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Imaginary Luling twins: Bayou St. John

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Luling Mansion (Photo: Cassie Pruyn)

I just plunged down a deep, deep rabbit hole, and am now writing myself out. Yesterday, I stumbled across a mention of the Luling Mansion, located on Leda Court near the Fairgrounds. This 1865 Italianate behemoth, built by the famous architect James Gallier, Jr. for cotton merchant Florence Luling, now stands faded and almost abandoned-looking, hidden from view just off Esplanade.

Its interior has been converted into apartments, and as recently as January 2015, a few of them were up for rent (Look! Pics of the inside!). What inspired the rabbit hole for me, though, was the mention of Bayou St. John in this story.

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Luling Mansion (Photo: Cassie Pruyn)

In 1871, Luling sold the mansion to the Louisiana Jockey Club, which had recently acquired the race track we all know today as the Fairgrounds. The mansion and its 80 acres fronting Esplanade became the Jockey Club’s headquarters, in which they threw fancy parties of all kinds. Why would Luling sell the mansion he’d just spent $24,000 to build after only six years? Because, according to all the sources I came across, Luling’s two young sons drowned in Bayou St. John soon after they moved into the mansion, prompting him to sell it.

Oh! I thought to myself. Maybe I can find the newspaper article on the boys’ drowning to flesh this out a little bit. Over the course of my bayou research, I’ve been simply amazed by the number of bayou drownings mentioned in the newspaper—freak accidents of all kinds, involving members of all classes, with the most bizarre circumstances surrounding them. And yet, no such article appears to exist—or at least I can’t find it. So the story is left to its bare bones.

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Luling Mansion in its heyday; 1908 postcard by C. B. Mason, New Orleans; public domain

The poet in me (sometimes inclined toward the morbid and occult) considered writing a post in which I reimagined the boys’ death—playing on the edge of their property (did their property extend to the bayou?) one day in, say, 1870, maybe searching for turtles in the grass along the shore, digging their little sticks in the mud. I'm imagining them as twins now, each in his own little nineteenth-century suit, maybe four or five years old. They’re speaking to each other in nonsense phrases that are nonetheless completely clear to each of them, since they’re twins, and since the adults are often too busy filling ships with cotton (their father), or else fulfilling domestic duties (their mother) to speak to them much. But where is the governess meant to be looking after them? Who is she? What is she up to? The day is warm. The bayou slips along, brown and sluggish….

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Louisiana Jockey Club House (Luling Mansion), New Orleans, 1884; from souvenir booklet "New Orleans," unknown author; public domain

Ok! I just did what I said I wasn't going to do. Really I'd planned on including another Times-Picayune article of a sad and mysterious drowning, hoping that others would find it as interesting as I did.

To be continued….

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.