- Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans
The research underpinning Judith Kelleher Schafer’s Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women is remarkable and prodigious. Supplementing roughly two thousand trial transcripts from the First District Court of New Orleans with newspaper reports about the proceedings of the city recorder’s courts and with census and tax records, Schafer has at her disposal an astonishing volume of material about the frequently bleak circumstances of thousands of prostitutes who engaged in the sex trade as a means of survival in New Orleans between 1846 and 1863. Cumulatively, the scores of vivid anecdotes Schafer offers [End Page 189] throughout the book leave little doubt that the modicum of financial security women might hope to find in prostitution was effectively counterbalanced if not outweighed by the psychological misery and physical brutality to which their profession left them vulnerable in the South’s largest city.
Delving into a social world populated primarily by Irish immigrants, a number of free women of color, and a smattering of enslaved women forced into prostitution by their owners, Schafer describes in nine relatively brief chapters how impoverished women often entered the sex trade because of a relative lack of decent economic opportunities but found little there in the way of peace, safety, or dignity. Schafer notes that prostitution per se was not illegal and that authorities allowed it to flourish largely unchecked in New Orleans but that prostitutes and brothel managers could also be harassed at will by police on a variety of nuisance charges such as lewdness, vagrancy, and indecent exposure and that periodically public officials encouraged mass arrests for the sake of collecting fines that boosted city coffers. Women might sometimes find legal protection from landlords and merchants, as prostitutes sitting in prisons and workhouses could neither pay rent nor patronize shops, but Schafer maintains that those wealthy men profited from the sex trade far more than those who actually labored in it.
Above all else, Schafer demonstrates that degradation and desperation were fundamentally constituent elements of the lives of prostitutes in New Orleans. Suffering from widespread cultural assumptions that they were “abandoned” women incapable of achieving respectability, prostitutes drank heavily in their despondency and were routinely victims of thefts, assaults, shootings, stabbings, vandalism, and occasionally murder at the hands of customers and other men, who rarely faced repercussions for their actions. Moreover, Schafer finds little evidence that common situations or gender bred any sort of natural affinity or sisterhood for which some scholars of antebellum prostitution have argued, showing instead that “public women” in New Orleans stole from, cheated, and battered each other with little compunction.
Despite the well-deserved reputation of New Orleans as a particular hotbed of vice, surprisingly little has been written about the sex trade in the city during the first half of the nineteenth century. It is all the more frustrating and disappointing, then, that the useful contributions Schafer’s work makes to the literature are undercut by a relative dearth of systematic analysis of the material and by repeated examples of sloppy editing. With regard to the former, too much of Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women consists of descriptions of cases, sometimes seemingly as many as a dozen or more in a row, and far too little consists of a thorough attempt to contextualize those cases or explain in more than a superficial fashion why they matter. The result is a catalog of stories, most of which are reasonably interesting but about few of which the reader is pushed to think they mean anything more than the obvious.
Several chapters, for instance, present dozens of examples illustrating the violent lives of prostitutes yet do so largely to the end that the lives [End Page 190] of prostitutes were indeed quite violent. A chapter on sex across the color line might best stand in for the larger problem. There, Schafer writes that interracial sex was “much more common than one might suppose,” an odd statement in its own...