|I enter a whorehouse with the same interest as I do the British Museum or the Metropolitan–in the same spirit of curiosity. Here are the works of man, here is an art of man. . . . I [do not] always participate in a fine representative national whorehouse–but I must see it as a spectacle, an offering, a symptom of a nation–Errol Flynn, My Wicked Wicked Ways|
The red star marks the red light location. You don't see an address because there's not one on Nellie's old house. Just note that it's located on the southwest corner of the Monroe Street/North Rankin Street intersection.
Also note that it's closed and someone might move in the old house, so don't knock on the |
door and ask if it's a whorehouse unless it turns you on to get punched in the nose.
On August 31, 1997, Natchez bluesman Y.Z. Ealey took this shot of me standing in front of Nellie Jackson's. Note the red awnings on the house. Note that I'm wearing the red BAMA T-shirt my daughter bought me. Roll Tide!
You can see the house's front door to your right. As far as I know, no one used that door. Everyone used the back door which is directly behind me, up that inclined driveway and on the side of the house. A tiny red Christmas tree light glowed from above that back door.
About ten or so years ago, the Alexandria Daily Town Talk of Alexandria, Louisiana, printed a feature article about Nellie Jackson's. They titled the article after a quote from a Natchez ex-mayor: "Every Town Needs One."
By "one," of course, the good mayor meant a good whorehouse.
In addition to former mayors, every Natchezian, it seems, has a Nellie Jackson story. Y.Z. Ealey is no exception. The day we shot the photo, I was driving while he sat in the Bluesmobile's passenger seat and expertly directed me toward Nellie's and talked about Nellie as if he was related to her. I turned to him and, with a grin, asked, "Hey, Y.Z. Exactly why do you know so much about Nellie's?"
Y.Z. is sixty, and his hair, like mine, is gray. But he's still a handsome man. Recognition of my true meaning came suddenly to his smooth brown face. "No, no," he said with a laugh, "not like that. Her and my mother were friends. They grew up together in Wilkinson County in a little place called Possum Corner. Nellie's first husband, a black man, was my mother's cousin. Her second husband was a white man. While she was married to the second one, the first one was the combination butler/maintenance man at her house."
Y'all, I can just see myself fixing broken bed-slats and un-stopping commodes in my ex-wife's whorehouse. NOT!!!!
Pernell Burns is about Y.Z.'s age and, like Y.Z., a Natchez native. His family has owned a downtown shoe store for, in Pernell's words, "About a hundred years." He had this to say about Nellie Jackson: "She was a classy lady. If you were walking down the sidewalk with somebody and you met Nellie walking toward you, she wouldn't look at you if you didn't look at her and say, ‘Hello.' You know: you might not want the person with you to know that you know the owner of a whorehouse. But if you spoke, Nellie was always glad to see you."
Pernell continued, obviously enjoying reminiscing about one of Natchez's favorite citizens: "I was about 16 or 17 and working in the shoe store and she'd bring 4 or 5 of those girls in. They'd say, ‘Why don't you come see us sometime?' I was embarrassed."
"Were the girls white or black?"
"Some were white and some were black. Some were even Japanese or Filipino. But they were all good-looking."
"How do you think she was able to stay open right up until the time she died?" I asked.
"Yeah. Now this is just hearsay--I always heard it--but people said she kept a notebook. You know--names and dates. If she got in trouble she could say, Senator So-and-so, do you remember back on such-and-such date when you came here? But this is a fact: every afternoon between 1 and 3 pm, I'd see her pull her car up in front of the downtown photo store and blow her horn. They'd bring her out a package of developed film, and she'd hand them some rolls of film. I don't know what was in those pictures, but I've got an idea."
Pernell then mentioned an interesting facet of Nellie Jackson's character: "She was an avid baseball fan. No, she was a baseball fanatic. I don't care if the World Series was on the east coast or the west coast, Nellie never missed a game."
