Josie Arlington's Remarkable Life
I was doing a story about Josie Arlington's famously haunted tomb but couldn't let it lie, so to speak. She was such an amazing, if troubled, lady who rose from the worst poverty of the late 1800s to the most powerful madam of the 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.
Storyville- New Orleans Red Light District
Josie's Early Life
Born in 1864 to poor German immigrant parents as Mary Deubler, she began prostituting herself by 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 her 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 held the power. One of the factors in the murder was Lobrano saying he didn't want Josie's "relations" in his house- to which Josie announced that it was her house, not his, that he was free to leave whenever he wanted and letting her brother in.
In retaliation, Lobrano picked up a pistol and shot her very drunk brother in his face as Josie watched.
It changed the course of her life and as she dealt with the aftermath she determined to make changes to elevate herself.
Josie Comes 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 ha brothel on Customhouse St*, catering to "gracious amiable foreign girls who would be at home only to gentlemen of taste and refinement."
She had upgraded her romantic partners as well, now being seen on the arm of Tom Brady, who was working for the city but ambitious and kept 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. Sharing the information with his ladylove, 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, didn't run a brothel, but 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 $5 per 'visit-' a considerable sum given that there were girls working in the low class "cribs" only a block away charging a quarter.
Even so, Josie knew the only way to keep the high prices up was giving the customers whatever they wanted, no matter their particular inclination. Late in the evening, and, of course, for an additional fee, 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.
*since renamed to Iberville, the property now a parking garage
Holding the Line
Yet despite this, Josie was known for her strict code of ethics- a rarity in the rough and tumble city, 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 had to support her entire family by prostituting herself at only 16 years old.
Josie owned several properties around town with 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- or at least had the money to hush it up if she lost control.
She'd begun giving money to charity, attempting to transition into a society lady. And why not? She was a legitimate business owner, paying the 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 when her life took a drastic turn.
On Dec 2, 1905 at 11:30 AM an electrical fire broke out at The Arlington, 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- about $600,000 today.
Although it's said Josie almost died trying to save her building, it's amazing no one was killed, given the hour and that 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 until repairs were finished, but watching what she built be lost 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 Josie wished she would have had. Anna was sheltered with no idea what her aunt did for a living until after Josie's retirement.
The Notorious Blue Book
Goin' Up the Line
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 be 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 possibly it was more of a broken heart and worsening mental health, but 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 legal long 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 to try to be more anonymous, and when her tomb became a tourist attraction, it was sold to the Morales family and Josie's remains moved to a secret location within Lakelawn Metairie that remains undisclosed a hundred years later.
Within a decade Anna and Brady had squandered Josie's money and were back to where Josie had started life- penniless and unknown.
Josie's Haunted Tomb
- Haunted New Orleans: Josie Arlington's Flaming Tomb
The Storyville Madam's tomb made national news, and people came from hundreds of miles to see the harlot's grave glowing in hell's reflected light...
The Esplanade Mansion Where Josie Died
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, another time.
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© 2020 Paige