Born in Brenz, Germany, Johannes Kruttschnitt came to this country in 1837, seeking (what else?) fame and fortune. He achieved both. A successful merchant, a published scientist, a civic leader, and the father of highly accomplished children, Kruttschnitt rose to become one the best-known, most-respected men in New Orleans in the late 19th Century.
“Despite his modesty and self-seclusion, few men in the city were better known or more respected,” read his obituary in the August 3rd, 1892 Daily Picayune. “His correct life, calm temperament, gentle disposition, broad mind and sympathetic nature made him an exceptional man, physically, mentally, morally, and he was one of the grandest figures in the city’s population.”
Johannes (1812-1892), who was known as John in America, came a long way from his humble origins in Germany. He learned the family craft of pattern weaving at an early age. His mother, Anna Stanglin, died suddenly when he was eight. His father, also a Johannes, then married Anna Gross. The couple produced seven children between 1821 and 1832.
With all the mouths to feed, Johannes was lucky to receive a university education. “When he reached his majority,” in about 1833, he went to Marseilles, France, where he learned commerce and became fluent in French, both of which prepared him for a move to New Orleans, then a thriving port of commerce with Europe. He arrived on February 12, 1837.
Kruttschnitt was “prominent in mercantile circles” as a partner in the firms of Schmidt & Co., Joshua Dixon & Co., and Reichard & Co., according to his obit. A records search shows that at least two of these firms were engaged in the cotton business, which seems appropriate given Kruttschnitt’s childhood training. Large vessels carried cotton from New Orleans to European ports at this time and returned with manufactured goods.
In 1848, after he was established in business, Kruttschnitt married Peninah Benjamin (1824-1903), the sister of Judah P. Benjamin, a Senator from Louisiana who also served as Secretary of State of the Confederacy. Born in Charleston, S.C., Peninah was the youngest daughter of Phillip Benjamin (1781-1852) and Rebecca de Mendes (1790-1847), two Sephardic Jews who took refuge first in St. Croix, then in the Carolinas. Books describe Peninah as being of mixed English and Spanish blood.
The couple apparently had five children. The eldest, Nathalie Lucia, died before her second year. She was followed by Ernest (1852-1906), who was a prominent lawyer; Julius (1854-1925), who rose to become chairman of the Southern Pacific Railroad; Eugenie (1859-1936), who married J.P. Bland, a prominent lawyer in New Orleans; and Alma (1863-1942), who lived the longest and perhaps not coincidentally never married.
The Civil War marked the turning point in John Kruttschnitt’s career. When the war began, Kruttschnitt’s partner, Augustus Reichard, enlisted as a colonel in the Confederacy. He turned over to Kruttschnitt his responsibilities as Prussian consul. Reichard took command of German troops, the so-called Lowell Regiment, that marched to Virginia for battle.
Kruttschnitt’s association with Reichard (whose property was seized after the war) and Judah P. Benjamin earned him the distrust of the notorious General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who commanded a Union force that occupied New Orleans in 1862. Butler distrusted most of the foreign consuls in New Orleans. He accused George Coppell, consul to Great Britain, of giving aid to the Confederacy. He seized $800,000 that had been deposited in the office of the Dutch consul.
Kruttschnitt never reentered active business after the war. He was officially named consul to Prussia and then appointed consul of the North German confederation. When unity was achieved, he became consul of the German empire in 1880.
Consuls, of course, typically represent the interest of people and businesses from foreign countries. In 1860, Germans made up 10 percent of the New Orleans population. And as early as 1850, the majority of New Orleans’ white population was foreign-born. John applied to become a U.S. citizen in 1853, but genealogists commissioned by Pell Kruttschnitt could find no record that he followed through.
New Orleans, which grew to become the 10th largest city in the United States in 1880, was a major port for European imports. In the mid 19th Century, it was the second leading port of entry after New York, partly because it was less expensive to live there. Also, the large merchant ships that traveled back and forth to Europe had room enough to offer bargain fares to passengers.
The Kruttschnitt family moved around an awful lot, perhaps because Kruttschnitt worked for a foreign government that provided housing. Census and city directories have the family living in a half dozen homes between 1860 and Kruttschnitt’s death on August 3rd, 1892. A Google maps search reveals that most of the homes no longer exist. John died at 193 Felicity Street, which is in the 1400th block near present-day Coliseum Street.
