Prostitution in the Gilded Age: “Fallen” Women and the Social Evil in New York City, 1870s-1890s

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Prostitution was the primary social problem of the Gilded Age. Prostitutes’ lives were fraught with peril, and sympathy for such “fallen” women was hard to find.

Prostitution was the primary social problem of the Gilded Age in New York City. Prior to the Civil War, the city was home to 700,000 people, including 6,000 prostitutes—1 in 117 inhabitants. By 1892, mass immigration had swelled the city’s population to 1,800,000 and the number of prostitutes, according to the city’s physicians, social workers and police, to at least 30,000—1 in every 60 people.

From the 1870s through the 1890s, business tycoons like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt created a rarified urban society based on extravagant wealth; the dark side to their industrial progress was deplorable poverty. The “other half,” as Jacob Riis called the poorest New Yorkers, saw prostitution as one way of making a living.

A Contemporary Account of Prostitution

Journalist James McCabe, in his 1882 survey New York by Gaslight, illuminated life in the Tenderloin, New York City’s infamous sex district centered on West 23rd Street and 6th Avenue, home to a majority of the city’s 700 brothels. The “silk-hat” parlors were the most elegant establishments, employing young, beautiful and cultured women and catering to men of means. “Lawyers, physicians, judges of courts, members of Congress, and even ministers of the gospel from all parts of the country” frequented these houses.

Second-class brothels were rougher in every way—the women more desperate, the men less refined and the procuresses predatory. To assuage their misery, prostitutes often turned to drink or the fashionable drug opium for escape. Disease and poverty gnawed at their bodies. Further down the ladder, the bagnios of Soho and the Lower East Side acted as catch-alls for society’s most desperate women. “The doom of the fallen woman is sure,” McCabe wrote. “Once entered upon a career of shame, the whole world sets its face against her.”

Though the vast majority of women likely did not choose this ignominious career, there was little help available to them. A few religious missions and “asylums” (temporary homes) accepted prostitutes, but only if they repented their sins. Most often, police would arrest prostitutes and remand them to the State prison-workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in the East River.

Scarce Help for Prostitutes

Social or legal reform for prostitution was slow to occur. One reason was that brothel-keepers regularly bribed police officers to look the other way. Another reason was Tammany Hall, the incredibly corrupt Democratic political club whose operatives ruled every aspect of New York City’s government through kickbacks, graft and favoritism. Tammany officials colluded with police in keeping the brothels safe from persecution, and even promoted corrupt officers to positions in the Tammany chain of command.

This back-slapping atmosphere did not sit well with the city’s moral leaders. In February 1892, the Reverend Charles Parkhurst, the pastor of Madison Square Presbyterian Church in the Tenderloin, gave an incendiary sermon denouncing thirty houses of prostitution in his own precinct and the corrupt government system that kept them in brisk business. “To say that the police do not know what is going on and where it is going on…is rot. Anyone who, with all the easily-ascertainable facts in view, denies that drunkenness, gambling, and licentiousness in this town are municipally protected is either a knave or an idiot,” Parkhurst said. Tammany was nothing but “a damnable pack of administrative bloodhounds, polluted harpies and a lying, perjured, rum-soaked, libidinous lot.”

Parkhurst’s evidence, which he personally witnessed at local brothels disguised as a customer, prompted a state commission to investigate his charges, and eventually uncovered and brought down hundreds of Tammany players in the city’s biggest conspiracy to date. Life for individual prostitutes, however, remained much the same as the twentieth century dawned.