THE REMOTE CAUSE
In 1517, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things: W. C. Handy’s blues; the success achieved in Paris by the Uruguayan attorney-painter Pedro Figari; the fine runaway-slave prose of the likewise Uruguayan Vicente Rossi; the mythological stature of Abraham Lincoln; the half-million dead of the War of Secession; the $3.3 billion spent on military pensions; the statue of the imaginary semblance of Antonio (Falucho) Ruiz; the inclusion of the verb “lynch” in respectable dictionaries; the impetuous King Vidor film Hallelujah; the stout bayonet charge of the regiment of “Blacks and Tans” (the color of their skins, not their uniforms) against that famous hill near Montevideo; the gracefulness of certain elegant young ladies; the black man who killed Martin Fierro; that deplorable rumba The Peanut-Seller; the arrested and imprisoned Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the serpent in Haiti; the blood of goats whose throats are slashed by the papalois machete; the habanera that is the mother of the tango; the candombe.
And yet another thing: the evil and magnificent existence of the cruel redeemer Lazarus Morell.
The Father of Waters, the Mississippi, the grandest river in the world, was the worthy stage for the deeds of that incomparable blackguard. (Alvarez de Pineda discovered this great river, though it was first explored by Hernando de Soto, conqueror of Peru, who whiled away his months in the prison of the Inca Atahualpa teaching his jailer chess. When de Soto died, the river’s waters were his grave.)
The Mississippi is a broad-chested river, a dark and infinite brother of the Parana, the Uruguay, the Amazon, and the Orinoco. It is a river of mulatto-hued water; more than four hundred million tons of mud, carried by that waters, insult the Gulf of Mexico each year. All that venerable and ancient waste has created a delta where gigantic swamp cypresses grow from the slough of a continent in perpetual dissolution and where labyrinths of clay, dead fish, and swamp reeds push out the borders and extend the peace of their fetid empire. Upstream, Arkansas and Ohio have their bottomlands, too, populated by a jaundiced and hungry-looking race, prone to fevers, whose eyes gleam at the sight of stone and iron, for they know only sand and driftwood and muddy water.
In the early nineteenth century (the period that interests us) the vast cotton plantations on the riverbanks were worked from sunup to sundown by Negro slaves. They slept in wooden cabins on dirt floors. Apart from the mother-child relationship, kinship was conventional and murky; the slaves had given names, but not always surname. They did not know how to read. Their soft falsetto voices sang an English of drawn-out vowels, They worked in rows, stooped under the overseer’s lash. They would try to escape, and men with full beards would leap astride beautiful horses to hunt them down with baying dogs.
Onto an alluvium of beastlike hopefulness and African fear there had sifted the words of the Scripture; their faith, therefore, was Christian. Go down, Moses, they would sing, low and in unison. The Mississippi served them as a magnificent image of the sordid Jordan.
The owners of that hard-worked land and those bands of Negroes were idlers, greedy gentlemen with long hair who lived in wide-fronted mansions that looked out upon the river–their porches always pseudo-Greek with columns made of soft white pine. Good slaves cost a thousand dollars, but they didn’t last long. Some were so ungrateful as to sicken and die. A man had to get the most he could out of such uncertain investments. That was why the slaves were in the fields from sunup to sundown; that was why the fields were made to yield up their cotton or tobacco or sugarcane every year. The female soil, worn and haggard from bearing that impatient culture’s get, was left barren within a few years, and a formless, clayey desert crept into the plantations.
On broken-down farms, on the outskirts of the cities, in dense fields of sugarcane, and on abject mud flats lived the “poor whites”; they were fishermen, sometime hunters, horse thieves. They would sometimes even beg pieces of stolen food from the Negroes. And yet in their prostration they held one point of pride–their blood, untainted by “the cross of color” and unmixed. Lazarus Morell was one of these men.
