Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District

Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District

by Al Rose

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University of Alabama Press
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8.38(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Chapter One

Basin Street
Open for Business

Prostitution was a favorite avocation, and for many the profession, of an extraordinarily large proportion of the earliest female residents of New Orleans. These women came to the New World under royal auspices, for it was the French kings Basin Street Louis XIV and, after 1715, "the Well-Beloved" Louis XV (through his regent, the duke of Orléans), who were, in a manner of speaking, the city's first procurers. As such, they were responsible for transporting to the new French colony of Louisiana many dozens, and indeed hundreds, of prostitutes and other disreputable women—including, it is said, the real-life Manon Lescaut, the prostitute-heroine of Abbé Prevost's celebrated novel.

    And if the kings (or in the case of Louis XV, the regent) were procurers, the Mississippi Company of that notorious scoundrel John Law was a white-slave gang—and not merely in a manner of speaking. It was common knowledge that this company, in furtherance of its land promotions, kidnapped innumerable "gypsies" and other "women of bad repute" and shipped them off to the New World as "colonists." Among the kidnapped there were, of course, a number of hitherto respectable people of both sexes, who were herded away to Louisiana, along with prostitutes, thieves, vagabonds, and every other kind of wretch.

   Charles Gayarré relates, for example, in his History of Louisiana (1847), that on January 3 1721, "a ship of the company [that is, of the Mississippi Company] arrived ... andin February eighty girls who had been taken from a house of correction in Paris called La Salpêtrière were landed in Louisiana." These women, according to Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, then governor of the colony, "had not been well selected." Intended to serve as wives to male colonists who had been shunted to Louisiana from Canada, where they bad evidently acquired a taste for Indian women, most of the "correction girls," as they would be called by historians willing to admit to their existence, "could not be restrained" no matter what "vigilance [was] exercised upon them." "It would seem," Gayarré noted, "that dissolute women were not looked upon as being included in [a] recent royal edict which prohibited the transportation to Louisiana of ... persons of bad morals; or it may be that this edict, as it is frequently with such things, had been issued merely to stand on paper for some particular purpose, but not to be executed."

    At all events, with the apparent blessings of French kings and dukes and their lackeys, seeds had been sown whose fruits would be a long succession of New Orleans red-light districts. And this state of affairs quite suited the tastes of many of the early inhabitants, who had been chacterized by an earlier governor, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1714, as "no better than the ["wretched"] country; they are the very scum and refuse of Canada, ruffians who have thus far cheated the gibbet of its due, vagabonds who are without subordination to the laws, without any respect for religion or for the government, graceless profligates, who are so steeped in vice that they prefer the Indian females to the French women? Importuned by pious missionaries to expel "loose women" from Louisiana, Cadillac declared that if he did this "there would be no females left, and this would not suit the views of the [French] government."

    The Spanish government, to which New Orleans was ceded by the French in 1762, had somewhat different views. The Spanish governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró made it clear, for example, that he had no taste for the fruits of the French kings' planting. In his Bando de buen gobierno (June 2, 1786), a proclamation issued upon his assuming office and summarized in François Xavier Martin's History of Louisiana (1827): "He declares his intention to proceed with severity against all persons living in concubinage. He observes that the idleness of free negro, mulatto, and quarteroon [sic] women, resulting in their dependence for a livelihood, on incontinence and libertinism, will not be tolerated. He recommends them to renounce their mode of living, and to betake themselves to honest labor; and declares his determination to have those who neglect his recommendation, sent out of the province, warning them that he will consider their excessive attention to dress, as an evidence of misconduct."

    Louis XV's edict against transporting women of loose morals to the colonies, alluded to earlier, had not actually prevented such transportation. Similarly, it is doubtful that Miró's stated policies had much effect on the incidence of prostitution in New Orleans. Prostitution was accepted as a fact of life in both France and Spain, and the Latinate governors in the New World, unlike their New England counterparts, were not, by and large, religious zealots. (Governor Miró, indeed, is credited with having risked his own neck to thwart an attempt by certain Spanish clerical interests to impose the Holy Inquisition on Louisiana. As Gayarré commented: "Considering the dread in which the holy tribunal of the Inquisition had always been held in Spain, the energy with which Miró acted on this occasion cannot be too much admired.")

