Monday, January 29, 2018

Soiled Doves of the West

In the 19th century, opportunities for a woman were limited. In the upper class, she was expected to learn needlepoint and marry well. A working class woman could hope for a job as a cook, maid, or servant or find herself in the hellish work of a sweatshop.
These women were paid about 50 cents a day.
Abused wives and daughters and women seeking adventure could run away and choose a different path out West where the opportunities were nearly limitless. But in a society where there were four men to every woman, a popular employment (at least popular for the men) was a career as a sex worker.

The Madams
The pimp is mostly a 20th century invention. From New Orleans to San Francisco and north to the Yukon goldfields, almost every brothel was own and operated by a woman who had grown wealthy plying the trade.

Jennie Rogers (right) was a statuesque beauty who became wealthy running one of the best houses in Denver. Jennie was not above blackmailing her clients to finance her upscale house.

Another madam, Mattie Silks (left), had a famous duel with a woman who had flirted with her lover. Mattie and her opponent, Katie Fulton, stripped to the waist, paced off, turn and fired. The only person shot was the man they were fighting over.

Mattie was a very successful businesswoman, owning brothels in both Denver and Dodge City. Her name was linked to a stylish type of boot and she endorsed a pearl handled dagger for women to carry for protection.

Pearl de Vere (real name unknown) showed up in Colorado as Mrs. Martin and adopted her pseudonym upon opening her upscale brothel in Cripple Creek. Hers was one of the swankiest parlors east of San Francisco, only the wealthiest mine owners could afford her girls.

Ladies with Nicknames
Big-Nose Kate (Mária Katalin Horony) pictured with her notorious lover Doc Holiday. She ran away from her foster home as a young teen and worked in the brothel owned by Bessie Earp, wife of Wyatt's older brother James.

Squirrel Tooth Alice (Libby Haley Thompson) was kidnapped by Comanche raiders at the age of 10. Ransomed three years later, she was ostracized by the good citizens of Bolton, Texas as used goods. At the age of 14, she ran away to Abilene where she worked in dance halls along the Chisholm Trail as a performer and prostitute before establishing her own brothel. She is pictured with one of her pet prairie dogs.
Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary) did, occasionally, engage in prostitution for extra cash but she is most noteworthy for showing what work was available to women in the West. She was an army scout during the Indian Wars.

The Working Life
Working women chopping wood in Dawson City, Yukon Territory.
Sex work is never glamorous. The hours are long. The customers in mining camps are numerous and smelly. In the cheap cribs of San Francisco's Barbary Coast or Los Angeles' Hell's Half Acre a woman might have to service 30 men a night for less than a dollar each.

It was a hard life, but all life in the 19th century was hard if your name wasn't Rockefeller or Vanderbilt.

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