The People of Gallatin Street
Stop 2 of 4 in the “The Place Where Terpsichore and Bacchus Ruled the Hour”: A History of Gallatin Street tour.
Gallatin Street’s close proximity to the port made it a quick and frequent stop for those who docked, worked, or lived near the booming economic area. Close to half a million immigrants came through New Orleans’ port between 1841 and 1860, and many of them didn’t make it past Gallatin Street. According to historian Judith Kellehar Schafer, the majority of prostitutes in and around the area were immigrant women. Prostitution, known as New Orleans' second most profitable industry, The second most profitable industry in New Orleans, prostitution, also benefitted from the transient guests of Gallatin Street.
Schafer cites a study published by William W. Sanger in 1858 on the sex industry. Sanger found that after women were entangled in sex work, they often died within four years. He also found that at least fifty percent of prostitutes had sexually transmitted diseases. Although Sanger's study is based in New York City, Schafer applies his findings to New Orleans, and she reinforces the prominence of venereal disease in New Orleans by citing the recurring ads in New Orleans’ papers during that period for “cures” and remedies for sexually transmitted diseases.
Gerald Capers notes that during the Civil War, when Union soldiers were stationed in New Orleans, venereal disease among soldiers (who were regular visitors to brothels) cost the Department of the Gulf “50,000 to 100,000 days of service.” If public women didn’t die of disease, they died from being subjected to violence at the hands of drunken patrons or angry bar owners. In 1857, a young Irish immigrant named Mary Jane died by the knife of an angry customer in John Swan’s brothel after refusing certain sexual services. Such violent acts were not uncommon on Gallatin Street.
While women were often victims of violent crime, some women were also active criminals. In 1859, three prostitutes were charged with larceny after working together to steal from a patron of Archy Murphy’s brothel, at which the women were employed. Another famous woman, Mary Jane Jackson, better known as Bricktop, skipped theft and went straight to assault. A scourge throughout New Orleans, Bricktop also worked for Archy Murphy until she was deemed too rough for even one of the roughest dance houses on Gallatin Street. It is said that she carried a knife personally designed with two five-inch blades on either end. In December 1861, she took her violent streak so far as to kill her own husband. The Times-Picayune commented on the murder as such: “Both were degraded beings, regular penitentiary birds, habitual drunkards, and unworthy of any further notice from honest people.”
Three brothel owners on Gallatin Street were particularly violent—Archy Murphy, the brothel owner noted before, George Kent, and John Swan. In 1856, Swan successfully led a brawl of men and women against the police, then assaulted a man and beat a woman in two separate instances. Kent and Swan’s violence seemed to be a family affair. In 1858, the two bar owners’ wives were involved in a fight in which George Kent’s wife attacked and kicked the wife of John Swan. The bar owners had to be tough to run a club on this street, whose drunk and rowdy clientele could often hold their own in a fight and had very little to lose.
A group of men known as the Live Oak Gang frequented Gallatin Street. Although a motley crew, they were the closest thing to organized crime in the area. Herbert Asbury claims that the group earned their name by carrying around oak clubs, and because of their meeting place near the river in a pile of live oak knees. They were generally unwelcome in brothels because they were sure to cause a fight. The only club where they were welcome was Bill Swan’s Fireproof Saloon. Asbury claims that Bill Swan was once a member of the Live Oak Gang, but after Swan made a good amount of money, he invested in business rather than crime. The Live Oak boys were even violent towards one another. In 1886, the O’Brien brothers got into an argument at Bill Swan’s Fireproof Saloon that ended with the younger brother, Matt, shooting his older brother, Hugh. Hugh later died in Charity hospital. It was a gamble to trust a member of the Live Oak Gang, even if you were a member yourself.
Police were known to avoid Gallatin Street without a partner, especially at night. Antebellum-era police in New Orleans were understaffed and underpaid--two factors that Schafer claims made officers susceptible to bribes and apathy. However, some police officers took advantage of the underworld they were meant to protect. For example, in 1852, the Times-Picayune reported that a watchman on Gallatin Street threatened to shut down a woman’s brothel “unless she consented to certain propositions made by him.” In 1857, a police officer named Lieutenant Legget was accused of preventing the arrest of Arthur Guerin. A year earlier, Guerin had been dismissed from the police force after trying to cover up a murder on Gallatin Street. The murderer, “Dutch Pete,” former owner of the California House on Gallatin Street, had killed a man near his dance house. Guerin allowed for Dutch Pete to flee to Havana while Guerin “took care” of witnesses to the murder in New Orleans. The lack of police presence on Gallatin Street created an environment where crime and violence ruled the streets.
Of course, some police officers attempted to uphold the law. In 1860, for instance, Schafer cites that 36 women were arrested in Gallatin Street brothels and were sent to the workhouse for six months, but were soon let off on a technicality. Often, police would target prostitutes while ignoring the more violent crimes in the area. However, the bad cops outnumbered the good, and so prostitutes, drunks and criminals became the law enforcers of Gallatin Street.