Saturday, January 24, 2015

Queen of the Demimonde.

Kate Townsend
In the years following the Civil War, Basin Street in New Orleans was the center of the most notorious red-light district in America, and the house at No. 40 Basin Street, run by Miss Kate Townsend, was the most elegant brothel in the country. When she was fatally stabbed in her bedroom in 1883, Kate Townsend’s death was mourned by sporting men from coast to coast, but, in accordance with Miss Kate’s wishes, no man was allowed to attend her funeral.

Date:  November 3, 1883

Location:   New Orleans, Louisiana

Victim:  Kate Townsend

Cause of Death:  Stabbing

Accused:   Troisville Egbert Sykes

Kate Townsend was still in her teens when she became a prostitute in New Orleans. She had left her home in Liverpool, England, after giving birth to twins, and came alone to America. In New Orleans, she worked in a brothel run by Maggie Thompson, and became quite popular with the patrons. Kate was beautiful, but also smart and ambitious. Avoiding the tragic fate of most in her profession, she left Maggie Thompson’s in 1863 and rented a house of her own on Customhouse Street. There she prospered, catering to powerful politicians and city officials, who, in 1866, helped to set her up at a more permanent location, the brownstone and marble mansion at 40 Basin Street.
No. 40 Basin Street was magnificently furnished in black walnut and white marble with a profusion of velvet, damask and gold—it was said that even the chamber pots were gilded. The house and its furnishing were estimated to be worth $200,000 in an age when a skilled carpenter worked for two dollars a day.

The demeanor within the house was equally elegant. The ladies who worked there—referred to as “boarders”—always received their guests wearing evening gowns and were forbidden to use vulgar language. Only gentlemen were allowed entry and upon arrival were expected to buy champagne for all of the boarders. On a man’s first visit, he would be interviewed by Miss Kate to determine if he was a man of character, and whether his credit was good, as his pocket money was likely to run out fast. Kate served as her own bouncer, and was perfectly capable of refusing entry to anyone who did not meet her standards.
Troisville Egbert Sykes
From the beginning Kate Townsend was accompanied in business by Troisville Egbert Sykes (known as Bill) who was referred to as her “fancy man.” He kept the books and handled official business, as Kate, reportedly, could not read or write. They were not married, though they lived together as husband and wife for the twenty-five years prior to Kate’s death.

In the early years, during Reconstruction, the clientele of 40 Basin Street consisted primarily of wealthy carpetbaggers from the north. But as Reconstruction ended, Kate was forced to lower her standards, and although the money continued to flow she was not happy with the new situation. In 1870 a fight between two drunken gamblers, at No, 40 Basin, left one man dead. The police gave Kate the murder weapon as a souvenir—a nine-inch Bowie knife which she kept under her pillow at night and in her handbag during the day.

Kate took to drink and her disposition turned irritable. She had also gained an enormous amount of weight, possibly due to a glandular condition, and in the 1880s she weighed more than 300 pounds. A reporter for the Daily States remarked that “her bust was one of the sights of the city.”

The relationship between Kate Townsend and Troisville Sykes was deteriorating as well. The two were constantly arguing and the fights would sometimes turn violent. Kate would frequently beat Sykes, who was described as a mild, timid man, and once she nearly cut off his nose with her knife. Sykes had also begun to drink heavily and smoke opium, and was continually stealing money from Kate. But he was still committed to her and became jealous when Kate started seeing a younger man named McKern.

The night of November 2, 1883, Kate and Mollie Johnson, one of the boarders at the house, were out with McKern and another man. They got extremely drunk and during an argument with McKern, Kate drew the Bowie knife and made him apologize. Mollie Johnson recalled that on the way home Kate said, “I’ve got to cut somebody, I’ll go home and open Sykes’s belly.” It was a threat she had heard many times before and did not take it seriously.

Sykes went for a walk the next morning; when he returned, Kate was still sleeping, and he sat down for coffee. Soon after, Kate rang for the housekeeper, Marie Philomene, who went up to the bedroom and found Kate standing in her chemise and holding the Bowie knife. She said she wanted to see Sykes right away.

According to Sykes, when he entered the room Kate hit him in the head with a goblet. She relaxed for a moment when the Marie Philomene brought her coffee, but after the housekeeper left, Kate sprang up and attacked him with the Bowie knife. He managed to wrest it from her hand and she grabbed a pair of pruning shears and continued the attack. Sykes claimed that he could not remember the details of what happened next, only that he murdered Kate.

He had thrown both the knife and the shears out the window, then emerged from the room, bleeding from his chest and leg. Mollie Johnson and Marie Philomene ran to the bedroom to find Kate Townsend lying on the bed, covered with blood. She had been stabbed eleven times; at least three were mortal wounds to the chest. The police were summoned and Troisville Sykes turned himself in.

Trial: January 30, 1884

Kate Townsend’s will was found among her belongings. In it she left all of her estate to Troisville Sykes and named him executor of the will. The matter of the will was taken up before the murder trial. As the man accused of her murder, Sykes could not inherit her estate unless found not-guilty, however, there was no law saying he could not be the will’s executor. Sykes’s attorneys argued that prohibiting him from being executor and denying him the fees thereof, amounted to punishment before he was found guilty. To further complicate matters, an attorney named Thomas Rozier, on behalf of the “absent heirs” of Kate Townsend, argued against Sykes becoming executor.

The judge ruled that Rozier could not represent “absent heirs” until he proved that some absent heirs actually existed, and that Sykes could become executor of the will. Sykes immediately initiated a fraudulent transaction to sell 40 Basin Street to a third-party for $30,000, who would then rent the house to Mollie Johnson, who would keep the brothel in business. The $30,000 went immediately to Sykes’s attorneys to pay for the will litigation and the upcoming murder trial.

At his murder trial, Sykes first pleaded not-guilty, but after Mollie Johnson testified to the threats, Kate had made on his life, his attorneys convinced him to change his plea to self-defense. Sykes testified, admitting that he killed Kate, explaining what he believed happened, but was still unable to recall the details.

The trial lasted only four days and the jury found him not-guilty.

Verdict: Not guilty.


When the Judge W.T. Huston learned of Sykes’s sale of the house at 40 Basin, he declared it illegal and removed Sykes as executor. He also ordered “all women of lewd life” to vacate the property. Since Sykes was found not-guilty, he was eligible to inherit from the estate, however, after a lengthy battle all that remained was slightly more than $43,000. However, since Sykes and Kate Townsend were not legally married, he was subject to Louisiana’s concubinage law which limited his the amount he could inherit to $340. The rest went to attorneys.

Kate Townsend had left instructions with Mollie Johnson concerning her wake and funeral. There was to be champagne, wine, and refreshments and everyone was to have a good time. No men were allowed to attend the wake and absolutely no men were to view the body. Mollie Johnson allowed only forty women to view the body, though many more had come to the wake. A hearse took her body to Metarie Cemetery, followed by a procession of twenty carriages, carrying only women.

Asbury, Herbert. French Quarter. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1936.
Tallant, Robert. Ready to Hang. New York: Harper, 1952.
"A Jealous Pimp." The National Police Gazette 24 Nov 1883.
"Kate Townsend's Will." Times-Picayune 9 Nov 1883.
"Murder of the Queen of the Southern Demi Monde." Plain Dealer 8 Nov 1883.
"Sykes Addresses the Jury." Patriot 2 Feb 1884.
"The Kate Townsend Succession." Times-Picayune 30 Jan 1884.


Me says:
September 16, 2021 at 7:21 PM

Is this the same Mollie Johnson who worked in Deadwood?

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