19th-century New Orleans brothels revisited in new book

Sunday, April 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

NEW ORLEANS — Tulane University history professor Judith Kelleher Schafer loves uncovering the truth, whether it be pleasant or not.

"I need history to tell me what to write," she said. "I couldn't make up this stuff. The truth is so wonderful."

Schafer's third book came about by happy accident. While researching archives of the First District Court of New Orleans and the Daily Picayune from 1846-1862 for her award-winning book, "Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862," she kept noticing charges for "keeping a brothel."

"And 99 percent of them were dropped before they went to trial," she said.

She began to keep track of these cases, taking notes as she went, thinking she had an idea for a book. The result is "Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans," a revelatory look stretching from the pre-Civil War period to the Union occupation.

Wide-open period

"No one's ever looked at this period, and it was so wide-open," she said. "I think it was a wide-open port town. There were characters like Delia Swift who kept running around and stabbing men.

"New Orleans must have been something else. You could buy liquor in a grocery store by the glass. And the politicians are all in it up to their necks, and the landlords were the ones making the money. The police were totally underpaid and understaffed. They didn't even have uniforms. They had badges, but no uniforms."

"Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women" is a wildly entertaining read — a look at the way problems that plague New Orleans even today (remember the Canal Street madam?) were present in the antebellum period.

There it is, all of it — the sense of license, the easy access to sex and liquor, the political corruption. And beyond that is a sharp look at the powerlessness of women who were abandoned or forced into prostitution by their families, as well as sex across the color line and the exploitation of children.

As historian Ed Haas once told his friend Schafer, "'You know, Judy, we're just peeping Toms, but we're peeping on people that have been dead 150 years,'" she said.

'Judy Come Home with the Soap'

Some of these women are larger than life — and they have the fabulous street names to show for it — names like "Gallows Liz," ''English Kate" and, hilariously, "Judy Come Home with the Soap." Redhead Delia Swift, also known as Bridget Fury, joined forces with Mary "Bricktop" Jackson in what Schafer calls "one of the first female street gangs in the United States."

These "fast females" lived violent, public lives. But underneath it all was a harsh economic reality. "No work, no money, no home," one prostitute said, describing the choices she had.

"I have a great deal of sympathy for some of these women," Schafer said.

A New Orleans native, Schafer attended Newman, then Newcomb. "I got married when I was 20, which is what women did then," she said. "And I've been married to the same guy for 45 years."

She got her Ph.D. in 1985, took an administrative job at the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane, and now teaches in the history department and the Tulane Law School.

Just not the same

"I teach legal history, as well as a course in slavery and freedom in the antebellum South. All I ever wanted to do was be a history professor," she said. "People don't realize how wild history can be. But if I were writing in Peoria, Ill., it would not be the same."

Schafer's scholarly work has drawn on her extensive exploration of court documents.

"I had to figure out what I could do here," she said. "I was married, I had children; I couldn't go to Austria and do research for six months or a year. So when the records of the Supreme Court became available to scholars, I basically discovered a whole new archive. My first book came out of that.

"Then I got lucky again and fell into another brand new archive after the criminal justices allowed the records of the First District Court to be moved to the New Orleans Public Library. They had been in an attic at Tulane and Broad and weren't being cared for . . . Many of the records I opened hadn't been opened since the clerk tied them up 150 years ago. They were literally tied up in red tape — that's the origin of the term. There were lots of days when I was opening them up for the first time, and it gave me goose bumps."

Schafer went way beyond simple "keeping brothel" charges in her search of the records.

"I'm one of those people who has never been able to not turn every rock over. So I went through all the larceny cases. Amazingly, a great many of them involved prostitutes. And they weren't just rolling the johns — they were stealing clothes and jewelry from each other."

Big finish

Her history ends — and this is so New Orleans — with a parade that took place in 1897, when city leaders passed a law creating the Storyville district.

"Apparently, when prostitutes got word they had won, they got horse and carriages and wore these outlandish costumes," Schafer said. "Some of them were nude, some wore tight sailor pants. Some wore Egyptian costumes, and one of them had bare legs and was waving a foot at people in the street from the carriage. Some were grabbing male bystanders and improvising sexual displays. It must have been quite a scene.

"They went down Canal Street and turned into the Quarter. There were hundreds of prostitutes in the parade, and dozens of carriages. And they were all laughing and probably drinking and very bawdy. But of course, it was the landlords who won."

Her next book, she said, will be a study of slavery law in New Orleans, tracing the discrepancies between what's on the books and how it was enforced. So it's back to the archive, back to the library, to search for another piece of unexplored history.

And why?

"I'm doing this," she said, "because I think it's fun."


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