The House of the Rising Sun

The House of the Rising Sun

by shalimar

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
And me, O G_d, for one.

I fought under Longstreet including firing a cannon as Pickett attacked the Union lines. If he had another regiment we would have won, and the road to Washington would have been ours without any resistance. However, we lost that day, and considering what happened in the West the day before, we lost the war. We did continue to fight for almost two more years with my participation ending at the Battle of the Wilderness where I was captured.

After the war I went back to New Orleans and opened up a stable, saddlery and feed store near the center of town. Most of my clientele were Union soldiers and the gentlemen of wealth of the area. Except for the officers, the soldiers were usually broke so they hardly gave me a tip. The majority of the NCOs only gave me a half penny to a half dime. However, the officers and gentlemen usually tipped well. Fortunately the price of my services enabled me to make a nice profit without depending on the tips.

What I did depend on my clientele for was information on what they did in the city. I used that information to help the stranger to my town have a good time. Over time I learned about the best bars, the finest restaurants, the best and most honest gambling houses, and of course, the best sewing clubs. Before you wonder why I would care about these ladies’ sewing clubs, the term was a euphemism for a house of prostitution. Some of the “sewing clubs” were actually incorporated AS sewing clubs.

Go tell my baby sister
Never do what I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.

The best of these sewing clubs was The House of the Rising Sun Sewing Circle and Club. It had everything a gentleman of means would want: gambling, fine food, alcohol, and most importantly, ladies of the night. In my opinion the two best girls were Tracy and Mary Beth.

Tracy was a wild girl who allowed me to enjoy different themes and positions. She had a wardrobe of various costumes that she used on her clientele and herself. Usually she was ready for her John before he arrived. She was of French and Spanish extraction, as some of her ancestors had been in New Orleans before Jefferson purchased Louisiana. As a result, she had a pretend “French” accent with some of her Johns, including me. Tracy also had some privileges, as she and her sister, Annabel Guidry, were the owners of the Rising Sun.

Annabel was an excellent business manager, enabling the house to be very profitable while giving most of the money from the Johns to the sewing circle women. Both women had been thrust into the business when their husbands died at the third Battle of Chattanooga near the end of 1863. Fortunately for the widows, they created the best gentlemen’s club in New Orleans.

Mary Beth was more refined than the sisters. She gave the impression that she had been used to living on a plantation and giving orders that were expected to be obeyed without question. More importantly, I liked her grace and charm. It also helped that I could talk to her about anything. Even male subjects such as business, quality of horses, handling of employees, and the war were among the subjects we could discuss.

When Mary Beth was not available, she was with this nigger girl, Sue Ellen, and her young son, Mark. They went everywhere together. Mary Beth seemed to protect Sue Ellen and her child so much, that if I didn’t know Mary Beth preferred men, I would have believed that Sue Ellen was her wife.

Occasionally I spent a day with Mary Beth and Sue Ellen. It was a pleasant time when we were able to just enjoy the company of the others. Mark also seemed to enjoy the attention that I gave him. I kind of liked the male bonding I had with the child.

One time I overheard Sue Ellen tell Mary Beth, “I think he will eventually propose. He’s a good man. Accept it.”

“What about you?” Mary Beth replied. “I need to know you’re being taken care of. You know I love and cherish you and Mark. Besides, you’re all I have now. Maybe if we adopt you.”

“How do you know I’m not your daughter?”

Sue Ellen’s last remarks confused me.

The tips I received allowed me to enjoy the perks that wealth allowed, such as having an occasional dinner at the Andrew Jackson on Royal Street, or having one of the ladies of the Rising Sun. Eventually I preferred, and usually got Mary Beth. By the summer of 1868, because I was beginning to think of her as my girl, I proposed.

“I…I cannot. I have an obligation.”

“To that nigger girl and her bastard?”

“Yes, to Sue Ellen and Mark. If we were to adopt them, then I could marry you with a clear conscious.”

“I ain’t gonna adopt no nigger girl, or her bastard son!”

“I’m sorry. I would like to say ‘yes’, but I need to protect and care for them.”

“Why? Is she your girlfriend?”

“Even if I could tell you anymore, you wouldn’t believe me. What I can tell you is that Sue Ellen was raped, and the father was white. I’m sorry. I wish things were different. I really wish I could accept.”

I tried to forget that I proposed but I couldn’t get Mary Beth out of my mind. I became so jealous of the other Johns that had her that it was eating me inside.

The only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk.
The only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s all drunk.

One evening in the spring of 1869 after closing my shop and leaving the hostelry to my assistant I took my Colt pistol I had bought from a retiring Union colonel, calmly went to Mary Beth’s room in the Sun and shot her John in the back of his head. It would have been a perfect John Wilkes Booth, except the bullet went through his skull and Mary Beth’s breastbone and lodged in part of her heart.

