Prostitution in the Old West
In the early days of Western settlement, women were scarce. Prostitution was not looked down upon. Lonely miners were glad to see any kind of woman come to town, and the appearance of a woman, regardless of moral character, was greeted with great enthusiasm. As more settlers began to migrate West, the attitude toward prostitution gradually began to change. The development of towns and cities rather than rough mining camps led to established settlements similar to the ones back East.
As the West became more populated and “respectable” women began to arrive and establish communities and churches, society’s views of prostitution became more critical.
As far as prostitution was concerned, a double standard existed. Men were not penalized by keeping mistresses or visiting houses of prostitution, but the women who worked in these establishments were looked down upon. These women were often called “fallen women” or “soiled doves”. In the earlier days of western settlement, many women went West to start a new life. Once a woman became an outcast from society back East, it was virtually impossible for her to redeem herself. In the new, unstructured environment it was easy to assume a new identity. However, many of these women often went back to their old habits and found themselves working in parlor houses and brothels. The towns of the West gradually began to take on the same strict social and moral codes that had been left behind in the East, and many of these women once again found themselves social outcasts.
Kept mistresses, as well as prostitutes, were also met with censure by newly-established genteel society of the West. Baby Doe Tabor, who had never been a prostitute and who was properly married, was snubbed by Denver society because of a messy divorce with Tabor’s first marriage.
The career of a madam or prostitute was usually fairly short. There was no retirement plan. Most prostitutes hoped to either save enough money to go into business for themselves, or marry and assume a more respectable role in society. Some of them succeeded; others did not. The ones who failed were doomed to sad, usually short lives which often ended in an overdose of laudanum in some lonely room. When researching this subject, I expected to find a limitless supply of names and photographs. I was surprised by the scarcity of pictures and lack of names that survived. Many women kept their real names secret from shame or to protect their family name, so their true identities are lost forever. Many of these women drifted in and out of history without leaving much a mark, leading desolate lives and dying solitary deaths. And yet, they made up a strong part of the people who formed the West.
The Busness of Prostitution
From the girls who worked from a tent or wagon that followed the early mining camps, prostitution in the Western towns grew and expanded into a big, structured business. From the fancy parlor houses to the lowly crib workers, prostitution had its own social hierarchy. Like gambling, prostitution became a huge moneymaking enterprise divided into many levels.
Parlor houses were the upscale places were the most attractive women worked. The homes were very elegantly furnished and the finest of food and wine were served. The house was run by a madam, usually an older woman who had once been a prostitute herself, and had saved up enough money to purchase her own establishment. Women in these establishments were well-educated, cultured and well-dressed. The girls charged between 20 to 30 dollars a night and their clients were usually wealthy businessmen. The average miner or laborer, who made about 20 dollars a month, would not be able to afford to visit such a place, and if he did, his dusty boots would not be welcome.
The next step down from the parlor house was the brothel. These houses also had a madam in charge. Brothels were not fancy as the parlor houses, but they were well kept. The girls charged between ten to twenty dollars a visit. Theirs was not as high volume a trade as was found in the cribs and lower establishments. Individual brothels varied from being very clean and well-furnished to being less so, depending on their affluence. Tokens stamped “good for one” were often handed out to entice men inside. Money was made in the form of high-priced drinks and repeat business. Some of these establishments did do a volume trade, and many of the girls set a ten-minute timer. They were paid extra for “overtime.” Still, working in a brothel was much more favorable than the next step down, the “crib”.
Cribs were small shacks that usually set in a row. A crib cost around 25 dollars a week rent and the working girl made between 25 cents to 1.50 for her services. Though some of these women may have had a pimp, many of them worked solo. The women would often stand at window, partly clothed, to attract business. Some of the girls “entertained” as many as 60 customers a night. Most of these women were alcoholics or drug addicts or older women whose beauty had faded or whose addictions had made them unacceptable to work in a parlor house or brothel.
Chinese girls were often forced to work in cribs. These “daughters of joy” were sold by their families or kidnapped. Often they were addicted to opium.
By the time the working girl reached the lowest level, of streetwalker, they were fast approaching a dead end. These women were homeless and carried a blanket they could lay down in the alley. Most of them were destitute and were either alcohol or drug addicts. They offered their services for a few coins or accepted a drink or drugs in lieu of pay for their services.
Soiled Doves – The Working Girls
It is believed that the red light in the window signifying a house of prostitution and the later term “red light district” got its origins from when trainmen left their red glass lanterns, which they carried for use in their work, outside these establishments when paying them a visit so they could be located in case of an emergency.
In mining camps, working girls often went by colorful names such as “Spanish Queen,” “Contrary Mary”, and “Diamond Lil”. In the early days, they followed the mining camps and worked from tents until more solid establishments were built. Not all saloon girls were prostitutes, though many of them offered their services “on the side”. Singers and actresses often came under suspicion of being of questionable morals. Because many of the performers went on stage scantily clothed for the times and were often immersed in scandal, the reputation of an actress was tarnished in the eyes of society, whether or not they did engage in prostitution.
Women bandits often got their start as prostitutes or their career of outlaw and prostitute overlapped. Many of the women associated with the Wild Bunch Gang, such as Annie Rogers and possible Etta Place, hailed from Fanny Porter’s bordello in San Antonio, Texas. The outlaws often used brothels as places to hide out from the law, and the women protected them. Doc Holliday’s girl, Big Nose Kate, was a prostitute when he met her and continued to ply her trade even after they were married. Some of the outlaw women, such as Pearl Hart, had been known to pretend to be prostitutes in order to roll drunks of their money. Working with a male accomplice, they would often lure a potential customer up to a room where a man was waiting to rob him.
