Gallatin Street, New Orleans the Bourbon street of the antebellum era.
Almost a century before tourists would stroll down Bourbon Street with a Hurricane in hand, there was a street almost as notorious for nightlife and much more dangerous in New Orleans called Gallatin. Starting in the 1840s until petering out with the rise of Storyville in the 1890s, the two blocks of Gallatin Street stretching from Ursuline to Barracks, near the docks and located near the present day French Market, was the center for New Orleans nightlife and the sex trade.
American writer Herbert Asbury, when writing in his 1936 book The French Quarter: An Informal History of The New Orleans Underworld, describes it: “There was crime and depravity in every inch of Gallatin Street; the stranger who entered it at Ursuline Avenue with money in his pocket and came out at Barracks with his wealth intact and his skull uncracked had performed a feat which bordered on miraculous.”
It makes one wonder why anyone would ever go on that stroll down to Gallatin Street? One thing to keep in mind was that when Herbert Ashbury was writing his book in 1936, it was based on newspaper and tabloid articles that had been published in the 19th century. In this way,The French Quarter: An Informal History of The New Orleans Underworld is very similar to perhaps his more famous book Gangs of New York which the movie of the same name was based on. With this in mind, we need to take Ashbury’s words with a bit of a grain of salt. His sources were somewhat dubious 19th century newspapers written to exaggerate in order to shock readers and sell papers. We do know that Gallatin street was the center of the Sex Trade in antebellum New Orleans which might answer the question of who would ever risk life and limb to go on a stroll down to Gallatin Street? Well, men looking to partake in New Orleans’s burgeoning sex trade.
Ashbury’s exaggerations aside, from what we can tell there are two types of establishments one would find along Gallatin Street. The first would be the lowly barrel house. This building was usually a long narrow room lined with barrels filled with liquor. Each barrel would have a spigot and for five cents the customer could fill his spigot at any of the barrels. These barrels, we would have to assume, would be filled with the cheapest liquors of the day. This is before the FDA oversaw liquor production. Dubious liquor distillers would add all types of horrific ingredients to their liquor. Things like sulphuric acid and chewing-tobacco could easily find their way into whiskey to add color or a smokey flavor. Ashbury goes on to describe that once a customer stopped drinking, they were ejected from the establishment and that often owners would drug the liquor with knockout drops and employed thieves to rob patrons. The other type of establishment found on Gallatin Street were dance houses. The main attraction of dance houses was dancing, women, and liquor. These establishments often featured colorful names like the House of Rest for Weary Boatmen, Mother Bunk’s Den, and the Sure Enuf Hotel. They were simple two or three story buildings with a bar and dance floor on the first floor and smaller rooms on the top floors rented by night or week by sex workers. These workers were not paid by the owner but instead had to rely solely on the rewards from sex work and robbery.
According to Judith Kelleher Schafer in her book Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women: Illegal Sex in Antebellum New Orleans, The average lifespan of an Antebellum sex worker on Gallatin Street was four years. Disease, being the most common cause of death, was followed closely by murder. There were attempts at regulating and/or shutting down the sex trade but none were successful until City Council member Sidney Story passed an ordinance on July 7,, 1897, regulating the sex trade to one district in the Treme bound by Berville, Basin Street, St. Louis, and N. Robertson streets. His proposed name was The District but it quickly became known as Storyville. In many ways Storyville was a progressive idea, modeled after redlight districts in German and Dutch port towns.It was an attempt to rein in the worst excesses and violence of Gallatin Street. Storyville existed from 1897-1917. It was shut down by the US Navy who were afraid of their virtuous sailors being tempted by loose women in New Orleans. The city of New Orleans protested, the Mayor famously stating, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” We have to assume that the life of the average sex worker on Storyville was much longer and probably much happier with some even rising to fame and financial success like Lulu White.
Around 1917, with the closure of Storyville, the first nightclubs and dance halls opened on Bourbon Street. Demand for such establishments exploded during World War Two as soldiers and sailors on leave were looking for any distraction from the horrors of the war abroad. While people often look down their nose at Bourbon Street and there has been a constant attempt over the years to “clean up Bourbon street” and make it “family-friendly” the demand for dancing and drinking have not seemed to wane in recent years echoing the notion: You can make it illegal but you can’t make it unpopular.