A Glimmer of Red Lights

The following article is for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research or as a final authority on the subject. 

We’re going to talk about Storyville today.  From 1898 through 1917, Storyville was a district within the City of New Orleans in which prostitution–and other vices–were tolerated by law enforcement.

There is more information out there on Storyville than I could hope to even summarize well in a blog entry like this one.  Thus, I’ve decided to break down this post in three sections:

  1. I’ll do very short overview of what Storyville was.
  2. I’ll try to share the essence of Storyville.  I’ll do this in three different parts.
      1. There will be a bio on Tom Anderson, the political boss of Storyville.
      2. There will be a bio of Emma Johnson, one of the lesser known madams of Storyville.
      3. The last short portrait will be about the music of Storyville, which was considered influential in the Jazz music genre.
  3. I’ll talk about why Storyville closed and what ultimately happened to buildings that made up the area.

I’ll share my sources at the end of the post as usual.  If the topic grabs you—as it did me twenty-five years ago—you’ve got a starting point for your own research.

Let’s get started.

The ordinance that created Storyville was envisioned by City Alderman Sidney Story and written by an attorney named Thomas Caleb Hyman.  The ordinance was an attempt to contain vice—not just prostitution, but also gambling and other vices–in one concentrated area.

These vices were still illegal according to the State of Louisiana and the United States federal government.  However, what happened in Storyville was legal in New Orleans.

Storyville operated from 1898 to 1917.  It covered a thirty-eight block area of New Orleans and was just a couple of blocks away from the French Quarter.

The purple area on the right is the French Quarter. The pink area on the lower left is Storyville.

Now that we’ve talked about what Storyville was, let’s talk about the people and the music that made it interesting.

A Political Boss

Tom Anderson was referred to as the Mayor of Storyville.  He was the political boss of the Storyville District, which sometimes called “Anderson County.”

Tom Anderson was known as Mayor of Storyville

Tom’s career as a head honcho began modestly when young Tom became a stool pigeon for the New Orleans police department.  Tom’s first restaurant was patronized by police, politicians, and businessmen.  Anderson was trusted with all sort of information, which led him to even more lucrative business dealings.

Tom opened the Astoria Club on South Rampart Street in 1895.  The Astoria Club became a hotbed of vice–and probably a source of huge income.  Around this time, Anderson invested in a brothel at 172 Customhouse street, which was operated by one Josie Arlington.  Tom Anderson was frequently Josie Arlington’s escort.

The Arlington Annex

In 1897, just before Storyville was legalized into existence, Tom bought the saloon at the corner of Basin and Customhouse streets.  I suspect he made the purchase on the strength of advance knowledge.  This saloon eventually became known as the Arlington Annex in honor of Josie Arlington.  It was from the Arlington Annex that Tom ran Storyville.

Tom’s romantic interests followed his business interests.  He helped Hilma Burt purchase the the brothel next to the annex.  During this time, Anderson and Burt were romantically involved.  In 1911, Hilma Burt moved out of the brothel, and Gertrude Dix moved in.  Gertrude Dix was Tom Anderson’s new romantic interest.

Hilma Burt’s Mirrored Ballroom. The man at the piano is said to be Jelly Roll Morton.

Despite Tom’s shady side being public knowledge, he was elected to the state legislature in 1904 and served sixteen years.  After the decline of Storyville, Anderson married Gertrude Dix in 1928.  They stayed married until his death in 1931.

 A Madam 

Rather than talking about the best known Storyville Madam (probably Lulu White), I decided to profile a lesser known Storyville madam named Emma Johnson.

Today, Emma Johnson would probably be the subject of one of those true crime shows on the ID Channel.  She was notoriously, unrepentantly focused on using people for her own gain.

Brothel tokens were used as a form of currency. This token would have been purchased prior to services and given to the prostitute after services were rendered along with a tip.

Emma was born before the Civil War in the bayous of Louisiana.  She began working as prostitute during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

Emma, who was tall, rangy, and unattractive to men, flourished in the prostitution due to her willingness to engage in any sexual act.  Emma became famous for her exhibitions of sexual acts.  She soon found that she made more money before a crowd than she did doing one-on-one business.

This caricature of Emma Johnson’s evil nature is from the May 21, 1882 issue of The Mascot.

In 1880, in her house on Gasquet Street, Emma frequently put on sexual exhibitions featuring herself as the star.  Wealthy men did not want to pay for Emma to bestow her favors on them; instead, they paid Emma perform depraved acts for their amusement.  At one point, Emma was fined $20 for failing to keep the blinds of her house on Gasquet Street drawn.

Emma preferred women as her romantic partners.   She was reported to have a strong persuasive power over her fellow females.  She used her powers of persuasion to convince young women to enter a life of prostitution.  She fed girls as young as 10-years-old alcohol to make them agreeable to sexual acts.  In 1883, Emma began adding the sale of virgins to her business.

Emma Johnson’s French Studio at 331-333 Basin Street

When Storyville became legal, Emma began operating at 331-335 Basin Street.  Her house was called Emma Johnson’s French Studio.  It had a huge theater ballroom in which Emma’s sexual circuses were performed.  The circuses featured animals as well as humans.

