Historical study of Whores and Whoredom

PART ONE
NINETEENTH-CENTURY PROSTITUTION:
PROFILES AND PROBLEMS


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1
“The Terrible State of Society and Morals . . . in Unhappy New York”
Nineteenth-Century Moralism and the Prostitution Problem

On Monday, April 11, 1836, the New York Herald ran two lead articles side by side at the top of its front page. One story described the brutal murder of a young prostitute whose body had been found the day before; the second reported on efforts by local church leaders to dispose of a controversy involving a leading moral reformer who campaigned against prostitution. The murdered prostitute, virtually unknown except to her patrons, coworkers, and a few who recognized her in her neighborhood, would within days became a household name and would achieve considerable posthumous notoriety. The moral reformer, whose name was already widely familiar in New York and other states, would within a few months die in relative obscurity, broken in health and spirit.[1]

There is no evidence that the prostitute and the reformer had known one another or even been aware of one another, though both had been intimately involved with New York’s prostitution community. The double lead billing for their stories evoked two sides of the same coin, two completely different images of the world of prostitution. Ironically, perhaps, from their vastly different perspectives and experiences, both individuals can be said to have played a role—symbolic, if not actual— in shaping issues and public discourse that would impact on the social fabric of mid-nineteenth-century New York City.

Under the title “A Most Atrocious Murder,” the Herald described the brutal death of prostitute Helen Jewett in a brothel at 41 Thomas Street.


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1.
The Murder of Helen Jewett. On the night of April 9, 1836, Helen Jewett
was murdered by an ax blow to her head. The murderer then set fire to her body
and bed before escaping. A customer-lover who was with her that night was charged
with the murder but was acquitted. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society,
New York City)

Jewett had been found murdered in her bed, the victim of an ax blow to her head. Her room had been set on fire, apparently in an attempt to destroy evidence. An estranged lover, Richard P. Robinson, with whom she had last been seen the previous evening, was accused of the crime. Based on physical evidence and the testimony of other residents of the house, a coroner’s jury bound Robinson over for trial, and he was sent to jail.[2]

News of the murder created an immediate sensation. For the two months between the April crime and the end of the week-long trial in June, New York newspapers devoted lengthy columns and even entire pages to daily coverage of the case. Reports were carried in newspapers as far away as Mississippi and Maine, and the murder-trial proceedings were the most widely covered of any in America to that time. The public seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about the event, the young victim, her prostitute associates, and their clients. For the week the trial was in session, spectators lined up outside the courtroom hoping to get seats or at least a glimpse of the characters involved. Although evidence pointed


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to Robinson’s guilt, he was acquitted by a jury suspicious of the testimony of prostitutes, and the crime was left unsolved. For decades afterward, newspapers continued to make references to Jewett’s murder, and the story became part of nineteenth-century New York legend and fiction. Jewett even appears briefly in Gore Vidal’s 1973 historical novel, Burr .[3]

Publicity surrounding the incident fed an obvious public appetite for the lurid details of the murder, but it also revealed a deep uneasiness about the environment of the crime. The Herald termed Jewett’s death the natural result of a “terrible state of society . . . and morals which ought to be reformed altogether in unhappy New York.”[4] After 1830, the increasing presence of prostitutes on the city streets had caused New Yorkers to begin speaking much more publicly about a “prostitution problem,” voicing their concerns in the press, the pulpit, and municipal forums. In language and rhetoric that was often more moralistic than realistic, prostitutes were depicted as either “innocent victims” or “corrupt denizens,” and their brothels were “places of perdition” or “vile receptacles.” This mode of discussion obscured deeper issues, deflecting attention from dramatic social changes then under way in economic and family lives as well as in attitudes and mores.[5] From the moralistic perspective, the Jewett murder was viewed as the inevitable result of an obvious decline in both private and public morality–the product of innocent lives gone astray, the fruition of urban social decay. But even many contemporary accounts of the case had to admit that Helen Jewett did not readily fit the moralistic prototype, and her divergence from contemporary notions of a prostitute’s sorrowful existence no doubt contributed to the nineteenth-century public’s fascination with her story. Contrary to moralistic expectations, Jewett appeared to have led an attractive and independent life, a life she had chosen for herself over more conventional options.

Many versions of Jewett’s life exist. In the telling and retelling of her story at the time of the murder and later, authors have sometimes described her as the innocent victim of a licentious seducer, unable to avoid a certain doom, and sometimes presented her as a girl who may have been tricked into losing her virginity but who made the most of her subsequent life–a life that was glamorous and adventurous, though filled with risks.[6] Because Jewett has been the object of so much no-


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toriety, it becomes difficult to separate the reality from the myth, but some information about her short life is available–a life that serves as an introduction to issues and events that this study will explore in telling the story of the diverse group of women who became prostitutes in mid-nineteenth-century New York City.

Jewett was born in Hallowell, Maine. Before taking the name Helen (Ellen or Nell) Jewett, she also went by Dorcas Doyen (or Dorrance), Maria G. Benson, Ellen Spaulding, Helen Mar, and Maria Stanley, the first probably being her real name. She was born in 1813, and at the time of her death she was twenty-three. One story of her background, based on what she told an enamored reporter from the Transcript in 1834, is that she was the daughter of a major general and had been seduced while at boarding school. Another version, more generally accepted, is that she was the daughter of Welsh immigrant parents, a mechanic father who drank and a mother who died when Jewett was about ten years old. At age thirteen Jewett went into service in the home of Judge Nathan Weston of Augusta, Maine, where she lived for four years. She was sent to school during that period and was said to have been a very proficient student with a taste for literature. One source stated she spoke several languages and enjoyed quoting lines of verse from French, Italian, and English poets.

At the end of her years of service in the Weston home, seventeen-year-old Jewett apparently had a liaison with a young man, an episode that preceded her move into a life of prostitution. She may have worked first as a prostitute in Portland, Maine, then moved to a Mrs. Bryant’s in Boston, and then to New York, where she stayed for a short while at Mrs. Post’s on Howard Street and then at the Laurence house on Chapel Street. Like other prostitutes of the time, Jewett was mobile, changing her place of employment periodically. In 1833 she went to Rosina Townsend’s at 41 Thomas Street for about ten months, and in 1834 she moved to Mary Berry’s at 128 Duane Street, where she lived until early 1836. Following a disagreement with Mrs. Berry she moved to Mrs. Cunningham’s at 3 Franklin Street for a brief period, and finally, three weeks before her death, she moved back to Rosina Townsend’s.[7]

Although Jewett was an ordinary prostitute, she lived and worked in well-situated houses, near the top of the prostitution hierarchy, and thus she cannot be considered representative of the majority of prostitutes, who were poor and practiced the trade on a casual basis. Because the


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documents concerning Jewett reveal no evidence of her plans for the future, it is unclear whether she aspired to make prostitution a lifelong profession or regarded it as a temporary option through which she might achieve upward mobility or possibly marriage.

Jewett was said to be “one of the most intelligent, beautiful and accomplished women to be found in her class of life,” and “aside from her disreputable calling, was deemed a high minded and honorable woman.”[8] The Herald described her as a “fascinating woman in conversation, full of intellect and refinement . . . with talents calculated for the highest sphere in life, had she had a happier destiny and steady moral principles.” She was said to dress “splendidly,” owning a variety of “elegant dresses.” She also was rumored to be a good seamstress who enjoyed sewing for her friends and clients as well as herself.[9]

Jewett appeared to be popular with both colleagues and clients. She was described as a “star” of the Berry house, where she lived the longest, and she probably earned as much as $50 to $100 a week for the establishment, or between $1,000 and $2,000 in current dollars. Her earnings also provided her with sufficient personal economic resources to travel, attend the theater, dress elegantly, make generous gifts to her friends, and even lend money on occasion. When she fell in love with one of her clients, however, Jewett’s value to her brothel declined, and the madam of her house warned her that fidelity to her lover would ruin her career–not to mention the madam’s profits. [ 10]

Like most prostitutes, Jewett had contact with the local police. On one occasion, she was brought into police headquarters because the brothel was raided, but most of her dealings with the law came about because Jewett brought charges against other parties. She sued a client named Burke for cutting several of her dresses to pieces following an argument, and the court required that he reimburse her $100. She brought charges of assault against an overzealous suitor named Laraty, who had accosted her in the lobby of a public theater by throwing his arms around her and kissing her. She claimed that he also kicked her. With Mrs. Berry, her brothel madam at the time, she sued a client named Boyd who in turn countersued Jewett and Berry. Several newspapers reported that Jewett also brought charges against a young woman but “settled” the suit, and on one occasion she was brought before a grand jury to give testimony. Clearly, Jewett did not fear that notoriety as a prostitute would cause her problems with law officials, and in fact


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2.
Helen Jewett at the Theatre. On one of her many visits to the theater,
Jewett was accosted by an overzealous customer in an incident that led her to file
assault charges against the man. Like many mid-nineteenth-century prostitutes,
Jewett was not shy about asserting her rights as a citizen before the courts.
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)


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her frequent recourse to the legal system suggests that she was quite comfortable as a “public citizen” seeking justice from the court. [11]

One of Jewett’s most interesting pastimes, and an activity that distinguishes her from the majority of prostitutes, was carrying on a vast correspondence with clients, friends, patrons, lovers, and former colleagues. One newspaper commented that she was seen frequently at the post office, where her postal bill was as great as that of some business firms in the city. After her death the police confiscated from her bedroom a trunk containing approximately ninety letters, some of which were introduced into evidence in the trial.[12] Revealed in the correspondence that became public are aspects of her personal life that are far more detailed than the information available about most other prostitutes: her joys and excitement, her gregariousness, generosity, loyalty, understanding, and affection, as well as glimpses of her jealousy, anger, insecurity, anxiety, sadness, and disappointments.

Jewett’s correspondence was obviously important to her, both on a practical level, as a skill useful in recruiting and scheduling customers, and on an emotional level, as a means of fulfilling deeply felt needs for social ties. Communication with people from different cities or different stations in life brought new experiences to Jewett, allowing her to escape mentally the restrictions and debasements of the world of prostitution. Correspondence with men she admired and liked allowed her to enjoy their companionship without the sexual and physical considerations that would be invoked during a personal visit in the brothel. One customer, Edward, who wished for a closer relationship with Jewett, noted this distancing technique at the end of one of his letters: “You have often said write me, but never said call and see me.”[13]

Jewett also received from her correspondence a degree of emotional sustenance and reinforcement from both male and female friends whose responses reconfirmed their affection for and personal interest in her, and from acquaintances who complimented and admired her literary skills and considered them an indication of refinement unusual for “one of her station in life.” Thus, Jewett’s correspondence set her apart from other prostitutes and provided her with a sense of self-esteem and importance, but her writing ability and education were a double-edged sword. While her talent enabled her to communicate with interesting people on a level different from the sexual, it also made her aware of the limitations of the life she led: “I have often wished I had


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never been educated, but like those I every day meet, I could not read my name in print.”[14]

By leaving Jewett’s murder unsolved, authorities only added to the mystique surrounding the crime, its central figure, and the world of prostitution. The story also seemed to confirm the popular belief that a life of prostitution often led to an untimely death, though Jewett’s death in fact was linked not so much to hapless fate as to the passion she aroused in clients and the independent spirit in which she conducted her brief life. The murder deprives us of the knowledge of how her full life might have been lived, of the public and private circumstances she would have faced and choices she would have made. We will return to her story for insights into the world of prostitution, but for a story of those missing years and missing experiences we must turn to the stories of many other New Yorkers–both the women who practiced prostitution and the other community members who interacted with them.

The New York City of the 1830s, the city deemed “unhappy” by the Herald editor, was already the leading city of the new nation, which by 1810 had surpassed other American cities in population and commerce, and, many believed, in problems as well. All of the social changes that were transforming an idealized agrarian nation, changes that were perceived by observers as disturbing the foundations of American society, were magnified in the country’s most expansive urban setting. Unprecedented urban growth and industrialization had led to overcrowding, unemployment, and poverty on a scale previously unimagined. After the War of 1812, the increasing influx of European immigrants brought to American cities strange customs and sometimes different languages as well as new political influences that challenged the hegemony of the propertied classes. Urban housing for the poor was both scarce and wretched, and city dwellers became accustomed to large numbers of vagrants wandering the streets. Sanitation was primitive, and mortality high. [15]

These changes in American life were also transforming basic social institutions such as the family. The nineteenth-century industrial-commercial economy that replaced the traditional domestic economy of small farms and household industries forced breadwinners into new occupations and redefined women’s roles. Marriage was no longer a self-contained economic partnership, as men, and often women and children, went to work outside the home. The change in family structure


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and functions was accompanied by a change in attitudes: woman’s role as homemaker, mother, and transmitter of moral and cultural values was idealized in what has been called the “cult of true womanhood” or the “cult of domesticity,” which both elevated women to a new level of veneration in the public’s consciousness and relegated them to a sphere separate from the dominant and more significant world in which men operated. The nineteenth-century woman’s sphere, defined by the activities and functions that men thought appropriate to women, involved a narrowed role and one which was obviously subordinate in power to the male sphere.

Many nineteenth-century women, however, were able to move beyond such a narrowly defined or idealized role. Some worked actively in voluntary and religious associations, groups that were vital to the social-reform movements of the early nineteenth century as well as to the development of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement. Such activities involved mostly women from the middle and upper classes, but the idealized view of woman in the home was even further from reality in the daily lives of working-class women, who by necessity went out to work to supplement their husbands’ inadequate earnings or to provide in full for themselves or their families. With women’s occupational options limited and wages low, employment often entailed a choice between unpleasant alternatives, including prostitution. [16]

Among the many social ills that marked life in a rapidly changing America after 1830–poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, disease–prostitution often became the symbol of what was perceived as the social and moral disintegration of society. As a challenge to the idyllic view of woman as asexual, maternal, and pure, and as a threat to the stability of one of the most revered social institutions, the family, prostitution was dubbed the major nineteenth-century social problem, often called, for the rest of the century, “the social evil.”[17]

The leading figure in bringing the issue of prostitution to the center of public debate in New York was John R. McDowall, the reformer featured alongside Jewett in the April 11, 1836, edition of the Herald . McDowall was the fulcrum around which New York’s earliest major prostitution controversy swirled. He had arrived in New York in the summer of 1830, as a student intern working as a volunteer missionary for the American Tract Society. The son of a minister, McDowall was born in 1801 in Canada. He attended Amherst, Union (or Sche-


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nectady) College, and then Princeton for his theological studies. While at Princeton in 1828-1829, McDowall was active in a number of evangelical and missionary societies, and in 1830 he and his brother, also a divinity student, volunteered for missionary work among the lost souls in the poor districts of New York City. The brothers spent their summer in the Five Points area, visiting crowded tenements, lecturing inhabitants, and distributing tracts and Bibles. They also began visiting the many brothels of the neighborhood, leading prayers with inhabitants and customers and exhorting them to abandon their lives of sin. At the end of his internship, McDowall, feeling he could not leave the work he had begun, remained in New York to continue as a missionary on his own. He set up Sunday schools and Bible classes in the city’s almshouses and prisons and visited hospitals, where he continued to meet prostitutes who seemed to be trapped in lives of dissipation, disease, and crime. McDowall’s work among the unfortunate attracted the attention and support of a number of respectable New York women, and with the generous assistance of the evangelicals Arthur and Lewis Tappan, McDowall’s female supporters were able to establish the New York Magdalen Society. The Society opened a House of Refuge where penitent harlots could be taught respectable ways and skills to support themselves in the community.[18] The Society women hired McDowall as their chaplain, missionary, and agent, and at the end of the first year in operation they published a report he wrote. This report, which claimed there were “not less than 10,000” prostitutes in the city, caused a great furor and focused attention not only on prostitution but also on the report’s author. McDowall found himself in the middle of a controversy between reformers aroused by a problem of seemingly near-plague proportions and respectable New Yorkers outraged by statistics they considered preposterous about a subject they viewed as obscene–and by the report’s implied criticism of New York and its many members of prominent families who were said to be regular clients at the brothels. Former Mayor Philip Hone wrote in his diary in the summer of 1831 that the report was a “disgraceful document.” Several public meetings at Tammany Hall were held to protest the Magdalen Society and its report, and a grand jury was called to investigate the extent of prostitution. McDowall and the Magdalen Society were verbally assailed, and some members of the society, such as Arthur Tappan, received letters threatening mob destruction of their


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3.
Reforemer Preaching to Prostitutes. Moral reformers
like the Reverend John R. McDowall frequently visited brothels
and other prostitution establishments, distributing tracts and Bibles
and praying with the inhabitants, in hopes of reforming the wayward
sisters. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

homes. After several months of harassment, the society succumbed, its members disbanded, and the refuge was closed.[19] McDowall considered the response of reform leaders like Tappan a “cowardly betrayal,” and he publicly accused them of having “dumped” the poor prostitutes into the streets. Refusing to retreat under pressure, McDowall published a second report, Magdalen Facts , which defended his actions,


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reaffirmed and enlarged upon statements and information in the original report, and attacked his critics. He also continued preaching on his own, even though he was officially reprimanded by the Presbytery, or church hierarchy.[20]

In January 1833, McDowall began issuing a monthly, McDowall’s Journal , which encouraged the formation of reform societies and campaigned against illicit sex and licentious literature, art, and songs. He also alarmed some citizens by threatening to expose publicly the names of men who frequented brothels and seduced innocent girls. Either because the threat intimidated the opposition or because the list never materialized, McDowall managed to avoid another public outburst for a few months.[21]

Throughout the controversy McDowall had continued to receive the unofficial support of a group of women who in February 1833 formed the Female Benevolent Society, which hired McDowall as its agent and the manager of its house of refuge. After six months he retired from the society to devote his full time to publishing McDowall’s Journal .[22] Shortly thereafter, McDowall’s zealous approach to sin again put him at odds with respectable citizens of New York. A grand jury was convened to review McDowall’s Journal , and it declared the journal a “public nuisance, calculated to increase the very evil it professes to prevent, [by] inciting the young to the gratification of criminal passions.”[23] In spite of this finding, a number of New York women continued to believe that the publication could become an effective instrument in furthering their moral-reform work. This group of women, from several different reform societies, joined together to form the New York Female Moral Reform Society and took over McDowall’s Journal , renaming it the Advocate of Moral Reform . McDowall was hired as the society’s official missionary, and he reactivated his spirited crusade against prostitution by visiting brothels, almshouses, and hospitals. He and his followers especially enjoyed descending upon brothels in the early hours of the morning while the residents and their clients were still in bed, startling them with loud hymns and Bible recitations in the hope that by disrupting the activities of the houses they would eventually break up the brothels.[24]

Unhappy with McDowall’s notoriety, financial management, and unconventional approach to ministering to the unfortunate, the Presbytery called him to trial and suspended him from the ministry. McDowall spent a year defending his actions in print and in person, until


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in 1836, following the Jewett murder, the synod reversed its sentence and reinstated him. But McDowall was a broken man. Exhausted and depressed from his conflict with the church and the pain of a lifelong knee ailment, he became sick with tuberculosis and died in poverty later that year, at the young age of thirty-five.[25]

Despite his early death, McDowall had significant impact. He had succeeded in focusing widespread public attention on an occupation the public had previously ignored or quietly accepted, and he had helped raise concern about the issue to the point that anti-prostitution and moral reform became a major thrust in the evangelical movement that swept New York and the Northeast for over a decade.

Moral reformers were not alone in rediscovering prostitution during the 1830s. The issue was broached by writers from several different perspectives. Whereas moral or religious exposés, much like McDowall’s, related prostitution to sin, most often with substantial sympathy for the women who were its “victims,” articles in the popular press took up the subject frequently, in voyeuristic detail, describing the institution as part of the social or criminal underground, society’s dark netherworld. Short essays and book-length sketches guided readers on fictional tours through the streets of poverty and dens of vice of the urban underworld. They described the prostitutes’ clothing, brothels, and haunts, and catalogued a social hierarchy said to exist among the “fallen.”

