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

At last, we come to the surprising final act in the saga of Virginia Reed and Charles E. Letten. Finally we get to hear Reed herself speak! And her eloquence, as surely as it will win you over when you read an excerpt below, ultimately won over the judge in the case.

Reed’s testimony was said to have lasted several hours, and apparently her composure never wavered.

First, we hear about Reed’s early life: she explains that her mother took her to live with a rich banker at the age of 13, and that a few years later “he moved [her] into a private residence, and visited [her] there.” Several years later, she joined her mother in New Orleans, and her wealthy banker “friend” set her up with other wealthy friends—thus beginning Reed’s life as the mistress to wealthy white men in New Orleans (although she also ran a successful boarding house in town as well).

Then, we learn more about the nature of her relationship with Letten: “‘[He] used to frequent the corner opposite to where I lived. He flirted with me, and I encouraged him.…[he said] he had been watching me for several weeks, and asked me if he could be a friend…. He told me that his name was Charles Lloyd.…He said that…he was engaged in the cotton business, and that he was a very wealthy man.…He always told me that he had an aunt who was very dear to him, and that she was the cause of his not being able to call on me more frequently.’” (A likely story!)

Upon being asked when she learned his real name was Letten, she replied, “‘About two years ago. We were seated in one of the rooms at my house, when a friend of mine called. When she saw him she said: “How do you do, Mr. Letten.” When I was letting her out of the door she said: “I didn’t know that he was your friend. He works in the tax office. I pay my taxes to him.”’” (Ruh roh!)

Reed maintained that “only in his mind” did Letten give her $118,000 dollars over the course of their relationship; that she only learned of his being married when his name came out in the papers regarding the supposed embezzlement; and that she was concerned for his wife most of all upon receiving the news. Reed shed a “real tear” at this moment in her testimony, describing the pain she felt for his wife, for the “disgrace he had brought down upon her….I tried to die for her. I felt for her every minute, and I tried to blot out the shame by drowning myself [in the bayou].’” [1]

Finally, Reed’s fate was decided: “In a sweeping decision rendered yesterday, Virginia Reed…scored a decisive victory over Captain John Fitzpatrick, Tax Collector of the First District.…The trial of the case was one of the most sensational that has been held in the civil courts….” Throughout the trial, Letten claimed again and again that he stole money from the tax office “to satisfy the whims of the woman.” And yet, “The defense proved that the woman was a hardworking and thrifty individual, and that she accumulated [the] money [on her own] by working day and night.” [2]

Needless to say, I am left with many questions. Why did Letten claim to have stolen the money for Reed? Because he really did steal it, and needed a cover story to hide the real reason—since the news of his affair with a woman of color was made public anyway, and since she, and her "mesmerism," would be the easy scapegoat? What ended up happening to Letten, and what happened to the money? Moreover, is this the same Virginia Reed, the same “negro female hoodlum,” that the papers spoke of before their affair was made public? Who was it, then, that was leading a double life—Letten, Reed, or the public itself, whose sentiments shifted so drastically over the course of this case?

 

 

  1. "Virginia Reed Tells Story Of Her Life, Furnishing an Indictment Against White Men's Immorality, Denies." Times-Picayune 30 Apr. 1908: 11. NewsBank. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
  2. "Virginia Reed Wins In Civil Court, Judge St. Paul Deciding Against Tax Collector Fitzpatrick To." Times-Picayune 17 Jun. 1908: 4. NewsBank. Web. 1 Nov. 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.