• ,

The mesmerism of Virginia Reed: Bayou St. John

If you take gender and race relations of early twentieth-century New Orleans and add a healthy dose of drama, you get the story of Virginia Reed and her embezzling sugar daddy, Charles E. Letten. Get ready for this one, folks. It’s definitely a two-parter!

First, a little backstory, as reported to us by the white males of the Times-Picayune. Virginia Reed appears a grand total of 75 times in the T-P between 1882 and 1909, and my goodness does the drama escalate. First, a little petty larceny, a little “lewdness” here and there:

“Virginia Reed, arrested for stealing 50 cents, was sentenced to 20 days….” [1]

“Virginia Reed…was fined $25 or 30 days for violating the ordinance relating to lewd and abandoned women.” [2]

“Virginia Reed and Mollie Robinson, notorious negro female hoodlums, were fined $5 each for fighting.” [3]

“Last Sunday night a Chinaman named Mar Shing…was inveigled into the notorious negro den, No. 114 Dauphine street, kept by the ebon nymph, Marie Davis, alias Black and Tan, and was robbed of $50 by two of the thieving inmates named Virginia Reed, alias “Long Luey,” and Carrie Knight. The former escaped and…the others were fined $5…for violating the ordinance relative to lewd and abandoned women.” [4]

Long Luey, this isn’t the last time you stick it to the man and get away with it! But that’s giving away too much of the story already.

Where were we? A smattering of mentions until 1899, and then from 1899-1907, silence. No mention of Virginia Reed anywhere.

And then this:

“Following two unsuccessful attempts by Virginia Reed, the 43-year-old negro mistress of Charles E. Letten, to drown herself in Bayou St. John yesterday morning…Letten, who is in the Parish Prison…on the charge of having stolen at least $116,000 from the funds of State Tax Collector John Fitzpatrick, made an astounding statement to the Picayune, in which he alleged that for eighteen years he had been under a mesmerism which forced him to steal the sums of money which he gave as semiweekly presents to the negress…; that under the influence of the spell he regarded the almost black, ungraceful African as not only good looking, but beautiful; that her charm for him was like ‘the pulling of an octopus;’ that despite the influence of the woman there was no effect on his home life, which continued to be ideal, not a cross word having passed between himself and his wife since their marriage thirty-one years ago; that he almost invariably went to the woman’s house at 323 Dauphine Street in broad daylight after leaving his office…; that he could feel the spell of her influence at his office, and would put the money in his pocket and take it to her, when she invariably smiled and said, ‘That is right.’” [5]

Yep! An unwitting white gentlemen, in the midst of marital bliss, was put under an evil African spell for eighteen years that had him believing—gasp!—that a black woman could be beautiful! That had him returning again and again to her doorstep with what adds up to over two million dollars by today’s standards!

Even the T-P guys sound skeptical.




  1. Times-Picayune 5 Dec. 1882: 3. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
  2. Times-Picayune 13 Dec. 1884: 2. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
  3. Times-Picayune 2 May 1889: 7. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
  4. "The Prey Secured and the Trap Set Again." Times-Picayune 14 Sep. 1886: 8. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.
  5. The Daily Picayune 14 Sep. 1907: 12. NewsBank. Web. 3 Oct. 2016.

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.