It has often been said that “All is fair in love and war,” and that certainly must have been true in 1895 for Louis-Gervais Arnoult and Eugénie Béthancourt, both colored residents of the Faubourg Tremé, for they could not have had a more tumultuous trip leading to the matrimonial altar.
In August 1895, the “modest and intelligent” Miss Eugénie Béthancourt was described as a “very comely not to say handsome young woman” of twenty-two years of age, living with her parents, Eugène and Nelsire Béthancourt (and her four siblings), at Villere Street and Bayou Road. For some years, Eugénie had been paid regular visits from Louis-Gervais Arnoult, a “muscular and rather good looking” young man, a tinsmith and slater, of whom her parents readily approved. At some point in about 1894, Louis had already set a date to be married to Eugénie, one which he later postponed. When asked about the question, Louis always seemed to have an excuse or reason to delay. Finally Eugénie’s father, a sickly man, determined that Louis was insincere and asked his family not to receive Louis in their home anymore.
In a sudden burst of certitude, on the morning of 22 August 1895, Louis-Gervais Arnoult arrived at the Béthancourt’s home and pleaded with Eugénie to finally marry him. Recalling the instructions of her father, she refused. Louis went into a fit of rage. He struck the young woman before pulling out his double-action .38 caliber Harrington & Richardson revolver. He opened fire, wounding his beloved Eugenie in the cheek and in her left shoulder. Startled by the sound of gunfire, her father, Eugène, arose from his bed where he was resting. In a daze at the sight of his oldest daughter lying wounded on the floor, he asked Louis if he had gone mad. Louis did not answer but fired three times at his would-be father-in-law, striking him just above the bridge of the nose. Seeing the old man still standing, he seized him and hammered him with the revolver. Just as Louis began to flee, Eugénie’s younger sister, Berthe, interrupted him and attempted to stop him. He likewise struck her with the gun across the left side of her head. Still in his fit of rage, Louis lamented that he had no further ammunition as he desired to “wipe out the entire family.” Running in the direction of the Old Basin Canal, he stood despondent for a few moments before leaping in, intent on committing suicide. Two colored sailors, Alfred Hall and John Casenave, dove in after him and prevented him from taking his life.
Brought into the Fourth Precinct soon thereafter, Gervais was held for some time before posting bond. Stories were circulated as to what inspired such a fiendish act. Speculations existed as to whether Louis desired to gain a property which Eugénie was to inherit from her godmother. Despite that speculation, Louis Gervais himself claimed that part of the reason for his delay in marrying Eugénie was that he wanted a home in which to make their marital abode. He had been saving and had succeeded in purchasing a modest home. To allay the ever-growing suspicions of her father, he had placed the property in her name, believing that it would make no difference as long as they were married. He was said to have discovered the Eugénie transferred the property to her father’s name without telling her intended.
Perhaps the most unusual twist in this entire drama, is that on 14 September 1895, less than a month after the tragic incident, Eugénie Bethancourt and Louis-Gervais Arnoult were married. They wedded over the objections of her father and much to the surprise of the community. This apparently was a truly consensual union on the part of both parties, as they remained married for some forty-seven years prior to Louis’ death in 1942! Eugénie and her younger sister Berthe were both treated and sent home the day of the incident and while their father took a bit longer to recover, he ended up living another nineteen years before he passed away in 1914, of all places at the home of Louis and Eugénie. Even Mrs. Bethancourt must have recovered from the emotional toll, as she lived until 1905. While they too may have forgiven their temporarily-crazed brother-in-law, it would seem as though Eugénie’s brother and three sisters wanted no part in marriage, for they all (Eugène, Octavie, Berthe, Olivia) died having never married.
While the Criminal District Court judge ruling on the case of Louis’ shooting with the intent to murder his wife (Section A; No. 24062) ruled it nolle prosequi or “not prosecuted,” in the case of shooting his father-in-law (Section A; No. 24056), Louis was sentenced to one year in the Parish Prison. While the conclusion of his year in the prison might have marked the end to the saga surrounding their marriage, it was unfortunately not the last time tragedy would touch their lives. On 14 March 1919, two of their sons, Lionel, 13, and Benjamin, 11, were killed when two streetcars collided at Esplanade and North Liberty streets. The boys were hanging from the rear platform of the Esplanade car while returning from a movie theatre.
Louis-Gervais Arnoult and Eugénie Bethancourt Arnoult lived at 1556 North Derbigny Street. Their marriage of forty-seven years produced eleven children, eight of whom lived to adulthood – Louis-Joseph, John-Gervais-Henry, Adele (Mrs. Daniel Hermida), Lawrence-Antoine, Olga-Josephine (Mrs. Harold Palfrey), Lillian (Mrs. James Thomas), Lionel-Gervais, Benjamin-Walter, Mary-Marguerite (Mrs. Louis Ducote), Mary, and Harold “Harry”. Louis worked as a tinsmith and slater throughout his life, a trade several of his sons also pursued by way of the family business “Louis G. Arnoult & Sons.” Louis-Gervais Arnoult died on 8 September 1942. Eugenie Arnoult died on 23 September 1958. They were both buried from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church.
If nothing else, the Arnoults could rest assured that the press had captured their wedding for posterity. Unlike the usual wedding notice, theirs was not focused on satin and lace but rather on tragedy. As one article declared, “There is no accounting for the freaks of love.”
Sources: The Crusader, 23 September 1895, Desdunes Clippings Collection, Xavier University Archives; The Times-Picayune, 23 August 1895, page 10; The Times-Picayune, 24 August 1895, page 8; The Times-Picayune, 15 February 1896, page 11; The Times-Picayune, 15 March 1919, page 1; Orleans Parish Marriage Records, Volume 18, Page 591.
Jari C. Honora