Josie Arlington didn’t take squabbles lightly. She was known for bloody brawling when displeased with a conversation and was fiercely protective of her family. So much so that she supported them by becoming a prostitute in 1881, when she was only 17 years old.
In major cities throughout the country, women were taking the prostitution trade literally into their own hands, understanding that money was to be made in the classiest form of the oldest profession. The idea of the “escort” like we think of it today didn’t really exist. Yes, in most place prostitution was illegal and no one would understand the idea of hiring an escort for company instead of sex. So like her New York City and Chicago counterparts that would come with the turn of the century, Josie wasted no time starting her own bordello in 1885. And when prostitution became legal in New Orleans district of Storyville, she jumped at the opportunity and, in turn, made history of her own.
Prostitutes of the time usually turned 25 cent tricks in dark alleys on dirty mattresses that they hauled around on their backs. Madam Josie brought a new kind of bordello to Storyville. Her four-story mansion boasted huge potted plants, fireplaces in every room, arched doorways, marble pillars, and works of art from around the world.
Along with the regular employees she called her “nieces”, Madam Josie offered “specialists”—escorts who could turn any man’s most secret fantasy into a reality. Sex shows were regularly performed in the public parlour, where guests could enjoy the performance before retiring to their $5 a night rooms—for an additional fee, of course. Josie’s was truly a step above any experience the gentlemen of New Orleans had ever seen, and one only the wealthiest and most refined man could afford.
The red-light district was legal until 1917 — three years after Josie died a peaceful death. In that time there was both an embracing of the legal trade and a fear of it. Creole women were proving to be extremely popular amongst Josie’s customers, inspiring many local mothers to send their daughters to private schools until they were of age to marry. Josie’s nieces made a decent profit in her employ, and she was notorious for affirming that no virgin—indeed, no woman who did not freely want to work for her—was ever shamed or disgraced by her trade of choice. This was known so much so that a statue of a young woman stood on her grave after her death—a symbol of the purity she swore by.
Her death is indeed what has made her famous amongst the New Orleans and Storyville crowd. After a fire burnt most of her mansion in 1905, she and her nieces moved into a few floors above a saloon run by her friend Tom Anderson, a local politician and political boss. But something irked her, and she became moody and aloof. No one really knows what turned her from feisty and fiercely independent to introspective. She retired her business a few years later, and slipped into quiet obscurity.
Romantic stories abound in New Orleans, notorious for dramatic lives and haunted deaths. Today the city is still known for its liberal views on drinking and sex, and some of the most beautiful escorts in the country receive immense public embracing. Though prostitution was made illegal again in 1917, the Storyville era and its Madam Josie showed how non-violently and, indeed, with how much class a legal house of prostitution could be run.
For years Josie’s tomb was known to be haunted—her figure seen rising from it and walking in the cemetery late at night. Tourists would be sure to stop at her grave after viewing the area that her famous bordello stood in hopes of seeing the illustrious madam and promoter of fair prostitution walk among them. Her family, ever supportive of and supported by her, was so bothered by the traffic that they moved her tomb to an unmarked area of the cemetery. It was then that the red figure assumed to be Josie was realized to be a light, reflected from a lamp nearby.
But was it a lamp?