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Story Archives: Natchez Under-the-Hill: A menagerie of sex, trade & pain
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|Natchez Under-the-Hill: A menagerie of sex, trade & pain|
(Second in a Series)
In the early 1800s, John Bradbury walked the streets of Natchez Under-the-Hill and later wrote: "Almost all the Kentucky men stop here on the way to Orleans and as they consider all the dangers and difficulties of their voyage as past, they feel the same inclination to dissipation as sailors who have been long out of port, and generally remain here a day or two to indulge."
In 1808, Christian Schultz returned from uptown to his boat at the landing below the bluff. When he walked on board, he recalled later that he disturbed the "morning slumbers" of six prostitutes who had previously "undertaken to enliven the idle hours of our Canadian crew."
When Matthew Gardner of Ohio first glimpsed under-the-hill in 1809, he counted 40 houses on the "narrow strip of bottom land...occupied principally by gamblers and lewd women." He said there was no place up or down the river "spoken of as a greater sink of sin."
Natchez-Under-the-Hill was a menagerie of life -- a thriving port where legitimate business was conducted. But it was also a den of thievery, brawling and danger filled with misfits (some may call them tourists) who wanted to drink, gamble and womanize. And here they hit the jackpot.
Under-the-hill was also an entertainment center where live shows for the general public were held on flatboats anchored at the landing. During this time, Davenport and Street presented a program featuring wax figures, Noah D. Hampton exhibited a tiger and Charles Thomas hawked a show called "The Invisible Lady."
Traveler Henry Ker wrote that while under-the-hill he found the "bold-faced strumpet (prostitute), full of blasphemies, who looks upon the virtuous part of her sex with contempt and hatred; every house is a grocery, containing gambling, music and dancing, fornicators, etc. This is the stopping place for all boatmen from Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.; yes, I have in that place seen 150 boats, loaded with produce, bound to New Orleans, delaying their time, and spending days in the lowest orders of dissipation."
Ker also watched cotton bales and hogshead of tobacco from the plantations on the interior loaded onto flatboats for shipment to New Orleans. He observed the famous fish market known up and down the river, where catfish "of incredible size, weighing from 10 to 200 pounds," were harvested from the Mighty Mississippi and sold under-the-hill. But as legitimate industry grew the economy, a lucrative niche thrived in the underbelly and drew the misfits and rounders as well as the well-to-do.
"Most of the disrespectable element" under-the-hill, wrote historian D. Clayton James in his book, "Antebellum Natchez," were "transients, who were ever milling about the lower town" and who were "largely responsible for the tainted reputation of Natchez-under-the-Hill since they were the first and only contacts most river travelers had with the community...They included boatmen, wagoners, professional gamblers, trappers, fishermen and that large group of irresponsible adventurers perennially wandering from one end of the frontier to the other."
The Mississippi at that time in history attracted wanderers of all descriptions and Natchez was always a destination. William Dunbar, who settled on Second Creek in the 1790s, said that any adventurer or pirate could assemble a force in little time along the river. When James Willing came to Natchez in 1778 and plundered the homes and property of British planters, Dunbar said Willing "recruited and collected together on his way down all the vagabonds and rascals he met with, of which kind the river is always full..."
Under-the-hill came into its own as a den of sin in the late 1790s. As work crews on flatboats landed with goods at the Natchez port, the men often partied for a couple of days before walking home along the Natchez Trace or heading down river to New Orleans. By the early 1800s, a dozen or more brothels, most featuring filthy and seedy rooms, operated along Maiden Lane from Silver Street to the river.
The majority of the prostitutes were black or mulattos, most slaves, hired out to pimps if not directly managed by their owners. Jeremiah Routh advertised in the Mississippi Herald in 1804 that he had 11 black women he would sell or rent, adding that all were "capable of business."
There is an account in a planter's records of a white woman named Molly, who had fled a nearby plantation due to the heinous abuse of her husband. She settled under-the-hill, and indicated that she preferred to live as a prostitute rather than continue her former life. Most prostitutes were there due to slavery, force, physical and mental abuse or economic need. Few, if any, were there to quench their own sexual desire.
So many events could put a woman's future in jeopardy. In 1791, 19-year-old Mary Bonner, in a complaint filed in Natchez court, testified that Samuel Levi Wells got her pregnant. She said that at a weak moment -- when "blinded by her passion...(and) his affection" -- she succumbed to his sexual desires. But Wells refused to marry her. In court, Wells acknowledged that the child was his and agreed to pay $25 a year in child support and to buy Mary a suit of clothes. He also agreed to rear the child when he turned 10.
Yet as a woman Mary had virtually no rights. Her brother signed the agreement on her behalf and had every right under the law to spend the money as the saw fit. An unwanted pregnancy by an unmarried woman not only carried the weight of moral shame but also great economic distress. In some cases, a woman became an outcast and some ended up in the misery of prostitution. We don't know what happened to Mary, but the pregnancy that changed her world two centuries ago could have plunged her into an unwanted new life under-the-hill.
In 1810, Captain Winnfield Scott, the future commanding general of the U.S. Army and presidential candidate, had a few beers at a tavern in nearby Washington, the territorial capital. While there, he called Gen. James Wilkinson, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army, "a liar and a scoundrel." The comment led to a court martial. But Scott saved his most critical comment for last, adding that "he considered a man as much disgraced by serving under Gen. Wilkinson as by marrying a prostitute."
The Rev. John Jones, writing about the history of Protestantism in Mississippi, said the haunts of great vice under-the-hill "were inhabited by the most degraded and lawless men and women, whose sole object seemed to beguile, entrap and ruin their heedless victims." Pity the young man left unattended in this sink hole, wrote Jones, who "went primarily to gratify the lust of the eye, which led him by an easy and rapid process to the indulgence of the lust of the flesh, and soon his honor was in the dust, his money in the hands of strangers, and his feet went down to death, and his steps took hold in hell."
But the main sufferers were the women, all pawns in the lucrative sex trade -- a business waged by men on both sides of the dollar.
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