Last Days Of Storyville
Shutting down “The District” a century ago was no easy trick
New Orleans photographer E. J. Bellocq took this photograph of a prostitute in Storyville around 1912. Photograph by E.J. Bellocq © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
From 1897 to 1917, Ordinance No. 13032 established 16 square blocks in New Orleans for “lewd women” to ply their vocation. The area featured the most ornate mansions and ramshackle lean-tos and was called “the district,” “red-light district,” “Tenderloin,” or “Storyville.” The latter was a backhanded compliment to Alderman Sidney Story who introduced the ordinance, claiming it served three purposes. One, the city reclaimed valuable commercial property and received taxes for its true value. Second, it removed “temptation and open insult from the path” of the city’s respectable females. Third, it protected the prostitutes from persecution and violence. Story admitted that calling the district Storyville was a “pseudo-compliment” and was initially touchy about it, but grew to see it as a “reward” for his efforts to better New Orleans. Story’s purposes, however benevolent, had the exact opposite effect due to greedy landlords, violent underworld figures and spectacularly corrupt police and city officials.
The Miser King And Mother Beer
Rents in Storyville were exorbitant. Houses and businesses that once rented for $8 to $10 a month went for $100 to $150 a month once the ordinance went into effect. Many rented on a nightly basis in a system known as “Jackal Landlordism,” when property owners, for example, portioned off a six-room house into three “cribs” or “huts” rented nightly (in advance) for $3 to $4. The king of the jackals was Ike Herdman, the “Miser King of the Tenderloin.” Herdman, originally from Russia, had abandoned his family 35 years earlier and come to the U.S. Finding his way to New Orleans, he worked as a glazier, saved his money, and bought property in Storyville, unconcerned about the moral stain. At the time of his death in 1916, Herdman owned over two dozen properties. His Storyville properties alone cost about $60,000 and had yearly rental income of $27,000. Assessors records were an easy way to keep business owners honest as newspapers published lists of Storyville property owners. Those who wished to profit from prostitution but were concerned about their social standing continued operating brothels outside of Storyville in what was the city’s worst-kept secret.
Upon Storyville’s opening, the Times-Picayune believed that suddenly ejecting lewd women from their residences and corralling them within a regulated district was not enough. Their presence around the city created a moral virus. The Picayune believed any former brothel outside of Storyville needed to be purified by tearing it down and building factories and businesses in their place. But many illegal brothels remained; their owners couldn’t see the purpose in paying higher rents and openly operating under a scarlet drapery. Their regular customers were grateful, wishing to maintain a hypocritical discretion and keep their vice palaces lit by genteel soft white lights – not red.
The newspapers continually blasted the police department for ignoring the illegal brothels. In 1902, Mrs. Mary Pullen was arrested for operating an illegal brothel on Elks Place. Numerous neighbors complained but Pullen was found not guilty, primarily thanks to police incompetence, not her innocence. This evoked a closer investigation. For weeks after the Pullen verdict, various illegal brothels (most operated by married women) were exposed. One of the most habitual offenders of operating outside of Storyville was Anna “Mother” Beer, a widow in her 60s, who resided on St. Louis Street. The city directory listed her as renting furnished rooms but she furnished much more. Beer specialized in a particular commodity – shop girls. Her male clients picked out shop girls they liked and Beer invited them to a supper party at her house. There, she would either bribe or threaten them with the loss of their reputations if they did not acquiesce.
Newspapers constantly ran addresses of illegal brothels throughout the city, calling for their closure. Still, most were tenderhearted about the fate of the women living in them. In 1917, Commissioner of Public Safety Harold Newman enacted a massive city-wide “clean-up campaign” shutting down over 60 illegal brothels from City Park to the fashionable Octavia Street. As a result, 300 women found themselves out of work with no welcome in respectable neighborhoods and no room in Storyville. Only two houses in the district were for rent – at the inflated price of $150 a month. Just weeks earlier, Newman had banned the crib system, ordering that women had to live in the houses they used instead of renting them nightly. Days after their eviction, nearly two dozen women, many young and from the district, begged between Lee Circle and Poydras Street. Even the staunchest reformers were sickened by the prostitutes’ sudden eviction with no provision made for their well-being. Prostitutes weren’t welcome in respectable neighborhoods but most believed they needed to be welcomed somewhere, and Storyville was at full capacity.
The mugshots are of prostitutes who were arrested.
The middle is Alice Monahan - the first female police officer in NOLA and who was assigned to Storyville.
