Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women
Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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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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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...
1. Selling Sex and the Law
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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...
2. “Disgusting Depravity”: Sex across the Color Line
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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...
3. The Sexual Exploitation of Children
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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...
4. Infamous Public Women
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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...
5. Larceny and Robbery among Prostitutes
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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...
6. Violent Lives
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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...
7. The Murder of a “Lewd and Abandoned Woman”: State of Louisiana v. Abraham Parker
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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...
8. Keeping a Brothel in Antebellum New Orleans
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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...
9. “An Ordinance Concerning Lewd and Abandoned Women”
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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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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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Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2009