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"THE LADIES, GOD BLESS 'EM!"

Shady Ladies of the Old West

by Christine Jeffords



As far as a "proper" Victorian woman was concerned, there were exactly two kinds of human female: hers, and the other. Either a woman was a "virtuous lady," or she wasn't--and virtue was defined as much by dress and behavior as by sexual ethics. In spite of the teachings of John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), who maintained that the pleasures of the body were sacred, since the body itself was a part of God's creation,

Victorian prudery bred private prurience and public reticence. The mention of physical love was commonly regarded as shameful, and a woman who found pleasure in it--or at least admitted that she did--was no better than a trollop. Men were acknowledged to be beasts who couldn't stay away from bawdy houses, but a "good" woman was supposed to be a fragile flower who submitted herself with distaste to her husband's desires and underwent the indignities of the sexual act solely for the purpose of bearing children. She was taught that she shouldn't respond in any way, shape, or form. She recognized that the male of the species had certain bestial desires that had to be indulged from time to time, but she regarded them with fear and loathing and tried whenever possible to avoid them.

Men, as men have always been, were more realistic. Urged by the weight of public opinion and by the medical and religious literature of the day to restrain themselves as much as they possibly could and to foist themselves on their wives as seldom as their will power would permit, urban males, at least, had few options but to seek their outlets elsewhere. Even the women, if they wanted no more children, had to try, in the absence (or at least general ignorance) of other birth-control measures, to impose continence upon their husbands--a measure to which men were generally reluctant to resort--or to accept the idea that they would find illicit relief wherever it proved available. On the other hand, in country towns [including most Western ones], the harshness of Puritan sanctions was softened by the practical wisdom of a rural community which, if it expected its members to excel in virtue, wasn't surprised when they failed. [This was bolstered by the presence of animals within the community--cats and dogs in heat, barnyard fowls, pigs, cattle and horses (though "gentleman cows" and "gentleman horses" were expected not to be offered for service within the town limits), and by the fact that most of the residents had farm roots and often relatives or friends still living on farms whom they visited regularly.] There was little to teach a boy who had grown up around the slaughterhouse (or the fall pig-killing) and the livery stable, had roamed through the woods where the peripatetic strumpets made their camps, had listened to the tales of the traveling salesmen at the hotel and seen the taverns spew their indigestible drunkards out their back doors. He was likely to be initiated into sex, not by a whore, but by a hired girl, factory girl, shopgirl, or daughter of a drunk or traveling ne'er-do-well--a "medicine man" or exhibitor of curiosities; indeed, a young man felt it quite acceptable to preserve his girl's virtue by relieving his sexual urges with less virtuous women. The world consisted, after all, of "good girls" and "bad girls"--one representing the ideals of romantic love, the other offering energetic and unadulterated sex--and common wisdom assumed that boys and young men might obtain an illicit education from the latter before marrying the former...The ultimate onus of inchastity fell upon the woman; [the local editor], when a local girl's lover jilted her upon her becoming pregnant, took occasion to warn women against men's false blandishments and exhort mothers to instruct their daughters accordingly, for "shame cannot be covered up no matter how long one lives or how good one becomes in later life. A woman's entire life cannot atone for such a sin." Once a girl lost her virginity without benefit of marriage--or, at least, once it became generally known that she had--there was no hope for her, either in ladies' literature or in contemporary codes of behavior. The melodramatic situation of the self-righteous father commanding his erring daughter to "never darken my door again!," while perhaps somewhat extreme, was founded on an attitude that would be recognizable to audiences: the dishonor of one member of a family besmirched the names of all.

