Part 2 Whores and Whoredom

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“Notorious Offenders”
Prostitutes and the Law

Around eight o’clock on the evening of Tuesday, March 27, 1855, Matilda Wade left her home at 107 Clark Street to walk a few blocks to her husband’s place of business in Spring Street. As usual, the early evening’s street activity livened as she approached the vicinity of Broadway. Mrs. Wade walked “quietly and peaceably” until she was stopped by a patrolman and told she was under arrest for being a vagrant and common prostitute. She then was taken along with nineteen other women to the eighth-ward station house, where she was booked. Mrs. Wade objected that she was not a prostitute and for years had lived at home and been supported by her husband. In spite of her protestations, she was not allowed to send for her husband, nor was she one of the fortunate five women who managed to obtain a release. Instead, she and fourteen other alleged prostitutes were locked in cells overnight.

The next morning the fifteen women, along with twenty-six others from ward fourteen, were paraded through the streets to the mayor’s office, where “an expectant crowd awaited their arrival. “[1] Led single file by police captains Turnbull and Kissner into the mayor’s office, the forty-one women, whose ages ranged from sixteen to forty, were taken before Mayor Fernando Wood and Justice B. W. Osborne. Mayor Wood had initiated a full-fledged campaign against the city’s streetwalkers, and Justice Osborne had been charged with enforcing the mayor’s reform program.[2] With the mayor’s office serving as a court of law, the arresting officers presented their charges against the women.[3] Of the eighth-ward


Corner of Broadway and Duane. This busy intersection, as it appeared
at mid-century, was well known for its many streetwalkers. As noted by Elizabeth
Blackwell, first woman doctor in the United States, all women walking streets alone
might be subject to annoyances from “unprincipled men.” In describing her life in
New York City in the 1850s, Blackwell stated that “some well-dressed man” would
walk by her side on Broadway, saying in a low voice, “Turn down Duane Street.”
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City. Quotation from
Wilson, Lone Woman, 296.)

women, one was discharged because her mother convinced Justice Osborne she would leave the city and take her daughter home. The other fourteen were convicted—ten had admitted working as prostitutes anywhere from two months to two years, and the remaining four, including Matilda Wade, were said to have “refused to tell” how long they had worked in the profession. From the fourteenth ward, nine were dismissed


The “Black Maria.” This etching of New York City’s infamous prison van
illustrates the variety of women who rode the van daily from police stations to
prison after being arrested for vagancy/prostitution. (Courtesy of the New-
York Historical Society, New York City)

because the arresting officers were “unable to substantiate any charge against them,” including one woman who had been forcibly taken into custody as she stepped from the streetcar, even though she had protested she was innocent and a married woman. The thirty-one women found guilty of being “notorious offenders” were convicted without trial, testimony, witnesses, examination, cross-examination, or the opportunity to employ counsel. All of the women arrested also apparently had been subjected to medical exams to determine if they had venereal disease.[4] Each woman found guilty was sentenced to from one to six months in the penitentiary, with Matilda Wade one of the thirteen given the maximum sentence. The women were then taken to “the Tombs,” or prison of detention, until they were transported in the Black Maria, the city’s well-known large red caravan wagon, up Third Avenue to Sixty-first Street, where they were conveyed by ferry to Blackwell’s Island. Mrs. Wade was then transferred from the penitentiary to the workhouse.

The next morning, Henry Wade, Matilda’s husband, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. Mrs. Wade was brought before the court the


following day, Friday, where her case and one other were argued on behalf of thirty women, with the court’s decision to be applicable to all.

Mrs. Wade was represented in court by a Mr. Tomlinson who had been hired by an anonymous citizen concerned over the abuse of civil liberties. Tomlinson argued on eight counts against the arbitrary manner in which the case had been handled from the initial arrest to final detention. He also requested that Mrs. Wade be released to her husband’s custody until the judge made his pronouncement in the case. The custody request was denied, however, and Mrs. Wade was again locked overnight in the city prison.

Finally, after five days in prison, the arrests of Mrs. Wade and of twenty-nine other women incarcerated with her were found illegal, and she was released. The following week, the remaining jailed women were freed.

Even though the legality of the prostitution arrests was being challenged in widely publicized court proceedings, the police continued their nightly raids on alleged streetwalkers throughout that week. Furthermore, the press continued printing editorials supporting Mayor Wood’s reform program and calling for new laws to make possible the ongoing arrest and incarceration of the many streetwalkers who were using “Broadway and other quiet thoroughfares . . . to advertise shameless immorality, [a practice] discreditable to our sense of propriety, and disgraceful to our age.”[5]

The Wade case and the public response to it bring into focus a number of issues surrounding the legal status and treatment of prostitutes in the nineteenth century, as well as practices regarding the legal treatment of non-prostitute women, especially the poor. Though prostitutes and non-prostitutes theoretically had different social and legal statuses, restrictions governing the behavior of both could blur the distinction. “Woman’s sphere,” albeit a middle-class construct, expressed a widely shared belief that woman’s proper realm was the home; this belief found its way into the socio-legal system in the form of limitations on the jobs available to women, the places they could go, and the influence they had. Gender discrimination was both a cause and result of the devaluation of females, assuring women a secondary status in society. Moreover, a double standard in social and sexual mores served to buttress this secondary status and provided the basis for the social control of women as an “inferior group.”


The nineteenth-century legal system, like the economic, political, and social systems, was founded on male dominance and control. Legislators, police officers, judges, prosecutors, and jurors all were exclusively male, and male-only suffrage withheld from women the possibility of contributing to the legal process on even the most basic level. Women’s legal status was a result of what males decided it would be. Most nineteenth-century statutes affecting women reflected the ideal of woman as homemaker/wife/mother, setting forth a descending continuum of female behavior from the woman-ideal norm through various levels of deviance to the dissipated, diseased, poor, inebriated, whoring hag whose existence not only offended society but also violated a host of laws. The nineteenth-century mother, wife, or daughter, even if she dealt with the legal system from a position somewhat above that of the ultimately debased female, still could experience the impact of her secondary status in a paternalistic society when seeking legal recourse for domestic violence, seduction, or rape; or when practicing social independence, promiscuity, or prostitution.[6]

Many nineteenth-century women compounded their legal difficulties by being poor. Unless in the care of a husband, father, or other male relative, most women had such limited income and such limited opportunities for economic betterment that they were part of the impoverished classes who were perceived to be degraded and unrespectable, not worthy of the legal consideration given the “better classes.”

