I am often asked, WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE GHOST? I have to admit that the ghost of Josie Arlington goes right to the top of my Haunted Hit Parade. Josie Arlington was the reigning Madam of New Orleans’ former Red-light district, known as Storyville. In its heyday from 1897-1917, vice flourished and prostitution had a place to call home. The ghost of Josie Arlington now visits former clients near her grave in Metairie Cemetery.
Born Mamie Duebler somewhere around 1864, her parents were certainly distraught when their seventeen-year-old daughter ran off with Philip “The Schwarz” Lobrano. For the next nine years, gentlemen callers could find Mamie working under the name Josie Alton or Josie Lobrano within the darkened rooms of some of New Orleans’ most notorious brothels. Josie was a fiery beauty with a temper to match. Finally, shedding her previous aliases, she adopted the name she would keep until her death: Josie Arlington.
She built an elaborate four-story brothel on Basin Steet. Her brothel was considered the “crème de la crème” of bordellos and Josie Arlington was regarded as the “snootiest madam in America.” With her steady cash flow, Josie purchased a mansion on Esplanade Avenue smack in the middle of respectable society. Her shocked female neighbors tried to ignore her presence. Josie swept by them smug in the knowledge that she would soon be entertaining their husbands in her business establishment on Basin St.
Josie was the “First Lady of Storyville,” but a fire in 1905 rocked her world. Trapped in the fire, she narrowly escaped death. The fear of passing on to the next world without sufficient preparation tormented her. Josie’s concerns were not for her immortal soul, but rather she became obsessed with the disposition of her remains. She wanted her final resting place to reflect her sense of style and a signal to all that little Mamie Duebler had made it on her own. She purchased a two-thousand dollar plot in Metairie Cemetery surrounded by the tombs of the social elite. She summoned Albert Weiblen, the leading designer of tombs, who immediately hired a small army of workers to erect her tomb in record time. As a reward for meeting her deadline, Josie hosted an extravagant champagne supper for the workmen.
Josie’s design choice stirred an epoch of controversy that continues until this day. Her polished red marble tomb had matching pilasters or columns framing the immense double bronze doors of the crypt. These columns are capped with two matching urns each holding carved renditions of the eternal flame of life. The flip side of this somber interpretation is that in the early days of prostitution in New Orleans, flambeaux or torches were lit outside of small hovels along the river to let potential customers know that the prostitute was open for business. And the term “Red-light District” beame part of the world-wide lexicon. But Josie’s urns were just minor issues compared to the life-size bronze statue of a voluptuous woman standing on the steps leading to her tomb.
The controversial statue is draped in a flowing Grecian gown. In her left arm the female statue holds a bouquet of roses, but it is her right arm that generates the most gossip. The hand is raised as if she is about to enter. Those who live near Metairie Cemetery swear the statue of the woman comes back to life and “angrily pounds on the door with her fist, a din that can be heard for blocks.” They believe the statue symbolizes “poor young Mamie, locked out by her outraged father and she is banging trying to get back into her home. These Josie sympathizers think Josie (Mamie) did not run away at all. Like most teenagers, she stayed out one night beyond curfew, and her father wouldn’t let her back in.
But all sides ignore the facts. Josie personally selected every detail of her crypt. A closer look at the statue
finds that she is neither pulling on the large ringed door knockers nor pounding with her fists. If the statue occasionally comes to life, it is more plausible that this self-assured sensuous woman is simply returning from a stroll among the cemetery’s gardens, eager to fill the interior of her lasting abode with the fragrant aroma of freshly-picked flowers. The rumors persist that the “Maiden takes walks.” At night the statue turns, travels down the five granite steps and walks the grounds; Josie making a few “house” calls in the afterlife? It seems the Storyville Madam, who spent her life in the company of men, never intended to lie still.
Josie died on February 14, 1914. Despite her well-laid plans, her funeral and the aftermath were a fiasco. The evening of her burial, a passerby was awestruck by the phenomena before him. The two granite flambeaux atop her tomb were blazing red. Crowds gathered nightly to witness the spectacle and shouted, “Look, Josie’s open for business!” Hordes of people converged on the shell road next to the cemetery. Cemetery officials were mortified. The police were called to maintain order. Finally, one astute cemetery worker noticed a recently-installed light at the toll barrier next to the shell road. As the beacon swung in the breeze, it bounced off Josie’s tomb. An order was quickly given to plant a line of shrubs to block the reflection and a large cross was also etched on the back of the tomb – a little Christian gris-gris (voodoo) to ward off the devil’s work. Neither the shrubs or the cross had any affect. Josie’s tomb continued to send out its scandalous signal. So, after a little negotiation with the owners of the toll road, the signal light was extinguished, effectively pulling the plug on the nocturnal display.
End of story? No. Josie did not rest easier. A new wrinkle arrived in the form of Josie’s niece and Josie’s former manager. In her will, Josie had bequeathed her considerable assets to her niece and business partner, knowing nothing of their clandestine affair. The pair squandered their inheritance and then the financially-strapped couple sold her mansion, and when that wasn’t enough, Josie’s tomb went on the auction block.
A prominent family purchased the tomb, naively believing the prostitute’s notoriety and association with the tomb would magically disappear. And naturally, the new owners wanted her body removed. It must have been quite a site to see workmen in the dead of night pull open the heavy bronze doors and whisk Josie’s body to an undisclosed location. As gruesome as this might sound, moving bodies about is a standard burial custom in New Orleans still practiced today. According to the late “Irv” Zoller of Metairie Cemetery, “It’s called the Year-and-A-Day Rule: ” “Anytime after one year has passed, a burial can be disturbed. The casket is taken out of the vault, the remains are taken out of the casket and put in a small pouch or body bag . . . and put on a shelf in the back of the tomb.” In New Orleans there is always room for one more.
In Josie’s case, however, this was not a viable option. The new tomb owners had no inclination to share. And given Josie’s propensity to attact attention in life and in death, cemetery officials were not about to risk a repeat performance. Josie’s new burial site is one of Metairie Cemetery’s most closely guarded secrets. For a clue to where she might be buried read the final chapter of my book, THE HAUNTING OF LOUISIANA.
And Josie’s story may still have a happy ending for her spirit refuses to be contained. The ghost of the Storyville Madam seems well-suited to inhabit a statue and propel the seductive figure forward as she makes the rounds of “special” friends buried nearby in fashionable Metairie Cemetery. At the end of the book, I created an epitaph for this indomitable woman: ” . . . her life and death remain glittering beacons in New Orleans’ storied past.”
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