Consort–A Profitable Career Choice

Wow! These relationship issues in nineteenth-century New Orleans are confounding.

Yesterday, while combing the internet for clues about Adam L. Bingaman and Mary Ellen Williams, I happened across a Louisiana Supreme Court case pitting Bingaman against his daughter’s “husband,” St. Felix Casanave, a free black man of New Orleans.

It seems Mary Ellen died in 1861 and left her three minor children her considerable holdings. Her son, James Adam Williams or Bingaman (take your pick, he was known by both), perished when the steamer, Fashion, sank in December of 1866. He had no heirs nor will and was worth $25,197. Look at that again–$25,197. That translates to around $664,000 in today’s money!

Stop and think here. He was only one of Mary Ellen’s three heirs. She was either a freed slave or a free woman of color from Natchez who became Adam L. Bingaman’s consort. I don’t know if all her children were given equal portions of her fortune, but chances are, in today’s terms, she was a millionaire! Holy cow! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I am blown away by this.

When I first learned of her existence, I pictured her and her children living in a small cabin on the edge of Bingaman’s plantation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It also lends credence to her having been a placée. Those relationships between a free woman of color and her white “protector” as he was called were based on a legal contract. Certainly one must have been in place for her to accumulate such treasure.

Think about this. While socially considered beneath a legal white wife, the placée could keep her money and holdings. Once married, all a wife’s wealth became the property of her husband. She personally owned nothing. Oh, the irony. (I resisted another !)

Anyway, Casanave and Bingaman were arguing over who got James’s property. The dispute must have been heated since it went all the way to the state supreme court.

Stay tuned to my next posting for the lowdown on this complex legal battle.

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