Nicolas Girod and the history of Napoleon House in New Orleans

Napoleon in America was inspired by the story behind Napoleon House in New Orleans. That story is tied to one of the house’s former owners, Nicolas Girod.

Napoleon House, New Orleans, 1904, by William Woodward, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Laura Simon Nelson, acc. no. 2006.0430.18

Napoleon House, New Orleans, 1904, by William Woodward, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Laura Simon Nelson, acc. no. 2006.0430.18

Nicolas (or Nicholas) Girod was born in 1747 or 1751 in the Savoy region of France. In the 1770s, he and his brothers Claude François (or François Claude) and Jean François migrated to North America. They settled in New Orleans, which was then under Spanish rule and had a sizable French population. The Girods prospered as importers and merchants, keeping a wholesale and retail store near the levee landing and buying extensive property in the city.

Mayor of New Orleans

Nicolas Girod

Nicolas Girod

Nicolas Girod must have been a popular fellow because in September 1812 he was elected mayor of New Orleans, which was by then part of the United States. His inauguration ceremony was conducted in French because Girod did not speak English. When it was proposed that, as a mayor of an American city, he should learn English, he responded that, since he was mayor, more citizens should learn to speak French. (1)

Girod was re-elected in September 1814. Several improvements to the city were made during his administration, including paving sidewalks with brick gravel and digging the first drainage canal. However, Girod is best remembered for being mayor during the War of 1812, particularly during the Battle of New Orleans, which took place January 8, 1815. Girod was instrumental in helping General Andrew Jackson organize the locals into militias, in providing military supplies, and in guarding against internal subversion. It is said he was motivated more by hatred for the British than by love for the Americans.

Girod resigned as mayor on September 4, 1815, citing a need to salvage his wanting personal finances. (2) In 1812 he and some partners had set up an early savings and loan organization, to help people finance their homes and businesses, which had not done as well as expected. Meanwhile, his brother Claude died in 1814, leaving Nicolas a property at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres Streets with a “(two) storied house…and dependencies.” (3) Girod built a grand three-and-a-half story Creole townhouse on the site, either adding to the existing house or constructing a new one. The ground floor was occupied by Girod’s store; he lived in the apartments above. The architect may have been Jean-Hyacinthe Laclotte or Barthélémy Lafon. A notable feature was a spiral staircase leading to a cupola on the roof.

The Napoleon House legend

We now arrive at the story that inspired Napoleon in America: namely, that Girod built or furbished the house as a residence for Napoleon, and organized a group of pirates to rescue the former Emperor from exile on St. Helena. Though unsubstantiated, this tale first appeared in print in the late 19th century, was commonly recounted in the press in the early 20th century, and remains popular today. The following is a typical version, printed in the New York Tribune in 1920.

The news of Napoleon’s exile grieved M’sieu Girod sorely. Perhaps breathing the air of the land of the free made his bold Gallic heart bolder, and it may be that contact with the pioneers of the New World augmented his daring. At any rate he began to saunter down Chartres Street in the evenings, and when at the corner of St. Philip Street would drop into the blacksmith shop kept by Jean and Pierre Lafitte, a couple of retired pirates, who, though now apparently men of peace, still loved any adventure that promised a reasonable chance of killing or being killed.

The Lafittes were intent listeners to the audacious scheme unfolded to them by M. Girod as they conversed amiably before the forge in the evenings. At their recommendations, M. Girod took into his confidence one Dominic You, and plans went immediately into the formative. The plan was simplicity itself, in the telling of it. It was merely to make a quick dash upon St. Helena, overpower the British guards, bear away the Emperor, conduct him to a swift yacht and sail off to America. The energetic Lafittes selected a two-fisted crew to man the fast and comfortably equipped craft provided by the promoter of this brilliant kidnapping enterprise, adding a noted soldier of fortune, Bossière by name, as captain of the Bonaparte rescue expedition. As the work of fitting out the yacht went on, Nicholas Girod furnished his home in all the magnificence required for the abode of an autocrat in a democratic land.

