New Orleans, today a vibrant city known for Cajun food and Mardi Gras, is a city with a rich history that carries a certain mystique with it. Many have heard the ghost stories and tales around the bayou, but what is not as known is that some of the nation’s best fighters and weapon experts used the city as a homebase 200 years ago. Among the best of these expert duelists was Jose “Pepe” Llulla, a legend in New Orleans who became like a mythical creature of the South, but there’s factual evidence to back some of his stories up.
Llulla was born on a then Spanish-owned island in the Mediterranean Sea named Minoraca in 1815. As he grew through the years he earned a strong sense of nationalism towards Spain, something that would stick with him for his entire life. Eventually, the young man began to work on a ship that regularly traveled between Havanna, the capital of Cuba that was then owned by Spain, and New Orleans. Here he lived a sailor’s life, hardening himself and learning new fighting skills. After traveling back and forth for a period of time, he decided to settle permanently in Louisiana, becoming a bartender at a popular bar. Bartenders who worked before and during the 19th century had to have exceptional fighting skills, especially with crude weaponry, as the tendency of things going very sour was much more likely than nowadays. Here Llulla ran into many drunkards looking for a brawl, and they often got what they were looking for. In his endeavors, he eventually came to realize he had natural skill with swords and sabres and enrolled in a school under one Monsieur L’Alouette. Here, the Spaniard was able to hone his gifts and truly show his abilities. L’Aloutte came to realize quite quickly that his protege was much more advanced than most of his students and even himself, as he lost a friendly duel against him. After years at sea, working as a bartender, and honing his skills with an expert, Llulla began to be the man history remembers him as.
The Dueling Oaks
As New Orleans was the hub of amateur fighters in the New World, naturally many men filled to the brim with self-confidence looked for duels actively. Some of these duels came from the simplest of infractions, such as sitting in the wrong seat or bumping into someone else. The battles mostly were fought with swords, especially cane swords, but they also were fought with different types of weaponry. Additionally, most quarrels ended with the smallest of cuts and scratches, making the winner the participant who went untouched, but naturally many perished in these altercations. The most popular place for battles in the city was a park known as “The Oaks”. This is a legendary place in history that you can still visit today.
The Man, The Myth, The Legend
On the grounds of the Dueling Oaks Pepe Llulla made a name for himself, fighting battle after battle without a loss. After winning 20 or 30 duels straight, he began challenging locals to battle him with weapons such as machetes and shotguns. Sadly for history’s sake, everyone he approached turned down the opportunity to duel in these ways, but the community began spreading rumors about his skill with all types of weaponry. Rumors began to surface that he could shoot a silver dollar held between one’s fingers from 30 paces away and that he would tell his opponents which coat button he would stab them through before battle. Llulla seemed to only help create theories off his god-like figure, as he soon owned and operated a cemetery, of which citizens claimed he buried those who challenged him and met their end.
In 1853, a group of revolutionary Cubans in the area pushed anti-Spanish ideologies, and in turn, ignited the famed fighter’s sense of nationalism. Llulla reportedly challenged any Cuban who he came into contact with and protected his country’s honor against all who attacked it. This led to his knighthood by the Spanish government and grew his reputation both in the United States and overseas. To add to his character, when the Civil War rolled around in 1860, the Spaniard was staunchly against succession and sided with the Union. To the end of his life he was a successful businessman taking on many endeavors, and ultimately was buried in his own cemetery in New Orleans, where he remains to this day. In the end, Jose Llulla became a legendary figure that history books have seemed to leave out of the past. It is unknown how truthful the stories told by the locals are, but what we do know is that without a doubt this Southerner is one of the greatest warriors in history.
Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Old duelling grounds, New Orleans, Louisiana. United States, ca. 1900. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016799313/.
Holland, Barbara. Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling From Swords at Dawn to Pistols at Dusk. Bloomsbury USA. 2004.
Taylor, Troy. Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy. The History Press. 2010.