Atlanta in the Victorian Age

This blog looks at Atlanta and Georgia in that era commonly called the Victorian Age. It includes the antebellum years and extends to World War I [1914]. As an urban and architectural historian, I will include professional articles about the great architects of the period as well as their buildings, social and community life, the arts, women's rights, African-Americans and economics. All articles will be footnoted and they, along with any original images, are copyrighted.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Mrs. J. Carroll Payne and daughter Nan in their elegant Victoria near Cain and Peachtree.  Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Archives.

What would Atlanta be without its automobiles?    It is difficult to imagine the city stripped of its millions of cars but that is the way it was back in 1904-05 when the city began vehicle registration and only ninety-nine horseless carriages were legally registered to roam the streets.  Ten years later, there were 4,500. (1)  The statistical growth  was so explosive that in 1909, the first national automibile show held in the South convened in Atlanta and notable  automakers like  Henry Ford, Ransom Olds,  John Willys and many others came  to town.  Adding  even more excitement  to the craze, Coca Cola  magnate Asa Candler and the Atlanta  Automobile  Association  introduced auto  racing  when they  built a $300,000  racetrack  where the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport now stands. (2)

So when did the motorcar supersede the horse and carriage like that of the Payne ladies pictured above, thus inaugurating the Automobile Age in Atlanta?  Statisticians, historians and even sociologists might make a strong case for 1909 but for me, it arrived in February 1913.  To be even more precise, it began Wednesday afternoon, February 19th.  On that day, John Smith of 124 Auburn Avenue demolished twenty-five carriages, sulkies, broughams, surreys, Victorias and buggies valued originally at $30,000 [about $612,000 in modern dollars] and then burned them in a huge bonfire.

As the writer for the Atlanta Journal commented, "What had been prized luxuries had grown into worn-out relics . . . ."  Mr. Smith, who had once manufactured and sold carriages, had recently changed his business over to mortorcars and had plans to build a new three story building on his Auburn Avenue site, just off Peachtree, solely for automobile sales and auto maintenance.  The many horse drawn vehicles which the
1903 City Directory
Smith's 1914 City Directory ad
wealthy people of Atlanta had stored at his business were now considered worthless by their owners.  Elegant Victorias like that of the Payne family had once sold for $1,500 to $2,000 [which did NOT include the horses and equipage] and were being replaced by large touring cars like the "Cole 50," on sale at the

1913 Newspaper ad for the Cole 50

Cole Motor Car Co. of Georgia showroom at 239 Peachtree for $1,985 (about $40,000 in 21st century dollars); the new Cadillac selling for $2,150 at the Steinauer & Wight Co. at 228 Peachtree; or the Overland touring car, a bargain at $985, being shown at the Overland Southern Motor Car Co. at 232 Peachtree. (3)  These luxury cars had the additional "luxury" of not requiring expensive horses to feed and maintian.

But let's step back in time for just a moment to 1899 and see how drastic the change was in the first decade of the twentieth century and how the motorcar remade the face of the city.  Less than fifteen years before Mr. Smith's bonfire, the city was essentially devoid of the horseless carriage.  Transportation was by foot, bicycle, the electric streetcars or by means of horses and mules.  Atlanta had nine carriage dealers or
Atlanta City Directory 1903
 manufacturers.  There were also six wagon makers; six wagon yards, thirteen livery, feed and sale stables within a few blocks of Five Points, the center of the city; fifteen harness makers and harness
Wagons for hire at the Passenger Depot.  Atlanta City Directory 1902
repairers; forty-nine blacksmiths and ten "horseshoers;" five veterinarians mainly dealing with horses and 
Atlanta City Directory, 1903
mules, nine transfer companies with horse teams; the stables of the Atlanta Board of Health for its night soil and garbage wagons; and twelve fire staions with horse and wagon teams.  Just a few blocks
Atlanta City Directory, 1902

out South Forsyth Street from city center, there was even the Hermitage Heights Pasturage where one of the veterinarians, F. W. Benteen, offered care and pasturage with blue grass, Bermuda grass and clover. (4)

Atlanta Fire Dept. horses and wagon.  Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Archives.

And don't forget the mansion of Atlanta's elite along Peachtree, Washington Avenue, Capitol Avenue, West Peachtree and other nearby streets with private stables on large or deep lots.

Linnie Condon in Victoria outside the Condon home on Linden near Spring Street.  Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Archives
Atlanta mansion of James W. English with a brougham waiting at the curb (Cone Street).  Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Archives.

Just imagine the chaos on busy days when the horses, mules, carts, wagons and carriages from all the many stables might pour into the congested streets of Atlanta.  By 1903, the city had a population of 96,550 in a small eleven square miles and only 63.4 miles of paved streets out of a total of 200.4 miles of roadways (meaning 68.36% were dusty, muddy unpaved roads). (5)  Amid this chaos and dirt created by all these vehicles and animals on the unpaved streets, which were anathema to motorcar drivers, there were the added hordes of pedestrians, clanging streetcars carrying up to 71,403,000 passengers yearly by 1913, and intrepid bicycle riders (in 1899, there were 22 bicycle dealers and repairers in the city). (6)  Furthermore, on any given day, horse/mule powered vehicles entered the city from outlying areas and competed for space with the hometown traffic.

By the year of the bonfire,however, the means of personal and business transportation had drastically changed.  The streetcars still ran with ever increasing numbers of passengers but motorized vehicles were taking over.  The first local advertisement for a horseless carriage that this author could find appeared in 1902 for the Locomobile "agency" of H. M. Ashe, whose primary business was the sale of typewriters at the
Atlanta City Directory, 1902
same location.  Eleven years after Mr. Ashe promoted his Locomobile venture, Atlanta's large funeral homes began proudly displaying their new horseless ambulances in newspaper advertisements -- but they were only the tip of the automobile iceberg.

Other businesses were buying trucks to replace work and delivery wagons.  Johnson Motor Co., on S. Forsyth Street advertised their Chase Trucks priced from $900 to $1,250 and available in six models with load capacities from 500 to 4,000 pounds.  The dealer claimed that these trucks "Lead all [in] Simplicity and Economy" and that large local businesses like Foote & Davies [printers], the Nunnally Co., [candy manufacturer], C. H. Merckel Co. [grocer], and Phillips & Crew [piano and music sales] had already
1913 newspaper ad for Chase Trucks
switched to them.  Smaller businesses like the Piedmont Laundry on Trinity Avenue and the Belle Isle Transfer Co. showed off their new delivery trucks in that year's City Directory.  There was even a local
manufacturer of trucks in the mix by 1913.  Long-time Atlantan Edward Van Winkle, who made his original fortune as a manufacturer of cotton gins and textile machinery, started a new business in 1912.  His trucks were advertised as "Made in Atlanta."