The expedition was all ready to shove off when one fine morning in 1821 a sailing vessel came languidly out of the Gulf and up the Mississippi and dropped anchor in front of the city, bearing as the most important piece of news from the outside world that the captive Terror of Europe had but just died in his island prison. (4)

Versions of the story vary in terms of the pirates involved (Laffite versus You versus St. Ange Bossière), and in terms of when the plotters learned of Napoleon’s demise (three days before they were due to sail versus the eve of departure). The rescue vehicle is typically given as a 200-ton schooner called La Séraphine. Though there are records of many proposed missions to rescue Napoleon, there is no direct evidence of this particular plot, and no evidence the Séraphine ever existed. As Mikko Macchione notes:

This ‘tradition that defies substantiation’ is a deliciously entrenched story. There is no direct proof for it, and no direct proof against it. The story gets incestuously related and re-related back and forth from guidebooks, newspaper travel sections, tourist fodder, public speeches and other public records, so not only does it become ‘fact’ by default, it also becomes difficult to extract what, if anything, really happened. (5)

Girod served as a city alderman in 1824-1825, during the administration of Louis Philippe de Roffignac. When Roffignac proposed extending the levees along the river and the project was opposed by the Council, on the grounds that funds were lacking with which to pay for the work, Girod offered to pay for the extension at his own expense. This shamed the city fathers into authorizing the expenditure.

Girod never married and had no children. When his neighbour J. Chesneau died (likely of yellow fever), Girod became the guardian of Chesneau’s three children, one of whom later sued Girod for illegally disposing of his father’s property. Girod died at his home on September 1, 1840, at the age of 89 or 93. He was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.

Girod’s legacy

Shannon visiting the tomb of Nicolas Girod in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, New Orleans

Shannon visiting the tomb of Nicolas Girod in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, New Orleans

Girod left hundreds of thousands of dollars to friends and charities, including $100,000 to the city of New Orleans to be used for the “construction of an edifice, in the parish of Orleans, for the reception and relief of French Orphans, residing in the State of Louisiana.” (6) Legal wrangling over Girod’s estate went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which handed down a decision in favour of the heirs of his brother’s estate, leaving only $28,000 for the city of New Orleans.

Through sound administration the Girod fund grew and was used in 1870 to commence construction of the Girod Asylum, intended as a children’s house of refuge, on Metairie Ridge, behind St. Patrick’s Cemetery No. 3. The Board of Health subsequently examined the premises and found that – being located near a malarial swamp – they were unhealthful and unsuited for the purpose. Around 1906 (after the swamp had been drained), the buildings were turned over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which established a home for destitute colored boys who had been committed to its care by the Juvenile Court. This was the Colored Waifs’ Home, where Louis Armstrong was confined in 1913-1914 and received his early musical instruction.

Girod’s extended family lived in Napoleon House through the remainder of the 19th century. In the early 1900s different parties briefly owned the building. In 1914 it was rented by Joseph Impastato, who ran a grocery store downstairs and lived upstairs with his brothers and sisters. In 1920, he bought the property. The building became a bar and, in the 1970s, a restaurant. Napoleon House remained in the hands of the Impastato family for 101 years. In April 2015, it was sold to New Orleans restaurateur Ralph Brennan. If you are a Napoleon fan, Napoleon House is definitely worth a visit. You can enjoy delicious food and drink surrounded by pictures of Napoleon and memorabilia related to the building’s history.

You might also enjoy:

Return to Napoleon House

Jean Laffite: Mexican Gulf pirate and privateer

Félix Formento and medicine in 19th century New Orleans

François Guillemin: Spying and scandal in 19th century New Orleans

Josephine Lauret, namesake of a New Orleans street

Pirate consorts: Marie and Catherine Villard

Slavery in New Orleans and Napoleon’s view therof

Voodoo queen Marie Laveau

Celebrating July 4th in early 19th century New Orleans

Napoleon & New Orleans in 1821

  1. Sally Asher, Hope and New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names (Charleston, SC, 2014), p. 94.
  2. Girod served as New Orleans mayor from October 8, 1812 to September 4, 1815, with the exception of a one-month leave of absence from November 6 to December 4, 1812.
  3. Mikko Macchione, Napoleon House (New Orleans, 2006), p. 54.
  4. Frank Dallarn, “Fire and Prohibition Rob New Orleans of Its Fame,” New York Tribune, February 8, 1920, p. 7. The first printed record of the plot appeared some 60 years after it purportedly occurred, in Will H. Coleman, Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans (New York, 1885), pp. 192-193.
  5. Macchione, Napoleon House, p. 30.
  6. North American and Daily Advertiser, Feb. 2, 1841.

23 commments on “Nicolas Girod and the history of Napoleon House in New Orleans”

  • Fred Staff says:

    A very interesting story While it may not have really happened the things he did for the city and they people, especially the poor is most impressive. I am moved by the fact that in those days, people of power and wealth actually cared those who were in pain.

