Penisson Family

The mystery of how Dr. Cowan came to die in an insane asylum

The New Orleans Insane Asylum where Dr. Cowan died.

The New Orleans Insane Asylum was supposed to be a temporary establishment for the indigent insane. It ended up lasting nearly 30 years.

When I saw that Dr. Leonidas Cowan – a member of my family tree – died at the insane asylum in 1877, I wondered if he’d been treating patients and died suddenly. Then I found his admission record.

Leonidas wasn’t a native of Louisiana. He grew up in North Carolina. Why he came to Louisiana, I can’t tell you. All I know is he married Eliza Brogden about 1860, which brought him into my family.

Eliza’s mother was Sedalie Penisson. The Penisson family in the U.S. started with a single Penisson who crossed an ocean to Louisiana, fathered 11 children and established roots that now stretch across the United States.

Like her mother, Eliza died young, making her story difficult to trace. The Penisson book that a cousin put together in the 1980s says she had two little girls before dying. That turned out to only be part of her story.

Eliza and her doctor husband seem to have established a country home in St. Mary Parish and a city home in New Orleans. Leonidas worked as a surgeon in the city, once tending to a drunk woman’s bullet wounds in the drug store where her husband shot her. Big city life, huh? No wonder they kept a place in the country.

The child called Isabella on the census record is a mystery to me, assuming she was a child. Mitty died in 1869 so this may have been yet another daughter who died young.

Life in the city must have been fairly comfortable. They had the means to have a live-in servant. How quickly everything would fall apart.

Far from having just two girls, Leonidas and Eliza had five children: Marie Charlotte Coraline, Rosalie Emma Agnes, Mitty Mary, Leona and James. Decades later, the family would only remember the two oldest girls. They completely forgot about Leona and James, which seems a bit odd, especially since Leona married into a St. Mary Parish family – and the Penissons were very much of St. Mary and the adjacent Assumption parishes. Little Mitty Mary died young.

Eliza herself – according to the family’s dusty memory – died in 1871, which would’ve been the same year James was born. Just a few years later, Leonidas died in the city’s insane asylum.

Why Leonidas was committed, I can’t tell you. I’ve been unable to find an interdiction record for him. One day, I’ll try to look up his hospital records. I did find a transcription of his admission notation, confirming that he was very much admitted and not just there treating patients. And that record itself is strange.

The next of kin is Eliza Cowan, who would’ve been dead several years at this point. Why would he list her as the family point of contact? Did he go off the rails when she died and left him with four little kids?

And what became of the children? Eliza’s brother was living in the city, working as the head bookkeeper for a company on Poydras and living in a nice part of town with his wife and daughter. Yet, he apparently didn’t take in the orphaned children. According to the 1880 census, Leona was living in an orphan asylum. The two eldest girls may have moved in with family in the country because they married within a few years of their father’s death. What became of little James until he was of age is unclear.

The girls, at least, had fulfilling lives. Charlotte married Emile Barras and had 12 children. She’s buried in Gibson. Emma married a tailor named Charles Maloz and had 10 children. Leona married John Templet and moved to Texas. She had eight children, including a son named for her father.

As for James, his story was a sad one. He became a cook, moved to Houston near his sister and died of tuberculosis. When she filled out his birth certificate, Leona couldn’t remember his birth day. It’s possible they never knew it because of the turmoil that must have punctuated James’ early years.

That death certificate is the only record proving James was a child of Leonidas and Emma. Born in 1871, no one filed a birth certificate if his birth happened in New Orleans. Both his parents were dead by the time the 1880 census rolled around. And the extended family just forgot he and Leona even existed.

None of that tells me how Dr. Cowan went from being a respected physician to dying in an insane asylum.

Growing up, I was always told that the Penissons were known for being a little crazy. Now I wonder if the inspiration for that story was Leonidas.

Newspaper articles

The secret to a long life: No smoking, no short skirts and no alcohol

The feisty Sophie Grand

How a New Orleans newspaper came to interview Sophie Grand for her 100th birthday is unclear. Mrs. Grand lived in downtown Baton Rouge, more than an hour from the Crescent City. Regardless, the interview is a hoot and far from the last time Mrs. Grand would entertain the media.

Mrs. Grand grew up in France, where she went to work for a hotel peeling potatoes at age 4 to help support the family after her father died young. Her brother fought in the Napoleonic wars.

