Robert Ewing, the New Orleans ward leader and owner of the New Orleans States as well as papers in Monroe and Shreveport, to “exercise his influence with Mr. Davey” and legislatures from outside the city.

That evening Monroe, Hecht, Phelps, and Dufour sat down with Wilkinson and Davey. They insisted that they wanted to avoid a fight, and be fair. Didn’t Wilkinson know he could not win? Wilkinson conceded that, though he believed he could win in committee, he did not know what would happen on the floor. If he lost there, he threatened to sue as individuals each person who had signed the agreement promising reparations. But perhaps they could work something out. Well past midnight they were still talking, and finally an agreement was struck. Wilkinson’s client, Molero’s Acme Fur Company, would get $1.5 million, as well as money to pay its debts. Individual trappers, however, would have to fend for themselves.

The next day Wilkinson did not even offer his language. Without any debate whatsoever, by voice vote, the committee passed the legislation written by Dufour and Phelps. The State Senate and House, also without debate and by voice vote, did likewise, then immediately adjourned.

A few days later, after it was too late for any harmful political repercussions, Monroe moved against the trappers again. Trappers actually farmed their tracts of land, bred the animals they trapped, raised them, fed them, cared for them just as a farmer cared for chickens. But Monroe and Butler had the state commissioner of conservation claim all trapping animals as the property of the state. Thus trappers could not claim any losses for them.

To an audience of no one who mattered, the St. Bernard Voice sneered: “The owner or lessee of marsh lands has been making $3000 to $8000 during each trapping season…[but] ‘Muskrats are the property of the state,’ says the law. And our levee-cutting neighbors in New Orleans hide themselves behind it. It was well enough to order trappers out of their homes and to destroy the muskrats on the marsh lands, for which trappers paid princely prices and, in many cases, on which there rest heavy mortgages, but when it comes to tiding them over until their lands are replenished, that is another question and side-stepping is in order for ‘Brutus is an honorable man’ and muskrats are the property of the state.”

IN ST. BERNARD and Plaquemines Parishes, total claims, including those that Monroe refused to accept for consideration, reached $35 million. Those he did allow to be filed totaled $12,491,041. He agreed to settlements totaling $3,897,276—but then deducted nearly $1,000,000 from these settlements for feeding and housing the claimants while they were homeless, leaving roughly $2.9 million that the city paid. Of this, $1.5 million went to Molero’s company. Five other large claimants, including the Louisiana Southern Railroad, received a total of $600,000. That left roughly $800,000 to divide between 2,809 claimants, who received an average of $284 each to compensate for, in many cases, having their homes and livelihoods destroyed and having their lives disrupted for months. An additional 1,024 claimants received nothing; not a single trapper was offered any compensation for trapping losses.

The two parishes were destitute. In November 1926, trappers had gathered more than a hundred pelts a day; a year and a half after the flood, in November 1928, they were lucky to collect six. In Delacroix, the trapping center, families were literally starving. A newspaperwoman who knew the area well demanded that the Association of Commerce help these people, and threatened to write “a very good feature story for several New York newspapers” if it did not.

Monroe replied to her. He made no mention of the fact that New Orleans had forced the dynamiting of the levee and caused their loss. But he did tell her that New Orleans had been generous: “The disastrous floods of 1927 did incalculable damage to many thousands of persons in the Mississippi Delta and out of these many thousands of persons none were compensated for their losses save the inhabitants of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. The compensation of the people of these parishes was a purely voluntary act on the part of the State of Louisiana and the Orleans Levee Board.”

Five hundred twenty-six claimants sued over two issues. Sixty-two suits involved the question of damages discovered after a claim had been filed. Monroe had refused to accept any such claims. The special court created by Dufour and Phelps’ legislation, located in New Orleans and with New Orleans judges, decreed, “We have viewed with patience and forbearance the attempts of many claimants to foist groundless claims upon the people of New Orleans, but we must confess that these…ravel our nerves.” The court gave the plaintiffs, the victims, nothing. Appeals courts affirmed the judgment.

The remaining suits involved the question of lost income, as opposed to damaged property. It would cover the trappers. In three test cases involving Herman Burkhardt, Alfred Oliver, and Claude Foret, a trapper and two laborers, lower courts rejected the claims and found “no cause of action.”

Their attorney was Leander Perez. Arguing before the state supreme court, he established his clients’ losses. He read into the record newspaper quotations of Butler and others affirming their moral and legal commitment to compensate victims for all losses. He presented the pledges signed by the bankers, by the mayor and city council, by the levee board, and argued that those pledges had the force of a legal contract.

Then Monroe began. He quoted Simpson’s statement when he announced plans to dynamite the levee: “‘I am impressed with the danger, and I am determined to avert it. The people in the affected area will be removed to safety and properly cared for. No lives will be sacrificed…. The damage to property resulting from this act will be paid for.’” Monroe insisted that it was only for property that compensation would be paid. Then he dismissed all the pledges made by all the leaders of New Orleans, arguing, “The constitutional amendment fixes definitely the rights and obligations of the plaintiff and defendant herein.” The amendment took precedence over the proclamations of moral obligation, of pledges of honor, of signed documents. All of that, he insisted, was “irrelevant to this case.”

On December 2, 1929, the supreme court rendered its decision on the two cases. The justices stated that although the city had demanded the break, “the act of creating the crevasse nevertheless remained the act of the State, through its Governor, in the exercise of its police power…. [A]s observed by counsel for defendant, the sole liability of the Orleans Levee District for the results of the crevasse is the liability voluntarily assumed for it by the Legislature and people of the state, when they passed and adopted the constitutional amendment cited above.”

The court declared that the amendment referred only to losses caused by “‘the encroachment of said waters.’” The court then said, “In using these words, the constitutional amendment conveys the idea that just compensation is directed to be paid for damages to what is encroached on by the waters, that is, physical property.”

Yet a contemporary edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defined “encroach” as “to intrude usurpingly on the territory, rights or accustomed sphere of action of others.” Contemporary editions of both Black’s Law Dictionary and Bouvier’s Law Dictionarydefined it in nearly identical terms. Far from limiting damages to physical property, the word “encroach” specifically expanded it beyond physical property.

The Louisiana Supreme Court, the court from which Blanc Monroe’s father had retired as chief justice, the court dominated by the New Orleans bar, had chosen to misstate the definition of a simple word, and to base its finding upon that misstatement.

The court then concluded, “The judgment is affirmed.”

The plaintiffs received nothing.

The levee board promptly voted a resolution of thanks to Monroe, crediting him with success “due to the painstaking and most diligent and skillful manner in which his work was prosecuted…and to the great benefit of the taxpayers of Orleans Parish in general, because of the great savings affected between the amounts claimed and those settled for.” It also paid him a $25,000 bonus.

No bank, business, or government agency ever made a voluntary payment to the victims to fulfill the self-proclaimed moral obligation, nor was there any organized charity drive to ease the burden of the trappers.

The word of honor of the gentlemen of New Orleans, the gentlemen of the fine clubs, the gentlemen of Carnival, was “irrelevant.” J. Blanc Monroe, who belonged to the finest of those clubs, who once reigned as Comus, had declared it thus himself. But a reckoning would come.

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