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.
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 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 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:
- Sally Asher, Hope and New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names (Charleston, SC, 2014), p. 94.
- 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.
- Mikko Macchione, Napoleon House (New Orleans, 2006), p. 54.
- 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.
- Macchione, Napoleon House, p. 30.
- North American and Daily Advertiser, Feb. 2, 1841.
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