Thus, as women (often poor women), and as females who deviated from “proper” gender roles, prostitutes were the recipients of questionable legal treatment that was supported by anti-prostitution laws such as the vagrancy law and the disorderly-persons law, which were designed to codify prevailing social and moral values and control social disorganization and chaos. As the Times noted in editorials condemning public prostitution, at issue were matters both of “immorality” and “propriety.”[7] There was no question of competing social values—no one publicly argued the virtue of prostitution or proposed that there should be no laws controlling the practice. Prostitution, it was agreed, was immoral even if economically understandable, and its increasingly visible practice was a threat to the respectable community. Thus, prostitutes—especially streetwalkers—served both as symbols of and as scapegoats for the social uncertainty that accompanied the changing urban community in the mid-nineteenth century. Laws on prostitution


codified these attitudes, but such laws were never enforced, or even designed, systematically and effectively.

The Wade case pointed out some of the problems and shortcomings of nineteenth-century prostitution statutes. First was the generality and questionable legality of such laws. For example, the vagrancy act was so inclusive that it covered most of society’s “dispossessed.” A slight deviance or momentary misfortune—or, indeed, as Matilda Wade learned, wholly arbitrary political or police whim—could cause a woman to be ranked with the community’s criminals.[8] George Templeton Strong clearly anticipated the possible abuses of the law in a diary entry from March of 1855:

It enables any scoundrel of a policeman to lay hands on any woman whom he finds unattended in the street after dark, against whose husband or brother he may have a grudge, who may be hurrying home from church or from a day’s work, or may have been separated by some accident from her escort, and to consign her for a night to a station house. Till morning no interference can liberate her; and if the policeman did make a mistake, the morning would find her disgraced for life, maddened perhaps by shame and mortification.[9]

A second problem was the frequent and random arrests made of suspected prostitutes. As was illustrated in the spring of 1855, a political administrator such as Mayor Wood could devise and initiate a “reform” program and then for weeks, almost nightly, send law enforcement officials to round up hundreds of women, both prostitutes and non-prostitutes, whose only visible offense was walking alone on the streets. Such laws clearly made crimes of actions that no one in fact labelled criminal. One’s “crime” commonly was poverty, the temporary lack of a job or a home, or being an unescorted woman on the street, though an unescorted male was free to walk the thoroughfares any time he chose. Furthermore, prostitution laws were applied inconsistently. “In the Sixth Ward,” observed the Times , “the officers arrest every female vagrant found in the street, whether acting in a disorderly manner, or walking quietly alone; while in the Eighth, Fifth, and Third wards but such of them as speak to persons in the street, or act otherwise unbecomingly, are taken in custody.”[10] The Times also described a few individual cases:

The girl Harrington had neither the dress or air of a prostitute, but resembled more what she represented herself to be—a sewing girl. Alice Gray declared herself to be a cap-maker; and Ellen Johnson asserted most strenuously that she


Woman Alone on Broadway. Nineteenth-century women found it “unsafe”
to walk the streets unescorted, especially in the evening. Not only were they the
objects of leering glances and immoral propositions, but under the law, any woman
unaccompanied by a male was subject to arrest for vagrancy/ prostitution. (Courtesy
of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

resided with her parents at No. 33 Watt street, and was on her way home when arrested.

But neither tears or entreaties were of avail—they were all locked up, the officer in command being compelled to detain all persons committed to his charge. He is allowed no discretion in the matter, and cannot rectify the blunders of the ambitious patrolmen, if any such should be made.[11]

Despite the recognized inconsistency, generality, questionable legality, randomness, and unfairness of the laws used to attempt to control prostitution, and despite repeated “blunders” associated with their enforcement and challenged by numerous lawsuits, there appears to have been an unwillingness by society to repeal or substantially change these laws. On the other hand, prostitution was not eliminated by statute, nor does it appear the practice was significantly circumscribed by legal codes. Although many prostitutes and other women who were arrested, if poor or uninformed, found themselves helpless in responding to the legal


system, there were many others, including many prostitutes, who effectively manipulated the system—through legal means, economic resources, connections, or sympathy. Thus, to fully understand the effects of the legal system on prostitution and the women who practiced the profession, we will first look at the codes—why they were passed, what values retained them, what conditions altered them, and how they were enforced. Then, in the following chapter, we will explore how the prostitutes responded to the laws, to the legal system, and to the law enforcers.[12]

The Laws and Prostitution

Throughout the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, prostitutes were arrested and incarcerated under laws that defined them as vagrants. Under laws enacted in the 1770s when New York became a state, they also could be arrested as “disorderly persons.” In 1822, however, the year New York adopted a new constitution, the legal designation of prostitutes as common-law vagrants was abrogated, and under the general law of the state they were given the sole designation of disorderly persons. This designation remained the primary statutory grounds for arresting prostitutes in New York state for several decades. Disorderly persons included “all common prostitutes, all keepers of bawdy houses or houses for resort of prostitution, drunkards, tipplers, gamesters or other disorderly persons . . . on complaint made on oath [by anyone] that one is disorderly.”[13] The inclusion here of keepers of taverns with those who keep bawdy houses or gambling dens suggests how central was the law’s emphasis on disorder rather than prostitution or gambling per se.

In the case of a disorderly person, the general law of the state authorized a judge to demand bail for good behavior for one year or to commit the accused to jail for a period not exceeding sixty days or until the next meeting of the General Sessions Court. If there were a question of a violation of the bail, the disorderly person would be tried by a jury. Two justices could discharge an offender before the sitting of the General Sessions. The court was to investigate the charges and either dismiss or punish the offender. If found guilty of being a prostitute, the woman could be committed to prison for up to six months.[14]


Woman Being Charged as Vagrant. Prostitutes and unemployed
women frequently were arrested on charges of vagrancy. If unable to persuade
officers of the court of their ability to be cared for or to care for themselves, they
were sentenced to up to six months in the penitentiary or workhouse.
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

In 1830 the state legislature passed a new vagrancy law that continued to exclude prostitutes from its purview. Then, three years later, in 1833, the state legislature passed a special law relating to the vagrancy act that applied to New York City only. This law stated that “all common prostitutes who have no lawful employment whereby to maintain themselves” shall be considered vagrants and may be committed to either the almshouse or the penitentiary for six months.[15] This wording ensured vagueness by suggesting “no lawful employment” as the only definition of prostitution, a description that would fit most women and was perhaps intended to fit most unemployed poor women. On the other hand, prostitutes who had other “lawful employment,” who owned or worked in taverns or boarding houses or had jobs such as millinering, were exempted from the law’s provisions if its wording had any meaning at all.

