Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Men Who Made New Orleans: John Law

I've recently begun research on The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook, a guide to the magic of New Orleans. So far I'm only up to the early 18th century, and already I'm finding plenty of entertaining rogues and rapscallions. My favorite so far is John Law, the Scotsman who was responsible for bankrupting thousands of Frenchmen and selling swampland in a way that would put Florida realtors to shame.

Law was a drunkard, a carouser, a rake, and an inveterate gambler: he was also a mathematical genius. After being run out of Britain for his part in a duel over the affections of a young lady, he made his way to the Netherlands and ultimately to France. There he proposed a radical idea. In exchange for the charter to the Louisiana (a stretch of land which encompassed the Mississippi Valley), a "Mississippi Company" would take over the French Crown's debt. To finance this, Law proposed selling shares in the company to the French public, in exchange for dividends on the Mississippi Company's profits.

At first Law's scheme was wildly successful. He preached of the fortunes to be made in Louisiana's gold mines and fertile land. Speculators across France invested their life savings in the Mississippi Company hoping to become wealthy.

Unfortunately there was no gold to be found in Louisiana -- and while was certainly plenty of fertile land, there was a serious labor shortage. Efforts to attract farmers to the colony were undone by (accurate) reports of the heat, humidity, mosquitoes and disease. To counter this, the Company tried settling "volunteers" from jails and debtors prisons, along with convicted "ladies of ill repute." Alas, this only served to saddle New Orleans with a reputation for lawlessness and prostitution which persists to this day.

By 1720, when the promised dividends had failed to materialize, the "Mississippi Bubble" burst. Thousands of Frenchmen were ruined and the French currency was destabilized: a cry arose for Mr. Law's head on a post. Dismissed from his post, Law returned to London (having previously secured a pardon for his conviction) after his gambling efforts in Rome, Venice and Copenhagen failed to restore his lost wealth. In 1729 he died a pauper in Venice: despite his genius, he had somehow failed to invent the "Golden Parachute."