How gender works in Storyville

According to the Victorian ideal of womanhood, the innate virtue of women stemmed from their sexual modesty and passivity. Women’s supposed lack of sexual passion ensured domestic harmony, which was considered the foundation of national strength.[1] Much attention was paid during the progressive era to the notion of the “fallen woman, “which, as Storyville’s legislation defined, were ”women notoriously abandoned to lewdness.”

How did the women of Storyville end up there? Madame J—‘s (her real name is withheld) testimony to Al Rose provides us some insight. She tells us that when she was sixteen year olds she had become involved in a public scandal (of the sexual nature). “I had not been ‘ruined’- as they say- but back in 1896 families had pretty rigid ideas. As the Jezebel of the family, I had been shown the door.”[2] Again, the majority of women working in Storyville were from the United States. Many of them had tales to tell similar to that of Madame J—s. Victorian womenhood, strictly because it was viewed as a symbol of purity and virtue, meant that women involved in sexual scandals of even the most minor character were cast off as evil, tainted, and “fallen.”[3] Female sexuality was taught as sinful if pleasurable but necessary if for procreation.  Once, fallen, women had few options. A note from Madame Lottie Fischer greeting Madame J upon her arrival in New Orleans is very much to this affect: “I know you have been cast out as ruined by your family, and as the world is made, the ruined girl must live as a ruined girl unless she is to take the veil.”[4]

The majority of women working in Storyville maintained anonymous identities. This often produced some hilarious nicknames- Minnie Ha Ha, Buck Tooth Sally- but more so, it points to the paradox nature of the profession; both legal and tolerated but looked upon in disdain.  Madam J, for example, could not be seen meeting with Lottie Fischer in public, as that “would do [Madam J] no good to be seen in public with her.”[5]

The majority of women working in Storyville did not sexually enjoy the nature of their profession. To them, it was a mechanical process; one done strictly for the money. The few that noticeably did enjoy the sex, were, ironically, looked down upon in disdain. “I never cared much for the girl who came to work in the house because it was fun for her,” the Madam, Nell Kimball, tells us of her practicing practices.[6] If, anything, it was the women who policed moral boundaries in the Storyville district. The Society of Venus and Bacchus was formed as an informal social club for the madams of the house. Here, issues of the day were discussed and certain rules of morality were established. For example, at one such meeting, recorded in The Mascot’s society pages, it was decided that “any man who frequents nigger dives be boycotted by us.” [7] Madam J, who most likely attended at least a few of these meetings, reports to us the general perceptions of different Madams within Storyville, “Hilma Burt and Gertrude Dix were fine ladies…. Josie Arlington was a n ugly, scarred, loudmouthed, low-class women. Gipsy Shafer was uncouth but good natured, so we liked her.[8]” For a district demarcated for the lewd and abandoned women, a system of standards still emerged that used much of the same language. For example, Emma Johnson’s circus shows, in which the most depraved sexual acts were witnessed, Madam J calls “lewd”. How can an occupier of a district set aside for lewdness call anything lewd? Standards still existed and greatly reflected the Victorian ideal of womanhood. Hence, Rene, an international traveler and self-professed “sport”, reports “The foreign whores (in foreign cities), somehow, managed to feign an attitude that leads you to believe, at least for the moment of intercourse, that you have their attention and that they are interested in seeing that you have a pleasant time.”[9] No such attitude existed in Storyville because enjoying the nature of the profession was considered unladylike. To the whores of Storyville, it was a job to be done with the mechanical precision of a day laborer.


What role did men play in Storyville? Well, it is firstly important to keep in mind their socioeconomic position as customers. More than anyone, it was they who encouraged depravity, by which we mean sexual immorality as defined by that period (and, in some respects, even by today’s standards). The Supreme Court, itself, defined the standard of morality in a 1908 ruling. In US v. Bitty (1908), which pertained to the use of the phrase “or for any other immoral purposes” in a 1907 Immigration Act dealing with prostitution, Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing the majority opinion had this to say, “in using the words ‘or for any other immoral purposes’ Congress had reference to the views commonly entertained among the people of the United States as to what is moral or immoral in the relations between man and woman.”[10] In other words, morality was defined as the set of commonly held social values, one which the legal system could not define.

Nevertheless, Storyville seems to contradict these values at almost every turn. Madame Emma Johnson was a constant violator of the law. Her “circus acts”- which consisted of orgies, bestiality, and incest, to name a few- as well as her general demeanor oft drew the wrath of The Mascot, a muck-raking turn-of-the-century New Orleans newspaper (see attached image). At one time, a journalist, posing a customer, was successful in procuring the services of a virgin at Emma Johnson’s establishment. Promptly they called the police and the girl was taken to a House for Wayward Girls (the 19th century, New Orleans equivalent of an orphanage) but Ms. Johnson was not even fined let alone arrested.  As widely known as she was for these vagrancies, her shows were tremendously popular and major factors in attracting conventions to the New Orleans area.[11] Even European royalty, Madam J tells us, attended her shows.[12]

Men were most usually the landowners and, therefore, took in the greatest share of profits to be had in the district. The county was even often referred to as Anderson County, referring to Tom Anderson, and city officials often recognized him as the “dictator of Storyville.” Besides being an elected State legislator, he owned up to fifteen properties in the Storyville District.[13] The testimony of a more average pimp, Marc, reveals the dynamics between men and women, “I figured out that I would do better if instead of takin’ my perecentage off the broads like I was doin’, I’d be better off if I paid the rent and took all the money. Then I could give em back what they needed to get along on. They never said a word.”[14] Women never spoke up, though, because they didn’t have an outlet. Storyville existed on pseudo-legal grounds. As the L’Hote v. City of New Orleans case, decided in the Supreme Court made clear, even property owners could not seek damages related to Storyville’s districting through the court system.[15] This ruling also upheld the strange wording of section 1 of the Storyville ordinance, “That nothing herein shall be so construed as to authorize any lewd women to occupy a house, room or closet in any portion of the city,” which placed prostitution in the peculiar position of being regulated and contained but still, technically, illegal. Thus, any prostitute seeking justice through the court system would have to reveal the nature of her profession and necessarily face legal prosecution. The law system, in effect, was set up to marginalize these women, which, in turn, allowed for their economic exploitation.

[1] Donovan, 37

[2] Rose, p. 156

[3] Foster, p.392

[4] Rose, p.156

[5] ibid, p.157

[6] Kimball, p.218

[7] Rose, p.28

[8] ibid, p.158

[9] ibid, p.155

[10] US v. Bitty, 208 U.S. 393 (1908)

[11] Rose, p. 51

[12] ibid, p. 158

[13] ibid, p.75

[14] ibid, p. 152

[15] L’Hote v. City of New Orleans, 177 U.S. 587 (1900) 

How gender works in Storyville