Interestingly, the 1833 law singled out New York City, while in other parts of the state, prostitutes continued to be designated “disorderly persons.” The New York City prostitute, as vagrant, could be brought before the court on complaint of any person, including a police officer


on the street, with no preliminary proof or warrant of arrest being required. It was not necessary to provide a prostitute with the names or testimony of witnesses against her, and the presiding court officer alone had the power to try, convict, and punish the prostitute. In one case, the prostitutes from a raided brothel summoned their legal counsel to the police station, and when he argued that the magistrate’s refusal to say why the women had been arrested was a denial of their rights, the judge replied that the clients had no rights because they were vagrants. The reporter covering the story noted that “this attitude is current among members of the bar in criminal practice as one of the jokes of the profession.”[16] Accused prostitutes and other so-called vagrants “had no rights” and thus no legal protections.

With so little proof and legal proceeding necessary for conviction and commitment to prison, officials found the vagrancy law an expedient tool for temporarily removing from New York City streets prostitutes and others identified as social problems. But that nineteenth-century public officials were willing to employ such extraordinary means, which mocked generally accepted civil and judicial protection, indicates that they must have believed they were facing extraordinary problems.

One such “problem” may have been the great influx of new people into New York at this time, especially foreigners and the poor. Between 1820 and 1830 the city’s population had grown by over 73,000, a more than 60 percent increase. Between 1830 and 1835, the population increased by another 71,000, a growth rate of 35 percent in only five years.[17] By 1833 this population trend caused civic leaders to worry about new threats they associated with foreigners and the poor. The special New York City vagrancy act offered one means of dealing with these problems.

New York City’s vagrancy law applied to five classes of people— prostitutes, habitual drunkards, beggars, “loafers,” and the diseased—all groups that it was believed threatened the social order, suffered from immoral tendencies, and were often foreign born. Although the statewide vagrancy law passed in 1830 would have included most of these groups, the key problem that provoked passage of the special city-only statute three years later was the perceived increase in prostitution in New York City at that time. New Yorkers had been made very aware of the prostitutes’ presence in the city as a result of the controversy surrounding the publication of McDowall’s 1831 report on prostitution, and, though McDowall’s figures had been challenged, many accepted the fact that,


whether 10,000 or 1,000 in number, prostitution had become a major problem—and one that was no longer hidden from public view. Yet even in this atmosphere, the law stressed prostitution not as a distinct sexual crime, but as a departure from expected street decorum, similar to begging, being drunk, or just loafing.

The daily newspapers between 1830 and 1870 are filled with stories of prostitute arrests, most of which, if they mention a specific charge, list the offense as vagrancy/common prostitution. A tally of a sample of the cases reported in this period in the newspapers shows that the great majority were from the sixth ward, a ward known for the notorious Five Points, where drinking, gambling, and prostitution establishments abounded, but also a ward characterized by varied ethnic neighborhoods and extreme poverty.[18]

By the 1850s, when cumulative records for arrests by wards are available in published police reports, the sixth ward still led in the number of arrests for vagrancy.[19] The vagrancy totals in the police chief’s semi-annual and quarterly reports do not distinguish male vagrants from female, but by checking the daily entries in the police blotters for lower Manhattan for one year from January 7, 1850, through December 30, 1850, in nearly 500 cases of females arrested for vagrancy/ common prostitution, only 7 had other wards listed, 82 had no ward listed, and the remaining approximately 400 were from the sixth ward.[20] Daily police records for the first three months of 1855 noted a slightly different pattern: among 192 arrests for vagrancy/common prostitution, 36 percent were from ward four, a ward with a predominantly immigrant population, and 34 percent were from ward six; these two wards accounted for 70 percent of the vagrancy/prostitution arrests.[21] Thus, it appears a woman was most likely to be assumed to be a prostitute or be arrested for vagrancy/prostitution if she was in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, especially if she was foreign and/or poor (table 14).

Several vagrancy cases during the period from 1830 to 1870 illustrate both the vulnerability of the prostitute under the vagrancy law and the legal problems that resulted from using a statute that was so general in scope that its constitutionality and justness were always open to question. The cases also demonstrate why the vagrancy law was ineffective in curbing prostitution.

One of the first cases challenging the 1833 vagrancy law was Emma Sands v. the People in 1838. The young Emma Sands had been arrested


Table 14
Vagrancy Arrests: Wards Ranked by Number of Both Men and Women Arrested

First Ranking

Second Ranking

Third Ranking

Fourth Ranking

Reporting Period


No. Arrests


No. Arrests


No. Arrests


No. arrests

1 May-31 Oct. 1849









1 Apr.-30 Sept. 1850









1 Jan.-30 June 1851









1 July-31 Dec. 1851









1 July-31 Dec. 1854









1 Jan.-30 June 1855









1 July-31 Dec. 1855









1 Jan.-30 June 1856









SOURCE : New York City Chief of Police, Semi-Annual and Quarterly Reports .

as a common prostitute, convicted as a vagrant, and committed to six months in the penitentiary. She was brought before Recorder Robert H. Morris on a writ of habeas corpus to have the legality of her detention reviewed. Morris had been a member of the state assembly in 1833 when the vagrancy law was adopted for New York City and had voted in favor of the act. He also would be the judge to preside over the case of Matilda Wade in 1855.[22]

In his review of the Sands case, Judge Morris pointed out “that the prisoner is not without resources for her support, that she is respectably connected, and that her father, a respectable citizen, is desirous if he can procure her release, to take her into his house, and provide for her.”[23] Morris found the vagrancy law unconstitutional and Sands’s commitment void, and he ordered that she be discharged from the penitentiary. In challenging the vagrancy law, the main issue in the case for Morris was the improper use of the judicial process after the prostitute was arrested and incarcerated, not the method by which it was determined she was a prostitute who should be arrested. Morris stated that the vagrancy act, by delegating excessive powers to the justice court, denied the accused a trial by jury and, in effect, created a new kind of court which was not provided for by the state constitution. Morris also


noted that justices frequently, but without proper authority, gave early discharges to prisoners they had unjustly convicted and sentenced. Prisoners were released because the justices subsequently discovered that in the hasty proceedings at the police office or penitentiary, incorrect decisions had been made regarding the accused persons’ guilt and/or sentencing. And he remarked that the New York state law that designated prostitutes as disorderly persons had proved adequate for the rest of the state, had sufficed for New York City until 1833, and would still be sufficient if used in the city henceforth.

