Episode 57 Murder at the Bordello: Kate Townsend

Kate Townsend was a famous madame in the Vice District of New Orleans before it became known as Storyville. Her mysterious past and complicated relationship would become front page news when she was found murdered in her home in 1883.

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Police wagon in passes the home that was once Kate Townsend’s Bordello on Basin Street PHOTO: 1903, StoryvilleDistrictNola.com

In 1897, New Orleans Alderman, Sidney Story, proposed an ordinance making prostitution legal in what was then known as the Vice District. Story’s proposal was meant to control prostitution in the city and work to reduce the number of brothels.

Sidney Story
Photo: Wikipedia

He maintained that if it was legal in only one district, it would be easier to make some reforms. The district, just behind the French Quarter, along Basin Street, between Canal Street and St Louis Cemetery No 1, was designated in his ordinance proposal which passed and went into effect on January of 1898. The district would become known by locals as Storyville, a tongue in cheek reference to the man who was trying to control their district and business ventures. As you can imagine, Story was not impressed, but the reference remained.

Storyville would become one of the most notorious vice districts in the country. When the city chose to acknowledge brothels and make prostitution legal in the district, it expanded. Storyville enticed visitors from the city and from out of town who were drawn to some of the most infamous brothels in America.

Some of those brothels were inside fine old mansions on North Basin Street in the more affluent side of the district. Patrons could also find 25 cent brothels along the back streets along with saloons and dance halls.

Basin Street, Storyville PHOTO Louisiana State Museum

Whether on North Basin Street or on the back streets, the brothels and dance halls had one thing in common – music. They all hired musicians to entertain patrons which led to Storyville becoming known as the birthplace of Jazz in the early 20th century. 

Storyville came to an end a little over a century ago, in 1917, when America entered World War 2. The city tried to keep the district open but the federal government ordered that no brothel or vice district could operate within five- to ten-mile zones around their training camps where they were working to prepare soldiers for the war. 

On November 12, 1917, Storyville was closed. By the 1940s, the district would be leveled when the city deemed it a slum clearance project.

These days, only three of the 360 structures remain from the heyday of Storyville.

The stories and legends of the district remain. Including the murder of one of the most notorious madams in the vice district in the years before it would become known as Storyville. The murder of Kate Townsend.

Kate Townsend

In 1870, a man would be murdered in Kate’s bordello on Basin Street. Legend says the Bowie knife Kate was known to always carry on her while she was awake, and kept under her pillow when she slept, was the very knife used in the murder in her home.

In a chilling twist of fate for Kate Townsend, that Bowie knife would be the weapon used by Bill Sykes when he stabbed her to death 1883.

Bill Sykes
Exterior of what was once Kate’s house on Basin Street
PHOTO 1907, StoryvilleDistrictNola.com

Episode Sources

Kate Townsend. Storyville New Orleans.
Queen of the Demimonde. Murder By Gaslight. 4 January 2015
“The Kate Townsend Succession.” Times-Picayune 30 Jan 1884.
Succession of Townsend. The Southern Reporter. Volume 3, pp. 488-500


Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.

Additional Music

“I Have A Reservation” TrackTribe; Loneliest Road in America” by Jesse Gallagher; “Brethen, Arise” by Chris Zabrieske; “Orison” by Dan Bodan; “Lightless Dawn”, “Ossuary 1”, “This House”,“Silver Flame”, “Lightless Dawn”, Ossuary 6” and “Magic Forest” by Kevin McLeod.Licensed under Creative Commons

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Categories: history, Louisiana, mysteries, podcasts, true crime, truecrime

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