Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Prostitution in the West by Meggan Connors

As you all know, we love at History Undressed love tantalizing tid-bits! Today we are thoroughly engrossed in guest author, Meggan Connors' post on prostitution!  Enjoy!  (Leave a comment for a chance to win a ecopy of Ms. Connors' book, THE MARKER. As a bonus, I will also toss in an ebook copy of WICKED WOMAN, my alter-ego's old west saloon dolly's tale as well!)


Prostitution in the Old West
by Meggan Connors



When you think of a prostitute in the old west, do you think of a woman wandering the dusty, lonely streets in search of a man to give her a penny for a…ahem…moment of her time?



Certainly, prostitutes in the old west ran the gamut. There were, of course, those women who walked the streets and carried a sheet to lay on the ground. Then there were the women who operated out of cribs—small, apartment-like rooms with a single window. But there were also madams whose fame was well known, and who were actually considered respectable citizens, despite the notoriety of their chosen profession.



From the red light districts of San Francisco's infamous Barbary Coast to the grand brothels of Virginia City, NV, to the mobile cat wagons of Fort Dodge—prostitutes were a fixture in western towns and cities.



These women went by many names: soiled doves, or doves; ladies of the night; scarlet ladies; sportin' women; women of ill repute or ill fame; and demimonde, just to name a few. What they all had in common was that they sold their bodies in exchange for money.



Then, as now, many women fell into prostitution. The majority of women engaged in prostitution were young (most of them were under thirty years of age), with poor educations, largely illiterate, with families that had either cast them out or were not in a position to help them. Some of them were brought into the profession by their husbands or their mothers, or fell into it because they were seduced by their wealthy employers. These women simply didn't have the means to provide for themselves, other than by selling the one thing they had at their disposal.



But prostitution, just like mining and working the railroad, was a dangerous occupation. These women died in childbirth, of disease, and many of them met violent ends. Some of them became addicted to drugs, as they sought a means to drown their pain. Others committed suicide. And, much like today, many of these women ran the risk of being murdered.



As with any other profession, the prices varied depending on the woman's age and assets (young and inexperienced was good, as was attractiveness). On San Francisco's Barbary Coast—once termed "that sink of moral pollution, whose reefs are strewn with moral wrecks…" by the San Francisco Call—American women commanded a higher price than Mexican women and Asian women, while Native American women and redheads commanded a higher price than other white women, as Native American women and redheads were thought to be more amorous than the others.



Still, the average prices for "tossing" one's "fanny" ranged from 25 cents to one dollar.



Yet while the Barbary Coast catered to the lowest of the low, other prostitutes became respectable citizens, and their deaths genuinely mourned (more by the men than the women). One of these instances is the case of Julia Bulette. As one of the first white women to come to Virginia City, NV—and, for a time, the only white woman in the city—she quickly became a prostitute and madam of some renown. Her brothel was a house in the rococo design, and quite fashionable for the era. She bestowed her favors upon the firefighters and the miners of the town, who considered her to be an angel of mercy. She once opened up her brothel to sick miners when they drank contaminated water, and she nursed them back to health herself. Another time, she refused to leave Virginia City for the safety of Carson City when an attack by native tribes seemed imminent. She was often seen walking about town in her sable furs and expensive jewels. Eventually, she became so well respected she was made an honorary firefighter.



When she was brutally murdered inside her house in 1867, it was termed by the Territorial Enterprise (the newspaper which employed Mark Twain for a time) as "the most cruel, outrageous and revolting murder ever committed in this city." Her funeral was overseen by the local firefighters and miners, who followed her in procession behind a black-plumed, glass-walled hearse. Her gravesite is still tended to this day, and her picture hangs on the wall in at least one saloon. When her murderer was apprehended a year later, his execution was witnessed by "everyone," including Mark Twain.



It's no surprise that the oldest of professions thrived in the Old West. Nor is it a surprise that the women involved ran the gamut from vile criminals to near saints (according to local lore—the truth is probably somewhere in the middle). Then, as now, prostitutes came in every price range, from streetwalkers to wealthy madams. After all, where there are men and money—and few women—there will always be those who will seek to take advantage of the situation.



For those women willing to do it, it was a sure way to make a quick dollar.

*~*~*~*~*

Meggan Connors is the award-winning author of historical romance. Her debut novel, THE MARKER, released this past December. Visit Meggan at www.megganconnors.com

About the Book:

When her father loses her in a poker game, Lexie Markland is sent to work in the household of Nicholas Wetherby for one year to pay off the debt. Innocent but not na├»ve, she is savvy enough to know she must maintain her distance from this man who frustrates her with his relentless teasing but whose kisses bring her to her knees. Because although she may be just another conquest to him, the marker he won at the card table, it’s not just her heart in jeopardy should she succumb to Nicholas’ considerable charms.


Since his brother’s death almost a year before, nothing has held Nicholas’ attention for long–not women, not booze, not even an excellent hand at cards. Nothing, that is, until he meets the woman he won in a drunken night of poker. Intrigued by his prize and her chilly reserve, he makes it his mission to crack Lexie’s cool demeanor. But even as passion explodes between them, the question remains: will Nicholas be able to take the ultimate risk… and gamble on love?

10 comments:

Meggan Connors said...

Thanks for having me, Eliza!

Heather Hiestand said...

Great detailed blog post! I found it fascinating since I've been writing a prostitute heroine. I'm also a little horrified by how tiny the woman in the photo's waist is.

Meggan Connors said...

Yeah, crazy isn't it? That's a picture of Julia Bulette, the revered madam of Virginia City. In all accounts of her, she was described as beautiful and quite tall. She was found strangled in her house at the age of 35. A very tragic end to an interesting life.

Thanks for stopping by!

Artemis said...

I have always been interested in the women and prostitution during the era of The Old West. (Most likely because I'm also interested in The Old West in general.) Then, as now, many circumstances led these women to that life. I've always wondered what life would be worse: To live as a prostitute or try to carve a life as a wife/mother in the wild west.

Great post. Thanks.

Sharon Buchbinder said...

Awesome post! Sex work is the second oldest occupation (some say the first) and will never go away. Now as then, poor, illiterate, marginalized women are forced to use their bodies to survive. Education and women's choice to control their own bodies continues to elude some of our gender.

Meggan Connors said...

Thanks for stopping by! I've wondered the same thing myself. Yet even if you started out with the intention of being a wife and mom, what happens when your husband dies or abandons you? What do you do then? How do you support yourself ior your children?

I think most of these stories are so sad. When you read some of the accounts of the women themselves, some of them try to make it sound better than it must have been. It still seems so sad to me.

Meggan Connors said...

I completely agree. Thanks for stopping by!

Cara Bristol said...

Times haven't changed much. Most of what you said about the prostitutes of the Old West is still true of prostitutes today. Like the concept of The Marker. I'm going to take a closer look, add it to my TBR list.

BJ Scott said...

I shared the post and forgot to comment. Fantasic job and very interesting.

Thanks for sharing

Eliza Knight said...

And the winner is... Heather Heistand! Please email me with your email addy!