New Orleans - 6 March 1885
Today I came across a little square at the junction of Camp, Prytania and Clio Streets. It was a charming oasis of walks, fountains and grass in the busy city of New Orleans.
In the very center was a marble statue of a woman. Usually in the Victorian Age when you see a statue of a woman, it’s a beautiful young woman portraying “Victory” or “Justice” or some other lofty idea. Instead this was an old woman, short and squat, with a square face. I took out my camera-spectacles to get a picture of this unusual image.
By the looks of this woman, her figure had been destroyed not by too much food, but too much work. Dressed like a washerwoman in a shawl and plain dress, she sat in a chair with her arm protectively around a child. She gazed at the child with tenderness and bulldog determination.
I looked down at the pedestal beneath her, expecting to find a plaque dedicated to a poor widow who had worked herself to death so her child could survive and become wealthy enough to afford this memorial to his mum. Instead a found only one word chiseled in the stone--“Margaret.”
“Margaret?” I said aloud. “Who in heavens is Margaret?”
“You got that right, mister.”
I turned to see a plucky Irish woman. She smiled at the statue. “That is St. Margaret.”
An elderly gentleman stopped and rubbed his aquiline nose. “If there are saints, she is certainly one. Angel of the Delta, we call her. She kept the Jewish Asylum for Widows and Orphans open.”
“Why that be Mother Margaret,” a young African-American spoke-up.
“Who’s mother was she?” I asked.
“My mother.” He grinned at me. “She was mother to all the orphans.”
“That’s Our Margaret, the Heroine of New Orleans,” said a grizzly-looking man leaning on a crutch to compensate for a missing leg. “That little lady took on the entire Union Army. Went toe to toe with General ‘Beast’ Butler himself.”
A man in a nice suit joined in. “That, sir, is Margaret Haughery, the Bread Lady, most successful business woman in New Orleans. Truth is, few businessmen did better.”
“Then why is she dressed so shabbily?” I looked up at the statue.
“Because that’s the way she always dressed. She lived like a pauper so she could feed all the beggars in this town. Crazy woman.” The businessman shook his head, but his voice sounded more admiring than derisive.
“She sounds like a remarkable woman,” I said. “But why does it only say ‘Margaret?’”
“Tourist, you be, eh?” The Irish woman grinned at me. “It doesn’t have to say anything else. Everyone in New Orleans knows who Margaret was.”
The small crowd I had attracted seemed most eager to tell me Margaret’s history, each of them adding this story or that recollection. I was able to piece together her biography.
Margaret’s family had left Ireland for America to escape hardship, but it just hunted them down. Margaret was left a homeless orphan at the age of nine. As was the custom of the day, she was taken in by a family as a servant “to earn her board and keep.” Margaret never learned to read and write, but she did learn to work.
At twenty-one she married Charles Haughery. He was a sickly man, so they moved from Baltimore to the warmer climate of New Orleans. It didn’t help. At twenty-three Margaret became a widow and single mother. A few months later she lost her baby, too.
Her world in shambles, Margaret took all that well-deserved self-pity and turned it outward. She decided to dedicate her life to feeding all the other widows and orphans of New Orleans. She did not take into account she could hardly feed herself. Worse yet, yellow fever had produced thousands of widows and orphans in this city, but that didn’t stop her.
Margaret worked hard, somehow managing two save enough to buy two cows. She started delivering milk. Soon she had a dairy with forty cows. She gave the orphan asylums a generous discount. When even that was too much, she just gave them the milk.
She became a baker, starting the first “steam and mechanical” bakery in the south. It wasn’t so much a bakery as a bread factory. Selling millions of loaves, she gave bread away to anyone who couldn’t pay. She even gave bread to winos, although she did break the loves in half so they couldn’t sell them to buy more alcohol.
During the Civil War, New Orleans was occupied by the Union Army, and under the thumb of General Benjamin Butler. He censored the local newspapers, closed churches and arrested ministers who refused to pray for Lincoln, and hung a man for tearing down an American flag. Most controversial was his law that any lady who showed any contempt for a Union soldier would be treated as a prostitute. This horrified the genteel Southerners and earned him the nickname “the Beast.”
Butler also put in a strict curfews and barriers. When Margaret broke them to deliver bread and milk to the poor, she was arrested and brought before Butler. He told her to obey the law or she would be shot or hung. Margaret looked him in the eye and said, “So, does Lincoln want the poor to starve?” Butler replied "You are not to go through the picket lines without my permission, is that clear?" Then looking into that fearless face he added, “All right, you have my permission.”
Margaret’s businesses did not suffer after the war like so many, but continued to grow. She started four orphanages. Other orphanages and poor asylums she gave generously to, regardless of color, nationality or religion. It’s estimated she gave over $600,000 to charity, back when that was a huge fortune.
Even the rich owed her, for many came to her for business advice, that helped them to get richer.
Three years ago, Margaret died at the age of sixty-nine. She was given a state funeral and local businesses closed for a day of mourning. Among her pall-bearers was the mayor and governor. The crowd could not fit into the church, but spilled out of it for a block.
The grieving city decided to build her a memorial. Rather than something grandiose, a lifelike statue of Margaret was decided upon. No large sums of money were accepted, so everyone could have a part in contributing. $6,000 was raised in nickels and dimes. The statue was unveiled July of last year by the orphans.
Several people assured me this was the first statue erected for a woman in the United States. I did some research and found it’s really the second. It is certainly the first for a female philanthropist and the first for a woman in the south.
My history teachers drifted off, going about their business. I continued to study the statue. No, it wasn’t a beautiful young woman personifying a lofty idea. Instead it was an beautiful old lady personifying several lofty ideas.
Pity I am too late to meet Margaret Haughery. Perhaps another time. If I ever return to New Orleans in an earlier year, I will certainly have to look her up. Maybe I can get her to take a break for a few minutes, while I brew her a cup of well deserved tea.
A video on the life of Margaret - Secrets of New Orleans