Sisters Of Storyville
Instead of removing prurient temptation (Story’s second purpose), it only created more. Dance halls and cabarets sprang up in and around Storyville, and as such so did varied employment opportunities for women. Dance hall girls were paid to dance with men, and table girls solicited drinks from men in cabarets. Superintendent Frank T. Mooney described a cabaret as “an establishment where there is music, singing and dancing, and which is frequented by men and women of questionable character.” A strict caste system existed: prostitutes and table girls mingled with each other, but they never associated with dance hall girls – they were considered the lowest of the low. Table girls worked primarily on commission. Drinks ranged from 15 to 20 cents; most girls had to sell over 100 drinks a night before they received their split. A good table girl earned $15 to $25 dollars nightly. Considering prostitutes’ prices ranged from change to five dollars a trick, it was a substantial income with fewer stigmas. Many prostitutes excelled by being blunt, standing half-naked in doorways or forcefully grabbing men, but table girls required more subtlety and surreptitiousness. While prostitution was considered a “necessary evil,” b-drinking was not and their jobs were continually threatened by reform waves. One table girl interviewed by the Item after another attempt to ban them said, “You think it is pretty low in weaning a dollar bill out of some fellow who thinks he knows it all, and treats you like a dog. You think it’s pretty mean to fix a college boy’s tie, or his scarf pin so he will spend another fifty cents. Maybe it is all that… But what we get don’t pay us for the stabs at the heart we get, the beasts we meet. And the money comes to use cleaner than it does to a lot of people in this town who bark at us a lot.” While table girls weren’t the scarlet women prostitutes were, they existed in grey shades, in a culture that valued the purity of white.
Basin Street, postcard, 1910-1917. Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collections of the Louisiana State Museum
The Boss Pimp And The $6,000 Inspector
Police and prostitutes had been intertwined in New Orleans for years. Before his assassination in 1890, chief of police David Hennessy was a member of the Red Light Social Club, an organization that threw carnival balls complete with prostitutes. But not all associations were friendly. New Orleans’ police were drastically underpaid and many supplemented their incomes via prostitutes. In 1893, several officers were charged with arresting 21 women who failed to pay their blackmail. Over 100 prostitutes gathered at City Hall to testify and support each other. They represented the range of the demimonde: some dressed in silk and satin with diamonds and jewels wedged on their fingers and nestled in their cleavage, others dressed in rags, their only “accessory” being the dirt underneath their fingers. Madams Josie Arlington, Annie Decker, Press Meyers, and Belle Maynard felt so at home that they sent their coachmen out for champagne, drinking heavily from the front row of the spectators’ area. Despite testimony from other officers and male saloonkeepers, the police commissioners believed the prostitutes, and the officers were dismissed from the force.
Prostitutes were labeled as shameless and vile outcasts, but preying on them, be it by police officer or pimp, was the lowest thing a man could do. John Journee was the police inspector from 1901 to 1905 before he was dismissed amidst charges of incompetency. The Daily-Picayune revealed that the workings of the police force “shocked even men who thought they knew all about the dark and devious methods of the half-world. It revealed a condition of affairs in this city,” the newspaper said, “which should bring the blush of shame to every man.” The depraved details, the newspaper claimed, were unfit for publication.
It was charged that under Journee’s tenure an intricate “pimps and procurers club” existed. The club held weekly meetings and had official officers and members. Sam Felix, (“Boss P[pimp]”), was its leader and ruled with an “iron hand”; a hand he used against women, many of whom were illiterate and/or under-aged, brought from the East Coast under false pretenses of respectable work. Pimps paid $20 a month to a police captain and a sergeant and $10 a month to a corporal and the patrolmen in the Tenderloin to give them protection and immunity from arrest.
Merchants who lived in the district also had to join the club. Ike Schimsky, who owned a grocery store and primarily sold to prostitutes, was told that if he wanted to continue he had to become a “member” and pay $1 a week. Schimsky eventually became treasurer and collected a $1 a week from at least fifty other members. The money went to pay members’ arrest fines and engage defense lawyers. Felix’s “law” demanded that every woman had a member of his pimp club who was her Fides Achates – faithful protector. Prostitutes were ordered to beat women who refused to pay for the pimps’ protection. But who’d protect these women from their barbaric protectors? One of the reasons for Journee’s dismissal was he was viewed as respectable but with absolutely no control over the police force; many took money from pimps to look the other way. Enter Judge Whitaker.
