I’m now in the editing phase of my third book, set in Reconstruction Era Texas, 1870. One of the main protagonists in the novel is a school teacher turned prostitute. In doing research for the book, I made some surprising discoveries about the prostitution trade in America in the mid to late 19th century.
The accompanying portrait was taken by E.J. Bellocq, the now famous photographer who lived and worked almost exclusively in the notorious Storeyville section of New Orleans, capturing the titillating, if sometimes sad, beauty of the city’s prostitutes. New Orleans had some of the most beautiful and diverse ladies of the evening, but prostitutes could be found in every town, cattle drive outpost, military fort and settlement in the West during the 19th century.
Called Upstairs Girls, Soiled Doves, Daughters of Joy or just plain Whores, women of all ages, from young girls to much older women, well passed child-bearing age, engaged in the “oldest profession in the world” for simple economic reasons. There were few jobs that a woman could pursue to gain financial independence and many women, more than most people now imagine, engaged in sex for pay in order to feed themselves or their families if they were unmarried, widowed, and poor; selling themselves periodically, and for short periods of time, to make ends meet—so to speak. But many women found themselves addicted to alcohol or drugs, with dangerous, threatening pimps or with diseases that could only be treated with more alcohol and opium. The rate of suicide among prostitutes was very high—10 times the national average.
If a woman was lucky enough to work in high-end “Parlor Houses” or brothels, her clientele was considered more genteel and restrained. But some of the most sensational murders of the late 19th century occured in palacial bordellos: the perpetrator a wealthy patron, the victim, an unlucky prostitute.
The women involved in prostitution most in control of their fates were the madams who managed the whorehouses, hired the girls, set the prices, paid off the local lawmen, and entertained the most prominent men of their time, including judges, senators, and even presidents.
What your grandmother, or great grandmother, most likely never told you was that she probably knew someone, family member or friend, who for a time engaged in discreet solicitation for money or for barter to survive. There are no accurate accounts of the numbers of prostitutes, even in large cities, because of the impermanent nature of the trade, but during the gold-rush years in San Francisco within a few blocks there were counted by local lawman over 300 prostitutes.
And chances are you never knew that Calamity Jane, explorer, teamster and friend to Wild Bill Hickok, worked as a prostitute in the Black Hills of the Dakotas. Giving up her shotgun and buckskins for a time, she donned a dress and worked in the bordellos next to companions with working names like Big Dollie, Dirty Emma and Sizzling Kate. Martha Jane Canary, her true given name, spent the last years of her life as a prostitute in South Dakota, after she had been lauded in newspapers and dime novels for over a decade as a true hero of the West.