If you couldn't afford a car or a truck, there was the more affordable option of the new Indian motorcycles at Hendee Manufacturing Co. (437 Peachtree Street) for $200 to $250 (between
Atlanta City Directory

$4,000 and $5,000 in more modern dollars).  They were guaranteed to "Take you there and back again at from 4 to 50 miles an hour" and were perfect for "business or pleasure."  You could even get an "Indian Maid" sidecar to carry a passenger. (7)
 1913 Atlanta newspaper ad for the Indian motorcycle

When the city directory of 1914 came out listing local businesses as of 1913, the changes from
1899 were little short of amazing.  There were now more than ten pages of advertisements and listings for automobiles, trucks and related services and accessories.  Carriage makers and/or dealers had dropped from fifteen to three and one of those was not in Atlanta but East Point, Georgia.  Of the two remaining carriage dealers listed, one was John Smith who we know had already switched to motorcars.  In fact, he had a full page ad [see above] in the directory for his high end vehicles like the Chalmers ($2,250.00 to $3,750.00) and the Pierce-Arrow, which sold from $4,425.00 up to a whopping $7,200 (almost $147,000 today). (8)

Other listings in 1914 show additional significant changes.  The livery stables, which had once clustered around Five Points, were gone.  Wagon makers were halved (six down to three) and the six wagon yards of 1899 were reduced to two.  Those dealing in harnesses and harness repair had dropped from fifteen to seven.  There were still forty-five blacksmiths in town but it is probable that many of these were also working on automobiles or ironwork not related to either automobiles or carriages.  At least one of these blacksmiths announced in the directory that he was an expert in repairing the new automobile. (9)

Capital investment related to the booming automobile industry was also expanding, along with the funding for more  paved streets demanded by the influential "automobilists."  New buildings and businesses proliferated, especially on Peachtree from Ellis Street to Ponce de Leon Avenue.  Automobile or automobile related firms located on the city's most prestigious thoroughfare jumped from zero in 1909 to thirty-three in 1914.  These were not all greasy garages either.  In February 1913, a five story Buick dealership with grand columns, an elegant entrance awning, decorative cornice and masses of plate glass windows opened at 241-243 Peachtree (corner of Peachtree and Harris streets).  It had been designed by Walter Downing, one of the 
New 1913 Buick dealership.
city's leading architects and an accomplished designer of private homes for the very wealthy.  One writer claimed that the building "will mark a new epoch in motoring annals of the south and the country as well."  It was further noted that the Buick dealership is "not only the biggest and finest in  the  south but  in the entire  country
 as  well . . . ." (10)

As the second and third decades of the twentieth century progressed, the expansion of automobile businesses and a huge increase in vehicles themselves essentially ended the old urban reliance on the horse and mule. (11)  What had begun in the earliest years of the twentieth century when a few primitive Locomobiles put-putted along Atlanta's largely unpaved streets had completely changed as the horseless carriage remade the look, feel and even smells of the city within a shockingly short time span.  As our journalist of 1913 stated in his article about John Smith's bonfire, it was the "automobile in which fashion rides today."  Into Mr. Smith's planned conflagration of "crackling fire" went a way of life and transport centered on animal power.  The artifacts destroyed that winter day in 1913 included the odd three wheel vehicle of Dr. Thurmond with his "upholstered chair" mounted behind a high dashboard, the "special trotting sulkey [sic]" of Joe Kingsberry, John Hill's Victoria, the spider phaeton of Wilmer Moore (see below), and Mrs. Hunter Smith's brougham.  Also into the blaze went the old carriage of former governor
Wilmer and Cornelia Moore in their Spider Phaeton [with unknown servant] when it was brand new.  Photo courtesy of the Atlanta History Center archives.
Allen Candler, "which he often drove in state" about town.  Once again, what been "prized luxuries" were considered "worn-out relics" by that February afternoon in 1913 when great clouds of smoke rose above Auburn Avenue.  "It was like burning a part of the past" and so it proved to be as the Automobile Age came to Atlanta. (12)

Richard Dees Funderburke, Phd.

As always, I extend very special thanks to the wonderful archivists at the Atlanta History Center for all their help and generosity in allowing me to use a few of the facility's outstanding collection of photographs.

(1)  Howard Preston, Automobile Age Atlanta, Athens:  University of Georgia Press, 1979, p. 50 (Hereafter Preston).

(2)  Preston, p. 17 & pp. 27-28.

(3)  Atlanta Journal (Hereafter AJ), 2/20/1913, p. 11; Atlanta Constitution (Hereafter AC), 2/23/1913, p. 10; AC, 2/16/1913, p. 12.

(4)  Atlanta City Directory 1899 (Hereafter ACD), pp. 1388-1397, 1432-1432,  1448,  1485-1486,  1493, 8.

(5)  Preston, pp. 10 & 13.

(6)  Preston, p. 48; ACD 1899, p. 1387 (for bicycle dealers).

(7)  ACD 1902, p. 176 (Locomobile ad); AJ, 2/2/1913, p. H; AC, 2/23/1913, p. 2-A; ACD 1914, p. 22 (Van Winkle truck ad), p. 6 (Piedmont Laundry), p. 1857 (Belle Isle); AC, 3/3/1913, p. 13-B ( Barclay & Brandon Funeral Home ad); AJ, 11/9/1913, p. L.

(8)  ACD 1914, pp. 1716-1719, 1797, 5 (John Smith ad).

(9)  ACD 1914, pp. 1725, 1777, 1776, 1797, 1801, 1854.

(10)  Preston, p. 37; "Buick's New Home To Be Opened Next Tuesday," AJ, 2/20/1913, p. 11.

(11)  Preston, pp. 37-38 & 51; AJ, 2/20/1913, p. 11.

(12)  ACD 1902, p. 176; AJ, 2/20/1913, p. 11.

Monday, September 2, 2013

 Eminent Atlanta Victorians
John Calvin Peck

This is the first in a series of short biographies of Eminent Atlanta Victorians -- not the overdone politicians or Confederate generals but those who made significant, but often forgotten, contributions to the city, state or region in business or the arts.  I will try to link these individuals to specific places, monuments, buildings or grave sites so that those who wish to make a direct connection with the long dead can search out those "artifacts."

      Atlanta burgeoned sleek and fat in the last decades of the nineteenth century.  Charred ruins and streets filled with blackened stones, heaps of rubbish and piles of bones from the trenches and battlefields surrounding the city in 1865 were slowly replaced by paved thoroughfares and grand buildings unimaginable to residents prior to 1870. (1)  One of those many individuals responsible for these astounding changes in the built environment was John Calvin Peck, a Yankee born carpenter/contractor/businessman who made Atlanta his home for five momentous decades in its early history.

     Peck was born in Sharon, Connecticut in 1830 and was educated in the public schools and the nearby Watertown Academy where he reportedly excelled in both the sciences and literature.  Following school, he trained as a carpenter and worked in upstate New York before returning to Connecticut as a carpenter/contractor.  Because of asthma, he eventually moved south in the 1850s, settling in Knoxville, Tennessee and finally taking up permanent residence in Atlanta in 1858.  He worked in his new hometown with the already established antebellum builder/architect, John Boutelle.

