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The Diary of a Storyville Sex Worker

              Storyville was the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1897 to 1917. It was established by municipal ordinance under the New Orleans City Council, to regulate prostitution and drugs. Prostitution became a lucrative source of income for the city. At the peak of its success, there were approximately two thousand prostitutes and forty brothels, with New Orleans’ sex trade totaling $15 million per year.

                After twenty years of operation, the U.S. Army and Navy demanded that Storyville be closed, considering the district as a ‘bad influence’ on the sailors at the nearby Naval base. The District was closed by federal order on October 10, 1917, despite the strong objections of the New Orleans city government and Mayor Martin Behrman, who proclaimed ‘You can make prostitution illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular” (Storyvilledistrictnola.com).

           The following are diary entries from a prostitute in Storyville, Louisiana, written between 1915 to 1916, some of the dates are not clear due to age and deterioration, there is also missing pages. The book was, amazingly discovered, approximately 90 years later, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

            During Katrina, levees broke flooding much of New Orleans. The force of the water literally raised the dead from their resting places. Nearly 1000 coffins and vaults floated along the streets of the Gulf Coast. Many of the coffins lacked identification, so it became necessary to open them to identify the remains. It was then that the diary of Cora May Johnson, a Storyville sex worker, was discovered. Birth records indicate that Ms. Johnson, was born in Boone, North Carolina on February 10, 1896, and that she was born to a negro mother, her father, an unknown male, was listed as white.  She was seventeen when she went to work as a prostitute in Storyville. Her diary gives some insight into the lives of Storyville sex workers.


January 15, 1915

Mr. Rivers, a regular client here on Basin Street, came to visit today. He is a gentle and kind man, with an almost shy quietness about himself. He is a handsome man of athletic build with dark, wavy hair, a man that could have any woman of his choosing. His hands are as soft as rose petals, and his crystal blue eyes are as deep as the ocean. He appears to be well-bred, highly educated, and always acts as a gentleman to the women here. I seem to be a favorite of his since his first request is to spend his time with me, and he often schedules appointments in advance to ensure my availability. He is, as well, a favorite of mine.

He frequently asks me to read poetry to him on his visits. Today it was a poem by Eloise Bibb.


“O Juda! if thou wast endowed with power,

Thou would’st describe that grand and solemn hour.

In yonder sacred oratory there.

Thou dost behold a woman strangely fair,

With classic brow and jet-like dreamy eyes,

Whose liquid depth out rivalled Italy’s skies;

And penciled brows ‘neath glossy, raven hair,

Adorned the lids with silken fringes fair.

Though haircloth clothed that form of matchless grace,

It could not hide the beauty of that face.”

I do not understand it entirely, but it is about a woman who prays for her people to be set free, her prayers answered. The words are beautiful, and they bring tears to my eyes as I read them.

Mr. Rivers gifted me this journal. He says because I feel the magnificence and beauty of poetry that I should try writing. He inquires about my educational background, and I, ashamed, bow my head down to tell him how I attended a one room negro school, in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. It was in the same building we used for church on Sundays.  I told him how the building was desperately in need of repairs, but those few negros that were fortunate enough to attend did not complain. I go on to say that I learned arithmetic, reading, writing, history, and geography from a teacher provided by the American Missionary Association. I inform him that I went as far as I could go in that schoolhouse and once dreamed of attending Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. He smiles, wipes a tear from my eye with his handkerchief and tells me to hold fast to my dreams.

January 18,1915

{illegible entry}

January 22, 1915

It is unusually cold today here on Basin Street. I wish for snow. Snow reminds me of my childhood and my dear mother. She would make snow cream for us after we finished our chores. The fresh cream and sugar mixed with the cold snow was a treat. Mother would tell us not to eat it fast for it would make our heads hurt from the cold. I tried to listen, but it tasted so good it was hard to eat slowly. My sister would savor hers and be the last to finish as we sat there waiting, hoping she would share. She didn’t.