How she came to the United States isn’t made clear in the article. What is clear is that Mrs. Grand was a woman of strong opinions. She didn’t approve of women wearing short skirts (their legs look like broomsticks) or men going out drinking (it causes them to come home and beat their wives). She also didn’t care for the use of tobacco in the home (it’s unclear if she thought it OK to smoke in the yard). As for women voting? Oh, absolutely not.

During the “pioneer days” of her marriage to a man not named (according to their shared tombstone, it was Louis) but described as being in the “livery stable business,” she sewed for a local merchant. After putting her seven children to bed, she’d sew late into the night, producing four pairs of trousers before turning in herself. Is it any surprise what happened when she hired some men to chop down a tree in her yard? Unhappy with the pace of the work, she took up the ax and cut it down herself.

No doubt chagrined by missing this news scoop, the Baton Rouge newspaper beat a path to Mrs. Grand’s door on her 101st birthday. She was in bed but still feisty. She would walk around the yard on pretty days and confessed to enjoying rides in automobiles as much as a 10-year-old boy. However, she admitted she was ready to die.

A year later, on her 102nd birthday, Mrs. Grand may have been getting a little punchy. She’d given up housework and now boasted of once being a bootlegger – or maybe all the secrets were now spilling out. She talked of making $100 a day selling whisky, cakes and pies to soldiers during the Civil War.

She also wished she would just die already so other people wouldn’t have to take care of her.

A few days after Mrs. Grand’s birthday, the Baton Rouge newspaper quietly retracted the bootlegger story. It seems that Mrs. Grand was just having a bit of fun with the media.

For her 103rd birthday – no, I’m not kidding – I can’t tell you what Mrs. Grand did to celebrate. Perhaps still smarting from the bootlegger joke, the media seem to have skipped the event.

A year later, a reporter found Mrs. Grand sitting in front of her fire on her 104th birthday. She was no longer able to speak or walk. She seemed to like watching children play, accepting bouquets of flowers and going for those fun automobile rides.

Mercifully, it seems, she died a few months later.

Penisson Family, St. Mary Parish Genealogy, Succession Records, Uncategorized

In 1883, the kids weren’t alright

When Etienne Bourgeois died in 1879, he left a young family behind: his wife, Marie Landry, their 3-year-old son, Alexis Etienne, and their 1-year-old daughter, Leonie. Marie quickly remarried, but life in the 1800s could be cruel. By 1883, Alexis Etienne and Leonie were orphans.

It was the district attorney for St. Mary Parish who went to court and reported that the children “were without proper care or moral training.” Worse, their mother’s sister, Victoria, was mistreating them and usurping their inheritance. The district attorney’s recommendation was that Etienne’s property and belongings be sold to pay for the children’s care at a Catholic asylum in New Orleans.

The saga is contained in St. Mary Parish’s probate records, proving once again just how interesting dusty old court records can be. You’ll also find a list of every looking glass, mattress and lamp Etienne owned because it all had to be sold for the children’s benefit.

What’s interesting is that the children’s mother remarried before swiftly dying. I don’t know why her second husband’s family didn’t take charge of the children. Maybe Aunt Victoria – who was helping herself to their inheritance – wouldn’t allow it.

Regardless, the court records shows that the district attorney was successful in placing the children in St. Mary’s Catholic Asylum in New Orleans. The proceeds from the estate sale were to be used for their schooling, board, tuition and the upkeep of property that wasn’t sold.

Curious what became of the children? Alexis became a steam engineer and settled in Morgan City with his wife and their two girls. Leonie – later known as Leonide – stayed in the New Orleans area, raised a large family and died just two months shy of her 97th birthday.

In the end, the kids were alright.

Early Louisiana

A steamboat explosion in 1817

Poor Thomas Brown.

Born in Scotland, he crossed an ocean and settled in Massachusetts only to die in a steamboat explosion near the village of St. Francisville. The local priest kindly buried him and 10 other victims in Pointe Coupee Parish, which is across the river from St. Francisville.

I came across the burials in the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s published records, and they reminded me of reading long ago about the perils of steamboat traveling. Sometimes captains would recklessly push a steamboat boiler beyond its limits by racing another steamboat. It was drag racing on the river.

The passengers aboard the Constitution were at breakfast in 1817 when the crew tried to outsail another steamboat from the same company. The race didn’t end well. The Constitution’s boiler burst, scalding to death 11 people.