     Boutelle was a fellow New Englander [born in Massachusetts in 1814] who had come to Atlanta in 1852 after moving south for health reasons.  Mainly a contractor, he designed many buildings in the antebellum period and even listed himself as an architect in the 1859 Atlanta city directory.  His buildings included the Atlanta Medical College, Collier Building, his own home and those of early Atlanta leaders like Austen Leyden and John Neal.  J. C. Peck and Boutelle had much in common and it was stated in the former's 1908 obituary that Peck "rose rapidly in the gentleman's [Boutelle] esteem, and was soon placed in a responsible, lucrative position." (2)

     Like many northern-born men in nineteenth century Atlanta, the Civil War placed Peck and his growing family [he had married New Yorker Frances Josephine Hoyt in 1853 before moving south] in a tenuous position.  Many of them like engineer and entrepreneur Lemuel P. Grant and architect Calvin Fay became actively and directly involved with the Confederate war effort.  Fay became a captain of artillery and Grant oversaw the construction of Atlanta's defensive works.  Peck's mentor and employer, John Boutelle, also worked on the city's defenses.  At age thirty-one when the war began, Peck avoided active service [perhaps his asthma was a factor?] by working to supply war materials for the military.  Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown commissioned him to make pikes for the state militia and he also attempted to start a business producing rifles, which failed.  "Joe Brown's Pikes" were described as "a sharp, heavy steel blade firmly fixed in a wooden handle, and jumping into place by use of an ingenious spring."  The rifles were made by hand by Peck himself and shot a bullet "one inch in diameter and two and one-quarter inches long."  In addition, Peck also served briefly as superintendent of woodwork at the Atlanta Arsenal.

     As the war dragged on, Peck's health suffered once again due to his asthma and he moved to Thomasville, Georgia.  Somehow he managed to extricate himself from war-torn Georgia by taking his family north to Minnesota where they remained until the end of the war. (3)

     Shortly after the end of hostilities in 1865, John Calvin Peck returned to the burnt out ruins of Atlanta where he established his planing mill on Decatur Street and then N. Loyd (Central), just steps from the train and freight depots in the heart of the city.  By the mid-1870s, the success of J. C. Peck and Co. supplying
Atlanta City Directory 1870

lumber and making sashes, doors and windows was clear.  The owner was listed as one of the city's wealthiest men in 1876 and was a much sought after contractor for many major buildings.  He oversaw the construction of the new state capitol [originally the Kimball Opera House], the massive Kimball House
First Kimball House Hotel
and the buildings at Fort McPherson.  It was reported that the first Kimball House was completed in a record five and one half months and utilized 3,500 workers.  At about the same time, Peck sold his N. Loyd Street property to William Markham and served as the contractor for the huge Markham House Hotel built on the site.  Peck also supplied the woodwork for the new U.S. Custom House and Post Office on Marietta Street in the 1870s.  All of these were the largest building jobs of the decade. (4)
Old State Capitol, Marietta St.

     The solidification of his preeminence as Atlanta's foremost building contractor came in the 1880s.  In 1881, he was a stockholder in the International Cotton Exposition.  Not only was he an investor, but he also served on the Executive Committee as well as Chief of Construction and Superintendent of Construction.
U.S. Customs House, Marietta St.

Markham House Hotel

Peck would later serve in similar positions for the Piedmont Exposition of 1887 and was an organizer of the Atlanta Cotton Factory and Fulton County Spinning Mills.  Finally, he was actively involved in the construction work of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. (5)

Main Building, International Cotton Exposition 1881

     Although John Calvin Peck spend his last fifty years in the South and was considered a Pioneer Citizen of Atlanta, he retained at least one very visible part of his New England heritage.  He was a founder of Atlanta's Unitarian Church of Our Father in the 1880s and remained active in this organization until his death, serving as president of the congregation as well as chairman of the board of trustees at various times. (6)  It seems very likely that he supplied the wood and contracting for the 1883 church building which was built near his long time home at 83 Ivy Street [between Wheat and Houston streets]. (7)
Church of Our Father, circa 1884.  Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Archives.

When John Calvin Peck died, the list of pallbearers and "honorary escorts" read like a Who's Who of prominent Atlantans.  They included M. O. Markham, Frank Rice, George Winship, Joseph Hirsch, Samuel Inman and R. J. Lowery. (8)  Peck was interred in an impressive mausoleum on the north end of the high ridge bisecting the oldest part of Oakland Cemetery.  For any "graveyard tourists" who wish to visit the mausoleum, be sure to note the beautiful stained glass window with the entwined initials of John Calvin Peck.
J. C. Peck Mauseoleum, Oakland Cemetery.  Author's photo.
J. C. Peck initials inside the tomb.  Author's photo.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Bellevue -- A Romantic Gilded Age Hotel in Gadsden, Alabama

                                                     Bellevue Hotel -- Author's Postcard Collection

As prosperity returned for the South's upper classes in the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was an increasing demand for hotels and Godfrey Norrman, one of Atlanta's greatest entrepreneurial architects jumped to fill this need for luxury hotels dramatically perched on hillsides or adjacent to mineral springs and other natural features of the southern uplands.  One of his designs was the Bellevue Hotel on a Lookout Mountain precipice, 800 feet above the valley containing the prospering town of Gadsden, Alabama.

Norrman came to Gadsden to design the Printup Hotel in 1887 for Daniel Printup of Rome, Georgia, who was largely responsible for extending the the Rome & Decatur Railroad to Gadsden. (1)  While the Printup was being built, it was reported that Norrman had also designed a "mountain hotel" near the city.  It was not constructed concurrently with the Printup, but the success of that hostelry probably inspired the leading citizens involved in the Gadsden Land and Improvement Company [GLIC] to take up the project of a resort hotel on Lookout Mountain overlooking the city and near a mineral spring as well as the scenic Noccalula Falls. (2)

                                                Printup Hotel -- Author's Postcard Collection

J. L. Tanner, a leading lawyer and former secretary/treasurer of the organization which had erected the Printup Hotel, was president of the GLIC.  He and his associates apparently decided in 1889 to follow up on the original plans for the resort hotel with an investment ranging from $25,000 to $60,000.  At various times and in various publications, the hotel was called the Fall View, Belle-View, Mineral Springs, and finally, after the turn of the century, the Bellevue.  The hotel appears to have been completed in late 1890 and the Southern Architect for October of that year stated that Norrman was the designer.  As was usual for the architect, he picked up two private commissions for homes valued at $10,000 each for unnamed Gadsden residents in the same year. (3)  It is unknown if these homes remain standing.

