Tag Archives: historical prostitution

Hidden Harlots at the Heart of History

c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins

For nearly thirty years, the long-gone, loose women of the American West have been chasing me around. I began by taking an interest in one, a prominent madam named Laura Bell McDaniel of Old Colorado City, Colorado. In researching her, more women followed, and before I knew it I was up to my ears in shady ladies.

Not that I minded, but I do have other history interests to write about. Over time, however, I have discovered that even when I am researching something entirely different from the prostitution history of the West, the ladies still show up. They casually appear in old news articles, right next to the one I’m reading. They pop up in old property ledgers, law books and miscellaneous documents. In census records, my trained eye automatically spots words like “sporting”, “red light” or any other term applied to women of the night.

Fortunately, the ladies have paid me for spending time with them by allowing me to write about them in relative peace. Three of the books I have written focus on the world’s oldest profession. The newest one, Wild Women of Prescott, Arizona, came out just a couple of years ago. This book focuses on the time period between 1860 and 1918, when the west was still quite young and struggling to come of age.

I’m not telling you this just in the name of shameless self-promotion. Rather, I enjoy emphasizing how the prostitution industry was an important aspect of western history as we know it. Love it or hate it, nearly every camp, boomtown and city sported its own special neighborhood where lonely miners, traveling salesmen, local husbands and other men could escape the drudgery of their lives with a little female companionship.

The ladies of the lamplight did much more than provide entertainment. In addition to their services, these women purchased property, paid taxes, bought business licenses, contributed monthly fines and fees to city coffers, shopped locally, and made untold numbers of donations to charities, schools, churches and other causes. Their posh parlors were often the scene of impromptu meetings between prominent men to discuss civic affairs, laws and other important issues of the day. The right madam knew every man in town, and willingly offered advice and opinions on sensitive matters. These unseen, unappreciated contributions helped shape the west and assisted places that are now fine, upstanding communities.

In places like Prescott, prominent men of the city actually owned and rented houses of prostitution to women who not only generated local business but also assisted in making important decisions regarding city growth, politics and commerce. What went on in the bordello generally stayed in the bordello, making for a great place in which to conduct business and other important meetings. The men knew the madam would keep their secrets, and that whatever plans they discussed were less likely to be overheard by the wrong person.

For me, this information is secondary to the fact that most prostitutes were amazingly brave to work in a dangerous industry. The realm of prostitution often included violence, drug and alcohol abuse and a slew of personal problems ranging from suicidal tendencies to unwanted pregnancies. The law could offer only limited assistance in times of trouble, usually after that fact – if any assistance was rendered at all. The sad stories overwhelmingly outweigh the good ones with tales of abuse, stabbings, shootings, suicide, death from overdose, stillborn children, asylum or jail time, lonely deaths and sad endings. I can only counter this blatant history with a healthy handful of success stories ending in wealth, vindication and happy days.

Many women, including Prescott madams Mollie Sheppard, Annie Hamilton, Gabe Wiley, Lida Winchell and others were willing to put themselves at risk in order to make their way in a man’s world. Done right, running a bordello was an attractive alternative to living the boring life of a housewife or working menial jobs which kept women in poverty. It also provided a means to widows with little mouths to feed. A woman had to take much care to keep from suffering from her own vices and succumbing to the hazards of working as a prostitute.

Fortunately for all, Prescott was more tolerant than most places across the West. Residents exhibited a most unique tenderness for the girls of the “restricted district”, allowing them to work and live within the confines of fairly lenient laws and ordinances. For many men, the working girls were “friends with benefits”, women who offered soft skin, scented necks, open arms, and even open ears as the men voiced their troubles. The men’s memories remained fond long after the girls were gone, gleaned through the occasional interview or perhaps an eloquently written obituary if one of them passed away.

Refreshingly, writing Wild Women of Prescott reminded me that the spirit of those sporting girls remains very real today as women of my generation struggle more than ever for empowerment. Always an advocate of the old “you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been” adage, I find that my readers sense that the needs and wants of women are not much different now than they were then. In the old west prostitute’s case, here was a class of women who dared to venture forth and try to make money with the only tangible weapon they had.

If you are a fan of the wild west, I hope you can find time to pick up a copy of the book. You can find it at history.net, as well as Amazon.