The Sands case received extensive coverage in the press, and though Morris’s decision brought some public criticism, the majority of the bar concurred with Morris in his position. Nevertheless, the controversy brought no changes in the vagrancy law or in its arbitrary enforcement.[24]

In 1841, public attention again was focused on a vagrancy case, that of Melinda Hoag. While the Sands case, like that of Matilda Wade later, suggested how a woman might be convicted of prostitution with no shred of evidence that she practiced it, Hoag’s legal history made clear how ineffective the law was against even a notorious prostitute and thief who could afford to employ legal counsel. According to the court, Hoag had been convicted “on competent testimony” and was committed to the penitentiary for six months for being a vagrant, “an idle person and a common prostitute, who having no visible means to maintain herself, lives without lawful employment.”[25] Hoag’s case was brought before the court on a writ of habeas corpus, and her counsel challenged the vagrancy charges and sentence on several grounds. First, he argued that the offense had not been defined with sufficient precision under the terms of any statute setting forth what constituted a vagrant. A second challenge was that it was not clear if the evidence against Hoag had been her own confession or the competent testimony of witnesses. If the latter, the names and testimony of these witnesses had not been given her. A third complaint was that there was no statement of adjudication declaring that the prisoner was either a notorious offender who should be sent to the penitentiary or a proper object of relief who should be sent to the almshouse.

Presiding Judge Lynch stated that it was not necessary in this type of case for the names and testimony of witnesses to be given, but that such testimony must only be in the record, with the offense sufficiently described by a witness with authority. He added, however, that because


of technicalities in the statute, the charge of vagrancy had been improperly made. The prisoner, therefore, was to be discharged on the basis of improper procedures. He further cautioned that, when there is a commitment to prison without a jury, the court must be careful not to appear to be acting on prejudice or personal dislike. In his opinion, the police court had been concerned only with the substantive end of justice and therefore had neglected proper legal procedures.

The Tribune supported the judge’s actions, noting that it “must be obvious to all that such a process is liable to the grossest abuses and ought to be carefully guarded. . .. As a prop to public morals it seems to us to be an exceedingly imperfect and unsafe one.”[26] Again, however, even though the vagrancy law had been challenged in the courts and had been termed “exceedingly imperfect and unsafe” by the press, the law remained unchanged.

Melinda Hoag, perhaps encouraged by her experience with the judicial system, saw no need to change her ways and was back in court two years later, again challenging the vagrancy law. Strong evidence indicated that she was involved not only in a life of prostitution but also in theft in association with persons well known to police authorities. She lived with a man named Alexander Hoag but was not his wife. They had been together several years, and he characterized their relationship as one where she “kept house for him by the month.”[27] The Hoags were known to the police, and indeed soon to the public, as “panel thieves.” In the panel game, a female lured her customers into a bedroom that had a secret panel or curtain where her accomplice could hide until the opportune time to steal money from the pants or coat pocket of the victim’s clothes that had been left on a nearby chair or stand.

It was in fact theft, not prostitution, that led to the Hoags’ legal downfall. In August 1843, Melinda Hoag was arrested on complaint of Isaac Smith, a Westchester County man, who claimed he had met her on the street, had gone home with her to her house on Greenwich Street, and had gone to bed with her. He said he heard a noise and looked up to find a man trying to steal his pantaloons. Smith dressed and left but shortly thereafter discovered his wallet was missing. He located a watchman, who went with him to the Greenwich Street house, where they found, according to the report in the Tribune , “the notorious Melinda Hoag, the robber of a thousand strangers, . . . the little less notorious Alexander Hoag, her paramour,” and a man called Charles Watson.[28]


All three were arrested and locked in the watchhouse. Smith’s complaint against Melinda Hoag pointed out that she had told him she only “wanted to get acquainted with folks,” but that she also had agreed “to allow him the use of her person for any amount that he had a mind to give her.”[29] On this basis he charged her with being a common prostitute. On examination by Hoag’s lawyer, Smith admitted he had not had intercourse with her, nor did he know anyone who had, but that she had agreed to “give up her person for pay or hire,” and had gone to bed with him for that purpose.[30]

The day following the arrest of the three parties, Smith discovered his wallet was not missing but was in his coat pocket. He reported this discovery to the police, who released the two men but detained Melinda Hoag. Hoag was sent to the penitentiary for six months for being a vagrant and a prostitute.[31] Her lawyers filed to have the case reviewed on a writ of certiorari before the New York Supreme Court, and Alexander Hoag posted her $500 bail.[32] The court found the charges and convictions were improperly made under the law and Mrs. Hoag could not be legally detained. She was released, but within the month Melinda and Alexander Hoag were again arrested. This time Mrs. Hoag had taken an Ohio visitor to a house in Robinson Street and gone to bed with him. Shortly thereafter, they heard a loud knocking at the door. Mrs. Hoag said she feared it was her husband and begged the gentleman to leave quickly, which he did. When he returned to his hotel he discovered he was missing $54; he reported the incident to the authorities, and the Hoags were arrested. According to press reports, not only did Alexander Hoag try unsuccessfully to escape, but several bank notes that the Ohioan identified were found in the possession of both Hoags, who were committed for trial on charges of grand larceny.[33]

Melinda Hoag’s jury found her guilty without ever retiring to private chambers. This time she was committed to prison on charges of larceny, not vagrancy/common prostitution, and therefore her conviction held. Alexander Hoag, also found guilty, was sentenced to four years in the state prison, a decision he challenged in Supreme Court but a sentence he later served.[34]

That the authorities finally chose to avoid vagrancy/common prostitution charges in their efforts to remove Melinda Hoag from the streets acknowledged that the statute was so general, and its application such an abridgement of due process, that it was unlikely to be upheld under


appeal, even when applied to as blatant a prostitute as Melinda Hoag. While useful in arbitrarily attacking or harassing poor females, prostitute or not, the vagrancy law, New Yorkers knew, in fact did nothing to curb prostitution. An 1844 report of a Board of Aldermen committee evaluating the New York police department acknowledged as much, in part using documents from the 1843 Hoag trials as case studies. The report of the committee stated that it was an “established, though melancholy fact” that prostitution and houses of prostitution exist in all large cities and cannot be prevented by law. The report went on to note, however, that several New York jurists and legislators favored laws that would license and regulate the practice, but that the general community would find such laws unacceptable, and thus, they would not be recommended. The vagrancy law would remain in force, requiring “emphatically, the efficient attention of the Police”—which meant that the law would continue to be most effective as harassment of those too poor or too uneducated to provide themselves with legal protection.[35]

Another example of the abuses inherent in the vagrancy law was the case of Harriet Charles in August 1846. Again, as in the Sands case, the plaintiff’s counsel questioned the legality of the single magistrate’s summary power in such cases. The judge’s finding was that the prisoner had been illegally convicted by a magistrate whose power was conferred by a statute not in conformity with the common law. Furthermore, Harriet Charles’s denial of both a trial by jury and a hearing where she could know and defend herself against the charges of prostitution—a denial the judge noted was most often practiced against people whose “poverty and destitution makes them wanting in all other forms of protection”—was ruled a withholding of due process.[36] Although Harriet Charles was able to avoid punishment under the vagrancy act in 1846, she could not escape the threat the law continued to pose to prostitutes, or to women unaccompanied on New York streets. The police blotter for November 7, 1850, notes Charles again was arrested as a vagrant/common prostitute, and she was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.[37]