                                               Photo courtesy of the Gadsden Public Library

The Bellevue was a beautiful structure and the developers constructed a rail line from the valley to the future hotel with a winding carriage drive already marked off for building lots for private residences.  With 100 rooms and a large dining room, the two and three story hotel had extensive porches and its many electric lights vied "with night's diadem of stars in brilliancy." (4)  The main entrance with its porte cochere, the chimneys, and the piers supporting the hotel were of rough cut stone [probably granite].  The rest of the building, including a three story octagonal tower with matching roof next to the porte cochere, was sheathed in shingles.  The roof line was broken by large hipped and small shed dormers, numerous chimneys, an observation tower or belvedere, rounded projecting bays, and gables.  Norrman was certainly a master of the Queen Anne style in public buildings as well as private homes.

                              Photo in the collections of the Alabama Dept. of Archives and History

                               Photo in the collections of the Alabama Dept. of Archives and History

The Bellevue was also a wonderful example of the shingle style in a resort hotel.  It rose almost naturally out of the hillside on its stone piers and the long sweeping roof line matched the shape of the mountain.  Norrman used a mixture of wood shingles [these were presumably also on the roof] and quarry cut stone to make the hotel blend into its surroundings, just as did the structures designed by the nationally important architects of New England and the northern states at the time.  In other words, this regional Southern architect brought the most modern styles of the era to the small towns and cities of the South.

Sadly, the Bellevue did not have a long and storied life.  It reportedly burned to the ground in 1912 and the site remained hauntingly vacant even into the 1990s when the author last visited Gadsden. (5)  A sketch made just before it burned in 1912 gives some idea of its massive size which the photographs fail to do [see below].  Nevertheless, the photographs and postcard view truly bring the Victorian opulence of the hotel to life and hint at the grand parties once held there and the hours of leisure enjoyed by those Victorians who had the means to enjoy these rural hotel "palaces."  One can only surmise that it was also a place where romances began on hot summer days on the shaded porches or walks to the nearby natural landscape features.  The postcard view of the hotel [first image above] was mailed in 1908 from a Miss Nettie Dacy [?] of Harpersville, Alabama to Mr. Calvin Turner of Prague, Oklahoma.  She writes that she is "pleased to ex-change postcards" and "how much I enjoyed the 'swell' song" which the dashing young Calvin might have sung to her in the Bellevue's romantic belvedere one summer evening when the lights below vied with the "diadem of stars" above.  History is often a romance.
       "History Holds Story of Gadsden's Early Luxury Hotel,"  The Gadsden Times, 6/16/1968, p. 5.

(1)  Hotel Subject File at the Gadsden Public Library.
(2)  Atlanta Journal [AJ], 6/3/1887; "Gadsden, Alabama," Atlanta Constitution [AC],10/5/1890, 33; "Gadsden, Alabama," AC, 11/231890.

(3)  Gadsden newspaper article titled "At Last" and dated 7/12/1888 from the Hotel Subject File of the Gadsden Public Library; Frances Underwood, "Strolling Down Memory Lane:  Old 'Mineral Springs Hotel'," The Gadsden Times, 6/29/1958, n.p.; John Jones, "History Holds Story of Gadsden's Early Luxury Hotel," The Gadsden Times, 6/16/1968, 5;  Southern Architect, October 1890, 179.

(4)  AC, 10/5/1890, 33; Jones, 5; Underwood, "Strolling," n.p.

(5)  Jones, 5.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Delila of Decatur -- An Antebellum Life in DeKalb County, Georgia

Portion of woodcut titled "Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta" at the Atlanta History Center Archives, Visual Arts # 564.  Probably from an 1864 Harper's Weekly.

     Delila loved her friends and family in her hometown of Decatur.  In the 1850s, the little community was already overshadowed by its bustling neighbor Atlanta, but it was the only home she had known.  It was a place where the warm dust of the unpaved streets puffed up between her bare toes on summer days as she walked past the two story, brick courthouse in the middle of town, something she must have done frequently as a young teenager.

     She probably didn't care much for the unimpressive courthouse with its towering square columns and steep double staircase rising to the second floor courtroom.  Built a few years earlier at a cost of
DeKalb County Courthouse, 1849
$15,000 (1), it was at this seemingly innocuous little structure that estates were probably sold off as heirs consolidated the deceased's property for disbursement.  In antebellum Decatur, this included a person's human property as well and the always tenuous family cohesiveness of slaves may often have ended in the shadow of this building's facade.  These mundane facts of life were important to Delila because this young woman was a slave.

     Before Fulton County was created out of it in 1853, DeKalb County was home to almost 3,000 slaves and 32 free blacks. (2)  Out of all that humanity, the slave Delila (sometimes spelled Delilah) is one of the few African Americans who comes down to us with a name and a story of her own, however truncated.  She even has enough of an historical presence to give us some idea of her life, work, talents and personality.  This would be rare for any woman from that time and place, but for a slave woman, it is virtually unheard of.

     In the last decade before the Civil War, Decatur was a dusty little courthouse town with a grand total of 86 white households.  It was described in the late 1840s as "a pretty little town situated on a ridge . . ." and is known for being "proverbially healthy."  With a population of 744, there were 252 slaves or 31% of the population.  In Georgia as a whole, slightly over one third of free households owned at least one slave, which is probably an accurate statistic for Decatur as well. (3)  In such a small town, Delila was probably known to most of the inhabitants of both races.  She belonged to a fairly prominent man named Alexander Johnson, who lived near the town square on the street leading to Atlanta.

     Records show that Johnson was secretary of the DeKalb County grand jury in 1840, making him one of the county seat's earliest residents.   His association with local courts indicates that he might have been an attorney but the 1850 census lists no occupation for this 35 year old man.  By 1848, however, he had been elected clerk of the county's Inferior Court -- a post he was re-elected to in 1850 and 1852.  In the latter year, he was also elected "Ordinary," a judge-like position dealing with the registration and probating of wills, the issuance of marriage licenses, and the handling of other similar legal functions where he touched the lives of almost all the county's residents at one time or another. (4)

     It isn't exactly clear when Johnson came to own Delila.  Slave schedules or lists were not added to the U.S. census data until 1850.  Even then, these millions of Americans were listed under their owners' names and only by age and sex.  As a result, the faceless and nameless people who did most of the heavy labor in the South and who kept many white households functioning are lost historically in a huge composite aggregation of statistics.  For instance, the 1850 census shows Alexander Johnson of Decatur owning four slaves, two adult males and two females aged sixteen and fifteen. (5)  Without names, we can only assume that Delila was one of these young women.

Image of a Georgia slave washer woman from the Hargrett Rare Book and
 Manuscript Library at UGA.
     So how do we know anything at all about Delila of Decatur?  The answer lies in Johnson's decision to sell Delila in Sept. 1853, because he has "another one" [female slave] whom he plans to "make a cook of."  Perhaps Delila was a poor cook or simply didn't like cooking.  Although Johnson doesn't say this, he obviously had higher hopes for his other prospect when he wrote to Decatur neighbor Lemuel P. Grant to see if he would like to purchase Delila, "sister of Dave," who we later learn is her brother.  Johnson feels that Grant already knows of Delila's "qualities and qualifications as cook, washer, ironer, etc." (6)  On the surface at least, it seems that Johnson was making an effort to sell Delila to someone who knew her, and into a household where one of her closest relatives lived.  For good or ill, nothing came of this offer in 1853.  Maybe Grant had sampled Delila's cooking and was unimpressed?