Emma experienced little trouble with the law because her sexual circuses were known to draw conventions to the city.  She operated out of 331-335 Basin Street until Storyville was closed for business in November of 1917.  Emma Johnson left New Orleans at that time and disappeared–though reports exist that she died in St. Louis in 1927.

[Note: If Emma Johnson interests you, check out Al Rose’s book in my sources.  It contains a first-hand account from a girl whom Emma Johnson sold as a virgin for $775.]

The Music

Contrary to some reports, Jazz was not born in Storyville.  Many of its early greats got their start in Storyville, though.

Every brothel in Storyville had a “professor,” a man who played the piano in the parlor.  This guy had to have a lot of talent because it was his job to set the tone of the house.  He did whatever it took to entertain people.  He knew bawdy songs, get-em-in-get-em-out songs, soulful numbers…and even classical pieces.

Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson was the King of Storyville music.  He could play any genre of music and sing as well.  He wrote many original scores, but often sold them for $5 or $10 to other people who claimed the music as their own composition.  Jackson is probably best known for “Pretty Baby,” which is still a popular standard.

The music of Tony Jackson was not recorded.  I found a recording of Al Jolson singing his song, “Pretty Baby.”  Click here to listen.

Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton (whose real name was Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe) got his start playing in the brothels of Storyville at the age of twelve.  He played in many brothels, including some belonging to people mentioned in this blog post and claimed he sometimes earned $100 in a night.

Jelly Roll Morton’s music was recorded, and nothing I can say about him is better than experiencing him.  Take a listen:

[Fun Factoid: Louis Armstrong was born in Storyville. He learned to play music when he was sent to a boy’s home for firing a pistol in the streets.  When Louis came home, he became fascinated with the music played in Storyville and likely drew much of his influence from it.]

The End of Storyville and What Remains

All things come to an end, and Storyville was no different.  The district met its end in November of 1917.

The US was entering WWI.  It was decided and passed into law that no military base could be within five miles of a house of prostitution.  Because New Orleans wanted to keep their Naval base, Storyville was shut down.


In the early 1940s, those worried about common decency had the names of Basin and Franklin streets changed.  In 1945, those interested in tourism dollars rededicated Basin Street, hoping it would appeal to people interested in the evolution of Jazz and generate tourism dollars.

Though Basin Street was rededicated, the physical remains of Storyville were gone. The original structures were decaying.  The mansions on Basin street, which had been some of the finest in the city, were demolished.

Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall was demolished in 1949.

[Fun Factoid: At one time, Pete Fountain owned Lulu White’s gorgeous stained glass fan light.  For all I know, he still owns it.]

Ultimately, most of the area on which Storyville sat became the Iberville Housing Project.

So what remains of Storyville?

The photography of Ernest J. Bellocq represents one of the last views into the world of Storyville as it was in the early 1900s.  Bellocq was a commercial photographer who took pictures in the brothels and opium dens as a personal hobby.  After his death in 1949, much of his work was destroyed.

A good time girl drinking Raleigh Rye and wearing her $6 striped tights. Photo by Ernest J. Bellocq

However, the negatives for the Storyville photographs were discovered and quickly became famous…or infamous.  In 1970, Bellocq’s photographs were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  They also became the subject of two books: Storyville Portraits and Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville.

[Note: If you’re interested in seeing Bellocq’s photographs, I’ve got two options for you.   Clicking here will take you to a website where you can scroll through some of the pictures. Clicking here will take you to You Tube where you can view a video of the pictures set to “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis.  At You Tube, you’ll have to sign in stating that you’re over 18, but it’s worth it.  The pictures are not titillating, but they are unforgettable.]

The opulent parlor at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall photo by Ernest J. Bellocq

Bellocq and his photographs are the source of some mystery.  No one knows for sure why E. J. Bellocq took them or why some of the faces were scratched out.  Bellocq’s life was fictionalized in the 1978 film Pretty Baby, which starred Keith Carradine.

[Note: The storyline of Pretty Baby has many similarities to the interviews in Al Rose’s book.  I suspect the “Trick Baby” interview was the inspiration for Pretty Baby.]

Only three buildings from New Orlean’s first and only “legal” red-light district are still standing.  They are:

  • The bottom floor of Lulu White’s saloon–which was separate from her famous Mahogany Hall.  It is at 237 Basin Street.
  • Frank Early’s “My Place” saloon at 1214 Bienville Street
  • Joe Victor’s Saloon at the corner of St. Louis and Villere streets

I’m ending this post now, but it’s not because I’ve run out of things to say or because I’ve covered this topic cohesively.  This post is getting way too long, and that is the only reason I’m shutting up.  I could do a month of posts on Storyville and still only scratch the surface.  I hope today’s sampling of Storyville interested you enough to continue researching.


How Many of Storyville’s Structures Are Still Standing?

Storyville District

Louisiana Trade Tokens

Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District by Al Rose

Storyville: The Naked Dance

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