As she labored to live she whispered to me to take care of Sue Ellen. I took her hand and promised I would somehow do that. A few seconds later she took her last breath.

When she died I panicked. Opening the window, I climbed out onto the roof of the first floor then jumped down to the street below. Getting on my horse, I headed west out of New Orleans as fast as I could. About five miles out of New Orleans I passed a cypress swamp. Assuming I was being followed, I took my horse into the swamp and hid it behind a large cypress. I hid behind another tree as I waited for the New Orleans police to pass by the swamp. I knew I was taking a risk of a moccasin biting me, but the difference between a bite and a rope would only be a matter of a few days.

I was rewarded an hour later as the police continued west, oblivious of me hiding. Waiting an additional half hour I got back on my horse and slowly returned to New Orleans. In order to avoid my usual haunts, when I returned to the city I took the northern streets to the road to Baton Rouge.

As I was then in no hurry I assessed my situation. I was a wanted man, and if captured, I would be tried and hung for the murders of Mary Beth and her John. I had about $35 on me as I had forgotten to deal with the day’s receipts. That money would allow me to live for several weeks if I was frugal.

I believed my ruse would keep the police looking for me in the West for a while, so I felt I had some time before I was in danger of capture. I decided to take a leisurely pace to Baton Rouge, and then take a riverboat to Cincinnati. From there I would take the B & O Railroad to Baltimore, then head South to Charlotte, Charleston or Savannah and restart my business in one of those cities. To aid my disguise I would grow my beard and trim it on the way. If necessary, I would work for a few days to earn some money.

My first night I found some modest accomodations at an inn about half way to Baton Rouge. I had a nice meal and retired early. The next evening I arrived in Baton Rouge and found a hotel near the docks.

My mother was a tailor;
She sold my new blue jeans.
My sweetheart he’s a drunkard, L_rd, L_rd.
Drinks down in New Orleans.

After purchasing a ticket to Memphis at the dock, and having two days to wait before the boat came, I went to a tailor and bought two gentleman’s outfits. As I needed them fast, I paid a premium to have them ready before the boat arrived. Then I sold my horse and saddle. That first night I gambled and netted more than $50. That paid for my room, board, clothes and ticket, leaving me with almost twice the money had I started out with. I was beginning to believe that I might be able to gamble my way East.

The best deal I had was a round of seven card stud. I had the ace and ten of diamonds showing with the two of clubs and four of spades. One of my opponents had three nines showing. We constantly bet higher. When he showed his hand he turned over two kings and a three. However, I produced the king, queen and jack of diamonds.

Fills his glasses to the brim,
Passes them around
Only pleasure he gets out of life
Is hoboin’ from town to town.

When the steamboat came into the dock only a few minutes after its scheduled arrival, I carefully noticed there were no “Wanted” posters of me on the boat, so I boarded with my small suitcase and for the first few hours watched the scenery we passed by. In the evening I was invited to a poker game. Although I finished ahead, it barely covered the price of the meals I had from the galley that day.

I disembarked in Memphis and found out the boat to Cincinnati would arrive in four days. Believing my fortunes were rising I took a room in a quality hotel and enjoyed the nightlife of Memphis, the first two days including the services of a prostitute who worked in an excellent version of the Rising Sun.

One foot on the platform
And the other one on the train.
I’m going back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain.

The third night I walked back to my room with three other men. We talked as I smoked a cigar outside the hotel. I said my goodbyes, put out my cigar in the lobby and went to my room.

When I opened the door, I saw Annabel and Tracy sitting calmly in two chairs. I tried to run, but my feet wouldn’t move.

“You might as well come in,” Tracy said. “We’ve already found you.”

Annabel added, “If you run, you would just make things worse.”

Although I wanted to run, I walked in and sat on the bed as if by magic. I was scared. If they could make me do this what else could they do?

“We had a tough time finding you,” Annabel continued.

“That trick of backtracking, then heading north would have worked if we were normal women,” Tracy added.

“Tracy, you may do things a little different than the average prostitute, but you seem normal to me,” I replied.

“We’ll take that as the compliment you intended it to be,” Tracy said. “We’d like to tell you a story. Just after the war, in 1865 one Mark Barry Le May, the owner of the Le May plantation raped Sue Ellen Le May, one of his former slaves.”

“You mean Mary Beth’s nigger girl?” I asked.

“They don’t like that word,” Annabel explained. “They prefer ‘Negro’ the proper term for that race. Anyway, Sue Ellen tried to get justice. After investigating, the assistant district attorney told Sue Ellen he believed her, but he would not be able to get a conviction because it would be Le May’s word against hers. Mark Le May would portray her as an ex-slave who became a prostitute. He would say she was seeking revenge for getting pregnant. With Mark’s power and reputation the outcome would not be in doubt. If he were found not guilty, there would be no way to prosecute if they found new evidence. Military justice was even less likely, because Mark sold to the army.”