Still another group of social critics, in both Europe and the United States, represented a new breed of researcher-writers who broached public problems in the manner of scientific investigators, though their writings were never totally devoid of moralistic overtones. These researchers noted the detrimental effects of prostitution on public health and the public economy, treating prostitution largely as an aspect of the filthy dehumanized world of the urban poor. Their studies included personal interviews with large numbers of prostitutes, supplemented by records from police, detention facilities, and hospitals. Statistics were compiled on the prostitutes’ backgrounds, their reasons for entering prostitution, and their lives in the profession. Because prostitutes were associated with the rapid spread of the dreaded disease syphilis, most of these researchers argued that the best way to control venereal disease would be to regulate prostitution.[26]

Though all of the literary sources on prostitution provide information about the lives of nineteenth-century prostitutes and the society in which


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4.
1839 “Moral Reform Directory” This title page from one of the earliest of
the nineteenth-century brothel directories satirizes moral reformers’ efforts to combat
the “prostitution problem.” Along with brief but dubious statistics on the numbers
of prostitutes, as well as warnings of the dangers facing customers, the directory
conveniently gives the names, addresses, and descriptions of more than one
hundred prostitutes and brothels. (Courtesy New York Bound Bookshop)

they lived, the scientific studies offer especially fruitful data for investigating both the nature and extent of the practice in specific locations. One of the earliest such studies was that of A. J. B. Parent-Duchatelet, who published De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris in 1836 and whose research methodology became the model for later writers in Europe and the United States. Parent studied the police and hospital records of 12,000 French women who were “inscribed,” or officially registered, as prostitutes over a twenty-year period. He also interviewed and further observed a smaller group of these women to develop a detailed profile of the typical French prostitute, including her reasons for entering the profession.[27]


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Other European investigators, such as William Tait in Edinburgh and William Acton in London, attempted similar studies of prostitution in their respective cities. In the United States, physician Charles Smith wrote in 1847 on the causes and effects of prostitution in New York City, covering many of the same topics as Parent, but drawing conclusions only from impressionistic data he garnered in his medical practice among prostitutes rather than from hard data collected in surveys and interviews. A large part of Smith’s study is a biography of the famous New York City abortionist, Madam Restelle, because he believed that abortion–“Restellism”–“may either cause or prevent prostitution.”[28] Such ambiguous analysis, which reflected the moralistic thinking of many of his contemporaries, held that abortions saved the reputations of promiscuous women so they could avoid prostitution but also aided women in developing an appetite for lascivious living that led to prostitution. Smith argued that the overwhelming majority of New York’s prostitutes were poor, ignorant, and untalented, and he described life in the profession as degraded. Because he believed prostitution was a proved necessity but a drain on the public economy, he called for a system of regulation.[29]

The most extensive study of nineteenth-century American prostitution was published in 1858 by Dr. William Sanger, chief resident physician of Blackwell’s Island Hospital in New York City. In 1855 the Board of Governors of the Almshouse had appointed Sanger to examine the extent of venereal disease among the poor in New York City, but Sanger had enlarged his assignment into a history of prostitution and the resulting social pollution in New York. He directed the local police in administering a questionnaire to two thousand prostitutes throughout the city and submitted a questionnaire to the inspector of each police ward, or precinct, asking about the extent of prostitution in his district. Each inspector was asked for information on the number of brothels, assignation houses, dancing saloons, and liquor stores where prostitutes congregated, and the number of individual prostitutes in the district. Sanger also drew on data from hospital records; as chief resident physician at the city’s contagious-disease hospital, he was familiar with many poor patients, especially prostitutes, who suffered from syphilis and other venereal diseases. At the conclusion of his study, Sanger, like Smith and their European counterparts, made a strong plea for state


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regulation of prostitution as a means of controlling the further spread of venereal disease. [ 30]

There are limitations to Sanger’s study. The prostitutes interviewed, selected by the local police, were probably the most well known in each ward, and may not have represented a cross-section of New York City prostitutes. [31] Streetwalkers were given little attention, and child prostitution was virtually ignored. The 2,000 women surveyed included only two fifteen-year-old girls, and none who were younger, even though police and newspapers repeatedly noted that many female children were engaged in prostitution. Sanger’s refusal to recognize the extent of childhood prostitution was evident when he scoffed at a report concerning the previous prostitution of some House of Refuge inmates: “We can not see very clearly what connection exists between the New York House of Refuge and prostitution considering the ages of children generally admitted to that institution; . . . we are rather dubious as to the acts of impurity alluded to, except in a very few exceptional cases.”[32] Although Sanger’s agents may have selected a broad community sample of adult prostitutes–prostitution seems to have been practiced quite openly at this time and local policemen would have known not only brothel residents but also many women who practiced independently in their neighborhoods–some of his data is probably inaccurate. Because Sanger used public officials to administer his survey, it is likely that some women gave false answers to certain questions or gave responses they thought the surveyors wanted to hear.[33] Furthermore, even though Sanger did his research with apparent earnest integrity, his results were interpreted within a moralistic and middle-class framework, with obvious biases against the mores of immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, he offers data about nineteenth-century New York City’s prostitutes that is both extensive and telling.

Sanger’s study also is valuable because of its timeliness. Published in the 1850s, it presents information on the profession at mid-century, about halfway between the 1830s, when McDowall’s report first focused widespread public attention on the problem, and the 1870s, when the city’s political machine gained control of the trade, thus ending a brief but unique era when prostitution was managed predominantly by females. Sanger offered New Yorkers a methodical accounting of the numbers of prostitutes, and his data on the extent as well as the causes, conditions, and consequences of prostitution helped fuel the public


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debate on the merits of officially regulating the practice. Though the “prostitution problem” remained a public issue in New York City for several decades, seemingly involving more and more females of all ages in both its degraded street trade and its predominantly female-managed brothel businesses, efforts to pass laws regulating the practice were unsuccessful. In the 1870s state lawmakers abandoned efforts to control prostitution by legalizing it, and they returned New York City’s municipal governance to the city’s machine politicians, who thereafter incorporated the prostitution business into a political-economic structure that was firmly in their control.

Though Sanger’s study offers a unique and important perspective on prostitution as a part of New York’s mid-nineteenth-century urban culture, the life of the New York prostitute, in its private as well as public dimensions, has not yet been fully explored. Primary source material is limited, since prostitutes left few written records. Nonetheless, surprising quantities of personal and economic records exist that allow not only a critical analysis of the data and conclusions given by Sanger and other investigators but also a glimpse of the private lives of prostitutes. Contemporary sources such as brothel guides and newspapers, and tax, census, court, and police records reveal much about prostitution and the women who practiced that trade in the nation’s largest city. Reformers’ records, such as those from the House of Refuge, are also a fruitful source of information illuminating the backgrounds of young prostitutes and some of the reasons these women entered the profession. Especially in the first two and a half decades of the Refuge’s operation (1825-1850), intake officers wrote long and detailed histories of the inmates and seemed very interested in whether or not young girls had ever “slept with a man.” Though follow-up records are less complete, case notations were often made for a number of years after a woman had stayed at the Refuge, suggesting the long-term possibilities for women who had practiced prostitution at some point in their lives. [34]

Equally important for understanding the private lives of mid-nineteenth-century New York City prostitutes is Helen Jewett’s correspondence: a collection of eighty-eight letters to and from Jewett and her clients, her madam, and her friends in the profession. Written over a period of two years, from early 1834 until a few weeks before her murder, the Jewett letters are a direct reflection of her personal and professional life while in the midst of it, offering information about her associations


26

with and feelings about other women and her view of the practices and customs that governed relationships with clients in the prostitute community. In conjunction with other data, the letters deepen our understanding of the private lives, personal relationships, and sensibilities of New York City prostitutes in the nineteenth century.[35]

Who were New York’s prostitutes, these women who elicited so much public interest? Although the term prostitution has sometimes been used so broadly as to encompass all extramarital sex, and the nineteenth-century data is not always clear about when sexual promiscuity becomes professional prostitution–a judgment that varies in different periods and in different societies according to legal and cultural determinations–in the more strict and common usage of the term a prostitute was a woman who sold sexual favors promiscuously to those who could pay. [36] This group would include women who worked at other trades or in families but who were occasional or part-time prostitutes. It might also include women “kept” for some financial consideration as non-conjugal sexual partners. In this study, a narrow definition of the term will be used, i.e., a woman who earned money by the promiscuous sale of sexual favors outside of marriage.

Extent of Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870

There are no official censuses or registries of New York City prostitutes in the nineteenth century. Although several population censuses list some women as prostitutes, there are many reasons for concluding these figures are incomplete and incorrect. A woman was not likely to admit her profession to an official government representative, especially when she might practice another profession such as seamstress, milliner, or boardinghouse keeper that was a respectable–and legal–activity. At various times police officials were charged with keeping track of prostitutes and claimed to have records of all houses of prostitution and lists of names of public prostitutes.[37] If these records were kept, however, they no longer are available. There are several semi-annual reports by chiefs of police giving total numbers of prostitutes in the city, but these reports probably enumerate only the more


27

well known of the occupation and omit occasional prostitutes. One suspects as well that police officials tended to underestimate prostitution in response to periodic public outcries about the extent of the vice, which encouraged the police to present themselves as keeping the problem under control. The only official survey of New York prostitution known to exist is that made by Sanger, which thus becomes the centerpiece for judging other figures.

Until 1830, prostitutes were not so much counted or studied as they were hidden away in the back streets of New York and other seaports and large urban centers. Legal pressure was applied to keep prostitutes and brothels obscure, contained in certain areas, and hence as invisible as possible. In New York the Common Council, courts, and groups like a short-lived Magdalen Society founded in 1812 periodically had to deal with issues involving prostitutes, but public references to prostitution were infrequent until the McDowall controversy of 1830-1831.[38] From that time on, discussion of prostitution would become interwoven into the fabric of everyday life, and estimates of the numbers of women involved would become in part a basis for evaluating the extent of corruption and vice in the city.

McDowall’s 1831 report stated that there were at least 10,000 prostitutes in the city, amounting to one-tenth of the females of all ages in the total city population of approximately 203,000. McDowall estimated that about 5,000 of the prostitutes were full-time public prostitutes. He claimed his figures were conservative, but respectable New Yorkers considered them outrageously high and convened a grand jury to produce an independent estimate. The jury reported that even after enumerating every suspicious female in the city as a member of the Sisterhood only 1,438 prostitutes–one in seventy female New Yorkers–could be identified. The Morning Courier and Enquirer editorialized that even the grand jury’s much lower estimate was “excessive.”[39]

The discrepant estimates put forth by McDowall and the grand jury set the pattern for efforts at measuring the incidence of prostitution throughout the period: moral reformers, religious leaders, and politicians claimed the number of prostitutes was quite high, and scientific investigators and city officials consistently issued much lower figures. McDowall’s estimate of 10,000 prostitutes, initially considered so outrageous, was nonetheless invoked frequently throughout the 1830s and into the 1840s, especially by politicians, ministers, reformers, and the


28

5.
Police Office Notice, 1813. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,
legal pressure was used to keep prostitutes confined to certain areas of New York City.
This 1813 police warning to prostitutes and landlords in the area near the Hook illustrates
this policy but indicates that the police were courteous enough to wait four months until
May Day, New Yorkers’ traditional moving day, before enforcing their threat. (Courtesy
Museum of the City of New York)


29

popular press. Counterclaims that the majority of the owners of prostitution houses were pious, worthy, moral, respectable men also persisted. But by the mid-1840s, such discussion caused no outcry; the public had become much more aware of the existence of prostitution through the press, the work of reformers, and the frequent appearance of prostitutes on the public sidewalks, at shops and theaters, and in many neighborhood streets.[40]

Although claims that New York had large numbers of prostitutes no longer surprised many citizens, New Yorkers still debated the figures. In 1847, Dr. Charles Smith wrote in his book on prostitution that the numbers of New York harlots had been “absurdly” inflated. Remarking that the truth was bad enough without any exaggeration, he presented as “accurate returns” the statistics in the official report of the Chief of Police for November 1846 through April 1847. This report lists the number of public prostitutes as 2,483, or one of every seventy-seven females in the city.[41]

In 1858, Sanger, too, expressed doubt about McDowall’s estimate, pointing out that in the nearly twenty years since McDowall’s report, “vice has not decreased in New York, but has steadily increased, and yet the most diligent search can discover . . . only 7,860 public and private prostitutes,” even broadly defined.[42] Sanger based his estimate on a figure of 5,000 given by Chief of Police George W. Matsell in 1856, which he adjusted to reflect precinct-level police estimates, general population growth, the “floating prostitute population,” and those prostitutes who were “effectively disguised.” Sanger’s conclusion was that New York had one prostitute for every forty-seven females in the population.[43]

Three police reports in the 1860s put forth much lower estimates, reporting as few as 2,100 prostitutes and no more than 2,700, working at approximately 600 brothels. The highest of these figures, the count of 2,700 in 1866, identifies one of every 136 females, or less than one percent of the female population, as prostitutes.[44] Eight years earlier, Sanger had actually interviewed almost that many known prostitutes, when New York City’s population was 100,000 less, suggesting that the police calculations must have been on the low side. Just how low they were is illustrated by arrest reports between 1866 and 1870, when prostitution arrests numbered around 6,000 annually; the official police estimate of 2,700 prostitutes in the city could be accurate only if each prostitute had been arrested an average of twice each year, which was certainly not the


30

Table 1
Estimates of New York City Prostitutes , 1831-1872

Female Population

Source

No. Prostitutes

Total No .

% Prostitutes

McDowall, 1831

10,000

101,295

9.9

Grand Jury, 1831

1,438

101,295

1.4

Aldermen’s Report, 1844

10,000

190, 751

5.2

Police Report, 1847

2,483

190, 751

1.3

Chief Matsell, 1856

5,000

314,952

1.6

Sanger, 1858

7,860

365,815

2.1

Police Report, 1864

2,123

363,193

0.6

Police Report, 1866

2,670

363,193

0.7

Bishop Simpson, 1866

11,500

363,193

3.2

Police Report, 1867

2,562

363,193

0.7

Reverend Bellows, 1871

20,000

471,146

4.2

Police Report, 1872

1,223

471,146

0.3

SOURCES : Contemporary reports on the scope of prostitution are discussed in Chapter 1 and its notes. For New York City population figures, see U.S. and New York State censuses, 1830-1870.

case.[45] In 1872 police estimates were even less reliable; the 1,223 prostitutes said to be in New York that year amount to only three-fifths of the number of prostitutes interviewed by Sanger fifteen years earlier, despite population growth of almost 50 percent during that period.[46]

The police statistics did not go unchallenged. In keeping with the spirit of McDowall, two Protestant ministers declared to their congregations that prostitution’s numbers were much greater than reports stated. In 1866, Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson announced that there were 11,000 to 12,000 prostitutes in New York City, a population equal to the number of members of the Methodist Church. Five years later, the Reverend Dr. Henry W. Bellows estimated the number of “fallen” women had increased to 20,000, which amounted to one of every twenty-four females in the city (table 1).[47]

Understandably, police estimates of the prostitution population from 1830 to 1870 were extremely low, while ministers, reformers, and public commentators tended to give exaggerated estimates. As has been noted, Sanger used the most thorough method of determining the number of


31

Table 2
Wards with Most Prostitutes, Brothels, and Assignation Houses, as Identified by Sanger

Prostitutes

Houses

Ward

No .

Rank

No .

Rank

4

750

1

48

3

5

420

3

70

1

6

228

7

58

2

8

300

4

58

2

16

500

2

10

12

SOURCE : William Sanger, History of Prostitution , 580

prostitutes in New York City at any one time, though the accuracy of his study can still be questioned. One approach to assessing the accuracy and limitations of Sanger’s figures is to check some of them against other data suggesting the prevalence of prostitution in the mid-1850s.

Two wards of the city, the eighth and fifth, were home to a number of noted brothels, though Sanger’s study did not identify them as the leading wards in prostitute population. Separated by Canal Street, the two wards covered neighborhoods west of lower Broadway that included several streets where prostitution houses were concentrated. New Yorkers repeatedly commented on the fact that prostitutes, as well as brothels and assignation houses, were dispersed throughout all wards of the city, in both the best and worst neighborhoods, but wards five and eight were recognized as having a significant prostitution population (table 2).[48]

Using newspapers, brothel guidebooks, and city records, it is possible to locate approximately 53 percent of the prostitutes said to be in ward eight by the police inspectors’ survey and more than 25 percent of those said to be in ward five. A few more brothel keepers in these neighborhoods can be identified by city directories, newspapers, and other sources. Using the 1855 census, the average number of residents of prostitution houses in these wards can be calculated, providing a basis for estimating the number of prostitutes likely to live in additional houses known through other records. By this method, one can estimate a brothel-based prostitute population that accounts for 83 percent of the number Sanger found in ward eight and 52 percent of the number he found in ward five (table 3).[49]


32

Table 3
Estimated Number of Prostitutes in Wards 5 and 8 in 1855

Ward 5

Ward 8

Total

Identified in Census

Prostitutes

106

158

264

Houses

14

28

42

Prostitutes per House (avg.)

7.57

5.64

6.29

Additional Known Houses

15

16

31

Additional Prostitutes

114

90

204

(est., based on avg. per house)

Total Prostitutes

220

248

468

(census + add’l. est.)

Sanger Estimate of Total

420

300

720

Total as % of Sanger Estimate

52

83

65

SOURCES : 1855 New York State Census, city directories, other contemporary sources; Sanger, History of Prostitution , 580.

Thus, over a century later, a high percentage of individual prostitutes—a population group not easily located in sources—can still be identified, leading to the assumption that Sanger’s figures, particularly for the brothel-based rather than part-time prostitute population, are not significantly above the actual numbers of prostitutes in the mid-1850s. Indeed, given the difficulties of tracing prostitutes, especially the street and part-time practitioners, Sanger’s figures more likely may be underestimates. The most conservative estimates of the 1830s and 1840s indicated that prostitutes represented from 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent of the female population, while Sanger estimated that they represented 2.1 percent (see table 1). If we accept the Sanger percentage as roughly accurate and calculate that percentage of the female population from 1830 through 1870 in rapidly growing New York, we obtain the following estimate of the number of prostitutes for those years:

1830

2,127

1840

3,283

1850

5,413

1860

8,750

1870

9,894


33

It is likely, however, that the proportion of prostitutes in the female population was not constant but was in fact increasing, especially after 1850. A recent study of German prostitutes has noted that “prostitution probably reaches its heights in a country during the second wave of industrialization when heavy industry excludes women from participation in the labor force.” Only later in the industrialization process, with the growth of a tertiary clerical and service sector, are women able to find opportunities for employment; at this later stage, prostitution declines.[50] Ruth Rosen, in her study of American prostitution, suggests that this same pattern prevailed in the United States in the nineteenth century, with the peak of women’s engagement in prostitution taking place between 18S0 and 1900 and beginning to decline in the early twentieth century.[51] As applied to New York City, this rather mechanical correlation of prostitution to other job possibilities suggests that Sanger’s 2.1 percent rate might well be taken as a rather conservative basis for estimating the number of prostitutes in the years after 1850.

The discussion above has compared the number of prostitutes to the number of females of all ages in New York; intuitively, of course, we would suspect that—and in fact, as will be seen below, we are able to confirm that—the vast majority of prostitutes were women in their teenage and young adult years, roughly between the ages of 15 and 30. If we consider that approximately 2 percent of all women in New York were probably prostitutes in the mid-nineteenth century, we might assume that the rate was considerably higher, perhaps 5 to 6 percent, in the age groups most active in the prostitution trade.[52] In the next chapter, we examine statistical data that will help us develop a composite demographic portrait of prostitutes in New York, but first it is important to focus on the women involved as individuals—working women with motivations, relationships, aspirations, and experiences that help us understand their story in its many human dimensions.


34

2
“A Lady . . . Whom I Should Never Have Suspected”
Personal and Collective Portraits of Prostitutes

When sixteen-year-old George Templeton Strong drove by a brothel where he hoped to catch a glimpse of some of the prostitutes then involved in the notorious Jewett murder trial, he was rewarded by a sighting of thirty-nine-year-old madam Rosina Townsend. To the boy, Townsend seemed an “old lady, dressed in black with a very good-natured, mild countenance whom I should never have suspected of being such a character as she is.”[1] In his comment, the youthful Strong noted a significant point about nineteenth-century New York prostitutes. Both because these women had some incentive not to appear conspicuous and because their lives in this era were closely interwoven with that of the respectable community, they were not always readily identifiable, then or now. Yet we can piece together the life stories of a number of these women—some who were obscure, as well as some who gained notoriety. These brief personal histories give us a sense of the variety and scope of these women’s experiences within the context of a broader community life, a helpful perspective for later isolating the statistical components of the prostitutes’ collective profile.