There was in fact a good deal of bastardy, especially among the hired hands and hired girls. And not those alone: foundlings were sometimes left on the steps of United Presbyterian houses, and stern and strait-laced elders were confounded; mulatto children grew up with conspicuous resemblance to certain white boys and girls; and here and there on Market or Johnston Street, above the saloons and groceries, unregenerate bachelor sons of leading families kept their mistresses behind lace curtains--everyone knew it, and no one approved, exactly, but since it was better to pretend not to know it, the bachelors were only looked at a little askance, and went their way unpunished. The fruits of these unions carried a stigma throughout life; though they were children of love, and sometimes comely, no "respectable" young man would dare approach a bastard girl with honorable intentions. [This, of course, tended to either perpetuate the cycle or inspire the "woods colts" to depart for fresh fields--often either large cities, where they could lose themselves, or the West, where it wasn't polite to inquire into strangers' antecedents--where their pasts were unknown.] Not until urban attitudes toward sexual matters pervaded the community was the controlled but direct carnality of the Puritans replaced by the more diffused emotions of romance...

--Adapted from A Thunder at Dawn, novel in progress, by Christine Jeffords

Meanwhile a certain tolerance remained in place, and though "ladies" publicly ignored the existence of whorehouses, in private, realistically female talk they admitted their necessity: such places distracted the attentions of many of an area's bachelors from the pursuit of daughters of respectable families. The ladies viewed the purpose and location of these establishments as being similar to those of outhouses--they accommodated the more vulgar functions, but should be decently inconspicuous to avoid offending one's more delicate sensibilities.

Every Midwestern town of the day had a "painted lady" or two who was the source of much gossip, and apparently an available source of sex for men who dared risk being seen entering or leaving her premises; sometimes she was a lusty, somewhat slatternly widow who ostensibly supported herself by taking in laundry, sometimes the daughter of a third-class hotelkeeper. Cattle towns, mining towns, railroad towns, and towns near military installations--all notable for the presence of plenty of loose cash and a floating male population--invariably had a sufficient number of girls to warrant a "line," a "maiden lane," a "boarding house" or two, or a hotel in a declining section of the business district that was known all around as the local whorehouse--if not indeed some combination. What made the Western town different from its Eastern counterpart was the presence of girls in the saloons--a phenomenon unknown east of the Missouri River, except in German beer halls, where the daughters, and often the wife, of the proprietor routinely served as barmaids and waitresses.

Basically, there were two types of "bad girl": the one who made her living primarily by offering paid sex, and the one who didn't. As a rule, the saloon or dance-hall girl was a member of the second class. Her job was to brighten the evenings of lonely men starved for female companionship, to entertain them, please them, sing for them, dance with them, talk to them, perhaps flirt with them a bit, and induce them to remain in her bar, buying drinks and patronizing the games; she commonly drank only cold tea, pink lemonade, or colored sugar water, which was ostentatiously kept in a prominently labeled bottle and served in a shot glass--at the full price of whiskey, which could range from ten to seventy-five cents a shot ($2-$8 per quart bottle, as compared to $1.50 for burgundy wine from Sonoma, California, and $5 for champagne), depending on grade. Indeed, a major share of her income came from commissions on the drinks and "drinks" she persuaded passing gallants to buy--and since whiskey sold to the consumer for 32-64 times its wholesale price, or sometimes even more, it can be seen that there was more than enough profit in dispensing it to encourage saloonkeepers to split the proceeds with their girls. In most places the proprieties were strictly observed, as much because Western men tended to revere all women as because the women or the saloonkeeper wanted it that way: Anyone who disregarded them usually found himself in trouble.

An institution apparently peculiar to the West was the dance hall, sometimes known as a "hurdy-gurdy house." This appeared early on in the Gold Rush of '49 and spread throughout the later settlements, both ore-based and otherwise. It generally offered faro and poker, but as its name implies, its chief attraction was the dancing, for which it always had a piano, however tinny and out of tune, often transported hundreds of miles on muleback, and, after the bar, the most precious item of equipment in the place. The piano player, usually known as the "perfesser," was almost but not quite the equal of the bartender: to receive a condescending nod from him, or have him accept a drink at one's expense, was an honor treasured by the humble customer. As the place acquired "tone" a podium would be added, with chairs for a fiddler and banjo player.

