Archaeology of The Melpomene Neighborhood During Reconstruction

During 2013 investigations in City Square 350, archaeologists excavated a large and well-constructed brick-lined privy shaft, producing a rich assemblage of glass containers and ceramic vessels, along with an abundance of personal items, including many items related to armaments that are not typical in urban assemblages, including wooden gun stocks, a trigger guard and assembly, a saber hilt and blade, a second sword handle, and numerous pieces of lead ball shot and bullets. Further hinting at a special function for the assemblage was a series of figural smoking pipe bowls, including two of the U.S. Presidents Ulysses Grant and Zachary Taylor, and another of a soldier.

The accuracy of historic map overlays becomes more questionable as one moves farther back into the nineteenth century. Initially, researchers thought the privy was associated with the 344/2314-2316 Erato Street address, where a series of police officers (named J.J. Bermingham, Henry Campbell, William H.C. Roust, and Robert Cheevers) are listed as residents in city directories in the early to mid-1870s. While the 1870 U.S. Census does not list addresses, there is also a policeman named William Moore listed in the vicinity of the address in that year. It is likely that all of these men served for the Metropolitan Police, the integrated police force that was responsible for security in the city during Reconstruction and was aligned with the Republican government. This seemed to suggest a connection with both the armaments and the pipe depicting Grant, a Republican leader unpopular with the former Confederates who had attempted to regain political power in New Orleans.

However, as archaeologists located other features on the block, and the map further refined as a result, they determined that the privy was more likely to be located at the rear property line of the 346/1307 S. Liberty Street address. Occupation of this property was much more stable in the period in question, with a widow named Mary Wilson owning and residing at the property for over 40 years. Sharing the house with her was a large extended family, typically including a number of her own children, along with her married daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Emile Legien, and, eventually their children. In 1880 Census (the census nearest in time to the assemblage recovered, listed Wilson as a milliner and Emile as a plasterer. Many of Wilson’s sons went on to work as carpenters, while daughter Kate worked as a teacher. Many of the archaeological items recovered also suggest that a large family occupied the space, with a particularly rich array of items relating to toys and play, hygiene and health, and personal adornment in the assemblage.

The artifacts recovered are illustrated in more detail below. They provide no ‘smoking gun’ as to which household was responsible for the items in the privy, and ultimately, there may be no singular solution. The image descriptions present some hypothetical scenarios based on what is known from city directories, census records, and the artifacts themselves; the reader is invited to speculate as to what this combination of items meant for a household in New Orleans at the end of Reconstruction.



1307 South Liberty Street, New Orleans LA