     Two years later, however, Johnson renewed his offer since he had decided to move West as part of the great southern migration to lush new cotton fields in places like Texas.  At age 40 (7), he might have been seeking a new life for himself and his three young daughters following the untimely death of his wife.  Whatever the reasons, Johnson decided to sell Delila before moving, perhaps to finance his relocation.  For this, he once again turned to Lemuel Grant.

Lemuel P. Grant
     Almost all Atlantans, even today, know about Delila's prospective new owner or have encountered his name.  Born in Maine, L. P. Grant made his fortune in the South as a railroad builder, engineer, and land developer.  During the Civil War, he designed the fortifications surrounding Atlanta.   In 1855, he was still traveling throughout the South building railroads while constructing a grand new home just south of Atlanta.  He was a busy man and would continue to be so until his death in 1893.  He was one of the city's wealthiest capitalists.  Most notably for later generations, he donated the land for Grant Park.  In the 1850s and like most of his peers, Grant was a slave owner. (8)  He was also dedicated to saving his papers which are now housed in the archives of the Atlanta History Center and which give life to the slave woman Delila.

     In the minuscule Decatur of 1855, Johnson and Grant were not only neighbors but were probably also friends. (9)  Because of his constant travels for work, Grant conducted much of the negotiations for the purchase of Delila via correspondence.  Through the Grant papers, readers and researchers in the 21st century get a rare glimpse into the life and times of this unique woman.

     Beginning on March 20, 1855, the depressing tale of Delila's eventual sale began again with a new letter from Johnson to Grant.  With his move west imminent, Johnson offers Delila to Grant and again emphasizes that his neighbor already owns her brother Dave.  More interestingly, this letter shows that Delila has evidently and boldly expressed a strong objection to any move from Decatur.  Johnson states off-handedly, "She does not want to go west, because I suppose she does not want to leave her friends."  Perhaps it went without saying that this young woman had no desire to leave the security of her hometown and nearby relatives for a life on the southern frontier.

Slave children in Georgia.  Image in the Hargrett Rare Book and
Manuscript Library at UGA.
     As inducements to the sale, Johnson goes on to say that Delila is a good house servant and cook.  Furthermore, he offers to take either cash or credit, along with offering Delila to Grant on a six month trial basis.  In a final postscript, Johnson adds, "I will sell her with her youngest child, 2 years & 2 or 3 months or without but [would] rather sell both together." (10)  Of course, we don't know if this was based on the humanitarian concerns of a kind owner or on the practical considerations of having to deal with a motherless infant or toddler, whether with a separate sale of the child or with taking him/her on the long trek to the West.  It is probably safe (and generous) to assume that Johnson was acting on a combination of both motives.  He quotes a price of $1,000 for the pair or $800 for Delila only.  In a follow-up letter, Johnson tells Grant that he can also buy another, older child of Delila. (11)  Thus we know that Delila, by the age of 20 or 21, presuming she is one of the two female slaves owned by Johnson in the 1850 census, had at least two living children.  It should be noted that $1,000 in 1855 equals approximately $17,778.00 in modern dollars.  With her youth and skills as a house servant, Delila was a very valuable commodity.

     To any current reader of these letters, the callousness and cruelty of Johnson is almost overwhelming.  By the standards of his 1850s white neighbors, however, Johnson was probably a considerate and even kindly master.  He claims to have been motivated by the desire to keep Delila united with her children, as well as her friends and relatives in Decatur, in partial explanation for proposing the sale.  Finally, he reiterates, if obliquely, that he is taking the young woman's personal feelings into account since she has verbally expressed her objection to leaving Georgia.

     As "Ordinary" or probate clerk for DeKalb County, Alexander Johnson understood the human dimensions of slavery as well as, if not better than, anyone else.  As owners died or estates were broken up for other reasons, slaves, as hugely valuable parts of these estates, were routinely sold.  It is likely that many such sales took place before the already mentioned courthouse in downtown Decatur where, in current times, people of all races gather for other civic events and equally share in the life of a small town that Delila liked so much in antebellum years.

     In Delila's day, this kind of racial equality was obviously never the case.  According to probate records created during Alexander Johnson's service as Ordinary, slave families were scattered by sales.  Two good examples are found in the records for December 1852.  When the estate of Paul Haralson was liquidated that month, eight of his slaves were sold to seven different individuals.  Although no ages are given, one was a "child" named "Narcissus," who went to a buyer different from any of the other new owners of the adult slave men and women also sold from that estate and who were surely her parents or parent.  Similarly, in the same month, seven slaves in the estate of James Reeves were sold to five separate men.  These slaves included five children from the ages of one to ten who became the property of three different buyers. (12)

     Delila's fate was marginally better since L. P. Grant and his wife must have known Delila personally and certainly had had the opportunity to make her acquaintance before the purchase, and vice versa.  By May 1855, Johnson had concluded the sale of Delila and, most likely, her younger child at least.  Since Grant had recently built a new house in Atlanta, Delila did not get her wish to remain in Decatur and Johnson wrote Grant urging him to send a "two team wagon" to get his new property and their "plunder," or personal belongings.  He added, "Please send for her instantly as she is entirely out of employ" and "home by herself," presumably at the former Johnson residence in Decatur. (13)

     At this point, most individuals in Delila's situation would have disappeared from any written records.  Delila, however, had some health problems which raised the question of Johnson's apparent sale warranty to Grant, which prompted more correspondence.  It also appears that Grant had "loaned" Delila to his sister-in-law Elisa who was living in Nickajack, most likely the Nickajack Creek area of Cobb County.  Although Delila was moving even further away from Decatur, she probably retained her status as a house servant since Grant's brother was neither a farmer nor a planter.  Perhaps she was still working as a cook or maid when Elisa wrote Grant in December 1855 saying how pleased she is with Delila and expressing her desire to keep the woman for the following year, stating, "I like her much and would endeavour to do well by her."  No mention is made of Delila's children.  Elisa also makes it clear that Grant should hear from "Delila herself if she were willing to come" to a new household [that of James and Elisa Grant] and hopes Delila can be "induced to come."  This does show that Delila might have had some say in her disposition or may indicate a fairly forceful personality in asserting her own wishes in these matters.

     Elisa also thanks her brother-in-law Lemuel for not charging her for Delila's services. (14)  Urban slave owners like Grant often hired out certain skilled slaves and received payments for their work.  If so, the slave provided a cash income, free labor for the owner when "at home," and, in the case of females, money from the sale of her children.  We have seen how Johnson had done the latter in Delila's case when he asked $200 for her two year old.

