NEW ORLEANS — Josie Arlington was a famous Storyville Madam whose body has been resting in an unmarked location for over a century.
But in order to tell this story, first you need to know Marita Woywood Crandle, who has quite the story of her own.
Born in Germany, she moved to California as a young girl. As an adult, she came to New Orleans on business and stayed.
“I just fell in love with the city,” Marita said. “So many people have that same story where it just sucks you in and I couldn’t believe it existed.”
Nearly 18 years ago, Marita opened Boutique Du Vampyre, one of the only vampire shops in the country and the only one in New Orleans.
“We kind of consider ourselves magical concierge,” she said. “So when people come into the shop we send them to all the other magical shops there are and tours and adventures.”
Marita even appears to have fangs – that she says are real.
Three years ago she opened a speak easy with absinthe flowing. You need a password or membership to gain access.
Marita has always been a writer. She was in the process of writing a vampire historical novel and was looking for a madam for the main character to have an affair with when she stumbled upon Josie Arlington.
“I don’t know if it’s part of New Orleans’ magic. I almost feel like she found me,” she said. “She’s been biding her time until the time was right to come out of the woodwork again and tell her story.”
Marita was going to make Josie the love interest of the main character and mentioned Josie to a bartender she had known for 18 years.
“Out of the blue, I told her my next book is going to be about Josie Arlington – which wasn’t even true,” she said. “She said, ‘well, she’s my ancestor,’ and when she told me that I thought how is this even possible!”
Josie’s given name was Mary Duebler. As a teen in the late 1800s, she missed curfew and her strict German immigrant parents turned her away. So, she turned to prostitution in Storyville, New Orleans’ red light district.
“Kind of just picked up her bootstraps and for the time that she lived that profession was legal,” Marita said. “If you were uneducated what kind of job would you do?”
Still going by Mary, she worked her way up from a prostitute to a madam, but it still wasn’t a good situation.
“It was the most notorious, dangerous brothel in the entire neighborhood,” Marita said.
That would have been fine if her lover hadn’t murdered her brother. Mary ran off with a new lover, Tom Brady. They stayed at the majestic Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Mary was so taken by the hotel that she changed her name to Josie Arlington before returning to Storyville and transforming her brothel into a more respectable establishment.
“She turned a really bad situation for herself into a glamorous one and into a glamorous one for the city,” Marita said. “I mean, her brothel was so palatial and gorgeous and the details she provided and also just the atmosphere was something where people wanted to go there and enjoy themselves in other ways.”
One of the fore fathers of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, often played there for guests.
“They wanted to be around these beautiful paintings and the Turkish room and all these different rooms she created and the hall of mirrors,” she said. “They would go there just to socialize and do business.”
And that’s exactly how she portrayed it in the “Blue Book,” which was the guide to vice in Storyville.
At this point, Josie was a somewhat respectable business woman who made a fortune. She used that fortune to spoil her niece, Anna Duebler. Josie went by the Alias Mrs. Brady in order to hide her real profession from her niece.
“She was the apple of her eye,” Marita said. “And they all lived with her in a mansion she kept on Esplanade Avenue. She kept all of her brothel business away from her niece.”
Josie took Anna to school in Parish, traveled the world with her. The two enjoyed shopping sprees and throwing lavish parties.
Josie spent all her money on Anna, except for one thing she did for herself. In 1891, Josie had an elaborate tomb erected, spending $5,500 which would be about $149,000 today. She went back and forth with the granity company to make it perfect.
“It’s so typical of her,” Marita said. “Rose granite and this bronze statue of a woman that’s knocking at a door to be let in and turned away.”
After Josie died, Anna married Josie’s longtime lover Brady and the two inherited everything. But it wasn’t enough.
“They sold the tomb and they put her in an unmarked vault,” Marita said. “Squeezed the last bit out of Josie that they could. How do you do that to someone when you know that’s where she wanted to be?”
Marita feels so strongly about returning Josie to her intended resting place, she’s enlisted the help of Josie’s family. One problem though, the original tomb is occupied.
“I’m trying to appeal to the Morales family who bought the tomb,” Marita said. “They really have no obligation to accept Josie back in the tomb with them. I think once they heard the story they would welcome her … but we’re having trouble finding anyone that’s still around.”
From what Marita can find, the last Morales associated with the tomb is in the tomb. There is room for Josie’s remains, but it seems there’s no relative left to legally allow it.
“We just want her back in there,” Josie’s great grand niece Christine said. “She went through so much trouble to build it and it’s so personal to her. I just feel it’s not right. It was a consecrated area for her and she wants to be back in there.”
Marita looked into building an exact replica of Josie’s tomb somewhere else on the Metairie Cemetery grounds, but found it would cost around $800,000. Still, the people involved want Josie to rest in peace. They’re adamant about locating Josie’s remains and giving her a proper farewell.
“It may be a lot smaller than the one she had built, but one way or another I feel like the ground’s going to shake a little that day.”