Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans
Judith Kelleher Schafer
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
Winner of the 2009 Gulf South Historical Association Book Award
When a priest suggested to one of the first governors of Louisiana that he banish all disreputable women to raise the colony's moral tone, the governor responded, "If I send away all the loose females, there will be no women left here at all." Primitive, mosquito infested, and disease ridden, early French colonial New Orleans offered few attractions to entice respectable women as residents. King Louis XIV of France solved the population problem in 1721 by emptying Paris's La Salpêtrière prison of many of its most notorious prostitutes and convicts and sending them to Louisiana. Many of these women continued to ply their trade in New Orleans.
In Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women, Judith Kelleher Schafer examines case histories from the First District Court of New Orleans and tells the engrossing story of prostitution in the city prior to the Civil War. Louisiana law did not criminalize the selling of sex until the Progressive Era, although the law forbade keeping a brothel. Police arrested individual public women on vague charges, for being "lewd and abandoned" or vagrants. The city's wealthy and influential landlords, some of whom made huge profits by renting their property as brothels, wanted their tenants back on the streets as soon as possible, and they often hired the best criminal attorneys to help release the women from jail. The courts, in turn, often treated these "public women" leniently, exacting small fines or sending them to the city's workhouse for a few months. As a result, prosecutors dropped almost all prostitution cases before trial.
Relying on previously unexamined court records and newly available newspaper articles, Schafer ably details the brutal and often harrowing lives of the women and young girls who engaged in prostitution. Some watched as gangs of rowdy men smashed their furniture; some endured beatings by their customers or other public women enraged by fits of jealousy; others were murdered. Schafer discusses the sexual exploitation of children, sex across the color line, violence among and against public women, and the city's feeble attempts to suppress the trade. She also profiles several infamous New Orleans sex workers, including Delia Swift, alias Bridget Fury, a flaming redhead with a fondness for stabbing men, and Emily Eubanks and her daughter Elisabeth, free women of color known for assaulting white women.
Although scholars have written much about prostitution in New Orleans' Storyville era, few historical studies on prostitution in antebellum New Orleans exist. Schafer's rich analysis fills this gap and offers insight into an intriguing period in the history of the "oldest profession" in the Crescent City.
because she ran a house of prostitution in which a male customer, Abraham Parker, shot and killed a white woman, Eliza Phillips, a public woman who lived in the house. The following year, Melanie, slave of R. A. Lefebre, faced charges of keeping a disorderly house on the corner of Rampart and Toulouse streets. She came to the attention of the police because she insulted and abused a white woman. The Picayune described Melanie as a woman “of very extensive proportions.” Four months later, police
parade, abandoning his boots, which he had given her to shine. Sobbing before the recorder, she stated that his cruelty had caused her mother to commit suicide the year before by stabbing herself in the throat. As she lay dying, he continued to curse her. The young woman begged the recorder not to return her to “endure the cruelties of her stepfather.” There is no disposition of this case and no evidence that the stepfather faced criminal charges. Since the girl’s mother had died, the recorder
constituted an attempt to appear f lamboyant, and aliases may also have been adopted to confuse the police as to one’s true identity. Often these names identified the women with a location—perhaps where they had resided before coming to New Orleans—or they indicated some signature trait. For example, the New Orleans Daily Picayune and court recÂ� ords contain names such as “Hoozier Mary,” “Charleston Pet,” “Cincinnati Mary,” “Boston Kate,” “Irish Mary,” “French Mary,” “Royal Mag,” “Red Mary,”
that allowing witnesses’ testimony concerning specific acts “might delay trials to a degree that might render the administration of justice impracticable.”â•›22 The ruling also faulted Larue for restricting the defense attorneys to proof of Parker’s reputation for “peace and quietness . . . he should be permitted to show his character as to such particular moral qualities as have pertinence to the charge for which he is under trial.” Citing Henry Roscoe’s Digest of the Law of Evidence in
of the ordinance concerning lewd and abandoned women.” Stith stated that “his duty is clear, and he has determined to perform it.” It is clear that the landlords waged a determined assault on the Lorette law. On the very same day that Stith’s statement about his duty to enforce the Lorette law appeared in the Picayune, Adam Boek appeared before Recorder Fabre charged with renting rooms to “lewd and abandoned women” on Marais Street between Customhouse and Bienville in defiance of the Lorette law.