Even though eight years had transpired between the Sands and the Charles cases, their similarities pointed out that, in spite of repeated publicity about the inability of the vagrancy law to withstand judicial review, the law itself had not been modified nor had there been any change in its enforcement in that period. Some New Yorkers, however,


had become increasingly concerned with the vagrancy law’s ineffectiveness in curbing prostitution as well as its abuses of justice. A grand jury was called by the Common Council in 1848 to review vagrancy convictions, and the inquiry found that of 511 records of vagrancy conviction, only 3 were valid, and of 746 persons detained in the penitentiary on vagrancy, only 3 were lawfully held.[38] In spite of this indictment of the law and the judicial procedures used in its enforcement, legislators were unwilling to change the law substantially. Minor changes were made in 1849, 1853, and 1854, but only in an effort to assure that arrests and convictions would more easily stand up in court. Matilda Wade’s case in 1855 clearly illustrated that abuses were not eliminated by the revisions.[39] As a result of the Wade case and the large number of prisoners released after the trial, the mayor’s and district attorney’s offices drew up a series of guidelines to be followed in making future arrests: police should arrest only if specific acts or words at the time of arrest indicated grounds for such action, and they should arrest by warrant after an affidavit had been sworn before a magistrate noting past acts of prostitution and lack of lawful employment, and after verification of evidence by, for example, accompanying a suspected prostitute to her alleged residence where inquiries could be made as to the truth of her story. In addition, police were to inform the prisoner immediately of her right to counsel, give her the opportunity for an on-the-spot cross-examination of witnesses, and then submit a full record of all signed and certified proceedings for filing with the appropriate authorities.[40]

That the guidelines were designed more to uphold convictions than to ensure justice became clear within a couple of months. Under pressure from constituents to stop the throngs of women continuing to fill the streets at night, Mayor Wood renewed his campaign against prostitutes and directed his officers to make arrests. Over sixty women were brought before the police court on the first day of arrests, forty the next, and orders were given to continue apprehending streetwalkers until the nuisance abated.[41] Clearly such numbers could not have been rounded up had the police paid any heed to the “protective” guidelines drawn up the previous month. In an article about the initial arrests the Times noted that the women apprehended were “exceedingly shy and with but few exceptions behaved themselves with propriety.”[42]

One of the women in the first group incarcerated was a twenty-one-year-old immigrant named Margaret McDermott. The Times spoke


with outrage about the fact that Michael Connelly, a police justice, had committed McDermott to prison on vagrancy charges and then over a week later had requested her release because he had learned she was a “virtuous girl only a few months in the country.” The paper asked, “If Justice Connelly may do this in the case of Margaret McDermott, why may he not do it in the case of any and of every woman in the city? Is this the tenure on which we hold the security of our persons and our personal rights?”[43] Connelly defended his act by stating there was sufficient evidence against her: “She was friendless, a pauper and unknown, and had not the power to rebut but by her own assertion the charge made against her. Was I to believe the prisoner and doubt the evidence?” The Times censured the justice for committing her to prison before he had proved her guilt, stating: “The fact that she was poor and friendless should have made him doubly careful not to augment her misfortune by reckless injustice.”[44]

Yet Connelly had acted in precise accord with the intention of the law in convicting McDermott. Under the vagrancy law, being friendless and poor was, in fact, all the “evidence” needed to prove prostitution. A few individuals, such as the Times editor writing about the Wade case and the judge in the Harriet Charles case, had pointed out that the vagrancy law was a form of “reckless injustice” practiced on the poor and destitute, but the overwhelming majority of legal enforcers and society in general demonstrated a gross and almost absolute indifference to guaranteeing even a semblance of justice for the underclasses. Even though the vagrancy law left cases open to judicial challenge, New York newspapers and police blotters indicate it was utilized far more widely in nineteenth-century New York than were other statutes for controlling prostitution. A vagrancy conviction offered officials an easier, quicker, and harsher way of handling conspicuous prostitutes, especially those too poor to contest the charges, than did alternative laws.

The other major prostitution law, the law for disorderly persons, covered both prostitutes and keepers of “bawdy houses or houses for resort of prostitution.” Arrest as a disorderly person was usually made in conjunction with a disorderly-house arrest and unlike a vagrancy charge had to be proved in court. A disorderly-person case before the Court of General Sessions required police time, court time, and witnesses open to examination. In addition, witnesses called to testify in a disorderly-persons case either had to post bond or be held in jail until the case was


heard, a definite drawback for the potential witness as well as a deterrent for anyone wanting to bring charges against an alleged prostitute.[45]

Police blotters show most of those women arrested for vagrancy received sentences of two to six months, with the six-month sentence being frequently given, while those charged as disorderly persons were much less often incarcerated. Notations in the police blotters indicate that disorderly persons were either dismissed or charged bail and set free on good behavior. In many of the cases, the police record mentions no disposition. Some of these cases were heard at a later date before the General Sessions Court, or the police released the women rather than force the police, the prostitutes’ clientele, or other witnesses to testify.[46]

Available statistics illustrate the great discrepancy between arrests for vagrancy and those in connection with a disorderly house (table 15). There were a mere 22 disorderly-house arrests for the year 1847 when police records began to be published, and these gradually increased to 167 by the next decade. Ten years later there were 367 arrests under the statute, but only 152 of these were female, and there is no indication how many of the proprietors were operating prostitution establishments rather than groggeries, dram shops, dance halls, or gaming establishments, all of which were also considered disorderly houses. The legal freedom enjoyed by operators of disorderly houses is even more evident when one notes cases where an indictment was actually found. For almost an entire decade, 1860 to 1869, only 85 indictments were issued against houses of prostitution, an average of less than nine a year in a city where disorderly houses were plentiful. The arrest and indictment records illustrate clearly that disorderly-house laws were difficult to wield against prostitution, and they suggest that officials and the public were more tolerant of brothels than of street prostitution.[47]

If the police wished to arrest prostitutes who were inhabitants or managers of houses of prostitution, however, the disorderly person/ disorderly house law did provide a statutory basis. The maximum sentence for operating a disorderly house was one year’s imprisonment at hard labor, with one month’s solitary confinement and a fine of $250. The maximum sentence for other inhabitants was the same as for any disorderly person—up to six months in jail. Critics seeking strong action against disorderly houses were concerned that police had no power to enter such establishments unless some situation, such as a brawl or a request for help, necessitated their services on the premises.[48] The


Table 15
Vagrancy and Disorderly House Arrests for New York City (female and male combined, with breakdown for 1866-1869 )

Vagrancy Arrests

Disorderly House Arrestsa





































































a Includes gambling and drinking, as well as prostitution houses.

b For a three-month period only.

c For a six-month period only.