Besides Mr. Brown, who was just 27, the dead were:

James Carpenter, 36.

Eliphaler Frazer, 41, who was born in New Jersey but had a wife and family in Franklin, Ohio.

Peter Hebert, a 27-year-old engineer from Mantz, France.

John Larkin, a Natchez silversmith.

A Mr. McFarland, 26, of Pittsburgh.

Alexander Phillpot, 22, of Henry County, Va.

Robert Robinson, 18.

William Steel, a 25-year-old Montana merchant.

George Wilson, 28, who was born in Virginia.

William Yowell, 30, who was born in Virginia but lived in Washington County, Ky.

St. Mary Parish Genealogy, Succession Records

A dustup over the cost of postage

How much could postage have possibly cost in 1881?

Sometimes you stumble across something funny when you dust off court records from more than 100 years ago. Case in point: A century-old squabble over the cost of postage.

Severin Dupuis died in 1879 from yellow fever. The disease also claimed his 19-year-old daughter, Amelia, for whom the town of Amelia was named. Because Severin left behind children and property, his widow filed a succession to divvy up the possessions.

Two years after Severin’s death, the estate still was being wrapped up. And someone – presumably a clerk with a sense of humor – stuck a rather pointed note about how much postage the case was consuming in the court record.

“Don’t talk to me any more about postage stamps,” the widow’s attorney, S. Lanaux, wrote someone named Placide (I would assume this was another attorney). “I only follow your good example.”

I didn’t quite understand what the argument was. I turned to the U.S. Postal Museum for help and learned that Congress authorized “postage due stamps” in 1879. Basically, the authorization allowed the Post Office to collect the cost of postage from the recipient of mail.

Whenever Lanaux picked up correspondence from Placide at the Post Office, he had to pay the postage due on it before he was allowed to take the letter. The same went for Placide.

Like any good attorney, Lanaux offered a compromise.

“If you promise me not to get mad and curse and beat your head against the court house pillars, I will send you in a day or so one dollars worth of postage stamps to stamp my letters with hereafter,” Mr. Lanaux wrote.

Cemeteries, Genealogy tools

Place of burial: hospital cemetery

Poor Edna Vining.

The listing of “hospital cemetery” as the place of burial is a major clue to where she died. Ordinary hospitals don’t have a hospital – as convenient as that would be. Edna died in Jackson, Louisiana, which is home to the East Louisiana State Hospital. To this day, it tends to the mentally ill.

I don’t know when the decision was made to create a cemetery for the hospital. It probably didn’t take long to decide one was needed. The dead have to be buried, even if their family doesn’t have the resources or the care to do it.

Edna died of tuberculosis just three days after Christmas 1913. She did indeed die at the mental hospital in Jackson, Louisiana. If the scant information on her death certificate is to be believed, she’d been there two years and no one knew much about her other than her name.

I came across her death certificate while researching the Vining family. Vining is an unusual name that came into my family tree when Evy Vining married my granny’s aunt.

Edna Vining likely wasn’t related to Evy Vining, but her death certificate pulled me in.

Being sick over Christmas is bad enough. Dying of tuberculosis is even worse. And the person filling out Edna’s death certificate didn’t know her age, her parents’ names or even her usual place of residence other than a vague reference to East Feliciana Parish.

The day after her death, Edna was buried in the hospital cemetery.

In Edna’s time, it was called the insane asylum although I don’t believe it was unusual to be placed there because of a tuberculosis diagnosis.

The census taker recorded Edna at the insane asylum in 1910. She was 35 at the time and married. She would’ve been around 38 when she died a few years later. Curiously, the census taker recorded her name as Etna – not Edna.

And that’s all I know about Edna or Etna. Her road ended at an insane asylum in a small town.

Cemeteries, Guilbeau

People like Poley make our names seem boring

What’s in a name? This road sign near the family farm in Jefferson Davis Parish speaks to the union of my husband’s great grandparents. A LeBleu married a Langley. Don’t let the stop sign fool you. This is a road sign for dirt roads that plunge past rice fields.

I have a confession. Most people think my name is Ava because I started this blog using a junk email address that bore my cat’s name. My name is actually Michelle. Nice to meet you!

Why Michelle, you ask? There was a popular Beatles song with the name Michelle in it many years before I was born. It was so popular that here I am along with thousands of other Michelles.

I often wish I had a more unusual name. But I also often wish I didn’t have freckles, which do make me unusual. There’s no pleasing me.

