State News

November 2, 2013

Tombstone for Atlanta madam placed in cemetery

For more than a century she has rested in anonymity, her grave marked by neither granite nor marble. Only a magnolia shaded the spot where she was buried in 1905.

No longer. After 108 years, a stone in Oakland Cemetery proclaims the burial spot of Abbie Howard: Atlanta resident, entrepreneur, madam.

Yes. The woman who may have been the inspiration for a character in “Gone with the Wind” ran a house of ill repute. Now, her earthly remains have a tombstone, thanks to cemetery volunteers who portrayed her during last year’s Capturing the Spirit of Oakland Halloween tours.

A ceremony is planned today by cemetery officials and volunteers to commemorate the overdue stone.

It is a lovely stone, 32 inches long and 20 inches deep, 1,100 pounds of granite dignity. The marker came from a quarry in China, was shipped to Houston and arrived in Atlanta in late October. It cost more than $2,000, all of it raised in donations.

“ABBIE HOWARD,” the marker reads in raised letters. “LAID TO REST MAY 18, 1905.”

The stone is a Victorian design — appropriate, considering Ms. Howard ran her enterprise during the 19th century and into the early 1900s. Oh, and this: It’s shaped like a pillow.

“That’s fitting,” said Mary Woodlan, who directs volunteers and special events at the cemetery. The burial ground’s records show where she was interred, all those years ago. “After all, she was a madam.”

A madam who deserves recognition, added Rosalind Hillhouse, one of four volunteers who portrayed Ms. Howard. She suggested raising money for a grave marker.

“Even a bad girl,” she said, “deserves a tombstone.”

On the first night of the tours, Hillhouse, dressed in Victorian garb and sitting in a red velvet chair (it came from Woodlan’s office, and belonged to her mother-in-law) greeted visitors with a smile.

“Well, good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Hillhouse said, sticking to a script. “. My name is Abbie Howard, Madam Howard, professionally, and I am proud to say that I am a member of the oldest profession known to man — and I don’t mean farming.”

In a few quick sentences, she recounted her life. Then Hillhouse veered from the script.

“I didn’t work in life for free,” she told visitors. “I don’t want to work for free now.” She made her pitch for a tombstone.

A visitor pulled her aside. Was that a joke? the visitor asked. It was not, Hillhouse answered.

Do you take credit cards? the visitor asked. Hillhouse — sticking to character, no doubt — said she preferred cash.

The visitor pulled out her checkbook and wrote a four-figure sum. With that $1,000 donation, the campaign was on.

Others portraying Ms. Howard got into the spirit. Please, they said, winding up their presentations, help me get a stone. People tossed in ones and fives and tens. One couple wrote a $300 check. The donations left cemetery workers and volunteers pleased — a little surprised, too: all this, for a woman whose past is hardly known?

She was born in Louisiana in 1830. After the Civil War, Ms. Howard headed to Atlanta. Surely there was money to be made where so many men were rebuilding a city from ashes?

There was. Not long after hitting town, young Ms. Howard went to work for Julia Thompson, an Atlanta madam. In time, she opened her own establishment. According to the script Hillhouse and others recited, she gave “good value” to her customers, even while dealing with “one legal aggravation after another.” Court records and newspaper accounts provide more details.

There was the 13-year-old girl who may or may not have been held against her will; Ms. Howard said she didn’t know the child was that young. One of her prostitutes committed suicide, touching off whispers that the madam stole the poor thing’s diamonds — lies, Ms. Howard claimed.

Then there was the customer sliced like a melon on her porch. It was murder — not the sort of thing a business woman wants associated with her enterprise.

The Atlanta historian, Franklin Garrett, suggested that Ms. Howard inspired author Margaret Mitchell to create Belle Watling, the madam in “Gone with the Wind.” In Mitchell’s book, Belle provides an alibi for a fellow she knew well, that devilish Rhett Butler.

Ms. Mitchell is buried at Oakland, as are scores of other notables — former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, golfing legend Bobby Jones, Civil War generals, some judges and captains of commerce, to name a few.

Oakland’s residents also include a murderer or two, some thieves, a scattering of bums. And, yes, a lady who did what she needed to survive. On that point, Ms. Howard’s script is succinct.

“Yes, I could have chosen to scrub floors or take in laundry,” she told visitors, “but what would that have gotten me except the same sore knees and aching back — for a lot less money?”

Hillhouse understands. “Back then, the deck was stacked against a woman if she didn’t have a husband, brother or father to protect her,” said Hillhouse, noting that Ms. Howard was alone in the world. “It would be unfair for me to judge someone who didn’t have anybody to look out for her.”

Unfair, too, to let her bones rest in anonymity. That wrong has now been made right.

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