Mystery Mystically Unmasked

My favorite part about research is the unexpected discovery. This comes in many forms and is always exciting, but what happened last week was exceptional.
I lost my mother in September. I am not ready to write about this yet, except in the context of this ironic occurrence. While we are South Carolinians now, Mom spent her first fifty years in New Jersey. Last weekend (just days before the devastation to our home county by Superstorm Sandy) a memorial service was held there in her honor.
Although I did not make the trip, the very day before the service, I was connected to Mom through a distant cousin’s email who found me through This lovely woman wrote to ask me about my mother’s family and to see if I could identify the people in an old photo she had.
I certainly could. Front and center stood my six-year-old Mom making her First Communion. I have seen very few childhood photos of her, so this is a great treasure.
Beside her is her younger sister, Margie, my aunt and godmother. The taller girls are their cousins. My grandfather, Luke Pryor, is the dapper gentleman on the right and the tall man is his older brother, John Benjamin Pryor III. Both are grandsons of John Benjamin Pryor, the trainer of the legendary racehorse, Lexington, and his ex-slave wife, Frances Bingaman. The older woman is my great-grandmother, Luke and JB III’s mother.
Long-time readers will know that I have been trying for some time to definitively determine the parentage of Frances Bingaman. That’s where the unexpected discovery comes in. This distant cousin, a genealogist extraordinaire, has copies of the death certificates of Frances and her sister, Cordelia. Both list their parents as Adam and Amelia Bingaman.
This answers two questions. Yes, I am the descendant of the colorful plantation owner, Adam Lewis Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, but not his New Orleans placee, Mary Ellen Williams. I had determined that Mary Ellen Williams was too young to be Frances’s mother, but another descendant found “Millie” listed in their family Bible. “Millie” is obviously short for Amelia, mother of Frances, Henrietta, Amelia, and Cordelia—all mixed-race daughters of Adam Bingaman.
Mystery solved in a remarkable way at a most significant moment.

Another Roadblock, Another Lead

It’s been eating at me. Am I a descendant of Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams? I love to watch Finding Your Roots on PBS and wondered if matching a DNA test with a known descendant was possible. Like I’ve got that kind of money.

There are many people who list my known ancestor, Frances Bingaman Pryor, as one of the couple’s children, but more academic investigations do not. So I decided that if it could be verified chronologically, I would make the leap of faith that we are descended from her.

According to census records from England in 1861 and 1871, Frances was born in Mississippi around 1826. Her sister, Cordelia Bingaman, lived with her in England and died in New Jersey at the age of 63. I found her obituary in the old Red Bank Register of 1891. Therefore, she was born around 1828.

But when was Mary Ellen Williams born?

Looking for evidence of Cordelia’s earlier life, I discovered that both her name and Mary Ellen’s were listed on the New Orleans Register of Free People of Color. This information has been bound in a book published by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane. I had to have a copy.

When it arrived in the mail, I boldly ripped open the envelope. The answers to my questions lay inside. I flipped to page 126 and there it was.

Mary Ellen Williams registered as a free person of color in April of 1857 following an act of the legislature allowing her move from Natchez. This I knew from previous investigations where her protector, Adam Bingaman, had appealed to his legislative cronies to act on Mary Ellen’s behalf. At that time she was thirty-eight years old.

That puts her year of birth at 1819. She would have been seven years old when Frances was born. Mary Ellen Williams is NOT my ancestor.

HOWEVER, Cordelia Bingaman is also named in the register. To my surprise, she was listed in 1857 as the three-year-old daughter of Amelia Bingaman. This was not my great-great aunt, Cordelia. But it says that her mother, Amelia, was born in Natchez in 1827. Could she have been another sister to Frances and Cordelia? Did she name her daughter after her own sister?

On, a descendant of Amelia Bingaman lists her mother as the child of Adam L. Bingaman and a woman named Millie. Could Millie also be the mother of Frances?

Stay tuned as I delve into this possible link.

"The Feast of All Saints"

While Ann Rice can be credited for starting our modern fascination with vampires* (The Vampire Chronicles), her second novel, The Feast of All Saints, is a study in the 1840’s New Orleans world of the gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. As I have noted in earlier posts, the system of plaçage played a huge role in the lives of these people, a life I believe my ancestors knew well.

