“A promiscuous encounter”: Prostitution in Public View, New Orleans, 1865–77

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:50 AM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Elizabeth P. Smith, University of North Carolina

In 1868, a New Orleans man named Foriére capped an evening of gambling and drinking by hiring a woman, Elizabeth Syfax, “to satisfy his passion.”  Their intimate transaction was perfectly legal—prostitution was a regulated industry in postbellum New Orleans—but it was far from private.  Brothels like Syfax’s teemed with activity.  Women at work, male customers, and even policemen lackadaisically patrolling their beats roamed among the houses and comprised a diverse and often fractious backstreets community.  As a sated Foriére slept in Syfax’s room, she visited four other women working nearby and casually chatted with a local police officer.  All of these contacts were later called to testify against her when, upon awaking, Foriére discovered he had been robbed of 612 dollars.   

 The Reconstruction-era trials against Syfax and other prostitutes open the New Orleans demimonde to view and allow us to trace the complex relationships among women, their male clientele, and the city police.  This paper uses court records and newspaper accounts of women’s alleged crimes to explore the busy social world in which prostitutes’ actions always had an audience.  While the very nature of their work redefined intimate relationships as simultaneously economic transactions, other aspects of prostitutes’ lives were also public in a manner reviled by “respectable” society.  They displayed their bodies to potential customers and wary passers-by alike, they voiced sexually-explicit invitations and caustic insults in turn, and they screamed, struck and stabbed at each other in public brawls.  Furthermore, allegations like those against Elizabeth Syfax brought even the “private” behavior of prostitutes from out behind brothels walls and into public discussion and debate.  In the process, prostitutes challenged assumptions about the expectation or even the desirability of privacy in a community existing precariously on the margins of the law.