Personal Profiles

As keeper of a notorious Thomas Street brothel, Rosina Townsend was a key witness at the June 1836 trial of Richard Robinson


35

for murdering Helen Jewett and attempting to burn down her establishment. Townsend and nine other prostitutes were among the dozens of witnesses who testified at the trial.[2] Observers described Madam Townsend as “one of the most dashing of her infamous line of work.”[3] She was said to be a woman of beauty and accomplishments, with “bright eyes, ripe form,” and “graceful figure.” According to the press, she appeared before the court well-dressed, wearing a gold watch and splendid earrings, and her pretty ankles were “adorned with exquisitely embroidered white silk stockings.”[4] Only the New York Herald , taking issue with the rival New York Sun for giving Townsend’s testimony equal credence with that of decent, respectable New Yorkers, disparagingly portrayed Townsend as a “weather beaten courtesan” and “one of the oldest, ugliest, and wickedest of the harridans from that [Thomas Street] sink of corruption.”[5]

On the witness stand Townsend was described as “cool and collected.”[6] She testified about the murder but also described her own background and her reasons for entering prostitution. Her real name, she said, was Rebecca Rosana Brown, and she was originally from Castleton, New York, seven miles from Albany, where her parents still lived. She was married in Castleton, and afterward she and her husband moved to Cincinnati, where he left her for another woman. Following her abandonment, Townsend returned to her parents’ home in Castleton for a few weeks and then moved to New York City in September 1825, hoping to find employment. For three months she boarded with her husband’s aunt and took in sewing. By Christmas of that year, her “head was so afflicted” she said she “could not see the light of day.”[7] Although treated by a physician, she was forced to give up sewing and became a chambermaid in the home of Henry Beckman, a position she held for just a short time before pain in her arm began troubling her so much she could not do the necessary domestic work. From Beekman’s, Townsend, now twenty-nine, moved to Maria Pierce’s assignation house, which she left after a few months. In 1828 she took over her own prostitution establishment at 28 Anthony Street. By then she was using several names: Rosina or Rosannah Thompson or Townsend. A year later she moved into 41 Thomas Street, a house she managed for the six years preceding the trial. Townsend stated that in the eleven years since her abandonment, she had not seen her husband and did not know if he were alive or dead.[8]


36

Rumors abounded concerning Townsend’s accumulated wealth. It was alleged she owned property valued at approximately $20,000, and she was said to have lent $10,000 to a Broadway tradesman, whom she assisted with his business by balancing his books and keeping his affairs in order. She also was said to have made a loan of $1,000 to another business firm.[9] Tax records from 1835 indicate that she was assessed on $5,000 in personal property (with no real estate holdings listed), and the press reported she held $3,500 in insurance on the furnishings of her house. A $5,000 property assessment suggests her actual worth was approximately $17,000, which in current dollars would be worth approximately $250,000.[10]

Despite her seemingly secure financial situation, the many threatening letters she received following the murder and trial prompted her to sell her furnishings at auction and relocate. Her whereabouts became a matter of considerable speculation. One local paper reported she was moving to a residence on Prince Street, to quarters provided by a group of New York merchants who were attempting to persuade her not to reveal their names as customers.[11] Another newspaper reported she moved to Philadelphia and established a brothel there. It is also possible that in response to her trial-related notoriety she may have continued to live in New York under an assumed name; in any event, her name disappears from New York directories and tax rolls after 1836.[12]

Townsend’s career shows the financial possibilities of prostitution for practitioners with business acumen. Coming late to the profession, impoverished, seriously ill, and marginally employed, she became in just ten years a well-off, comfortable, and successful operator. The Jewett tragedy disrupted her career on Thomas Street, but it did not appear to interfere with her wealth or the comfort and composure that wealth brought her.

A second madam brought to the fore by Jewett’s murder ran a house where the victim had worked earlier. Mary Berry, Mrs. Francis or Frank Berry, who sometimes also went by the grand title of “Duchesse de Berri,” was born Mary Cisco and was said to have “graduated into the profession under the tutelage of one of the most accomplished harpies on record—her mother.”[13] Berry’s husband, who was listed in city directories as a tailor, was better known to the public and police as a “con man” and comanager with his wife of the 128 Duane Street brothel. Their house offered guests liquor, women, dice, and cards, and Mr.


37

Berry was said to specialize in getting the guests drunk and then robbing them. It was said he did not fear the law because he knew its loopholes and limitations and could always walk away from a court charge for robbery with a profit in his pocket.[14] The brothel was mentioned in the press on a few occasions as the site of riots and assaults, which may well have been caused by his shady dealings with clients.[15] Although Mary and Frank were ostensibly co-owners of the brothel, Mary appears to have been the real manager. The property tax records for 1835 list the house under her name, not his, with assets of $2,000.[16] She was described in the press as a “buxom, bold, resolute landlady of abundant means.”[17] Apparently, Frank enjoyed a carefree lifestyle and let Mary worry about finances. A letter from Mrs. Berry to Helen Jewett, who was on vacation in Philadelphia in December 1835, complained that Mr. Berry had written from Washington requesting $50. “He spends money faster than I can make it whenever he gets loose,” she wrote; if he came to Philadelphia, Jewett should “talk to him about this extravagance.”[18]

Frank either died or disappeared sometime after 1836, because he is not mentioned subsequently, and beginning in 1838 city directories list Mary as “Widow Mary Berry.” Along with the loss of Frank, Mary seems to have lost press notoriety, but was evidently still running a brothel at 128 Duane Street ten years later.[19] Like Townsend, she appears to have been able and successful, quietly accumulating a comfortable property, assessed at $5,000 in the 1840s. After the Jewett notoriety, and freed from an extravagant and trouble-making husband, she continued a long, stable career.

Another madam whose career spanned many years of New York history was Adeline (or Adelia or Adelaide) Miller, also known as Adeline Furman, who survived and flourished despite some notable personal and legal attacks. Born in the New York area, Miller became a resident of New York City about 1818. Both the 1850 and 1855 censuses list her age as 70, so by that time in her life she may have quit counting the years. In the early part of her prostitution career in New York (the 1820s), she used the name Furman, and she was known by both Furman and Miller in the 1830s. During this decade she ran several prostitution houses simultaneously, under the name of Furman at one address and Miller at others. From the 1840s to 1860 she is usually listed in sources as Miller. The 1830 city directory said she was the widow of a Henry Miller, and an 1839 source reported she had “buried three husbands”


38

and had had children by two of her spouses. She is known to have had a son, Nelson, who in the 1840s was married and living with his family not far from Miller’s brothel. An 1830s source reported that Miller also had two daughters, one who allegedly became a prominent actress and another who was reported to have died “mysteriously.” Both daughters were said to have been reared respectably by their mother and given “elegant and classic educations” to keep them free from the “lazaar house of crime.”[20]

Like other prostitutes, Miller changed addresses several times in her career. From her first appearance in city directories in 1821 through to the mid-1830s, she was listed at six different residences. In 1835-1836, sources note she was in charge of at least three houses, which she rented; using female managers, she apparently ran several prostitution operations simultaneously. In 1836 Catherine Cochran was managing Miller’s house on Orange Street, a Mrs. Brown was managing a second house for Miller, on Mott Street, and Miller herself was overseeing the third house, on Reade Street.[21]

In the 1830s Miller’s establishments came under attack from both officials and private citizens. In 1831 she called for help from the city watch in controlling rowdies who were causing trouble in her Elm Street brothel, but a few years later, after the arrest of a sixteen-year-old girl who was being kept by a man at Miller’s “most noted and horrible sink of iniquity and prostitution, 44 Orange,” legal measures were taken to break up her establishment.[22] Shortly thereafter, six men entered the “recently abandoned brothel at 44 Orange,” destroyed approximately $100 worth of furniture, and then proceeded to 133 Reade Street, where most of Miller’s belongings had been moved for an upcoming auction. Miller and a servant were alone at the Reade Street house when the men broke through a window, assaulted Miller with an iron bar, destroyed furniture and other items worth more than $400, and took $140 in cash. Miller pressed charges against the men and was awarded $700 in damages. The incident apparently failed to deter her trade, however, and a few months later officials renewed their own anti-prostitution campaign against her establishments, raiding and arresting the inhabitants of her “branch brothel” on Mott Street.[23]

Throughout the remainder of the 1830s, Miller kept a “quiet” house at 133 Reade Street, and by this time she had accumulated $5,000 in personal property, a tenfold increase in her personal wealth from the


39

time she began as a prostitute in the early 1820s. One 1830s source claimed that the combined worth of her real-estate properties throughout the city was as high as $100,000.[24]

In the early 1840s Miller operated a brothel at 134 Duane Street for about three years and then moved to 130 Church Street. During this period, she apparently supplemented her brothel income by offering an extra item for the “sex trade,” a “flash publication.” In 1842 the printer of the publication sued her to collect $750 she owed him for printing costs. Miller claimed the plaintiff had gone back on a promise to let her pay off the debt in weekly installments, but the plaintiff said she instead had tried to settle the debt by giving him an old printing press of hers. Miller was ordered to pay her debt. A couple of years later, however, her finances seemed stable enough for her to lend $500 to a fellow prostitute, Eliza Clark. When Clark tried to “skip town” without paying, Miller had her arrested.[25]

By the mid- 1840s, Miller appeared to have improved her relationship with the police. Police investigator Robert Taylor mentioned in his diary at least five visits to her brothel seeking information about various cases on which he was working. For a while it seemed she also had improved her image in the press. In March 1849, the Police Gazette made her the heroine of a story about a sixteen-year-old virgin/orphan who came to Miller’s brothel to begin a career in prostitution. After Miller was unable to dissuade the girl, she locked her up overnight and took her to the police the following morning, and the girl was saved from ruin by being sent to the Home for the Friendless. Miller’s good press did not last long, however. A few weeks later the Police Gazette reported she was in court on charges that she was forcing young women to stay in her brothel. It was said that Miller would threaten her boarders when they did not pay what they owed her for board and clothing, and that she was “bad enough to do anything.” Miller was able to get the more serious “conspiracy” charges dropped, but on the charge of “operating a disorderly house” she posted bail and was released on good behavior.[26]

By 1855 Miller owned the property she had rented at 130 Church Street, which was valued at $5,000, and Boyd’s New York City Tax Book of 1856 listed Miller’s total tax assessment as $16,500, a significant net worth for that time and about $825,000 in current dollars.[27] Miller’s name disappears from city directories after 1860, presumably because she either retired with a new identity, moved to another location, or


40

died. Her nearly four decades in the profession had illustrated prostitution’s possibilities for financial rewards, but her experience also demonstrated some of the occupation’s ever-present hazards, notably vulnerability to violence and legal harassment. Miller seemed able to withstand the difficulties, however, and assuming that she reported her true age to census takers in 1850, she would have been eighty when she disappeared from the public scene, ending a very long, and on the whole successful, career in prostitution.

To what extent were Townsend, Berry, and Miller representative of the thousands of New York women who worked as prostitutes? As will be demonstrated later in this chapter when we turn to data that suggests the general contours of a collective profile of prostitutes, Townsend, Berry, and Miller stayed much longer in the profession than was typical and perhaps were exceptionally career-oriented, adopting a businesslike commitment to the trade. Most prostitutes never achieved as much success financially or developed as much stability and security in their social situations. Of course, the same might be said of most non-prostitutes of the time: in the mid-nineteenth century, working women rarely enjoyed opportunities to work their way out of poverty, much less develop economically rewarding careers. In important respects, however, the life stories of Townsend, Berry, and Miller reflect challenges and limitations they shared with many other prostitutes and with working women generally. By also reviewing the personal experiences of several prostitutes who did not rise to management positions in the trade, we can begin to appreciate the options these women perceived in life and the variety of approaches they took to shaping their lives.

Two young women who practiced prostitution for only a few years were the Utter sisters, Mary Ann and Ann Jeanette. Two years apart in age, the sisters were born in Connecticut and New York respectively. Both parents were alcoholic; their father, a basketmaker, had abandoned the family, and their mother had been sent to the penitentiary.[28] By the time the sisters were sixteen and fourteen they had already worked at a number of different jobs before being hired together to pick peas in Williamsburgh. Their free time (Saturday nights and Sundays) was spent in New York City, and during one of these weekend jaunts they and a friend were arrested for using abusive language and throwing stones at a woman who hit them with a broom for taunting her child. All three girls were placed in the House of Refuge. According to Refuge records,


41

the youngest, Ann Jeanette, was already a “deep, knowing and brazen girl” who came into the House with an “unfeeling brazen manner.” The older sister, Mary Ann, had stayed with boys, and the Refuge officials were fearful they could not do much for her because “she knows too much.” After a year, Mary Ann was of age (eighteen), and so was sent to friends in Connecticut. Shortly after her release she was reported to be “on the town,” living in a bad house, being kept by a man.

Younger sister Ann Jeanette, after a few months in the Refuge, was believed to have improved enough to be indentured to a family in New Jersey. She remained at her place of work only three months before running away to “go on the town” and perhaps join her sister. Both sisters were known to be practicing prostitution for the next year and a half. Nevertheless, Refuge officials decided to reclaim Ann Jeanette, and in the early hours of one morning they went to New York’s “Hook” and entered a brothel “filled with families.” They arrived before the women were dressed, and Ann Jeanette asked them to leave the room while she clothed herself. She then used this opportunity to leave and “ran half-dressed through the streets and escaped.” Afterward, she changed addresses, evading officials for a time. The Refuge recorded that Ann Jeanette was “a real old bawd,” but interestingly noted that “If we didn’t need her help she would by no means be a desirable inmate.” They located her again, sent a police officer with two men from the Refuge, and brought her back. Six months later Ann was seventeen, and officials thought her conduct was “pretty fair,” but, since she was “cunning and prudent,” they felt they “could not with confidence rely on her stability if [they] parted with her.” A few months afterward, however, she had improved sufficiently to be indentured successfully to a farmer in Dutchess County.

By the time Ann Jeanette was twenty-one, she had married and was thought to be doing well. She later had a child and visited the Refuge chapel. Officials recorded on the occasion of that visit that she was “considered to be, looked on, as a respected and worthy woman.” Sixteen years later, in her late thirties, Ann Jeanette, or Mrs. Sarles, again visited the Refuge and according to the daybook, “gave a good account of herself.”

The Refuge kept notes on sister Mary Ann’s post-Refuge life and progress for only a few years after she left. She had entered prostitution shortly after her departure, and the last recorded entry about her indi-


42

cated she was still practicing that occupation. Perhaps the Refuge lost track of Mary Ann, though they could have solicited information about her during one of her sister’s visits, or perhaps they did not spend time doing follow-up studies on women they considered their “failures.”[29]

House of Refuge records detail many stories similar to that of Ann Jeanette Utter, involving young women from straitened families who practiced prostitution for a few years before returning to “respectable” society.[30] Two such young women who went on to other trades were Sarah Van Norden and Mary Jane Box. Van Norden’s father was a boat builder, and her mother was a tailoress; when Van Norden was in her mid-teens, she was learning tailoring from her mother, who was described as “a very pious woman.” Sarah did not get along well with her mother, whom she believed was too critical of her. She left home and went to board in a brothel on Walnut Street. Her parents then had her sent to the Refuge, and six months after being admitted she was indentured to a farmer in Westport, Connecticut, where she worked for over a year, receiving good reports. Several years later she visited the Refuge, and officials there were pleased to learn she was then working as a milliner.[31]

Mary Jane Box lived with her widowed mother until she was seven, when she was put in service. Although her mother worked as a tailoress and had three grown children who were employed, they were all so poor that Box had to be put to work also. In her first two years as a servant she lived at eight different locations. Her Refuge case history, written when she was sixteen, said, “It would be too tedious to mention all the places she has been at. She has been wandering about in this way for several years, has been she thinks at more than 50 different places. At none of which she stayed more than 7 or 8 months.”[32]

When Box was thirteen her mother died of cholera, and Box began going out with boys and men to houses of assignation. For the next three years she practiced prostitution and/or worked as a servant. Box was unhappy at the Refuge and after several months’ residence tried to escape. She was indentured to a family in Norwalk, Connecticut, but after only nine months they sent her back, saying her conduct was far past endurance. About a year later she was indentured to a farmer in Fishkill, was happy with her position there, and stayed on for several years. Five years later, in her mid-twenties, she was described as “re-


43

spectable” and was living at her sister’s in New York, planning to return to Fishkill to work at her old job there.[33]

Hannah Rice’s career as a prostitute was also briefly documented by the House of Refuge. Rice was almost seventeen when she was brought to the Refuge. Her father, a cooper, had died a couple of years before, and her mother was supporting the family by taking in washing. Rice was described as “lazy,” a girl who “would rather do evil to gratify her pride than work,” and it was noted she had a “wrestless [sic ], uneasy turned mind.”[34]

Rice had been a prostitute for more than a year when she was admitted to the Refuge. She entered prostitution by soliciting on the street— “going with young men to private places for night walkers”—and then boarded with Abby Meade (Myers), who kept a brothel at the corner of Grand and Wooster streets.[35] Following her stay at Abby Meade’s, Rice was kept by a Colonel Lee, and afterwards by a Captain Myers, who worked for a steamboat company.

Rice contracted the “bad disorder” (venereal disease), and her mother had her admitted to the Female Magdalen Society home on Bowery Hill. She was not happy there, tried unsuccessfully to escape, and finally agreed to try the House of Refuge to see if she liked it any better. Shortly after her admission, the matron’s report noted the “girl is greatly disappointed in the change because she feels she has to work too hard.” In over a year at the Refuge, Rice was never indentured, and when she turned eighteen she was released “at the strong solicitation of her mother.” For several months after her departure, Rice made return visits to the Refuge. Within a year of her release, however, she was “back on the town” in prostitution.[36]

When Mary Anthony entered the Refuge at age fourteen or fifteen, the admitting matron noted that “there is a mistery [sic ] . . . hanging about her parentage. She never saw her mother but says she saw her father about two years ago.”[37] Anthony told Refuge authorities she had been born somewhere in Kentucky. Before she could remember, however, she had been left in the care of Patience Berger, who brought her up in her house of assignation at 202 Church Street. The Refuge suspected that Anthony may in fact have been Berger’s daughter.

Berger sent Anthony away to school for four years, beginning when she was about ten years old, but following her return to New York,


44

Anthony became a prostitute. An acquaintance, a mantuamaker who had also formerly been a prostitute, gave her the name of a local gentleman who would help her find a position in some other profession. Anthony did not tell the gentleman, a Mr. Green, that she had practiced prostitution, but rather that she wished to avoid the fate that staying in the Berger household would surely cause. Green placed her with a family in Oneida County, urging them to watch over her and not let men seduce her. She was shortly returned to Green because it was reported that she was not honest and stole money, and that her “propensity” was such that “she would be the one to seduce young men first.” Still wishing to “save” Anthony, Green had her admitted to the Refuge.

After six months there, Anthony was evaluated as “an artful deceptive creature in whom we have no confidence.” After a year and a half, however, she must have improved, because she was indentured to a man in Geneva, New York. She stayed on in Geneva after her indenture ended, and at age twenty-three, while on a trip to New York City, she paid a visit to the Refuge. The Refuge authorities appeared to have some doubt whether Anthony had completely abandoned her old way of life, because the entry describing her visit stated, “She looks rather gay for a girl who does housework.” Five years later, however, when Anthony was in her late twenties, the Refuge recorded that the man to whom she had been indentured informed them that she was married to a respectable mechanic and was living happily in Geneva.[38]

Less is known about Patience Berger than about her ward, or perhaps daughter, but information suggests the general pattern of the Townsend-Berry careers. From the 1820s to the 1860s Berger ran either an assignation house or a brothel in lower Manhattan. In the 1830s her house at 202 Church Street was described as “a quiet house,” and, except for the Advocate of Moral Reform calling her “a wretch of a woman,” she appears to have continued to operate quietly with little notoriety or publicity throughout her career. By 1840, Berger had accumulated enough money to own a house at 132 Church, assessed at $8,000, and she also had $3,000 in personal property. Her personal-property assets appear to have fluctuated between 1840 and 1860; the $3,000 declined to $400 by 1845, then rose to $6,500 by 1848 and stayed there until 1856, when it again dropped to $500. Although her financial situation reflects some degree of change, on the whole, prostitution provided


45

Patience Berger with a long career of relative security and financial success.[39]

Although black New Yorkers suffered discriminations greater than most other groups in the population, their life stories illustrate the same kinds of circumstances that prompted so many other young women to become prostitutes. Julia Ann Smith was born in Baltimore and moved to New York with her family. Her father died in the cholera epidemic of 1833, when Smith was twelve. Her mother attempted to support the family by doing day work, but young Julia also had to go into service at a gentleman’s boardinghouse on Beekman Street. While working in the boardinghouse, she met a white man, a Captain Armstrong from Liverpool, who started taking her to an assignation house on Catherine Lane that was managed by a black woman. Captain Armstrong paid Smith $4 to $5 a night for several weeks, a large sum to be earned by a girl just reaching her teens and considerably more money than she was making as a domestic. Smith left her domestic service position and, according to the Refuge, began “strolling about from pillar to post for two or three years . . . staying in this private way with white men.” Refuge officials recorded that Smith said she would “have nothing to do with colored men.” At one point Smith worked out of the U.S. Hotel at West Point for several months and then accompanied a friend to Pennsylvania for a few weeks. Afterward, she returned to New York and became a servant to a black prostitute at the Franklin House on Broadway, earning $1 per week. When her family learned of her return to New York, her mother became alarmed by her daughter’s lifestyle and “the character of the place” where she worked; Mrs. Smith asked the police to arrest her daughter and send her to the Refuge. Entering the Refuge at age fourteen, Smith was described as “one of the closed mouthed knowing ones,” whose conduct was described as “pretty fair, but if out of humor she [would] swear.” At the end of a year the Refuge indentured Smith in Otsego County, New York, and after that kept no more records on her. Since biracial marriages were infrequent in the mid-nineteenth century, if Smith continued to “have nothing to do with colored men” she probably eliminated marriage from her available options, leaving menial trades, service, or prostitution as her most likely opportunities.[40]

Like many other Irish females, Eliza Brakey came to America in 1846 to escape difficult conditions in Europe. Immigration was perhaps par-


46

ticularly compelling for Brakey’s family because her father had died in Ireland. Arriving in America, mother and daughters went to live in separate places—the mother in New York City and the daughters in service positions on Long Island. Brakey worked for two-and-a-half years for one family but apparently became unhappy with the post and left Long Island for Mrs. Smith’s Elizabeth Street brothel in the city. She worked as a prostitute for half a year, until friends discovered her and had her committed to Blackwell’s Island. As soon as she had served her six-month sentence, Brakey returned to prostitution at Adeline Miller’s brothel on Church Street, where she was satisfactorily residing until her friends again found her and had her sent to the penitentiary for six more months. After her second jail term, Brakey went to live with her sisters on Long Island, but after a short while she again escaped to the city and Mrs. Smith’s brothel. This time her mother had her arrested for vagrancy and committed to the Refuge. Brakey’s persistence in pursuing prostitution caused Refuge officials to write: “This is a hard case! & we fear beyond the hope of Reform.” After fifteen months at the Refuge, Brakey was indentured in rural New Jersey. Six months later Refuge officials recorded that Brakey had “left her place,” possibly returning for the fourth time to the “unreformed” life she seemed to prefer in the city.[41]

The preceding cases suggest some tentative observations. The young women who entered New York City prostitution generally came from poor families or from families torn by conflict. Many teenagers seemed to prefer prostitution to the work and protection of the House of Refuge or other reform institutions. Some women provided well for themselves in the trade and thus made a long-term career of prostitution; others found it an easy occupation to pursue if they temporarily fell on hard times. Most of those who can be followed go back into respectable marriage or career situations, but some of them simply disappear from historical sight, possibly returning to prostitution. Of those mentioned, only Jewett, so far as is known, died young.