    During all these years prostitution, and still more commonly, concubinage (much of it interracial) existed to a seemly degree and was practiced, for the most part, with some discretion and, among the propertied classes, with some regard for good manners. And, even taking into account places catering to men off the river and the other "lower" elements, there simply wasn't all that much of it, relative to the total population. It was only after the American accession to power in 1803, only after the introduction of "puritan" morality, that prostitution burst forth out of all previous bounds within the decade.

    The infusion of puritan hypocrisy into Old New Orleans was not the sole factor, of course. For one thing, Mississippi River commerce increased enormously, bringing to New Orleans riotous crews of rough and ready rivermen—fresh off their boats, eager for whiskey and women, and with money in their pockets. Increasing numbers of prostitutes, gamblers, and other tenderloin types gravitated to the city where the money was. Finally, toward the end of the War in 1812, Andrew Jackson led his ill-assorted thousands to New Orleans to battle the British. This horde, sometimes called the "dirtiest troops who ever defended freedom," made the trip without too much grumbling on the promise they would be paid off, including accrued back pay, in the Crescent City. This promise and the troop movement were not secret, and the convergence of prostitutes on New Orleans soon became a scarlet migration without precedent. Loose ladies who followed the dollar sniffed a savory air and came from all over the country.

    The city was situated then, as it is now, on sea-level delta land. Generations of Creole inhabitants had been going just "back-o-town"—a few blocks from the French Quarter—for landfill with which to build up home and business sites. The most convenient place from which to obtain this earth gradually became larger and deeper and soon filled with water to form a sizeable pond or "basin."

    New Orleans' self-styled solid citizens, unwilling to accept the regiments of whores into Creole society, barred them from living or doing business in the city itself. At this time, the entire city was what later could be called the "French Quarter" (or Vieux Carré), and the "basin" was still well outside. The loose ladies retreated to the latter. With their own hands, and with a bit of help from levee loungers and members of General Jackson's forces, they dug a drainage ditch, erected shacks and shanties for themselves, and hung out their red lanterns. "Basin Street" was open for business.

    With the presence of the army and with constantly increasing river traffic, the bawds prospered and managed, for the most part, to survive the yellow fever epidemics of the early 1830s (during which, it is said, they performed heroically as nurses). They even paid liberally to improve sanitation in the area, and fared well without interruption until 1849, when the California gold rush turned the area into a ghost town in a few months. As suddenly as they had arrived, most of these mobile "ladies of the evening" left to seek better fortune among the prospectors. Those who remained struggled along for a half-dozen years, invading all parts of the burgeoning metropolis, including the uptown "American Section" (what is now called the Garden District and the Irish Channel).

    The first of the tenderloin districts of New Orleans to attain special notoriety was the "Swamp," an area bounded by South Liberty and South Robertson streets, and by Girod and Julia streets. It was an incredible jumble of cheap dance halls, brothels, saloons and gaming rooms, cockfighting pits, and rooming houses. A one-story shantytown jammed into a half-dozen teeming blocks, the Swamp was the scene of some eight-hundred known murders between 1820 and 1850. Into this fearsome hell the city's police feared to go and indeed did not go.

    Construction was primitive indeed, most of the lumber being timbers from old disassembled flatboats and crude cypress planks. Every proprietor had to be ready to defend his life and property at all times. Deceptive signs like "House of Rest For Weary Boatmen" (which all too frequently meant permanent rest) were crudely painted on the fronts of these shacks and lighted by red lanterns. In the dense fogs that are so common in New Orleans the area looked at night as if it were being consumed by a huge conflagration—as indeed many New Orleanians prayed it would be.

    The ordinances that the city fathers put on the books to control the situation proved to be ludicrously inadequate. The first, passed in 1817, provided for a twenty-five dollar fine or thirty-days imprisonment of any woman deemed "notoriously abandoned to lewdness" who "shall occasion scandals or disturb the tranquillity of the neighborhood," plus certain other punishments for furnishing lodging to such a woman. By 1837 any three "respectable citizens" could by signing a petition empower the mayor to order eviction of prostitutes from any premises named in the complaint. In 1839 harlots were proscribed from inhabiting the ground floors of surrounding alleys and walks of any building in the city. By 1845 all coffee houses and places of entertainment where alcoholic beverages were sold were declared legally off-limits to prostitutes.

