In 1947, just after the end of WWII, New Orleans was hit by a Category 3 hurricane known today only has “The Hurricane of 1947”. The storm flooded much of the city, including all of Jefferson Parish, and helped bury many coastal villages under a surge from which they would never return.
The city of New Orleans was faced with a very dire problem. With thousands of homes destroyed or in need of renovation and a wave of GIs returning from the war. Housing was in short supply in the city and many had begun squatting in the wrecked homes and entire neighborhoods, struggling to to recover from the disaster, were overrun by vagrants with nowhere else to go.
However, “Mama” Ragno Robicheaux, came forward with the answer.
An well-known and respected business woman in the area, Robicheaux had made her fortune out at the port in dealing with trade but was eager to expand to a new business, real estate and she saw an opportunity to help the city and help herself.
Robicheaux offered to purchase and build a series of cheap apartment complexes throughout the city, enough to house at least 10,000 people and would place the vagrants in there rent free for three months and then offering them low rents thereafter. The city would then demolish the damaged houses and pay Robicheaux for every house that was cleared out.
It seemed to be a win-win arrangement. However, the city had no idea it had just made a deal with the devil herself.
A Checkered Past
As is typical in New Orleans’ pay-to-play politics, Robicheaux’s business practices were something of an open and tolerated secret. Her business at the port was built on the back of widespread violence and brutality.
With her small army of henchmen, commonly referred to as her “Boys” or “Sons” Robicheaux threatened, beat, firebombed and even killed her rivals until she was the undisputed queen of the docks. In the years before, during and after the war, there was hardly a shipment that passed through the port without giving Robicheaux her cut.
Ruthless and vicious, Robicheaux was rumored to have even bribed and threatened the local military recruiter office after it tried to draft several of her “children” into the war, eventually earning an exemption for the whole of her rank and file.
Yet, through it all, she managed to keep a public face of a tough but likable business leader. Active in the Chamber of Commerce, generous to charities and always quick with a smile, she was well-liked, even in the male-dominated business world.
That would all change in 1948.
A Business Problem
Almost from the first day the attempt to relocate the vagrants was a dismal failure. There weren’t enough units available to house the displaced and, even when space was available the vagrants refused to leave, preferring their rent-free, job-free lives.
Beset by construction delays and uncooperative tenants, Robicheaux grew more and more desperate. With the city unhappy with the results and her clout weakening, she hatched a scheme to get the project back on track.
Using her “extended family” she would kidnap the vagrants inside of the homes the were staying in and force them to sign the needed paperwork. They would then move into the apartment and either leave after three months or, if they found work, start paying rent. All the while, under threat of beatings, torture or worse.
But while that solved the problems of unwilling participants and got the demolition count back on track, it didn’t fix the problem of lack of space. With three of her construction projects hopelessly behind schedule and one of her critical purchases fallen through, she had only a fraction of the space that was needed.
However, she had a solution for that problem as well and it rested in an unassuming house in then-rural Algiers.
Rise of the Spider Woman
Though the city knew well about Robicheaux’s “family”, what was less known was her hobby, collecting spiders.
Robicheaux was one of the world’s foremost experts and collectors of spiders and obtained the rarest species from all over the world, including the deadliest and largest spiders from Africa, Asia and South America. It was easy for her to import them with her control of the port as even U.S. Customs wouldn’t dare stop her.
She stored them in a small house in then-rural Algiers, keeping her eight-legged menagerie under tight lock and key.
But her collection took on a more practical purpose when she and her family began killing the vagrants they were supposed to help. First, their poisons were incredibly useful for quick, if horrifyingly painful, murders and second, their sheer numbers could consume the bulk of a body in almost no time at all.
For two years her spiders were very well fed, kept fat with a steady stream of victims.
The scam was all too easy to keep alive as, with so many of the city’s records destroyed there was no way to keep track of who was missing. She made an easy fortune and became even more the darling of the city. But it was a fame that was not meant to last.
Greed and Destruction
In the end, it was greed that brought an end to the reign of “Mama”. She had been pushing her luck and had managed to bill the city for far more vagrants than she possibly had room for and the one entity she couldn’t intimidate, the scandal-hungry press, began to ask tough questions.
As public outrage grew, the city leaders turned on Robicheaux and the DA began to investigate. Though she was never convicted of a single murder, she eventually lost her contract and was convicted of two dozen counts of fraud. The city theorized she had simply bribed the vagrants to disappear rather than housing them.
Robicheaux’s fall from power was quick and total. Within six months the docks were in chaos as factions formed within her family as she sat in prison.
However, she would never see the outside of the prison. A black widow spider that she had trapped during her stay escaped and bit her. Since anti-venom would not be invented for another ten years and she was weakened by the terrible conditions in the jail, she slowly gave in to the poison’s grip, dying peacefully late one night and being completely forgotten the next morning.
Her crimes, on the other hand, would remain buried for nearly 20 years. It wasn’t until her home was demolished to make way for a new neighborhood that the truth would come out.
As crews began to break ground for a new house they discovered the cache of hastily-buried bones. The papers kept the story quiet and the coroner gave up trying to piece together the bodies, having more recently dead victims to work on. He stopped halfway through, having counted 56 to that point, leading most to conclude there were at least 100 victims, probably many more.
With the one person who did know long gone, there was nothing more to do other than bury the past and try to move forward.
However, for Mama Robicheaux, there was still a great deal to be done, a city to be cleaned up and money to be made and after talking with her old Bernie has decided to give her a second chance.
That’s why Mama Robicheaux will be back, for four nights only, this October 28,29, 30 and 31 to see if she can make up for some of the lost time.
But bear in mind it won’t be just her, we brought back her “family”, or at least a few key members, and of course her precious collection of spiders.
So if you’re feeling brave, why don’t you come on down and pay her a visit? I’m sure she’d love to see you and, just maybe, collect a fee for making you “disappear”.