Dancing began about 8 P.M., ranging from waltzes to Varsoviennes to mazourkas and schottisches. The customer paid 75c.-$1 for a ticket, the proceeds generally being split down the middle by the girl who initialed it and the owner of the hall, and each "turn" lasted five to 15 minutes, at the end of which time the fiddler called, "Gents, balance your partners up to the bar!" The girls immediately and deftly steered the men to the counter, where the males downed a shot of one-bit (12 1/2c.) whiskey and the ladies fraudulent champagne (which usually ran $1 a glass, an amount on which the girl commonly got a kickback too). These consumed, the bartender would rap the bar with his bungstarter as a signal to the girls to "weigh out," that is, sit down for a minute and "get their steam up"--and incidentally to initial the tickets for the next go-round, after which it started all over again. (Paying too much attention to any one girl was discouraged, for the owners lost more to marriage than in any other way.) A popular girl averaged 50 dances in a night (no mean feat considering the vigorous stomping and whirling of customers bent on getting their money's worth), and thus could make a very tidy sum indeed--from $21.875 to $53.125 in a single night, the latter being as much as many working men took in in a month! (In the halls where higher pay was available, it was probably quite normal to have at least two shifts of girls who worked alternate nights: even in the high-priced environment of a mineral camp, $743.75 a month was enough to live on very nicely.) The cowtown dance girl, who would have most of her customers on Saturday, would net less over time than the mining-camp girl, who was likely to get a good workout six or seven nights a week, but even she was so independent financially that she seldom found it necessary to double as a prostitute, though on San Francisco's Barbary Coast she frequently did anyway, splitting that money 50-50 with the house as well. (Many of these girls were also accomplished pickpockets.) Indeed, soiled doves often found there was more money to be made in the dance trade than horizontally.

The saloon girl's task was very similar, with the difference that when she danced with a customer (as she sometimes did), he wasn't required to pay for the privilege. (It's worth noting that not all saloons employed her: in Dodge City almost all the places on the north, or "respectable," side of Front Street barred "girls" and gambling, featuring billiards as the chief amusement to accompany drinking, and the Long Branch and Saratoga also offered music.) Her income was more a straight salary, usually $10 a week, although she also got a commission on the drinks she sold. Like her dancehall counterpart, she was often a refugee from mill or farm, lonely stage station, or other depressed or humdrum environment, lured by posters and handbills advertising high wages "paid promptly in gold every week," easy work, and fine clothing. A large share of both types were widows or needy women of good morals, forced to earn a living in an era that offered few means for women to do so; some had husbands who were missing or worthless. In either case they frequently came equipped with children (the classic Gunsmoke episode, "Bad Lady From Brookline," portrays just such a woman, stranded in Dodge City with her young son after discovering that her husband has been killed). They had to wear "short" (which usually meant mid-shin or knee-length) skirts, but this troubled them only at first. Most were considered "good" girls by the men they danced and talked with; some received lavish gifts, like silver-heeled dancing shoes, from admirers, or acted as devoted nurses during lethal epidemics, and it wasn't unknown for them to be "adopted" and celebrated in song by some cow outfit; sentimental nicknames, often incorporating words like "Queen" or "Rose," were frequently bestowed upon them. Though the "respectable" ladies considered them "fallen," they wouldn't be caught dead associating with an actual prostitute. My researches suggest that it was only the very shabbiest class of saloonowners that doubled as pimps.

"You ever been in Dry Fork, cowboy?"

"Lots o' times, before they put me away."

"You know the saloon? The one so cheap it's got no name, just whores and red-eye?"

"Sure do."

"Well, I was one of the whores."

--Stagecoach, novelization by Robert W. Krepps

As if "cheap saloon" and "whores" went together "like a deranged stomach and a headache."