Although there are dozens of other personal profiles that give insight into the lives of prostitutes and could demonstrate further the diversity of the individuals who worked in the profession, the tentative observations above do help delineate some of the common characteristics of the New York women who practiced prostitution. To gain a clearer focus on these women, we turn to a statistical generalization, or collective profile, of New York prostitutes as a group.


47

6.
Hooking a Victim. In the 1830s prostitution became much more
visible in New York City. This mid-century print, depicting respectable-
looking women “hooking victims” on a public thoroughfare, illustrates
a situation New Yorkers felt had become a public problem. (Lithograph
& Publisher, Serrell & Perkins; gift of Karl Schmidt. Courtesy Museum
of the City of New York)

The Collective Profile

William Sanger’s 1858 study offered a general profile of the New York City prostitute: she was young, foreign-born, unmarried, had borne a child, came from a poor working-class family, and had experienced economic and/or other problems at home before entering prostitution. Furthermore, Sanger believed the average prostitute spent only four years in the profession before the hard life caused her to die prematurely. This profile did not differ on the whole from what the majority of New Yorkers believed about the prostitutes in their midst, and it also resembled the conclusions of other nineteenth-century social investigators who were concerned with prostitution.[42]

New Yorker Charles Smith, writing a decade before Sanger, also had offered a general portrait, noting that though prostitutes came from


48

every age group and “every rank in life,” the majority were poor, had been raised in rural areas, and suffered social disadvantages. Many had worked previously as domestics or in a trade, and almost all were uneducated and because of ignorance had experienced their “downfall.”[43] Though Smith and Sanger agreed on issues of age, socioeconomic background, and previous employment, Smith, like several European social investigators, noted that prostitution was usually a temporary occupation, not the final stage of a woman’s life.[44]

The nineteenth-century data—particularly Sanger’s study, which was by far the most extensive and detailed—can be reevaluated today in light of other evidence. Information from censuses, arrest records, and contemporary newspapers permits us to test the accuracy of Sanger’s portrait of the young, foreign-born, desperately poor social outcast who died a few years after becoming a prostitute, thus allowing us to clarify or redefine his profile of the mid-nineteenth-century prostitute.[45]

Most characteristic of the average mid-nineteenth-century New York prostitute was her youth. Youth was a definite asset in the profession, but the late teens or early twenties also represented a stage in life when a young woman might well be needing a job, gaining independence from her family, and making new acquaintances on her own before marrying and having a family. The overwhelming majority of mid-nineteenth-century prostitutes were twenty-five years of age or under. Sanger found 74 percent in this age group, and of the prostitutes identified in the 1850 and 1855 censuses, 74 and 72 percent, respectively, were under twenty-five. Very few prostitutes were over the age of thirty—only 12 percent in Sanger’s group, and 10 and 16 percent in the two censuses (table 4).[46]

These figures include both brothel-keepers and common prostitutes, but the two groups can be distinguished on the basis of age. In the 1850 and 1855 censuses, the average age of the brothel-keepers was eight to twelve years higher and their median age eight to eleven years greater. Brothel-keepers were typically in their early to mid-thirties, though the youngest manager was nineteen and the oldest seventy (table 5). Although the madams or brothel managers were generally veteran prostitutes, they were not necessarily older women nor the oldest in the profession; twenty-six of the eighty madams identified (32.5 percent) were not the oldest prostitutes in their respective houses.[47]

If one excludes brothel-keepers from the two censuses studied, the average age of prostitutes was approximately twenty-three.[48] The young-


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Table 4
Age Profile of Prostitutes

% in Age Group

Age Group

Sanger
N = 2,000

1850 Census
N = 310

1855 Census
N = 264

20 & Under

37.5

33.5

35.2

21-25

36.4

40.3

36.4

26-30

14.0

16.5

12.9

31-35

4.9

3.5

7.6

36-40

3.8

3.2

4.2

41-45

1.4

1.6

1.9

46-50

0.8

0.3

0.4

51-55

0.6

0.6

0.8

56-60

0.5

0

0

61 & Over

0.3

0.3

0.8

25 & Under

73.9

73.8

71.6

30 & Under

87.9

90.3

84.5

35 & Under

92.7

93.8

92.1

40 & Under

96.5

97.0

96.3

Median Age

22.0

22.0

22.0

Average Age

23.9

23.9

24.6

SOURCES : William Sanger, History of Prostitution , 452; United States Census, 1850, Wards 5 and 8; New York State Census, 1855, Wards 5 and 8.

est prostitutes listed in both the Sanger study and in official censuses were fourteen and fifteen, the approximate age at which most girls physically matured in the mid-nineteenth century. There were, however, many cases of children below this age who practiced prostitution.[49] House of Refuge records list several girls as young as eight who were admitted for suspected or undoubted prostitution; in fact, more than one-third of the Refuge’s prostitution-related cases in four selected years involved girls between the ages of eight and fourteen.[50] Police records and newspapers also report instances of very young girls being taken from brothels. Police in the sixth ward found an eleven-year-old girl working as a prostitute in the brothel of Bridget Mangren near the Five Points. Joe Farryall, a notorious recruiter of prostitutes, was arrested with his wife for keeping a disorderly house, and one of the inmates arrested with him was ten years


50

Table 5
Age Profile of Brothel Keepers

% in Age Group

Age Group

1850 Census
N = 38

1855 Census
N = 42

25 & Under

18.4

11.9

26-30

36.8

26.2

31-35

18.4

19.0

36-40

13.2

19.0

41-45

7.9

11.9

46-50

0

2.4

51-55

2.6

4.8

56-60

0

0

61 & Over

2.6

4.8

30 & Under

55.2

38.1

35 & Under

73.6

57.1

40 & Under

86.8

76.2

45 & Under

94.7

88.1

Median Age

30.0

33.0

Average Age

32.5

36.3

SOURCES : United States Census, 1850, Wards 5 and 8; New York State Census, 1855, Wards 5 and 8.

old. In court Farryall was accused of having nine young girls in his house, two of whom were under twelve.[51]

Charles Smith, in his book on prostitution, also noted that police arrested prostitutes who were as young as ten to fourteen, who had been led astray, he believed, by men well advanced in age.[52] In 1835, for example, three young girls were taken from Eliza Webber’s assignation house on Church Street, where they had been found “going to bed with grey-haired men.”[53] A neighbor testified in court that she had seen the girls enter the house on eight to ten occasions and once had seen a very small girl, accompanied by a middle-aged man, come to her own house before the man realized they were at the wrong place. The Webber arrest led to an investigation of the extent to which young daughters of the poor were being recruited for prostitution. According to the Sun , clandestine meetings were arranged by omnibus ticket boys, who were paid by men seeking assignations.[54]


51

Some professional child prostitutes continued working in the business into their adult years. One twenty-three-year-old veteran stated that she had been a prostitute “ever since it took a yard of cloth to make me a petticoat.”[55] The majority of young girls involved, however, like most of their adult counterparts, were not fully professional prostitutes but practiced casual prostitution at intervals, or on occasion, to supplement other earnings. Many were street hucksters whose activities presented opportunities for sexual contacts; the money they earned from one encounter with a man was far more then they might earn peddling fruit or flowers. This type of juvenile street prostitution was described in an 1849 report by New York Chief of Police Matsell, who stated that more than two thousand young girls between eight and sixteen years of age were “addicted to immoralities of the most loathsome description.”[56]

Their ostensible business is the sale of fruits, socks, tooth-picks, etc., and with this ruse they gain ready access to counting-rooms, offices and other places, where, in the secrecy and seclusion of a turned key, they submit their persons for the miserable bribe of a few shillings, to the most loathsome and degrading familiarities.[57]

In this way a young girl might earn two to three dollars a day, sometimes given to her parents, sometimes used to purchase some small luxury for herself.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, observers noted a substantial increase in childhood prostitution. This growth of juvenile prostitution and pedophilia, in both the United States and Europe, is an aspect of Victorian life that has not yet been fully explored, particularly with respect to the various social and psychological influences on the men involved. We can readily understand, however, why many young girls were easy prey during this period: the compelling social realities of working-family and tenement life made their labor a necessary part of a family’s economy, and their unchaperoned huckstering in the streets made them “available” to men seeking young partners. Statistics from child molestation and rape cases support the police chief’s observation that sex with female children was very much a part of urban street life in the mid-nineteenth century. Given the security gained from class as much as gender, well-off men with a “taste” for children had substantial protection in pursuing street-exposed girls of the poor. Fur-


52

thermore, the low age of consent (ten years) implied a legal sanction of sexual relations with children, providing, of course, that the young girl was said to be a willing participant. Many young girls, and sometimes their families, may have been led by ignorance, desperate want, or an experience of forced sex into accepting sexual encounters where they could earn a little extra money.[58]

Contemporary claims that most prostitutes were foreign-born cannot be confirmed as readily as generalizations about their youth. Sanger wrote that it was “frequently remarked and as generally believed … that a very large majority of the prostitutes in New York are of foreign birth.”[59] The association of prostitution with immigrants was part of an overall linking of foreigners with crime and corruption. Immigrants were thought to be the castoffs of other nations, a “constant flood of immigration” that Sanger noted “leaves a mass of debris behind it.”[60] New York’s mid-century mayor, Fernando Wood, stated: “An examination of the criminal and pauper records, shows conclusively, that it is but a small proportion of these unfortunate who are natives of this country.”[61] The increase in New York crime in the mid-1850s, he believed, could be traced directly to the influx of immigrants.

New Yorkers’ tendency to blame evils on foreigners can be explained in part by population changes in the city in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1830 and 1860 New York’s population more than quadrupled, largely as a result of immigration from Europe. Foreign-born residents constituted 34.5 percent of New York City’s inhabitants in 1845, 46.8 percent in 1850, and over half the population, or 52.3 percent, by 1855. Many other foreigners did not settle permanently in New York but landed at the New York port in these years and stayed in the city for a while before moving on. Over a million immigrants arrived in the decade after 1840, and almost two million between 1850 and 1860. In the single month of May 1849, 32,700 aliens landed in New York City, the next month 33,000 came, and, in the peak year of 1851, 289,601 immigrants arrived.[62] The presence of a majority of the population with strange customs, often different faiths and languages, and a need to work cheaply threatened many native-born New Yorkers, who sometimes responded by discriminating against the immigrants in jobs, wages, and housing. Some law-enforcement officials also may have demonstrated discriminatory


53

biases. A study of police docket and arrest records in the 1850s indicates that a woman was most likely to be arrested as a prostitute if she was in an ethnic neighborhood and was foreign, especially Irish.[63] Because immigrant women were usually poor and were not as highly esteemed as native-born women, they may have had more difficulty in finding well-paying jobs and thus possibly turned to prostitution in greater numbers than did their’ American-born sisters.[64] It is also possible, however, that the high percentage of prostitution arrests of women with foreign names reflects a bias against foreigners, a disregard for their legal rights, or simply their tendency to solicit more often in the streets.[65]

Sanger found that 61.9 percent of the prostitutes he interviewed were of foreign birth. He was impressed by the lowness of this figure—”that five-eighths only [italics mine] were born abroad.”[66] This was, however, almost 10 percent higher than the proportion of foreign-born in the general population. In contrast, prostitutes identified in wards five and eight using census data include many fewer foreign-born women: 23.9 percent of these identified in the 1850 census and 25.4 percent in 1855. The discrepancy may represent a difference in the types of prostitutes located: almost all of the women identified in the two censuses were from brothels or prostitution boardinghouses, while Sanger’s interviewees were not necessarily from establishments. It is possible that immigrants were not considered as desirable as native-born women when hiring for brothels, so that their numbers in prostitution houses would be lower than they would be in the overall prostitute population. Also, though wards did not differ greatly from one another in terms of immigrant population, wards five and eight were in the lowest third of wards in housing foreign-born inhabitants. The overall foreign population of these two wards was 45.2 percent, as compared to 52.3 percent for the city as a whole.[67]

Irish women accounted for the largest immigrant group in both the prostitute population and the general population. In 1855, Irish immigrants represented 28.2 percent of New York City’s inhabitants, and 21.7 percent of the residents in wards five and eight. Yet Irish prostitutes, as the largest foreign-born group, comprised only 12 percent of all the prostitutes in these two wards, while they accounted for 35 percent of Sanger’s city-wide study done at approximately the same time (table 6).


54

Table 6
Percentages of All Foreign-Born and Irish-Born New York City Residents and Prostitutes, 1855

Total Population

Prostitute Population

N

% All Foreign

% Irish

% All Foreign

% Irish

All N.Y.C.

629,904

52.3

28.2

61.9

35.3

Wards 5 and 8

55,669

45.2

21.7

25.4

12.1

SOURCES : New York State Census, 1855; William Sanger, History of Prostitution , 460. Percentages of foreign-born prostitutes in the total New York City population are from Sanger’s study, and those for Wards 5 and 8 are from the author’s survey of the New York State census manuscripts for New York City.

Interestingly, in 1860 New York’s Irish community was the city’s only national group in which females outnumbered males. Irish women outnumbered Irish men in New York City at that time by about one-third, or more than 30,000, a number greater than the combined total of all other foreign-born females except German. Within her own ethnic neighborhood, an Irish woman was more likely to remain single than were women of other nationalities.[68]

The relatively low proportion of Irish women among prostitutes in wards five and eight partly reflects those wards’ relatively low overall population of foreigners, including Irish immigrants. But it also probably indicated a preference on the part of the ward’s brothel-managers for hiring native-born prostitutes. This assumption was supported by the observations of a German visitor to New York in 1858 that Irish and German women generally were excluded from the finer brothels in the Mercer Street area, where Americans and a few Frenchwomen predominated.[69] If we could obtain data on streetwalkers and independent prostitutes that is as complete as the census data on the brothel-based population, it is possible that the foreign-born percentage of prostitutes would appear much higher. The periodic sweeping arrests of streetwalkers may have included many innocent women, but those arrested were mostly Irish and other foreign-born females (table 7). Nevertheless, because the information on nativity from wards five and eight challenges Sanger’s and others’ assumption that most prostitutes were immigrants, no straightforward conclusion is possible concerning whether the typical New York prostitute was foreign- or native-born.


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Table 7
Nativity of Arrested Streetwalkers

Foreign-Born

Datea

Total Arrested

Irish

Other

Total

28 March 1855

35

20 (57.1%)

5 (14.3%)

25 (71.4%)

23 May 1855

60

34 (56.7%)

10 (16.7%)

44 (73.3%)

24 May 1855

39

25 (64.1%)

7 (17.9%)

32 (82.1%)

a Three sample evenings during two months of Mayor Wood’s anti-prostitution campaign. The “sweep” of streetwalkers occurred on streets to either side of Broadway, an area that included an ethnically diverse group of prostitutes working independently and out of brothels.

SOURCE : New, York Daily Times .

Uncertainty concerning the nativity of the majority of New York prostitutes does not extend to race: most prostitutes were white. Although black New Yorkers were even lower on the socioeconomic scale than immigrants and were excluded from most occupations except menial labor, black women still comprised a small part of New York’s prostitution community.[70] The small number of black prostitutes may be explained partly by the small proportion of black residents in the city in general: black New Yorkers accounted for no more than 5.5 percent of the city’s population at any time during the period 1835 to 1870 and had declined to only 1.5 percent by 1860. Also, prejudice played some role in limiting the chances that black women could improve their economic situations through prostitution.[71]

Certainly there were black prostitutes and black brothels, some of which were successful and mentioned in brothel guidebooks.[72] The 1853 Fast Man’s Directory and Lover’s Guide to the Ladies of Fashion highly recommended the brothel at 196-1/2 Church Street run by Sarah Sweet:

This lady is a Southern Creole and her lady boarders are the same; they are very beautiful. It is the only decent Creole house in the city…. Southern gentlemen will find this a very fine resort, and will feel quite at home.[73]

Much of the success of a brothel depended on the mystique surrounding the establishment, and Sarah Sweet cleverly played to the fantasies held about illicit sex in the South. According to the 1850


56

census, the “Southern Creole lady” was actually a mulatto from Rhode Island and her four Southern creole boarders were mulattos from Massachusetts and New York.[74] Miss Sweet’s house and “pretty brunette boarders” were described again in an 1859 brothel directory along with two other “creole” houses.[75] One of these, Virginia Henriques’ house at 103 Mercer, was said to be “one of the best conducted houses of its kind in New York,” with “six pretty brunette boarders who … adhere strictly to the rules of good breeding.”[76]

Of the eighty brothels identified in wards five and eight in the 1850 and 1855 censuses, only two were black houses. Sarah Sweet’s house with five black prostitutes was listed in 1850, and Jane Hill’s brothel with ten black women was recorded in the 1855 census.[77] Nineteenth-century newspapers mention a few black prostitutes and black assignation and prostitution houses in columns on arrests and court proceedings, but even in wards five and six, where many blacks lived, the daily police docket records few arrests of black women for prostitution/ vagrancy or streetwalking. One 1849 ledger, which included 117 arrests for common prostitution/vagrancy, recorded only 3 arraignments of black women, and the 1850 books listed only 20 black suspects among 482 charged with the same offense. Black women were 3 percent of the overall population at the time, and black men and women represented 7 percent of the total population of wards five and six, where most of the arrests were made. Arrests of black women in the ledgers of wards 5 and 6 represented 4 percent or less of total arrests for prostitution/ vagrancy. Because police regularly brought in many more black residents on charges of drunken and disorderly conduct, the low percentage of arrests for prostitution is a further indication of blacks’ scarcity in this profession.[78]

Black women may have avoided prostitution more than white women because they were discriminated against by clients, or because they feared racially motivated abuse by customers as well as legal harassment and reprisals by the police and courts. The same 1853 brothel directory that recommended Sarah Sweet’s establishment made racial slurs against other houses. Mrs. Bennet’s house was described as “a very low place, formerly filled with niggers,” and Jane Frances’s brothel was said to be “a quiet place but too many niggers are around here.”[79] Another establishment was described as a “vile crib. It is a resort for niggers and pea-nut girls.”[80] Newspapers were often even cruder in their descrip-


57

tions than were the directories, such as in a Herald account of a raid on a brothel:

A Black “Crib” Broken Up

At the watch returns yesterday morning, the Police Office presented a rich group of niggers, of all sizes and colors—black, white, and grey—but the odor was not quite as agreeable as the sight was amusing, to observe the different countenances, with their big lips. It was really laughable.[81]

It is possible there were more black prostitutes and brothels than public records indicate because white officials may have ignored sexual commerce between black males and females unless it created a public disturbance in the community. Because white New Yorkers commonly assumed an innate “loose morality” among black people, black prostitutes serving black clients may have been disregarded. Nineteenth-century racism also assured that black males usually had access only to black brothels and streetwalkers, or to those integrated houses that were part of the lowest echelons of the trade.[82]

In spite of blatant public racism, officers sometimes protected the interests of black prostitutes. In the Court of Special Sessions, James Woodruff was charged with “taking advantage” of a Negro at a house of ill-fame and was remanded for a week.[83] An article in the Sun related that Ebenezer Barney, who visited Eliza Fisher’s black brothel to enjoy the company of two of the prostitutes, went to the police to file a complaint that his pocket book with $40 had been stolen in her establishment. According to the Sun , Justice Wyman, apparently more offended by the mixing of races than by the commission of the alleged crime, gave Barney “an appropriate lecture on the white gentleman’s perversity of taste and his penchant for ‘woolly headed quails.'” According to the newspaper, Barney was “compelled to pocket his loss and lose the contents of his pocket for his folly.”[84] It seems telling that even black prostitutes, despite doubly deep prejudices, were able to face the law with some hope of protection.

