Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Women at Sea: Ladies of The Big Easy

Not long after the horrific ravages of hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed through the Mississippi Delta, I read a comment at the bottom of an online article about the devastation. The commenter, a man from Nebraska, spoke only of New Orleans. He said in no uncertain terms that NOLA, which he called a “cesspool of vice”, had “gotten what the city and its people deserved.” “Let us hope,” he concluded. “That this finally wipes New Orleans off the map forever. That’s what Americans want.”

While certainly hurtful at the very least, such a comment – particularly coming from America’s “heartland” – is not new at all. Americans have always viewed the Crescent City, its relaxed attitude and languid ease with a certain suspicion. By the time the U.S. took control of the city in 1803, she was poised to become the very center of vice in the new country. New Orleans from the late 18th century has been what Las Vegas only wishes it could be: Sin City.

Of course the sins in question – alcohol (and illicit drugs), gambling, prostitution and paganism – were thought to be a routine upshot of a population of sailors and boatmen. Particularly among the Easterners who flocked to New Orleans in the early 19th century, it was generally opined that were she not a long standing port town, New Orleans would be as sedate as Salem, Massachusetts. The only argument to the contrary was that she was “foreign” with a high population of vice-prone French, Spanish and (gasp!) free people of African descent. We all know about “those people”.

The stories of the ladies who catered to the vices of their city, and how they intersected with sailors, boatmen and pirates, are far too vast to be wrapped in one simple post. So today we’ll focus on the organized bordellos that helped New Orleans attract business of all kinds from her founding to the end of Storyville.

What we now know as the Vieux Carre or the French Quarter was established in 1718 and almost immediately the French government began sending its undesirables to the bayou country. Pirates, buccaneers and other brigands were settled in and around the area even as both Louis XIV and Louis XV sent boatloads of unwanted streetwalkers from France to their namesake territory. The stew was ripe for vice even before the first brick houses went up, and our commenter from Nebraska at the very least believes nothing has changed.

By 1810, some semblance of order was established with regard to how and where a gentleman could take his pleasures. The quadroon system, though often lumped in with active prostitution and bordello life, is a completely unique institution that must be dealt with in history and sociology as separate. That said, it was not uncommon for girls of mixed race to work in bordellos and dives that catered to sailors; not every woman could be Pierre Laffite’s or Bernard de Marigny’s mistress.

The most frequented area of vice for the common sailor was known as The Swamp. Located beyond Rue Rampart and St. Louis Cemetery, this was a seedy neighborhood of ramshackle sheds and lean-tos that housed gambling dens, bars and prostitutes. None of the places in The Swamp were trustworthy, and a boatman flush with cash took quite a risk just stepping into the area. Here the girls worked freelance or for pimps. The pay was deplorable and the conditions more so. Doubtless most of these nameless, faceless women did not last long in the trade if they lived much longer.

In contrast the dives in The Swamp was the famous floating whorehouse owned by Annie Christmas. Reputed to be over six feet tall and 300 pounds, Christmas ran her ship with an iron fist and a bullwhip. Her girls greeted customers on deck and then took them below to curtained nooks in the ship’s hold. During high volume months, Christmas would hire itinerate girls from The Swamp and set them up in tents on the deck of her ship. Business boomed and Annie Christmas, to some degree, ran the underbelly of New Orleans. Christmas, who was a passionate gambler, had her throat slit in a gaming house in The Swamp. Her floating “sporting-house” closed shortly thereafter.

By the 1840s the focus on bordellos shifted to what were known as “dance-houses”. Here the girls were clad in provocative attire that showed shoulders, busts and ankles. Madams with imaginative names like Minni Ha Ha ran halls where liquor and girls could be had at relatively low prices. Fanny Sweet, a noted proprietor of one of the more upscale places, added the titillation of New Orleans Voodoo to her business by including weekly “rituals” upstairs. It seems that Fanny was in fact a voodoo practitioner who frequently consulted the daughter of famous voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Like so many others, Fanny paid the authorities to leave her and her girls alone. She retired quite comfortably in Pensacola, Florida, where she died in the 1880s.