I suppose now is as good a time as any to admit that I did go to Nellie Jackson's on "business." Once, just once. Way back in 1966. I was very young, foolhardy and drunk. And back then they could cure any sexually transmitted disease with penicillin. About 10 pm one night, a bunch of drunken redneck friends and I left a bar in my hometown of Tullos, Louisiana, and drove the 70 miles to Natchez and Nellie's. It's a miracle we made it there; it's an even greater miracle we made it back home. After 31 years, I can only guess that his experience at Nellie's sobered our driver.
I remember very little of that night. I remember going along with my friends just for the ride and the beer. I had no intentions of having sex with a prostitute. I remember sitting around Nellie's big dining table with my friends and 4 or 5 of Nellie's girls. One of them, a blond with wet red lips and a roving hand, sat in my lap. I remember a large and round and fire engine red bed. I gave the blond $20. I guess we had sex; I don't remember. I know that when the blond and I returned to the dining table, she immediately sat in the lap of one of my friends.
I also know this: when I sat around that same dining table and simply talked with Nellie and her girls some 10 or 15 years after that drunken night in 1966, I wish I had known what I know now after talking with Pernell Burns. I would have said, "Say, Nellie, you wouldn't happen to have some pictures from 1966, would you? Maybe they'll refresh my memory."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I was showing Junior's Juke Joint to a friend, a forty-something guy who has lived all of his life on the Louisiana side of the Delta. We came to the Side Trip! section, and I pointed to the links and asked, "See anything familiar?"
"Nellie Jackson's Whorehouse," he answered.
"Ever been there?"
"Hell, yeah," he stated. "First time I remember, I was about 5 years old."
"Yep. My grandpaw took me."
"He was the head electrician down at the lumber company. Every Sunday afternoon he'd take burnt-out electric motors to the rewinding place in Natchez and pick up rewound motors. He'd let me ride with him. Hell, that was a big event for me. I was just a little kid. Gittin' to ride all the way to Natchez with my grandpaw."
My friend opened another beer while his wife and I eagerly awaited the rest of the story. I asked, "And . . . ?"
"An' on the way home," my friend answered as the top popped, "we'd always stop at the same bar. Grandpaw'd go inside an' bring me out a Coke an' a bag of peanuts. Man, that was the highlight of my week--that Coke an' bag of peanuts. After about an hour, Grandpaw'd come out an' we'd go home.
"One night when I was about 21 years old, some guys said, ‘Hey, you ever been to Nellie Jackson's whorehouse?' I said, ‘Nah, never been there.' They said, ‘Wanna go?' I said, ‘Sure.'
"We pulled up in front of that house, and I said, ‘Well, I'll be damned. I've been comin' here since I was about 5 years old.'"
An anonymous Natchez resident sent me the following:
"In the early 70's, I worked for the _____ store in Natchez. I was the assistant store manager in charge of just about everything but mainly handling the credit accounts. I was sifting through the account credit applications and ran across Nellie Jackson's application and payment history. On the application, she listed her occupation as "House Madam." She made no bones about what she did. I made some comment about it, and I was told that if Nellie came in and wanted to buy anything in the store, put it on her account. If it was over $2,000this is the early 70'slet her have it but ask if she was sure she wanted it. Then I was told that if one of Nellie's girls came in and wanted to purchase something on credit, her credit stood on its own, but if Nellie came in and said to let her have it, it was as good as paid for. Nellie's account showed that she made weekly payments of more than the monthly amount due until the bill was completely paid.
"When we held a store meeting, it was after store hours and there was usually beer or mixed drinks in the room. One day there was a knock at the door and it was Nellie Jackson. It was the only time I ever saw her. She was a well-dressed black lady and was very polite. While someone was taking care of her business, someone else asked her if she would like a beer. She accepted. Before she left, she wrapped it in a paper towel and put it in her purse. She left in a chauffeur driven Buick.
