Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona – Introduction

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following chapter is excerpted from Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona(Arcadia Publishing, 2015.)

As one of the last states to enter the Union, Arizona remained a raw, rather uncivilized territory between 1863 and 1912. The untamed land lent itself to explorers, miners, ranchers, farmers and others who saw an opportunity to prosper. The growing population also included its share of shady ladies, a staple of the economy in nearly every western town. These wanton women prided themselves in being independent, hardy individuals who weren’t afraid to pack their petticoats across rough, barren terrain and set up shop. Their stories range from mild to wild, with plenty of colorful anecdotes in between.

Who were these daring damsels who defied social norms to ply their trade in frontier Arizona? The 1860 United States census, taken just three years before Arizona Territory was formed, listed a number of females who were then part of New Mexico Territory. At the time, New Mexico Territory was quite large. The population, which spanned over today’s Arizona, New Mexico, a portion of Colorado and part of Nevada, included mostly Mexican women who were locally born.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Organic Act which divided Arizona and New Mexico Territories by a north-to-south border that is still in place today. The first Arizona Territorial census was conducted the following year between February and April 1, revealing a population numbering over 4,500 people. Almost 1,100 of them were female adults and children.

Arizona’s military forts, mining camps, whistle stops, and cities grew at an amazing rate. Soldiers of the early frontier forts served as ample clientele for prostitutes during Arizona Territory’s formative years. Later, as mining camps grew into towns and towns bloomed into cities, a bevy of soiled doves flocked into these places and set up more permanent bordellos. In time nearly every town included working girls who conducted business in anything from tents, to tiny one or two-room adobe or stick-built cribs, to rooms above saloons, to posh parlor houses. Prescott, one the earliest, wildest and fastest growing towns in the Territory, was no exception.

The census records of the 1800’s are amongst the best resources used to identify prostitutes, but even these failed to identify every known working girl in Prescott. By 1870 the females of the town numbered a mere 108 versus 560 men. The census reveals little else about the ladies, including their marital status unless they married within that year. In most cases, the occupations of women who worked in the prostitution industry were discreetly left blank. Because the occupations of women who were unemployed or working as housewives were also unidentified in several instances, the true number of females working as prostitutes will never be known.

Not until the 1880 census were more—but not all—women of the underworld in Prescott blatantly identified as prostitutes, “sporting” and “fancy” women, mistresses and madams. The smart prostitute revealed very little about herself and took great pains to disguise her real identity, where she came from and how she made her living. Such details, however, might be revealed in her absence by a room mate, her madam, a nearby business or even the census taker who knew the occupants of the red light district, but was too embarrassed to knock on the doors there. So while girls such as Elizabeth Arbuckle were listed as prostitutes in Prescott during the 1880 census other women, such as madam Ann Hamilton, were only known as “keeping house” and other indiscernible occupations.

Census records also revealed changes in the way the West viewed the prostitution industry over the next 20 years. The 1890 census having burned up in a fire, it was obvious by 1900 that civilization had started its inevitable creep into Arizona Territory. Wives and families, churches and temperance unions were part of the growing groups in the West. Wayward ladies were forced to tone their job descriptions down to some extent. While blatant racism encouraged identifying Japanese and Chinese prostitutes as such, the Anglo women living next to them, or in identified red light districts, claimed to be working as seamstresses, laundresses, milliners and other demure careers that kept them out of the spotlight as working girls.

From 1900 on the bad girls of Prescott became largely unidentifiable, save for the tell-tale neighborhoods they lived in, their skirmishes as reported in newspapers, and the legal documents which singled them out. As the city continued growing, the female population had started catching up to the males by 1910 (2,032 women to 2,711 men). The girls of the row now struggled to prosper while their hometown remained tolerable for the most part. Interestingly, the residents of Prescott seem to have accepted their working girls as they would any other citizen, more so than many other towns in the west. Everybody knew that sex was for sale along Granite Street, just one block west of Montezuma Street’s “Saloon Row”. And very few seemed inclined to do much about it.

Historically speaking, however, loose women have always generated an enigmatic history. In an historically untamed place like Arizona, they are hard to track. Prescott was in fact so accepting of their shady ladies that, unless they got into trouble and landed in the public eye, hard records of them are very scarce. Finding them is further complicated by the time-honored tradition of generating folklore and embellishments over time, with a good sprinkling of misguided attempts to brand many a colorful old hotel, saloon or home as a former whorehouse. And although many of Prescott’s brazen hussies have a solid place in the state’s history, far more have escaped the eyes of historians and quietly faded along a rather dusty trail.

Despite Prescott’s ambivalence towards their wayward girls, being a prostitute was still the naughtiest of naughty deeds. The law, the moral majority and a good number of angry wives rarely lost the opportunity to emphasize the evils of being a bad girl. Their efforts were not unwarranted. Prescott newspapers do have stories of wicked women of the past who were not beyond lying, thieving and even murdering as they danced their way through the demimonde. Some crimes are excusable; certain girls were in the business due to the loss, by death or desertion, of a husband. Those who fought and/or killed were often defending their own honor or fighting for their lives during some domestic dispute. But it is no secret that certain prostitutes were truly a bad lot and drank, drugged, danced, fought, killed, stole and sold their bodies solely to appease their own inner demons.

In time Prescott, along with a number of other communities, officially outlawed prostitution to appease state laws and the moral element. On the side, however, officials continued to quietly tolerate the red-light districts. The prostitution industry evolved into an underground cash cow of sorts. As immoral as they were, women of the lamplight provided company and entertainment for Arizona’s restless soldiers and miners. They were also an excellent source of income for the city coffer, where their fines, high taxes and monthly business fees were deposited on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, required weekly or monthly medical exams were conducted by a city physician whose salary was supplemented by fees from their patients.

Stories also are numerous of illicit ladies in the West who sheltered the homeless, fed the poor, employed the unemployed, contributed to the building of hospitals, schools and churches, and assisted their hometowns with numerous unseen, unappreciated efforts. Arizona was no exception to the kindness of these true “whores with a heart of gold”, as the old saying goes. Thus, even though the Territorial government outlawed prostitution once and for all in 1907, the law was loosely enforced on behalf of the good time girls who made Prescott’s history even more colorful than it already was.

Some feel that history accounts about prostitution somehow reveres the industry’s participants as heroes. Others think that revealing the lives of the industry’s chief participants further shames them. Along those same lines, there is little doubt that many fallen angels preferred to remain unknown, hoping that their misdeeds would fade with their names into history. They did not want to embarrass their families or even friends who may have known them back when they were “good girls.”

Good or bad, the ladies are now long gone, unaware that their humility and courage is often held in esteem by others who enjoy reading about them, and many who sympathize with their plight. The shame is mostly gone too, even if it is often replaced by the romantic notion that all prostitutes’ lives were interesting, even fun. In many cases, they were not. True fans of prostitution history recognize that the vast majority of these women gambled everything, at very high risks, for a chance at surviving in a less than perfect world. Their efforts are memorable, at the very least because they served as an integral staple of the economy of the West. No matter their misdeeds, they deserve a second look as an important part of American history. 

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