Translation © Steven Rowan.
Used by permission.
All rights reserved.
Like two men discoursing in different languages, each not noticing the other, two serial novels were published in New Orleans in the 1850s with identical titles, issuing forth only blocks away from one another. Both of them almost vanished for over a century and are only now being made available in a form that can be read and appreciated. Both dwell in a city of intrigue and violence, and they are both called The Mysteries of New Orleans, one in German and the other in French.
These repetitious titles were almost inevitable in the day. In 1842 Eugène Sue began publishing Les Mysteries de Paris in the Paris Journal des debats politiques et litéraires, and the result was the creation of two major vogues: the feuilleton novel itself, a vast narrative published in installments in a popular periodical, and the “Urban Mystery,” an examination of a real city showing conspiracies at all level, from impoverished criminality at the lowest level to the grand crimes of the elites. The feuilleton novel quickly became the vehicle of the greatest writers of France, such as Alexandre Dumas père and fils, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo. The “Urban Mysteries” themselves have largely been forgotten, although for a time there was a treatment of society high and low for almost every city throughout Europe as well as in the United States, with the most famous example here being Quaker City, or the Monks of Monks’ Hall by George Lippard, or perhaps The Mysteries and Miseries of New York by the infamous Ned Buntline, a fictional background to the Narciso Lopez filibustering expedition to Cuba in 1851. Many of the American Urban Mysteries were written in German for the voracious immigrant press: examples are Heinrich Börnstein’s The Mysteries of Saint Louis and Emil Klauprecht’s Cincinnati, or, The Mysteries of the West. It happens that there are in fact two novels entitled The Mysteries of New Orleans, one in German and the other in French.
I: Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein (or Reitzenstein) was descended from Franconian Imperial Barons of Protestant faith incorporated into the Kingdom of Bavaria during the Napoleonic period. His father, Baron Alexander von Reitzenstein-Hartungs, had married a Catholic noblewoman of Italian ancestry and proceeded to have a dozen children, two of which were male. Ludwig was the eldest son, and as such he was expected to marry a wealthy noblewoman and recover the many family estates lost in the previous generation. Ludwig had no interest in performing these obligations. Further, his mother suffered from instability, made worse by her husband’s frequent absence on Bavaria’s frontiers due to his duties in the customs system. Eventually the mother was institutionalized for insanity, and Baron Alexander was permitted to divorce her and remarry. Baron Ludwig later boasted that he became a partisan of the adventuress Lola Montez, whose relationship with King Ludwig I of Bavaria eventually forced the king’s abdication. Before this happened, however, the king and Baron Alexander discussed sending young Ludwig abroad, even to India to command Sepoys. The young man preferred an offer to emigrate to Louisiana to oversee a plantation, but the owner of the plantation died on the boat going there, and Ludwig was dumped on the shores of Louisiana with no viable skills in the revolutionary year of 1848.
Ludwig von Reizenstein contacted a cousin living in St. Louis, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Egloffstein, a former officer of Jäger (= Rangers) in Prussian Silesia, who taught him surveying and mapmaking. This provided him with an employable skill, and after a brief interval in Pekin, Illinois, he moved definitively to New Orleans in 1852, marrying a woman who had sailed on the same ship with him to Louisiana.
After Ludwig returned to New Orleans, he wrote for the Louisiana Staats-Zeitung, the more radical of the two German newspapers in the city, while working as a draftsman, architect, engineer, surveyor, and civil engineer. He created illustrations of property posted for auctions, so that many of these are preserved in the Notarial Archive of Orleans Parish. In 1852 and 1853 he wrote his most important work, Die Geheimnisse von New-Orleans, which featured as its culmination the Yellow Fever epidemic of the summer of 1853. It is a vast, undisciplined work that deals in the first instance with the sexual temptations of the city, starting with cross-dressing, interracial sexuality, prostitution, crime high and low, and the ambiguous meddling of the visiting Duke Paul of Württemberg in the lives of the members of what could be called the Eurotrash elite of the day, also attracted to New Orleans. It is distinguished by perhaps the first explicit description of Lesbian sexuality in American literature, following Balzac’s La fille aux yeux d’or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes) of 1835.
As will soon be seen, one of the most remarkable fact about Reizenstein’s novel is that it managed to be completed despite numerous outside threats and denunciations. The hyper-villain Lajos is executed by a bolt from the sky, and various participants abscond in a way that indicates that they were in on whatever secret plot that was behind what we read on the page. It concludes with Mardi Gras, 1854, with the arrival of a warship of the Haitian navy, which departs driven by magic or something from the future. And pansies will no longer bloom in New Orleans (alas for the death of the iconic leader of the Lesbian of Toulouse Street, Orleana!).