Rice’s website describes her book as “a painfully historically rich and accurate novel that delicately and clearly draws patterns of irony and injustice together through complex family relationships and social structures.” In 2001, it was made into a mini-series with an all-star cast which Rice claims is the most faithful adaptation of her work. See the trailer below:

Watching this movie added another layer to my understanding of the privileges and deprivations imposed on those then called “colored.” Amazingly, the mini-series has been divided into twenty-one segments and posted on YouTube, but for a less chopped-up version, we rented from Netflix. Either way, it’s a fascinating scrutiny of this long-ago way of life.

*These days we are inundated with vampires. Hollywood has even turned Abraham Lincoln into a “vampire slayer”! (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) Is there no end?

Benjamin January, Detective

“A lush and haunting novel of a city steeped in decadent pleasures…and of a man, proud and defiant, caught in a web of murder and betrayal.”

So begins’s book description of A Free Man of Color, the first in the Benjamin January mystery series.

Like millions of others, I love a good mystery. But what sets this series apart is where it is set–in New Orleans of the 1830s when the transition from a Spanish/French culture to an American one was just beginning. The protagonist is also unusual. Benjamin Janvier/January is a man of mixed heritage, but free. His mother was a mulatto slave, freed to become the placée (consort) of her master and she took her slave son, Ben, with her. The boy grew to be educated in Paris, as was the custom for young free men of color, where he became a trained surgeon as well as an accomplished musician.

Life circumstances, including saving his own skin, led him to also become an amateur detective. You see, the murder in this story was that of a young, ravishing octoroon during the Bal de Cordon Bleu, the Octoroon Ball where placées were presented.

Now you see my interest in this book. If you have read my posts (go to Labels in sidebar, click “placage”) regarding my family history, you will know that I suspect my ancestors have been part of the tradition known as plaçage. One way to research a lifestyle is through fiction, thereby utilizing the research of someone else. Truth be told, doesn’t all research depend on the knowledge and discoveries of someone else?

I’m reading this one now.

Of course, I do not take the customs and lifeways of novels as facts. But they are a jumping-off point to verify such things on my own. For instance, author Barbara Hambly has the Octoroon Ball held a mere passageway from a corresponding ball for legitimate wives, daughters, and nieces. This is fascinating and amazingly bold of these husbands and brothers, but I have yet to find confirmation of this practice from another source. It may just create great story tension–which it does when a plantation mistress, the former student of January, sneaks into the Octoroon Ball in disguise moments before the murder takes place.

If this period of history and the very unique racial hierarchy of New Orleans interest you–and you love a good murder mystery–I highly recommend this book. There are at least eleven books in the series and I am reading the second now. I will tell you that the beginning is a bit of a struggle to keep straight with several characters having confusing French names. But stick with it; it soon becomes clear and exciting.

With the search into my past, I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world I had never heard of before. Research boring? I don’t think so.

Who’s Your Daddy?

In 1869, the Supreme Court of Louisiana published its recent findings, including Case No. 1639, St. Felix Casanave, Administrator, v. Adam L. Bingaman. To understand the premise of this case, please read the post below or click here. Otherwise, suffice it to say that Adam Bingaman and his consort, Mary Ellen Williams, may well be my ancestors.

I don’t know if these two guys hated each other or were just greedy; either is possible. Casanave was unofficially Bingaman’s son-in-law. I found a letter from 1860 written by Mary Ellen Williams to inform her friend, as she says, “of the marriage of my daughter, Marie Sophie Charlotte Bingaman to St. Felix Cazanave” in the St. Louis Cathedral on April 30th of that year. Yet, Charlotte’s obituary lists her by her maiden name and as Casanave’s consort. Casanave was mulatto like her, so I’m confused.

Either way, on July 12, 1867, following the drowning of his brother-in-law, James, Casanave put through the paperwork to be named administrator of the boy’s considerable estate (again, see the previous post).

On the 9th of July, three days before, Bingaman had filed a claim that he was the boy’s natural father and sole heir. Court records state that ol’ Adam had formally recognized his mixed-race children in July of 1865. To do that, one needed to make a formal statement before a notary public and two witnesses. The lower courts recognized this as legal and named Bingaman as the heir.

