Walking east down Decatur Street along the Mississippi River today, you will find yourself at the French Market. Back in the early to mid 19th century, this area was known as Gallatin Street, one of the first vice districts in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Today, the area which was once Gallatin Street is home to some of the most haunted buildings, and some of the most aggressive ghosts, in all of New Orleans.
Dilapidated houses made of rotten wooden planks occupied by some of the meanest citizens in the city paint the picture of what Gallatin Street looked like at the time. Police avoided the area like the plague if they were alone or it was nighttime. However, the understaffed and underpaid law enforcement officials were very susceptible to bribery and apathy, also taking advantage of ladies with a certain “disposition.” With crooked policeman outnumbering the honest ones, that left the prostitutes, drunks, and criminals of Gallatin Street in charge, and they loved every moment of it.
Today known as “French Market Place”, Gallatin Street (named after Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) was a two block stretch along the Mississippi River that connected the US Mint to the French Market and home to all matter of vice and sin in New Orleans. A place wet and slippery with grime, disfigured row houses made of beaten wood planks, decorated with broken and unpainted shutters, windows dark, lined both sides of the street. The darkness of each unlit room was occupied by hundreds of New Orleans residents and immigrants. A visitor to Gallatin Street in 1873 wrote to the Times Picayune: “Squalor and misery are sleeping above in chambers so dark and damp as the cold pavestones below.”
The underbelly of New Orleans met, conversed, and carried out their dark deeds here on Gallatin Street. Dangerous criminals, prostitutes, street gangs, and con men of the mid 1800s in New Orleans resided on Gallatin Street. It was lined with cheap boarding houses, raucous dance halls, houses of ill repute, and dirty saloons, all practically stacked on top of one another. Gallatin Street was so dangerous and had such lack of order that one put their very life at risk walking the streets at night.
One visitor recalled about Gallatin Street in the Times Picayune: “Gallatin Street: a place where poverty and vice run races with want and passion.”
With the Port of New Orleans never empty of sailors and strangers, this was a virtual playground for the seedy Gallatin Street dwellers. The primary revelers of Gallatin Street at the time were sailors who had easy access to housing, drinking, and entertainment of every kind. The boarding houses, brothels, and saloons were filled to the brim with the constant stream of men and women from the port. Venereal disease became rampant and spread quickly among sailors and prostitutes.
The damp wharves and deafening railroad tracks that lined Gallatin Street made the location unsavory to the majority of New Orleans’ citizens for housing. The humid rooms and buildings lining the street provided shelter for newly arrived immigrant families of the time. In the mid 1800s it was not uncommon to find entire families occupying the small rooms of these buildings together. Some of the rooms were used to raise chickens and dogs, while others were used as receptacles for the unused and damaged produce from the French Market...one can only imagine the smell that must have emanated from the buildings.
All that dampness and a location so close to the water made Gallatin Street a thriving neighborhood for mosquitos. And if you know anything about mosquitos during the 1800’s in the South, you know that means Yellow Fever. The concentrated area of Gallatin Street is where Yellow Fever was born in New Orleans and many innocent citizens, immigrants, and others perished as a result.
An area of Elysian Fields downriver from Gallatin Street known as “Sanctity Row”, included The Lion’s Den, The Stadt Amsterdam, The Mobile, The Pontchartrain House, The Whitehall, and the Tivoli Gardens and were staples in the area. Gallatin Street and Sanctity Row forged the largest cluster of illegal sex, drinking, violence, and crime in all of New Orleans.
The brothels and barrooms of Gallatin Street and Sanctity Row moved to Storyville by the late 1890’s. In the early 1930’s, plans were put in place for the expansion and redevelopment of the French Market, subsequently resulting in the cessation of Gallatin Street and its seedy past altogether. The street was renamed “French Market Place” in 1935, and the rest as they say, is history.
New Orleanians of the time certainly did not forget Gallatin Streets’ dark and sinister past, but the citizens and visitors of today are generally unaware of the notorious legend surrounding this end of Decatur Street.
Prostitution was known as New Orleans’ “second most profitable industry.” A study done in 1858 on sex workers stated that once women were in the industry, they died within four years and at least 50% of them had venereal diseases. If they didn’t die of the diseases themselves, then the violent acts committed against them by drunken patrons and angry bar owners did. New Orleans’ newspapers at the time of Gallatin Street’s infamy had a constant stream of published ads promoting potions, elixirs, and cure-alls for sexually transmitted diseases.