Many black women, too, played significant roles in the daily operations of New York’s brothels. Most of the brothels located in wards five and eight had servants, largely black. There were 89 brothel residents in addition to the 310 prostitutes in the 1850 census, and 77 of these were black. Sixty-four were female servants, 7 were male servants, and 6 were black children. In the 1855 census, there were 69 residents in


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addition to the 264 prostitutes, 44 of whom were black.[85] There were probably many other black household workers who did not live in. Moreover, it was sometimes possible for black women to improve their positions and earnings by increasing their responsibilities and authority as servants. An 1870 directory, describing Kate Austin’s brothel, said it was:

A second class house of six boarders … [which] seems to be managed by the colored servants. One can never see the proprietor who is concealed somewhere behind these sable breast works.[86]

Of a first-class house, it was said:

The landlady is never seen. It is impossible to say who is head of the house. The door is guarded by a grouty old dame from the south of Africa, whose assumed dignity is so over powering that most people suppose that she runs the establishment.[87]

These black women appear to have been servants, but they evidently assumed some of the management responsibilities of madams, maximizing their roles in a business where black authority commonly had to be oblique.

The statistical profile of the New York prostitute indicates that she was single as well as young and white. Sanger found 61 percent of his interviewees had never married, and 79 percent of the prostitutes working in brothels in wards five and eight in 1855 were unmarried. Of the large group of streetwalkers arrested on one evening that same year, 59 percent said they were single. Some single women probably claimed to be widowed or married, especially if they had children, and brothel madams sometimes went by the title “widow” or “Mrs.” even if they had not been married. A widow might have become a prostitute, though, if she experienced an abrupt change in her family’s economy on the death of her husband. Both the Sanger study and the 1855 census identified 14.7 percent of the prostitutes as widows. Sanger was surprised by the fact that 25 percent of the prostitutes he interviewed said they were married, and he was appalled to learn that 14.5 percent of these women were still living with their husbands while they practiced prostitution.[88]

Almost half of the Sanger interviewees had had children—about three-fourths of the widows and married women, and about 30 percent of the single women. A little over 40 percent of the widows’ and married


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women’s children were illegitimate, however.[89] The children of these prostitutes appear to have had a very high rate of mortality—62 percent overall and an even higher rate among children of single mothers. Sanger assumed that most of these deaths must have occurred before the children were five years old, so he compared his figures to death rates of New York children in the same age category. Because he was certain the women had not admitted to having many abortions, he inflated his figures to account for this omission and concluded that the mortality rate for prostitutes’ children was four times as great as that for the average New York child. This conclusion is a statistical invention, though the mortality rate for prostitutes’ children probably was somewhat higher than that of the city as a whole. His decrial of the “sacrifice of infant life ” as “one of the most deplorable results of prostitution” (italics added) also flies in the face of his own observation that 43 percent of the prostitutes’ children were born before their mothers became prostitutes.[90]

Most New York prostitutes had worked in low-paying trades before entering the profession, and many were still so employed while practicing prostitution to supplement their incomes. Not surprisingly, the practice of part-time prostitution was more typical of streetwalkers than of brothel workers.[91] Of the thirty-nine women arrested for streetwalking on May 24, 1855 (see table 7), a majority listed occupations other than prostitution, perhaps because they indeed practiced prostitution as a second profession but perhaps too because they may have claimed other occupations in hopes charges against them would be dropped.[92] Seventeen of those arrested (44 percent) said they worked in households, or as domestics, and six were from the sewing trades (15 percent). In contrast, only 15 percent of the 2,000 prostitutes in Sanger’s study said they were supporting themselves by means other than (or in addition to) prostitution. In listing their prior professions, however, almost half of Sanger’s interviewees said they had worked as domestic/household laborers, and another 21 percent had been in the sewing trades.[93]

Although the responses to occupational questions in official censuses depended very much on the census-takers’ thoroughness and the questions they asked, some prostitutes indicated they were continuing to work in other professions. In the census of 1855, most of the ward five prostitutes identified themselves as such. In ward eight, however, only 39 of the 158 women responded to the question on employment. Thir-


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teen gave prostitution as their profession, and 26 listed other trades, mostly in sewing.[94]

The occupation of a woman’s father seems to have been only vaguely related to whether the woman became a prostitute. Sanger found that most prostitutes’ fathers held working-class occupations—as laborers, masons, blacksmiths, farmers, and sailors—but some were clergymen, lawyers, physicians, school teachers, policemen, and men of property. More important than the father’s occupation was paternal economic setback, death, or familial alienation.[95] Some women clearly became prostitutes in response to familial need, and others joined the profession because of a break with family, which was sometimes precipitated by perceived or actual sexual indiscretion. Economic stresses that might require wives and children to go to work to help support the family were more likely to occur in working-class families than in families at higher socioeconomic levels, but sexual indiscretions might be committed by a female from any family. The effect of the double standard and social pressure on a young woman who had been sexually promiscuous and thus alienated from her family meant that she, regardless of class, had few options for supporting herself besides prostitution.

The length of time most women stayed in prostitution was an issue debated by nineteenth-century observers of the profession. Sanger believed that most New York prostitutes died after approximately four years, in other words, that one-fourth of all New York prostitutes died every year. McDowall had stated a similar conclusion twenty-five years earlier, and William Tait, writing on Edinburgh prostitutes in 1840, interpreted their short careers (no more than four years) as an indication of their early demise. Another observer, Samuel Prime, in Life in New York (1847), agreed that prostitution led to death but stated that the average life expectancy after commencing prostitution might be as long as ten to fifteen years.[96] In contrast, physician Charles Smith, writing the same year as Prime, while agreeing that there was a turnover in the profession every few years (approximately five to seven), argued that this was not attributable to death. Although some died of disease and dissipation, he believed that at least two-thirds of the women left the profession to marry, take a lover, set up a business, start another trade, or migrate to the South or West. Smith’s analysis closely resembles Parent-Duchatelet’s 1836 study of French prostitutes, which found that the profession was usually a temporary occupation practiced for one to


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four years before returning to old trades or choosing new professions or lifestyles. Physician William Acton’s study of London prostitution also supported the idea that prostitutes had short careers not because of untimely deaths but because they reintegrated themselves into respectable society. Some married; others had accumulated enough savings to be able to go into a trade, establish a shop, or open a boardinghouse. In fact, many of the prostitutes he had treated continued visiting him as patients after leaving the profession.[97]

Although drawing different conclusions, all the commentators agreed that, on the whole, prostitutes practiced their profession for only a few years. Data taken from New York City public records, although selective, reveals little repetition in names of the 310 prostitutes identified in the 1850 census when compared to the 264 in the 1855 census. Most of the women who are found in both censuses appear to have moved “up,” or into managerial posts. This finding does not preclude the possibility that other women may have stayed in prostitution for a longer period, perhaps by moving “down” into less desirable situations than those of the brothels in wards five and eight; certainly, however, the data does not confirm their deaths. In fact, a review of the records from 1850 to 1855 produces few names of prostitutes who have been identified from that period. To support Sanger’s assumption about prostitution causing early death, prostitutes’ deaths would have had to account for approximately one-sixth of all female deaths in the city each year, which is not at all the case; in New York, deaths for females between ages ten and thirty (the age category including approximately 88 percent of all prostitutes) amounted to only one-sixth of all female deaths. It is impossible that almost all women who died each year in this age group, which comprised the earliest and heaviest childbearing years, were prostitutes.[98]

Unfortunately, there is little information about the lives of prostitutes after leaving the profession. House of Refuge records reveal that a few of the prostitutes who were admitted there did die young, usually of disease, and a few returned to prostitution. Others, however, left the Refuge to work as chambermaids, milliners, seamstresses, or industrial workers, and some married and had children. If the stint in prostitution had not afforded the security of marriage or an improved economic position, then most of these women found that their life options had not really changed much: menial labor, the hope of a future marriage, or


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a return to prostitution. Having learned the economic advantages of prostitution, however, some probably did move in and out of the profession over the years until age or illness diminished their marketability in that occupation, just as it did in other trades.

Attempts to profile the nineteenth-century New York City prostitute can never be definitive, but they can enable us to draw a limited portrait of these women as a group. Although most women entered the occupation when they were very young and practiced it only a few years before moving back into respectability, some women did grow old in prostitution. Contrary to Sanger’s profile, most New York prostitutes did not die after only a few years in the trade, but moved on to other jobs or married. For many, prostitution was not far removed from viable “respectable” alternatives, and thus it was taken up by a relatively broad group of women. Prostitution was not an occupation for only the most desperately poor and outcast but was an easy one to pursue if a young woman fell on hard times or wanted to establish her financial independence. Neither personal stories nor the available statistical data permit us to determine the percentage of foreign-born and black women, those New Yorkers lowest on the socioeconomic scale, who worked as prostitutes, but the ethnic spectrum of women in the occupation was probably broader among streetwalkers than among brothel-based women, because streetwalking did not usually involve so major a lifestyle change or so definite an occupational commitment. Nevertheless, those who worked in houses, a higher percentage of whom were native-born, probably were better off than streetwalkers: less desperately poor, better protected legally and medically, and better paid.[99]

It is important to know the similarities of women who chose pros-titution-the statistical significance of certain personal and background traits or characteristics—but it is equally important to know something about these women’s motivations. Because there was a social stigma associated with prostitution, some set of circumstances, some combination of experiences and needs, had to motivate a woman to practice prostitution instead of a more respectable occupation. The reasons why a woman chose prostitution and why she remained in the profession add another dimension to our understanding of the nineteenth-century New York prostitute.


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3
“No Work, No Money, No Home”
Choosing Prostitution

In April 1839, Catherine Paris and one of her two children attended chapel at the House of Refuge. The entry in the Refuge’s journal noted that Paris was respectably married to a confectioner and living at the corner of Broadway and Duane. Nothing in the notation indicated how different Paris’s life had been three years prior to that month. In April 1836, Paris, known then as Elizabeth Salters, was one of Helen Jewett’s colleagues in Rosina Townsend’s brothel. On the day of the famous murder, Paris and Jewett had spent the afternoon together on an outing in lower Manhattan, and Paris was one of the prostitutes who testified at the trial.

For the two years preceding the murder, from age seventeen to nineteen, Paris was a prostitute, living most of the time at Townsend’s establishment. Before coming to New York, she lived in Albany with her mother, a tailoress and domestic who was twice widowed before Paris was nine.

Paris’s life history and the circumstances surrounding her decision to become a prostitute are similar to those of many other women. As a thirteen-year-old, living alone with a mother who was employed full-time, Paris began to run around at night with companions whom the Refuge called “bad girls.” Because of her behavior, she was sent to the Refuge. The matrons described her as good-looking and said she appeared older than her age. The only problem mentioned in her records was that she and a group of girls tried to escape from the Refuge the year


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after she arrived. At age fifteen Paris was indentured by the Refuge to a man in Susquehanna County, who wrote favorably of her work and behavior and said he was recommending her as a candidate in the Presbyterian church. The next year, however, she returned to her mother in Albany and not long afterward came to New York. There she boarded for a short time at Mrs. Berger’s prostitution house on Church Street, and then at Mrs. Townsend’s on Thomas Street.[1]

Although prostitution was not a lifetime career for Paris, neither was marriage. In 1849, in a story about the Jewett murder, the Police Gazette reported that Catherine Paris, alias Elizabeth Salters, had lived with her confectioner husband for only a few years and had then “eloped” from him.[2]

Why did Paris become a prostitute? Her background suggests no single motivating factor. It is possible that she became familiar with the life of prostitution during her years in Albany, and she could compare the lifestyle with that of women like her widowed mother who worked in menial trades. Furthermore, as an indentured worker from the Refuge, she learned the demands and rewards of “honest” hard work. Thus, by the age of seventeen, when released from the Refuge, Paris chose to be independent of her mother in Albany and moved to New York City, where she began working full time as a prostitute. Though it appears that she practiced the trade for only a couple of years, she may have returned to prostitution after leaving her husband in the 1840s.

Paris’s story shares several elements with many other accounts of nineteenth-century prostitutes: economic need, a desire to be independent of familial constraint, and lack of comparatively well-paying and comfortable alternatives. Another young prostitute summed up such a combination of factors as prompting her to choose prostitution: “No work, no money, no home.”[3] The central point that Paris’s and other prostitutes’ life stories illustrate about nineteenth-century prostitution is that most women do not appear to have entered the profession for a single reason, but, rather, because of a complex combination of factors. And although contemporaries tended to enshroud motivation in a mantle of moralism that often obscured real causes, it is important to view nine-teenth-century prostitutes’ choices and responses within the context of the time, considering fully the variety of influences brought to bear on their decisions. We should consider not only the conditions of these women’s lives but also society’s attitudes about women, sex, morality,


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family, and work that made prostitution a reasonable occupational option for so many.[4]

In the early years of the nineteenth century prostitutes were believed to practice their profession not because they were attempting to cope with difficult situations but because they were depraved women who suffered from character defects—they were victimizers who corrupted others in society. Although some observers noted that prostitutes were very poor, their poverty was regarded less as a cause of prostitution than as related to bad character and moral weakness. In 1818 the New York Society for the Prevention of Paupers issued a report citing ten causes of poverty and pauperism in New York City, among which was the influence of “houses of ill fame,” which corrupted the habits and morals of “a numerous class of young men, especially sailors and apprentices.”[5] In this formulation, prostitution was a cause of poverty, not one of its results. Prostitutes were morally depraved women who, in turn, corrupted morally weak men.

The Reverend J. R. McDowall’s work among prostitutes in the early 1830s also reflected a belief that women who became prostitutes were morally ignorant and corrupt, and “cause the seduction of heedless youth…. A few courtesans corrupt whole cities.”[6] Prostitutes were women of “the worst character … malevolent, cruel and revengeful,” and their lives were the necessary result of voluntary vice.[7] Hence, McDowall and his early followers believed that the way to abolish prostitution and effect the reform of the women who practiced it was to hold prayer meetings with prostitutes in brothels, jails, and almshouses; to distribute bibles and tracts; and to instruct the women in religious and moral teachings. Reclaiming “the crown jewels from the sewers,” as another nineteenth-century reform group articulated its mission among the lost, might be accomplished only through moral conversion and proper training.[8] But McDowall’s report, though it centrally enshrined the established moralistic victimizer thesis, also acknowledged an idea that would gain support with time: that “sheer necessity” drove many women to prostitution.

Although McDowall’s society disbanded, both church-affiliated and secular groups of middle- and upper-class women and men continued his work in other reform societies in New York and throughout the country. Through their efforts to convert and reform prostitutes, reformers came to realize they were working with only part of the problem,


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and they expanded their objectives to stress the need for moral purity in all members of society. Women’s moral-reform societies in particular were quickly persuaded that reform would only be accomplished by revolutionizing the relationship between the sexes and by eliminating the double standard of sexual morality. This new thrust reflected an important change in the public’s perception of the role of the prostitute. In 1835, women of the Moral Reform Society unanimously adopted a resolution that articulated the new attitude: “Let the condemnation of the guilty of our sex remain entire; but let not the most guilty of the two —the deliberate destroyer of female innocence—be afforded even an ‘apron of fig leaves,’ to conceal the blackness of his crimes.”[9] No longer was the prostitute viewed as the victimizer, but rather as the victim—the person seduced or raped and then scorned by a society that tolerated the debauchers in its midst. Such moralistic reinterpretation led to a change in the focus of moral reformers’ efforts from reform to prevention. To eradicate prostitution by prevention, however, reformers had to clarify social causes and educate the public about them. It was through efforts to identify the causes of prostitution that many reformers began to look beyond the lives of individual sinners, female and male, and beyond the issues of morality and purity to larger contemporary social problems, such as poverty, of which prostitution was only one manifestation. This notion that prostitution had socioeconomic roots became a basic tenet of the “scientific” school of reformers, even though the assumption that poor character was often related to poverty never totally disappeared from nineteenth-century thinking.[10]

After the 1830s, however, those who studied prostitution as a social problem, those who worked to reform prostitutes, and the general public began to see prostitution’s causes first in more sympathetic and then in more environmental terms. Depraved men and socioeconomic structures became the two favorite explanations. That women could easily become the victims of unscrupulous men was widely accepted because of commonly held assumptions about the fundamental natures of men and women. Nineteenth-century moral reformers, like the general public, came to believe that women were by nature pure, trusting, affectionate, and open-hearted, and that they responded to men only out of romantic love, not carnal desire. Men, on the other hand, were thought to be lechers, controlled by base sexual drives that they often either could not or would not control. The will of a determined male, once sexually


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aroused, was believed to be far stronger than that of a female. Furthermore, women, especially young rural and immigrant women, were believed to be naive and susceptible to trickery and deception. Prostitutes, in this scheme, were victims taken advantage of or destroyed by the “awful deception of a brute in the shape of a man.”[11]

Though not wholly rejecting a moralistic framework, other social reformers put greater emphasis on socioeconomic causes, especially the lack of economic alternatives. Scientific investigators in Europe and the United States differed from one another slightly in their evaluations of the various causes of prostitution, but all stressed the role of poverty and lack of employment. In his study on the prostitutes of New York City, Sanger found that slightly more than one-fourth of his interviewees gave “destitution” as the reason they entered prostitution, making it the most often-cited cause. “It is unquestionably true,” Sanger stated, “that positive, actual want, the apparent and dreaded approach of starvation, was the real cause of ,,[12] degradation. Women became destitute, he observed, because they did not have “sufficient means of employment” and because their employment was “inadequately remunerated.”[13] “Unhesitatingly and without fear of contradiction,” he reported, “were there more avenues of employment open to females there would be a corresponding decrease in prostitution.”[14]

Though widely accepted, the economic explanation never went unquestioned. Indeed for some analysts it remained unrecognized. A doctor in the late nineteenth century claimed that his thirty-city survey, which showed that most prostitutes were former factory, shop, or servant girls, proved that “public occupations are dangerous. A woman who works outside the home commits a biological crime against herself and her community.”[15] Even for more serious thinkers, the economic argument had troublesome implications. Those who portrayed prostitutes as moral victims could and did see solutions in control of male passions and in discrediting a double standard. Those who stressed economic victimization could and did urge better wages for women, but none envisioned the kind of broad economic changes that would have made prostitution anything but a rational marketplace choice for millions of females. In fact, strong elements of social conservatism contributed to the victimization thesis. If these women were hapless victims who were not responsible for their lives in the profession, they posed no real challenge to the idealized view of women portrayed in the cult of true


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womanhood, for so long as prostitution was seen as a forced rather than chosen option, the notion of woman as pure and in her proper place as mother and mistress of the hearth was unshaken. Also, victimization denied all positive appeal of the career—the financial and familial independence, the social life, the short-term comforts, and the long-term economic benefits. Such attractions were, in fact, the nasty secrets of prostitution; women became prostitutes not out of inevitable necessity, but because the profession was a comparatively attractive option from among the constricted choices society offered. Given the limits of nineteenth-century women’s occupational opportunities, for some women in some circumstances, prostitution seemed and perhaps was the best alternative. As has been noted by historian Barbara Hobson, prostitution was a reasonable choice in an irrational social universe:

one in which social and economic conditions forced some women to earn a livelihood but fostered an ideology that denied them decent wages; one that censured only women in illicit sexuality but insisted that they were the weaker parties unable to protect themselves against male sexual advances; and one that idealized motherhood but did not provide social services for single women who had to raise children.[16]

Without perhaps fully understanding the social, economic, and psychological complexities that underlay the choice of prostitution as a profession, nineteenth-century prostitutes and their observers offered many reasons why women entered prostitution, reasons that reflected the shift in emphasis from causes stressing moralistic factors to those stressing socioeconomic forces.[17] If one were to skim the early- and mid-nineteenth-century popular literature and newspapers, one might believe that seduction and abandonment ranked first as a cause of prostitution, followed by entrapment and trickery, and then, less often, unfortunate or unhappy home lives, the influence of others in the profession, a woman’s self-image, poverty and the need for income, and a desire for economic enhancement.