     Other letters between L. P. Grant, Elisa and Alexander Johnson show that Delila was suffering from serious pain in her legs.  She was examined by a local doctor (Tebbits?), who concluded that she had "Varix" or enlarged veins leading to abscesses which could recur even after the original abscesses had healed.

     At about the same time that Grant is hearing from this doctor about his new slave's painful illness, Alexander Johnson wrote discussing the health issue as it pertained to the sale warranty.  Johnson claims that Delila did indeed suffer from "varicose veins" in her feet and ankles but only when she was in the "last stages of Pregnancy."  Johnson cites a certain "Dr. Calhoun" who said that this was normal for pregnant women and would resolve itself once the child was born.  Johnson also says that this would not make her "unsound" and thus he had not mentioned it in his sale agreement.

     This was the last letter from Johnson in the Grant papers and was dated December 15, 1855.  Posted in Decatur, it shows that Johnson had still not moved west.  In it, he assures Grant that he will "take her back" if Grant is unsatisfied with Delila.  He ends by saying again that she would not be considered "unsound . . . .  If she is in the condition I think she is . . . ," i.e. pregnant. (15)

     With this document, Delila does indeed disappear from history and readers are left with a mystery as to her fate.  We are also left with the depressing knowledge that this woman, born into slavery, was dehumanized in almost all possible ways.  Despite avowals by Johnson, L. P. Grant and Elisa Grant that Delila's own views or opinions were being considered, it is evident that she was actually on a level barely above that of a valuable piece of livestock, whatever protests she might have made.  This is particularly seen with the use of the word "unsound," a term usually applied to animals in modern days and probably in the 19th century as well.  In the 1850s, slaves and livestock were similar pieces of property.
Drawing of L. P. Grant's new home in 1855 Atlanta.  This may have become Delila's home following her sale.  It is in the AHC Archives collections and was drawn by architect Calvin Fay.  Only the first floor remains and is the headquarters of the Atlanta Preservation Center.

     There are some vague clues as to Delila's future life.  The 1860 census shows that Grant owned a female slave aged 25 in Atlanta. (16)  Since Alexander Johnson had owned a 15 year old slave woman in 1850, it is possible that Grant kept Delila, even with her "unsoundness," and did not return her to Johnson or Elisa Grant.  She may well be the 25 year old slave woman living at Grant's home in, what is now, Grant Park in 1860.  If so, Delila probably lived in Atlanta or Georgia through the Civil War, perhaps witnessing and surviving those roughest of times in late 1864 when the city fell to Union forces and the population was forced to evacuate.  She might have looked like the African American woman with the basket on her head in the 1864 print seen above.  Unfortunately, that will remain unknown and an examination of Atlanta City Directories for the post Civil War years lists no one named Delila Johnson or Delila Grant, presuming she might have taken the name of one of her previous owners.

     Essentially, Delila recedes entirely from view once she becomes a free woman.  We can only hope she found happiness in her freedom, and that she prospered.  Perhaps she re-united with her children, her brother Dave, or other friends and relatives in Decatur.  Perhaps her descendents even now enjoy the freedom of life around the "new" 1897 courthouse in Decatur.  Whatever her fate, via the letters of the Grant papers and her own persistence in making her wishes known to her owners, Delila remains a living presence and helps all of us in the 21st century understand one of the darkest aspects of our shared history as Georgians and Southerners.

Richard Dees Funderburke, November 2012.


My personal thanks go to an excellent proofreader Sue Shaddeau, who greatly enhanced this article.  I also want to thank the wonderful archivists at the Atlanta History Center for their help, especially Sue Ver Hoef and Staci Catron.  I remain solely responsible for the content of the article.

(1)  George White, Statistics of the State of Georgia (Savannah:  W. Thorne Williams, 1849), p. 204 (Hereafter cited as White, Statistics).  In 21st century dollars, this would be about $375,000.

(2)  Vivian Price, The History of DeKalb County, Ga., 1822-1900 (Fernandina Beach, Fla.:  Wolfe Publishing Co., 1997), p. 291 (Hereafter cited as "Price").

(3)  Price, p. 292; White, Statistics, p. 204; George White, Historical Collections of Georgia (New York:  Pudney & Russell Publishers, 1855), p. 14 of the "Index to Tables."  There were only 116 male slaves in town which reflects the non-agricultural nature of the "urban" slave population with many female house servants.

(4)  Price, pp. 230, 233, 293 (In 1844, he was shown as a member of Decatur's Pythagoras Lodge # 41 of the Masons, see Price, p. 239); Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs:  A Chronicle of Its People and Events (Athens:  UGA Press, 1954), Vol. I, pp. 267, 309, 340;  U.S. Census 1850 (available on

(5)  U.S. Census 1850, Slave Schedules.

(6)  Alexander Johnson to Mr. Grant (Decatur, Sept. 27, 1853), Mss 100, Lemuel Grant Papers, Atlanta History Center (AHC) Archives, Box 4, Folder 8.  In a later letter of March 20, 1855 (see full citation below), we learn that "Dave," Delila's brother, belongs to Grant already.

(7)  The U.S. Census of 1850 shows Johnson as 35 years old, thus making him 40 in 1855.

(8)  Thomas Martin, Atlanta and Its Builders (Century Memorial Publishing Co., 1902), pp. 655-657;  U.S. Census 1860, Slave Schedule.

(9)  Abstract of Title -- Land Lot # 245 & # 246, Dist. 15th, "Swanton Property,"  DeKalb Historical Society Archives, Box T7513.

(10)  Alexander Johnson to Mr. Grant (Decatur, March 30, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5,
Folder 1.

(11)  Alexander Johnson to Mr. Grant (Decatur, March 24, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5, Folder 1; Alexander Johnson to Mr. Grant (Dallas, Ga., May 7, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5, Folder 3.

(12)  Jeanette H. Austin, DeKalb County, Georgia, Probate Records, Book B, 1852-1858 ( Westminster, Md.:  Willow Bend Books, 2001), pp. 170-171.

(13)  Alexander Johnson to Mr. Grant (Dallas, Ga., May 7, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5,
 Folder 3.

(14)  Elisa Grant to L. P. Grant (Nicajack [sic], December 23, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5, Folder 7.

(15)  Mr. Tebbits (sp?) to L. P. Grant (December 16, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5, Folder 7; Alexander Johnson to Mr. Grant (December 15, 1855), Mss 100, AHC Archives, Box 5, Folder.

(16)  U.S. Census 1860, Slave Schedule.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sin City on the Hooch -- Atlanta in the Late Victorian Age

Atlanta was known for depravity from its very beginning.  It was a rough railroad and industrial town in antebellum days and the Civil War years with their increased flow of male transients and unattached workers did little to improve that image.  Prosperity and a soberly conservative middle class may have both developed in the latter decades of the nineteenth century but decadence remained a hallmark of the city.