Between 1841 and 1860, nearly half a million immigrants entered through the Port of New Orleans. Most of the prostitutes on Gallatin Street were immigrant women who didn’t make it very far from the port.
The California House: a popular barroom on Gallatin Street in the antebellum era of New Orleans. Here in 1854, a policeman named Phillips was suspended for attempting to prevent the arrest of Archy Murphy and David Kinney after a brawl. “Dutch Pete”, the owner of The California House, was protected by police years after the brawl when he killed a man and escaped to Cuba. The California House was a place on Gallatin Street with the police certainly on its side.
The Amsterdam House: peaked during the Civil War after infamous dogfighter Dan O’Neil took ownership. The Amsterdam House remained a highly regarded establishment of vice until 1869, when a prostitute named Molly Mason ran away with her lover, subsequently returned asking for her job back, and was drugged, stripped, and violently abused in the alley behind the bar. The police fined O’Neil for running a “house of ill-repute” and he was forced to close the establishment.
The Green Tree Tavern: the longest and most violent reputation of all the clubs on Gallatin Street. The Green Tree Tavern peaked during the Civil War and seemed to curse all who owned it. One owner took on a habit of watering down drinks to save money and some angry sailors decided to stone him to death as punishment. Then a woman known as “One Legged Duffy” took ownership of the Green Tree Tavern, in 1865 she was stabbed multiple times by her husband before being beaten with her own wooden leg. Paddy Welsh owned the fateful barroom in 1873, when he offended some members of the Live Oak Gang and was found days later, drowned in the Mississippi River. The next two owners also fell victim to the Live Oak Gang. Ultimately the Green Tree was destroyed in a fire in 1886.
The Live Oak Gang, earning their name from the oak clubs they carried around as well as their meeting place near the river under the shade of the Live Oak trees, were some of the worst criminals in the area of Gallatin Street and responsible for most of the violence. But the worst citizens of Gallatin Street were by far...the prostitutes.
Some women were victims of violent crimes on Gallatin Street, others were violent criminals themselves.
Mary Jane “Bricktop” Jackson and her roommate Bridget Fury were known for their rough and tumble ways in and out of the bedroom. Known as the “Scourge of Gallatin Street”, Bricktop was a gruff and robust woman with flaming red hair who could beat any woman or man in a brawl, murdered four (that we know of) men, and stabbed and beat many others. One brave man decided that he could call Bricktop a “whore” and get away with it, he was then clubbed to death. A man said to be 7 feet tall, named “Long Charley” was stabbed with Bricktop’s weapon of choice, her trusty knife; a heavy 5 inch blade on either side with a center grip made of German silver. This custom knife allowed her to stab and slash in any direction without having to adjust the position of her hand.
Bricktop joined forces with a man named John Miller, a former boxer and misfit who lost an arm in a fight. Instead of getting an artificial arm, John made a spiked ball and chain outfitted for his stump. I am sure they made quite the couple to turn heads as they walked down the street arm in arm...I mean chain? But their affection for each other didn’t last long, when in 1861 John Miller tried to “crack the whip” (a cowhide whip) on Bricktop after a domestic dispute. She apparently turned the whip on him, giving him quite the flogging. In defense, John tried to use his ball and chain on Bricktop, she quickly used his weapon against him, dragging him across the room, then when he tried to stab her, she bit his hand and used the knife to stab him repeatedly until he was dead. Mary Jane Jackson was sent off to prison for the murder of John Miller and was never seen or heard from again.
Originally from Cincinnati and moved to New Orleans in 1856, Delia Swift, aka “Bridget Fury”, was Bricktop’s roommate and fellow red-headed gang member. She debuted as a prostitute at the ripe age of twelve and came to town with quite the reputation and...well...experience. Bridget, Bricktop, and several other rough and tumble prostitutes formed the first ever all-female member street gang in New Orleans as well as the United States.
From 1858-1869, the Louisiana Courier, New Orleans Bee, and Times Picayune newspapers printed the name “Delia Swift” synonomous with robberies, prostitution, and murder. Found guilty of murder wthout capitol punishment, the Louisiana Court must have found life on Gallatin Street punishment enough, as Delia Swift was released on bail in 1859 for the murder of Patrick Croan.
