Madam and Humanitarian

StagedThe strange history of Louise Wooster. 

by Phillip Ratliff

Photography by Beau Gustafson


The story of Birmingham madam-turned-humanitarian Louise Wooster never ceases to fascinate the Magic City. According to legend, Wooster built her reputation by opening her home, a brothel, to victims of the citywide cholera epidemic of 1873. There were no medical treatments for cholera in the 1870s; Wooster would have only been able to make cholera sufferers comfortable and clean up their vomit and diarrhea. For Wooster, the prostitute, it was redemptive work.

Wooster’s redemption wasn’t simply a matter of moral rectitude. It was public atonement, crafted for popular consumption. Wooster captured her story in The Autobiography of a Magdalen, a combination of dubious personal narrative and sanctimonious moral reflection. Wooster self-scripted according to a pervasive Victorian-era theme: the fallen woman with a heart of gold. Nineteenth century opera audiences encountered it in two works, Puccini’s La Boheme and Verdi’s La Traviata. Wooster herself would eventually become the heroine of an opera based on her life.

More recently, actor and playwright Ellise Mayor is drawing on the Wooster wellspring to complete her latest project, the script for a one-woman play. Mayor’s new play, Determination, Drama, and Daring: The Life of Louise Wooster, will premiere at Vulcan Park and Museum on April 9, 2015. (Vulcan is where I hold my day job.)

Sorting through the lurid details of Wooster’s profession is just one of the project’s two major obstacles.  “How to write a 40-minute program about a big whore? How to make that work?” Mayor wonders.

The other task is separating fact from fiction. It’s a problem, Mayor has decided, for which there is no real solution. For source material, Mayor has turned to Wooster’s devilishly unreliable autobiography, co-written, Wooster asserts, by an anonymous Birmingham minister.

According to the work, Wooster was born to a comfortable family, but, after her parents died, was forced to care for her two younger sisters. “During that time,” Mayor says, “a woman could make $5 a week in a factory or $25 in one night on her back.”

Figuring prominently in Mayor’s theatrical account is one of American history’s most notorious figures, John Wilkes Booth. Wooster claims to have known Booth, to have been his lover, no less. It’s not implausible the two may had met; both lived in Montgomery at the same time. But given Wooster’s tendency to self-dramatize, it’s likely, Mayor says, that Wooster simply made the whole thing up.

Wooster obsessively collected newspaper clippings about Booth and was among the great, gullible swath of the American public who believed that he did not die a blazing death in a Virginia barn. Wooster’s personal letters defend him in the indignant tones of the devoted wife: “Rants against my darling Wilkes will never cease,” one letter states. There is no evidence that Wilkes knew she existed.

Mayor believes Wooster was motivated to share and possibly fabricate the sensational details of her life story by an essential internal conflict. Although prostitution was legal and Victorian morality dictated that men’s sexual needs should be satisfied, prostitutes themselves were scorned, Mayor says. Wooster seemed pleased by this hypocrisy. She and God knew that her profession masked a superior goodness that the polite and churchgoing Birmingham couldn’t see.

The contradiction between Wooster, the prostitute, and Wooster, the hooker with a heart of gold, surfaces in Wooster’s words and deeds. This tension compelled Wooster to pen a personal history that both shocked the Birmingham public and earned its approval. It will inform Mayor as she crafts her play. We have to admire Wooster’s cleverness. Even from the grave, Wooster is still shaping her story.

One Response to “Madam and Humanitarian”

  1. john says:

    I think perhaps Ms. Mayor should have been talking with me about the research and writing I’ve been doing for the past several years. I have discovered quite a bit about Lou Wooster for a book I am proposing about her. I now know the names of several individuals not mentioned in Wooster autobiography… individuals who will explain more about her life, her relations in the north and more information about who actually helped Lou to write that book. Have her contact me at 352 414-8488. John Massey, Belleview, FL

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