SOURCES : Official police reports were not published until the reorganization of the police force, in 1845. Totals for 1844 are from the National Police Gazette ; 1854-1856, from the Board of Aldermen, Semi-Annual Reports of the Chief of Police ; and 1866-1869, from the Annual Reports of the Metropolitan Police .

Advocate of Moral Reform complained there were no penal enactments that could eliminate such “houses of death” provided they observed external order and quiet.[49] To get around this restriction, police might induce a neighbor to make a complaint, in order to permit the authorities to take out a warrant, enter the house, and arrest everyone found on the premises.[50] This ability to arrest “on complaint” provided police with a method of controlling, or harassing, brothels if they wished to use it. In one case, the son of a highly respectable family had been fre-


quenting Eliza Smith’s brothel in Centre Street. His father contacted the police and went with them to the brothel to have the son removed. The police threatened Smith that, if she admitted the son again, they would see that complaints were made against her house and her establishment would be broken up. Inhabitants then would be charged and sent to jail, or the brothel keeper and inmates might be set free on promise they would immediately vacate the house and the neighborhood.[51]

Although disorderly houses could be quickly dealt with by obtaining a complaint, and most arrests probably were not disputed, testimony could be difficult to prove if challenged by the defendant or her counsel. Usually, neighbors testified about external events at a house or the appearance of visitors. The standardized forms filed in the district attorney’s office noted that a house was a “resort of tipplers, gamblers, prostitutes, and other disorderly persons who disturbed the peace of the neighbors at all hours of the night.” A complaint might also state that prostitutes and persons of “bad character” met there nightly to dance, and “the vilest was allowed and encouraged,” or that “men and women, both black and white, were seen entering and leaving the house.”[52] Some citizens’ complaints contained more specific objections, especially during the summer months, when windows were kept open for ventilation. In 1830 neighbors of Rosina Townsend, Ann Perkins, and Mary Wall filed a complaint against the three women for operating disorderly houses at numbers 41, 39-1/2, and 39 Thomas Street. A letter to the police from one of the complainants, George Chapman, stated that the women operated “noted houses of prostitution” and that on the previous Sunday afternoon either Ann Perkins or a female resident of her house was seen with a male “in a State of Nature with the front window open to the street.” This scene proceeded “to drive from their windows every respectable female in view and collected a mob of boys.”[53] Chapman said that he hoped the magistrates would

remove the nuisance not by sending a wretched prostitute to the penitentiary for sixty days, whose vacancy in the brothel may be filled in twenty minutes, but by clearing out the houses, indicting their keepers and Livingston, the agent who lets those houses with a knowledge of the infamous purpose to which they will be applied.[54]

It is not certain what immediate action was taken, but a few years later both Townsend and Wall were still living at the same addresses.[55]


In an 1834 charge against Julia Brown, who was said to operate a disorderly house at 133 Reade Street, a neighbor complained that the night before Brown’s common bawdy house had been the scene of “a great noise and quarreling to the great annoyance and disturbance of neighbors.” A second neighbor complained that men and women regularly met at the house and that “the females expose themselves in the yard and at the windows in an indecent state and the males use indecent language.” Brown pled guilty to the charge and vacated the Reade Street address, but she continued to manage brothels at various other New York locations for years afterward.[56]

Another 1834 case against three women in White Street charged that their houses were the common resorts of prostitutes who “sit by the windows and lie on the Beds of the House[s] with windows hoisted and their naked persons greatly exposed.”[57] The neighbors were especially annoyed because they had brought disorderly-house charges against the three previous owners of the same establishments in May of that year. These three women had been ordered out and had moved. A month later, however, the houses were reoccupied by the three new prostitutes. After complaints again were made to the police, one of the new owners moved out, but the two others defied the law by staying—and, to the great dismay of the neighbors, the empty house was taken over by the prostitute who had first occupied it in May! Finally, after several months of delay in the courts, two of the occupants were found guilty.[58]

Sometimes neighbors were overly zealous in pursuing exact information to use against suspected prostitutes. One such case was that of Rebecca Davis, a widow with five children, who was said to earn her living selling baby clothing. Mrs. Davis was described as a “wellbuilt little Jewess, with dark eyes and hair, and good expression of face of the Israelite mould.”[59] A neighbor, Mr. Roper, testified that he eavesdropped in order to determine the character of Mrs. Davis and her friends. He said the conversations in the house between men and women were “the obscene kind such as women of ill fame use.” Roper did not explain how he had become an authority on such conversations. Another neighbor testified that, as he was peeping through the keyhole, he saw a man getting out of her bed. A female neighbor, who lived above Mrs. Davis, said she “heard the bed going.” In her testimony she declared: “I am not speculating as to the noise of the bed. I know the difference between the movement of a bed and a chair. . .. I saw


nothing but speculate upon the result.”[60] Twelve other witnesses were then called who testified on behalf of Mrs. Davis. One, a grocer who lived across the street, said he had never seen or overheard anything improper, but added in response to Davis’s accusers: “I never looked through the keyhole.” The local watchman, also testifying on her behalf, made a similar statement, saying he “never looked through the keyhole or the back shutters.” After an hour’s deliberation the jury found Mrs. Davis not guilty. Mrs. Davis then brought charges against one of the neighbors for defamation of character.[61]

Another disorderly-house arrest that did not stand up in court involved Elizabeth Rice. Mrs. Rice retained counsel for her defense, and the court found that “she did not keep such a disorderly house as the law prohibits with its penalties.”[62] The prosecutor was able to prove, however, that she sold liquor on the Sabbath, so Mrs. Rice was compelled to pay a fine before she was discharged. The Advocate of Moral Reform made note of the fact that her counsel fees and fine together amounted to only $20.[63]

As with the vagrancy law, there were major problems with the justice of the disorderly persons law, which worked better to intimidate than to convict. Judges became more concerned over the years to evaluate charges under the statute and lessen inconsistencies, but this could not be done without undercutting what small effectiveness the law had. The case of Mary Fowler, the keeper of a house on Church Street, suggests well the legal fog, abetted by society’s ambiguous attitude to prostitution, that fell over most court procedures in such cases. Familiar to the New York community, the “notorious” Mary Fowler had lived on Church Street for over a decade and was listed in the 1838 City Directory as the widow of Joseph M. Fowler. The 1840 census registered her as the head of a household that included two other women and four young boys. Mary Fowler was one of several prostitutes the well-known editor, E. Z. C. Judson (alias Ned Buntline), attempted to blackmail. Judson also was responsible for reporting Fowler’s establishment to the police.[64]