Articles from the Daily Picayune indicate that foreign consuls met regularly to discuss import and export issues. At one, in 1887, Kruttschnitt announced that a German ship carrying iron fencing and 600 tons of peat “for manurial purposes” had arrived in the harbor.
Kruttschnitt presided at some grander affairs as well, such as the unveiling in 1883 of a photograph depicting four generations of German royalty. According to the Daily Picayune, Kruttschnitt made a “very neat address” that night at the Bethel. Before handing off the picture, he said that German sailors “would recognize a more home like influence in the Bethel upon beholding the face of the veteran King and his family.” The officers of the Reichard battalion, now part of the Louisiana National Guard, were on hand along with other military units.
“As the picture was placed in Dr. Witherspoon’s hand the soldiers saluted and the scene was an imposing one,” the paper reported. “Miss Maggie Pfister sang the Watch on the Rine, and roused the patriotic enthusiasm in many a heart which had borne joys and sorrows in Vaterland.”
An even grander stage may have been German Day, celebrated at the Expositions Grounds, on March 22nd, 1885, a day that “happily coincided with the 88th birthday of Frederick William 1. King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany.” A large throng of German and American citizens walked the exhibits and gathered at 3 p.m. in the Music Hall. Scarcely a seat was vacant.
On the platform, serving as the master of festivities, was John Kruttschnitt, consul of the German Empire. Kruttschnitt said it gave him great pleasure to address such a large crowd to assist in the celebration of German Day. He then introduced the featured speaker, Hon. Charles F. Buck, who speak at length in the German language. “Man aims after happiness and perfection,” Buck said, according to a translation. “All his efforts and labors go in that direction….[T]hus does the whole world with a powerful yet slow progress conduct toward the welfare and prosperity of all.”
Big public appearances like this, however, may have been the exception to the rule for Kruttschnitt. His obit mentions that friends tried to tempt him from his quiet life, presumably to re-enter the business world. They may have been unsuccessful because his true passions in life were microscopy, mineralogy, and botany. In his obit, Kruttschnitt is described as a “passionate lover” of nature, and a “deep student” of the natural sciences. He joined the New Orleans Academy of Sciences early in its formation and attended every possible meeting.
Kruttschnitt was proficient enough in these pursuits to be published on several occasions in scientific journals. His paper, “Ferns and their Development,” was published in 1880 by the American Society of Microscopists. He read the paper before the New Orleans Academy of Sciences. This paper seemingly went without criticism.
But a second one he presented in 1884 on the fecundation of ovules in Angiosperms touched off a firestorm of controversy. Kruttschnitt wrote that his examinations proved that flowering plants reproduced through the fibers of conducting tissues, not pollen tubes. The tissues, he argued, carry “the fertilizing element.”
The assertion flew in the face of a common belief that impregnation occurred through pollen tubes. At least one miffed scientist sent Kruttschnitt samples to prove that pollen tubes existed. But when Kruttschnitt peered through his microscope he saw something different. He concluded that in the process of destroying the ovary with a scalpel, the scientist had brought some of the conducting tissue in contact with the micropyle of an ovule.
“The invesigators, in their search for separate pollen-tubes, have evidently mistaken the fibrillae of the conducting tissues for them,” Kruttschnitt wrote in a published paper the next year. The experience apparently left him bitter to the ways of scientific research and the publishing of findings.
“In the treatment of the pollen-tube question I have now found out that new ideas, not in harmony with established text-books of any science, have a very poor show of finding favor with the professors of that science,” he wrote in 1885. “It would be an act of self-destruction for any one who aspires to a professorship to proclaim them. If one should do so he would be proclaimed a heretic and voted out of the congregation.
“This is the reason why erroneous theories are so difficult to eradicate. Free discussion is not even tolerated. The pollen-tube question furnishes an example. One who has written a book cannot be expected to spoil its sale by proclaiming its errors. As I do not intend writing a book or aspiring to a professorship I have nothing to lose, and I shall, therefore, continue the battle, even should I remain single-handed.”
Despite an occasional scientific wrangle, or maybe because of them Kruttschnitt in his later years was happiest in the solitude of his library, or in the company of family. “The leisure hours of his last five years were devoted almost exclusively to microscopic research, in which he was markedly proficient,” reads his obit.
“While most popular with all with whom he was thrown, the deceased never sought prominence despite all the efforts of his friends to tempt him from his quiet life. His family and his studies were his pleasures; his home, his intimate friends and his books his dearest world.”