The Times Picayune once said: “It is an old game, and the young gentleman had not paid as dearly as many before him have for seeing the ‘elephant." (Seeing the “elephant” was a slang term for living life to the fullest, no matter the risk. Often used in reference to New Orleans and its sins)
Mary Jane “Bricktop” Jackson and Delia “Bridget Fury” Swift prostituted and stole from New Orleanians and its visitors in order to survive the harsh environment of antebellum Louisiana. These strong women only reacted to the society they found themselves a part of by protecting each other. They wore masks of violent and dirty acts over a marred, dismal, and heartbreaking past they never wanted to reveal.
In the 1850s, during its prime, Gallatin Street was known for its violent crime and decadent vice, but just three decades later the scene was very different. By the late 1890s, the Live Oak Gang was no longer roaming the streets with their clubs looking for a fight, most of them were in jail or dead. The police were no longer afraid to patrol Gallatin Street at night when in 1897, City Ordinance 13032 set the boundaries of Storyville; any dance houses and brothels found outside of Storyville’s limits had to move within them. Gallatin Street quickly became a quiet and eerily haunting place that was once robust with vice and crime.
In 1917, much to the shagrin of the mayor and a good portion of the city’s debauchery-gripped citizens, Storyville (the segregated red light district of New Orleans) was shut down and prostitution deemed illegal. “Men must live straight to shoot straight”, as the rigid Navy secretary put it. The United States was “all in” on the Great War, and there were strict vice laws constructed to keep military men away from lustful extravagences. There was a renewed sense of patriotism and the government wasn’t going to let the city of New Orleans - the city of vice - bankrupt that.
In 1924, Times Picayune journalist Lyle Saxon described Gallatin Street as it appeared at the time: “deserted, forgotten, given over to warehouses and storage rooms of produce merchants. It is permeated with the smells from the fish market, and with the odors of decaying garbage. Its narrow width is littered with trash and dirt—old shoes, broken barrels, rotting fruit. And yet, before the dark doors of one or two old houses, battered signs sway, signs proclaiming that ‘rooms’ are for rent.”
In 1935 Gallatin Street fell prey to City Ordinance 14427, which renamed the two block stretch “French Market Place.” Plans fell into place for the expansion of the French Market as we know it today and dangerous Gallatin Street was no longer alive with the sounds of brothels and barrooms, it was now alive with the sounds of fruit wagons and Italian immigrants.
By 1936 more than 40 buildings were demolished and the new French Market expansion was in full swing, thus assassinating what was left of Gallatin Street and its past.
“Crime and depravity in every inch” used to describe Gallatin Street and its two-block long trail of violent crime, prostitution, and vice. The Great Depressions’ “New Deal” urban renewal and renovation programs shifted Gallatin from a grimy, crime-ridden street to the pristine French Market that we know and love today.
In its hay-day, if you entered Gallatin Street with money in your pocket and came out the other side with a penny to your name and not a mark on your body, you performed a miracle.
Gallatin Street was scrubbed clean of its rotten-ness and dark history once the rest of its buildings were demolished in 1936. In 1938, the area was dedicated as the new open-air Farmers’ Market Pavillion, today’s French Market Flea Market.
Few today may know the true history of Gallatin Street as they walk through the French Market Pavilion perusing wares and indulging in Cajun delicacies, but in the 1930s the citizens of this city still knew its sordid past. In 1938, the Times Picayune said “Shadowy forms darted in and out, a lane of sinister doing where seamen were “Shanghaied,” smuggled goods were hidden, and men and women were murdered.”
It’s hard to say who exactly the ghosts are that roam French Market Place today. Perhaps Bricktop is roaming the street with her custom blade and looking for a fight. Maybe her partner in crime, Bridget Fury, is gathering her fellow street gang members telling tales of last night's' John. The Live Oak Gang might even be drinking at their favorite barroom giving the bartender a hard time for watering down the beverages. Screams, chatter, and shadowy figures have all been witnessed in the old Gallatin Street area at night in the French Quarter. While the area is much different than during the antebellum era of New Orleans, we still don’t recommend wandering around the French Market at night...not alone anyway.
You can hear more about the merry band of prostitutes and the dark past of Gallatin Street on our Bad Bitches of New Orleans tour.