    Such laws were unenforced because they were unenforceable. Throughout the entire period, while the city fathers passed ordinances, the rough, tough "ladies of the evening" were attracting hundreds of flatboatmen, "Kaintucks," and the assorted underworld types with which port cities have always been well stocked and were "processing" them with assembly-line precision and then turning them out penniless into the dawn. The arsenal of weapons used to extract the loot ranged from cajolery to cold steel, through an inventory of pistols, "knockout drops," and blunt, heavy objects, to the standard flow of whiskey dispensed over crude bars. A man could wander into the Swamp and for the going rate of a picayune (about six cents) obtain a bed for the night, a drink of whiskey, and a woman. So long as he carried no other money he was eager to defend, he had a better than average chance of leaving in the morning under his own power and without further economic loss.

    By 1856 property owners and religious groups had found so much occasion to complain about the social and economic effects of prostitution in the city that a serious attempt was made to regulate it legislatively. Accordingly, the Common Council, in 1857, passed New Orleans' first ordinance designed to acknowledge the existence of prostitution by requiring licensing and thereby making this particular profession taxable. No such effort had ever been made in America before.

    This legislation could have made the Swamp relatively safe and, at the same time, been a strong factor in controlling the city's oldest profession, which by now had spread into every neighborhood. But, alas, the ordinance was not to survive its first legal test.

    On May 22, 1857, a Mrs. Emma Pickett applied for a license to operate a bagnio at 25 St. John Street, between Gravier and Perdido streets, but she paid her license fee, as required by the new ordinance, under protest, and immediately filed suit to recover the fee. The case dragged on through 1858 into the spring of 1859, when the appellate courts declared the law to be unconstitutional.

    The jubilant bawds and their protectors flaunted their sins even more openly. Mrs. Pickett's victory was hailed by carriage-borne groups of hundreds of painted hussies variously constumed, rolling along Canal Street and through the French Quarter, gesturing obscenely, displaying themselves, insulting shocked housewives, and otherwise calling attention to the triumph of the sin industry.

    During the late 1850s and early 1860s the Swamp declined for purely geographical reasons, as its inhabitants drifted downtown into Gallatin Street behind the French Market, a location even more convenient, now that pretense of legal control had been demolished, and where the pedestrian traffic was heavier.

    Gallatin Street, just two blocks long, was a true "port of missing men," along which police were constantly on the lookout for missing persons from all over the world. Frequently, these were to be found among the bartenders, cutthroats, dance-house operators, fight promoters, thieves, thugs, and pimps who made up the permanent male population of the street.

    Mortality among law enforcement officers was high, and the police soon learned to tackle the Gallatin Street beat only in groups. The street was the center of narcotics traffic, as well as the home of dealers in stolen goods. Fugitives from every nation's laws found shelter here.

    Mike Haden, who had so thoroughly ventilated his brother with a razor; America Williams, "the world's strongest whore"; Mary Schwartz, who had permanently blinded a customer in a row over her fifty-cent fee; Red-Light Liz, the one-eyed paramour of Joe the Whipper, who made a good living administering beatings to masochistic harlots, using whips, switches, steel rods, razor straps, or canes, according to the lady's preference—such as these were typical of those who found safe haven on Gallatin Street.

    There was music to be heard in the area's "dance houses" from dusk to dawn. These were staffed with women, unpaid by the managements, who were there to solicit customers. Nightly, a visitor might find base amusements in any one of these places where men danced with naked women on crowded floors to the raucous sounds of improvised musical groups of random instrumentation.

    A reporter for the New Orleans Daily Picayune (July 31, 1869) described a typical dance house as "... filthy and unclean to a degree ... [that] beggars description ... a piano and two or three trombones for an orchestra ... dances so abandoned and reckless that the cancan in comparison seemed maidenly and respectable." He noted, in particular, "a state of awful nudity."

