Not a Fairy Tale
Places can carry as much charisma and nostalgia as any historic figure.
Old West towns such as Deadwood, Dodge City, and Tombstone form the dirty backdrops for many romantic, tragic, and mythical figures and events from the American frontier’s rougher days.
Towns can be forgotten, though. Some had their day in the sun and vanished, many times for the wrong reasons.
Racism insured some communities did not thrive. The infamous Rosewood, Florida, is such a forgotten town. This predominantly black community peacefully co-existed with nearly all-white towns nearby for years until the early 1920s (the nadir of race relations in the US).
On January 1, 1923, a white female resident near the Rosewood area (after being abused and beaten by her white lover) claimed a black drifter raped her. No such thing happened, but in America in 1923 proof wasn’t necessary. The county’s rednecks and white trash formed a lynch mob, routed the tiny black community, and rampaged in the wake of the allegation. They forced many Rosewood residents to flee and shelter in the nearby swamps. Others were beaten and some were murdered; the town was put to the torch.
Occasionally, even within the confines of a notorious and famous city such as New Orleans, a part of the town can gain the same notoriety and historic longevity as the city in which it is located. This is the case with New Orleans’ iconic “red light” district, Storyville.
“Once Upon a Time . . . ”
The French populated what is now New Orleans with their refuse in the same way Britain transported its trash to Australia and Georgia in the United States.
France sent its criminal population to The Crescent City (so named because of the shape of theMississippi River bend where the town was built). It also became a dumping ground for the “degenerate” members of Parisian society.
Women migrated as well in the early 1700s. Many were former French prostitutes; they’d been sent over as consorts for the governing élite. Considering these women held pedigrees from many of the finer Parisian brothels they were in for a shock upon arrival in Colonial New Orleans. One woman reported the swampy squalor was “an incredible jumble of cheap dance halls, brothels, saloons, gambling rooms, cockfighting pits, and rooming houses”.
This is the same kind of mining camp atmosphere that would meet anyone venturing to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, over a century later. These women, however, had brought their French “breeding” with them, and they developed an upscale prostitution culture the city embraced and fostered.
Prostitutes, though, tended to attract trouble. Crime rates around any operating brothels were very high, and murder was so commonplace it was almost not worth remarking upon. By the early 18th century, brothels were opening almost anywhere. Greater than the crime hazards of prostitution (not from the prostitutes themselves but by johns, pimps, and drug dealers), subsequently, were the worries over real estate values.
And it was that concern which finally forced city government to take action to control prostitution.
Anyone could open a brothel anywhere in the city. People were loath to buy homes or invest in businesses simply because a brothel could set up shop right next door, and the investment
Before this happened, though, a less draconian measure was put forth in 1857. Prostitution was recognized as a profession in New Orleans. Prostitutes had to be licensed and registered before they could work. This also meant their incomes could be taxed, definitely a boon to the city’s coffers.
This did not satisfy property owners and real estate speculators, though—hookers could still ply their trade in anyone’s back yard.
The legislation was also unenforceable; it was repealed shortly after initiation.
Although many think prostitution harms no one, the unfortunate state of affairs in New Orleans meant children were also working as prostitutes. These were usually the illegitimate daughters of working hookers. They grew up in brothels and took to the job themselves when they were considered “old enough”. A black woman, a former child prostitute of Storyville, recalled in her adulthood that “old enough” for her was about the age of eight. At that time she was given the assignment of performing fellatio for money. When she was twelve her virginity was sold to the highest bidder. She worked as a prostitute for most of her life afterward.
In the early 1890s, to at least combat the proliferation of child prostitution, a moral group formed called Prevention of Cruelty of Children. These crusaders began removing child prostitutes from brothels on Basin Street and Howard Street.
A police ordinance in 1894 forced the brothels to move, and they were pushed into the area that became known as “Storyville”.
To institutionalize this segregation of the prostitution business from the rest of the city, but to continue to allow it to flourish, an alderman named Sidney Story proposed a fixed area within the boundaries of New Orleans be set aside as the city’s “red light” or Tenderloin District. This 35-square-block zone was designed to work as the city’s only place for a legal sex trade.
There was an uptown district (whose sole function was to cater to blacks) and a downtown district. It is the downtown district that came to be famously known as “Storyville”. [It was informally named in “honor” of Alderman Story whose proposal its creation was. Its “official” name was simply “The District”.] This prostitution zone had been modeled loosely on those in Amsterdam and in Germany, and it was officially designated on New Year’s Day, 1898.
New Orleans’ population was a real melting pot. Creoles (originally those of mixed Caucasian/French heritage, but later blended with African blood) formed many of the prostitute class. African women, black American women, white women from Europe and the United States, almost any nationality or ethnicity was represented.
Ironically, these women were off-limits to a black man—no black man could legally partake of the pleasures of Storyville. The “uptown” area was where black men were supposed to go. However, many “forbidden” houses catering to black men operated openly (and illegally) with full police knowledge, outside the two designated areas.
The brothels were required to post charges and what services a john could expect for that fee. They ranged from elaborate mansions at the high end of the spectrum (where “services” could cost about $10, close to almost $300 in today’s money) to the bottom end (in the squalor of the “cribs” where sex was fifty cents or a bit under $15 now ).
A guidebook for tourists was created, called the Blue Book, and this little guidebook saw five editions. It described the class and type of women in each house, the brothel’s décor and food offerings, its sexual menu, and its pricing structure. From the guide, the average man could find his way to whatever sort of place catered to his particular whims.