  • lafitte patrick says:

    histoire réelle

  • Bob Fletcher says:

    Shannon, What a great blog and story! I have been to both Napoleon House and Liberty Texas. I love the premise behind your work and have ordered your book! Best wishes!

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Bob! That’s very kind of you. I’m glad you like the blog and I hope you enjoy reading Napoleon in America.

  • Girod says:

    Nicholas Girod’s portrait will appear in a book called: ” Portraits insolites aux USA” published in Paris

  • C. Strain says:

    J. S. Bossiere was my gr. gr. grandfather. There really was a brig Seraphine captained by Bossiere. It was named for its financier Seraphine Cucullu, a first cousin. The Seraphine was later sunk at Porto Bello by cannon fire because Bossiere refused to pay for safe harbor. He was a tempestuous man who died in a gun fight in his attorneys office in 1859. Many of his descendants still live on the north shore. Bossiere, like Girod had roots in St. Dominge. (mother from there, Bossiere possibly born there, moved to Baltimore as a baby)

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thank you for this information. It’s fascinating to learn that the Seraphine, in fact, existed. It would be interesting to know what year it was built (i.e., before or after Napoleon’s death). Bossière sounds like quite the character.

  • rains says:

    I am the great granddaughter of Jean Franciso Girod, the brother of Nicholas and Claude Girod. I am been doing genealogy of the Girod family for twenty years. My cousin my sister and I spent a week in the private quarters of the Napolean House. I have hundred of documents regarding the Girod family of which a lot of them are in French. I have no doubt in my mind that the story of Nicholas Girod and Napolean adventure is true. I do have a document that shows that Nicholas Girod, who was an attorney, represented Napolean as his attorney. They were friends. I read the stories about the Napolean house and Nicholas and the rest of my family ….there are many details that are left out .. . I continue to research my family as it is a history lesson with them dealing with Jefferson, Adam, Jean Lafitte and many many others. They were massive slave owners/traders and property owners. They owned several plantations in the area. I have spent thousands of dollars acquiring copies of documents and have conversed with other genealogist in determining their ancestors connection to the Girod family.

  • Deb allen says:

    I am Jean Francis’ great great great granddaughter, brother of Nicholas. My g grandfather is Jean Francis Girod lll, who passed in 1926. I would like to ask “rains” her lineage. My cousin has also done extensive research in France and La. My grandfather was Felix Isaiah Girod.

  • Deb allen says:

    Rains, what is your direct lineage? I also am a descendant.

  • Rains says:

    John Franciso Girod II, Severin Ardelias Girod Sr, Severin Ardelias Girod Jr, Clara May Girod Gilmore, Clarence A Gilmore (My Dad) is my family lineage.
    Thanks, Rains

  • Todd Girod says:

    I just happened upon this article while surfing the net. Thanks for writing about our family. I enjoy history and really enjoyed this read.

    To the other Girods on the post, I’m also under Felix Isaiah’s line. He was my great grandfather, and Russell Emile was my grandfather. I once tracked out family line back to Nicolas, but never went any further other than to know his parents’ names were Sylvestri and Francesca.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      My pleasure, Todd. It’s great to hear from you. I’m glad you liked the article. Thanks for Nicolas’s parents’ names. I didn’t know who his parents were.

  • Marlon D. Bourque says:

    I’m 4th gr-grandson of Francisco Toro, (1831-1895) native of Spain and died 22 Feb 1895 at “Girod at Montegut”. Francisco in 1850 is listed as barber’s apprentice, 1860-painter artist, 1870-physician. About his death record, Girod House at Montegut St. Does any Girod home or property lie in Italian Section of what is now Marigny-Bywater District ? Francisco Toro’s residence in 1880 census is listed as 205 Port Street, married Aug 1865 to Theresia Doignon Borne, Mandeville St. at Ascension Church.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I don’t know the answer to your question, Marlon. Perhaps one of the Girod family members will be able to respond.

  • COUDERT says:

    Hello, my name is Paul, I found out completely by accident your blog….I’m french and a descendant of the French branch of Nicolas Girod…I was born and lived 33 years in Cluses (Haute-Savoie)-France, from where he was born too…I’ve got one part of the french family tree and would like to find out more about the American branch and obviously my American cousins…

Join the discussion

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The news of Napoleon’s exile grieved M’sieu Girod sorely. Perhaps breathing the air of the land of the free made his bold Gallic heart bolder, and it may be that contact with the pioneers of the New World augmented his daring.

New York Tribune, 1920