    Among the most notorious of the so-called dance houses was the one operated by Dan O'Neil from 1860 to 1869. Its demise was hastened by his act of vengeance against an erring harlot who had been close to his heart but whom he drugged, stripped, and threw into an alley where she was raped and otherwise maltreated by a group of savage and intoxicated hoodlums. For his part in the affair, O'Neil was arrested and his place of business, the Amsterdam, was padlocked. Powerful friends in city hall arranged for his release and acquittal, but after a couple of further openings and closings, the premises were shuttered for good. Considering the normal run of activity in Gallatin Street, these events would not seem to have been serious enough to cause a place to be closed down. In a letter to one of the city's newspapers (July 31, 1869), O'Neil theorized on the reasons for his difficulties with the authorities:

To the reporter of the N.O. Times—About the Amsterdam Dance House—there ain't much in it, as you have written, as appeared in your evening's edition, that's true. As for leaving there I paid, during the past five months, to the Captain of Police, $80 for each of three months, and $40 for each of two. In other words, I paid the police during that time, $320 for keeping the place open. I believe if there had been no trouble about paying up regular I would have been allowed to stay there still.
Dan'l O'Neil

    Meanwhile, the part of Basin Street that was destined to become the main stem of Storyville continued its rise as a vice center. The Daily Southern Star (January 26, 1866) proc]aimed it a "public calamity," complaining that although it had "natural attractions and advantages," not the least of which were "avenues of beautiful trees" along the center of the street, it was "occupied by the low classes of immodest and impure women." The paper, advocating reform, also complained that so beautiful a street, which might well serve for a first-class residential area, was "synonymous with crime and degradation."

    A little enviously, it reported that "the only improvement there recently consisted in the erection of a spacious and elegant house, costing from thirty to fifty thousand dollars, to be occupied when completed by a ... class which created for Basin Street a name not creditable to the city or the locality." This presumably refers to the house of Hattie Hamilton at 21 South Basin Street. The Tagliche Deutsche Zeitung, the city's German daily, would later report (September 22, 1870) that citizens living in and around South Basin Street were seeking an injunction to stop its operation.

    During the 1870s and until 1885, possibly the lowest element ever to practice prostitution in New Orleans was crowded into a single block of Burgundy Street between Conti and Bienville streets, known to the press and citizenry of the era as "Smoky Row."

    Its contentious inhabitants, numbering nearly a hundred female blacks who ranged in age from prepuberty to the seventies and engaged actively, one and all, in the game of commercial sex, would line the banquette (sidewalk), seated on curbs or in wicker rocking chairs, dipping snuff, chewing cigars and tobacco, smoking pipes, and drinking beer and whiskey. The more notorious among them—Gallus Lu, Kidney-Foot Jenny, Fightin' Mary, and Sister Sal (who became known as One-Eye Sal after an altercation with Fightin' Mary)—were known to the police and press as the most dangerous and indeed murderous women in town.

    It must be assumed that some of the men who took their pleasure along Smoky Row did so of their own choice, but this collection of sluts in low-cut, filthy Mother Hubbards must have been of the most limited seductiveness. This is probably why at least a portion of the Row's income depended on the women's literally dragging men in off the street, spitting tobacco juice in their eyes to blind them, slugging them over the head with baseball bats, robbing them, and tossing them unconscious back into Burgundy Street.

    Increasing public pressure inspired the police to make a decisive move against Smoky Row and its inhabitants in July, 1885. Gallus Lu, One-Eyed Sal, and their cohorts in the block were successfully encouraged to leave. The officers made an attempt to unearth the many bodies that were said to be buried in the patios and courtyards of the buildings, but they found none. They did find several score bloodstained wallets (empty) and a mound of miscellaneous items of male apparel.

    While Gallatin Street and Smoky Row catered to the more primitive elements, the "flower of evil" was achieving a handsome full bloom in the high-class establishments of South Basin Street. Here were such celebrated courtesans as Minnie Ha Ha, Kate Townsend, and Hattie Hamilton. These early queens of the underworld, all of pre-Storyville days, were far more gracious practitioners of the purple arts than their more professional sisters who would flourish later in Storyville.

