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The mesmerism of Virginia Reed, part II: Bayou St. John

Part two of the Virginia Reed embezzlement scandal (for part one, click here) involves our beloved bayou.

Here’s what we know so far: Virginia Reed, a woman of color, was known to the Powers that Be as a “lewd and abandoned woman” and a “notorious negro female hoodlum.” Because of those labels—“negro” and “female”—we may never know much more about her.

Charles E. Letten, white employee of the State Tax Collector’s office, admitted to embezzling $116,000 over a period of years (over two million dollars by today’s standards!) for Reed, his mistress, despite being “happily married.” Reed, he alleges, put him under a “mesmerism” that not only convinced him she was beautiful, but convinced him to put the money in his pocket and bring it to her doorstep twice a week. It wasn’t he who did it, it was the voodoo! 

At this moment in the story, Letten has just told the Times-Picayune the aforementioned tall tale from his cell in the Parish Prison. The day before, after catching word Letten had been charged, Virginia Reed left her house in the French Quarter around 8:00 a.m. to supposedly go to the market. She caught a streetcar at Orleans, and headed to the bayou. When she arrived at its banks, she threw down her basket and leapt into the water. A man jumped in and pulled her out. While he was reviving her, she broke free and leapt in again. Once she was pulled out a second time, they bought her to the police station and she was locked up for disturbing the peace and attempting suicide. Before she could get out on bail, she was re-arrested for “receiving stolen property [from Letten] when it was known to be stolen.”

The officers on duty at the station were very preoccupied by the group of female friends that came and stayed with Reed all day, and especially by the pile of bayou-soaked clothing her friends replaced with a dry set. It was composed of a “handsome silk skirt and underclothing made mostly of lace. All the garments of the negro woman were of the finest material, and very expensive.”

When told of Reed’s suicide attempt in his own cell, Letten’s “small, colorless eyes snapped, but he made no comment until he was asked: ‘Had you heard of the attempt?’ ‘No,’ declared Letten. ‘I had not.’ ‘What have you to say regarding the attempted self-destruction?’ ‘Nothing.’”

He then elaborated on the “remarkable influence” Reed had had over him:

“I met the woman eighteen years ago.…From that moment I was conscious of a peculiar spell, which I knew was due to a certain influence which she had over me. It is to that mesmerism, or whatever it may be called, that I owe my downfall.” [1]

She requested larger and larger sums of money, and then, he claimed, she threatened to blackmail him if he didn’t bring it.

I keep wondering about those trips from Letten’s office to his mistress’s doorstep, just a few blocks away. The sun burning down. His hat tilted to avoid the glare. A wad of pilfered bills in his pocket. Were the cobblestones and balconies along the way imbued with excitement—he’s on his way to see Virginia! Or else imbued with guilt and shame at his attachment to this woman who represents everything he’s not supposed to be attracted to? Were perhaps these the emotions that he is now attributing to a “dark spell”? Dogged desires that slip between the constructs we set up for ourselves, that cross the boundaries we create between what is “good” and “right” and what is “forbidden”—a distinction, particularly in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, that was literally black and white?

Part three will reveal what ultimately befell the two lovers, although we may never know the true nature of their relationship.…

 

 

1. “Virginia Reed Attempts Suicide In Bayou. Terror Stricken at the Exposures She Roasts Letten and." Times-Picayune 14 Sep. 1907, |: 1. NewsBank. Web. 19 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.