After Whitaker’s appointment to police chief, he vowed “kind treatment” for women of the Tenderloin but this quickly proved false. He earned the nickname “the $6,000 Inspector” for spending 1/3 of his time at the racetrack while collecting a $6,000 annual salary. As Chief of Police, Whitaker apparently could not police himself. His order of a census of Storyville in 1906 was met with outrage.
By early 1917, it appeared that Story’s three purposes were all failing miserably. Still, Mayor Martin Behrman was determined to hold onto Storyville. After Newman attempted to crack down on liquor laws, eliminate the cribs, close illegal brothels, he enacted his “third step” in cleaning up the restricted district – segregating it.
In February 1917, Newman proposed Ordinance No. 4118, which sought to establish the city’s first residential segregation ordinance by requiring that all prostitutes of “colored or black race” move into a separate vice district across Canal Street from Storyville. The city informed black prostitutes and madams that they had to vacate by the end of February. The NAACP supported the ordinance, saying it would “redound to the benefit of both races and to the city’s reputation” and pledged its “active and moral support.” One who did not support it was madam Lulu White.
White was one of the most notorious and powerful madams in the district, advertising herself as the West Indian octoroon “Queen of the Demi-Monde.” She had been arrested for carrying concealed weapons, violating various liquor laws, harboring a young female for immoral purposes, and trafficking young girls from Alabama. White immediately filed a writ of injunction against the city to avoid moving, arguing that it deprived her of the use of her property without due process of law, constituted unnecessary and arbitrary abuse of police power, and violated the constitution by denying her equal protection under the law. After filing the writ, the Louisiana Supreme Court held the ordinance unconstitutional. The city then drafted a new ordinance, No. 4485, aimed at the same goal, and White supplemented her petition accordingly. A temporary injunction was soon granted and other black madams followed suit, including Willie Piazza, Sweetie Miller, Lucille White, and Minnie Williams. In the end, more than twenty property owners (primarily black women but also two white brothel owners), filed suit. The cases went all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled that the city was “powerless” to prevent women of color from living and working in Storyville. The court held that the ordinance was in violation of the 14th Amendment, which held that one of the essentials to liberty was the right of an individual to reside where they desired.
Many wishing for the segregation of Storyville shot themselves in the foot. In the spring of 1917, the Negro Women’s Christian Temperance Union argued that the Fisk School was now in the new “Black Storyville.” Louis Armstrong, who attended the school, stated that Fisk was located “in the heart of it all,” meaning in the middle of saloons, cabarets, and prostitution. The school had been a source of complaints for years and in August 1917, the board of school directors ruled that McDonogh 13, which had been an all-white school for more thirty-five years, would be converted into a black school at the start of the school year. White parents were outraged. More than 500 parents and neighborhood property owners signed a petition against the change. Hundreds of parents and “lusty-lunged” children protested at the school board meeting but to no avail. The board had already decided to create a black high school and did not have the funds to do so – moving the children to McDonogh No. 13 solved both problems. The school was renamed McDonogh No. 35, becoming the first black high school in New Orleans – and another unexpected outgrowth of Storyville.
“Single Men In Barracks Don’t Grow Into Plaster Saints” – Rudyard Kipling.
In April 1917, the United States entered the war. President Woodrow Wilson called for volunteers with a goal of enlisting 2,000,000 men in two years. Three weeks later, only 32,000 had volunteered. In New Orleans, only 134 men enlisted on the first day. Wilson made the controversial decision to implement a draft, requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service. Men were also required to reform for the war. Secretary of War Newton Baker was charged, by any means necessary, to suppress and prevent brothels from setting up near any military camp, station, fort, post, cantonment, training, or mobilization place. Raymond Fosdick, Chairman of the War and Navy Department, stated that the American Navy lost almost 142,000 working days to venereal disease, which meant that every day an average of over 450 men (enough to crew a battleship) were incapacitated by the ravages of vice. Anxious mothers were more concerned that their sons returned from war with scars from brothels – not bayonets.
Fighting immorality at home, the War Department reasoned, better prepared soldiers to battle the enemy abroad. Many city and government officials across the country immediately closed their red-light districts to protect soldiers. But “the Gibraltar of commercialized vice,” New Orleans’ Storyville, remained. Fosdick called Storyville “one of the most vicious red-light districts I have ever seen,” calling it a mecca for men in uniform. “If the New Orleans district is closed,” Fosdick wrote, “it will have a far-reaching effect on the whole problem in the South. It is the last stronghold of the old regime.” But Mayor Behrman was determined to hold on strong.