With its ever increasing network of railroads, great fairs and expositions in 1881, 1887 and 1895, often raucous legislative sessions as the state capital after 1868, and a reputation as the southeast's foremost entertainment Mecca, people of all kinds and both races descended on the Gate City of the South seeking fun and a large dose of debauchery.  Not surprisingly, where a need existed and there was money to be made, plenty of enterprising men and women arose to satisfy a huge public demand for liquor, cheap playhouses, drugs and sex.  Although these products and services could be found at various city locales, the epicenter of vice in turn-of-the-century Atlanta was the intersection of Collins and Decatur streets, just steps from the Union Passenger Depot and the elegant salons and ballrooms of the city's leading hotels.  This area was so notorious that the respectable citizens on the northern blocks of Collins St. successfully lobbied to have the street name changed to Courtland in 1886. (1)

Householders on the newly named Courtland shuddered at the thought of once having to say that they lived on Collins St., so well known for its vice industries, especially its houses of prostitution.  The tiny section just south of Decatur St. kept its disreputable name and associations.  The street's name came from James D. Collins, one of Atlanta's leading citizens and major property holder on his namesake avenue.  Collins served as a Fulton County Commissioner as well as president of the Atlanta Exchange and Banking Co. and vice-president of the Collins Brick Co.  Another prominent Atlantan named J. Perry Chisolm also owned houses on Collins, almost all of which were bordellos. (2)

As the city's elite and upper middle class built their homes northward along Peachtree [James Collins lived at 296 Peachtree] Street, Courtland and other roads in that area, the entrepreneurs of vice remained on Decatur and Collins streets.  Even when, in 1893, the city relocated its police department and jail to a massive new facility on Decatur Street, there was little change in the adjacent "tenderloin" district surrounding it.  Between 1892 and 1899, the number of "madames" listed in city directories for the tiny block-long Collins increased from six to nine [one of these was actually on the first block of Courtland].  In 1899, clustered between #'s 3 through 23 on Collins were madames Josie Lovell, Willie Burton, Fannie Price, Madge Burdette, M. Davidson, Nettie McKinley, Blanche Wentworth and Annie Morgan.  Just across Decatur on Courtland Ave. was Madame M. Johnson.  By 1908, the number had increased to ten -- a very crowded little block. (3)

Although these women were the top dealers in flesh with their "girls" securely ensconced in houses, many prostitutes undoubtedly worked the streets and alleys around the area.  There were also large numbers of "single women" along Decatur Street who operated small businesses as dressmakers and lunchroom owners. (4)  It was generally implied that these women offered more than their skills with a needle or an iron skillet which may have been a case of guilt by geographical association.  Arrests records for the 1890s help flesh out the story.  For 1892, the police department reported 79 arrests for individuals "keeping a house of ill fame" along with 16 for "immoral conduct," 25 for "public indecency," and 13 for being a "lewd woman on the streets."  The increase in several of those categories was significant by the 1899 report.  In that year, there were 129 arrests for those "keeping a house of ill fame" and 53 for being a "lewd woman on the streets." (5)  The actual locations for these arrests are not give in the raw, composite numbers reported but the widely known activities around the Decatur and Collins streets intersection leave little room for doubt that many, if not most, were here, just steps outside the doors of the new police department.

As the Victorian Age was drawing to a close in the first decade of the twentieth century and as prohibition seemed more and more likely for Atlanta [it arrived on Jan. 1, 1908], ten "single women" were listed as residents of Collins Street in 1906, two of these being Madge Burdette  at # 21 Collins and Lillian Jacobs.  Sadly the city directory for that year no longer specified these "single women" as "madames," but Burdette and Jacobs had already claimed that title in previous directories.  There was one African-American woman in 1906 named Millie Edwards as well but she might have been a servant rather than a madame.  The 1907 and 1908 directories did list the "madames" and there were ten on Collins Street for both years.  Curiously, the names of these women varied greatly from year to year during these decades which indicates a fairly high turnover with a few constants like the Burtons and Burdette.  (6)

Before jumping to the conclusion, however, that these unattached women with some kind of business along both Decatur and Collins were innocent of vice, it is important to see the true nature of their surroundings.  While there were elegant saloons for the upper crust just next door at the Kimball House Hotel, the city's worst dives, bucket shops and barrooms surrounded the police department at 171-179 Decatur Street.  In a photograph from that era, a saloon is clearly seen directly adjacent.  In 1895, 26 saloons are listed in the
Atlanta Police Dept., circa 1895

immediate area.  By 1905 and 1906, this number had jumped to 39 and 38 respectively. Twelve of Atlanta's sixteen pawn shops were also on Decatur. (7)  While saloons were in other areas as well, Atlanta's finest needed only to walk a block or two from their jail doorway to find people to arrest.  In 1892 just before the new headquarters opened, there were 6,554 arrests for being drunk and/or disorderly on the streets.  Six years later with the new headquarters in full operation, the number was 9,407. (8)

Other possible sources for data on vice are public medical reports for the era.  They are only marginally helpful but do give some insights into what must have been a huge problem with alcohol and drugs like opium, morphine and papine.  It was reported in 1907 that opium dens were not unknown in Atlanta.  The Board of Health data only showed three deaths from "alcoholism" for 1893 and only four in 1900.  However, Grady Hospital stated that it treated 24 for "acute or chronic alcoholism" in the latter year.  There were also other addictions for Atlantans to pursue in these years.  City statistics for 1893 and 1900 show ten and 3 deaths respectively from morphine and opium.  Grady treated 15 patients for various forms of non-alcoholic addiction as the twentieth century dawned. (9)

It is doubtful that most addicts received any treatment at all and thus went unreported in any way.  While some obviously were treated at the public hospital which was just one block north of the plentiful saloons and probable "opium dens" of Decatur Street, those persons with money sought cures elsewhere.  Between 1899 and 1905, the number of private sanatoriums discernibly devoted to opium and "whiskey" cures doubled from two to four. (10)   Few of the denizens of Decatur Street's "palaces of sin," however, could afford treatment of any kind and probably died miserable [and unreported] deaths in an age completely devoid of a public safety net.

Even prohibition seems to have failed to blight the vice on Decatur Street.  In a 1909 city council debate over changing the street's name, one councilman said the street was still full of "low near-beer dives," squalid hovels, and "foul fish stalls whose filthy stench is an offense against high heaven . . . ."  Furthermore, Decatur Street was an "eyesore, an unclean and leprous spot upon the face of our fair city . . . ."  (11)  This was more than a year after the advent of prohibition when a low alcoholic "near beer" was still allowed.