The Causes

Early nineteenth-century reformers, popular literature, and even some of the more scientific studies stressed seduction and


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abandonment as a major cause of prostitution, a reason that accorded with some prostitutes’ explanations. In the typical scenario, women were portrayed as pure, trusting, and affectionate, while men were characterized as unprincipled lechers. An example of this sentimental approach to seduction is found in Sanger’s mid-century study:

A woman’s heart longs for a reciprocal affection, and, to insure this, she will occasionally yield her honor to her lover’s importunities, but only when her attachment has become so concentrated upon its object as to invest him with every attribute of perfection, to find in every word he utters and every action he performs but some token of his devotion to her.

Love then became a “passion” and an “idolatry” that developed gradually in the woman “until the woman owns to herself and admits to her lover that she regards him with affection.” Although such an acknowledgment should have inspired the lover with high resolve to protect her, it frequently became instead

the medium for dishonorable exactions … fatal in consequences to her, [as he] tramples on the priceless jewel of her honor.

It should be remembered that, in order to accomplish this base end, he must have resorted to base means…. Pure and sincere attachment would effectively prevent the lover from performing any act which could possibly compromise the woman he adores.[18]

There were usually two possible endings to the typical story of deception: the young girl was immediately forsaken after the illicit sex, or she was induced to elope with the young man and shortly afterward abandoned and left to fend for herself in a new city. It was said that most of these young women then turned to lives of prostitution, either because they had lost all self-respect or because their families and friends, on learning of their sins and indiscretions, disowned them and turned them out. In April 1834, the New York Sun carried a story about a baby left on the steps of a respectable home on Grand Street. A note from “Maria,” the baby’s mother, said she had run away from home with a man who proved to be a villain, and she could not return home because she had been so disgraced. Because she must resort to an “abode of infamy to get bread,” she was leaving the child to the respectable family in hopes that “the blessings of Providence [will] attend the guardian of my child.”[19]


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7.
Its Beginning.
A Morality Tale In the typical nineteenth-century tale
of seduction, an innocent, unsuspecting young woman was
persuaded or tricked by flattery and false promises of love
and marriage into having premarital intercourse. She then was
abandoned, usually in poverty, to care for herself and her
offspring. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

Many stories of seduction reinforced the popular notion that men, even apparently trustworthy men, were really lechers. The New Era in October 1837 told of Mary Burke, a victim of a variety of men across the professional spectrum, who was arrested in a Walnut Street brothel. Burke told the judge that she had been born in Ireland, where her schoolmaster had seduced her when she was fourteen. Because of her sin, she was thrown out by her father. She bore a child and moved to Quebec, where she became intimate with her confessor, a Catholic priest, which resulted in another child. She then moved to Montreal, was seduced by a constable, had a third child, and eventually went to the Grey Nunnery with her children. Later, she came to the United States with another man who abandoned her in New York, and there, because of economic need, she began a “business of her own.” Burke provided the names of all of her seducers, but her tale of “multiple seduction” did not move the judge to dismiss her case.[20] Nevertheless, few explanations of a woman’s fall could elicit as much sympathy as that of seduction and abandonment. Seduction certainly played a decisive


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Its End.

role in causing some women to enter prostitution, but its frequency was probably overstated by reformers and possibly by the women themselves, who may have wanted to justify their situation to reformers who favored such explanations. In Sanger’s study of 2,000 prostitutes, approximately 13 percent gave “seduced and abandoned” as their reason for entering prostitution. A few more said they were “seduced on board emigrant ships” or were “seduced in emigrant boarding houses,” but the total number reporting seduction as a reason still represented only 14.5 percent of the cases (table 8).[21]

Entrapment and trickery, followed by rape, was another scenario said to lure women into prostitution, one believed especially effective with immigrants and young women from rural areas. Joe Farryall was a typical “professional” recruiter whose guile was said to have caused the ruin of many innocent young women. Farryall and his wife, Phebe, operated a house of prostitution on Franklin Street and kept it supplied with inmates from as far north as Vermont. Periodically, Farryall trav-


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Table 8
Sanger Survey: Causes of Prostitution

Prostitutes

No .

%a

Direct Causes

Seduced and abandoned

258

13.0

Seduced on emigrant ship

16

1.0

Seduced in emigrant boarding house

8

.5

Violated

27

1.5

Ill-treated by family, husband

164

8.0

Persuaded by prostitutes

71

3.5

Bad company

84

4.0

Drink and desire to drink

181

9.0

Wanted easy life

124

6.0

Too idle to work

29

1.5

Inclination

513

26.0

Destitution

525

26.0

Total

2,000

100.0

Additional Contributing Factors

Death of father

1,349

67.0

Death of mother

1,234

62.0

Intemperance of father

596

30.0

Intemperance of mother

347

17.0

a Percentages are rounded to the nearest half.

SOURCE : William Sanger, History of Prostitution , 488, 539, 544.

eled through the countryside and, either through his charms or by promises of a better and more exciting life, persuaded young women to follow him to New York, where they were raped or intimidated into sexual compliance. Men like Farryall were rumored to be getting from $50 to $500 per recruit.[22] Another method of tricking young country girls and newly arrived immigrants was by promising training and work in millinery or other trades. Only after arriving at the designated employment address in the city would a woman discover the true nature of the establishment.[23]

It was said that agents and madams seeking new recruits also operated in conjunction with employment businesses, known as intelligence


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offices, where women would be told they were being hired as seamstresses, milliners, or domestics. The Advocate of Moral Reform reported that many houses of infamy were connected with millinery establishments, partly to conceal the true character of the houses from the young women hired and from the public. Reformers also claimed that unsuspecting young women were lured into brothels in response to advertisements for rooms “to let”; once inside, the new boarders were allegedly drugged and then seduced or raped so that they agreed to become prostitutes because of their shame. Employers’ sexual use of women, especially servants, was also said to contribute to prostitution; many females learned through force or ultimatums that sexual favors were an expected part of employment, and failure to cooperate might result in their dismissal.[24]

In the Sanger study, the twenty-seven interviewees who said they were “violated,” or who were immigrants seduced en route to America or in “emigrant boarding houses,” possibly were victims of such methods of trickery or entrapment rather than of emotional attachment to a “heartless seducer.” But only a tiny fraction of the women Sanger interviewed—2.5 percent—reported experiences that might be interpreted as entrapment, despite the emphasis on such cases in the writings of reformers and the popular press.[25]

A few stories of seduction by trickery or entrapment also appeared in House of Refuge records. Elizabeth McNeal said she had been in service for eight years, but was forced to seek new places on many occasions. One place of employment she had obtained through an intelligence office turned out to be a brothel. Although McNeal said she left this employment after learning the nature of the place and claimed she did not have “criminal connection” while there, her record noted that she frequently had been in the “company of bad girls” and had stayed at two other prostitution houses.[26] Angela Hadden stated that at age sixteen she had left her Westchester home for a nearby community to learn the tailoring trade and get away from her father, who drank too much and was “ugly.” One of the customers of the tailoring establishment, a druggist, said he knew of a woman in New York City who wanted help and would hire Hadden. Learning that her father planned to come get her, Hadden went into the city and sought out the druggist to pursue the job opportunity. He took her to a house on Mott Street and there, according to her Refuge ease history, Hadden and the druggist “were


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locked up, and he succeeded after many threats and much struggle in seducing her, he left her in this bad house and never saw her again. She attempted to escape, but was watched and kept very closely, until she became broadly on the town, where she has been in practice for two years.”[27] Joe Farryall, on one of his tours through New England, was reported to have persuaded his orphaned and impoverished fifteen-year-old second cousin, Mariah Hubbard, that she was working too hard and ought to come to New York, live with his family, and become a “lady.” Delighted to leave her place of service for such wonderful prospects, Hubbard accompanied Farryall to New York, was seduced en route, and was taken to his Franklin Street brothel, where she said she was forced to begin prostituting herself.[28] Two other young girls, Sarah Buchanan and Frances Day, told of being first seduced by their employers at places of service when each was but twelve years old. Day continued working for her employer, the deputy sheriff, until she was fifteen, but Buchanan reported the incident to her mistress, which ended the employer’s marriage and cost Buchanan her position. Employees at the House of Refuge were suspicious that Buchanan’s and Day’s unfortunate initial sexual encounters had led to further ones, since each girl had had later associations with brothels. Buchanan eventually returned to her mother, who ran a prostitution house, and there, in company with the prostitutes, she began “walking” and going to the theater in the evenings. Her grandmother intervened and had her sent to the Refuge. Frances Day later went to work in a brothel, where she said she was employed as a chambermaid, but she told Refuge officials she only stayed there a short while because of the “bad” nature of the house. Police said they found her wandering the streets with “no friends and no clothes” and therefore committed her to the Refuge.[29]

In the cases of entrapment, as in those of seduction and abandonment, women were usually portrayed as naive victims who, because they were “tarnished,” were left with few options in life but prostitution. The women were doubly victims, first of seducers or rapists who took advantage of them and second of the upstanding, respectable members of the community who shunned them. Many nineteenth-century commentators emphasized the role played by respectable society in causing prostitution by not forgiving sexual transgressions or not offering a helping hand when needed. One former prostitute, Susan Striker, was indentured by the House of Refuge to a family in Ithaca, New York. Her


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behavior was reported to be exemplary, and the family found no fault with her, but a year after her indenture the mistress of the house returned her to the Refuge upon learning that Striker had once been a prostitute. Another young girl, fifteen-year-old Susan Badger, reported that she lived in service with a family in the country for eight months until they learned her mother was a prostitute, and she was sent home.[30]

Perhaps even worse than the seduced woman’s rejection, critics argued, was a double standard under which an offending male, recognized as a seducer, would be accepted by society while his hapless victim would be allowed no option but prostitution.[31] One writer reflected on the pernicious effect of this double standard in 1869:

Vice gives a woman’s nature a more terrible wrench than a man’s. It is harder for her to draw a veil over the past; it seems constantly to come back to her to rebuke her and to overwhelm her with disgrace. Her opportunities to rise are not comparable with the boy’s, who finds a hundred doors opening before him, while she finds nearly every honorable door closed. Most ladies are less patient with the frailties of their sex than men.[32]

Although nineteenth-century society may not have been as harsh on “dishonored” women as sources or “ideals” seem to imply, rigid attitudes about female chastity and the acceptance of a double standard probably had a role in causing some seduced women to enter prostitution. Many of these women may have believed prostitution to be the most “appropriate” occupation available to them because they internalized the feelings of guilt and shame expressed by society in comments or actions that indicated they had been “ruined” or “dishonored.” Current research indicates that sexual experience, even a terribly traumatic experience, might also indicate to a young woman that “regardless of her other attributes, she can serve as a sexual partner should she wish to,” thus establishing prostitution as a possible option for an occupation.[33] Therefore, though seduction and entrapment most likely did not directly create as many prostitutes as contemporary literature would suggest, the seduction experience and the response of others to that experience may have led some women to reevaluate their opportunities and limitations in life, thereby influencing decisions to become prostitutes.

Another way in which women, as victims of circumstances, were said to be led into prostitution was through unfortunate home lives. Although the home as a secure respite from the harsh world was idealized


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in the nineteenth century, and reformers’ reports often described in detail longings they were certain prostitutes felt for the lost warmth and love of their families and homes, most reformers also realized that many prostitutes came from domestic situations that were unhappy, strife-ridden, and oppressive to the degree that prostitution seemed a favorable alternative. Often such homes had a single parent or perhaps no parent at all. Among Sanger’s interviewees, more than 67 percent had lost their fathers, and almost 62 percent had lost their mothers.[34] Among New York City girls admitted to the Refuge for suspected prostitution, at least 50 percent had lost one or both parents, usually the father, and for the year 1830, the figure was 69 percent. Parental death obviously forced a change in the family structure, and it commonly entailed the loss of the major economic provider, with frequent family impoverishment and a need for girls to go to work at a very young age, often in service, where they were sent away from family and home. As a result, many suffered from loneliness and a lack of love and affection. Mary Jane Box, profiled in Chapter 2, was sent out to service at age seven and spent the next few years at approximately fifty different places of employment, never staying more than a few months at any one. Box was “led astray” at age thirteen, about the time her widowed mother died. Not surprisingly, the young orphaned teenager stated that “it was her passion for company that led her to do as she did, and not the love of money.”[35]

Many prostitutes told of abusive and cruel treatment by parents or spouses. Over 8 percent, or 164, of Sanger’s interviewees said they became prostitutes because of “ill-treatment of parents, relatives, or husbands.” In response to a question about marital status, 103 said they had separated from their husbands because of “ill-usage”; it is not known if these 103 considered the abuse to be the reason they entered prostitution and are included in the 164 who gave ill-treatment as the major cause. Several Refuge girls also told of physical abuse by parents. Mary Power, whose family ran a boarding house, said her parents repeatedly accused her of sleeping with young male boarders and would beat her for it, until she finally decided she could take it no longer and ran away from home. Her plan was to go to New Orleans to earn high wages through what Refuge officials described as a “bad life.”[36]

Other prostitutes said they had suffered unhappy home lives because their parents were alcoholic. In Sanger’s study, 30 percent said their fathers drank intemperately, and 17 percent said their mothers did.


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Refuge records also show alcoholism in many of the young prostitutes’ families, with the father’s intemperance mentioned twice as often as the mother’s.[37]

Another abuse influencing some young women to enter prostitution was described by a Refuge officer as “what the thickest darkness ought always to cover,” incest.[38] Mary Ann Ray, who was brought to the House of Refuge because she had been “broadly on the town,” was first seduced by her father’s brother, and even her father had tried to seduce her. Phebe Huson said her first sexual experience was with her brother when she was between twelve and thirteen.[39]

“Respectable” upbringings also appeared to drive some women to prostitution because their home lives seemed too restrictive. As a general rule, young girls in the nineteenth century were not allowed much independence. Many thought it was dangerous for a young female to travel alone on omnibuses, steamships, or other public transportation, or to be without supervision at public amusements, picnics, or on the streets at night since these were the places it was believed women would be “led astray” or even molested. Although this protectiveness may have reflected a middle-class apprehension, the general acceptance or tolerance of this attitude can be seen in the fact that, under the law, any woman alone on New York City streets at night could be arrested as a prostitute.[40] There were legitimate reasons for parental curbs on personal freedom, but many adolescent girls and single women resented the restrictions. Refuge records indicate generational problems also existed over issues such as parental discipline, strict moral values, and requirements that young working women contribute all or most of their income to the family coffers. Such domestic conflict led some to leave home and support themselves by becoming prostitutes.[41]

A final incentive to leave home and enter prostitution was that the life of a prostitute offered the opportunity to meet new people outside one’s family or neighborhood. Some may have hoped that a brief period in prostitution would increase their chances of attracting a husband, either through contacts or savings, which could mean economic security or even upward social mobility.

Although nineteenth-century reformers believed that men were largely responsible for the recruitment or “downfall” of most prostitutes, they recognized that women often had some responsibility also. For the most part this was said to be the work of women who were already in


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the profession who had lost all decency and morality. William Sanger believed prostitutes persuaded others to enter the profession because of “a fiendish desire to reduce the virtuous of their own sex to a similar degradation with themselves.”[42] Although there is a lack of evidence to support this theory of devious motivation, there is evidence that prostitutes did recruit others. Much to the dismay of reformers, prostitutes usually did not seek out strangers, but rather recruited those closest to them—their daughters, sisters, or friends. Such women appear to have been motivated not by desire for vengeance, as Sanger would have it, but by their sense of the advantages of their trade.

House of Refuge records list several cases of mothers practicing prostitution with their daughters. One such case was that of Charlotte Willis, who was reported to have become a common bawd after leaving the Refuge. Charlotte’s father, who ran a boarding house, tried to have her readmitted to the Refuge but was refused. Later the Refuge recorded that Charlotte’s “mother has left her husband, took up with another man, keeps a bad house, and the above daughter is one of her sluts.” Susan Brown employed two of her daughters in her establishment at Cotlears Hook, and Bridget Mangren’s two daughters were prostitutes in her brothel on Worth Street. House of Refuge records also document many cases of sisters working together in prostitution. Julia Decker and her older married sister were arrested by the New York police for being common prostitutes. According to the Refuge journal, the sister had left her “lazy” husband and returned to her former prostitution profession in partnership with Julia. After their arrest, the police released the sister, but Julia, a minor, was committed to the Refuge. In another example of sibling recruitment, the Advocate of Moral Reform reported that a prostitute enticed her sister to join her in New York by sending her a silk dress with a note telling her of the good wages she could make there through prostitution.[43]

Friends, probably more than relatives, were responsible for introducing young girls to “the sporting life.” Mary O’Grady was sent to the Refuge by her father for staying a week in a brothel. O’Grady said she had gone there to stay with a friend who had once boarded in her home. She claimed she “did not stay with men” while at the house, but several years later, after being released from the Refuge, she was reported to be a “girl of the town doing as bad as she knows how.”[44] Frances Sage and


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Delilah Harvey were also friends who entered prostitution together. According to a rambling account in Refuge records, Frances’s

first difficulties arose from being induced to attend the chatham Theatre by other girls, by that means she got acquainted with the play actors, who gave her and other young things a general pass, and the actors would stay with them. therefore she increased in ludeness. took board in church st. and also in white st and 3 avenue. was taken up as a girl of the town, and sent here accordingly, I learn from Delilah Harvey . . . that Frances was the first one that caused her to stay with a man.[45]

Another young woman, Sarah Denny, was brought to the police station by the madam of a Church Street brothel who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade young Denny to return home. Denny told police she had been well-treated and happy at home but had received a letter from a friend who described in glowing colors the pleasures and enjoyment of her life of prostitution, so she had come to New York to join her friend in her exciting life.[46]

Sanger’s study indicated that seventy-one women, or 3.5 percent, had entered prostitution because they were “persuaded by prostitutes,” and an additional eighty-four, over 4 percent, were influenced by “bad company,” which probably meant companions who were prostitutes, who frequented places prostitutes might be found, or who observed a more relaxed moral code of conduct. The designation of “bad” companions most likely reflects a value judgment by the interviewers, not the interviewees, and probably represented a woman’s close associates or those she considered her friends. Still, a combined total of 7.5 percent in Sanger’s study who attributed the cause of their prostitution to the influence of companions or others in the profession does not represent a large percentage of prostitutes. As a secondary cause of entering prostitution, however, the influence of friends and companions probably played a much larger role than Sanger’s statistics indicate. If a woman had left home, was abandoned, or was economically destitute and was deciding what to do with her life, the example or encouragement of a prostitute friend or acquaintance might help make prostitution appear to be the best or easiest option. House of Refuge records support this assumption. Intake officers at the Refuge do not appear to have asked directly what caused a girl to begin prostitution, but the “influence” of


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friends and associates said to be of questionable character was listed as a contributing factor in the prostitution or suspected prostitution of a majority of the cases of New York City girls who entered the Refuge.[47] Current sociological research also supports these findings. Studies indicate that when a woman is under economic stress and has experienced a change in her life (death of a key family member, divorce, a move, leaving home, a new job), and when this change results in her isolation, the disruption of old relationships, and the loss of her network of social support, then contact with persons in the prostitution business may take on a special significance. If the woman is in a position to observe the life of prostitution, she may see “that prostitutes earn large sums of money, that the occupation is not as dismal and degrading as she may have thought, and that the work provides opportunities for excitement, status, friendship, and perhaps even love.”[48]

In cases where seduction, entrapment, unhappy home life, or associates were given as causes of a woman’s prostitution, nineteenth-century records usually portray the woman as a victim whose “fall from virtue” was the result of the actions or influence of others. Reformers and investigators preferred and doubtless to a degree encouraged such a portrayal because then the woman’s role in the decision to become a prostitute, or the fact that she exercised some element of choice, was obscured. More notable, however, are those cases in which women implied or expressed that their decisions were the result of a willingness to become prostitutes or of their enjoyment of the lifestyle of prostitution, remarks that reformers and commentators tended to neglect. Since such a woman was supposedly a victim, and since a female’s sexuality was usually denied, commentators provide no analysis of the fact that a woman may have viewed her decision as a positive one. Some women in the Sanger study expressed their choice positively as a wish to be free from limitations. Nine percent of the women said they entered the profession because of “drink and the desire to drink,” 6 percent wanted an “easy life,” and 1.5 percent said they were “too idle to work.” Prostitution obviously appeared to offer the hours, resources, and opportunities for one better to enjoy life as one wished, and it did not require as much hard work as conventional professions. It was not work at all in the usual sense.[49]

A much larger number, slightly under 26 percent, listed “inclination” as their reason for choosing prostitution. These women may


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have given this answer because they thought the interviewers believed them to be “depraved,” or the comment may have reflected a prostitute’s self image, her notion that she chose an occupation appropriate to her character or nature. It also may have reflected her belief that the profession was one in which she could do well, or that it was one she preferred to the others available. Sanger observed that the response also might mean “a voluntary resort to prostitution in order to gratify the sexual passions” but dismissed this interpretation as implying an “innate depravity, a want of true womanly feeling, which is actually incredible.”[50]

The single cause of prostitution that probably influenced more nineteenth-century women than any other was economics. For most commentators, economic influences were interpreted in negative terms—women were forced into prostitution because of destitution and economic need. Sanger’s study reinforced this point in its conclusion that over 26 percent of New York’s prostitutes at mid-century were in the profession because of “destitution.” Yet Sanger’s and others’ descriptions of many prostitutes’ lives as well as information in prostitutes’ tax records indicate that there was another side to economic causation. Prostitution had very positive rewards for some women. Many chose the occupation because it offered a better life a more comfortable lifestyle and the means to accumulate savings. Though not all of the women who sought these benefits in prostitution gained them, the possibility of significant economic rewards served as a strong incentive in pulling women into the profession.

