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Congo Square had never seen an evening quite like this one. “Hissing winds … blew fitfully from the north, northeast, and northwest, laden with the icy breath from Siberian snows,” reported one New Orleans paper. Mourners, bound up in coats and scarves, packed into three stands surrounding the square, “which was brilliantly illuminated by a thousand lamps that threw a ghostly glare over the squads of moving spectators.”
Louisiana’s Lt. Gov. Oscar James Dunn had been dead almost two weeks and, despite the cold December weather, a fire still burned in the hearts of his friends and supporters who had gathered at this commemoration ceremony. One person arrived with a white-hot zeal to reveal shocking details about his friend’s final days.
More than a month earlier, on All Saints’ Day, Oscar Dunn still walked among the living, was still the first Black lieutenant governor in America, and was still mired in an intractable power struggle with Louisiana’s young white governor, Henry Clay Warmoth. On that hallowed day, Dunn received disturbing news from a friend about a new threat, coming from a fellow Black politician named P.B.S. Pinchback.
That friend, Thomas Morris Chester, told Dunn that Pinchback planned to allege corruption against the famously upstanding lieutenant governor and had already attempted to tarnish his name during a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant. Worse, Dunn learned that Pinchback “intended to attack him in his domestic relations.” Though the specifics are unknown, it’s possible Pinchback had discovered a potentially scandalous detail about Dunn: that he had boarded at the home of his wife, Ellen, and her first husband, years before they married. In the wrong hands, that information could be used to suggest impropriety on their part prior to her first husband’s death — or even call into question the legitimacy of Ellen’s children, whom Dunn adopted when they married.
The hostility ended abruptly on Nov. 22, 1871, when Dunn died at age 49 following a brief and violent illness. From the crowds that soon gathered outside his New Orleans home, the rumor that he had been poisoned spread quickly. A family spokesperson declined an autopsy. Newspapers tried to quell the uproar by publishing a statement signed by four doctors who attended to him, stating, officially, that he had died of “congestion of the brain and lungs.”
Soon, with some wrangling by Warmoth, the legislature would install Pinchback in Dunn’s place as lieutenant governor.
That wintry night in Congo Square, Chester, an esteemed Black lawyer and former Civil War correspondent, made public the details of his All Saints’ Day conversation with Dunn:
“His great frame quivered when he received the dastardly message, and though he hurled back a defiance, it was easy to be perceived that the envenomed arrow had reached his heart, where its poison was doing the deadly work. … When he meditated over the impending blow that was to include his estimable and accomplished consort, and the orphaned children to whom he had been a father, his great heart burst with grief.”
Dunn’s conflict with Warmoth began not long after they were elected together in 1868, starting with the governor’s veto of a civil rights bill. Dunn, meanwhile, had carved out a reputation for being an honest, fair leader, even as corruption scandals enmeshed Warmoth and the state legislature. The party split in the summer of 1871, with Dunn leading one convention at the U.S. Customhouse that had the backing of the president, while Warmoth and Pinchback led a “bolter” convention of their own. Afterward, Warmoth sent Pinchback and nineteen other men to Grant’s summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey, to air their grievances about Dunn and his allies. They received a cold reception. Dunn then wrote a widely publicized letter that labeled Warmoth “the first Ku-Klux governor of the party he has disgraced.”
Pinchback had been the very man who recommended that Dunn join Warmoth’s ticket, but a career of pragmatic political calculations set the stage for his betrayal. The son of a white planter and a formerly enslaved woman, Pinchback spent his formative years in Ohio, before coming to New Orleans just before war broke out. He quickly landed in trouble, stabbing another free Black man in the street and being described by a court as “intemperate.”
For unknown reasons, he served only a month in jail. After spending time in the Union army, Pinchback transitioned to politics, where he proved to be a talented and loquacious operative. Once, during a particularly bad stretch of violence against Black citizens, he said the following on the floor of the state senate: “The next outrage … will be the signal for the dawn of retribution. … For patience will then have ceased to be a virtue, and this city will be reduced to ashes.”
Pinchback’s history of violent language — and actual violence — surely made many of his peers wary of crossing him. To the Congo Square crowd, Chester called out the “wandering Machiavellians who recently pilgrimaged to Long Branch,” and noted that “to my certain knowledge, there was one colored man who undertook this infamous work” of slandering Dunn to the president. Later, Chester’s indignation turned to an article critiquing Dunn published just four days after his death in Pinchback’s own newspaper, the Louisianian:
“Hardly had the tomb been closed over his mortal remains … (did) the Louisianian, under the immediate and responsible control of a well-known colored man … attempt to rob him of the esteem which was so universally accorded while living, and to blur his memory. Such manifestations, over the body of a worthy and lamented citizen, indicates a malignancy of heart which would not scruple at any means, if the courage were present, and interest required it, to compass death.”
Less than a month later, Chester was walking home from a New Year’s Day party at a friend’s house. Night had fallen, and he didn’t see the drunken men in the bushes who sprang out and then dragged him onto the front lawn of a woman’s house. According to the Weekly National Republican of New Orleans, the men called out to Pinchback, who stepped forward and offered protection to Chester. When Chester refused it, the men beat him with sticks and knives, and after he tried to run away, he was shot just above his left eye.
Chester survived the attack, and witnesses relayed details to the press and police. The Weekly National Republican reported that Pinchback “slapped (the woman, Emma Stackhouse) violently on the face and pushed her down on the gallery steps.” Pinchback denied the accusation but admitted to being at the scene. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he was also president of the police board, and was never taken into custody.
It’s unknown whether the attack on Chester was retaliation for his speech. The embers of doubt he lit regarding Dunn’s demise, however, couldn’t be so easily stamped out. Historians A. E. Perkins and Marcus B. Christian revived the inquiry in the 1930s and ’40s. Christian’s “The Theory of the Poisoning of Oscar J. Dunn,” published in Phylon in 1945, concluded that “even though each clue must be examined with a great degree of caution, a careful weighing of evidence does not negate the Dunn poisoning theory.” Perkins interviewed a number of Dunn’s contemporaries. “The conspirators were known,” said one, a man named Edmund Burke, “but nobody dared speak out. It would have been unsafe.”
Perkins even sat down with Warmoth himself, not long before his death in 1931, and asked him directly about the rumors. “Yes,” Warmoth told him, “such a rumor was current, but the physicians attending him pronounced his death as due to natural causes.” Warmoth, Perkins wrote, “did not seem disposed to continue the conversation.”
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared as a post on The Historic New Orleans Collection’s First Draft blog. Visit hnoc.org/firstdraft to read more and view additional photos. For Oscar Dunn’s full story, check out “Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana,” by Brian K. Mitchell, Barrington S. Edwards and Nick Weldon.
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