Thought-provoking Slices of St. Louis History from Julius Hunter:
New book tells the story of “Priscilla & Babe”
Originally published in the West End Word, Jan. 2, 2015
By Eileen P. Duggan
Author and broadcaster Julius Hunter has long been enthralled with telling the history of St. Louis, especially the hidden details of the city’s untold stories. Now he’s turned his attention to two former slaves who became millionaire madams in St. Louis’ red light district in the Victorian age.
Hunter, the former veteran KMOV-TV news anchor, has published Priscilla & Babe: From Slavery’s Shackles to Millionaire Bordello Madams in Victorian Saint Louis. Part historical fiction, part creative nonfiction, the book reveals all the juicy details of these improbable entrepreneurs who worked side by side on Sixth Street in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Maplewood Public Library, 7550 Lohmeyer Ave., will host Hunter in a booksigning and discussion at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 13.
“There are a lot of moral discussions I want groups to have,” said Hunter, who has discussed the book at libraries and other book-friendly venues over the past few months. “I try to encourage discerning questions like, ‘what is the morality of this? Who was supporting the houses and making the millions for these women? Would your husband be one of the customers? Why do women become prostitutes?’”
Priscilla Henry was born in 1829 as a slave on an Alabama cotton plantation. After emancipation, she headed to St. Louis in 1866 and eventually fell into prostitution with the help of a former white Confederate soldier, Tom Howard. Howard became her “manager,” setting her up in business at 206 S. Sixth St. The successful enterprise soon expanded to 208 S. Sixth. “The little old lady next door was eager to sell,” Hunter says.
Because of laws forbidding blacks and whites to cohabitate, one of the houses was for black prostitutes and the other was for whites. Henry and her backers opened a wall to allow the customers to co-mingle, which they did.
Henry’s lushly furnished houses thrived on the river traffic just six blocks away and, of course, on politicians and other movers and shakers.
Enter Sarah “Babe” Connor, the much-younger biracial daughter/concubine of a Nashville plantation owner. Born in 1957 and freed just a few years later, she honed her skills in Nashville, then came to St. Louis. In 1892, she set up shop at 210 S. Sixth with revolutionary offerings such as mulatto working girls from New Orleans and innovative marketing via annual memberships, dancing girls in uncovered windows and a room with a mirrored floor and bottomless dancers. Connor offered other entertainment, including a singer, Lula Leticia Agatha Fontaine (a.k.a. Mammy Lou), who allegedly wrote “Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay” and “Hot Time in the Old Town” without receiving credit.
Connor put quite a crink in Henry’s business, but the latter carried on.
As wildly successful and famous as they were, “both women were abused and mistreated by their men,” Hunter said. “Priscilla’s Tom was malevolent. He stole her blind. Babe’s Billy Frank allowed her to go to seed on her own. He gave her an allowance that allowed her to drink, get diamond-encrusted teeth, smoke cigars and visit the gaming tables.”
Henry died in 1895 and her houses, still in operation, were destroyed by the Great Cyclone of 1896. Connor already had opened a second house on Chestnut Street, so her business continued to thrive until her death in 1899 at 41.
By the way, that site of those three townhouses is now occupied by a top St. Louis attraction: Busch Stadium.
Hunter dramatizes the tangled tale with meticulously researched detail, naming names and spilling secrets. The who-dunnit has four endings, addressing, among other mysteries, how Henry really died and how Tom Howard ended up fully clothed and dead in the Mississippi River near Eads Bridge.
Although the leading ladies of this drama are African-American, Hunter has resisted efforts to put the story in the “Black History Month ashcan,” he says. “This story is not a black history story.” The story raises issues of prostitution and how it related to the economic panic of 1893, the lack of consequences for male customers and wives’ fear of dangerous pregnancies.
And the story has “such rich story in it,” Hunter says. From tornados to player pianos to W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” to women’s suffrage to the 1896 Republican Convention to Confederate spies, Oscar Wilde, Queen Victoria and the pianist/Polish prime minister Ignacy Paderewski, the story covers a lot of historical ground.
Hunter classifies it more as another episode in a trove of hidden St. Louis history. Although he would relish a film version that would follow nicely after “The Help” and “The Butler.”
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