    Orleanians today continue to recall them and their era, as well as some of the men who were part of that showy scene, with a touch of affectionate nostalgia.

    Hattie Hamilton, probably the first of the influential whore-queens, was the mistress of Senator James Beares, with whose help she rebuilt the palace at 21 South Basin Street, known as the Twenty-One. A New Orleans Daily Picayune reporter "reviewed" the premises on February 7, 1869:

The entrance was through a passageway adorned with a couple of statues representing some obscure divinities of light, and in whose hands were held lighted flambeaux. Beyond this lay the drawing-room, peopled with a few figures in glittering attire, and who, from their costumes and manners, might have been visitants from the Mountains of the Moon. Neither did the decorations of the rooms, in the pictures that hung on the walls, the plated mirrors, the delicately tinted furniture, appear to be altogether of a sub-lunar character, though evidently intended to embody a sybarite's dream—luxury and repose. The grotesque and bizarre aspect of everything —splendor without comfort, glitter and sparkle suggestive of death and decay—gave rise to singular reflections.

    In May of 1870 the senator was shot to death at his home, where Hattie was living with him. As the butler hurried in, Hattie was still holding the smoking pistol in her hand, but she was released without questioning by the police. The Twenty-One's popularity waned thereafter, for lack of the "high-class" patronage that the senator had directed to Hattie's at fifty dollars per.

    Hattie's successor as queen bee of the pre-Storyville demimonde was the celebrated and notorious Kate Townsend, of 40 South Basin Street, whose melodramatic career ended in abrupt violence on November 3, 1883, at the hands of her ne'er-do-well Creole lover, Troisville Sykes. This was the most widely publicized sex murder in New Orleans history.

    Sykes pleaded not guilty. He was able to establish the fact that he had stabbed Kate with a bowie knife only in self-defense and was acquitted. He then proceeded to offer her will for probate. She had wished, this document attested, to leave all her worldly goods—slightly over ninety thousand dollars—to him. After five years of courtroom nonsense, most of it centering around the concubinage law, Sykes emerged with a grant of about thirty dollars.

    It has been asserted by many observers that with Kate Townsend prostitution in New Orleans reached its pinnacle of luxury. The Daily Picayune, in its account of her demise (November 4, 1883), described her room:

In the left-hand corner was a magnificent etagere, upon which were statuettes, the work of renowned artists, and small articles of verdu, betraying great taste both in selection and arrangement. A finely carved though small table stood next, while adjoining this was a splendid glass door armoire, on the shelves of which were stored a plethora of the finest linen wear and bed clothing. Next to the armoire was a rep and damask sofa and over the mantel was a French mirror with a gilt frame. A large sideboard stood in the corner next to a window on the other side of the chimney, and in this was stored a large quantity of silverware. Another armoire similar to the one described, a table and the bed completed the furnishings in the room. Saving the armchairs, of which there were a number, covered with the finest rep and damask, with tete-a-tetes to match. The hangings of the bed, even the mosquito bar, were of lace, and an exquisite basket of flowers hung suspended from the tester of the bed. Around the walls were suspended chaste and costly oil paintings. The bloodstained carpet was of the finest velvet.

    In the economically deflated eighties, champagne at fifteen to fifty dollars a quart and a fee for sexual services fixed at a hundred a night made Kate Townsend's the flossiest brothel in the hemisphere. Catering strictly to the carriage trade, at these prices, the madams required evening dress of their patrons, ball gowns of their girls—downstairs. Most of the accepted rules of etiquette applied and the young Cyprians were carefully schooled in good manners and tasteful grooming.

    La Townsend permitted, in fact encouraged, charge accounts, and once a man had established his credit, he was treated like a king. Her investigative facilities are said to have been as efficient as today's major credit bureaus, though she operated through channels less conventional than theirs.

    Contemporary with Kate Townsend and Hattie Hamilton was the remarkable Minnie Ha Ha, another of the early Basin Street madams, who preferred that Orleanians take her to be an Indian rather than a Negro. In the late 1860s hers was one of the most elaborate mansions in the city. She was descended, she asserted, from Mr. and Mrs. Hiawatha, and an oil painting of these forebears graced her wall as documentation.