Although the bound version of the book was said to have been withdrawn from circulation due to legal threats or worse, it was at least completed. We know of the survival of two complete copies, and its newspaper text survives intact. A complete translation with commentary was published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002, and a transcription of the German text by Éditions Tintamarre of Centenary College of Louisiana in 2004. None of Reizenstein’s other serial novels was ever completed, and they were all terminated without comment in the newspaper.
Reizenstein continued to write, and three of his novels achieved sufficient scale to leave an empty place against the sky when they suffered untimely termination. These included a narrative of about Reizenstein himself, loaded down by all the money he had earned from The Mysteries of New Orleans, falling in with a Bluebeard, a mysterious monster who killed his wives. This narrative describes a wandering through the city toward a filthy inn, where a great event was expected that had not yet happened when the story ended, without explanation.
A second tale has more substance, since it is located in time as well as in space. The place is still New Orleans, but the time is shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, when Louisiana is filled with fake patriotism. The Devil Himself appears on Canal Street to admire the booty from the Yankee route, in the guise of a colonel of Zouaves, no less than Elmer Elseworth (the “First Martyr of the Union Cause”) himself. Once the Devil retrieves his cloak from the store window, he offers Reizenstein to come along and travel the fire-alarm lines from house to house and lift the roofs to show what is below. This novel, based on a classic tale by Alain René Lesage of The Devil upon Two Sticks, ultimately from Golden Age Spain via France and England, makes fun at the shallow patriotic game the Southerners are playing. It is no surprise when the series is rudely interrupted.
The third novel is vastly more ambitious: Bonseigneur in New Orleans, or a Thousand and One Scarlet Threads. The frame of the story is nothing less than a fictive history of New Orleans Creoles from the colonial period in Guadeloupe to the end of a seemingly endless Civil War. The tale begins with a genuine eyewitness description of the capture of New Orleans in 1862 as a humiliating farce (the only real hero is the Union Navy’s Flag Officer Farragut!), before it moves back into earlier times in New Orleans and the French island colony of Guadeloupe. Real history is intertwined with magic, and the string of the narrative is continued to a mysterious peak during a Guadeloupe carnival in which whites are pursued by revengeful black people, who appear to have magic on their side. If it had ever been concluded, it could have been both the strangest and the most powerful American writing of the Civil War Era.
Reizenstein would live on, a good friend to the leading New Orleans writers of the postwar era, George Washington Cable and Lafcadio Hearn. At the start of the Civil War he worked as one of the two officers to receive applications for Confederate patents; following the Union conquest, he would work as a mapmaker for the Department of the Gulf. Cable, once he had abandoned post-Reconstruction New Orleans and settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, would write a novella featuring Reizenstein as “old baron Rodenberg,” in his collection Strong Hearts (1900). Reizenstein’s tomb can still be visited, with his proud noble name decorating the top. Memories and a place for him persist at the Reitzenstein Schloss on the old “Zone Border” with what was once the German Democratic Republic.
II. Charles Testut
Charles Testut was born in southern France about 1819; he lived for a time in New York, editing the French-language journal L’Indicateur 1839-1840 and went to Pointe à Pitre in Guadeloupe to serve as a physician until the earthquake there in 1843, then moving definitively to New Orleans, again as a physician. He would publish a number of collections of French poetry before turning to serial novels. In 1849 he bought a weekly entitled La Chronique, publishing a series entitled Veillées louisianaises [= “Louisiana Musings”]; he published a first novel in 1849 entitled Saint-Denis, and in the late 1850s he would write a novel about a slave’s life entitled Le Vieux Salomon; he did not publish it until well after the end of the Civil War. In 1852 he began publication of Les mysteries de la Nouvelle-Orléans in a literary supplement to his journal La Semaine, on Chartres Street in four “volumes,” of which the fourth volume of 1854 included only a few pages hastily completing the story-line. By that time he had turned his attentions to the Spiritualist movement and Mormonism, which filled the other pages.The whole Mysteries text runs to more than 330 pages in a single-space text translated version, not counting eight pages missing from the third volume. The only known copy of the original novel is preserved at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is posted online in French by the Society.
Karyn Cossé Bell. Professor Emerita of the University of Massachusetts — Lowell, informs us that Testut was an ardent Freemason, particularly interested in New Orleans lodges with a multi-racial membership. In later years Dr. Testut would found a chapter of the Communist International in New Orleans, becoming its secretary, and he published Le Vieux Salomon in his Marxist journal L’Équité in 1871. In 1876 he published a novel of 506 pages, Les filles de Monte-Cristo [= The Daughters of Monte-Cristo], surviving like Les mystères in a single copy. Despite the adventurous possibilities of the original novel, it proposed a mission for the virtuous rich to improve the lot of the poor through charity. In 1871, ever a man of wandering enthusiasms, he would found the New Orleans branch of the Communist International and publish his abolitionist novel, Le Vieux Salomon, written in 1858, in l’Équité, his Marxist journal, in 1871. Testut would die about 1892.
