Suicide Oak City Park

Suicide Oak City Park

City Park contains some of the oldest trees in New Orleans, including Suicide Oak.

suicide oak

Suicide Oak

Postcard from the V.O. Hammon Publishing Company, early 1900s. This tree got its name because sixteen men took their lives over a period of twelve years, in the 1890s into the 1900s. The name stuck. This tree is not far from the famous “Duelling Oak.” Several photos of the time group the trees together as the “old duelling ground” on the Allard Plantation.

Outside the city

The Allard Plantation comprised a large portion of what is now New Orleans City Park. The land operated as a sugar cane plantation. In the mid-19th century, businessman and philanthropist John McDonogh (the guy all the schools were named after) acquired the land. The owners fell in arrears with the city. To recover unpaid taxes. The city seized the plantation. They sold the plantation at auction, with McDonogh purchasing it. When he died, McDonogh donated the land to the city. While it took another 30ish years to formally convert plantation to park, it did happen.

Even though the Allard Plantation grew sugar cane, the owners maintained the magnificent oaks near the main house. The land near Bayou Metairie, was too marshy for large-scale agriculture. So, the oaks served as cool, shady surroundings for the owners.

Duels

Gentlemen of New Orleans often followed the European tradition of settling disagreements with “affairs of honor.” If a man felt aggrieved by words or actions of another, he could “demand satisfaction.” from the other party. Many duels ended up with both parties walking away. The usual terms negotiated by the seconds (friends of the duelling parties) specified that duels should end when honor was satisfied. This usually meant blood drawn by a sword, or both participants surviving pistol shots.

The possibility of someone dying complicated the duel. Sure, if honor was satisfied, everyone could retire to a restaurant for brunch, but that sword or pistol ball could find its target. Spanish Colonial government considered a death in a duel to be murder. When such a death happened in the city limits, the duel’s winner could be arrested, tried, and even executed for murder.The United States held the same position as the Spanish with respect to duels.

So, duellers required a location outside the city limits and away from witnesses. The oaks of Allard offered privacy, for both affairs of honor, and more private, unfortunate acts.

City Park Trees 1910

City Park Trees 1910

City Park Trees, palm and oak, near the McFadden house.

city park trees

City Park Trees

Palm and oak trees in front of the original house that later became the McFadden mansion. It’s now part of City Park New Orleans. The Library of Congress (LOC) dates this photo as circa 1910. That fits, as construction on the house finished in 1909. While the oak tree clearly predates the house, the palm tree is part of the landscaping project.

Allard Plantation

Francisco Hery first farmed the land that is now City Park in 1723. Louis Allard, born in 1777, acquired the land, growing sugar cane and corn. Allard failed to pay city taxes. The city seized the plantation. John McDonogh bought the land at auction. When McDonogh died in 1850, he willed the plantation back to the city. City Hall converted the farm into public green space. They formalized this in 1870, officially creating City Park.

City Park began as a much smaller area than it is now. So, local businessman Fred Bertrand purchased four acres of land just north of the park. He built the four-bedroom house seen here. William Harding McFadden, a Texas oilman, purchased the house in 1919. McFadden enlarged the original house, converting it into the mansion we know now.

Palm trees in New Orleans

The palm tree planted in front of Bertrand’s home makes me at once happy and sad. Happy because I love palms. Sad because so many of these palms don’t survive winters in New Orleans. Over the 20th century, the city undertook “beautification projects,” re-paving major streets and adding plants and trees. Unfortunately, the palm trees rarely had a chance. Within a few years of the projects, winter brought a cold snap with a hard freeze. Those low temperatures killed the palms.

We keep trying, though. Maybe it’s a desire to match the palms in Los Angeles. Maybe we just like them. Either way, we bring them down, plant them, and watch them freeze. sigh.