I know Mother feels very bad about sending me here to work although, she did let me decide in the end. She would have come herself except her bent and broken body from all her years of work would not earn much pay here. I thought I would be able to save some money for my education, but it is hard for women, especially whores, since we cannot leave the district. I send Mother most of my earnings to help feed and clothe my brother and two sisters, all younger than me.  They all have the same octoroon father who was a sharecropper until he died working in the field. My father, a white man, used to come by when I was a child and bring me candy, but I have not seen him for years. My mother foolishly loved this man and fell prey to his charms and fabrications of their future.  I don’t think of him much, but I miss my momma and my brother and sisters.

January 31, 1915

Mr. Grimes, the good mayor himself, came to visit today. I detest his visits. He is fat and sweats a lot. He grunts like a pig when he is on top of me. The good part is he does his business rather quickly and leaves me a five-dollar gold piece on the bureau as he closes the door behind him. He never talks except to say what delicate white skin I have for a negro. I must hold myself back from saying thank you Mr. Pig; instead, I give him a polite smile.

February 1, 1915

A new girl came to live in the house today. She looks so young. Did I look that young when I first arrived? I have been here for two years now. I remember the day I walked in the front door. I never imagined a whore house could be so fancy! Velvet curtains and chairs. Chandeliers that sparkle like diamonds, reflected by the mirrors that are everywhere. The sculptures and paintings, all done by local negroes, are breathtaking. I am envious of their talents, but I also mourn for their struggles. It seems to me that such capability is wasted by not being publicly displayed.

I will wait and meet the new girl at this afternoon’s tea.

February 10, 1915

Today is my birthday, and I once again think of mother. As far back as I can remember, mother always managed to find enough money for material for a new dress for me on my birthday, a simple cotton print, sewn together by her hands and made with love. She would make a cake as well. Sometimes it was a large cake, enough that everyone could have a piece but when money was scarce it would be small, more like a hoecake, enough for one, but I would still share a bite with Mother and one each for my siblings.

As I look in the mirror, I momentarily feel beautiful and ladylike, my long dark hair, with its natural curl, down and framing my face. I notice the curve of my hips, and the fullness of my breast, the length of my legs and the golden color of my eyes. I wonder if Mother would be ashamed of me now in the silk gowns, I wear each night, with my breast half exposed, pushed up with tight corsets, to entertain and entice the men who visit? Would she frown at the powder on my face I use to make my skin whiter? The rouge on my cheeks to make me look as though I were blushing with innocence? The red lip color applied to fuel lust? Would she hate, that here, because of my eyes, they call me Amber instead of the name she gave me at my birth?

I sometimes imagine myself as a stage actor, dressing and playing the part of a charming lady, out on the town, laughing at his jokes, quietly listening to his tales of work and woe. Then I return to reality, and I am but a whore. When I lay with these men, strangers really, I become inhuman, a piece of furniture, a tree in the woods, a statue. It is the only way to endure my work, along with knowing why I am here: my mother, my sisters, and brother. Removing myself makes it tolerable. My work is easier on the body than working the fields, but it is harder on the heart and soul.

When there is a new girl, as there was tonight, the men become foolish rival suitors trying to charm her and win her attention. The winner will always be the man with the most cash in his pocket. Her name is Nellie; she is from Mississippi. She is young, tall, and slender, with small breast. Three men were especially enchanted by Nellie, including Mr. Grimes. I prayed that her first time would not be with that pig! I had been chosen by the police captain when I saw her head up the stairway with the drugstore owner, Mr. Percy. She was in good enough hands.

My company for the night, Captain Morgan, is a strange man. His request is always the same; to have me undress slowly and then lie on the bed while he pleasures himself. He then sits in the chair, smokes a cigar and leaves, dropping a few coins on the bureau. I have earned my pay for the day.

February 16, 1915

The town is full of people coming for Mardi Gras. We all dress in the colors of gold, green, and purple to celebrate. The colorful costumes, the jazz music, and the parades bring in endless men coming here on Basin Street for their further enjoyment.  We take turns, with Madam Lucinda’s permission, to go out and celebrate. The mask covers our identities, so we are free to roam the streets, but we must still be careful. Our time out is short since there is much work to do at home.

