Paige is a researcher and writer who enjoys delving into the remarkable lives of history's forgotten characters.
I was writing a story about Josie Arlington's famously haunted tomb, but the more I learned about her, the more I realized I couldn't let it lie, so to speak. She was such an amazing (if troubled) lady, and she rose out of the worst poverty of the late 1800s to become the most powerful madam of New Orleans' red light district before collapsing into paranoia and depression. She's so much more than a haunted tomb, and there's good reason why the crowds came to see where she was laid to rest and still visit to this day.
Josie's Early Life
Born in 1864 to poor German immigrant parents as Mary Deubler, Josie began prostituting around 1881 to support her entire family. Going through several iterations, she settled on using the name Josie Arlington for professional purposes. Known to have a fearsome and violent temper, she lived with her lover, Phillip Lobrano, at the edge of the French Quarter—not far from where her famous brothel would be a decade later.
In late 1890, Lobrano shot and killed Josie's brother, Peter, in what the Times-Democrat referred to as "the notorious house at the corner of Burgundy and Customhouse Streets," where . . .
"up to the time of the killing (they) lived a very stormy life, and persons in a position to know expected at any moment to hear of a tragedy. They were frequently before the recorder's court for fighting and disturbing the peace."
Although it would be easy to assume Lobrano was Josie's pimp, she was the one who held the power. One of the factors in the murder was Lobrano saying he didn't want Josie's "relations" in his house. In response, Josie announced that it was her house—not his—and that he was free to leave whenever he wanted. She then let her brother in. In retaliation, Lobrano picked up a pistol and shot Josie's very drunk brother in his face as she watched.
This event changed the course of Josie's life, and as she dealt with the aftermath, she became determined to make changes to elevate herself.
Coming Into Her Own
After two trials, Lobrano was acquitted, but Josie had moved on. A shrewd businesswoman, she'd set her sights higher. By 1895, she was running a brothel on Customhouse Street (since renamed Iberville, the property is now a parking garage) providing "gracious amiable foreign girls who would be at home only to gentlemen of taste and refinement."
She had upgraded her romantic partners as well. She was now on the arm of Tom Brady, who was working for the city and ambitiously keeping his ear to the ground. When whispers began of a plan to create a legalized prostitution district, he was one of the first to hear. He shared the information with his ladylove, and they bought properties on the main entryway to the planned district.
Josie set up shop at The Arlington at 225 Basin Street, while friend and business partner Tom Anderson opened his own establishment down the block at 12 Basin. Anderson had his sights on higher political positions and didn't run a brothel but instead hosted a gambling den that lured in patrons who'd already visited ladies of the district.
The Arlington was proudly one of the most expensive places in Storyville, with workers brought in from Europe, opulent-to-the-point-of-gaudy furnishings, and a $5-per-visit price. This was a considerable sum given that there were girls working in the low class "cribs" only a block away who charged a mere quarter.
Even so, Josie knew that the only way to keep the high prices up was to give the customers whatever they wanted, no matter their particular inclination. Late in the evening, (and for an additional fee, of course), guests could watch and participate in what was billed as a sexual "circus" in the main parlor, while "specialists" catered to those with specific requests upstairs.
Holding the Line
Despite the wild happenings in her place of business, Josie was known for her strict code of ethics—a rarity in the rough and tumble city, which was still reeling in the post-Civil-War economy. Desperate parents sometimes brought their young daughters to Storyville to auction their virginity with the bidding sometimes rocketing into the hundreds of dollars. Those funds would be split between the madam and the family, making it a very lucrative sideline.
Josie said that she would have no part in the "ruination" of young girls, and turned the families away, perhaps because she'd once had to support her entire family by prostituting at only 16 years old.
Josie owned several properties around town and ended up generating earnings of over a million dollars over the course of her lifetime—an almost unimaginable sum given her start in life. TJ Brady was still by her side, and she seemed to have her temper largely under control for the first time in her life. At the very least, she had the money to hush things up if she lost control.
She'd begun giving money to charity in an attempt to transition into a society lady. And why not? She was a legitimate business owner, paying one of the highest taxes in the District, second only to Anderson himself. Making inroads to polite society wasn't going well, but she was only 41 and thought she had plenty of time before her life took a drastic turn.
On Dec 2, 1905, at 11:30 AM, an electrical fire broke out at The Arlington and was noticed by painters working on the exterior. Referred to in the newspaper account as "the Arlington woman," Josie estimated the damage at about $20,000 (approximately $600,000 today).
Although it's said that Josie almost died trying to save her building, it's amazing that no one was killed. Given the hour, most of the house's occupants must've been asleep after a night's work. The newspaper does tell of "a touching incident of the bitter weeping of one of the women, who was crying because her mother's picture had been burned."
Josie vowed to rebuild, and her girls moved into the top floors of Tom Anderson's place until repairs were finished, but watching the destruction of what she built destroyed her spirit, and in 1909 at the age of 45, she retired to her mansion on Esplanade Avenue with her niece, Anna.
Josie had taken Anna under her wing as a young girl, sending her to the best Catholic boarding schools and giving her the upbringing she wished she could have had. Anna was sheltered and had no idea what her aunt did for a living until after Josie's retirement.
Controversial, Even in Death
With no business to occupy her, Josie's rages began anew. Police were regular visitors to the mansion. She also became obsessed with her death and became consumed with every aspect of a new tomb she commissioned in the most exclusive cemetery in the city. The pink marble had a bronze statue of a girl turning her back to the world, pushing at the door to gain entry to the afterlife (although it was also said to represent one of the young girls she'd turned away from her brothel). Anna stayed on as Josie's caretaker, with Brady to help (although he was soon said to be having an affair with Anna, several decades his junior).
Josie died of what has been described as dementia in 1914 only a week after her 51st birthday. Perhaps it was a form of the disease with a rapid onset, or perhaps it was more of a broken heart and worsening mental health, but either way, she had need of that tomb much sooner than anyone could have expected.
Her funeral was not well attended, with only Anna, Brady, and another business partner the only friends there, although several nuns and orphans from the Sisters of Charity, to whom she had been particularly generous, did attend.
When the will was read, a long legal battle began over her fortune began, with her brother claiming it was merely a way for Josie to funnel the money to Tom and not him, her closest blood relative.
He further claimed:
"that the deceased for a period of six months preceding her death was insane and incapable of revoking her previously executed will, which she had made in favor of her niece, although she was subjected by her to 'cruel treatment, acts of ingratitude and grievous injury.'"
Perhaps there was something to that—no one knows for sure—but one week after Josie died, Anna and Brady were married, and Anna's uncle lost the lawsuit.
Even after death, Josie got no peace. The gorgeous mansion on Esplanade was moved to Grande Route Saint John in an attempt at anonymity, and when her tomb became a tourist attraction, it was sold to the Morales family, and Josie's remains were moved to a secret location within Lakelawn Metairie that remains undisclosed over a century later.
Within a decade, Anna and Brady had squandered Josie's money and were back to where Josie had started life—penniless and unknown.
It's hard to not have respect for this tough woman who did what was needed to support her family at a young age and parlayed it into a fortune. Deeply flawed, dealing with anger issues in a brutal business at a time when women had few options, I can't help but wonder what she might've become in another place at another time.
Want to Know More About Storyville?
Al Rose's book, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red Light District, has gone through several printings and remains the best reference guide to Storyville. It's full of stories straight from the prostitutes' mouths and a ridiculous amount of detail. Photos are included as well. I cannot recommend it enough if you have any interest in New Orleans' notorious red-light district.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Paige