Storyville may not exist anymore, but it’s hard to erase the memory of the people who once worked, fought, fell in love, and lived there. According to Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose, “’Storyville,’ New Orleans’s legally established red-light district, existed from January 1, 1898, to the fall of 1917, when it was closed by the United States Department of the Navy, the federal government having decreed, in effect, that only illegal prostitution was to be practiced in the vicinity of its military installations. It was an incredible jumble of cheap dance halls, brothels, saloons and gambling rooms, cockfighting pits, and rooming houses. A one-story shantytown jammed into a half-dozen teeming blocks, the Swamp was the scene of some eight-hundred known murders between 1820 and 1850. Into this fearsome hell, the city’s police feared to go and indeed did not go.”
For 19 years, Storyville thrived as a city within a city that served up pleasures, pains, and whatever else you could ask for. Prostitution was rampant, as well as drinking, drugs, and tons of fights. The characters that inhabited this space were often mysterious, even though they offered their bodies for sale. They would come from the far reaches of the Earth in search of a better life, though they would eventually realize that Storyville, New Orleans, was not the place to find salvation. Women, girls, and boys were a commodity to be used and abused by the highest bidder. Al Rose explained, “Tenderloin life was costly, dirty, dangerous, and exploitative in the extreme. Brothels were stocked with young girls arriving as volunteers, dupes, slaves, or abductees.” Because these people used fake names or were estranged from their families, when they died, they would become nameless.
Many of the Storyville citizens faded away into obscurity because no one came forward to claim them, yet a few did manage to get a coveted spot in a graveyard with their name prominently displayed.
Fanny Sweet managed to do the near-impossible and escaped New Orleans entirely. Rose wrote, “Perhaps the most colorful adventuress ever to keep a house of assignation in New Orleans was Fanny Sweet—thief, lesbian, Confederate spy, poisoner, procuress, and brawler—whose affairs were, in part, guided by the ubiquitous ‘queen of the voodoos,’ Marie Laveau. She operated her house for two uninterrupted decades before her final retirement in 1889. She died in Pensacola, Florida, in 1895 at the age of 65.”
Save Our Cemeteries worked hard to find the local graves of those who worked in Storyville; they conducted a Storyville Burials tour to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the closing of the infamous area. Save Our Cemeteries intern Gordon Bond researched where they might be buried and found a few graves of the ladies of the night.
Ruth Davis, who lived at 1559 Iberville St., committed suicide by possible chemical poisoning on Christmas Eve 1914. Her father was notified of her death, and he came from Texas to claim her. However, he shunned her when he was informed of how she made a living. She was donated to the Tulane Medical College for students to dissect and was finally laid to rest in a potter’s field believed to be Holt Cemetery on January 7, 1915. Ruth was lucky enough to have flowers sent to her grave from the women who knew her, though they didn’t hold a funeral for her.
Minnie Rosenberg also committed suicide as so many distraught women did in this place. The 30-year-old was devastated after she lost her piano-player lover and overdosed in the house of Madame Julia Dean. She had traveled from Belleville, Illinois, landing in New Orleans in 1906. Somehow, she amassed a small but desirable fortune of $6,000 and a few diamonds. Upon her death, one of her brothers quickly came down to claim his prize of her earthly possessions, but at least he got Minnie a better burial than most ladies of ill-repute. You can visit her final resting place in Vault 281 in Metairie Cemetery where she was placed on April 15, 1911. When Save Our Cemeteries went to find the grave, they discovered that her marble closure tablet was broken; they are working to restore it.
One of the most notorious women of Storyville was Josie Arlington. Born Mary Deubler in 1864, Josie fell in love with a pimp named Philip Lobrano, who put her to work for him when she was just 17. Josie was tasked with supporting Philip and other people who she called a “flock of vultures” for nine long years, until she got into an altercation with Beulah Ripley, biting off half of Beulah’s ear and lower lip.
Josie decided that it was time to open up her own house in 1888, but a massive brawl ensued within a few months on November 2, 1890. When Philip shot Josie’s brother, she kicked that pimp to the curb. Josie brought her business, now called The Arlington, to Basin Street. That building caught on fire in 1905, so she set up shop across the street at Tom Anderson’s Saloon, calling it Arlington Annex.
Rose wrote about the ending of her career: “Having almost died in the conflagration, she was never quite the same again. Suddenly moody and introspective, haunted by intimations of her own mortality, the one-time brawler bought an expensive burial plot in Metairie Cemetery and fitted it out with an imposing red-marble tomb and adjacent statuary. The tomb is surmounted by two large flambeaux. There is a cross engraved on the back, while at the front, engraved in the copper door, there is a bas-relief of a kneeling woman, her arms filled with flowers. A beautifully executed statue of a young girl stands at the entrance in an attitude of knocking at the door. She died, aged 50, on February 14, 1914, and was buried the next day.”
Though they weren’t respected in life, these women finally found some respect in death.