February 28, 1915

{illegible entry}

March 1, 1915

Mr. Rivers came for a visit today. He had been out of town visiting relatives and taking care of his work. He told me once he was a banker, where I do not know or ask. He asked me if I had been writing in my journal, and I answered yes, when I found the occasion. He did not ask to read it, but instead, he asked me to read more poetry. The book is new, and I can smell the fresh ink. The spine cracks as I open it. It is a collection of many authors. He chose a poem by Anne Bradstreet:

Flesh and The Spirit

“In secret place where once I stood

Close by the Banks of Lacrim flood,

I heard two sisters reason on

Things that are past and things to come.

One Flesh was call’d, who had her eye

On worldly wealth and vanity;

The other Spirit, who did rear

Her thoughts unto a higher sphere.

“Sister,” quoth Flesh, “what liv’st thou on

Nothing but Meditation?

Doth Contemplation feed thee so

Regardlessly to let earth go?

Can Speculation satisfy

Notion without Reality?

Dost dream of things beyond the Moon

And dost thou hope to dwell there soon?

Hast treasures there laid up in store

That all in th’ world thou count’st but poor?

Art fancy-sick or turn’d a Sot

To catch at shadows which are not?

Come, come. I’ll show unto thy sense,

Industry hath its recompense.

What canst desire, but thou maist see

True substance in variety?

Dost honour like? Acquire the same,

As some to their immortal fame;

And trophies to thy name erect

Which wearing time shall ne’er deject.

For riches dost thou long full sore?

Behold enough of precious store.

Earth hath more silver, pearls, and gold

Than eyes can see or hands can hold.

Affects thou pleasure? Take thy fill.

Earth hath enough of what you will.

Then let not go what thou maist find

For things unknown only in mind.”The poem reminds me of myself. Good and evil competing with each other. Selling my flesh, does it take my soul? Does my reason, the sake of living and for my family, save it?

Mr. Rivers stayed the night and held me close to him. He makes me feel human, like all women should feel, not like property. He left the book of poetry with me along with a five-dollar gold piece.

March 23, 1915

I received a letter from momma today. She said the family is doing well, thanks to me. The paper smells of smoke from the woodstove and makes me lonesome to see momma’s face. To hear her voice. She can’t visit me, nor can I visit her, so all we have of each other is our letters. I remember the day we left North Carolina to come to Louisiana. We had family here, my stepfather’s brother and his wife. Here, the sugar cane was coming in faster than folks could harvest it. We were barely getting by sharecropping when my stepfather said we should move to where there was work. It was only three months till he worked himself to death in those fields, leaving us alone. It wasn’t long after I moved here to Storyville.

In Storyville, prostitution is legal. There are thirty-eight blocks that I can roam, shop, and call home. Outside of these thirty-eight blocks, I take a chance on being recognized and arrested. That is why I can’t visit momma, and it is too hard for her to travel to see me. Besides, I do not wish for her to see me here.

 March 29, 1915

Victoria! Victoria! I cannot even write the words. My heart is heavy, and my eyes are blinded from my tears.

April 13, 1915

I will try to write about poor dear Victoria. She was a plump girl, short in height and large breasted. Her skin was the color of almonds, and her eyes sparkled when she smiled. She always had a kind word for everyone. She had been employed for about a year before I came. She had lived in a home for orphans until she came of legal age and having no skills and no family, she sought out Madam Lucinda for work.

My heart hurts as I write this to think of the injustices of life and death.

Victoria became pregnant, a hazard of her career. She informed Madam Lucinda, who then sent for the doctor to come and take care of the problem. Dr. Williams was out of town on holiday, therefore his stand in was called upon. The substitute arrived late in the night wearing rumpled, dirty clothes. He reeked of liquor, and his hands trembled. As he removed the tiny baby from Victoria’s womb, she screamed in pain and agony. There was nothing we could do. Finally, the laudanum took effect, and she managed to sleep through the rest of the night. The next morning the wails from her room were horrifying. She was burning with fever. The doctor was sent for once again, arriving too late except to see her lying there dead, as pale as the top of the sheets in which she lay. The bottom of the bed covers lay covered in bright, crimson blood. She was buried by noon in a pauper’s grave with no marking save a small homemade cross. Does God forgive whores? I pray he does.

I write to my mother, but I keep these terrors from her.