At her trial Mrs. Fowler said she was indignant at the report her house was of bad character. She threatened to sue one of the prosecution witnesses for slander. Mrs. Fowler’s lawyer also objected to the “spy system” that had “hunted up” testimony against her, stating that it left everyone unsafe even in her own house.[65]


Judge C. P. Daley’s jury instructions wonderfully suggested the general social and legal confusion surrounding prostitution cases. He pointed out that an establishment could be deemed a disorderly house even if it did not disturb the neighborhood; if what was going on in a house had a tendency to injure public morals, and if the place was frequented by individuals of both sexes for the purpose of facilitating illicit connection between them, then it mattered not how privately or correctly such behavior was conducted. Daley’s charge clarified what he believed to be the intent of prostitution laws: preventing a “moral” offense to the community. Past de facto implementation of both disorderly-house and vagrancy laws had emphasized enforcement of public decorum and control of undesirable elements of the population, not upholding a moral or sexual code of behavior in the community. In past cases, defense attorneys for prostitutes had even gone so far as to argue in court that if a woman lived alone and did not disturb her neighbors, it made “no difference how many men visit[ed] her and [had] sexual intercourse with her.”[66]

Judge Daley challenged this interpretation by pointing to a larger issue present in such cases. He noted that prostitution establishments were great evils and that isolated prosecutions against them were of doubtful utility. Houses of ill-repute were either necessary evils, or they were not. If necessary, then they should be regulated by the police and if not necessary, then the municipal authorities should suppress them by a general systematic effort. The indirect countenance of them by police in New York City he believed to be scandalous, and isolated prosecutions served only to bring the evil to the attention of those of prurient interests, or the young and unsuspecting, the curious, or the salacious.

Nevertheless, the judge said it was the duty of the jury and court to administer the law as they found it, without inquiry into the wisdom of the law. The evidence indicating that women of ill-fame were seen visiting the house and were said to live there was not in itself sufficient to establish that the house was disorderly—even women of ill-fame must have a residence and shelter somewhere, he observed, as had been argued in a case in England. In addition, the jury should presume nothing against the character of the defendant, because the law presumes her character to be good unless shown to be otherwise. Also, if the evidence did not prove beyond a doubt that prostitution took place in the house, and that it was for Mrs. Fowler’s “lucre and gain,” then


the defendant should be found not guilty. After cautioning the jury on all of these issues, however, the judge pointed out that if wine were sold in the house, then Mrs. Fowler could be convicted of keeping a disorderly house under that charge![67]

Despite such clear indication of problems with the disorderly-persons/disorderly-house law, no basic amendment was undertaken. One addition to the law was made that suggested concern about respectable exploiters of prostitutes; as prostitutes came to be viewed more as victims than victimizers, it began to seem appropriate that those who “assisted” in their degradation should not go unpunished. Therefore, in 1849 a law was passed including owners of disorderly houses with the persons who managed them.[68] Absentee brothel property owners were believed to be guilty because their participation for financial gain made them an integral part of the prostitution business, “respectable” people who in fact financially exploited prostitutes’ poverty and vulnerability. Reformers argued that property owners earned such money not by a fair business arrangement with the prostitutes but by exploiting the many women who were forced to practice the occupation. The sense of class injustice tied to this reform is suggested by one proposal which recommended that not only should those who own the property be punished by imprisonment and fine, but income from the fine and from the property’s rent for five years should go to the Overseers of the Poor.[69]

A sample case under the new law was that of Fanny Howard, who was arrested in April 1849 for keeping a house of prostitution on Church Street. Upon her arrest she signed an affidavit stating that she rented the house from John F. Delaplaine, a well-known property owner who was said to lease several houses as brothels. After Howard stated that Delaplaine knew she intended to keep the residence as a house of ill fame, a warrant also was issued for Delaplaine’s arrest. The police blotter for April 20 shows both Howard and Delaplaine were arrested but does not record what happened to them. Since the blotter for July 9, 1849 indicates that Howard was again arrested for keeping a disorderly house, she probably was released with a warning or given a fine. There is no indication what happened to Delaplaine except for a notice six months later in the Herald that he was “indicted” for owning a residence operated as a disorderly house by Fanny Howard. Either the court was finally hearing his April case or he had been charged again with the same offense. No disposition of the case was mentioned.[70]


In another case against a landlord, John Devins was indicted for leasing a disorderly house at 24 Elizabeth Street. Even though Devins lived in the basement, he protested the suit and had his young children and an employee testify to his sober character. The judge pointed out that the Supreme Court had been clear on the issue, and that the jury must judge on the facts, which were that he had knowingly leased the residence as a disorderly house. The jury found Devins guilty but recommended mercy, and the sentence was suspended by his “abating the nuisance.”[71]

Other laws also included provisions designed to prevent the development of prostitution. For example, immigration laws forbade entry into the United States of women of immoral character, as well as other “undesirables,” such as the diseased, maimed, and criminal. Tenement house laws and public health laws included restrictions on prostitutes and the practice of their trade.[72] At mid-century, two further attempts to legislate specific controls on New York City prostitutes were made; although they failed, they merit special attention.

The earlier of these proposals was a campaign for laws to prevent prostitutes from attending public theaters and other public places of amusement. This law was similar to other prostitution statutes in its attempt to control the behavior of the women who practiced the profession by removing them from the public arena. In nineteenth-century American theaters, the gallery, or upper row above the dress and family circles, was customarily reserved for prostitutes. This section, known as the third tier, was periodically the subject of controversy. Moralists believed the presence of prostitutes there was a disgusting custom, offensive to respectable patrons of the theater. For those who questioned the morality of theaters in general, the existence of the third tier was a confirmation of its impurity. Theater managers were constantly under pressure from clergy and reformers who wished to see the third tier eliminated. If any theater went out of business, these reformers were quick to point out that the theater had been unable to attract a respectable clientele.[73]

In 1842, attempting to meet the objections of some of his critics, Edmund Simpson, manager of New York’s Park Theatre, scheduled a religious play, The Israelites in Egypt , and closed the third tier. In describing opening night, the Herald said the house was “well and respectably filled” but “the third tier empty, the manager having for the


first time in New York, put forth a moral courage unheard of.” The play was scheduled to run for eighteen days, but by the fourth night the prostitutes were readmitted. The Herald ran a letter from “Hamilton,” a concerned citizen, stating that Simpson should take new courage and reinstitute the reform. The writer ominously warned: “Whether or not you abolish it [the third tier], the time is not far distant when this will be done with or without your consent. . .. There are influences, powerful and strong, at work to abate this nuisance.”[74]