More generally such a girl had her own place to live and sleep (a one-storey frame house could be rented for only $12.50 a month, a "cottage" (which, in Victorian parlance, meant a house so small that the household duties could all be performed by the family, with at most one or two servants) for $140 a year, and a single-room shack, such as we see Lucy living in "Sins of the Past," probably for a good deal less; even a storey-and-a-half, eight-room cottage cost about $75 a year, or $6.25 a month, and would be entirely adequate for a woman with child or children, while a little cottage with a garden went for $50, or about $4.16/mo.), her morals outside working hours were her own affair, and often she conducted herself as decently as circumstances permitted. She was seldom a virgin, and generally snubbed by the "better element;" she often took lovers freely and lived with them openly; but she was not a whore, and resented being treated as one or getting the name, to avoid which she would often reject unwanted advances to the point of beating. She took pride in picking or rejecting her partners as she pleased, and although she might accept entertainment, meals, and "pretties" from them, or gifts for her children if she had any, she never charged for the service itself. (In Texas there was a special term for this type: "wheeligo girl," meaning an attractive female who wasn't necessarily a prostitute but certainly liked to have a good time. My suspicion is that this is what Lucy would be called.) Nor did she consider her position at all hopeless: many such girls married well, the livelier men preferring a high-spirited woman to a prune-faced choir singer. The "ladies" we often see Buck flirting with, and are led to believe he sleeps with, are thus in fact very typical of one class of "fallen woman."

Owing in part to the comparative scarcity of the sex, and in part to the heavy preponderance of displaced Southerners in the population, "bad girls" in the West, while they might be scorned by the "proper" ladies, could count on respect from the males. Indeed, if a man failed to treat a woman of any kind with deference--or even accidentally jostled her on the street--he was likely to find himself flat on his back with a bloody nose, while a pale, furious avenger stood over him, reading him a brief but pungent lecture. (Even some pretty mean outlaws were known to kill a man for thus disrespecting a woman.) Any man who mistreated a woman became a social outcast, and if he insulted one he was killed sooner or later, even if someone had to get drunk to do it. There were few things considered as bad as a woman-killer, no matter under what circumstances he killed.

...Even the bar girls demanded courtesy, and got it, though they were looked upon as godless, and probably fallen, by the "respectable" women...They were not interested in the opinions of drab, hard-working women who set themselves up to judge other people. They couldn't understand why these women didn't have sense enough to avoid working themselves to death having babies, tending animals, and helping their husbands try to make a crop, with no decent clothes or anything.

--From The Misadventures of Bethany Price, by Marian Cockrell

What did such a girl look like? The TV image is probably not far from the truth. In one contemporary engraving I've seen (undated, but the style suggests it was made in the 1870's) of a dancehall in full romp, the girls are dressed in frothy, bell-shaped skirts, underlain by a multitude of petticoats, that reach just to the top of the boot, with bare shoulders (and remember that the formal gown of the day, as we see in The King and I and even Gone With the Wind, was quite ordinarily designed in that style, cut low over the bosom) and little puff sleeves. Other such pictures show them in dresses of quite respectable cut and hang, except that they end at mid-calf. Dee Brown describes the trail-town girls as "flashily dressed in ruffled skirts and rainbow petticoats, their kid boots adorned with tassels and shiny Lone Stars to attract the Texans. Many were armed with pistols or jewelled daggers concealed in their boot tops to keep the boisterous cowboys in line." The poorer girls probably confined themselves to tawdry, tattered finery of the sort we see in "Working Girls." The low-cut bodice fit tightly against the breasts and around the waist (as did that of the formidably-corseted respectable woman) and down over the hips (which briefly became a mainstream fashion during the "princess" era of c. 1878-80); sometimes it left the arms as well as the shoulders bare, being held up by only a couple of thin straps over the latter. Brightly hued silk was the favored fabric, decorated with spangles and sequins, bugles and fringe, and often finished off with tiers of silk chiffon ruffles. Silk, lace, or net stockings held up by fancy garters (often the gifts of admirers) covered her legs, and she wore high-heeled shoes (kid, velvet, or satin) or button boots. Jewelled hair combs, lots of glittery jewelry, and perhaps dyed ostrich plumes and/or paper or velvet flowers pinned into the coiffure were indispensable. She often bleached, hennaed, or peroxided her hair and quite often cut it short, though the engraving mentioned has the girls with hair falling loose about their shoulders; if it was dark, she might sprinkle it with imitation diamond dust. She did her cheeks with dry rouge and a rabbit's foot, and used rice powder (on her shoulders too), carmine lip color, brow pencil, and sandalwood or vanilla fragrance. She typically kept a derringer tucked between her breasts (for those rare occasions when a Western man wouldn't take no for an answer), while prostitutes carried theirs slung to the insides of their thighs.

