In 1866, at 40 Basin Street [121 South Basin Street], Kate Townsend had built the first of the grand "houses" (brothels) for which Basin Street became famous.

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Kate Townsend's life prior to New Orleans was sketchy, but through investigations following her death a somewhat incomplete account of her life was revealed. It was learned from prostitutes, police, politicians, and other associations that her real name was Katherine Cunningham, she was never married (contrary to The Mascot's mention of a husband in their edition published following her murder), and she was born in Liverpool, England in 1839. At age fifteen she was a barmaid in a dance-house on Paradise Street in Liverpool. Peter Kearnaghan was a sailor who Kate had saved during a bar fight in the dance-hall and when he sailed away twins were born. She abandoned the twins, took on the name Townsend, and sailed to America. After a few weeks in New York, she arrived in New Orleans in early 1857. At the age of eighteen, Kate was an exceedingly handsome girl with an exceptionally voluptuous figure. She became a resident of Clara Fisher's brothel in Phillipa (Dryades) Street for about six months. She then moved into Maggie Thompson's place on Customhouse Street. This was the last place where she was just "one of the girls". About 1863, at the age of twenty-four, she left Maggie Thompson's and rented a house at Villere and Customhouse Streets. She prospered and made influential friends among city officials and politicians. She built the three-story palace of marble and brownstone at No. 40 Basin Street, [121 Basin Street] with the aid of her influential acquaintances. The fireplaces and mantels were of white marble, the furniture of highly polished solid black walnut was upholstered in damask, floors were covered with velvet carpets.

The sleeping chamber of the bordello mistress as described by the Picayune:– "In the left hand corner was a magnificent etagere, upon which were statuettes, the work of renowned artists, and small articles of vertu, betraying good taste, both in selection and arrangement. A finely carved, though small, margle table stood next, while adjoining this was a splendid glass door armoire, on the shelves of which were stored a plethora of the finest linen wear and bed clothing. Next to the armoire was a rep and damask sofa, and over the mantel was a costly French mirror with gilt frame. A large sideboard stood in the corner next to the window on the other side of the chimney, and in this was stored a large quantity of silverware. Another armoire similar to the one just described, a table, and the bed completed the furniture of the room, saving the arm-chairs, of which there was quite a number, covered with rep and damask, with a tete-a-tete to match. The hangings of the bed, even the mosquito bar, were of lace, and an exquisite basket of flowers hung suspended from the tester of the bed. Around the walls were suspended chaste and costly oil paintings."

The cost was said to have exceeded a hundred thousand dollars and was furnished with gaudy magnificence. High-class trade, elegance, and excessive formality brought great prosperity to Kate Townsend for half dozen years.

Prior to Storyville Ordinance of 1897

40 Basin Street

Elk's Lodge #30 purchased 121 South Basin Street in September, 1897, and the street renamed Elk Place early in the following year.
See: — Early New Orleans Mansions for more details.
Mouseover to expand
Photographs by E. J. Bellocq

Kate met Treville Egbert Sykes, a member of a good New Orleans family and the son of a merchant and auctioneer, when she was in residence at a brothel on Canal Street. Sykes moved into the brothel in 1878, was given a small room on the second floor, and lived there for five years. He was her "fancy man" for almost twenty-five years.

Trouble between Kate and her "fancy man" reached a peak in late October 1883, when she became smitten with a man called McLern. He came often to the house and borrowed money. When Sykes protested he was severely beaten by his mistress and McLern. Following the incident, Kate and Molly Johnson (real name, Mary Buckley) were in the kitchen and Kate declared to Molly that she had a good mind to take a heavy butcher knife and "open Syke's belly"! Molly talked her out of it, and Kate summoned Sykes into the kitchen and began to beat him with a bread-board and ripped his clothing into tatters. Later, Molly met Kate on the stairway, butcher knife in hand. She told Molly she could not find Sykes, but that she would "kill him yet".

Early in November, Kate Townsend and Molly Johnson met McLern and another man on Canal Street. They got drunk and Kate and McLern had a quarrel. When they returned to Basin Street, Molly warned Sykes and he locked and barred his door.

On Saturday morning, November 3, 1883, screams and a terrific commotion were heard inside Kates's room. The next morning the Picayune published the following account:

CARVED TO DEATH!
TERRIBLE FATE OF KATE TOWNSEND AT THE HANDS OF TREVILLE SYKES
WITH THE INSTRUMENTALITY OF A BOWIE KNIFE.
HERE BREAST AND SHOULDERS LITTERALY COVERED WITH STABS.

#As a matter of fact there were eleven wounds in Kate Townsend's body, three of them of fatal character. Sykes told police Kate attacked him and he wrenched the weapon from her, she then attacked with a pair of pruning shears, at which time he killed her in self defense.

The body of the famous madam was dressed in a six-hundred-dollar white silk dress, trimmed with lace at fifty dollars a yard, and laid out in the drawing-room. At the funeral on November 5, the furniture was covered with white silk, instead of usual muslin. She was buried in a four-hundred-dollar metallic casket, one corner bearing a silver cross inscribed with her name, date of her death, and her age. In later years she became grossly corpulent; she weighed about three hundred pounds when she died.

Treville Egbert Sykes was tried for murder, aquitted, and thereupon produced a will, dated September 9, 1873, in which Kate Townsend bequeathed to him her entire estate. He was appointed executor, but was removed in February 1884, for failure to deposit funds received to the credit of the estate and for withdrawing funds without a court order. The Attorney-General asked the court to deprive Sykes of all interest except one-tenth on the grounds that he and Kate Townsend had lived in open concubinage. Sykes fought the application with an array of eminent counsel which established important precedents. Kate Townsend's estate was finally settled in 1888. According to figures of the Public Administrator, the amount was $81,936,45, but the Mascot declared this was "whittled down and hocus-pocused with until $33,142.65 remained, and turned into the state treasury." Legal counsel got about $30,000, the remainder went for court costs, and Sykes share was $34.

The Public Administrator took charge of the brothel, and soon afterwards leased it to Molly Johnson, who operated it until her death in 1889. The contents were sold at auction, and the house closed. The property came into ownership of the Elks in September 1897, when the city ordinance passed restricting prostitution to a defined district.


Sources:
Storyville New Orleans by Al Rose
The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury
Louisiana State Library Archives
Mascot News
Times Picayune News
Blue Books


Article from: New Orleans Magazine Article date: November 1, 1997
Things didn't come cheaply at Kate Townsend's bordello. The house, at Number 40 Basin St. was not only the grandest in Storyville but was also considered one of the most magnificent anywhere. In the parlance of contemporary marketing, she catered to the "high-end" clientele that in her world consisted of guys with lots of money to spend on a fling. Champagne, it was said, was sold for $50 a quart. The $100 fee for an encounter made Townsend's girls among the highest priced of their profession in the country. Her home, built of marble and brownstone, was three stories high and was said to resemble a miniature Versailles. Legend had it that her own apartment in the house had white-marble.

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