TriPod goes back to the days when Algiers was a stomping ground for bullfights and other forms of animal combat.
It’s a Sunday afternoon. The sun is out, you’ve already gone to church, and you’re not sure what to do next. Then you find out the ferry to cross the river to Algiers is running at half rate, on account of a sporting event. A fight. Between a bull. And a grizzly bear.
“They would go and drink and bet on these sorts of gruesome animal sports,” says Joseph Makkos, owner of an impressive personal archive of New Orleans history. “It’s dark... it’s dark, in a certain way.”
Makkos is going through old newspaper ads from the mid-19th century that plug all different kinds of fights between all different kinds of animals.
Things like dogfights and cockfights are illegal in all 50 states today, but still happen underground. So imagine pre-PETA, 150 years ago… things were way worse. An ad from the Daily Picayune, dated April 26, 1840 reads:
“Great Fight between Some French Dogs, a Bear, an Ass, and a Bull. Admittance, $1, Children, half-price.”
So these were family affairs. That’s the kind of detail Makkos noticed when he saw these fights recurring as a theme in this era. Here’s a mention from a police blotter, shortly after that event:
“We learned that a fellow went to witness the grand animal combat on Sunday last, when from his stupid appearance the dogs of the arena set upon him.”
“Sounds terrible doesn’t it?” Makkos remarks. “That some guy was just walking through the arena and the dogs attack him.”
This is just one of hundreds of details Makkos can cite from his collection, meticulously organized in his letterpress studio on St. Claude Avenue. The space is packed with printing materials, machinery, drawing desks, files on files on files, and the smallest of supplies — from thumb tacks to salvaged letterpress type organized by font in countless compartments.
From his archives, Makkos pulls out an old card he found from a 1950s bubble gum box. This is what turned him on to bullfighting in New Orleans.
The bull and bear fights actually started with traditional bullfighting, matador and all, brought by Latin American immigrants. Sports were a good common ground for immigrants in this port city. And there was one head honcho behind many of these fights, with a name that was born to be el jefe: Jose Pepe Llula.
“Pepe is this master swordsman, dueler, tradesman, bouncer,” Makkos explains excitedly. “He was a cabin boy for a ship captain. He was born on the Canary Islands. And he ends up in New Orleans.”
Legend has it that Llula settled all his disputes via dueling, and never lost. Of his various business pursuits, he purchased St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery — the one that still exists in the 9th Ward. People say that’s where he buried all of his dueling victims.
What really got Llula counting paper was turning traditional bull fighting into full-blown animal combat. His name appears all over the newspaper ads.
These clippings boast Algiers as headquarters for both traditional matador bullfights, as well as the bull-vs.-other animal battles. The flights were pushed across the river from other neighborhoods; animal fights used to take place in locations like Congo Square, and Washington Square between Frenchmen Street and Elysian Fields Avenue.
Hans Rasmussen is a librarian at LSU. He says the city had split opinions about these fights, and so the sport got punted out of the city center.
“I think promoters were looking for a location that were, to put it kindly, kind of run down, that would tolerate animal fighting," Rasmussen says. "Algiers, Gretna, these were areas that weren’t particularly affluent. They also had a fairly good immigrant population. So these were areas that would tolerate these kinds of events, but also provide a customer base.”
So the seedy sport found its seedy home. And everyone came out, the rich, the poor, even families! And we know this because kids were half-price. Ironically, people felt the fights between animals were more humane than the Spanish-style bull baiting.
“Anglo-Americans even to this day don’t quite understand bullfighting, because it doesn’t seem fair for a team of men with weapons to fight a bull,” says Rassmussen. “Whereas to Spaniards, they can’t comprehend this because it’s an art, it’s very much a ceremony and a ritual. So Americans preferred the bear and bull fights because it was two animals on equal footing, fighting each other with their natural weapons and no interference."
But where’d they get the bear?! Joseph says trapping and selling animals was popular during this time.
“You might go up to the Bayou St. John, where City Park is now, and that’s an untamed wilderness. So, I don’t know, somebody trapped it and then brought it into the city, and then they had the bizarre idea to fight it against the bull.”
He added that some of the bears were actually imported from California and Mexico. There were three documented fights between a bull and a bear. Llula’s spectacles were such big news that out of town papers covered them, including the New York outlet Illustrated News. Makkos reads the top of the article:
“Illustrated News, New York, Saturday April 23, 1853—bull and bear fight. A species of cruel Spanish amusement has been allowed to take place recently in New Orleans, which has received the well merited reprobation of the intelligent press throughout the United States.”
The piece goes on to describe the scene: there are two iron cages in the center of the arena, each about 30 feet by 12 feet, caging the bull and bear respectively. Thousands of onlookers watch as the cages open. The bear enters the bull’s cell, and the door slides down again, with both animals now in the same cage.
They go at it — the bull takes a jab, the bear jabs back. They both get tired and take a break. Men poke them with poles to rile them up again, and they’re at each others’ throats once more. Makkos returns to the Illustrated News story:
“’The bull extracted himself and at the bear he went until bruin sneaked into a corner, out of which he could neither be coaxed, flattered, nor driven.”
"So it kind of ended in a stalemate," says Makkos. "No one died, but you have two wounded animals. You have two gravely wounded animals.”
Remember the beginning of the article? It scornfully describes the South. The journalist expresses reluctance to even cover something like this, but at the same time, the nation couldn’t look away.
“There’s a deep criticism of this kind of blood sport and how barbaric and it is,” says Makkos. “And basically like this New York thing, criticizing people in New Orleans and the lifestyle down here.”
In Rassmussen’s words, the news of Pepe Llulla’s Algiers bullfights up North provoked "howls of disgust from Yankee moralists." This put pressure on politicians to outlaw the sport, which they finally did in December of 1856.
“For the first half of 19th century there was conflict between new American settlers and French Creoles for control of the city, and by the 1840s it was evident that the Anglos were going to run things. So by the 1850s things like animal fighting and other traditional customs fell out of favor,” he says.
Bullfighting helped different ethnicities find community at a time when American cities weren't welcoming to newcomers. But a more Americanized New Orleans looked down on, and eventually squashed, this Latin-rooted sport.
Still, let it be known — bullfighting lived down here, thanks to Jefe Pepe. And as Joseph Makkos said, it was a thing.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: The original text of this story reported that cockfights are illegal "in this country" today. Although all 50 states and the District of Columbia now ban cockfighting, the practice is still legal in Puerto Rico, and in other U.S. territories.
TriPod is a production of WWNO — New Orleans Public Radio, in collaboration with the Historic New Orleans Collection and the University of New Orleans Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.
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