Blue Book cover, circa 1913-1915. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
“New Orleans,” Behrman said, lamenting the city’s reputation, “has not only been unjustly dealt with in these matters, but vilified without provocation and seemingly with malice afterthought.” In July of 1917, Behrman denied rumors that the troops were going to be removed from Camp Nicholls for failure to close Storyville. In early August, Behrman received a letter from Secretary Baker asking him to close Storyville. Behrman didn’t respond. In August, Bascom Johnson, counsel to the American Social Hygiene Association and with the rank of Major in the Sanitary Corps, visited New Orleans and inspected Storyville himself, reporting on numerous instances of soldiers and sailors openly drinking and carousing in brothels. He bought a map drawn to scale demonstrating that the Naval Station, Jackson Barracks, Camp Nicholls, and the new Naval Training School being built were all within 5 miles of Storyville. Behrman called Johnson a subordinate who had no authority.
Behrman then travelled to Washington D.C. to assure Secretary Baker that no soldiers were ever admitted to Storyville and warn that scattering prostitutes across the city like buckshot would make it more difficult for police surveillance. Behrman’s persuasiveness allowed Storyville’s continuation. However, on September 24th, Secretary Josephus Daniels wrote a letter to Governor Ruffin Pleasant and Behrman insisting that Storyville close. On October 6, 1917, Congress extended the draft law to include the Navy. Behrman was reportedly told, “close the red-light district or the armed forces will.” In October, the city council voted to end Storyville, setting a closure date of November 12th. Mayor Behrman, unwilling to admit total defeat, released a statement saying that legislative recognition of prostitution was a necessary evil in a seaport the size of New Orleans and that the city government believed it could be easily and safely controlled in a prescribed area. “Our experience has taught us that the reasons for this are unanswerable; but the Navy Department of the federal government has decided otherwise.”
This legislation meant that ordinances defining the red-light district and segregating whites and black prostitutes were repealed. It was also stated that prostitutes could remain in Storyville, just not practice their former profession.
Left: a cartoon by John Churchill Chase who drew the district.
Right: the cover for the Mascot newspaper - this contained the first article to suggest a red-light district in New Orleans - much of the Storyville ordinance is based on this article.
Dimming Of The Red Lights
Shutting down Storyville was not a matter of locking doors and flipping off the red lights. After the vote for its closure, fire marshals were ordered to carefully watch the district. The time was “propitious” to collect insurance on buildings which “immorality has given a value largely fictitious.” There was also fear of evicted prostitutes burning buildings out of hatred and revenge. Vacate notices were sent out to owners and landlords and “For Rent” signs littered the district. Rents dropped more than 75 percent. Various church groups and women’s organizations vowed to help women get off the road to ruin and onto the pathway of sanctity. There was talk of obtaining a plantation house and fixing it up as a dormitory to train any former Storyville resident who wished to lead a better life in hairdressing and manicuring.
Prostitutes moved out gradually, with all their possessions in the world in two-wheeled carts and wheelbarrows. The more affluent prostitutes and madams had their maids carry their personal belongings as they walked ahead with their small dogs on leashes and canaries in cages while black jazz bands played “Nearer My God to Thee.” Storyville’s last night was quiet; the press reported there were no “wild orgies,” just a “typical” suicide attempt from Edna Morris, a former prostitute.
Three weeks after the closure of Storyville, 60 women were charged with living in an immoral house, 17 with conducting immoral houses, and 52 with “street walking.” A little over a year later it was discovered that some New Orleans police officers were attempting to drive “respectable” people out of old Storyville and re-establish the once-profitable vice district.
The oft-romanticized image of beautiful women dressed in silk and lounging on velvet chaises with the sounds of clicking champagne glasses and jaunty jazz music flowing out the windows of a three-story mansion, was more fantasy than the reality of Storyville. The pleasure district, on so many levels, wasn’t. The social stratification was as extreme in the underworld as in was among the upper classes and very distinct rungs existed on all levels. There was a wide spectrum of madams, prostitutes, and others, all trading their services on sliding scales.
Although the creation of Storyville was primarily meant to protect women (albeit white women) and property owners, it ultimately left those most vulnerable exposed to corruption and violence. The red lights of the district may have finally dimmed in 1917, but its legacy and legend have lasted for a century since.