The daguerreotypes printed in American magazines are not actually of Morell. That absence of a genuine likeness of a man as memorable and famous as Morell cannot be coincidental. It is probably safe to assume that Morell refused to sit for the silvered plate–essentially; so as to leave no pointless traces; incidentally, so as to enhance his mystery…. We do know, however: that he was not particularly good-looking as a young man and that his close-set eyes and thin lips did not conspire in his favor. The years, as time went on, imparted to him that peculiar majesty that white-haired blackguards, successful (and unpunished) criminals, seem generally to possess. He was a Southern gentleman of the old school, in spite of his impoverished childhood and his shameful life. He was not ignorant of the Scriptures, and he preached with singular conviction. “I once saw Lazarus Morell in the pulpit,” wrote the owner of a gambling house in Baton Rouge, “and I heard his edifying words and saw the tears come to his eyes. I knew he was a fornicator, a nigger-stealer, and a murderer in the sight of the Lord, but tears came to my eyes too.”
Another testimony to those holy outpourings is provided by Morell himself: “I opened the Bible at random, put my finger on the first verse that came to hand–St. Paul it was–and preached for an hour and twenty minutes. Crenshaw and the boys didn’t put that time to bad use, neither, for they rounded up all the folks’ horses and made off with ’em. We sold ’em in the state of Arkansas, all but one bay stallion, the most spirited thing you ever laid eyes on, that I kept for myself. Crenshaw had his eye on that horse, too, but I convinced him it warn’t the horse for him?
Horses stolen in one state and sold in another were but the merest digression in Morell’s criminal career, but they did prefigure the method that would assure him his place in a Universal History of Iniquity. His method was unique not only because of the sui generis circumstances that shaped it, but also because of the depravity it required, its vile manipulation of trust, and its gradual evolution, like the terrifying unfolding of a nightmare. Al Capone and Bugs Moran operate with lavish capital and subservient machine guns in a great city, but their business is vulgar. They fight for a monopoly, and that is the extent of it …. In terms of numbers, Morell at one time could command more than a thousand sworn confederates. There were two hundred in the Heads, or General Council, and it was the Heads that gave the orders that the other eight hundred followed. These “strikers,” as they were called, ran all the risk. If they stepped out of line, they would be handed over to the law or a rock would be tied to their feet and their bodies would be sunk in the swirling waters of the river. Often, these men were mulattoes. Their wicked mission was this:
In a momentary wealth of gold and silver rings, to inspire respect, they would roam the vast plantations of the South. They would choose some wretched black man and offer him his freedom. They would tell him that if he’d run away from his master and allow them to resell him on another plantation far away, they would give him a share of the money and help him escape a second time. Then, they said, they’d convey him to free soil… Money and freedom–ringing silver dollars and freedom to boot–what greater temptation could they hold out to him? The slave would work up the courage for his first escape.
The river was a natural highway. A canoe, the hold of a riverboat, a barge, a raft as big as the sky with a pilothouse on the bow or with a roof of canvas sheeting … the place didn’t matter; what mattered was knowing that you were moving, and that you were safe on the unwearying river…. They would sell him on another plantation. He would run away again, to the sugarcane fields or the gullies. And it would be then that the fearsome and terrible benefactors (whom he was beginning to distrust by now) would bring up obscure “expenses” and fell him they had to sell him one last time. When he escaped the next time, they told him, they’d give him his percentage of the two sales, and his liberty. The man would let himself be sold, he would work for a while, and then he would risk the dogs and whips and try to escape on his own. He would be brought back bloody, sweaty, desperate, and tired.
THE FINAL FREEDOM
We have not yet considered the legal aspect of the crime. The Negro would not be put up for sale by Morell’s henchmen until his escape had been advertised and a reward offered for his capture. At that point, anybody could lay hold of the slave. Thus, when he was later sold, it was only a breach of trust, not stealing, and it was pointless for the owner to go to law, since he’d never recover his losses.
All this was calculated to leave Morell’s mind at ease, but not forever. The Negro could talk; the Negro was capable, out of pure gratitude or misery, of talking. A few drinks of rye whisky in a whorehouse in Cairo, Illinois, where the slave-born son of a bitch went to squander some of those silver dollars burning a hole in his pocket (and that they’d no reason to give him, when it came right down to it), and the cat would be out of the bag. The Abolitionist Party was making things hot in the North during this time–a mob of dangerous madmen who denied a man’s right to his men property, preached the freeing of the blacks, and incited the slaves to rebellion. Morell was not about to let himself be confused with those anarchists. He was no Yankee, he was a Southerner, a white man, the son and grandson of white men, and he hoped someday to retire from his business and be a gentleman and possess his own league upon league of cotton fields and his own bow-backed rows of slaves. With his experience, he was not a man to take pointless risks.