 April 24, 1915

Another tragedy has hit us. Last night, we awoke to smoke coming from the downstairs parlor. It seems a client, Mr. Easton, confused from drink, wandered downstairs in the night and lit a cigar. He then fell asleep, setting the sofa ablaze and filling the house with thick, black smoke. The damage was minimal to the parlor. However, Mr. Easton did not fair as well. The police came, and we have been forced to close for an investigation. Madam Lucinda assures us that it will be brief as she has spoken to the police chief as well as the mayor. It does not hurt that they both frequent our home for their pleasures.

April 26, 1915

Men have come to clean and restore the parlor. Thickly piled carpets arrived along with new furnishings. The stench of burning flesh will take longer to leave our memories. No one goes to Mr. Easton’s funeral, it would not be proper, and since a story had been invented for Mrs. Easton and the public, any presences from this house would raise questions.

The paper read that Mr. Easton ran into a burning building to save a woman and child trapped within, and therefore he died a hero. He, of course, was nowhere near Storyville.

May 7, 1915

A German U-boat torpedoed the British steamship Lusitania, killing 1,128 people including 128 Americans. We all gather around the radio to listen, wondering if the United States will join in the war. It seems like many people want President Wilson to fight the Germans. Here, I fight my own battles.

 May 17, 1915

I received a letter from my brother. Mother is not well though he says she will recover, and I should not come. Mother has fallen and broken her leg while working.  He asked if I could send extra money that is needed for the doctor’s attendance. My sisters are taking her place at home as well as in the fields, which means they did not finish out the school year. They will be behind when the next year begins. My brother has taken a new job cleaning at the local university. He says it is good pay for a negro, but it leaves him little time for family matters.  He has registered for classes there in the fall, and since he is an employee, he can attend part-time for free. The books, however, he will have to pay for from his earnings. I feel excitement for him, but I am troubled that I cannot be there for Mother.

May 20,1915

{illegible entry}

June 2, 1915

I cry for you my mother

As I know you shed tears for me

Our lives forever in chains because of our skin color

Will the world ever look into our hearts, our souls, and see?

June 14, 1915

Yesterday was a big day here on Basin Street. It was Madam Lucinda’s birthday. She will not tell us how old she is, and we dare not guess, at least in front of her! There was a grand party in her honor last night. Unimaginable amounts of food beautifully arranged and spread about on every table. Champagne for all! The band played delightful jazz music, and we danced. I felt like a princess. I had the good fortune of spending the evening with Mr. Rivers. His attention to me only enlarges my feeling of enchantment tonight. He holds me close when we dance, and I pretend we are in love with each other. I take in his scent, the exquisiteness of his eyes and the firmness of his shoulders. I secretly dream of our wedding day and our children that will never be. There is no poetry reading. Only a passion that is genuine, if only for the night.

I used to dream of having children but seeing my mothers’ struggles has made me change my mind. My children would still be called nigger. I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter selling her body to live. I am careful, or as careful as I can be.

July 4, 1915

There was a block party and parade today to celebrate the holiday, Independence Day. Everything and everyone donning red, white and blue. As for myself and the rest of the girls, we did not get to attend. With all the out of town visitors, we were very busy. Hardly time to bathe between the men. The money and tips were good, although the day left us all exhausted. The heat, which is already unbearable, doesn’t help. In New Orleans, the summers are long, hot, and cruel.

July 25, 1915

I received a letter from my mother. She is doing better although she said she is walking with a cane. My sister Sally, the third born, is married and expecting a baby. There is a part of me that is happy for her, a life that I can only dream of, yet, I also worry. She married a negro sharecropper; she will struggle as my mother has.

Mother thanked me for the money and told me she had paid all the bills for her broken leg. She tells me she is sorry for the work I must do to help her. She says she prays for me.

She writes of another lynching close to her; a William Mitchell lynched in Sardis, Mississippi. She doesn’t say why, but I know it doesn’t take much. There is so much senseless hate in the world. I pray for my family.

August 20,1915

{Partial entry}

…she screams in the night, which awakens us all. We find empty bottles hidden in her bureau and underneath her bed. I am fearful she will have to be committed to a sanitarium…

September 14, 1915

My life here is not entirely bad. All the women have become like sisters to me, Madam Lucinda like a mother.  We love each other and are a family.