The most notorious of the “dance-houses” was run by a mean-spirited drunk named Daniel O’Neil. His place opened in 1860 and he catered to the occupying Union Army and Navy throughout the Civil War. O’Neil was notorious for his poor treatment of the women who worked for him and his “claim to fame” reflected that. When one girl talked back to him he drugged her, stripped her naked and threw her into the alley behind his place. She was there molested by passers-by and subsequently died. O’Neil was acquitted of any wrong doing and he went on to write a letter to the Daily Picayune saying that his prosecution was brought on not by any evidence of guilt, but by the fact that he had missed a few payments of bribes to the New Orleans police.

By the 1870s an eager tourist could acquire a sort of Frommer’s Guide to New Orleans sporting houses that ranked them from dive to palace. Clip-joints were a caveat emptor sort of establishment that would more likely lighten a man’s pockets than satisfy his needs. Cribs were small apartments where girls, appearing to be independent but usually run by a pimp, did a brisk trade. Whorehouses were generally along the levee and the particular haunt of sailors. Bordellos were relatively clean but still affordable, while Parlor Houses offered the finest in women, liquor and d├ęcor. Interestingly, so called Houses of Assignation were also listed. These generally did not supply anything but rooms and alcohol and were a discreet place for the middle class and wealthy to carry on illicit affairs.

In 1898 the influence of moralist and Alderman Sidney Story created what became known as “Storyville”. The area, located on Rue Bourbon, was designated for prostitution and ladies involved in the business were technically not allowed to reside or practice outside of it. Here famous houses like that of Nell Kimball did a brisk trade for almost twenty years. Storyville was closed by the U.S. Government with the onset of American involvement in World War I. The War Department wanted to make sure that U.S. doughboys training nearby didn’t fall into the corrupt arms of New Orleans prostitutes.

Of course if the anonymous commenter from Nebraska is to be believed, that strategy failed miserably. Who it failed – the men or the women – is a question for endless debate. The Crescent City’s rich if brazen history, however, is not. Personally, I have kept a copy of that comment among my writings as a reminder and a motivator. When we forget history – or never bother to learn it – we also forget our heritage and our ancestors which in any other place and time would be the most unforgivable of sins.

Header: Ladies of the Paris House New Orleans c 1900


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Very interesting. Boy, that Daniel O’Neil was a treat... about a nice as the anonymous commenter (aren't they always anonymous?). I think my favorite was Fanny Sweet, though... for obvious reasons.

Blue Lou Logan said...

What a fabulous sketch, and a fabulous commentary. I had the good fortune of honeymooning in NOLA a few years ago. We made a point of staying in the French Quarter but also driving through the still ruined Lower Ninth Ward, a.k.a. "K-Ville." We also spent a fine few hours at what people call "Lafitte's," where I had a wee bit o' Mount Gay rum.

Here's not only to New Orleans but to historical truth. Yeah, truth: beyond fact to the underpinnings of why history matters.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and Lou!

Lou: NOLA will always be around, as anyone who has spent time there knows. It's just to bad that such antique ideas as destroying history for the sake of "virtue" continue to cling to our society. And I'll drink to truth, at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop no less.

Timmy: I'm guessing Daniel O'Neil was probably more like his contemporaries than we'd like to believe. And yeah; aside from her colorful life, just about anyone named "Fanny" is good in my book.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Nervbous Nellie from Nebraska doesn't speak for America. After Katrina, I went down at Christmas and volunteered - we tore out the flooded portions (basically, the entirety of the ground floor) of a mental health clinic. I was accompanied by locals, myself from Missouri at the time, my son who hailed from Georgia, a couple from Boston.... you get the picture. When a neighbor needs help, ya help 'em! :-) Lache pa la potat', oui? hahahaha

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles! You are 100% correct; a lot of people helped not only NOLA but the Gulf coast in general after Katrina. Bless you all.

As they say in the world of Puerto Rican drag, echa pa lante: go forward.

Kari said...

Hello, I was wondering where you got information on Annie Christmas, I have not seen any connection to prostitution prior to your blog.
Also I am currently in Anchorage, Alaska, would love to chat!

Pauline said...

Kari - so sorry to have missed you in July. Please do contact me directly at ladypfb at gmail dot com at your leisure.

I remember the information on Annie Christmas coming from a book about brothels throughout western history but darned if I can find it at home. I'll keep looking and post here when I do.

Fair winds!