This concept seemed to work. It restricted the activities both sexual and criminal to one contained part of town, property values were protected elsewhere, and everyone was happy.
At least, for almost 20 years.
Into the Storyville picture came a photographer named E.J. Bellocq (died 1949). He was from New Orleans, born into a highly placed and wealthy Creole family in 1873. He developed
Bellocq was a true artist, however, and he sought his art where he could find it. He felt there were pictorial essays on many subjects not generally considered palatable by the public. For example, he cruised the opium dens of Chinatown documenting the life there.
When he turned his eye toward Storyville, though, he made magic. Over a period of a few years in the early 1900s he took many photographs of the places and colorful people who lived and worked there. It is the portraits of the “working“ women he took, however, that are the most engaging. There is a certain shabby gentility about them; in the posing and staging of many of the pictures the viewer can see their effort to look their best in a photo that might include rundown furniture or peeling wallpaper.
These images were shared with only a handful of Bellocq’s close associates during his life. After he died they later came to light for mass consumption, and featured in an art exhibition and a companion book on the subject for the first time in 1970. They have become historic documents of the period, giving a true sense of place of Storyville.
Bellocq knew many of these prostitutes personally as friends. Although he was not the only person to essay these women and their lifestyle, he was the best known. His candid pictures as well as his posed ones carry a sympathetic quality to them, sometimes combined with a sense of whimsy (as in a shot of one of the best known hookers of the era stretched out on a tabletop playing with a puppy).
The 1978 movie Pretty Baby starred Brooke Shields as a child prostitute in Storyville. The photographer Bellocq is brought to life in a star turn by Keith Carradine. Storyville has featured as a backdrop in other films, as well as in several novels.
Storyville attracted a carnival of characters, cons, and cut-throats. None perhaps was better known than Tom Anderson, “The Mayor of Storyville”. Anderson was well-liked, but he was a pimp, a drug dealer, and a saloon keeper. It is Anderson who wrote the introduction to the Blue Book, and it is a rather tongue-in-cheek statement, referring to the need to be “a wise guy” and how the brothels were not “hop joints”. Storyville was occasionally also called “Anderson County” because of his influence in the area.
Jazz was not born in Storyville, but it flourished in its brothels. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton actually lived in Storyville in addition to entertaining there. Another common musical fixture in the area theaters was “Prof.” Toney Jackson; an old flyer for one of his brothel shows describes him as “a good card”. Many other jazz greats cut their chops playing in Storyville, too.
The true stars of Storyville, though, were the women. Many of them rose to celebrity status. A highly sought woman of the time was prostitute (and later madam) Nola Muse.
Two of the better known madams were Lulu White and Hattie C. Hamilton. Lulu (born in Selma, Alabama) came to New Orleans in 1880 and ran brothels there until 1906 when she went broke (losing over $150,000 in investment money). She took off to California, but came back to Storyville, running a brothel till its forced closure in 1917.
Hattie was a volatile woman who in 1870 had shot one of her johns, a Louisiana state senator, in his home. She was released from police custody without ever being charged for the murder; she went on to become one of the best known madams of her day.
Like Rosewood, Florida, the social experiment of Storyville would fail due to external forces. Storyville was brought down by two things: a prudish turn in the country’s thinking and the
The ugliness of temperance and prohibition was in its nascent stages in the late 1890s. This movement gathered steam, and by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917 the conservative swing in the country’s moral climate was tooth-chattering.
The US Army, in particular, ratcheted its sense of moral outrage several notches because of one thing: prostitution. More specifically, it worried about sexually transmitted diseases prostitutes might carry. Army officers all knew once the US mobilized millions of soldiers in Europe they would meet prostitutes. Prostitutes would mean gonorrhea and syphilis. A diseased soldier was one who couldn’t fight. A problem in Civil War Knoxville, Tennessee, for example, was sexually transmitted diseases—there were so many prostitutes in town with Burnsides’ bivouacked men that at one time more soldiers were put down by gonorrhea than by bullets.
The concerns for the public health were real, though it wasn’t “the public” the Army was concerned with but its enlisted men (mostly farm boys, many of whom had never engaged in sexual intercourse before joining the military). Similarly, these future soldiers had to be trained. The fear, of course, was the proximity of prostitutes to any training base meant unhealthy soldiers.
In October 1917, right after the US committed to entering the war, Secretary of War Newton Baker issued a highbrow moralizing statement to justify what was coming:
“These boys are going to France. I want them adequately armed and clothed by their government; but I want them to have an invisible armor to take with them . . . a moral and intellectual armor for their protection overseas.”
With the grass-roots support of a group called the American Social Hygiene Organization (and with the Army already prohibiting its men from patronizing brothels stateside) the US set up a segregation program nationally. They couched this in a “moral” message, and prostitution was prohibited within ten miles of a military base.
As there was now a US military base right outside New Orleans, this new law put an end to the legal Storyville. The New Orleans Mayor at the time of Storyville’s shuttering, Martin Behrman, raged, “You can make [prostitution] illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” Prostitution went back to the underground, the illegality, and the sleaze of exploitation.
The women captured on glass-plate negatives by E.J. Bellocq live on, though, as frozen icons of an age of hedonism and of the recognition of human frailties.
Author's Note (update, August 16, 2013): The original images by Bellocq that accompanied this article (when it was first published in 2011), though severely cropped and censored by the author (with black-out bars, etc.) were considered too risqué by Google (which supplies the ads for this site). Thus, unfortunately, they have been removed.
Sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused the reader. They can be found elsewhere on-line, however, and they have an excellent story to tell.
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