"The two garden clubs in Natchez once decided to clean up the town. One of the things they were going to do was shut down Nellie Jackson's place of business. They pressured the city fathers into arresting Nellie. When they came to get Nellie, she said she would go under two conditions, #1 that she had her own bed in the jail and #2 that she had her own food brought in. The story goes that they did not even shut the door to her cell.
"Now back to the original story. My wife worked as a desk clerk at a motel on Highway 61 on the southern end of town. The _____ store's boss from New Orleans stayed there when he came to town. As soon as his secretary made his reservations, my wife would call the _____ store and let me know when he would arrive. The store manager would meet him at the motel, take him to the bar and get him loosened up, then take him to Nellie's and get him serviced. He would leave the next day without visiting the store."
On a hot summer afternoon I was sitting in my usual spot at the bar and near the pool tables in Bobbie's Bar in my hometown of Tullos, Louisiana. Bobbie's is the best honky tonk in town. It's also the only honky tonk in town. For some reason the guys at the bar started talking about Nellie Jackson's. Across the bar from me and in his usual spot in the corner and beside the telephone sat a fine redneck fellow named Larkin Jones. He's a much-decorated Vietnam vet and is the kind of fellow I'd want with me in a war or in a visit to a strange whorehouse.
"Nope," he said with a serious look on his face, "I ain't never been there, but I had a friend who did."
I was suspicious of that serious look. So was an older man sitting beside me, because he said, "Come on, Larkin, no bullshit. Give us a straight story."
"Honest to God, this is a straight story," Larkin said and held up both hands like he was saying, Help me, Jesus!
I still wasn't sure and neither was anyone else at the bar, but we waited for the story, straight or not. "I had this friend," Larkin finally said. "He was a truck driver. Drove an 18-wheeler. He lived in Natchez, and he was gone all week. Came home on weekends. Wasn't no place to park his rig close to his house, so he parked it in a parking lot out on the highway. He'd call a cab, and the cab would come get him and take him home. Monday morning, he'd call a cab and the cab would come get him and take him back to his rig.
"After a while he started getting the same cab driver. After another while him and that cab driver got to be good friends. This went on for a couple of years. One day that cab driver said, ‘Buddy, I got something I been wanting to tell you for a long time.'
"‘Well, tell it.'
"‘Now I sure don't want to get you mad or anything, but as soon as we drive off from your house headed to your truck, your wife calls a cab to take her to Nellie Jackson's.'
Larkin said, seriously, "My friend said, ‘Nah, man, ain't no way.'
"‘It's true,' the cab driver said. ‘She calls a cab from my company. She goes to work at Nellie's every day you're gone.'"
Straight story or not, Larkin had our attention. After fresh beer around the bar, he continued: "‘I'll tell you what,' the cab driver said. ‘Let's go to Nellie's. I'll go in there and bring her out.'
"‘Let's go,' my friend said.
"Well," Larkin said, "they pulled that cab up in front of Nellie's and the driver got out of the cab and went inside Nellie's. In a minute, Nellie's door flew open and out came the cab driver dragging a screaming, kicking woman.'
"‘Hey!' my friend yelled. ‘That ain't my wife!'
"‘I know she ain't your wife!'" the cab driver yelled back. ‘She's my wife! You hold her while I go back inside and get yours!'"
The older man sitting beside me looked at me and shook his head, as if to silently say, See, I told you so.
I looked at Larkin. With a grin on his face he took a sip of beer. Then with the grin a little wider he said, "Straight story."
I answered, "Yeah, right."
|UPDATE 2004 For some fascinating reading go to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History website. Search for "Mississippi Sovereignty Commission". The commission was a state agency established to thwart the Civil Rights Movement. Somehow their records survived and are now available online. I started my search with "Jackson, Nellie" and discovered that the commission's agents recorded the license plate numbers of Nellie's visitors. They were also much concerned with a washateria used by both whites and blacks and with a white tire store owner with the audacity to shake hands with his black customers. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.|
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