This seems to have incensed Casanave, who took the case to this higher court. Quoting the court’s decision, “The grounds upon which the plaintiff chiefly relies are: First, that the defendant was not the father of J. A. Williams; second, defendant could not legally acknowledge him” because Louisiana laws forbid a white man from “legitimating his colored children.” Casanave claimed that Bingaman’s profession of fatherhood came after years of public denials and it was “evidently made in the exclusive interest of himself, and was therefore inadmissible without additional proofs…”

This is where it gets sticky. Further research took me to the New Orleans’s newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which printed the obituary of Casanave’s wife/consort, Charlotte, under the name Bingaman, taken from the man he claimed was NOT the father of her brother. Also, I was stunned to discover Charlotte was already dead before her brother’s tragic accident, and Casanave had remarried two days after James died, merely two months after Charlotte’s death. I smell greed.

Whatever the case, the court didn’t give much weight to any denials of paternity Bingaman might have uttered. They probably made a few such denials themselves. To the point that it was illegal to do so, they claimed the law only forbid such recognitions when the children were deemed “adulterous and incestuous bastards.” Harsh. Since no incest had occurred and Bingaman was not married at the time of their conception (his wife was deceased), the judges saw no impediment to his declaration of fatherhood.

They did make clear that “illegitimate children who have not been legally acknowledged, are allowed to prove their paternal descent provided they be free and white; provided also, that free illegitimate children of color may also be allowed to prove their descent from a father of color only…”

We can’t have a darker version of the master knocking on the plantation door, crying, “Papa!” now, can we? But since this was a white guy claiming his child of color, and no wife existed to be disgraced, it was okay.

Chalk another one up to the Good Ol’ Boy System.

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.

"Left-Handed Marriages"

New Orleans placee*

Researching my great-great grandfather’s nineteenth-century world, I came across a curious practice called plaçage. Mariages de la main gauche, or left-handed marriages, were common in New Orleans and other French and Spanish colonies. Within this system, prominent white, and later Creole, men could enter into common-law type marriages with African, Indian, or Creole women, thus evading the law prohibiting mixed unions.

My ancestor, John Benjamin Pryor, was a prominent horse trainer who worked for Adam L. Bingaman, a rich Natchez planter and well-known racing aficionado of the day. Pryor married Frances Bingaman, my great-great grandmother. She was a woman of color, very possibly Adam Bingaman’s daughter, but my research is not definitive on that.

If so, she was also the daughter of Mary Ellen Williams, Bingaman’s concubine. Sources conflict as to her status. Was she a free woman of color or a freed slave of Bingaman’s? I wonder if she was a placée, a woman “placed” with him through this curious system.

Female Quadroon

It worked like this: A wealthy white gentlemen might attend a Quadroon Ball for the steep price of two dollars. There he could mingle with teenaged quarteronnes or quadroons and their mothers. A quadroon was one whose father was white and mother was mulatto, therefore one-quarter black. These girls and their mothers were free women of color and this was their ticket to a good life.

The young girls were dressed in the best Paris had to offer, at great expense to the mothers, and were guaranteed to be virgins. Once a man made his selection, he requested the girl’s “hand” from her mother and a contract was negotiated.

Through this agreement, the girl and her mother were placed in a clean white cottage near Rampart Street, the edge of town, where the man could stop in each evening on his way home from work. Any children from the union were to be recognized, well-kept, and were often educated in Europe.

Asher Moses Nathan and his son

The mistress promised to be faithful throughout his or her life. She became part of a separate class of people–not raised to the status of her white counterparts, but above the lowly slave. She may even have had her own servants.

This practice was also prevalent in Natchez and surrounding cities, which leads me to wonder if Mary Ellen Williams was a placée. She and Adam Bingaman actually lived together openly in New Orleans in his declining years.

New Orleans is an exotic place with an exotic history, and the practice of plaçage only adds to its mystique.

*This portrays Marie Thereze Carmelite Anty Metoyer. It and the Nathan portrait were done by free black painter Jules Lion.

Justice for William Johnson and Trayvon Martin

The murder weapon?

One aspect of research that amazes me is that historical events I come across are often remarkably similar to news of the day. It reminds me of old saws about history repeating itself and the more things change.

One of the biggest news stories today revolves around Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot in Florida by a local white watchdog/vigilante. People of all political stripes agree that if racial identities were reversed, the gunman would be in jail.