Both the positive and negative economic reasons for choosing prostitution become clearer when one considers the limited occupational opportunities and wages available to nineteenth-century women. Nineteenth-century writer Virginia Penny, in How Women Can Make Money , described wages and conditions in traditional female occupations in New York City in the period 1859 to 1861. Penny noted that most of the jobs open to women were over-filled. She argued this was partly because 100,000 New York men were in pursuits well-adapted to women, jobs such as printing and manufacturing. She also noted that, as a rule, a man earned two to three times the salary a woman might earn for the same job. Although Penny described wages and conditions in over five hundred occupations, most women were employed in a small number of skilled and unskilled trades, notably domestic service


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and sewing, that had been practiced by working females for several decades. These same limited women’s occupations and their inadequate pay had been described by Matthew Carey in the 1830s in Plea for the Poor, and little had changed for working women in the three decades between Carey’s and Penny’s publications. In some trades, such as shirt-making, women’s wages had actually declined in this period.[51]

The two mid-nineteenth-century occupations engaging most New York City laboring women were the sewing trades and domestic service, occupations from which women frequently moved into prostitution. Approximately 49 percent of the prostitutes interviewed by Sanger had been employed as domestic laborers before becoming prostitutes, and another 21 percent had been in the sewing trades. Leaving aside the 25 percent of the interviewees who either had lived at home or had not been employed at all prior to becoming prostitutes, 70 percent of all prostitutes with previous labor-force experience had worked in these two trades.[52] The conditions and wages in needlework and domestic service in the period 1830 through 1870 make clear why women found it so difficult to support themselves in both trades, and why prostitution offered comparatively a good livelihood.

A chronically depressed trade, needlework was oversupplied with semi-skilled women and girls who were forced to accept subsistence or less than subsistence wages. Increasing immigration after 1840, and the transition from hand to machine work after the patent of the sewing machine in 1846, exacerbated the problem of labor oversupply in the sewing trades. Furthermore, women in needlework, like other laborers, had to contend with cycles of depression and periodic unemployment, while inflation reduced the value of their already inadequate wages.[53]

In the 1830s, for example, Carey reported that seamstresses were paid from 6 cents to 12-1/2 cents per shirt; depending on her skill, a shirt-maker could produce about six to nine shirts per week, thus earning 36 cents to $1.12 per week. Writers for the next two decades continued to quote the payment for shirts at 6 cents to 10 cents each, with the best seamstresses making two, or perhaps three shirts per day if they worked from sunrise to midnight. Some women working in overcrowded slum tenements were said to be earning as little as 4 cents a shirt.[54] By the time Penny wrote in the 1860s, women were still earning approximately 6 cents per shirt and, on the average, were making from 75 cents to $1.08 per week. After the Civil War wages dropped even lower. If a woman


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had the opportunity to make linen pleated shirts, she might work fifteen to eighteen hours a day for two days in order to make one shirt, but she would get 50 cents for the finer product and consequently could earn as much as $1.50 per week.[55]

Poor wages were not the only source of hardship for shirtmakers. Their long hours left them with little or no free time, and they frequently suffered from poor health and distorted posture as a result of sewing for hour after hour with neck and arms bent forward. Some seamstresses, such as Rosina Townsend, suffered from eyesight problems probably caused by sewing all day and into the night with poor lighting. Fraud and abuse were common; for example, employers might ask two hundred women to make free shirts to demonstrate their skills and then hire only twelve women from the group. Some employers would require a deposit for materials taken home, from which they would then deduct a sum when the shirt was returned, claiming some fault in the work.[56] And sometimes seamstresses were required to give sexual favors in order to keep their jobs.

Shirtmaking was among the worst paid of the needle trades, but the slightly higher wages available for other kinds of sewing were often offset by long periods of seasonal unemployment. Living conditions for all types of seamstresses were usually miserable. Wages did not keep up with rising food prices and rents, forcing many sewing women into confined and depressing quarters, as noted by the New York Tribune in 1845:

These women generally “keep house”—that is, they rent a single room, or perhaps two small rooms, in the upper story of some poor, ill-constructed, unventilated house in a filthy street, constantly kept so by the absence of back yards and the neglect of the street inspector . . .. In these rooms all the processes of cooking, eating, sleeping, washing, working, and living are indiscriminately performed.[57]

Although reportedly many laboring women felt needlework was more respectable than domestic service, household service did not require as much training and thus was a type of employment open to more women. In the 1850s, in one of the poorest areas of New York, the sixth ward, 45 percent of the women under thirty were employed in domestic and personal services. They were usually required to work as much as fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, sleeping in cramped quarters and eating leftover food from the family table. Domestic wages generally were from


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$1 to $2 a week, with room and board provided. Many servants complained of long hours, lack of free time, and insulting attitudes on the part of employers’ families.[58] A woman with dependent children or others to care for could not live out in domestic service, though she might do housework by the day, earning $3 to $6 a week, virtually all of which went for lodging and food.[59]

Jobs in domestic service were not always easy to get. Because of the oversupply of women laborers, especially after the heavy Irish and German immigration began in the 1840s, there were always more women seeking domestic positions than there were jobs available, and replacement servants were readily available if a woman displeased her employer in any way. As early as 1846, before the influx of the largest groups of immigrants, the New York Tribune reported that at least one thousand women were looking unsuccessfully for employment in household service. By the 1850s, it was estimated that approximately one-fourth of the domestic servants in New York City were constantly out of work.[60]

Even at their best, positions in the sewing trade and domestic service did not provide much financial support or security for a woman. For the average worker, these employments probably did not pay enough for a woman to maintain herself, much less children or dependent adults. Sanger found that 65 percent of the women who had worked before becoming prostitutes had earned between $1 and $2 per week, and 75 percent of those employed had received less than $3 per week.[61]

Such wages were inadequate to support a family. Matthew Carey calculated the annual expenses faced by a woman with two children:[62]

Rent (50¢ per week)

$26.00

Clothing/shoes for self and children

20.00

Fire, candles, soap (6¢ per day)

21.90

Food, drink (6¢ per day per person)

65.70

Total

$133.60

Working five days a week, for 18-3/4 cents per day, such a woman would earn $48.94 for the year, resulting in a yearly deficit of $84.66, which had to come from some other source. If the woman had a working husband, Carey calculated, and if expenses were increased only slightly to support a family of four, the husband would need to be earning


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approximately twice what his wife was earning, if she continued to be employed, and three times the amount of her salary if she was not.[63]

Carey apparently was calculating expenses for a very poor family living at a minimum subsistence level. The amount he estimated necessary for a person’s daily food supply in the late 1830s was 6 cents, and by the 1850s the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor was estimating a necessary minimum of 10 cents a day. Carey also calculated rent at a low 50 cents per week. Other sources from 1830 to 1870 indicate rents were usually higher. Two poor women in 1834 were quoted in the New York Sun as saying they would do almost anything to earn enough to pay their weekly board of $3. (In contrast, Carey estimated an individual needed 92 cents a week for room and board—42 cents for food and 50 cents for rent.) The New York Tribune reported in 1845 that working women usually had to pay at least $1.50 a week for poor accommodations they shared with others, but that some of the filthiest and worst boarding houses charged as little as $1 per week. In the late 1850s a general survey of New York showed that working women paid $1.50 to $3.50 for room and board with washing occasionally provided, but fuel was never included for that sum. Furthermore, the poor often had to pay more for expenses such as fuel because they purchased such necessities by the item instead of in bulk.[64]

Because most laboring women could not hope to command as high a salary as that needed for a family to live “moderately,” a woman could only hope she would continue to be completely or partially supported by a parent, spouse, or relative. Otherwise, she would have to seek supplementary income elsewhere. Reformers and charities stressed that they offered assistance and refuge to prevent women from feeling they had no choice but prostitution, but there were limits on this type of help. Rescue homes often would not take a woman if she was pregnant, had a child, was diseased, or seemed “unsuitable,” regardless of her great need. Even if a woman met the specifications for admission to the home, strict requirements, daily regimen, and religious training may have made the asylum appear to be more of a punishment than temporary prostitution would be. Furthermore, available public and private charities were not abundant. In 1837, after much publicity concerning the economic plight of the estimated 20,000 poor seamstresses and tailoresses in New York, a benefit evening was held at Hannington’s Diorama to raise funds to assist poor needlewomen to keep them from starving or


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turning to prostitution. The benefit received much publicity in the daily press, yet the total amount raised for the cause was only $70.65, a sum a single seamstress easily could have earned by prostitution in a few weeks. More established forms of temporary aid were available to the needy through societies such as the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. In the 1850s, the Association estimated that it gave temporary aid to 30 percent of the sewing women of the city. Nevertheless, the AICP’s officers calculated there were 195,000 men, women, and children in absolute want in New York City and stated that it would take at least 10 cents a day to supply each with the necessary food. In its role as the disbursing agent of city relief funds appropriated by the Common Council, the AICP expended a total sum of $95,018.47 for the year November 1, 1854, through November 1, 1855, but this amount was $41,500 less than they estimated was required to feed those in absolute need for only one week.[65] Certainly women had reason for doubting that public benevolence could alleviate their destitution.

Thus, when most jobs meant long, hard hours at little pay, when no jobs were available for a woman to fill, or when no friends, relatives, or benevolent groups supplemented inadequate funds, prostitution may have seemed both the easiest and most promising option available. There was always a market for prostitution, and the profession seemed to be convenient because a woman did not have to leave her home and children for long periods of time. It also meant less time on the job than did working in a factory, as a seamstress, or as a domestic. Prostitution especially may have appeared to be an easy alternative or solution for a woman who was being sexually exploited in her job. Those who were expected to extend sexual favors to their employers simply to keep their employment with its meager wage may have decided they might as well be paid for something they were being forced to give away under abusive circumstances.[66]

Some of the women who entered prostitution for economic reasons found that their life situations did not improve—in fact, they sometimes became worse. Though nineteenth-century observers stressing socioeconomic factors pointed to destitution as a cause of prostitution—the only economic alternative left for some women—observers stressing moralistic causes reversed the argument and claimed that destitution and utter debasement often were the results of a woman’s choice of a life of


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prostitution—the dream of a better life gone afoul. Nineteenth-century sources contain vivid descriptions of extreme cases of prostitutes whose lives were in decline. In the dens and thoroughfares of the Water Street area, these prostitutes were said to have “rot to death . . . [f]oul, bloated with gin and disease, distorted with suffering and despair, the poor creatures do what they can to hasten their sure doom.”[67] For women like these whose lives were tangled in a web of alcoholism, poverty, illness, and despair, or who were at the margin of existence, destitution and degradation may have been the results of prostitution— inevitable results according to moralists. Nonetheless, for women who, for whatever reason, found themselves in society’s lowest stratum—both those already working as prostitutes and those contemplating the practice—prostitution served as an opportunity, possibly the only way to earn enough for a daily living.

For a broader group of women with limited economic resources but a narrow range of occupational choices, however, the most compelling reason for choosing prostitution was that it was the most lucrative of the available alternatives. As one prostitute said her aunt once told her, “Every young girl is sitting on her fortune if she only knew it.”[68] Little education was necessary for a woman to make comparisons between the income offered by the daily wage in any of the trades open to females and the price being paid for “going to bed” with a man a single time. True, lucrative was a relative term. For some women in low brothels or at the bottom levels of streetwalking, prostitution’s wage may have been only a little more than they might earn in another trade. For others, however, it offered not only the opportunity for earning more on a daily or weekly basis but also the possibility of accumulating some money for the future. Either way, a woman’s choice of the occupation was often an economically sound decision.

Prostitutes were, of course, paid variously for their services, from those who worked in the finest parlor houses in better neighborhoods to streetwalkers in the poorer wards of the city. Payment of less than $1, however, appears to have been considered low for a New York prostitute’s services. Even reformers who worked at the House of Refuge seem to have had some idea of what was a “disgracefully” low price to be paid in the trade. Giving the case history of one of the eighteen-year-old inmates at the Refuge, the intake officer commented that the young


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woman had been working as a strumpet “and I judge as low a thing of the kind as we ever had for she would sell herself for a shilling if she could get no more.”[69]

Other sources indicate that a woman could generally count on earning quite a bit more than a “shilling” per customer. In calculating the weekly income in a first-class brothel, Sanger estimated that each prostitute probably entertained at least two customers an evening and seldom took in less than $50 a week, suggesting a charge of several dollars per customer. In calculating the average weekly income of all the New York public prostitutes of all classes, Sanger used a figure of $10 per week.[70] In 1847, another source reported that a man could expect his purse to be $5 to $10 lighter if he spent the night in a brothel, and a decade earlier, Mariah Hubbard told Refuge officers that, while practicing prostitution in a Franklin Street brothel, she had earned from $3 to $10 per customer. One of Helen Jewett’s patrons once chastised her that she “might be anyone’s for $5,” an indication that this was probably less than the going rate at her establishment.[71] By the 1870s, sources reported that prostitutes could earn $20 a week in the less fashionable houses, $30 to $40 in middle-class houses, and $150 a week in the finest houses.[72]

A woman who used prostitution to supplement her income from another profession, who practiced it occasionally when other work was not available, or who did not wish to have to share income with a brothel’s management, might operate her business out of her own room or might utilize an assignation house. In 1835 Rachael Near said she was being “kept” by a doctor who visited her two times a week and paid her $5 to $7 a night; with additional customers on alternate nights, she sometimes was able to earn $40 to $45 per week.[73] Other women who used assignation houses and private rooms said they earned from $1 to $5 each time they entertained a customer. Sarah Williams, a black prostitute, said she charged all customers a flat fee of $2 and always had plenty of money.[74]

Although these wages indicate that prostitutes could earn more per week than could other laboring women, and dramatically more than unskilled laborers, a prostitute’s expenses were higher. Rents in both brothels and assignation boarding houses were more than in regular boarding establishments, though a part-time or independent prostitute might operate out of quarters no different from, or more expensive than, those used by laboring women. Information in newspapers and reform-


89

ers’ records indicates that most prostitutes in the 1830s were paying between $3 and $10 a week for board. The New York Magdalen Society reported that prostitutes in what they ranked as fourth-class houses paid $3 weekly in rent, third-class houses charged $7, second-class houses, $10, and first-class houses, $15 a week.[75] In the 1860s the more established of the lower-class houses were said to be charging $10 a week, middle-class houses $20 to $25 per week, and the higher-class houses $40 to $50 weekly. In addition to these rental costs, prostitutes living in brothels usually had to pay the madam or management a fee for each visitor they entertained.[76]

Because personal attractiveness was an asset in the business, most prostitutes spent more on clothing than did the average woman. Many newspaper accounts of professional prostitutes describe them as “attractively dressed in the latest fashion,” although other prostitutes, especially in the cheaper brothels and rougher neighborhoods, were said to look tawdry and cheap. Expenditures for one’s appearance included not only clothing but jewelry, perfumes, and hair dressing. Sanger reported that prostitutes in the higher-class brothels were visited daily by hair dressers, a service that cost them $2 to $3 per week.[77] Although a prostitute might have to be prudent in her expenditures on clothing and personal adornment in order to be able to put money aside, her chances of earning more than expenses were greater in prostitution than in alternate work.

Prostitution’s high level of business expenses attests to both ample income and a reasonably comfortable standard of living for many women. Even though in most cases those who achieved significant economic and material comfort were either managers or re, sidents of established houses, their lifestyle was visible to surrounding community residents, and their working conditions must have appealed to other women. Many prostitutes began their day at noon and worked from approximately six o’clock until an hour or two after midnight. In brothels, meals and housecleaning were provided, and women often had assistance with dressing and hair arranging. Although laboring women had little leisure time, prostitutes considered being seen at the theater or strolling in the afternoon on Broadway as public exposure helpful in their business as well as enjoyable entertainment. A prostitute’s clothing, whether flashy or fashionable, was better than that of other laboring women, and brothels, attractively or ostentatiously furnished, were more comfortable than the crowded attic rooms and damp cellars that


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housed the city’s poorest workers, male and female.[78] Even the less established prostitutes who worked independently or occasionally may have been able to earn just enough to have some extra necessities and a modicum of free time not available to those females who were trapped in the seemingly unceasing, low-paying labors practiced by most working women.

It is true there were dangers in prostitution for all its practitioners: possible arrest, violence, undesirable company, and disease. Those women who sank to the bottom levels of prostitution usually had these dangers compounded by economic insecurity, additional health problems, discrimination because they were poor, and, thus, limited prospects for improving their lives. But poor women not in prostitution also faced dangers, problems, and limited possibilities in their jobs that may have seemed equal to, or even worse than, those of the least fortunate prostitutes. Laboring women who worked long hours under poor conditions seldom could afford a nutritious diet or medical care, and hence suffered from poor health. Job security was at the whim of an employer, and young working girls had little recourse in the face of employer abuse or cruelty but to run away. In the event of theft at one’s place of employment, the burden of proof usually lay on the employee. Consequently, when a poor woman compared the relative wages, hours, conditions, and dangers, prostitution compared very favorably with other professions available to women. More importantly, prostitution offered prospects for improving or enhancing one’s economic situation in several ways, including discretionary income above necessary expenses, a long-term higher level of economic comfort, and an opportunity to accumulate savings for the future.

Nineteenth-century reformers often claimed that women went into prostitution in order to have extra funds, or “pin money,” to indulge their “love of dress,” “love of finery,” or “desire to go to immoral places such as the theater.” Even though critics may have viewed such desires as moral weaknesses, working women, like the rest of society, commonly wanted to be able to have more goods, better living conditions, and more money to spend on entertainment and themselves. By practicing occasional prostitution in addition to another job, a daughter could make extra cash that could be spent on herself, while her regular wages would continue to help support her parental family.[79]


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Prostitution also offered some hope for economic and social mobility and a long-term higher level of economic comfort. Some women hoped to achieve this by meeting better “prospects” for a husband. Whatever the marital disadvantages of prostitution, its practitioners, unlike most other working women, did meet men on the job, and often prostitutes married. Also, some prostitutes raised their standard of living in the trade or even achieved notable economic mobility. If a woman were successful in the profession, her income could rise sharply, and she might accumulate enough capital to set herself up in business, either where she had lived or in a different location with a new identity. Most prostitutes, of course, did not fare so well, but it was one of the few jobs that offered women some possibility of sharing in a “rags to riches” story, or its more reasonable “impoverished to comfortable” variant.

Prostitution also offered some hope for future savings. Insurance against old age or provision for future security was beyond the means of most working people in the nineteenth century. A factory worker or a domestic servant might worry just as much as a prostitute about her physical decline as she aged. In each case, aging could mean a woman would become less “efficient” at what she was doing, leading to a loss of income. But compared to other working women, prostitutes had a greater opportunity to accumulate capital and assets against these threats, and at an earlier age.

Certainly, not all prostitutes achieved one or more of these benefits. Those who made a long-term career of prostitution were most likely to reap its greatest rewards. Nevertheless, the achievement of a small temporary benefit as well as the hope for improved long-term prospects were both encompassed in the positive pull or “dream” that brought women into prostitution on an occasional or a lifetime basis.

