Researchers at Victoria Mansion in Portland have begun studying how the mansion’s original owner, Ruggles Morse, used enslaved individuals for labor in the mid-1800s at his hotels in New Orleans. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In 1868, David Wilson was living in New Orleans on Calliope Street with his wife, Winnie. He was working as a barber.

The Civil War had ended only three years earlier, and Wilson went before the Louisiana Senate to testify against a member who had been a captain in the Confederate military. According to a newspaper account, Wilson told legislators the captain should apologize “openly from the house and hill tops” for the wrongs done to enslaved people during the war.

Wilson himself had been enslaved, including by Ruggles Morse, a Mainer who became a luxury hotelier in New Orleans and built Portland’s palatial Victoria Mansion as a summer home.

Those details, sparse but illuminating, have recently been discovered by staffers at the mansion – since 1941 a museum, where Morse’s participation in slavery has long been known but rarely explored.

Now, Victoria Mansion has launched a research project called “The Unwilling Architects Initiative” to learn more about the enslaved people Morse used to make his fortune.

A stereopticon photograph of the St. James Hotel in New Orleans, around 1870. Morse ran the hotel and was a silent partner in the pharmaceutical business above it, E.B. Wheelock & Co. Courtesy of Victoria Mansion

So far, the staff has learned that Morse purchased or sold at least 27 individuals in Louisiana.


Those men, women and children likely never came to Maine. Still, Unwilling Architects aims to expand the history of Victoria Mansion to include their stories and recognize their forced relationship with the Morse legacy.

“It’s a place where we can talk about art and architecture and the decorative arts, but increasingly, we’re using it as a way to explore human history and social history,” said the museum’s executive director, Tim Brosnihan.

“This house has enormous potential to explore and think about 19th-century life, so we’ve been taking a new direction recently.”

Scarlett Hoey, director of membership and development at the New England Museum Association, said Unwilling Architects is an example of a broader effort among historical sites to reckon with the region’s connections to slavery, which have often been ignored or minimized. The association recently established a community of practice for members to share questions and ideas about those ongoing projects, and 120 people attended the first virtual meeting.

“More institutions are recognizing that their sites have a responsibility to uplift the Black history stories of both enslavement and freedom at their sites,” Hoey said. “It’s important to confront these histories and confront this perspective of nostalgia and history. … We learn about the present through understanding the past, and when you only tell one narrative or one history, that’s not the whole truth.”



The estate later dubbed Victoria Mansion was built between 1858 and 1860, although Morse and his wife, Olive, apparently did not visit for the first time until 1866.

Today, the website describes the mansion as “one of the finest examples of the Italian Villa style in America.” The 11,000-square-foot house at 109 Danforth St. contains nearly all of the original furnishings and finishes, much of them restored to period condition, including stained-glass windows and wall paintings.

The façade is brownstone, the décor is lavish and the house includes the most modern conveniences of the day – hot and cold running water, flush toilets, central heating, gas lights and a servant call-bell system.

There are clear references to the Morses’ Southern life. A stained-glass window displays the state seals of both Louisiana and Maine. The Morses hung a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in their home. A plaque appears to be from a collection box in one of Morse’s hotels for a towering statue of Lee in New Orleans. (The monument was removed in 2017.)

The Morse family’s participation in slavery and support of the Confederacy has been briefly acknowledged in museum materials and on tours, but never discussed or researched in depth.

Portraits of Ruggles and Olive Morse hang in the reception room at Victoria Mansion in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As volunteer docents, Linda Levesque of Gorham and Mary Spugnardi of Buxton would give regular tours to some of the mansion’s 30,000 annual visitors. But the museum has never had much information to answer a common question: “What do you know about the man who built this house?”


Ruggles and Olive Morse were both born in Maine, although little is known about their families or their lives. Ruggles grew up on a farm, and the staff at the mansion believes he worked at luxury hotels in Boston and New York before he settled in New Orleans. There, he became involved in hotel management and sometimes ownership – particularly the Arcade Hotel, the City Hotel and the St. James Hotel.

The Morses did not leave diaries, journals or other personal writings. So when the pandemic shut down museum tours for months, the staff and docents used the downtime for more research. Levesque and Spugnardi decided to dive into the lives of Ruggles and Olive. The project meant learning more about their time in Louisiana, including their connections to the slave economy there – and in turn, its connections to Maine.

Levesque and Spugnardi started reading about mid-19th-century life in New Orleans. The city at the mouth of the Mississippi was a major Southern center for shipping and business, including the slave trade. They found the Morses in newspaper archives that hinted at their social lives and their business dealings, including their participation in the slave auctions that were common in the city.