The journal of William Johnson I recently got in the mail abruptly stops at June 14, 1851. Known as the “Barber of Natchez,” Mr. Johnson was a prominent member of the free black community in antebellum Mississippi. As I mentioned in my last post, he wrote of his day-to-day business and personal dealings for fifteen years. He is not my ancestor, but wrote of my ancestors in his diary.

He was only forty-two when he stopped writing and I wanted to know what happened. As you might guess, he died–but not of natural causes.

According to the Natchez Courier of June 20, 1851, “Our city was very much excited on Tuesday morning, by hearing what could only be deemed a horrible and deliberate murder had been committed upon an excellent and most inoffensive man. It was ascertained that William Johnson, a free man of color born and raised in Natchez, and holding a respected position on account of his character, intelligence and deportment, had been shot.”

Apparently, he and a fellow named Baylor Winn had not gotten along for some time. On this day, they were arguing over a boundary when Winn shot and killed Johnson. Winn was arrested and put on trial three separate times, keeping him in jail for two years. But then he was released.

Why? Because the courts could not decide what race he was. Although he was thought by all to be of mixed white and African American blood–hence, black–he claimed to be of white and Native American heritage. Mississippi law prohibited black people from testifying against whites. Since the only witnesses to the murder were black, no one could testify against Winn, and he was acquitted.

Today, we have a kid who was targeted for “looking suspicious.” His “crime” appears to be “Walking While Black.“ One television commentator even opined that Martin brought it on himself by wearing a hoodie. (I wear hoodies all winter long.) We don’t know all the details yet, and Zimmerman (the Florida gunman) has yet to be arrested or tried, but it sure seems like he is getting a pass men of color could not expect.

Winn sat in jail for two years, as the system tried to get justice in an unfair world. In my opinion, even if found that Zimmerman acted in self-defense as he claims, let’s get it all out in a court of law.

Apparently today, as in 1851, our stereotypes and misconceptions have us tied up in knots.

*Information on William Johnson’s death came from the website “Natchez City Cemetery” at

The Diary: A Window into the Life

Lexington: trained by my great-great
grandfather, J.B. Pryor
In an online newsletter from The Reading Room, I found a good explanation of why I write historical fiction.
It asks, “Are you inquisitive, investigative and interested in almost everything? Are you looking for facts as answers?” YES
“If so chances are that you are an avid non-fiction reader.” ABSOLUTELY. IN BOOKSTORES, I ALWAYS MAKE A BEELINE TO THE NONFICTION SECTIONS.
“Do you want to know how it would feel to be in someone else’s skin? Do you want to imagine what they would smell, hear, feel, see or say?” SURE DO.
“If so you are probably more of a fiction reader.” I DO ENJOY A GOOD STORY. 
“And what about readers who like the mix of both questions and answers? If you fall into this last category you will really enjoy…historical fiction…a very demanding genre [that] requires extensive research and great imagination.”
This research can include genealogy, a great source of ideas. I have written a good bit about how I stumbled onto the premise of my story, Aroon, but through family tree investigations, I have found a story that could write itself. (See sidebar, Pryor Knowledge) It seems I come from far more fascinating stock than I ever imagined. 
One of my favorite ancestors is my maternal great-great grandfather, John Benjamin Pryor. A prominent horse trainer, he was best known for his work with “Lexington,” the premier racehorse of the 1850s and the leading thoroughbred sire since pre-Revolutionary days. Pryor worked for Colonel Adam L. Bingaman of Natchez, Mississippi, and married Frances Bingaman, who may or may not have been the colonel’s daughter by his black mistress, Mary Ellen Williams. The plot thickens.
Which brings me back to why I love writing historical fiction. I am very curious about people’s lives in the past—their hopes, their dreams, what made them laugh, what made them cry. But usually, we know little more than their dates of birth and death. Fiction can fill in the gaps.
UNLESS—someone writes a diary or journal. Yesterday in the mail, I received a copy of William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro. It is the “lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African American during the ante-bellum era in the United States” according to the introduction. And my ancestor, John B. Pryor, is mentioned seven times. Mary Ellen Williams, possibly my ancestor, is noted three times. And if Adam Bingaman is Frances’s father, another ancestor is mentioned seventy-seven times!
This book covers fifteen years of the day-to-day lives of free African-Americans in the pre-Civil War South. Through William Johnson’s eyes, I’m hoping to peek in on my forebears, symbolically tap them on their shoulders and ask, “Who are you?”