One final and very interesting aspect of Atlanta's vice business in the last decades of the Victorian Age centers on race.  In a time when segregation was entering its strictest period, Decatur Street appears to have been very fluid racially.  City directories like that of 1899 show a mixture of white and black women, for instance, as having small businesses in the area. (12)  Also, it is clear from newspaper reports that the blocks surrounding the police headquarters attracted many out-of-town visitors [and surely just as many locals] to its revelries.  According to Franklin Garrett, this had been the case since the 1880s.  An 1896 newspaper article reported that huge crowds of African-Americans descended on Decatur Street for the Fourth of July.  "All early morning trains were well filled with a throng of blacks from different towns about Atlanta," including Griffin, West Point, Marietta, Rome, Macon and Jonesboro.   They "hung about the carshed" [Union Passenger Depot] and feasted on watermelon and "red lemonade" [apparently a cheap alcoholic brew] at "improvised booths" there and along Decatur Street, where "Decatur Street whiskey was as plentiful as water."  The entire police force was kept on duty and at least 80 arrests were made. (13)  Although the Collins Street madames were white, this part of town was clearly one which invited both races to celebrate and party in an atmosphere where race was not so stratified.  For those who might want to escape the highly repressive racial separation of the age, this area of Atlanta obviously provided a welcome safety valve.

Economic factors also were important.  Through licensing fees, taxes, arrest fines, revenues from "vice tourism" like the African-Americans celebrating the Fourth, rental income for buildings, and probably kickbacks and protection money from those illegal "keepers of houses of ill fame" and similar businesses, the city and its elites surely made a lot of money.  When a huge fire destroyed the Markham House Block and its backdoor neighbor, Belle Burton's bordello at # 4 Collins Street and several similar houses nearby, in 1896, a clean-up was suggested.  It was surmised that "Lights From Many Prominent Palaces of Sin May Cease To Twinkle In The Thoroughfare" [Collins Street, that is].  Perry Chisolm and James Collins both said that they might sell their properties but Chisolm hastily added, "It may be, however, that I will be compelled to rebuild houses to be occupied by tenants like those who occupied the old buildings.  It would be impossible to use it for anything else unless the character of the whole street is changed by the removal of the present occupants to some other locality." (14)  As already shown above by the 1899 statistics on the number of bordellos along Collins Street [nine were operating on the block in 1899], the self-policing efforts suggested by the wealthy property owners were either a sham or impossible to fulfill.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, however, other factors were impacting the dens of iniquity in this part of town.  Prohibition and the politics of progressivism aimed, in part at least, at "cleaning up" cities had a dramatic effect on Decatur and Collins streets.  Naturally, all the saloons and other purveyors of alcohol had disappeared in 1908.  The madames remained for a while but historian Harvey Newman states that all the "girls" and their managers had left town by 1913. (15)  The final blow came in 1912 with a new police chief James Beavers and with a report by a formal Vice Commission for the City of Atlanta which condemned the city's "houses of assignation" and urged their repression.  The report concluded that prostitutes were often driven or enticed into "white slavery" by financial need as well as by evil men and women [the madames] in the business.  Perhaps surprisingly for the time, the report deplored the double standard whereby the women were brought down to a "life of shame" and are destroyed while the men who use them "escape" punishment.  "It is not just and this type of man should be severely punished," the authors stated.  Chief Beavers took such reports to heart and inaugurated massive arrests and raids to end prostitution, starting with arrest sweeps of all male and female "loiterers" on late night streets. (16)

Of course, prostitution and other forms of vice did not suddenly disappear from Atlanta.  They did seem to leave Decatur and Collins streets and became less visible or underground.  The madames can no longer be found in city directories, including such well-known ones as Belle Burton and Madge Burdette.  Most probably moved out of town.  At least one madame named Nellie Busbee on Magnolia Street [just off Marietta near Five Points] committed suicide by "thrusting a dagger through her heart," leaving a note blaming Chief Beavers whom she told to "go to hell" since he had closed her "resort" and "there was nothing left for her in life."  There was another report in 1912 that Atlanta's prostitutes were moving to Savannah, Macon, Memphis, New Orleans and other cities. (17)

Both Decatur and Collins streets remain today.  The intersection lies at the heart of the burgeoning Georgia State University with the South Tower of the library replacing the haunts and houses of Victorian Atlanta's famous "mistresses of illicit sex."  Belle and Willie Burton, Madge Burnette, Fannie Price, Lillian Jacobs and the other madames were successful businesswomen but they have largely vanished from city histories despite their notoriety in those last decades of the Victorian Age.  

Richard Dees Funderburke, Phd.    Decatur, Georgia


(1)  Franklin Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. II, p. 127.

(2)  Atlanta City Directory 1896 (hereafter ACD), pp. 576 and 560; "Collins Street May Go Dark," Atlanta Journal (hereafter AJ), 5/21/1896, 3.

(3)  ACD 1892, p. 155; ACD 1895, pp. 487 and 161; ACD 1899, p. 154 and p. 115; ACD 1907, p.145; ACD 1908, p. 71.  The cast of madames in 1907 included long time residents Madge Burdette and Lilly Jacobs along with Helen Bertram, Lula Bell, Belle Summers, Gertrude Cartwright, Viola Mayfield, Mamie Leroy, and Effie Dudley.  These were just the managers/owners so there was probably a substantial number of workers in the houses on the block as well.

(4)  ACD 1899, p. 1372.

(5)  Annual Reports, City of Atlanta, Report of the Police Dept. (hereafter Annual Reports), pp. 571-577;
Annual Reports 1898 (Atlanta 1899), pp. 344-345.  It should be noted that corresponding arrests for "being with a lewd woman on the streets" were only 3 and 12 respectively.

(6)  ACD 1906, pp. 145-146; ACD 1907, p. 145; ACD 1908, p 71.

(7)  ACD 1895, pp. 1336-1337; ACD 1905, pp. 1283-1285; ACD 1906, p. 1440; ACD 1907, p 1511.

(8)  Annual Reports 1892, p. 577;  Annual Reports 1898, p. 345.

(9)  Harvey Newman, "Decatur Street, Atlanta's African-American Paradise Lost," Atlanta History (Vol. XLIV # 2), Summer 2000, p. 9; Annual Reports 1893, pp. 520-533; Annual Reports 1900, pp. 320-323; Report of the Grady Hospital in the Annual Reports 1893, p. 361.

(10)  ACD 1899, p. 1358; ACD 1905, p. 1273.

(11)  Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. II, p. 574.

(12)  ACD 1899, p. 1372; Newman, "Decatur Street . . .," pp. 8-9.

(13)  Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. II, p. 127; "Day of Glory Was the Fourth," Atlanta Constitution (hereafter AC), 7/5/1896, p. 17.

(14)  "Collins Street May Go Dark," AJ, 5/21/1896, p. 3.

(15)  ACD's, 1908-1913; Newman, "Decatur Street . . .," p. 9.

(16)  "Moral Clean-Up Urged For City," AC, 10/8/1912, p. 5; "Vice Crusade Turned On Street Loiterers," AJ, 10/3/1912, p. 7; Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, Vol. II, p. 574.

(17)   "Savannah May Abolish Vice," AC, 10/8/1912, p 7; Newman, "Decatur Street . . . ," p. 9; "Resort Keeper Takes Her Life," AC, 9/24/1912, p. 9.