“Not knowing where else to turn, and learning of our ability, Sue Ellen came to us,” Tracy continued. “With her pregnancy beginning to show, we decided to confront Mr. Le May, but he was unconcerned about the consequences. ‘The child would only be a bastard nigger,’ Mark told us. When I suggested he marry Sue Ellen so the baby would not be a bastard, he laughed.”

“I then suggested that he provide for his victim and child,” Annabel told me. “He refused, so I looked at Tracy for confirmation. When she nodded I told Mark, ‘In that case, Mary Beth, we have no choice.’”

“That’s how she became one of our girls,” Tracy continued. “Part of her pay went for Sue Ellen’s needs. Mary Beth even helped with little Mark’s birth. She then helped with the care of the baby and they became close. They grew to depend on each other.”

“We know that you didn’t mean to, but Mary Beth is dead,” Annabel said. “She was our best girl, and with Sue Ellen, she helped run our other facilities. In addition, Sue Ellen is devastated. Tracy almost stayed to help Sue Ellen grieve. We need to replace Mary Beth.”

“That’s where you come in. You are the new Mary Beth,” Tracy said as I began to change. “We’ll take the train back to New Orleans tomorrow.”

“I get to keep my promise,” I said as I folded my hands in my lap.

“Yes,” they said together.

“I was wondering how I would do that. How am I different? How am I the same?”

“You will think and act like the woman you became,” Tracy explained. “That includes liking men, thinking like a woman, and possibly, wanting to get pregnant. There is Mary Beth’s refinement and knowledge of business and other manly things that she was able to discuss with men.”

“For their sake you have a need to care for Sue Ellen and little Mark,” Annabel added. “Finally, you will be able to help Sue Ellen and also help us run the Sun. Other than those, all your memories and thoughts will still be the same. We were going to teach Mary Beth and Sue Ellen the craft. Sue Ellen will start soon. It is possible you will start learning in a few years.”

“There is another advantage,” Tracy told me. “Because now that you are Mary Beth, you no longer have a price on your head and you can’t be tried for murders that didn’t happen. You are a free woman.”

“No more running,” I commented. “Even this little time running wasn’t good for me. Except for Sue Ellen, and the advantages of working there, I don’t have to work in the Sun.”

“We knew you’d see it our way,” they said.

Going back to New Orleans
My race is almost run.
Going back to spend my days
Beneath the Rising Sun.

Notes:

Pickett’s attack of the Union lines, usually called “Pickett’s Charge” occurred on July 5, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the “high water mark” of the Confederacy and the end of the beginning of the war.

The event “out West” mentioned was the surrender of Vicksburg to Grant on July 4, 1863, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River and cutting off Texas, Arkansas, most of Louisiana and the rebels in Missouri and Oklahoma from the rest of the Confederacy. As a result of that surrender the residents of Vicksburg didn’t celebrate Independence Day until WWII.

There were three Battles of Chattanooga. The last one occurred on November 23-25, 1863, again a Grant victory.

The Battle of the Wilderness occurred May 5-7, 1864. It was the first major battle of attrition between Grant and Lee, considered a draw.

John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head on April 14, 1865. The bullet stayed in the president’s brain and he died the next day. Booth and other conspirators were eventually hung.

Longstreet was an anomaly. He helped the union cause and Negro rights after the war including, but not limited to supporting the troops. He apparently voted Republican after he regained his citizenship.

The Andrew Jackson was an excellent restaurant at 211 Royal Street in the Historic District of New Orleans until the Katrina hurricane. It hasn’t reopened.

The term for the nickel at the time was the half dime, which was made of silver. It continued to be called that until the coin was made of nickel later in the nineteenth century. The half penny was still in use at the time of “my” Rising Sun.

The Rising Sun has three possible connections. A hotel with that name in the downtown area existed in the 1820’s. Advertisements from that time suggested that gambling and prostitution occurred in the hotel. There was a Rising Sun in Northern New Orleans in the 1880’s but no connection to prostitution has been discovered. The most likely connection was the women’s prison in New Orleans, which had over its gate, a rising sun. My Rising Sun is totally fictitious, including the dates, location and characters mentioned.

I used the Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster version of the song, “The House of the Rising Sun” recorded in 1934 and printed in the book, “Our Singing Country” by Alan Lomax in 1941. Clarence said he learned the song from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley.

I thank Davenport, Holly Logan and Janet Nolan aka Tracy Hide for their editing, proofing and comments.



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