Testut’s Mysteries of New Orleans commences with a direct plea for the reader’s serious attention. After a brief introduction that seeks to place the novel in the context of other “Urban Mysteries,” Testut’s story starts mysteriously in the Vieux Carré with the flashing of a signal that sends a rider plunging into the night eastward out of New Orleans toward an isolated hamlet, where a large enterprise is operating in the sub-basement of a seemingly abandoned building. It gradually emerges that this is a large counterfeiting factory creating bogus coins and bills for a national criminal cartel known only as “The Finance Company.” From the outset, Testut concentrates on two of the workers in the sub-basement, Rousto and Finot, who are awaiting the appearance of a supervisor. They will appear throughout the novel, both in New Orleans and even in far California. Once the “Captain” appears, the readers are given an idea of what an all-encompassing conspiracy the Finance Company is.
But there is more afoot than counterfeiting: soon the Captain’s wife is involved in a steamy affair with her husband’s second in command, and while the Captain is telling his workers about the Finance Company’s great plans, she is having a much better time in their home in the Rue des Ramparts.
The scene shifts to pursue the counterfeiter Finot, whose distress over his sweetheart Mélanie causes him to commission a gathering of witches to give him an answer to very personal questions about his prospects with her. But he will not resist the temptation to observe the witches at work, which leads to his sneaking onto the rooftop of a courtyard shed to see what is going on. The result is a description of naked women gathered to perform magic. However, he is discovered and narrowly escapes death at their hands. He also sees his dear Mélanie subjected to a bizarre naked initiation.
This is one of several such settings in the course of this novel, because New Orleans is rife with secret gatherings on any night, whether in brothels, in conspiratorial soirées to stage a filibuster-expedition to Cuba, or to explore new revelations of table-knocking and automatic writing associated with the vogue of Spiritualism. Testut, an inveterate joiner and enthusiast, was always obsessed by whatever was happening “now.” He seems perpetually moved to follow the latest obsession, whether it was the Gold Rush in California or the lure of Turkish Istanbul. Along the way, he transcribes an otherwise unknown French narrative of Gold-Rush era California that runs for many pages. Always open to whatever is new, Testut also registers the technological marvels of the age, whether the sudden revelation of photography by Louis Daguerre, granted free to the world by the French government, or the glories of modern transportation technology in railroads and riverboats. There are often-comic maneuvers involving cross-dressing, but also more serious accounts of duels in places that can still be visited in the Vieux Carré. Like Reizenstein, even the most fantastic tale can be located within a couple doorways of places that still exist.
Testut also spends a great deal of time with an incredibly beautiful femme fatale, Lavinia, who is beholden in some mysterious way to the Finance Company to do its will whatever the cost. One of his heroes is enticed by beautiful singing along a street bordering the Quarter coming from an enticing woman, as a fantastic monstrosity without legs or a lower body.
In the fourth “volume,” as mentioned, the fate of Finot and his Mélanie is tucked away with the brief note that they had gone to join the Mormons, yet another topic that fascinated Testut, ever the seeker of the novel and arcane. At the center is always New Orleans, contrasted with almost every other possible location. Mobile, Alabama, for instance, is disposed with the comment that, unlike its promising name, it was anything but on the move, particularly when compared with his beloved city of New Orleans.
Text prepared by:
- Bruce R. Magee
Rowan, Steven. “The Two Mysteries of New Orleans, in German and in French.” The Louisiana Anthology. November 1, 2017. © Steven Rowan. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Abel, Sheri Lyn. Charles Testut’s Le Vieux Salomon: Race, Religion, Socialism, and Freemasonry. Lanham: Lexington, 2009. Print.
Bell, Caryn Cossé. “Testut, Charles.” American National Biography Online. 2000. Web. 01 Nov. 2017. <http:// anb.org/ articles/16/ 16-01618.html>.
Charles Testut and Les Mystères De La Nouvelle-Orléans: Journalism in Exile. Dir. Rebecca Powers. Medias19. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2017. <http:// www.medias19. org/ index. php? id=21315>.
“Les Filles De Monte-Cristo.” Alexandre Dumas. Web. 01 Nov. 2017. <http:// www. pastichesdumas. com/ php/ fiche.php? code=FillesMC>.
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Reizenstein, Baron Ludwig Von. The Mysteries of New Orleans. Ed. Steven Rowan. Trans. Steven Rowan. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 2002. Print.
Reizenstein, Ludwig Von. Die Geheimnisse Von New-Orleans Roman. Shreveport: Tintamarre, 2004. Print.
Rowan, Steven W. The Baron in the Grand Canyon: Friedrich Wilhelm Von Egloffstein in the West (Friedrich Wilhelm Von Egloffstein in the West). Columbia: U of Missouri, 2012. Print.
Testut, Charles. Le Vieux Salomon Ou Une Famille D’esclave Au XIXe Siècle. Shreveport: Cahiers Du Tintamarre, 2003. Print.