Murder and mayhem, New Orleans

The man who was – or wasn’t – buried alive

See “2” on the 1870 map of New Orleans? Potter’s field – and the scene of so much uproar on May 25, 1875 – would have been in that vicinity.

The New Orleans press must have perked up on May 29, 1875, when wagon driver James “Jim” Conners was arrested.

Most of the police blotter for that day is rather humdrum. Charles Ford was brought in for pilfering ice along the levee. John Whitman was brought in for stealing a shirt from a woman’s clothes line. And, then there’s Mr. Conners. His alleged crime? Burying a man who wasn’t quite dead.

The story goes like this.

Conners was a driver for Charity Hospital, the hospital for the poor in New Orleans. One of his jobs was to take bodies to potter’s field, otherwise known as Locust Grove Cemeteries Nos. 1 and 2, and deliver them for burial in the graveyard for the “friendless and moneyless.” It couldn’t have been a fun job, but Conners wasn’t known as a fun guy. More on that later.

On May 25, 1875, Conners was summoned to collect the body of Tennessee native George Banks, a teenager who died of small pox, and the remains of an infant. The job didn’t go well from the outset. Banks’ body smelled so bad that a little boy riding with Conners hopped off the wagon. However, a lonely drive with two corpses would be the least of Conners’ problems.

The wagon and driver were a familiar sight to the people who lived around the cemeteries. They all knew the tall, red-faced man in the white hat who drove Charity wagon No. 1 by sight, if not by name.

Melinda Smith later said she was visiting a neighbor on Locust Street when she saw the charity wagon that May day. It was stopped, and she thought it had broken down. Approaching the wagon, she saw Conners trying to hammer down the lid of Banks’ coffin. When that didn’t work, he took the baby’s coffin and placed it on top of it. Amidst Conners’ struggle with the coffin, Smith said she saw a hand emerge from it and try to push off the lid.

Alarmed, she told Conners he was carrying a live man to the graveyard. Conners told her to leave before he slapped her in the mouth. Smith didn’t leave, and her cries attracted a crowd.

Mary Thompson was putting clothes on the line when she heard the commotion. Like Smith, she insisted Banks was alive. She claimed Banks seemed too weak to sit up but raised his hands and his feet as Conners struggled to keep the lid on the coffin.

Other neighbors materialized, all with their own stories of raised hands and groans from the coffin. They followed the wagon to the cemetery as Conners warned them they would catch small pox. Undeterred, a woman who spoke German urged the grave digger to intervene. The grave digger shrugged and said Banks was dead enough for the doctor to sign the death certificate.

A man named William Harrison said he managed to pry the lid off the coffin and saw Banks’ toes twitch and breast move. He said Banks was naked with a cobblestone on his stomach.

Somehow, the sexton was able to admit Conners and his wagon into the cemetery without letting the crowd follow him through the gate. Banks was placed in his grave with spadefuls of mud clods covering his coffin, but that wouldn’t be the end of the saga.

The uproar reached the press, who turned up at the cemetery and wrote eloquently in Dickensian fashion about mausoleums of regret, naked terrors and 50 babies’ weary little bodies stacked up instead of interred. They interviewed the sexton, only referred to as Schwartz, who said the coffin was jolted to pieces by the wagon, the man was most certainly dead and Jim was well suited for his job because he wasn’t tender or good hearted.

Found at the warehouse where the city stored its wagons, Conners said the people in the neighborhood just didn’t like him for some reason although he couldn’t explain why. It also emerged that Conners had gotten into a fight with a coworker a few months prior and accidentally shot a woman who happened to be walking past. This was partly invention by the press. News clippings clearly indicate that it was the coworker who shot the woman.

Conners was arrested in Banks’ death. By June, he was indicted on a murder charge. By January, the case was dismissed in Conners’ favor.

Reading the testimony presented by the defense, it’s clear why the “buried alive” case died. Sorry, I do love a good pun. It seems that Banks was not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead at the hospital, long before he left for his final journey to the cemetery. What the crowd likely saw that day was a coffin and then a body jolted by a rickety wagon.

As for Banks’ burial spot … well, it’s complicated. The neighborhood wasn’t happy about having a poorly maintained potter’s field amongst it, especially after the yellow fever epidemic of 1879. The city decided to build a school on the land … without moving any of the graves. That’s a story for another day.

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