In some bars, especially the "variety" or "concert" saloon (a Western institution from 1849 on) the female habitués included entertainers. These varied from topless and even bottomless dancers, through belly dancers whose costumes barely covered possible, to the cancan and clodoche (which exposed chiefly "rustling froufrou, a froth of dessous, batiste bloomers, elaborate garters, and above them two fingers of real, white flesh," and was generally danced by groups of girls, say six at a time), to gymnasts, contortionists, trapeze artists (note the one in the railroad-camp saloon in the movie How the West Was Won), and tightrope artists. In fairness it should be said that the lewdest shows seem to have played chiefly in San Francisco, which was heavily influenced by the demands of seamen from all over the world: chivalrous Westerners were more choice about their entertainment. A singing soloist could make $50 a week to start, plus lodging, and in mining camps, at least, she was likely to find herself pelted with bags of gold dust if she pleased the audience, while in cowtowns actresses who'd earned acclaim were apt to have coins, generally silver dollars, thrown at them. Lesser entertainers probably made about what a theatrical ingénue or general-business girl in the legitimate theater did--$15 a week; certainly the variety-show performer of the '80's (male or female) got that much on the road, $20 in the city. Ballet girls on the legitimate stage got $8-$15 a week, and non-leading performers averaged $15-$50.

Of course, none of this is to ignore the existence of prostitutes. Inevitably, in a country where men routinely outnumbered women by two or three to one--sometimes even more: the census of 1850 recorded that more than 90% of California's population was male, and nine years later the figure was still over 85%--and in a culture that tended to consider sexual urges shameful, a need arose, and enterprising persons rushed to satisfy it. In the 1860's the profession boomed, probably as a result of the War and Reconstruction, which produced a large number of displaced, lonely men in search of comfort; so many women went into it that police and reformers, having to face the facts, found it impossible to suppress, and were forced to limit themselves to confining it to certain districts of the community, slowing the spread of venereal disease, and "saving" as many women as possible from "sin."

As in all occupations, there was a pecking order. The women who lived in "good houses" considered themselves the cream of the crop, and scorned those who worked in (or out of) saloons, dance halls, and theaters. At the bottom of the scale were the girls who operated independently, without the backing of madams or the luxury of parlor houses; these ultimately tended, in the majority of mining camps (and probably other types of Western towns as well), to live in segregated districts where their little cabins or "cribs"--small dwellings with a front bedroom and a kitchen in the rear--were illuminated by red lamps and curtains and where, in lieu of street numbers, their names were posted in the windows or glass doorfronts. Below even these came the streetwalkers, who were probably confined to the largest cities, in part because, in a small town, every man knew, or could easily find out by discreet inquiry, where paid sex was to be had. It wasn't uncommon for a woman to work the saloons and also maintain a rented house where she entertained customers. (Eastern prostitutes frequently operated out of apartments, though this was apparently unusual in the West.) Wichita in 1875 had a network of hotels and boardinghouses that were known to rent rooms to prostitutes, who often lived elsewhere (at $3-$5 a week for room and board) and came to work ($14/wk. rent) by hack. They also kicked back a third of their earnings to the house, which additionally made money off the sale of liquor and gaming tables--it was, in short, a saloon in all but name. If a madam succeeded in renting the entire establishment, she paid $75-$200 a month for it, and charged the women the same $14 a week; thus even a 12-roomer would bring in $672 a month in rents alone--a tidy profit indeed. Some prostitutes handed back 50c.-$2 to the night clerk, and some described their clients as paying the hack driver $5 to bring the couple to the hotel. The standard practise in such houses was one man per night, at $5 plus liquor and gaming fee. That left the prostitute, if she worked seven nights a week, with $35 (whether she got any commission on the drinks is unclear), of which she kept from $7.45 to $9.45, an amount that compared favorably with a laborer's earnings. Of that, in turn, she had $2.45-$6.45 left after paying her living expenses.

