How 19th Century Prostitutes Were Among the Freest, Wealthiest, Most Educated Women of Their Time

Russell's new 'Renegade History of the United States' recounts how prostitutes won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted.

The following is an excerpt from Thaddeus Russell's new book, "A Renegade History of the United States" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010):

In the nineteenth century, a woman who owned property, made high wages, had sex outside of marriage, performed or received oral sex, used birth control, consorted with men of other races, danced, drank, or walked alone in public, wore makeup, perfume, or stylish clothes -- and was not ashamed -- was probably a whore.

In fact, prostitutes won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted. Prostitutes were especially successful in the wild, lawless, thoroughly renegade boomtowns of the West. When women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, madams in the West owned large tracts of land and prized real estate. Prostitutes made, by far, the highest wages of all American women. Several madams were so wealthy that they funded irrigation and road-building projects that laid the foundation for the New West. Decades before American employers offered health insurance to their workers, madams across the West provided their employees with free health care. While women were told that they could not and should not protect themselves from violence, and wives had no legal recourse against being raped by their husbands, police officers were employed by madams to protect the women who worked for them, and many madams owned and knew how to use guns.

While feminists were seeking to free women from the "slavery" of patriarchal marriage, prostitutes married later in life and divorced more frequently than other American women. At a time when birth control was effectively banned, prostitutes provided a market for contraceptives that made possible their production and distribution. While women were taught that they belonged in the "private sphere," prostitutes traveled extensively, often by themselves, and were brazenly "public women." Long before social dancing in public was considered acceptable for women, prostitutes invented many of the steps that would become all the rage during the dance craze of the 1910s and 1920s. When gambling and public drinking were forbidden for most women, prostitutes were fixtures in western saloons, and they became some of the most successful gamblers in the nation. Most ironically, the makeup, clothing, and hairstyles of prostitutes, which were maligned for their overt sexuality (lipstick was "the scarlet shame of streetwalkers"), became widely fashionable among American women and are now so respectable that even First Ladies wear them.

Women who wished to escape the restrictions of Victorian America had no better place to go than the so-called frontier, where a particular combination of economic and demographic forces gave renegade women many unusual advantages.


Between 1870 and 1900, the number of farms in the United States doubled, and more land was brought under cultivation than in the previous two and half centuries. Most of this newly cultivated land was in the Great Plains and the Southwest. In addition to all of this farming, other industries developed rapidly in the West during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The largest of these were metal and coal mining in California, the Rockies, and parts of the Southwest; cattle ranching on the Plains; lumber in the Pacific Northwest; large-scale fruit and vegetable agriculture in the inland valleys of California; and oil in Texas, Oklahoma, and Southern California. Connecting these industries to one another and to eastern U.S. and European markets were railroads, which crisscrossed the West by the end of the nineteenth century. The federal government contributed to this explosive growth with massive expenditures for the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, which ran from the Pacific Ocean to the Missouri River, but also to the building of roads, dams, and vast irrigation systems without which the West as we know it could never have been created.

Towns were created virtually overnight in mountains where precious metal was discovered, in deserts near oil strikes, along cattle trails and around railroad stations, and in forests next to lumber mills and logging stands. Some boomtowns grew into the major urban hubs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Seattle. The people who filled those towns were overwhelmingly male, since the labor that brought them there was brutal, physically onerous, and almost universally considered to be men's work. The non-Indian population of California in 1850 was 93 percent male. In the mining towns along the Comstock Silver Lode in Nevada, a census taker in 1860 counted 2,306 men and 30 women. These were men without families, without land, without property, and without a stake in any one community. They moved from town to town in search of money. And, since most of the towns they lived and worked in were brand new, the legal apparatus was usually very weak. These were exactly the conditions that bred bad people.

