A story from a century ago about the specter of isolation hospitals shows the power that city authorities had over the lives and bodies of poor women of color.
Jennie Gross, Georgiana Johnson, Lucille Morgan, and Bessie Dodson were all arrested on the streets of New Orleans and charged for being “immoral” based solely off the words that were said by male sailors. This article will explore their world: what it was like to be poor, black, and female in 1919 New Orleans.”
Georgiana Johnson was a twenty-nine year old African American unemployed mother to a baby girl and an educated, married woman to thirty-two year old Joseph Johnson when she got arrested on 3601 Tulane avenue. Jennie Gross was also unemployed, educated and married (husband: twenty-eight year old Paul Gross) woman in her thirties who’s race was mixed with Italian and possibly African American when she got arrested on 336 North Rampart street. Loucille Morgan, another educated and married (husband: 33 year old Benjiman) 26 year old woman of African descent who also had a job profession as a washer, was arrested on 2830 Canal street. Lastly, twenty-seven year old Bessie Dodson, was an African American stay at home mother/wife to Will Dodson (37 years old) and mother of three daughters and a son when she got arrested on 2830 Canal street alongside Loucille. The women were taken to Isolation and were most likely held there against their will whether they were prostitutes or not. This is just one example of many ludicrous events that happened half a century ago and very few people actually know about it. (1920 United States Census via Ancestry.com)
It is the year 1919, you are inside a compound that has similar characteristics to a prison. Lofty gates (topped with barbed wire) enclosed the grounds while watchmen patrolled the premises day and night. In the building rooms are filled with beds and in one dim room it is filled with people who are all staring at a wall or have deadly diseases with no cure. The current events going on during this time is prohibition, segregation, or the post war effects. The people in this confinement are basically the living dead and cannot escape and are forced to be “treated”. Even though it seems like a prison, it is not; this compound is called an isolation hospital.
During this particular period in time there was a widespread of diseases: smallpox, plague, erysipelas, measles, mumps, diphtheria, and some had leprosy. No one really knew how to treat and or cure these illnesses and as a result people would be sent to isolation hospitals to keep others from being contaminated. As a result, the patients were treated inhumanely and were often experimented on through different/new vaccinations that were not yet approved. The patients were the hospital’s lab rats in an unsanitary lab. Over time, one of the experimental vaccines reduced leprosy side effects and isolation floors would soon be added to regular hospitals to focus on patients with leprosy (who were a large majority of the patients in isolation hospitals) the popularity of isolation hospitals would decline.
As a result of these new hospital additions, the vacant spots became an available place to hold prostitutes. In the 19th century, STIs became a common disease that was often blamed on prostitutes and public women. The isolation hospital would gain patients from the Morality officers which were police that would patrol the streets to pick up prostitutes in efforts to cease the increase of STIs. Instead of patrolling for prostitutes only, there were also some cases when general women were arrested as well. Their reasoning behind their arrests were based off of suspicion instead of facts. The Morals Squad would stalk women that they thought looked promiscuous or suspicious; then they would arrest, confine, and forcibly examine the women for STIs.
If the women were tested positive, no matter who they were, they would be locked away in isolation. The women’s confinement would last either days or months. Women were frequently injected with mercury and forced to take arsenic based drugs as a way to cure their STI. If a woman “misbehaved” or was simply not “ladylike” they would suffer consequences such as being beaten, sterilized, solitary confinement, or drenched in freezing cold water. During this time it was discovered that a large number of soldiers had STIs and as a result the nation prohibited prostitution and blammed them for giving men Gonarrea and Siphilis. Once it was discovered that these sexually transmitted diseases were caused by regular people as well as some prostitutes, they decided to broaden the program further which created “model laws”. Model laws allowed police officials to forcibly examine any person that they believed would have an STI. The invasive horrors ended by the 1970s during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and from then on it was like nothing ever happened, resulting in people’s unawareness of Isolation hospitals and what went on inside during the early twentieth century.
Richey, Emma Cecilia, and Evelina Prescott Kean. The New Orleans Book. L. Graham Company, Limited, Printers, 1915.
RISSE, GUENTER B. “Modern Isolation:: Humanizing Castaways.” In Driven by Fear, 171–90. Epidemics and Isolation in San Francisco’s House of Pestilence. University of Illinois Press, 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt19705pb.15.
Stern, Scott W. “America’s Forgotten Mass Imprisonment of Women Believed to Be Sexually Immoral.” History.com. March 27, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/chamberlain-kahn-act-std-venereal-disease-imprisonment-women
1920 United States Federal Census via Ancestry.com