The runaway expected his freedom. Therefore, the nebulous mulattoes of Lazarus Morell would give a sign (which might have been no more than a wink) and the runaway would be freed from sight, hearing, touch, daylight, iniquity, time, benefactors, mercy, air, dogs, the universe, hope, sweat–and from himself. A bullet, a low thrust with a blade, a knock on the head, and the turtles and catfish of the Mississippi would be left to keep the secret among themselves.
Manned by trustworthy fellows, the business was bound to prosper. By early 1834, some seventy Negro slaves had been “emancipated” by Morell, and others were ready to follow their fortunate forerunners. The zone of operations was larger now, and new members had to be admitted to the gang. Among those who took the oath, there was one young man, Virgil Stewart, from Arkansas, who very soon distinguished himself by his cruelty. This boy was the nephew of a gentleman who had lost a great number of slaves. In August of 1834, he broke his vow and denounced Morell and the others. Morell’s house in New Orleans was surrounded by the authorities, but Morell somehow (owing to some oversight–or a bribe in the right quarters) managed to escape.
Three days passed. Morell hid for that period in an old house with vine-covered courtyards and statues, on Toulouse Street. Apparently he had almost nothing to eat and spent his days roaming barefoot through the large, dark rooms, smoking a thoughtful cheroot. Through a slave in the house, he sent two letters to Natchez and another to Red River. On the fourth day, three men entered the house; they sat talking things over with Morell until almost daybreak. On the fifth day, Morell got out of bed at nightfall, borrowed a razor, and carefully shaved off his beard. He then dressed and left the house. Slowly and calmly he made his way through the northern outskirts of the city. When be reached open country, out in the bottomlands of the Mississippi, he breathed easier.
His plan was one of drunken courage. He proposed to exploit the last men that still owed him respect: the accommodating Negroes of the Southland themselves. These men had seen their comrades run away, and had not seen them brought back. They thought, therefore, that they’d found freedom. Morell’s plan called for a general uprising of the Negroes, the capture and sack of New Orleans, and the occupation of the territory. A pitiless and depraved man, and now almost undone by treachery, Morell planned a response of continental proportions–a response in which criminality would become redemptive, and historic. To that end, he headed for Natchez, where his strength ran deeper. I reproduce his own narration of that journey:
“I walked four days,” he reported, “and no opportunity offered for me to get a horse. The fifth day, I had … stopped at a creek to get some water and rest a while. While I was sitting on a log, looking down the road the way that I had come, a man came in sight riding on a good-looking horse. The very moment I saw him, I was determined to have his horse …. I arose and drew an elegant rifle pistol on him and ordered him to dismount. He did so, and I took his horse by the bridle and pointed down the creek, and ordered him to walk before me. He went a few hundred yards and stopped. I … made him undress himself, all to his shirt and drawers, and ordered him to turn his back to me. He said, `If you are determined to kill me, let me have time to pray before I die.’ I told him I had no time to hear him pray. He turned around and dropped on his knees, and I shot him through the back of the head. I ripped open his belly and took out his entrails, and sunk him in the creek. I then searched his pockets, and found four hundred dollars and thirty-seven cents, and a number of papers that I did not take time to examine. I sunk the pocket-book and papers and his hat, in the creek. His boots were bran-new, and fitted me genteelly; and I put them on and sunk my old shoes in the creek ….
“I mounted as fine a horse as ever I straddled, and directed my course for Natchez.”
Morell leading uprisings of Negroes that dreamed of hanging him … Morell hanged by armies of Negroes that he had dreamed of leading … it pains me to admit that the history of the Mississippi did not seize upon those rich opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (and poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his tomb. On the 2nd of January, 1835, Lazarus Morell died of pulmonary congestion in the hospital at Natchez, where he’d been admitted under the name Silas Buckley. Another man in the ward recognized him. On that day, and on the 4th of January, slaves on scattered plantations attempted to revolt, but they were put down with no greet loss of blood.