The Whorearchy

With good reason, the keepers of American morality in the nineteenth century were terribly worried about all the single men in the West. One Protestant minister wrote, "Left by themselves, men degenerate rapidly and become rough, harsh, slovenly -- almost brutish." He was correct. Ironically, most of these men were white and full American citizens. But they cared little for the restrictions and responsibilities of citizenship. One moral reformer in Montana reported this about life in a mining town: "Men without the restraint of law, indifferent to public opinion, and unburdened by families, drink whenever they feel like it, whenever they have the money to pay for it, and whenever there is nothing else to do. … Bad manners follow, profanity becomes a matter of course …. Excitability and nervousness brought on by rum help these tendencies along, and then to correct this state of things the pistol comes into play." In the silver mining boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, in 1879 there were 120 saloons, 19 beer halls, 188 gambling houses, and only 4 churches.

Into this world stepped legions of women who understood something about supply and demand. A U.S. Department of Labor study in 1916 found that in the major legitimate occupations for women -- department store clerking and light manufacturing -- the average weekly wage was $6.67, which at the time represented a subsistence standard of living. In such industries, jobs were few, and due to the ban on women's labor in most of the economy, the number of available workers in the industries that allowed women was great. This oversupply of labor pushed wages down to the minimum. By contrast, women who chose prostitution enjoyed a highly favorable market for their labor. Demand was enormous and constant, especially in the West, and the pool of available labor was kept relatively small by the great number of women who internalized or feared the stigma attached to prostitution. According to historian Ruth Rosen, who pioneered the social history of prostitution in the United States, "The average brothel inmate or streetwalker" -- the lowest positions in the trade -- "received from one to five dollars a 'trick,' earning in one evening what other working women made in a week." Prostitutes in a 1916 study reported earnings between $30 to $50 per week, at a time when skilled male trade union members averaged roughly $20 per week. In their study of Virginia City, Nevada, George M. Blackburn and Sherman L. Ricards found that prostitutes in that 1860s boomtown, unlike the stereotype of the innocent, young "white slave," were actually considerably older on average than women of the western mining states Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada. "From the age data on prostitutes, it is clear that they were old enough to realize the nature of their behavior and also old enough to have married had they so desired, for this was an area with many unattached men. Thus we conclude that these were professional women intent on economic success." After working as a domestic in El Paso, Texas, for $3 per week, a Mexican-born woman quit her job and "decided to become a puta" for the extra money. She later recalled, "It took me a long time to get used to having men intimately explore my body… Of course, I had guilt feelings at the beginning, but they soon disappeared when I saw my savings begin mounting up."

Even in the tighter markets of the East, prostitutes were extraordinarily well paid. In New York City, according to historian Timothy Gilfoyle, "an affluent, but migratory, class of prostitutes flourished." Low wages "in the factory and the household made prostitutes the best-paid women workers in the nineteenth-century city." In studies conducted in New York during the 1900s and 1910s, 11 percent of prostitutes listed coercion as the reason for entering the trade, but almost 28 percent named the money they could earn. Members of the Vice Commission of Chicago, like many anti-prostitution reformers, faced the hard truth of the wealth being accrued by prostitutes with a bitter question: "Is it any wonder that a tempted girl who receives only six dollars per week working with her hands sells her body for twenty-five dollars per week when she learns there is a demand for it and men are willing to pay the price?" One Chicago prostitute who supported her family with her wages had an answer. She told an interviewer, "Do you suppose I am going back to earn five or six dollars a week in a factory, and at that, never have a cent of it to spend for myself, when I can earn that amount any night, and often much more?" Historian Ruth Rosen was "struck again and again by most prostitutes' view of their work as 'easier' and less oppressive than other survival strategies they might have chosen."

Prostitutes were the first women to break free of what early American feminists described as a system of female servitude. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of the leading feminist intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, noted that human beings were the only species in which "an entire sex lives in a relation of economic dependence upon the other sex." Since wages in respectable occupations were so low, the only culturally sanctioned means for a woman to attain wealth was through a rich husband. And since states in the nineteenth century granted few or no property rights to married women, even women who "married well" owned little or nothing of their own. But women who chose to be bad could live well on their own.