Achieving the Dream

Some women grew gray in prostitution. Usually those who chose the profession as a lifelong career became madams of brothels or worked as managers of assignation houses or prostitution boardinghouses. Although successful career prostitutes constituted a small pro-


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8.
Scene in a Brothel. Although life in a brothel was publicly portrayed in terms of
debauchery and sin, many women perceived it as promising greater independence,
escape from poverty, and the possibility of marriage and upward mobility.
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

portion of the number of women who practiced prostitution at some period in their lives, the achievements of these successful prostitutes pointed out the possibilities that inspired others to work in the field. Most often, a woman became a madam or prostitution boardinghouse keeper after working as a prostitute, but there were some who entered the profession by discovering that renting a room to a woman


93

or couple for sex might be more profitable than other rental arrangements. Whether a woman operated discreetly as an assignation-house keeper, or notoriously as a brothel madam, her primary goal was to run a profitable business and earn a good living. In spite of certain impediments, this was a realizable goal.

It is difficult to determine what proportion of prostitutes stayed in the profession on a long-term basis. Contemporaries mistook many prostitutes and managers of brothels for ordinary boarders or boardinghouse keepers. J. R. McDowall complained that brothels were able to exist in respectable neighborhoods “under the mask of boardinghouses.[80] Another source, describing nineteenth-century New York boardinghouses, stated:

It may be safely asserted that the boarding-houses into which improper characters do not sometimes find their way are very few. . .. If the adventuress wishes to maintain the guise of respectability, she must have a respectable home, and this the boarding-house affords her. One is struck with the great number of handsome young widows who are to be found in these establishments. Sometimes they do not assume the character of a widow, but claim to be the wives of men absent in the distant Territories, or in Europe. . .. The majority of these women are adventuresses, and they make their living in a way they do not care to have known. They conduct themselves with utmost outward propriety in the house, and disarm even the suspicious landlady by their ladylike deportment. They are ripe for an intrigue with any man in the house, . . . their object is simply to make money.[81]

A prostitute might carry out her charade of widow or forsaken wife in a female boardinghouse as well as in a mixed boardinghouse. Furthermore, not only might a respectable boardinghouse keeper rent one or several rooms to prostitutes, but a prostitute, looking for a means to support herself on a long-term basis, might decide that renting rooms to other prostitutes was an easy and profitable way to retire from active prostitution. Unless an establishment became notorious or earned the reputation of being an undesirable place, the position of boardinghouse keeper allowed a woman to appear reputable and merge with respectable society. In mid-century New York City directories, known prostitutes often are listed simply as boardinghouse keepers, though other sources make it possible to identify a sample of prostitutes large enough to provide some indication of how they managed their economic lives.[82]


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In contrast to later periods, management of the prostitution business in the early and mid-nineteenth century was very much dominated by women. Women owned or managed the businesses as madams or prostitution boardinghouse keepers, and the prostitute employees generally worked directly for these female managers without the interference or exploitation of third parties or middlemen. Nineteenth-century real estate records indicate that most madams did not own their own brothel properties but rented the buildings from landlords, both male and female. These landlords were able to exact high rentals from the madams, and, even though periodically there was a public outcry that the landlords were a part of the system, as guilty of immorality and illegality as the prostitutes themselves, there is no evidence that landlords commonly had any direct share in the actual profits of the businesses.

Records show that some men owned or managed brothels, often in husband-wife operations or as part of male-owned saloons or bars.[83] The pimp system, however, did not become a major part of New York City’s prostitution business until the late nineteenth century. References are made in early nineteenth-century sources to prostitutes’ “lovers,” who were lavished with affection and gifts and were even supported by prostitutes, but these lovers do not appear to have played a brokering role or to have controlled prostitutes’ incomes the way pimps later did.[84] On the contrary, mid-nineteenth-century prostitutes appear to have been brokers of their own sexual goods in an open marketplace, whether they operated in a casual manner, soliciting on their own while working out of private rooms, or worked in a more structured arrangement as brothel employees. Even when employed in the organized brothel arrangement, prostitutes appear to have had some control over their employment and were able to move from one brothel to another with much freedom.

In spite of this overall freedom of operation, a madam could exercise a large amount of control over her brothel inmates through financial indebtedness while increasing her own profits. A madam, like a mistress of an assignation house, usually charged high rents for rooms, and madams often would provide clothing or other in-house services to prostitutes at prices far above going rates. The madam also levied a fee for each customer a prostitute entertained. Beyond what the prostitutes paid, a madam was able to further increase her income by selling liquor to guests at two or three times its cost to her. Moreover, some women owned or managed more than one brothel at a time, and at least one,


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as a side business, operated a printing press for publishing pornographic literature.[85]

Clearly, one reason many women spent most of their working lives in the prostitution business was that it was profitable. Evidence of its potential for profitability is found in nineteenth-century New York City tax records, which make it possible to compare the assets of many prostitutes with those of other women living in similar neighborhoods. Such comparison confirms that women could improve their overall economic situations by being in prostitution.

Until 1859, residents of New York City were taxed on their personal property as well as their real estate, though ward ledger books indicate that a very small percentage of New York’s population owned taxable personal property—less than 3 percent in most of the residential/small business wards, and approximately two to three times that number in commercial or wealthier wards. Although women comprised approximately fifty per cent of New York City’s population between 1830 and 1860, married women’s assets and wages were legally the property of their husbands, and thus the great majority of property holders at the time were men. Even though this legal discrimination distorts the actual economic contribution and position of nineteenth-century women, it remains possible to identify from tax records the property of single and widowed females, thereby evaluating the amount of assets that could be accumulated by non-married women who were providing for themselves or their families.[86]

During the first half of the nineteenth century, New York City’s prostitutes lived and practiced their trade in all wards of the city. There were no segregated prostitution areas, or red-light districts, but the fifth, sixth, and eighth wards, all predominantly residential, were described by contemporaries as neighborhoods marked by the city’s most visible prostitution activity. All three were situated along Broadway, New York’s major commercial thoroughfare, with small businesses fanning out from this artery to streets on either side. Much of the prostitution reputation of the sixth ward rested on the fact that it was the location of the Five Points, a small area well known for its streetwalkers, gamblers, drunkards, and criminal element. The activities of these groups around the Five Points seemed to overshadow the fact that the sixth ward was also the home of many lower-middle-class and laboring persons, especially immigrants, who were family oriented, hard-working, and respect-


96

able.[87] The sixth, like other lower Manhattan wards, had suffered a socioeconomic decline in the first few decades of the century as the location of the more fashionable neighborhoods followed the population growth in newer wards to the north. In line with this trend, many sixth-ward brothel owners also began moving northward in the late 1830s into wards five and eight, leaving prostitution in the sixth ward to the streetwalkers and the rougher element of the Five Points. Although not as notorious as the sixth ward’s Five Points, wards five and eight became known as the main centers of organized brothel activity from the 1830s to 1860.[88]

City tax records illustrate the economic significance of prostitution when women’s property ownership in these districts is compared with that in wards fourteen and seventeen, which were also residential-commercial districts where women might have owned small businesses, but not districts that were noted for prostitution establishments (see map).[89] Women comprised only a small proportion of personal-property owners in all these wards (less than 10 percent), but wards with the highest percentage of women on the personal-property rolls were also the wards with the highest concentrations of brothel-based prostitution businesses—wards five and eight (table 9). Some of the female personal-property owners in these wards must have been non-prostitutes, but at least 26 percent of women on the personal-property rolls, and in some years as much as 60 percent, resided on the particular streets notorious as brothel locations (table 10). Based on tax, census, and brothel directory data from the early 1850s, it is possible to identify 40 percent of the female property-owners in ward five and 58 percent of those in ward eight as known prostitutes. Some of these prostitutes held real estate as well as personal property, and their holdings demonstrate the opportunities presented by their profession—and recognized by the general public at the time—for significant accumulation of wealth.[90]

It seems to have been generally believed among contemporaries that many nineteenth-century New York prostitutes had become very prosperous through their profession. Sanger stated that one prostitute was “positively affirmed to be worth over one hundred thousand dollars, . . . and many more are reputed to be rich.”[91] Another former madam was said to be living in one of the Italian cities enjoying a large income from the lease of her New York brothel property. House and furniture were being rented to a new proprietor for $9,100 annually.


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New York City wards and areas where prostitutes
lived or congregated between 1830 and 1870.


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Table 9
Personal Property Profile of Women in Selected Wards, 1835-1855

Women Who Owned Personal Property

Amount of Personal Property Owned by Women

Warda

No .

As % of all ownersb

$

As % of total $

1835:

5

43

6

347,000

7.5

8

13

4

89,000

4

6

15

3.5

109,200

2.5

14

17

6.5

102,500

4

1840:

5

29

6.5

183,800

11

8

25

7.5

105,800

4.5

6

19

4.5

48,000

2

14

7

6

30,200

1.5

17

6

3.5

68,500

6.5

1845:

5

30

6.5

101,500

6.5

8

22

8

176,600

11

6

31

4.5

41,400

4

14

6

3

18,300

1

17

11

6

22,200

1

1850:

5

43

7.5

166,500

6

8

25

6.5

88,300

5

6

18

5.5

37,100

3.5

14

8

4

16,500

1

17

23

4.5

131,000

5

1855:

5

26

6.5

146,600

6

8

14

5.5

33,500

1.5

6

4

2.5

105,000

6.5

14

4

3.5

37,000

1.5

17

26c

3.5

218,000

3

a Wards 5 and 8 were the areas with the best-known brothels. Wards 14 and 17 (the latter was created in 1837) had populations that were comparable to 5 and 8 socioeconomically, and they also had both small commercial and residential establishments. Ward 6 had a combination of brothels and shops.

b Percentages have been rounded to the nearest half.

c By 1855, Ward 17’s population was two to two-and-a-half times that of the other wards studied.

SOURCES : Record of Assessments, 1835-1855; U.S. Census, 1830, 1840, 1850; New York, Census, 1835, 1845, 1855.


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Table 10
Female Personal Property Owners on Key Prostitution Streets, 1830-1855

1830

1835

1840

1845

1850

1855

Ward 5

Church

9

0

3

9

7

6

Duane

4

2

3

4

4

4

Leonard

7

3

2

3

3

3

Chapela

13

4

1

0

1

1

Thomas

4

2

0

0

Total

37

11

9

16

15

14

(as % of ward’s female owners)

(57)

(26)

(31)

(53)

(35)

(54)

Ward 8

Mercer

2

2

2

6

3

Greene

2

6

3

2

1

Broome

2

4

3

3

4

Wooster

0

0

1

4

Total

6

12

9

15

8

(as % of ward’s female owners)

(46)

(48)

(41)

(60)

(56)

a Becomes West Broadway.

SOURCE .: Record of Assessments, 1835-1855.

An 1860s source reported that one popular belle was earning $30,000 per annum, which, it was noted, was a “sum exceeding considerably the salary of the President of the United States.”[92] Contemporaries may or may not have exaggerated prostitutes’ incomes and their overall wealth, but they did not exaggerate the fact that prostitution was a means of accumulating property.

Patience Berger, who previously was mentioned as the guardian of Mary Anthony and madam of a house where Catherine Paris lived, spent over thirty years of her working life in the prostitution business. Before 1830 she ran a small prostitution establishment in ward five, but by 1840 she was able to purchase her own establishment at 132 Church, a property which initially was assessed at $8,000 and later at $8,500. She also accumulated personal property, valued at $6,500 by 1855.[93] Using historian Edward Pessen’s formula for calculating the true value of


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nineteenth-century assessments, one can estimate her 1850 worth at approximately $50,000 and her equivalent worth in 1988 dollars at approximately $844,000.[94]

Mary Gallagher, a friend of Rosina Townsend’s at the time of the Jewett murder, also worked in the prostitution business for over thirty years. She owned property in ward five at 122 Chapel from 1830 to the mid-1840s, and then at 90 Chapel from the 1840s through the 1860s. Gallagher’s house was assessed at $3,000 in 1830 and by 1840 was listed at $6,000. She had personal property of $3,000 in 1830, and in 1843 the tax assessor penciled in by her name that she had “gone to Urope,” so apparently she felt prosperous enough to take a continental tour.[95] She returned to her 122 Chapel house by 1846 and in 1848 purchased the 90 Chapel (West Broadway) property, assessed at $4,800. At this point, when Gallagher was fifty-four years old and perhaps no longer eager for the demands of running a house with fifteen prostitutes, she turned the management of her property over to Rebecca Weyman for about a decade, and then to Caroline Hathaway. During the time others were managing her brothel, Gallagher lived at establishments in both ward six and ward eight, possibly assignation houses or respectable boardinghouses. By 1863, however, the City Directory lists her back at her West Broadway address, which by the 1860s was assessed at $8,000.[96]

Rebecca Weyman, who managed Gallagher’s property from 1848 to 1857, had owned 62 Mott Street in ward six from the late 1830s through most of the 1840s. In 1845, her Mott real estate was assessed at $4,700 and her personal property at $2,700. She may have taken over the management of Gallagher’s property because it was at a more prestigious address, or she may have felt she would have more opportunity to advance in the new location. Right after the move, her personal property was listed at $ 5,000, but the next year an assessment challenge reduced it to $2,000, where it remained unchanged for nine years. According to the 1850 census, one of the prostitutes in Weyman’s house was a thirty-year-old woman from Vermont, Caroline Hathaway, who followed Weyman in 1857 as manager of Gallagher’s property. Her first year in charge (and the last year the city assessed personal property), Hathaway was assessed for $1,000 in personal property. She continued to manage 90 West Broadway for several years (table 11).[97]

Gallagher’s tax history illustrates not only how women were able to accumulate property but also how their careers might progress in the


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Table 11
Gallagher Property


102

business over a period of years. It appears one could work up from prostitute to manager of an establishment, and eventually might take over ownership of the property. One’s female friends and associates also appear to have been important in helping one move up, or laterally, in the profession.[98]

Another example of friendship networking, advancement, and property accumulation by prostitutes is found in the complicated relationships of Sarah Tuttle, Fanny White, Kate Hastings, Jenney Englis, and Clara Gordon. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s Sarah Tuttle is listed in city directories as a manager of various boarding houses. In 1843, while she was living at 136 Duane, her personal property was assessed at $3,000. By 1845 Tuttle was able to purchase a brothel at 50 Leonard, valued at $12,000, and was managing at that address. In 1848 Tuttle turned over the management of her house to Kate Hastings, a young prostitute who had been with her off and on for three years. Hastings had $5,000 in assessed personal property in 1848 and by 1850 was able to purchase Tuttle’s house. About this same time, in the mid-1840s, Fanny White was living in a brothel across the street from Hastings. In 1851, White purchased brothel property at 119 Mercer and for the next two years managed the property, which was large and very well known. In 1853, a year in which White was assessed for $11,000 in real estate and $5,000 in personal property, she left for Europe with her lover, a married man named Dan Sickles, who had been appointed secretary to James Buchanan, minister to England. During White’s absence, Kate Hastings moved to 119 Mercer and ran White’s brothel. Management of her own brothel at 50 Leonard (which was assessed at $13,000 in 1853, $14,000 in 1855, and $15,000 in 1859) was turned over to Jenney Englis, who ran the establishment for a couple of years. (Englis had $1,000 in personal property during that time.) In 1855 Englis was followed as madam of 50 Leonard by Ellen Hamilton, who had been managing a brothel at 45 Mercer for several years, and when she took over Hastings’ Leonard Street property, Hastings moved into Hamilton’s old boardinghouse at 45 Mercer. (Each had personal property—Hamilton, $3,000, and Hastings, $2,000 assessed on Mercer in addition to her real estate on Leonard.) Fanny White, meanwhile, returned to New York from Europe in 1854, and resumed management of her own brothel. In 1856 she again turned it over to new management, and moved with two “lady boarders” to a residence on Twelfth Street. By this


103

time it was said she owned several houses in the city, which were allegedly gifts from suitors, as well as a $5,000 annuity and a real-estate lot reportedly given to her by a male friend. Shortly after her move uptown, White married a lawyer, Edmon Blankman, and she gave up her life as a prostitute. When she died in 1860, she was said to own “three fine city mansions, besides other property. The value of her property was variously estimated from $50,000 to $100,000.”[99] At the time of her death her Mercer street property was being managed by Clara Gordon, who had been a prostitute in Kate Hastings’ house on Leonard Street in 1850 (table 12).[100]

Many other women in the prostitution business who could be cited from nineteenth-century tax records as possessing much property illustrate the fact that women in the profession for many years were able to accumulate assets. At least twenty-four known prostitutes were assessed for $5,000 or more of real and personal property during these years (table 13), amounts which, especially in light of the practice of assessing property at only a fraction of its actual value, were certainly large enough to establish them as wealthy citizens. When converted to 1988 dollars, their holdings amounted in many cases to one-half million dollars or more. And when their incomes and assets are compared with those of women working in other trades or occupations, prostitution appears to have been an economically sound choice of a profession, financially the best of the limited occupational alternatives available to nineteenth-century women.

The profits of prostitution did not, of course, make the choice of the profession a pleasant one for many. Some tolerated the opprobrium and unpleasant aspects of prostitution because they believed the profession was temporary, and indeed for the great majority it was apparently practiced for only a few years, chosen for the income it could provide or for the economic, social, or sexual freedom it seemed to offer. Also, contrary to what most nineteenth-century literature says, prostitution did not always mean a woman became a social outcast. There is evidence that in some working-class neighborhoods, the temporary or occasional practice of prostitution was viewed as an acceptable means of supplementing one’s income when necessary.[101] Furthermore, some women probably felt as much pride in practicing prostitution as others did in working as menial laborers; it was not so different, after all, from most other women’s trades in the sense that like them it was concerned


104

Table 12
Tuttle, Hastings, and White Property


105

Table 13
Selected Prostitutes with Known Real and Personal Property Assessed at $5,000 or More, 1830-1860

Highest Real Estate Property Assessment

Highest Personal Property Assessment

Name

Sources

$

1988 equivalent a

$

1988 equivalent a

Elizabeth Pratt

1840s-60s

33,500

2, 275,000

2,000

99,700

Jane McCord

1840s-70s

20,000

1,300,000

>—

Adeline Miller

1820s-60

16,500

l, 072,500

5,000

249,200

Kate Hastings

1840s-60

15,000

975 000

5,000

249,200

Francis O’Kille

1840s-50s

13,000

845 000

Nelle Thompson

1840s-60

12,500

812 500

4,000

199,300

Sarah Tuttle

1820s-40s

12,000

780 000

Julia Brown

1830s-70s

11,500

750 000

5,000

249,200

Elizabeth Lewis

1840s-60s

11,500

750 000

3,000

149,500

Fanny White

1840s-60

11,000

715 000

5,000

249,200

Jane Weston

1830s- 50s

9, 500

618 000

Patience Berger

1820s-50s

8,500

552 500

6, 500

323,900

Mary Gallagher

1830s-60s

8,000

520 000

3,000

149,500

Margaret Brown

1840-60

7,500

487 500

Ann Leslie

1840s-70s

6, 300

409,500

3,000

149,500

Rebecca Willis

1840s- 50s

5,500

357,500

2,000

99,700

Kate Ridgley

1840s- 50s

8,000

398,700

Abby Meade (Myers)

1820s- 50s

5,000

249,200

Caroline Ingersoll

1840s-50s

5,000

249,200

Maria Adams

1840s-60

5,000

249,200

Rosina Townsend

1820s-30s

5,000

249,200

Mary Berry

1830-40s

5,000

249,200

Rebecca Weyman

1830s-50s

5,000

249,200

Rachel Porter

1830s- 50s

5,000

249,200

a For method of calculation, see notes to Chapter 2.

SOURCES : Record of Assessments, 1820-1859; William H. Boyd, Boyd’s New York City Tax Book , 1856 and 1857.


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primarily with providing for the needs, or for the service and care, of others, especially men.

The reasons nineteenth-century New York women gave for becoming prostitutes were many and diverse. Clearly, economic motivations were often crucial and were, perhaps, particularly acute in the nineteenth century, when few or no well-paying jobs were available to women. In addition, some social or psychological motivation had economic roots. A woman might say she became a prostitute because she was seduced and abandoned, but, in effect, that meant she had to provide economically for herself and dependents through one of the limited occupational options available, of which prostitution appeared to be the best option. Economic causes or motivations should not be overemphasized, however. Many women comparable to prostitutes in their needs, problems, stresses, or desires did not become prostitutes, and some prostitutes came from comfortable or middle-class backgrounds, choosing the profession despite adequate resources to care for themselves. Cases differ. Economic motivation may well have been the predisposing factor in a majority of nineteenth-century cases, but it cannot be isolated from social influences or from the personal assessments a woman made of herself, her situation, and her goals.


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Tijuana Hobo , Hebrew Hobo Railroad Rabbi, The Truth Teller Tell True Truth Truthfully. If the Truth is Repugnant to you, You are a Reagan Cultist. Ronald Reagan was Taught by L. Ron Hubbard, Reagan & Hubbard FOUNDED THE SCIENCE FICTION MIND FUCKING GAME- SCIENTOLOGY- then REAGAN USED NERO LINGUIST PROGRAMMING as PRESIDENT to MURDER THE MINDS of AMERICANS!
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