Probably the vast majority of prostitutes worked out of bordellos, the polite term for which was "parlor houses." In many of the high-class ones in New Orleans (and quite probably in other places too), only wine and champagne were served, the ladies wore evening gowns and could be seen only by appointment, and between assignations they and their callers were entertained by musicians, dancers, singers, jugglers, etc. A few larger ones were staffed by as many as 30 women, each of whom paid her madam $30-$50/week for board (i.e., all meals) and lodging and as much again for laundry and unspecified incidentals, but received from $5-$20 for a "quickie" to $20-$50 if the man spent the night (in which case he got a free breakfast and, if necessary, cab fare home). You can see, then, that even if she entertained only one man per night, a girl in such a superior house could rake in from $120 to $350 a week, keeping from $60 to $250 of it for herself, while the madams of the biggest ones netted $1800-$3000 a week before their (admittedly often high) expenses. Some madams also kept a string of "cribs" available for women no longer employable within the bordello itself; these were primitive shacks somewhere in the vicinity. One such, Agnes Bush of Boise, received about $20 a month in rent from each of the girls who staffed her house, and rented a dozen cribs (at $275 a month) which she then sub-let at $48-$60 each, for a profit of as much as $445.

The best bordellos looked, from the outside, like respectable mansions, and were indeed sometimes the tallest building in their town. Sometimes the business would be lodged in a group of three houses joined together but presided over by a single madam; at other times it would be a low, flat building tucked away behind a saloon. Red lanterns hung under the eaves of the porch or mounted above or alongside the door or on a post beside the front walk constituted the chief advertisement of the services to be found within. Bold red curtains (kept drawn) or shades (tacked to the sills) covered the lower windows and were backed by an interior lamp. Occasionally an effort was made to camouflage things by a sign that read BOARDING FOR WOMEN or HOTEL. The back door was never locked, but most customers came in by the front, where there was a hallway or reception room. Off that in turn was the parlor, usually rich with gewgaws, antimacassars, and other Victoriana. Fringed alcoves or a wide variety of sofas and chairs were arranged around the edges, and in the middle was a partially carpeted floor for dancing in the early evenings, with a piano on the bare section on which the girls might also play and sing requests for the customers, and a violinist in a really fancy place. The bar, too, might be located here, or it might be found in a separate room, with its own attendant free-lunch counter. The larger places were likely to include a game room and dance hall, and always at the back there was a big cheerful kitchen where the ladies ate their meals. Their individual rooms were always on the second floor if there was one. The average complement probably ran to six to 12 girls, plus the madam, who entertained only those customers she personally selected. (Rank Hath Its Privileges.)

Somewhere in every parlor house there was always a bouncer, a giant of a man who stayed sober to handle any customer who got too rough with one of the girls or didn't want to pay his bill; his protective presence was doubtless one of the reasons the girls considered themselves superior to free-lancers, who lacked any such shepherds. A good one had an air of luxury and comfort that few private homes in frontier country possessed; at least one advertised itself as having "23 Rooms, 3 Parlors, 2 Ballrooms, and 15 Boarders," doubtless with room to spare for more if the madam could find them. First-class places set a good table and prided themselves on their cellars, offering "choice cigars, bonded bourbon, and the finest liquors and wines." The women, who as a matter of course doubled as barmaids, sent East for their finery or bought it from passing peddlers; customers could enjoy champagne suppers and sing in the evening around the piano with "the girls--all dressed up proper, you can bet." The most successful landladies maintained, at least on the ground floor, a strict air of respectability and charming home life; they insisted on corsets downstairs and forbade "rough stuff." Most were hardheaded realists, forthright and outspoken, yet warm-hearted to a fault, ready to grubstake the miner who'd partied his money away, generous to the sick and down-on-their-luck. Not a few were married, often to their own bartenders. Maids--usually Negro or Mexican--were routinely employed in such houses, with lodging provided, just as in a family home, in a series of little rooms on the uppermost floor.