Prostitutes who rose to the top of the industry to become "madams" owned more wealth than any other women in the United States. Indeed, they were among the wealthiest people in the country, and especially in the West. "Diamond Jessie" Hayman began work as a prostitute in the gold country of the Sierra Nevada foothills in the 1880s, then moved to San Francisco to become one of the most successful prostitutes in the city's history. Hayman's three-story brothel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco included three fireplaces, a saloon, a champagne cellar, and fifteen suites filled with imported furniture. She provided each of her employees with a $6,000 wardrobe that included a fox fur coat, four tailored suits, eight hats, two dress coats, twelve pairs of shoes, twelve pairs of gloves, seven evening gowns, and seven negligees. Hayman earned enough money from her business to buy several parcels of land in the city. After the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco, Hayman and other madams provided food and clothing to the thousands left homeless. She died in 1923 with an estate worth $116,000.

Jennie Rogers, the "Queen of the Colorado Underworld," owned several opulent brothels in Denver that featured ceiling-to-floor mirrors, crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs, marble tables, and grand pianos. Rogers provided her prostitutes with personal hairstylists and dressmakers, ensuring that they were among the most stylish women in the world. Her profits were so great that she was able to purchase large tracts of Denver's most valuable land as well as several shares of an irrigation and reservoir project that not only provided the city with much of its water but also paid Rogers sizable dividends. Rogers's major competitor was Mattie Silks, who had risen from the ranks of streetwalkers in Abilene, Texas, and Dodge City, Kansas, to become a brothel owner by the age of nineteen. Soon after moving to Denver in 1876, she purchased a three-story mansion with twenty-seven rooms, then outfitted it with the finest furnishings available.

Visitors to the Silks brothel were greeted by a symphony orchestra in the main parlor. Silks eventually opened three other brothels and purchased a stable of race horses. After her retirement from the trade, she told a newspaper, "I went into the sporting life for business reasons and for no other. It was a way for a woman in those days to make money, and I made it. I considered myself then and I do now -- as a businesswoman." Her employees, who were among the highest paid women in the United States, "came to me for the same reasons that I hired them. Because there was money in it for all of us."

Other madams ruled major portions of the West. Eleanora Dumont purchased real estate in gold and silver boomtowns all over the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, where she established lucrative brothels, saloons, and gambling houses. Josephine "Chicago Joe" Airey used the proceeds from her brothels to purchase a sizable portion of Helena, Montana's, real estate in the 1870s and 1880s. Lou Graham was not only early Seattle's most prominent madam, she was also one of its wealthiest residents. Graham arrived in Seattle in 1888 and soon opened an immaculately appointed brothel in the Pioneer Square area. To advertise her business, she paraded with her employees on carriages through the city streets. Graham invested heavily in the stock market and in real estate, becoming, according to one historian, "one of the largest landholders in the Pacific Northwest." The "Queen of the Lava Beds" also contributed enormous sums to help establish the Seattle public school system and saved many of the city's elite families from bankruptcy after the panic of 1893. Anna Wilson, the "Queen of the Omaha Underworld," owned a substantial portion of the city's real estate. Toward the end of her life she bequeathed to the city her twenty-five room mansion, which became Omaha's first modern emergency hospital and a communicable-disease treatment center.

It is unlikely that there were more wealthy or powerful black women in nineteenth-century America than Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant and Sarah B. "Babe" Connors. Pleasant was born a slave but became one of the most influential women in early San Francisco. She operated boardinghouses in which wealthy businessmen were paired with prostitutes. With the revenue from her primary business, she invested in mining stock and made high-interest loans to the San Francisco elite. Pleasant also filed suit to desegregate the city's streetcars, making her "the mother of the civil rights movement" in California. Connors's brothels in St. Louis were among the most popular in the Midwest. Known as "the Castle" and "the Palace," they featured luxurious rugs, tapestries, art work, and crystal chandeliers. The parlor of the Palace was famous for its floor, which was made entirely of mirrored glass. Connors herself was always elegantly appointed with drapes of jewelry on her body and gold and diamonds embedded in her teeth. Many of the most famous songs of the ragtime genre -- the principal precursor to jazz -- were invented by Letitia Lulu Agatha "Mama Lou" Fontaine, who performed as the house act at Connors's brothels.