The Chinese SlaveTrade
The story of young Chinese girls is the saddest of all. Because women were not valued in China, these poor girls were sold into prostitution by their own parents. Chinese girls were bought for pennies in their native country. They were then imported by slave traders to San Francisco where they were sold to the highest bidder to work as prostitutes in brothels or cribs. This practice lasted into the 1920’s.
There was good money in the Chinese slave trade. Many of the traders were Orientals themselves. Chinese girls were often sold for several hundred dollars each.
The girls sold at auction to brothels fared much better than the ones sold to work in cribs. The Oriental girls sold to brothels dressed in fine silks and entertained men. Some of them found a wealthy patron to keep them or to marry.
The girls forced to work in cribs had a different lifestyle altogether awaiting them. They were not treated as humans. More often than not they were terribly abused, earned no money of their own, and were forced to work in the most dismal of conditions. Some cribs were little more than a prison cell with narrow doors and small, barred windows. The girls, called “sing song girls” were locked in and spent the day half-dressed trying to attract a customer’s attention. They would call out from the doorway, “Two bittee lookee, flo bitteee feelee, six bittee, doee.” If the girl did not bring in enough money she was beaten. These girls rarely left their dismal crib. The life span of a crib girl lasted about six years unless they were rescued by concerned social reformers. Because they lived a life with little hope or future, many of the girls ended their lives with narcotics or suicide.
Narcotic addiction and harsh living conditions made Chinese crib girls look far older than their years. Most did not live to be twenty, and by the time they were twenty they were washed up. When they became too unattractive to be of use, they were taken to a small room where they were given the choice of suicide by narcotic overdose or starvation. If found still alive, they were murdered. Their deaths, which appeared to be suicide, were not investigated, as they were considered expendable. One such reformer who did much to help these poor girls was Donaldina Cameron.
Much mystery surrounds Ah Toy, a lovely Chinese woman who arrived in San Francisco in 1849. Her husband had died aboard ship, and she became the captain’s mistress. For a while she supported herself by prostitution, and then she began importing girls from China. This made her the first Oriental madam.
She escaped the life of a crib girl and lived a long life in comfort. It is believed she died a few years before her 100th birthday.
A variation on the story about Ah Toy (sometimes spelled Ah Tay) is that an artist named William Arista spent the night with a beautiful Oriental prostitute who had been sold into slavery by her parents when they came to San Francisco. He painted her portrait and came back years later hoping to find the girl and marry her. But she had disappeared. He kept her portrait until his death in 1926. The story was hand-written and pasted to the back of the picture.
Hookers with Hearts of Gold
Julia Bulette was a mulatto Creole who lived and worked in Virginia City, Nevada around 1854. Rumor has it she was once paid 1,000 dollars by a lonely miner to spend the night with him. Julia had a fine cottage known as “Julia’s Place” with lace curtains and nice carpet. She gave to charity and was well-liked by the townspeople. One night three intruders broke into her room and robbed and strangled her. Julia was 35 at the time of the brutal murder. The town was outraged, and businesses shut down for her funeral. Even though the town made much of her death with an expensive funeral, Julia was not buried in consecrated soil, but outside the cemetery where respectable folks were buried. A few years later, a man named John Millain was arrested for her murder when jewels belonging to her were found in his room. Millain was hanged. The other two were never caught.
Maggie Hall was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1853. She was from a good, religious family and well-educated. A striking beauty, she had golden blonde hair and blue eyes. At twenty, Maggie journeyed to America to find work. However, after arriving in New York, she found that few jobs were available. She took work as a barmaid. A man from a wealthy family named Burdan fell in love with the comely barmaid and married her. However, when his father found out he had married a saloon girl, he cut off his allowance. Burdan pleaded with his new wife to entertain men so that they could have an income and after much soul-searching she gave in to his pleadings. At 24, she left her ne’er do well husband and went out west. She became a high-priced prostitute. Near Murray, Idaho, she impressed people with her kindness when she stopped to help a mother and child stranded by a blizzard. When she arrived in Murray, her Irish brogue made her name sound like Molly B’Dam rather than Burden. From then on, she was known as Molly B’Dam. She became a madam, and was well-liked by the townspeople of Murray. She was known for her tireless help during a smallpox epidemic which swept through the town. Though Molly did not contract smallpox, she became ill with consumption and died shortly after.
The legend of Silver Heels hails from the Fairplay area of Colorado. According to legend she was a dance hall girl in Buckskin Joe, a small town near Fairplay. She was described as beautiful and a wonderful dancer. She derived her name from the silver slippers she wore. She fell in love with one of the miners in the camp, and they planned to marry. Shortly after, a smallpox epidemic swept over the town. People left the small town in droves to avoid catching the disease, but Silver Heels remained to nurse her stricken lover. After his death, she helped others who had fallen ill. When the epidemic was over the townspeople wished to reward her, but Silver Heels could not be found. They named a beautiful mountain after her. Years later, a heavily-veiled woman visited the cemetery. Some believe that Silver Heels, terribly scarred from the smallpox, had returned to visit her lover’s grave. There are other variations of this tale, and no one really knows whether Silver Heels is a product of truth of legend.