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In search of Llulla

posted Jul 20, 2010, 8:35 PM by James Wilson   [ updated Jul 20, 2010, 8:46 PM ]
Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with martial arts. I am constantly scouring the internet for new information. Filipino Martial Arts, but any bladed art I find fascinating. I find the evolution of martial arts most interesting. Understanding where and how a martial art developed helps me understand why specific strategies are used, and how those strategies were adapted to suit environment and weapons (of vice versa). And of course I love the city I live in, New Orleans. New Orleans is …. New Orleans. It is a unique and amazing city (although at times hard to live in). It gets under your skin and you want to be part of it – for good or bad. I don’t think it will ever let me go, one way or another. But I digress….

New Orleans has a long and storied history of dueling, all but forgotten in these brutish times we live in. We even have the famous “Dueling Oak” in City Park, which the sign above is from. I don’t really think people understand how popular dueling was! Here’s a little history about New Orleans Dueling from the New Orleans City Guide, Written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the City of New Orleans

(pages 85-86)

Fencing was once the sport de rigueur in New Orleans in the days when Creole blood ran hot and “men of honor” had to be well versed in the art, not only to hold their rank in the popular sport, but to preserve their lives and honor. Duels were fought either at St. Anthony’s Garden behind St. Louis Cathedral, or under the ‘Dueling Oaks’ in what is nowCity Park. Perhaps the most famous duelist and fencing master of the city was Jose ‘Pepe’ Llulla, whose numerous successful encounters won him a formidable reputation. When New Orleans became the headquarters of Cuban filibustering expeditions in the 1850’s and 1860’s, Pepe, a loyal Spanish subject, offered to meet any or all insurrectionists brave enough to engage him. Legend claims that Pepe maintained a cemetery for the benefit of the countless persons he is reputed to have slain.

Fencing is still a popular sport in the city. The Fencer’s Federation of Louisiana, located at the Salle d’Armes de la Nouvelle Orleans, 528 Royal Street, fosters numerous small organizations, among which are Les Chevaliers de la Nouvelle Orleans, Le Bataillon d’Orleans, and the fencing clubs of Louisiana State University, the New Orleans Athletic Club and the Young Men’s Christian Association. Several traditional exhibition tournaments are staged annually, among them being the Mardi Gras Duello, held at 2:30pm Mardi Gras Day in the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral, and the Dueling Oaks Encounter, held under the Dueling Oak on the formal opening day of City Park, Usually the firs or second Sunday in May. Much of the recent activity of the fencers has been directed toward the development and establishment of a dueling technique with that most American of all weapons, thebowie knife. Much progress has been made, and an encounter proves to be a most thrilling spectacle, with comparatively small danger to the combatants.

Now that is amazing! Can you imagine training at the Salle d’armes de la Nouvelle Orleans? Or going to City Park and attending the “Dueling Oaks Encounter”? What a sight that must have been!What’s also amazing is that line “…an encounter proves to be a most thrilling spectacle, with comparatively small danger to the combatants.”

I found this quote after going to the New Orleans Public Library to look for the final resting place of Senor Don Jose “Pepe” Llulla. There are dozens of anecdotes about Llulla. Lafcadio Hearn wrote a piece about Llulla and about dueling in his book Inventing New Orleans. I found more anecdotes online, and in other books. They all have a common theme: Senor Don Jose Llulla was the last and probably greatest Fencing Master of New Orleans. Stories that “he would run his opponent precisely through the coat-button as he had promised”[1] are reminiscent of Babe Ruth pointing at which fence he would hit the homerun over (albeit a little more gruesome). Llulla’s mastery did not end with the blade – apparently he was a master marksman as well – shooting an egg off his son’s head or a coin out of a friends hand at 30 paces. Legend has it he bought theLouisa St Cemetery (true) to bury his victims and offer widows a discount (false –at least I can’t find anything). “All Llulla himself would say was that if he looked hard enough he might just possibly find a few of his victims in his graveyard”, reads one quote.[2]

He purchased the Louisa Street Cemetery, and later 2 more adjacent blocks and made them into cemeteries as well. The Louisa StreetCemetery is also known as the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery. Legend has it he was buried in his own Cemetery, and I wanted to find out if that was true.

After some online searching, I found a few records of the St. Vincent de Paul Cemeteries.Unfortunately, they are very incomplete, and there is no mention of Llulla in any of them. Further searching online got me a receipt that Llulla had signed. I actually thought he was the buyer and not the seller, and originally mistook this tomb as Llulla’s. My student and friend, Gabe, and I even went to the cemetery and found the tomb the receipt lists. We were disheartened to find no plate on the tomb wall where we thought Llulla was buried.

I went back online, and re-read the text next to the receipt, and realized Llulla was the SELLER, not the BUYER. Of course this would make sense since he owned the Cemetery. Since my online search was futile, I decided to visit the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library.

With the help of the staff, I located Llulla’s obituary in the Daily Picayune[3]. He died on March 6, 1888 at the age of 73. “About a week ago he came on a visit to New Orleans from his island home of Grand Terre, and on Sunday was taken ill. He gradually grew worse and finally peacefully passed away.” So apparently those who live by the sword don’t necessarily die by it. His obituary is long and gives a great but brief account of his extraordinary life. He was not only a Master at Arms, but also a very successful businessman as well.Unfortunately his obituary only lists where his funeral would be “4 o’clock this evening from No. 42 Independence Street, Third district” not where he was to be laid to rest.

With a little more research I found that the WPA had cataloged some of the Cemeteries, and St.Vincent de Paul was among them.Fortunately the names are listed alphabetically (more or less), and I was able to find a card for Senor Lllulla’s burial site. It read:

Llulla, Joseph

Native of Mahon Spain

Died March 6, 1888

Aged 73

St. Vincent de Paul #1

Alley 2 Left Tomb

Finally, I had found it. Gabe and I went back to the cemetery and with little effort, found Senor Lllulla’s tomb. Remember in New Orleans we are old school and all our cemeteries are above ground. It is a plate on the Suarez family tomb (his daughter married Vincent Suarez, and she was his only surviving child). His name is listed below his son, who died some 20 years before he did.Gabe did some grave rubbings with rice paper and graphite and we took a few pictures.

Rest in Peace, Senor Don Jose “Pepe” Llulla. You are not forgotten.


[1] The Duel A History, Robert Baldick, p. 127

[2] Ibid

[3] March 7, 1888 p. 4


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