Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Kate Townsend was one of the wealthiest and most notorious madams in postbellum New Orleans. Her success as a madam at 40 Basin street abruptly ended in 1883 when her longtime lover, Troisville Sykes murdered her in a brutal and horrific fashion. Despite her untimely death, an assessment of her life reveals that Townsend was an incredibly powerful woman, especially in the context of the nineteenth-century South. By reconstructing and examining Townsend’s twenty-five-year career as a prostitute and madam, this dissertation argues that high-class prostitution provided women like Townsend access to power through money, mobility, and violence. Furthermore, these three modes of power were integral to how prostitution operated, as they help explain how women like Townsend became successful and powerful madams. Townsend wielded violence against her lover and the women who worked for her as prostitutes or domestic servants. Due to her wealth and connections with the police, she escaped consequences for her violent actions, and most of her assertions of physical power remained unchecked. Comparing Townsend’s acts of violence to other women engaged in prostitution reveals that both race and economic power played a significant role in whether the police and criminal courts took such violence committed by prostitutes and madams seriously. This dissertation also reexamines the notion of a “sisterhood” among prostitutes by exploring Townsend’s relationships with other women in terms of mobility. This dissertation reveals that high-class prostitutes and madams exercised geographic mobility in a variety of ways. One of the most crucial aspects of high-class prostitution, was a cross-country network of madams Townsend participated in to recruit prostitutes. Scholars of nineteenth-century prostitution have acknowledged one or more of the three modes of power considered here. The combination of money, mobility, and violence made Townsend’s story particularly revealing in the broad contours of high-class brothel prostitution in nineteenth-century America.



Committee Chair

Long, Alecia P.



Available for download on Wednesday, October 20, 2027