Category Archives: Arizona Historical Prostitution

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. 

Flagstaff’s Flag Has Flown for 160 Over Years

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Jan recently published her newest book, Good Time Girls of Arizona and New Mexico: A Red-Light History of the American Southwest, which includes a chapter about Flagstaff’s demimonde. It can be purchased at Rowman.com. 

This year marks the 164th anniversary of Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s expedition in Arizona. In 1855 the road surveyor camped on a hillside roughly midway between New Mexico and California. Above camp towered what are now known as the San Francisco Peaks. Beale’s men trimmed and scaled a tall Ponderosa Pine, and flew the United States flag from the top. In the years following, the area was landmarked with this “flagstaff”.

Flagstaff remained a stopping point along Beale’s route for some twenty years before anyone thought to actually settle there. This was Thomas F. McMillan, who built a cabin at the base of Mars Hill in about 1876—and some say that this was also when the U.S. flag was really raised for the first time. Be it a flag or McMillan’s settlement, something did the trick, for soon the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad announced it would eventually be cutting through the flat area below the San Francisco Peaks. Enterprising pioneers lost little time in scurrying to accommodate railroad workers.

Soon Old Town, as it was later called, sprang up on the southeast slope of today’s Observatory Hill. The numerous business houses included twenty one saloons along the rough main street. There was also at least one “dance house in which the proprietor has a large platform erected which he has furnished with several pistols and guns. When a valiant gets a little troublesome he picks him off at a single shot and that is the end of the creature.”

Yes, early Flagstaff was as rough and tumble as any other western town. Within a few years, however, positive growth was evidenced by the railroad industry, a post office and the shipping of timber, sheep and cattle. Miners were present too, and by 1886 the town had become the largest city on the A & P Railroad between Albuquerque and California. Anything and everything was available at Flagstaff.

Although historian Sharlot Hall of Prescott once called Flagstaff “a third rate mining camp”, Flagstaff soon shed its mining camp status. Throughout the 1890’s, upwards of 100 trains passed through Flagstaff daily to points in every direction. In 1896 the famed Lowell Observatory was built there, and the Northern Arizona Normal School (today’s Northern Arizona University) was established in 1899. So was the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, which premiered at Babbitt’s Opera House. The Babbitts and their CO Bar Ranch, as well as their trading companies, department store and numerous other businesses, have been known in the Flagstaff area and beyond for generations.

During the early 1900’s, Arizona continued experiencing business growth, including a good-sized red light district. The district got even larger in 1908 with the mayoral election of  Benjamin Doney, who followed through on his plans to lift the hefty laws imposed on the bawdy houses, saloons and gambling dens. He also expanded the red light district to a ten block area. Business licenses for bordellos were in fact lowered even as respectable businesses were required to pay more. Doney’s actions were appalling to certain citizens, state legislators and reformists, and by 1910 he was out. The red light district closed altogether following the gory and unsolved murder of Madam May Prescott in 1916.

Two years after Route 66 was completed in 1926, Flagstaff was incorporated as a city. Then in 1930, planet Pluto was discovered from Lowell Observatory. The discovery rocked the astronomical world and Flagstaff became famous all over the globe. In 1955 the United States Naval Observatory established a station at Flagstaff, and the Clark Telescope was used to map the moon during the Apollo expeditions of the 1960’s. Today the city even has its own asteroids, 2118 Flagstaff and 6582 Flagsymphony. And in 2001, Flagstaff was named the first ever “International Dark Sky City” by the International Dark Sky Association.

Back on Earth, Flagstaff waned a wee bit for a few decades. But revitalization efforts that began in 1987 have resulted in an artistic blend of old with new. In the downtown area especially, historic preservation efforts still stand out with such historic structures as the Hotel Weatherford and the Hotel Monte Vista, not to mention numerous other shops, taverns, businesses and restaurants. The historic Depot, the Museum Club, San Francisco Street—all reflect on Flagstaff’s colorful and alluring past.