    These were among the more orthodox entrepreneurs of the red light. Others were less conventional. Perhaps the most colorful adventuress ever to keep a house of assignation in New Orleans was Fanny Sweet—thief, lesbian, Confederate spy, poisoner, procuress, and brawler—whose affairs were, in part, guided by the ubiquitous "queen of the voodoos," Marie Laveau, and her "staff."

    In 1860 Fanny enlisted the aid of the voodoo queen to turn up an "angel" to finance a new brothel venture. She was convinced that it was the "Laveau power" that was responsible for the entry into her life of the patron who provided her with the house at the corner of South Basin and Gasquet streets and stocked it with imported potables and the best domestic help. Here, unknown to her generous "john," she mulcted old men of thousands upon thousands of dollars by a judicious combination of the procurement of innocent young girls and subsequent blackmail. Fanny's confidence in the "black arts" became public knowledge later the same year when she was one of those rounded up in a police raid on a voodoo ceremony. The next year, when Fanny was accused of poisoning a lover, the police went through her place and turned up all manner of gris-gris and voodoo paraphernalia, including a lock of human hair—bloodstained. The magic seems to have served her well: Fanny Sweet never did time for any of her innumerable misdeeds. She operated her house for two uninterrupted decades before her final retirement in 1889. She died in Pensacola, Florida, in 1895, at the age of about sixty-five.

    Josephine Clare, said to be the District's most "frigid" tart, was Madame Gertie Livingston's prime attraction. Various prizes were advertised for the Lochinvar who could bring her to life but, so far as is known, the widely known "Josephine Icebox" was never defrosted.

    Happy Charley was an entertainer who amused patrons of saloons in the tenderloin by playing a tin whistle through his nose while singing, somehow, some lines that the Lantern for May 14, 1887, would preserve under the title "Der Nue Orleans Tuff":

I am a man dat most of yer know,
I'm known as a knocker wherever I go.
My fame it is fightin'; I kan't get enuff,
All over de town dey call me a tuff;
Yes, I'm a man dat de people all dread,
And when I gets rowdy I paints de town red.
I know all de cops; I stan' in wid de roughs,
Yer kin bet yer sweet life I'm er Nu'Leens tuff.

On one occasion, the record shows, Charley sang this blustering number to the wrong man. The ensuing challenge to his claims of fistic prowess left him with a broken nose that affected his musical virtuosity adversely. In 1895 he was managing a Franklin Street bar and no longer "performing."

    In Archie Murphy's Gallatin Street dance hall were such characters as Lizzie Collins, who developed a compulsion to steal all the buttons from her customers' trousers, an eccentricity that led eventually to her being banished from the premises.

    Bricktop Jackson, with knife and slingshot, fought her way through dozens of brawls, killing at least four men and committing mayhem on many another. She wielded a fifteen-inch knife with a silver handle in the middle and lethal steel protruding from either end. Her lover, John Miller, wore a chain and an iron ball in place of a left arm. In combat, this apparatus, coupled with a long-handled knife in his right hand, was formidable indeed, but not enough so to protect him from the rages of his pugnacious mistress, who did him in on December 7, 1861. At this time the New Orleans Daily Crescent took note of Bricktop's "bestial habits and ferocious manners." On another occasion, in company with two other bawds, Ellen Collins and six-foot America Williams, Bricktop stood trial for a murder that they had committed before many witnesses but of which, for reasons still untold, all three were acquitted.

    America Williams was called the "Heavy-weight Champion of Gallatin Street," her gender notwithstanding. She defended her title successfully for many years against inebriated challengers of both sexes, but by Gallatin Street rather than Marquis of Queensberry rules.

    One-Legged Duffy (née Mary Rich) did not fare so well. Her boy friend not only stabbed her but bashed out her brains with her own wooden leg. The mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans underworld was not distinguished for gallantry.

    Bridget Fury (née Della Swift) became a prostitute at twelve in Cleveland, Ohio, but came to New Orleans at an early age, achieved wide notoriety for her ruggedness and skill in hand-to-hand combat, and ended up in jail for murder.


On Landscape, Gender, and Art

By Rebecca Solnit


Copyright © 2001 Rebecca Solnit. All rights reserved.

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