High-end madams were not the only prostitutes who acquired substantial wealth. A middle-class reformer in Virginia City, Nevada, noted with disdain that local prostitutes were "always dressed the richest." The historians Blackburn and Ricards concluded that while prostitutes in Virginia City were not the richest people in town, they "did amass more wealth than most of their customers. In addition, compared with other women of the city, the white prostitutes were well-to-do. This was because virtually none of the married women and very few unmarried women had any money at all. If the prostitutes came West to compete economically with others of their sex, they were successful."

Similarly, historian Paula Petrik found that approximately 60 percent of the prostitutes who worked in Helena, Montana, between 1865 and 1870 "reported either personal wealth or property or both." The town's "fancy ladies" also made 44 percent of the property transactions undertaken by women and acquired all twenty mortgages that were given to women during the period. Most impressive of all were Helena prostitutes' wages compared to male workers in the town. Petrik estimates that the average monthly income of "a fancy lady plying her trade along Wood Street" was $233. By contrast, bricklayers, stone masons, and carpenters earned between $90 and $100, and even bank clerks made only $125 per month. Moreover, "[c]ompared with the $65 monthly wage the highest paid saleswomen received, prostitutes' compensation was royal." At a time when leading feminists were demanding an end to women's economic dependence, the red-light district in Helena was, in Petrik's words, "women's business grounded in women's property and capital."

Today's women attorneys might also find their earliest ancestors among western madams, who regularly appeared in court on their own behalf and won quite frequently. Petrik found a large number of court cases in Helena in which prostitutes brought suit against one another to "settle petty squabbles among them that could not be resolved by the Tenderloin's leaders" or to "challenge men who assaulted, robbed, or threatened them." In half of the cases involving a prostitute's complaint against a man, "the judge or jury found for the female complainants." Petrik discovered in Helena "a singular lack of legal and judicial concern with sexual commerce" before the influx of moral reformers. "[O]fficers of the law arrested no women for prostitution or keeping a disorderly house before 1886, even though the police court was located in the red-light district" and prostitution had been a central part of the town's economy for two decades. The era of legal tolerance coincided with a period in which Helena's prostitutes suffered very little of the self-destructiveness assumed to be common among sex workers. "Not one whore in Helena died by her own hand before 1883," and though the town's prostitutes were "rampant users of alcohol and drugs," there were "no reports of prostitutes dying of alcoholism or drug overdose between 1865 and 1883 in Helena."

Some madams abused their employees or placed them in peonage, but these tended to be the less successful brothel keepers. To attract women in the highly competitive markets of western boomtowns, where red-light districts nearly always included several brothels, most madams not only paid their employees far higher wages than they would find in any other employment, they also provided free birth control, health care, legal assistance, housing, and meals for their employees. Few American workers of either sex in the nineteenth century enjoyed such benefits.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the wealth, power, and ubiquity of prostitutes caused several urban reformers to warn of a "whorearchy" that threatened to undermine the virtues of the nation. Madams led an "under-ground universe" with "a regularly organized community of thieves, who have their laws and regulations," as George Foster put it in his 1850 novel Celio: or, New York Above-ground and Under-ground. In George Ellington's 1869 journalistic account, The Women of New York: or, the Underworld of the Great City, madams were "female fiends of the worst kind, who seem to have lost all the better qualities of human nature." Worse still, they had "entree to the good society of the metropolis" with "the friends and chosen companions of some of the wealthiest and most intellectual men of the city."

Excerpted fromA Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell,Copyright © 2010 Thaddeus Russell.  Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010).