Lou Wooster was an enigmatic figure in Birmingham, Alabama, during the late 19th and early 20th century. She was a woman who defied societal norms, ran a successful brothel, and became a legend in her own right. Her story is one of resilience, determination, and entrepreneurship, offering a glimpse into a bygone era.
Born in 1842, Wooster was born the fifth youngest of eight daughters, seven of whom were currently living at the time of her birth. Her father, William, was an engineer from New York, and her mother, Mary Chism, was a native of South Carolina. They were married in Tuscaloosa in 1838, where Lou was believed to have been born. William Wooster died in 1851 while the family lived in Mobile, leaving Mary a widow with seven children to care for. She remarried a man named John Williams, and Lou would eventually blame him for squandering the family money. Left with little support, Lou turned to prostitution to make ends meet. At the time, prostitution was a common way for women to survive, particularly in cities like Birmingham, where women had few opportunities.
In 1857, Wooster accounted in her autobiography that her second eldest sister, Margaret, left home and became a prostitute at 14, thus shaming the family name. After several failed marriages, Margaret later owned a brothel a block over from Wooster’s in Birmingham, on 3rd Avenue North, under the name “Maggie Bracken.”
Not long after Margaret’s “fall,” two of Lou’s older sisters and her mother, Mary, died. Before her death, Mary charged Lou to care for her two youngest sisters – Julia and Cornelia. These younger sisters were placed in Mobile’s Protestant Orphan Asylum on March 16, 1857, against their deceased mother’s wishes and the day after her funeral. Lou went to live with her eldest sister, Frances, who was married to Mr. Van Buren, and lived in New Orleans with another of her older sisters, Jennie. Frustrated with Van Buren’s refusal to take her youngest sisters out of the orphanage, Lou took a ship back to Mobile, forged a letter in Frances’ hand, claiming inability to retrieve the girls due to illness, and asked that they be received into Louise Wooster’s care. Louise removed her sisters from the orphanage on April 15, 1857, signing Mrs. Van Buren on the release papers.
Refusing to return to her family in New Orleans, Wooster took refuge with Robert A. Harris, a family friend and a future Confederate Major in the First Special Battalion, Louisiana Infantry. He is described under the pseudonym “Major Robert Haylow” in her autobiography. It is to this man that Wooster attributes her subsequent “fall.” Though in her autobiography, Wooster claims that she was “barely eleven years old” at the time of her seduction, she was around fifteen. Van Buren, her sister’s husband, found Wooster living with Harris and took her back to New Orleans with him to live with her sisters. She worked as a shopgirl in New Orleans and then briefly in East Pascagoula, Mississippi when she finally returned to Mobile and Harris. Not long after, Harris deserted her, and another male friend took in Wooster. At the same time, she had yellow fever, which then left her in the care of prostitutes at a local brothel.
To respect her deceased parents’ memory, she moved into a Montgomery brothel to become a prostitute instead of staying in Mobile. In the 1860 census, she and her sister were listed as Madam Jenny Davis’ house residents. The token occupation was noted as “seamstress.” A decade later, she was listed as a “schoolteacher.” However, her residence, shared with other young women, was noted as a “House of Ill-Fame.”