The lower grade of bordello came to be called a "honkytonk," from a common Southern Negro term. In these,

there was little subtlety about the wenches or their patrons. The direct approach was standard--"Hello, sweetheart!", a five-minute dalliance at the bar, hearty laughter, then an arm-in-arm promenade to her personal crib. For the younger men and shy ones, dancing might precede cribbing a quick-tempo chest-to-bust. Many a lusty man fresh in from the hills couldn't weather such preliminaries. The girl was usually prepared for this and well coached. So, while the gambling stopped--the other girls giggled--the boys at the bar whooped, he and "Sweetheart" stripped naked as they danced.

--From "The Honkytonkers," in This is the West, ed. Robert West Howard

(Whether they went any farther than disrobing is discreetly unspecified.) This grade

often reached such depths that not even a discreet screening was sufficient. These had to be approached up or down "secret" stairways, through darkened halls, behind falsely respectable fronts. These were the grandaddies of the speakeasy and the blind pig.

--"The Honkytonkers"

In one town, no less than thirteen saloon/bordellos were going strong before the first preacher established his church. And everyone patronized them. The West, after all,

was adorned by the five most picturesque actors ever to perform on the great American stage. These were, in the order of their appearance, the Indian, the Mexican, the trapper, the prospector, and the cowboy. Each was, and still is, a romanticist of derring-do, an individualist with active gland-power. Whenever three whites built shacks within hollering distance they had a town; when ten built, they attracted a honkytonk proprietor.

--"The Honkytonkers"

Parlor-house girls, when receiving their clients at evening, wore tight ankle-length dresses, gaudy, sequined, snug at the hips, slit to the knee on one side and with a deep décolletage. One contemporary photograph, supposedly of two prostitutes in a saloon with their clients (actually it was almost certainly posed in the photographer's studio), shows both wearing stylish hats, one a conservative street costume that covers her literally from chin to heels, and the other a respectable-looking evening gown without even bare shoulders. As might be expected, most were reasonably young: some entered the trade as early as eleven or twelve (though this was probably uncommon, since medical statistics show that the age of puberty was higher then, often fifteen or sixteen); in one brothel in Atchison, Kans., of the 12 girls present, six were aged 15-19, five 20-29, and one (quite possibly the madam) claimed to be 59! Of 11 houses in 1880 Denver, with 77 women resident, 51 gave their ages as 15-24, and only five as over 35; 33 were single, five married (four of them living with husbands), and seven divorced. (What the other 32 were is unspecified.) Of 71 prostitutes listed in the Cheyenne, Wyoming, census that year, 26 were 15-24, 23 25-30, and seven 35 or older; 37 listed themselves as single (though some probably had spouses somewhere), and 34 said they were either married, widowed, or divorced. The prime years for the trade were 15-30; after that most went into some field such as saloon operator, abortionist, or manager for one or two younger women. As for the fee, in the West it ordinarily ranged from one dollar to five, with the higher amounts going to the inhabitants of the best bordellos. But charges of five to fifty and up were not unknown, depending upon the skill and scarcity of the girls and the lust and drunkenness of the men. In one Dakota town, the local general-storekeeper--a native of Paris--gave his four daughters first choice of all dress goods that came into his premises, followed by his "most favored customer," the owner of a "five-dollar house," who "liked her girls to look like the luxuries they were." Only after she had made her selections, "to the intense annoyance of the rest of the feminine community, did the new merchandise go on the counters for sale." Clearly, Monsieur knew where the money was, and comported himself accordingly.

