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Archive for September 3rd, 2010

All you old-time queens, from New Orleans, who lived in Storyville
You sang the blues, try to amuse, here’s how they pay the bill
The law step in and call it sin to have a little fun
The police car has made a stop and Storyville is done.
  –  Clarence Williams, “Farewell To Storyville”

Storyville postcard, circa 1910

The story “Painted Devil” (which appeared in my column of August 23rd) took place in New Orleans of the early 1880s, as most of you probably surmised; in it I alluded to a few historical details which would be familiar to educated New Orleanians but may have left others scratching their heads, especially my mention of Storyville in a reply at the end.  I therefore decided to give you a quick history of prostitution in the Crescent City, culminating in the history of Storyville.

New Orleans was founded on May 7, 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and named for Philippe, Duke of Orléans, who was Regent of France at the time.  Besides being terribly primitive like all new colonies, New Orleans was hot, mosquito-infested and disease-ridden and therefore had nothing to recommend it to women, so Bienville petitioned King Louis XV for help in 1721.  The monarch responded by releasing all the prostitutes in La Salpêtrière prison and deporting them to New Orleans, where they of course resumed their trade.  So many of the early female inhabitants of the city were whores that when a priest suggested to one of the first governors of Louisiana that he banish all “disreputable women”, the governor replied, “If I send away all the loose females, there will be no women left here at all.”  In 1728, the Ursuline nuns started to import convent-raised middle-class French girls as wives for the middle and upper-class male colonists and continued to do so until 1751; these were called “casket girls” (filles à la cassette) because the French government issued them small chests of clothing.

Most of the female population were still either whores or former whores, but this concerned few people other than the priests; prostitution in New Orleans was neither regulated nor suppressed at any time during the 18th century.  The colony was ceded to Spain by the Treaty of Paris (1763) and remained Spanish territory until 1801, when Napoleon reclaimed it, then sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  Obviously, the puritanical Americans could not allow things to stand as they were, so though prostitution was still legal a series of regulations were imposed to allow the police to arrest streetwalkers for “vagrancy” or harass madams for “brothel keeping”.  Most of these cases were dropped long before trial because the men who owned brothels or rented rooms to streetwalkers wanted their tenants back at work, and paid bribes or hired lawyers to ensure that outcome.  New Orleans’ first actual anti-prostitution law was the 1857 Lorette ordinance which prohibited prostitution on the first floor of buildings; it was soon declared unconstitutional, but the advent of the American Civil War gave the city fathers more important things to worry about.

New Orleans was captured by the Union Navy in May of 1862 and placed under martial law with General Benjamin Butler in command; he was known as “Beast Butler” for his tyrannical orders and “Spoons Butler” for his habit of stealing the silverware of every Southern house he stayed in during the war.  Butler seized $800,000 from the Dutch consulate, imprisoned French and English citizens (including diplomats), arrested clergymen for refusing to pray for President Lincoln, and within days of occupying the city issued his infamous General Order #28, which stated that if any woman should “…show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and shall be held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation”, in other words a prostitute.  This order provoked widespread outcry even in the North and was officially protested by both England and France; it was almost certainly the cause of Butler’s dismissal from the post only seven months later.

Mansions housing expensive brothels on Basin Street, circa 1900

After Butler’s removal the lower-class whores of New Orleans thrived on the business generated by lonely soldiers far from home, and by the end of the war a whole string of brothels had opened along the old Basin Canal; the road which connected them was named Basin Street after the canal, and the brothels there and all over the city continued to thrive during the Reconstruction on the money brought in by the Carpetbaggers, unscrupulous Northern businessmen who flocked to the South to take advantage of its weakened economic condition.  Most of these merchants built their mansions along Nyades Road to the nearby town of Carrolton; the road was renamed St. Charles Avenue and the railway which ran along it was eventually converted to a streetcar line which is still used today.

