This non-fiction history of prostitution in the American West by Michael Rutter (2005) is fascinating and illuminating in its many revelations. Known as the ‘oldest profession’, prostitution is sadly with us even today in Europe, notably due to mass immigration and open borders that allow free transit of criminal gangs and people traffickers. It’s not only in Europe, of course; every culture has prostitution.
The Hollywood myth of the harlot with a heart of gold has some truth in it, judging by a handful of profiles related here. But for the majority of working girls, their lives were miserable, tragic, and short-lived.
The Victorian sensibilities had been transferred to the Old West. There were ‘decent’ women and there were ‘sporting’ women. And the latter were not welcome in polite society or even in that part of town. Inevitably, red-light districts sprang up almost as soon as any new town was created.
A wide range of distressing circumstances could contribute to a woman joining ‘the sisterhood’. There were the ‘camp followers’ who went where the gold strikes offered easy pickings, where the railroads offered plenty of eager men with money to spend. There were those women who were abandoned, widowed, or even escaping abusive relationships, or perhaps destitute and starving. Their recourse was to enter a bawdy house. Maybe it was considered a temporary measure, but often it became permanent.
The book is a frank appreciation of Western women for hire. Possibly this profession above all others has the biggest vocabulary to describe its work-force: alley cat, bawd, belladonna, black-eyed susan, celestial, crib girl, cyprian, daughter of joy, demi-monde, dove, ebony Jezebel, fair sister, fallen angel, haute couture, hooker, lady of the night, nymph de prairie, prairie flower, shady lady, soiled dove, streetwalker, and upstairs girl, among many others.
There were different sorts of bordellos. Usually run by a madam, they might have the backing of a local wealthy businessman, a silent partner. Top of the scale were parlor houses, the elite of their kind, such as the Cheyenne Social Club (Cheyenne, Wyoming) and The Brick House (Virginia City, Nevada). The girls in these establishments kept half their ‘earnings’ and were well fed and clothed in the finest dresses, even wearing garments from France. They had to be young and retain their appeal, however, or they might have to move to the next lower rung in the pleasure ladder, the high-end brothels. Most of these places were still desirable with decent furnishing but not as fine. ‘The fallen angels weren’t old, but they might look slightly worn. The food in the bordello was good, the liquor was acceptable, but the wine list wasn’t as deep.’ (p19)
The so-called common brothel was the working man’s whorehouse. Those of less attractive countenance, who had started to lose their charm or youth, might find themselves here. These brothels were often located in dancehalls, saloons, gambling halls or apartment buildings.
Next, the low-end brothels were shabby, where the women were not in their prime. ‘In smaller towns they might be friendly and personable, though in cities they tended to be drab.’ (p21)
A cottage girl was an independent contractor, who had no madam or pimp. This was a precarious route for many, yet a few were very successful and made their fortunes.
‘At the bottom of the prostitution hierarchy was the crib girl, who worked out of a crib house.’ (p22) A crib girl had somewhere to trade, at least. Streetwalkers plied their business outdoors in the main, and in winter a good number would freeze to death.
The trade in California was diabolical, most especially for Chinese women and girls. Some of them were sold to pay family debts; when they were too old to be attractive to men they would serve as cook, maid or field worker. The notorious madam Ah Toy tricked or bought unsuspecting girls cheaply, most not yet in their teens. She was brutal and a cruel taskmaster. The tongs, corrupt police and officials made their fortunes off Chinatown’s prostitution, gambling and opium. Many members of charitable groups in San Francisco risked life and limb to steal girls from brothels and given them a proper education.
Historian Rutter doesn’t flinch from writing about the occupational hazards faced by the upstairs girls – physical abuse, pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual diseases and, not surprisingly, murder and suicide.
Another group of women sometimes linked with the profession were not usually on the game at all, but simply danced and entertained. These were the hurdy gurdy girls, the dancehall and saloon girls. They’d either entertain on stage or charge men for a dance. Miners fresh from the fields would pay a small fortune simply to hold a woman and dance with her. Despite their ostensibly innocent occupation, these women were condemned by the local communities. Gradually, as towns became established, moral purity movements fought against the trade, effectively pushing it underground.
A significant part of the book relates the stories of significant ladies of the night, among them Fanny Porter, the madam with a heart of gold, Laura Bullion, a Wild Bunch camp follower, Mattie Silks, Big Nose Kate, who was Doc Holliday’s lover, Poker Alice, and Mary Ellen Pleasant, the mother of the civil rights movement. They’re heart-breaking tales, most of them, and yet a good number of these women used their dubious profession to gain rank and importance and even own property and wield considerable power in their communities, despite having no such thing as ‘women’s rights’.