Oddly enough, a married prostitute, though apparently a contradiction in terms, wasn't an uncommon phenomenon. Some of these had as husbands the pimp, saloonowner, or brothel operator for whom they worked (as mentioned earlier, these would probably be in the lower ranks of the trade), while others were wed to managers of touring variety shows. Such men not only tolerated the women's profession but actually expected them to use it to improve the family's finances. Others again married habitual criminals: one such man was first charged with the theft of several tons of coal from the UP Railroad (used to heat a couple of local brothels), then with assault with intent to kill (he served one year), then with forgery (the wife pleaded guilty to charges of prostitution less than a week after he entered prison). Kitty LeRoy, though apparently not, strictly speaking, a whore--she operated the Mint gambling den in Deadwood--had five. One was a German prospector who had struck a rich vein of ore; she wed him, took him for $8000, and then, when his claim would yield no more, crowned him with a bottle and drove him from her door. The last of the series beat her to the draw (what they were quarreling about at the time is not mentioned) and shot her dead, then committed suicide. Many had children; one, Bridget Holland, was arrested for physically abusing hers. Some apparently listed themselves as seamstresses, milliners, or laundresses (madams particularly, having to account for the presence of so many young ladies frequenting their lodgings, were likely to resort to the first, and the association eventually became so notorious that newspapers used "fine sewing" as a euphemism for prostitution); one in Denver kept a cigar store, probably with a parlor in the back room.

Prostitutes moved frequently, with families and without, and often worked under a different name in each new community. This makes specific women difficult to track in the historical record, but Howard R. Lamar's New Encyclopedia of the American West suggests that "as many as 50,000 prostitutes worked between Kansas City and San Francisco in the second half of the nineteenth century." Though St. Louis, Mo., in 1870 found (by reason of the refusal of the prostitutes to co-operate) that it was impossible to enforce a planned law that would have restricted them to a specified "red-light" district, most communities accommodated an informally designated one--Denver's Market Street, the "anything-goes" suburbs of the various Kansas cowtowns--which was monitored closely by local law enforcement. Through a system of arrests and fines unevenly levied against both the whores and the gamblers, chiefly those out of favor with the head lawman, some control was exercised over the "undesirable element" even as the community treasury benefited from their presence.

It seems logical to suppose that prostitutes, being by the nature of their occupation both more frank and better informed about sex than the ordinary run of "respectable" women, employed birth control at least part of the time. This technology was, however, literally in its infancy in the 19th Century, and was further hampered by the fact that many people, doctors included, believed contraception interfered with the divine order and was a threat to home and family life, which meant that the means to it were available sporadically and surreptitiously when they were available at all. By the 1840's the woman concerned with birth control could purchase Portuguese Female Pills (an abortifacient) or Madame Restell's Preventive Powders, but how effective they were is unclear. Probably those who had worked in New Orleans, St. Louis, or other communities in or adjacent to the former French possessions were aware of condoms (fashioned of rubber, as today, or of skin), which were in use in France from an early date, but men of that era were almost certainly just as reluctant to use them as their descendants are now. Diaphragms were also to be had in the years following 1860, if not before, and so were douches compounded from such ingredients as alum, pearlash, red rose leaves, carbolic acid, bicarbonate of soda, sulphate of zinc, potassium bitartrate, vinegar, lysol, or plain water. What we call today the "rhythm method" was well known, as was coitus interruptus, though the latter was criticized for the physical and psychological trauma it supposedly inflicted upon both partners. Abortion was much more popular before the Civil War than after, and indeed spread to all social classes in the years c. 1850-70, involving either chemicals at home or a visit to a professional abortionist, some of whom prospered exceedingly through their trade. (One historian has estimated that at mid-century one abortion was performed for every five to six live births.) It was apparently not expensive, since one respected physician complained in 1872 that it was now "within reach of the serving girl"--he knew, indeed, of at least one abortionist who charged only $10 and would accept "his pay in installments"--nor was it seen as a moral issue. However, there was concern among lawmakers about the necessity of protecting women from unqualified practitioners, and by the early '60's most states had laws restricting the practise. The chief effect this had on prostitutes was to force it underground or inspire them to attempt the deed on themselves--which was just as likely to result in death. What seems more remarkable than the existence of children of prostitutes as such, is that they weren't more common; several married couples, depending upon the "safe period," found themselves faced with repeated pregnancies despite their precautions, and given the fact that men were urged by social pressure and the medical literature of the day to exercise restraint and foist themselves on their wives as seldom as their self-control would permit, women who earned their living on their backs were certainly much more at risk.


Continued in Shady Ladies, page 2



Comments to author Christine Jeffords

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