My family tree is riddled with names no longer in fashion: Anaise, Florentin, Cordelier. Well, I could go on and on.

Why Baker? We haven’t a clue, but a son and a grandson now also have the name.

It’s interesting how names are decided. My great grandfather was named for a rich, childless uncle. It didn’t work. The money became an educational trust. My aunt was named for a pretty girl who worked the drugstore counter. For years, we’ve debated why my father-in-law was named Baker. We can’t come up with an explanation. Maybe his mother – who died young – read it in a book.

I encountered an entirely new name this past weekend when we visited my in laws’ graves in Jefferson Davis Parish (yes, we’re aware that name should be changed).

My in laws are buried on part of the family farm near Kinder. Buried near them is Poley Hebert. When was the last time you met a Poley? A Pokey, sure. But Poley? Was his name Napoleon?

I don’t know much about Poley other than that he was a tall farmer of medium build. One of his sisters was named Ariese.

Makes our names seem rather boring, doesn’t it?

New Orleans

Luling Mansion: A house of tragedy hidden in a New Orleans neighborhood

The Luling Mansion has its own sign and an elaborate security system barring anyone from getting too close

We were bumping along New Orleans streets near the Fairgrounds this weekend (the city is sinking, taking the asphalt with it) when we stumbled across a mansion.

That’s not to say the Esplanade area of New Orleans lacks for mansions. There are plenty of columned beauties presiding over Bayou St. John near City Park. The Luling Mansion is different because it’s not on the water – at least not any longer.

In 1865, when the Lulings built their mansion, they set it on 30 acres that stretched all the way to the bayou. That bayou would supposedly be the scene of a great tragedy that caused them to lose interest in the city and their home. Now more modest, gingerbread-trimmed houses in all hues block the bayou view, hiding the mansion from those who don’t accidentally stumble across it while dodging potholes on Leda Court.

Peeling plaster can’t hide the beauty of those verandas.

I thought the house was abandoned when I hopped onto the sidewalk to look at it. An impressive secure entrance – you enter through a cage and punch in a code to step onto the grounds – convinced me otherwise. As of a few years ago, the house was an apartment building. I assume it still is.

The house’s unique appearance intrigued me. I had to learn more because every house has a story. This house’s story is a sad one that teaches us there often is a seed of truth in stories passed down through the decades. I’ll explain.

Newspaper articles tell me that a wealthy businessman named Florenz Luling had the mansion built as his family home soon after marrying Georgine Hermann. Florenz was a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. and became a successful merchant. Georgine was a New Orleans native with an impressive pedigree. Her ancestral home is an impressive mansion in the Vieux Carre. The young couple lived on Bourbon Street while their Esplanade mansion was constructed. They would live in their mansion for exactly six years.

Why they left seems to be a source of confusion and speculation. From the New Orleans newspaper:

“According to a multitude of unsourced accounts, soon after the family moved in, Luling’s son — or, according to some accounts, both of his sons — drowned in nearby Bayou St. John. Heartbroken, the story goes, the Lulings sold the property and left New Orleans. 

Newspaper accounts of the drowning(s) couldn’t be found. Neither is the event mentioned in F.A. Luling’s 1906 Times-Picayune obituary (which, incidentally, gives his first name as “Frederick” instead of Florenz for reasons unclear).

Regardless, whether because of the supposed drownings, some sort of financial reversal or another reason altogether, the Lulings did, indeed, move out of the mansion just six years after its completion.”

The Lulings had five children. Only one, Alice, would live into adulthood. Alice married into the English nobility and died a titled lady in London, where she’s buried along with her parents.

But back to the mansion … It was an opulent, 22-room concoction of Italian marble, frescos, cupids and imported carpet. There was a bowling alley, an observatory and cedar closets. The Lulings were the Spellings of their day. And they wouldn’t last 10 years in the house.

Here’s where legend creeps into the story. Like the newspaper published, legend has it that the Lulings left because they were distraught after two of their children drowned in Bayou St. John. And here’s where legend is like a game of Telephone. Something gets twisted in each retelling, but there’s still a bit of the original message. It’s just garbled.

Hermann drowned in Mississippi but was brought back to New Orleans.

According to a family tree on Ancestry, the Lulings had two sons: Carl and Hermann. Carl died age 1 in 1863, before the house was built. Hermann died age 11 in 1871, making his death coincide with the family’s departure from their mansion. Their deaths are recorded in the city’s records.

