Mon January 2, 2006
A Woman of the Town
This book chronicles the life of Louise Wooster, a widely known madam in historic Birmingham. Based off her memoirs published in 1911, Baggett included an introduction, along with newspaper articles about her and entries from the Birmingham City Directory.
By Don Noble
In 1911, at the age of sixty-nine, Louise Wooster, the most famous madam in the history of Birmingham, Alabama--a notable distinction--published her memoirs, The Autobiography of a Magdalen. The names were changed or at least disguised slightly throughout to protect the guilty.
Wooster, born in Tuscaloosa on June 12, 1842, lived a long life filled with bad luck augmented by poor judgment. Her father died when she was only eight, and her mother then married a scoundrel who squandered her money. Her mother died when Lou was fifteen, leaving her with four younger sisters to care for. Her older sister, Margaret, soon became a prostitute.
In Mobile, New Orleans, Montgomery, and, finally, Birmingham, Lou Wooster struggled. She and her sisters were taken in "for protection" by a male family friend who seduced her. One day he simply disappeared. In Montgomery she fell in love with "the eldest son of one of Alabama's most prominent criminal lawyers." He took her out of the "house" where she worked and was keeping her, but he was killed in a fight. Another lover lost everything during the Civil War.
Aside from some short stints in legitimate jobs, whenever she was not being kept, Wooster was a hooker and then, in Birmingham, a madam. Although she seems to have had several offers to marry respectable men, she always refused, declaring that she would not ruin them in that way. They would have become outcasts from their families and society.
This volume, edited by James L. Baggett of the Birmingham Public Library, contains the full text of Wooster's memoir, a good introduction, and additional material in the form of newspaper articles about Wooster, a report on the Birmingham cholera epidemic, where Wooster and some other prostitutes behaved courageously, nursing the sick when others fled, and some entries from the Birmingham City Directory. Although prostitution was against the law in Victorian Birmingham, the City Directory listed the houses and madams by name and address and included a list of the girls who worked in each house, by name. They were designated "boarders."
Wooster's life was long and truly colorful. And myths sprang up about her. And she lied.
Alas, she was probably not the model for the madam Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind. But she did have a relationship of some kind with John Wilkes Booth. Wooster claimed at different times to have been his girlfriend for several years and to have heard from him after he was supposed to have been shot and killed. Baggett writes, "As with Adolph Hitler, Elvis Presley, and a number of other historical figures, stories asserting that John Wilkes Booth escaped death continue to this day."
Wooster utilizes a common writer's ploy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in telling her story. This is not a racy story to be savored; no, this is a savage warning to young women to beware vice and resist temptation. Wooster strenuously argues, however, that men are lying rats, interested in only one thing. "Man the Tempter! With his honeyed words and flattering promises." Men are so low, in fact, that "the very devil himself was too honest to tempt Eve in male attire, so he became a snake."
Wooster has a great deal to say about the double standard by which prostitutes are reviled and sometimes arrested but the customers, usually respectable businessmen, are not. And she offers some biting remarks about the hypocrisy of so-called Christian women who turn their backs utterly on the fallen or unfortunate, when a little help might save or redeem them.
Wooster retired from the madam business about 1901 and lived for several years in Southside, with frequent vacations to Europe. When she died in l913, her estate was valued at $100,000. Since her death she has been written about many times, and there is even an opera about her life. Not too shabby for a madam!
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.