There are other assets, as well. I have my own bathroom with both hot and cold water in which I bathe frequently. There is always plenty to eat, and I am never cold, although there is not much to be done about the heat in the summertime. When we are not busy, we gather around the parlor and play cards while we tell stories of our past. There is a commonness in our stories; We are all here because of need. We sell our bodies to live and to sustain those we love. Try as we may, it is difficult to hold ourselves in high esteem. Through our knowledge and stories, we can claim some of our dignity.

Ana is one of my closest friends here. She is from Georgia. She is darker-skinned than I am, tall, slim, and exotic in looks. She moved here for work when there was none to be found in Georgia, and she had to sell her baby to feed herself. Three men cornered her in a barn where they violated her and beat her within inches of her life.  She has a mark above her right eye, and her heart carries many scars, as proof of the torture she endured.  She says she had no feelings of love or attachment to the child since it was conceived during a brutal rape. I see the look in her eyes when she talks about the child, and I don’t believe her.

Then there is Olivia, a woman of about thirty with the voice of an angel. She is from Virginia and never talks much about her past. Her face matches her beautiful voice, and her smile lights the room when she walks in. She doesn’t have much education, but she has an abundant amount of common sense. She and I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning just watching the stars from the rooftop.

The hour is late, and I must sleep.

October 4, 1915

{illegible entry}

October 29, 1915

{partial entry}

Leaves of crimson, orange and gold fall silently to the ground

I see the beauty in death

Stars fill the night sky, and I watch as one falls

I see the beauty in death

November 5, 1915

A letter from mother bringing bad news has arrived. My sister Sally has died while giving birth to her baby boy. Mother said the baby tried to come into the world feet first and Sally lost so much blood that she couldn’t hold out. The baby was named Zeke and is buried in Sally’s arms.

I long to be home with momma, especially now that she is grieving. I know my presence would not replace Sally, but maybe seeing me would give her strength.

The envelope included a letter from my brother Thomas. He writes he is doing well and is continuing both his work and his classes. He says he wants to be a doctor. I know my brother, and he will succeed.

Neither mentions my youngest sister, Bell, in their letters.

November 15,1915

{illegible entry}

December 23, 1915

Olivia has died from syphilis. She was hospitalized a week ago. She had been fatigued and seemed to become thinner, but she stated she was just simply tired when we inquired.  Madam Lucinda, when she noticed, wasted no time in sending for the doctor. Olivia, at this point, was covered in sores and developed a high fever. There was little hope for her.

Disease is a fear that we all share mutually here in Storyville. This risk is faced daily and would be an end to our livelihood and possibly our lives. Is there any place to go from Basin Street, except the grave?

January 3, 1916

I am going home! Mother has written informing me that she has found employment for me as a housemaid in a new hotel that has been built near the university. I would gladly go back to sharecropping to be near my family, but I am grateful for the job at the hotel. Madam Lucinda and the girls say my leaving will be bittersweet. They are happy for my chance at a new life, but they will miss me. I will miss them as well.

January 12, 1916

As I am preparing to leave, I have one last visitor, Mr. Rivers. He brought me a new journal and encouraged me to keep writing. He graciously walked me to the train station, and before we parted, he kissed me gently on the cheek.



Works Cited

“’Song of Myself’: A Poem by Walt Whitman.” Interesting Literature, 4 Nov. 2018,  https://interestingliterature.com/2018/11/06/song-of-myself-a-poem-by-walt-whitman/.

Hickman, Kennedy. “America Joins the Fight in World War I.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 29 July 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/america-joins-the-fight-in-1917-2361562.

Jani, Brian. “Flesh And The Spirit, The.” PoemHunter.com, 31 Dec. 2002, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/flesh-and-the-spirit-the/.

“Judith.” Poem: Judith by Eloise Bibb, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/judith-4.

“New Orleans Temperatures: Averages by Month.” New Orleans LA Average Temperatures by Month – Current Results, https://www.currentresults.com/Weather/Louisiana/Places/new-orleans-temperatures-by-month-average.php.

Storyvilledistrictnola.com, http://www.storyvilledistrictnola.com/farewell_storyville.html.











One Response to “The Diary of a Storyville Sex Worker”

  1. Wendy: You’ve done a wonderful job with this assignment. I’m impressed with how fully you imagined her life and how successful you were in creating a persuasive portrait of this time and place.

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