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Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women

Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans

Judith Kelleher Schafer

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. xi-xiii

Anyone who has written a book knows the truth of this Old Testament adage. I am extremely fortunate to have had the strong support and encouragement of my family, friends, and colleagues while writing this book. And I am blessed that many of those people fall into more than one of those categories...

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pp. 1-16

The “oldest profession” was hardly new to New Orleans in the era just before the Civil War. From the earliest days of French colonial New Orleans—a primitive, mosquito-infested, and disease-ridden enclave precariously situated in a giant, graceful curve of the mighty Mississippi River—the city offered few attractions...

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1. Selling Sex and the Law

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pp. 17-30

In the antebellum period, most American states did not consider selling sex a criminal act. However, the states often used vagrancy laws or other charges—such as disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, obscene language, drunkenness, and lewd behavior—to punish public women for practicing their profession. State law and city ordinances...

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2. “Disgusting Depravity”: Sex across the Color Line

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pp. 31-46

Sex across the color line in antebellum New Orleans was much more common than one might suppose. Recent scholarship has indicated that antebellum society, while not approving of sexual relations between the races, had a good deal of tolerance for these relationships. However, this research did not include New Orleans, where...

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3. The Sexual Exploitation of Children

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pp. 47-59

One of the most disturbing aspects of the sex trade in New Orleans during the antebellum period was the number of children who became prostitutes or were otherwise sexually exploited at an early age. This phenomenon was hardly unique to New Orleans. One historian states that child prostitution was so widespread that...

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4. Infamous Public Women

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pp. 60-73

Antebellum New Orleans newspapers and court records reveal that many public women had nicknames or aliases. Taking a colorful name probably constituted an attempt to appear flamboyant, and aliases may also have been adopted to confuse the police as to one’s true identity. Often these names identified the women with...

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5. Larceny and Robbery among Prostitutes

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pp. 74-88

Louisiana law defined larceny as “the felonious taking and carrying away of the personal goods of another.” Glancing through the docket book of the First District Court of New Orleans indicates that the two crimes of which New Orleanians most often stood accused were assault and battery and larceny. Literally hundreds of cases of both...

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6. Violent Lives

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pp. 89-107

Antebellum New Orleans was home to a society permeated by violence. Prostitutes were often the victims of brutal acts, sometimes by their customers, sometimes by brothel bullies, and frequently by other prostitutes. A few public women turned on themselves and tried to commit suicide. For example, in 1855 Augusta...

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7. The Murder of a “Lewd and Abandoned Woman”: State of Louisiana v. Abraham Parker

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pp. 108-125

State of Louisiana v. Abraham Parker, a never officially reported appeal of an 1851 criminal prosecution for murder of a prostitute, provides an excellent illustration of the way historians can use court records to illuminate the workings of the law, courts, and attorneys. In addition, it exemplifies how one case can reveal antebellum attitudes...

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8. Keeping a Brothel in Antebellum New Orleans

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pp. 126-144

Efforts to suppress prostitution in antebellum New Orleans appear to have been feeble at best. Too many economic forces supported the “oldest profession”: a huge influx of poor immigrants, low wages for women, merchants who profited from public women buying clothing and jewelry, corrupt politicians, and especially the...

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9. “An Ordinance Concerning Lewd and Abandoned Women”

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pp. 145-154

The sex trade generated an enormous amount of money, estimated to be second in dollar value only to the Crescent City’s port itself. In 1857 the New Orleans City Council decided to direct some of that revenue stream into the city’s coffers. On 10 March it enacted “An Ordinance Concerning Lewd and Abandoned...

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pp. 155-158

Evidence abounds in the New Orleans newspapers and court records that prostitution in the city flourished virtually unchecked throughout the antebellum period. While the sex trade existed in other southern cities, one is struck by the large numbers of public women in New Orleans. One historian has identified 180 public...


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pp. 159-186


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pp. 187-198


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pp. 199-221

E-ISBN-13: 9780807135037
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807137154

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2009