“It became very apparent that this poor farm boy from Maine became an influential, wealthy businessperson who absolutely adopted the Southern culture,” Levesque said.

A stained-glass window at the top of the main stairwell in Victoria Mansion displays the state seals of Maine and Louisiana. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Spugnardi added, “He was a mover and shaker in the community. … In researching the hotels, it was not uncommon to see on an almost daily basis in the newspaper ads for auctions of enslaved people, and Morse did lease the space in his hotels to hold those auctions.”

Further research has shown that Morse himself started buying enslaved people in 1847 and purchased at least 27 individuals by 1860.


“Everything in New Orleans at that time prior to the war was tied up in the slave economy,” said Staci Hanscom, director of education and public programs at Victoria Mansion. “There really is no way to divorce where he made his money.”


The work of Levesque and Spugnardi became the starting point for the Unwilling Architects Initiative. The mansion secured $7,500 funding in 2021 for further research through the Maine Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and hired a consultant on diversity, equity and inclusion, Anisa Khadraoui.

Khadraoui lives in Boston and works in public health, but grew up in Portland and attended Waynflete School, just a few blocks from Victoria Mansion. She wasn’t familiar with the house or its history. The staff at the Victoria Mansion learned about Khadraoui because she also sits on the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, a historic Munjoy Hill building that served as a center of social and political life for Portland’s African American community through the 19th century.

“Oftentimes, people distance Maine and New England from Black history, but if I know anything, Black history is American history,” Khadraoui said. “I think sometimes it’s a history people don’t want to contend with, but it’s important that people want to ask the question, ‘Who occupied the space that we’re now stewards of?’ So we can understand the space and its people in a fully nuanced way.”

Khadraoui said she has encouraged the staff to learn as much as they can about these people as individuals and not just in the context of their enslavement by Morse.


“In an ideal world, we would have people’s diaries and full recollections,” Khadraoui said. “But at that time period, Black people were prohibited from being able to tell their stories fully and complexly. For me, what’s important is pulling out as much first-person information as we can.”

This plaque seeking contributions for a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was in one of Morse’s New Orleans hotels. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hanscom and Brittany Cook, development and communications coordinator at the museum, have been combing through newspaper clippings, sale documents and city registries of free Black residents to create a list of the people enslaved by Morse at some point. The available records are often dehumanizing and transactional, short on the personal details. The researchers have found full names for a few, but most are identified only by a first name or none at all.

Many questions remain, including what labor they performed for the Morse family. (There are some indications that the hotels relied on enslaved people; Levesque and Spugnardi found an advertisement for one of the hotel restaurants that said, “You need not tip.”) The staff can tell that Morse often bought enslaved people from business associates and then sold them back within a short period of time, but they don’t know why.


Despite these gaps and challenges, Cook and Hanscom have managed to construct basic narratives for some of those who were enslaved under Morse.

David Wilson, the barber, was one. Morse purchased him from a business associate in 1853 and then sold Wilson back within months. The associate, William E. Wilson, emancipated David Wilson in 1854. Still, the newly gathered details have raised more questions. A younger woman lived in the Calliope Street home with David and Winnie Wilson, but it is not clear how she was related to the couple.


Flora was another person enslaved by Morse. She was 36 in 1859 when she was brought to Louisiana from a plantation in Georgia. The researchers knew from other records that she had three children, but they did not know their names until they discovered a newspaper ad from a slave auction in Morse’s City Hotel.

“While the event itself – the selling of a mother and her children at auction along with material goods – is a tragic act, the advertisement does provide information that allows us to know more about Flora and her children,” Cook and Hanscom wrote. “It is because of this advertisement that we now know the names of Alonzo, Henry and Hailly, and can restore their identities to the space they occupied in history.”

A portrait of Ruggles Morse hangs in the reception room at Victoria Mansion in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Cook and Hanscom said they will keep looking for details. They plan to do more research in records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress in 1865 to help formerly enslaved people make the transition to freedom and citizenship, and in Lost Friends advertisements, used by many individuals after emancipation to reconnect with loved ones separated by war and slavery. The researchers also hope to travel to New Orleans to review documents in person.

The museum is currently closed for the season, but will reopen for school tours later this winter and for public tours in May. Cook and Hanscom are updating printed materials and training docents on the new information, and hope to eventually create a page on the museum’s website dedicated to these narratives. Cook and Khadraoui will also give a virtual talk Thursday about the project; registration quickly filled to capacity.

“There are certainly a lot of questions that the research has caused us to ask, and we hope that we can continue to find answers,” Cook said. “It is great to be able to find information about people like David. The more he appears in the public record, the more you can really learn about his life and where in New Orleans he was.”

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