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Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans

By Judith Kelleher Schafer

Louisiana State University Press | 2010

Reviewed by Owen Brown

judith Schafer

Erica Jong, an American author and feminist, is credited with writing “Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.”  While the veracity of Jong’s statement is unquestionable, the reasons for its longevity and relevancy to Western Civilization, in general, and its applicability to antebellum New Orleans, in particular, are inextricably linked to the financial profits associated with the sins of the flesh.

Dr. Judith Kelleher Schafer’s book titled Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans invites its readers into a world peopled by public women---a.k.a prostitutes---who illustrate the enduring relevance of Jong’s statement. Historically, the tenacious staying power of this reality, captured by Jong’s statement and their resistance to transcending it, may be attributable to the attitudes/proclivities of men and our collective inability to give up an advantage, in spite of the fact that it truncates the potential of their grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters. 

Schafer’s book represents an intriguing attempt to capture the consequences of this truncated potential by recreating the lives of the prostitutes that worked the streets of New Orleans during the antebellum period of American history. 

Schafer is an historian who specializes in teaching American legal history at Tulane University. As such, her approach to researching and writing Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women reflects her legal training and informs the methodology she utilizes to bring her subject matter to life. Her subject matter explores the life experiences that dominated sex workers in the Crescent City. While the author restricts her subject matter to heterosexual female prostitutes, this decision is not a reaction springing from some inherent bias on Schafer’s part; it is primarily a function of the fact that the First District Court of New Orleans’ records do not contain cases dealing with male, lesbian, or homosexual prostitutes. However, the records are populated with cases where writers from the New Orleans Daily Picayune termed the behaviors of female prostitutes “lewd and abandoned” for the period under investigation.

The chronological boundaries of Schafer’s book are from roughly 1721 to the start of the Civil War. However, her exposition emphasizes the period from the 1840s to 1862. The narrative is neatly packaged in nine chapters that sport descriptive titles such as “Selling Sex and the Law,” “Infamous Public Women,” “Larceny and Robbery among Prostitutes,” “Murder of a Lewd and Abandoned Woman: State of Louisiana v. Abraham Parker,” and “Violent Lives,” to name a few. 

Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women does a wonderful job of capturing the short, violent lives of prostitutes. Specifically, while prostitutes constituted a vital and irreplaceable element in the Crescent City, crowned the prostitution capital of the United States in the 1850s, the women whose bodies made the industry’s business model a success benefitted least from the sale of their flesh.  This unsavory fact can be gleaned from the trial transcripts stored in the archives that housed the official records of the First District Court of New Orleans and newspaper articles from the New Orleans Daily Picayune

These two secondary sources provided the author with the raw materials that gave birth to this book, which graphically details how depravity and powerlessness were constant features that characterized the lives of women enmeshed in a trade that transformed them into nocturnal Venuses

For those of us who learned about the hardships of prostitution from the pen of Robert Beck (a.k.a. Iceberg Slim) and by watching movies like The Mack and Superfly, Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women provides us with an exceedingly complex portrayal of New Orleans’ sex workers, which diverges qualitatively from the aforementioned products of the Blaxploitation era. 

Historically, from its inception as a colonial outpost of France, the roots of the founding fathers and mothers of the Crescent City can be traced back to an act by the Sun King aimed at building France’s overseas possessions in America. Specifically, Louis XIV emptied La Salpêtriêre prison in order to populate the French colony of New Orleans. Thus, Schafer writes, “In February 1721, eighty-eight former convicts, including a large number of prostitutes, disembarked in New Orleans.” This marked the inglorious beginnings of prostitution in the Crescent City, which earned its well-deserved reputation during the antebellum era as being a “wicked and vice ridden city” that led an observer to christen it “a perfect Sodom.” 

Would you be surprised to learn that the city was renowned for “desecrating the Sabbath by holding bullfights and cockfights on that day, as well as scheduling Sunday planning meetings attended by the mayor, other city officials, and prominent citizens in order to plan a series of masked balls?” 

Would you be shocked to discover that excessive drinking and carousing were common- place and enabled the Crescent City’s nocturnal Venuses to seduce men into participating regularly in depraved sexual encounters? In this sexual caldron, the morality of the women, landlords, and merchants that profited from this trade was shaped by influences that inevitably ended with its disciples and their acolytes’ descent into Dante’s Inferno. 

Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women reveals many truths about the sex industry in the Crescent City that would challenge many of our contemporary beliefs about race relations during this time in American history.  That is, today we believe there was a strict separation between the races and that slaves were not allowed to run businesses or direct the actions of white employees.  Schafer’s research demonstrates that there were ample exceptions to this rule.

Specifically, she introduces us to Eliza Turner and Louisa, who were slaves that managed brothels. Thus, according to Schafer, while Louisiana State’s statutes and local ordinances prohibited slaves from managing businesses and “the Black Code prohibited slaves from selling any commodity whatsoever, … Turner sold coffee and perhaps liquor in the front room of the brothel” that she managed at 211 Gravier Street.  Ms. Turner also directed the sexual activities of white sex workers who practiced their trade at 211 Gravier Street.  As such, while the majority of prostitutes were white immigrant women, their ranks were nevertheless peppered with free and enslaved black women.  Hence, Schafer captures this reality that runs contrary to our contemporary understanding of racial interactions in the antebellum South when she writes,

“Although Louisiana law prohibited slaves from owning anything or having money, slaves were often accepted as customers at brothels and had money to purchase the sexual services of women, white and black, free and slaves.  Often free men of color, white men, and slaves all patronized the same brothels on any given night.  This amount of racial integration in brothels was unknown in other southern cities.”

In short, while the laws of the State of Louisiana were clear when it came to restricting the day-to-day mobility and rights of African Americans, free or slaves, when it came to cardinal lusting of the flesh, its mandates and dictates were often ignored.

While it is clear that women managed the majority of brothels in New Orleans, this did not mean that they benefited the most from the financial benefits, particularly in this industry grounded in pleasure.  That is, while the sex trade in pre-Civil War New Orleans generated an enormous amount of money, second only to the City’s port, the vast sum of these monies went to the wealthiest and most prominent landlords, merchants, politically connected elected officials, and lawyers. These individuals included Sumpter Turner, owner of the brothel operated by Eliza Turner, John McDonogh, a wealthy merchant and plantation owner who became infamous for renting houses to prostitutes in respectable neighborhoods, and Col. A.P. Field, a leading defense attorney who provided many prostitutes with his legal services.  He would later serve Louisiana as its Attorney General after the Civil War.   

While the women who worked in these brothels were mostly immigrants whose shelf-lives were approximately four years after entering into the sex trade, sadly many of their lives were characterized by violence, instability, and STDs.  Ironically, despite the fact that they were responsible for transforming the sex trade into a lucrative industry, poverty and desperation were pervasive elements in their lives.  The profits generated by their services were expropriated by wealthy men who monopolized the land, houses, political resources, and the legal system which served to reinforce their interests at the expense of the women who were often victimized by their customers, police officers, and other prostitutes.

Overall, although Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women achieves its goal of shedding light on vice, sex, and prostitution in New Orleans, it nevertheless suffers from several deficiencies.  First, Schafer fails to provide an organizational outlining, which informs the reader of salient issues, major themes, and subplots as the narrative moves from chapter to chapter.  As such, each chapter stands alone, and she is frequently guilty of delineating the same points in different chapters of her book. Second, I failed to understand her preoccupation with interracial couples because it deviates from her focus.  Black and white couples living together and having sexual relations with one another does not fall into the realm of prostitution.

As she states, “The Louisiana Civil Code, though it prohibited marriages between free people of any color and slaves and between whites and African Americans, it did not forbid interracial sex.” Given the latter stated observation, Schafer’s preoccupation with chronicling court cases involving interracial couples, while interesting, falls outside the purview of her study.  Third, although the book is filled with countless examples of prostitutes being arrested and prosecuted by the New Orleans’ legal system, she fails to provide a comprehensive analysis that would help the reader understand the system that allowed the landlords and merchants to expropriate the wealth produced by these women, with little to no resistance on the part of the latter.  

Notwithstanding these minor shortcomings, Schafer accomplishes her mission of presenting the myriad challenges faced by prostitutes in the Crescent City. She skillfully captures with her pen the violence, instability, and powerlessness that permeated the lives of prostitutes in antebellum New Orleans. 

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