Other than hitting Bourbon Street, I believe the city’s many walking tours and carriage rides must be the most popular tourist activity in New Orleans. Throughout the French Quarter and Garden District, people gather around stringently-licensed tour guides enlivening historical facts (and stories) about everything from architecture and colorful characters to above-ground cemeteries and Voodoo. At night, the Quarter is cluttered with criss-crossing groups of people wanting to learn more about the “most haunted city in America” from one of the city’s many spirit tours (Scary Mary is regarded as the most fact-based fun). But there are many stories locals tell each other that tourists seldom hear. The stories of the city’s brothels and the women who worked them are the subject covered by Two Chicks Walking Tours‘ unique Brothels, Bordellos and Ladies of the Night walking tour.
Two Chicks offers personalized private walking tours for individuals or groups as well as public tours. They offer tours covering everything from cemeteries to celebrity homes but I was especially intrigued to hear the history of the city’s “working women.” New Orleans has many unique stories of women including women of color “marrying” white men and receiving housing, financial security and even formal education for the children of these “marriages.” Historically, one of the grandest annual NOLA events was the octoroon ball, a masked ball where men could find octoroon (1/8 black) mistresses. I looked forward to learning more.
The tour gathered at Cafe du Monde then started at Washington Artillery Park between the Mississippi River and St. Louis Cathedral – one of the most beautiful views in the city. Our cheerfully-costumed guide, Christine Miller, described the journey by ship that brought the city its first prostitutes. We followed her rainbow bustle to the French Market where we learned about the underworld. It’s hard to picture that stretch of town now lined with restaurants and shops as a hotbed of gambling and criminal activity but the area is the topic of Herbert Asbury’s (author of The Gangs of New York) The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld.
We heard about the murderous prostitutes Mary Jane “Bricktop” Jackson and Bridget Fury then headed to Molly’s at the Market for a beer and bathroom break. We learned about Benjamin Franklin Butler AKA “Spoons,” who though he outlawed the KKK and successfully battled a Yellow Fever outbreak, is most famous here for insulting the local women. When the northerners invaded New Orleans during the Civil War, local women expressed their hostility toward the soldiers by cursing, spitting and even dumping chamber pots on them as they passed. Butler declared that any woman who disrespected a soldier or officer would be treated like a prostitute. After that, things escalated so quickly between the offended locals and the spoon-stealing officer, that President Lincoln removed him from the city.
We learned about the explosion in prostitution during the war and social side effects like pregnancy and disease. Then we heard about those octoroon balls and the traditions of Plaçage (common-law marriage contracts between European men and women of color). I knew less about the history of Storyville, a district where prostitution was decriminalized in the late 1800’s. For fans of HBO’s The Wire, it was like “Hamsterdam.”
We stopped for another pit-stop at May Bailey’s Place and saw photos of the women of Storyville by E.J. Bellocq, one of which was immediately recognizable. The walls also held the original license for the address to operate as a brothel as well as copies of pages from the infamous “Blue Book.” Like the Blue Book we use to value cars, the Storyville Blue Books listed madams, their assets (both personal and property) as well as “prominent” prostitutes. The page pictured below touts the young and fashionable Miss Gertrude Dix, her “palatial” home and the orchestra in her ballroom with “talented singers and dancers.”
The tour ended in front of the home of “The Last Madam,” Norma Wallace where photographer E.J. Bellocq resided. The brothel was a home-away-from-home for gangsters, politicians and movie stars – and those were just Wallace’s lovers and husbands – the last of which was a 25 year old neighbor (she was 64 when they married – her 5th marriage). She was a character who managed to run a brothel for 42 years and still get the key to the city.
Miss Christine wrapped the tour up with the Baby Dolls, a group of black prostitutes who openly and brazenly paraded at Mardi Gras in 1912. This story goes (there are 2 stories) that the women heard the white women of Storyville were going to dress and decided to show them up. Men called them “baby dolls” so they decided to take that literally, dressing in vibrant baby clothes with garters and baby bottles filled with liquor. The tradition continues today among all kinds of local women and can bee seen in a photo and video HERE. I wish there had been a way to show the non-locals on our tour what they look like but Baby Dolls can still be found in parades and second lines year-round.
I first met our guide, Christine Miller, when I became a Pussyfooter. We know each other because we share a love for dressing in pink burlesque-wear and dancing through the streets of New Orleans during parades. She was the perfect guide for our journey through the history of “ladies of the night” that leads however-windingly to our Pussyfooter path on the parade route. With her interest in history and her love for this city, I’m guessing she’s also a terrific guide for her other offerings in the city including educational field trips, historical scavenger hunts and “culinary and cocktail conquests” perfect for bachelor/bachelorette weekends.