By 1897 there were brothels all over the city, so Alderman Sidney Story proposed to limit the trade to one district specifically zoned for the purpose.  The district chosen was the Basin Street area where most of the larger and better bordellos had grown up during the Occupation and Reconstruction; specifically, it was the zone bounded by Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and N. Robertson streets.  Residents simply referred to the area as “The District”; only contemporary newspapers and later historians called it “Storyville” after the official who had proposed it.  The brothels ranged from 50¢ “cribs” (originally a San Francisco term) to mid-range houses charging $1-$5, up to a row of elegant mansions along Basin Street where the girls charged $10, a great deal of money in a day when the average workman earned 22¢/hour.  The most expensive fee was probably that charged by Madame Kate Townsend, who though she had long retired from active whoring would still agree to see an important client if he was willing to pay her exorbitant fee of $50/hour!

A catalog named The Blue Book was published periodically by the wealthier brothels; its title page was inscribed with the motto of the Order of the Garter (honi soit qui mal y pense, “shame to him who evil thinks”) and its interior contained descriptions of each house and its featured girls, a price list and a description of any special services offered.  The most lavish of the mansions was probably the Arlington (named for its owner, Josie Arlington) at 225 Basin Street, described in The Blue Book as “absolutely and unquestionably the most decorative and costly fitted-out sporting palace ever placed before the American public.”  The Arlington was a four-story edifice with a distinctive onion-domed cupola, crammed with expensive paintings and statuary and featuring various parlors decorated in the styles of foreign countries.  Josie Arlington herself was a remarkably ethical woman; in a day when verifiable virgin whores brought a whopping $200 or more and previously-wealthy Creole families who had fallen on hard times often sent their beautiful, cultured daughters to the best brothels, she absolutely refused to allow virgins to be “defiled or exploited” by her business.  In fact, the tomb in which she was originally buried (though her body was later moved to foil curiosity-seekers and the structure was sold to the Morales family) features a bronze figure of a young girl who is thought to symbolize a virgin being turned away from the door of the Arlington.

Black, white and Creole brothels (the latter staffed by beautiful “quadroon” or “octoroon” girls, 1/4 or 1/8 black respectively) coexisted in Storyville, but these were all for white clients; black men were legally barred from hiring any girl in the District.  However, brothels where black girls accepted black clients were tolerated in a separate district nearby; they were technically illegal but neither the police nor the regulators ever harassed them.  And though Jazz did not originate in Storyville as is commonly believed, it was played by musicians in the more expensive houses and was therefore first heard in Storyville by many out-of-town clients, becoming inextricably associated with it in those gentlemen’s minds.  “Jelly Roll” Morton and “Pops” Foster started out as musicians in Storyville brothels, and Louis Armstrong’s mother worked in one of the houses after she was abandoned by his father.

Considering its success and the amount of revenue it brought to the city, Storyville might still exist today if not for the prudery of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a teetotaler who considered the district as a “bad influence” on the sailors at the nearby Naval base during World War I.  The District was therefore closed by federal order in 1917 over the strong objections of the New Orleans city government and Mayor Martin Behrman, who said “You can make prostitution illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The closing of the District is dramatized in this scene from the movie New Orleans (1947), in which Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong perform the haunting “Farewell to Storyville”; though most of the working girls were forcibly evicted, new brothels opened in secret both there and in other parts of the city, streetwalkers proliferated and some of the earliest call girls appeared.  Many of the old houses were converted into dance halls, cabarets and restaurants, and after the beginning of Prohibition many speakeasies and gambling dens joined the clandestine brothels.  Frequent police and federal raids failed to hinder operations, so in the early 1930s the city government (at federal urging) bought or seized most of the area and leveled every building (even the beautiful mansions on Basin Street) to make room for the squalid Iberville Housing Project, which remains a blight on the city to this day.  Basin Street was even renamed “North Saratoga”, though the original name was restored by popular demand in the 1950s.

Sadly, the current political establishment in New Orleans prefers to pretend that Storyville never existed; even an historical marker at the site mentions several jazz musicians who were “on the scene here”, but glosses over the industry which employed them with the vague and inaccurate phrase “legalized red light district” (as we have seen, prostitution was not illegal there before so it could not be “legalized”).  Though New Orleans cannot contravene state law, city government is allowed to determine police department policy and could certainly order that prostitution is to be tolerated; instead they play the kind of sleazy games I described in my columns of August 4th, 5th and 6th, and thereby dishonor the memory of thousands of women who helped build the city.

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