Within these Walls

Biographical portraits of New Orleans residents and their homes

This story appeared in PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

When Charles Ausburne knocked on the door of 1916 Jackson Ave., he had nowhere else to go. He had run away from St. Mary’s Orphan Boys’ Asylum just a few months before. He found work at a dairy, but the dairyman had beaten him. He was a homeless teenage boy with nowhere to turn.

Jennie Singer, a middle-aged housewife, answered the door and was moved by Ausburne’s tears. He begged her to take him in, and she agreed. A few weeks later, Ausburne went to the asylum and returned with his brother Robert. Singer made room for him in the rented house. Nicknamed the “Little Mother,” Singer went on to adopt three other orphaned children.

Ausburne had not always been an orphan. Ausburne’s mother, Kathleen Wilkinson, a New Orleans native, married his father Charles Graham “C.G.” Ausburne in New York City in 1894. The ceremony was covered in the New York newspapers and reprinted in the Daily Picayune. The fact that the couple already had a five-year-old son went discreetly unreported.

A native of Pennsylvania, C.G. Ausburne had fought under Theodore Roosevelt in the Rough Riders during the Spanish American War. At the time of his marriage, he owned a banana plantation in Nicaragua. As New Orleans was the major port of entry for bananas into the country, C.G. Ausburne likely met his wife while engaged in business in the Crescent City.

Soon after his wedding, C.G. Ausburne’s friends warned him that it would be dangerous for him to return to Nicaragua. Eager to protect his property and business interests, C.G. left his wife and son in New Orleans and made the trip to his plantation near Bluefields. When he first claimed the property, he had engaged in an altercation with the indigenous people whose land he was occupying; shots were exchanged, and several people were killed by C.G. and his servant. As a result, he was wanted by the Nicaraguan government. There were also issues involving the expansion of the railroad through his property. Rumors of a kidnapping plot surfaced, but C.G. was arrested before it was carried out. He was held prisoner by the Nicaraguan government before being released on parole to the United States government. He spent most of his son’s childhood concerned with his affairs in a foreign country, leaving his family in New Orleans.

In 1897, Charles Ausburne’s mother died of Bright’s disease. She was only 25 years old. His grandmother had died the previous year, and his only surviving uncle lived in California. His father’s family seemed to want nothing to do with Ausburne and his brother, and the boys were left at St. Mary’s Orphan Boys’ Asylum.

The refuge Ausburne found in the Singer home was not without its stress. Jennie Singer’s husband died, and she moved her household to a residence further up Jackson Avenue. She provided for her biological and adopted children through her work as a midwife.

Ausburne was employed as a messenger. Around 1905, he enlisted in the Navy. Singer accompanied her adopted son to the recruiting office. He visited her every time he was in New Orleans and always listed her address as his home.

On Oct. 17, 1917, Ausburne was serving as Electrician’s Mate 1st Class aboard the transport USS Antilles. He was a radio electrician, and his fellow sailors called him “Sparks.” They had set sail from Belle Isle, France. Two days later at daybreak, a German torpedo tore apart the vessel. Ausburne refused to abandon his radio and continued to send out warning signals as the ship sank. He drove other radiomen from the wireless room, forcing them out to save their lives. The ship sank in only four minutes.

According to The Times-Picayune’s Oct. 20, 1922, account of the event, the official citation stated that Ausburne “remained at his post in an effort to give the warning, regardless of personal safety. Went down with his ship.”

Ausburne was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism. The Navy christened a destroyer in his honor. When the USS Charles Ausburne was engaged in a convoy of destroyers accompanying the cruiser Richmond to take part in Mardi Gras on March 8, 1924, the New Orleans Item ran a piece highlighting “the peculiar claim to New Orleans’ sympathy that the ‘Charles Ausburne’ makes through its name.” The reporter knew that the ship had been christened after a New Orleans native and lamented the fact that there were no relatives or friends at the pier to welcome home the destroyer. A shiny brass plate on the walls of the officer’s cabin memorialized Ausburne.

A second destroyer named for Ausburne was launched in 1942. The Navy located one of his foster sisters, and she sponsored the ship. The USS Charles Ausburne served in the Guadalcanal and Solomon Island Campaign, the Mariana Islands Campaign, and the Philippines and Okinawa Campaigns.