And, wouldn’t you know it? Poor Hermann did drown. Not in Bayou St. John in front of the palatial mansion, but in Mississippi, where, no doubt, the family was vacationing.

Hermann didn’t die alone. Another member of the household died with him that day.

The Lulings in 1870.

A big house requires lots of servants. Certainly, the Luling Mansion had room for them. The 1870 census shows the Lulings were outnumbered by paid staff: There was a gardener, a watchman and four domestic servants for a family that numbered four.

See Margaret Egan on the census record? She was with little Hermann while he fished from a Mississippi wharf in April 1871. When Hermann fell into the water, Margaret jumped in after him despite not knowing how to swim. Little Hermann clung to the maid and drowned with her. The Lulings brought Hermann’s body back to New Orleans and put their mansion on the market just two months later.

And, there you have it: Two drownings in the same household followed by a family’s abrupt departure. We’ll probably never know if the Lulings left New Orleans because of what happened in Mississippi, but the timing lends weight to the story that they did.

Caddo Parish

Why is Martha Washington’s great-great granddaughter buried in Shreveport?

One of my favorite books as a child was “George Washington’s Breakfast.” The main character was a modern day little boy with an insatiable curiosity about what George Washington ate for breakfast. I was like that little boy. Actually, I’m still like that little boy. I’m endlessly curious about inane things.

That brings me to this question: How did Martha Washington’s great-great granddaughter end up in a Shreveport cemetery? It’s long hike from Mount Vernon to the Deep South. Join me, won’t you?

The great-great granddaughter in question was Eleanor Angela Isabella Butler Williamson. She died in 1866 at the young age of 34 and was buried at Oakland Cemetery in Shreveport. A marker for her exists to this day.

Isabella– as she was known – was descended from Martha through her mother, Frances Parke Lewis Butler. Her father was Edward George Washington Butler. You’ve probably heard of Edward Butler’s adopted parents: Andrew and Rachel Jackson. Yep. That’s two ties to the White House in one family tree that ends in Shreveport.

From her birth at Mount Vernon, Martha’s great-granddaughter moved to Louisiana and died in Mississippi.

But back to Frances. She was born at Mount Vernon to Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, who was Martha’s granddaughter. Supposedly, the night before George Washington died, Martha took time away from his deathbed to visit the new baby. Frances’ parents are buried at Mount Vernon, but Frances is buried in Pass Christian, Miss., which seems an odd place for a Martha Washington descendant to be buried. Then I remembered who reared her husband.

Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, never had children of their own, but they opened their home to children who needed shelter. The most permanent additions included 1. Rachel’s nephew, 2. a young Indian boy orphaned by war and sent home to Rachel by Andrew, and 3. Rachel’s great nephew. However, the children of Captain Edward Butler and Rachel’s brother also stayed with the Jacksons for spells.

Edward George Washington Butler was named for the first president, reared by another president and married a George Washington descendant.

The Butlers were known for their military service. Captain Edward Butler and his four brothers fought in the Revolutionary War. Their descendants also served in the military and fought in wars. In fact, they coined a phrase – “Die like a Butler” – which means to die in battle.

Captain Edward Butler left four young children when he died at age 40. Andrew Jackson took them all in. Edward George Washington Butler may have been present when Andrew Jackson triumphed at the Battle of New Orleans. You have to wonder if Jackson’s family joined him in Louisiana for the ensuing celebration and fell in love with the culture. From his birth in Tennessee, Edward would grow up to graduate from West Point, meet his wife in Washington, D.C., own a plantation in Louisiana, winter in Pass Christian through the generosity of friends and die in St. Louis. Something drew him to Louisiana.

The last descendant? Frances left behind grandchildren so that doesn’t seem accurate.

It was Edward George Washington Butler who brought Martha’s descendants to Louisiana. His wife spent her life in the D.C. area, growing up at Mount Vernon and circulating in Washington society, until meeting her husband and moving to Iberville Parish in south Louisiana, where she would rear her children, outlive a son who died on the battlefield (where else) and move to Mississippi after her husband’s finances were destroyed.

Their daughter Isabella, who is buried in Shreveport, married an attorney who was a South Carolina transplant. They settled in Shreveport, where they lived amongst farmers and stagecoach drivers.

So, I guess, love and Andrew Jackson brought Martha’s descendants to Shreveport.