- The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865–1920
When the Southern Historical Association holds its annual meeting in New Orleans, the program committee finds itself besieged with proposals. Historians apparently want their employers to fund a few fun days, or nights, of escape into the wonders of a city known for its food, drink, and open sexuality. If New Orleans's reputation as what one nineteenth-century visitor called "the Great Southern Babylon" has even taken hold among historians, not known for their partying or for being "in the know," then New Orleans truly has gained, as Alecia P. Long writes, "an enduring reputation as a sinful, sensual, and sybaritic place" (3). How that came to be is one of the important themes of her wonderful new book, The Great Southern Babylon. Although the creation and operation of Storyville, the legally defined area of the city where respectable New Orleans tried to isolate prostitution, is its central focus, Long builds her narrative around five court cases heard by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The first involved a former slave, Adeline Stringer, who kept a boarding house and had lived, off and on, with a white man, Joseph Mathis, in a relationship similar to plaçage, an accepted antebellum practice in which white men and women of color established long-term relationships that carried provisions for financial support. In 1884 Joseph told Adeline that he could no longer live openly with her, although they maintained contact. When Joseph died not too long after, Stringer sued for a part of his estate. Joseph's brother fought her claim and won, and Long interprets his victory as a sign that New Orleans's white community had grown less tolerant of sex across the color line.
The second case Long analyzes did not involve race but rather the operation of a concert saloon in a "respectable" part of the city. Concert saloons, which opened in New Orleans in the 1860s, featured performances with sexual themes and drinks served by women generally considered to [End Page 219] be prostitutes. In 1893 a group of businessmen whose hotels and other establishments had long shared a neighborhood with a concert saloon owned by Otto H. Schoenhause sued, claiming that it "was a nuisance that depreciated their property values and damaged their business prospects" (65). The Supreme Court, as Long observes, "with undisguised reluctance and no small amount of disgust" (98), ruled in Schoenhause's favor. Perhaps because of the cost of fighting the suit, though, within a year Schoenhause closed his business. The case, Long concludes, showed that even before the creation of Storyville, some in New Orleans saw the need to segregate sexually oriented businesses.
In 1897 New Orleans mayor Sidney Story issued an order creating a vice district, which came to bear his name. Established in an area of the city that had long been a location for what at the time were termed "Negro dives," Storyville became home to concert saloons, other forms of entertainment, and, most famously, houses of prostitution. Long's other three cases involved Storyville, either directly or indirectly. One was a suit, filed jointly by the owner of a business in a nearby neighborhood and an African American Methodist Episcopal Church within the district, that sought to block the implementation of the ordinance creating the vice district. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the ordinance and allowed the city to enforce its geographical restrictions on prostitution. Another case involved Mary A. Deubler, a white woman, who after a tough childhood worked as a prostitute, then became one of Storyville's most successful madams. As she became wealthier Deubler "sagely manipulated the idea of respectability" (155) and "in her final years, even attained a prosperous, quaint, and quiet retirement with her concubine [a male partner], her favored niece, and members of her extended family. One marvels," Long concludes, "at her survival instincts, business acumen, financial success, devotion to her niece, and generosity to...