It appeared Hamilton’s prophecy would be fulfilled a year later when a group of New York City aldermen presented a study of the defects and deficiencies in the existing laws of the city. One of the deficiencies they mentioned was the failure to restrain theaters and others places of public amusement from admitting prostitutes. The aldermen followed this criticism with a suggested statute which said: “The keeper of any public theatre, circus, or other place of public amusement, who shall hereafter wilfully receive or allow any common prostitute to be placed anywhere among or in open view of the audience, shall, for each offence, forfeit the sum of $100 dollars.”[75] Although this proposed law was not as restrictive as some had hoped, it still failed to pass. Prostitutes continued to enjoy their own special section of theaters for many more years, but by the mid-1850s the practice had begun to decline, and by the 1880s the custom of the third tier was no longer commonly found in American theaters.[76]

A second and more significant unsuccessful legislative proposal concerning New York City prostitutes was the attempt to license and regulate the profession. This bold initiative reflected a general agreement that the laws to eradicate prostitution were ineffective, despite widespread disagreement as to the cause of this failure. Many felt that inadequate enforcement of existing laws had allowed prostitution to flourish in the community, while others felt it was useless to try to eradicate prostitution by compulsory legislation because, even if officials enforced prohibitory statutes, they only succeeded in driving prostitution into seclusion, or in removing the nuisance from the community temporarily. As one observer said: “No amount of imprisonment as a punishment ever yet reformed a prostitute, and it never will.”[77] Other critics pointed to the harmful effects of the prohibitory laws. Innumerable court cases had shown the potential of the laws to abuse the rights not only of prostitutes but of other women as well. Some even ques-


tioned whether prostitution was an offense against society serious enough to warrant arrest at all. Furthermore, laws which sentenced vagrants, whether prostitutes or indigents, to the penitentiary were detrimental because the so-called vagrants were returned to the penitentiary time and again for the same or more serious offenses “to keep company with thieves and felons and murderers, and, if there is a vice she is unskilled in, to learn its art and come back again, when the time of the commitment has expired, to practice it . . . proficient in crimes at which society trembles.”[78] Finally, some argued against prohibitory statutes because they believed prostitution was inevitable, and thus potentially controllable only through regulation or licensing.[79]

One of the first official suggestions for licensing was made by the Reorganization Report of the Board of Aldermen in 1844. As the report stated, it was a fact that houses of prostitution “exist in every large and commercial city, and cannot by any system of penal laws, be prevented.” The report also pointed out that many of esteemed reputation “favor the idea of licensing and regulating these establishments by law, and in some European Cities, this is practiced with success.”[80] The aldermen’s report approved licensing prostitution on the grounds that it was inevitable, but to sanction prostitution also might imply it was socially and morally non-destructive, an idea which New Yorkers could not accept. The report acknowledged that licensing prostitution would be “repugnant” to the social and moral principles of most of the community.

Three years after the aldermen’s report, the New York physician Charles Smith suggested an additional reason for regulating prostitution. Reiterating the opinion that prohibitory laws would not make society virtuous, he pointed out that some laws were necessary to protect society, especially from infectious diseases such as syphilis. This was one area where police could exert some control, he wrote, and he suggested the law should make having syphilis a misdemeanor—despite obvious political problems with defining, say, the wife of a philanderer as a criminal subject to punishment for having the disease. Dr. Smith noted that official regulation of prostitution had been successfully tried by European governments and should be considered by New Yorkers.[81]

The European system of regulation referred to by the aldermen and Smith was best known in France, which had a long history of attempts at controlling prostitution. Police supervision, official bordellos, peri-


odic medical examinations of prostitutes, and the enforced internment of the diseased in separate venereal hospitals were the basic elements of the French system of regulation, a system that had been adopted during the Napoleonic period. The results of this regulatory system were described by Parent-Duchatelet, the French demographer and sanitary investigator, in De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris (1836). Parent’s ideas had an impact on several public figures concerned with prostitution in New York City. William Sanger and City Inspector John Griscom both made references to Parent’s work in their studies of New York’s prostitution and poverty.[82] Viewing venereal disease as a major health problem, Sanger advocated regulation as the most effective means of controlling the spread of the disease. Sanger’s plan called for the establishment of a medical bureau within the police department. This bureau would be a partnership composed of medical men of “skill and integrity” whose work would be backed up by the authority of the police. There were three major features of Sanger’s proposal: the regular medical examination of prostitutes at known houses of prostitution with the immediate removal of those found to be diseased, the establishment of a special hospital for persons infected with venereal disease, and the granting of power to hospital officials to detain infected persons in the institution until such time as they were found to be cured. Sanger also suggested that houses of prostitution eventually might be confined to particular locations and speculated that the regulation system might be expanded to include specifications on the management of houses and the licensing of official brothels.

Sanger conceded there would be opposition to such a system by those who feared it would encourage lewdness through lessening the danger of infection, those who believed venereal disease was a special punishment of Providence, those who daily offered cures for the disease in the popular press, and those who objected to raising public revenues by licensing vice. Sanger countered these arguments by pointing out that, in addition to preserving public decency, regulation would help protect innocent wives and children who were often unsuspectingly diseased and deformed through no fault of their own. Sanger did not elaborate on how the regulation system would be able to include all women who engaged in prostitution but were not found in brothels or assignation houses, nor was he concerned with the fact that male clients of diseased prostitutes were not included in the plan.[83]


Although a system of regulation continued to be discussed by some New Yorkers, the idea was not advocated by lawmakers until a decade after Sanger made his plea. In 1867 the Assembly of the New York Legislature adopted a resolution requiring the metropolitan boards of police and health to furnish an opinion on the possible impact of prostitution regulation in New York City. The report of the boards’ research committee proposed that all keepers of houses of prostitution and assignation be registered with the police, that any women admitted to such houses be reported to the authorities, that both the houses and the prostitutes themselves be regularly inspected, that a special hospital be established for prostitutes, and that any medical facility receiving aid from the state be required to treat venereal disease. In 1868, the year following the committee’s report, a bill was introduced in the state legislature which embodied the main features of the report. This legislation was unsuccessful, but in 1871 another bill received strong lobbying support from members of the medical and public health fields. Its opponents included individuals who objected on grounds that the law would be licensing sin, and feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, who opposed the bill because they believed the law would discriminate against and violate the civil rights not only of prostitutes but of other women as well. They argued that any woman alone on the streets could be arrested and subjected to a medical examination under charges she was a prostitute. Even without such a regulation, New York women in the past had been forced to endure similar violations of their personal and civil rights, as Sanger had revealed concerning the women arrested under Mayor Wood’s “reform” program. Opponents believed that a legal empowerment to continue the practice would only exacerbate the problem. Although the 1871 bill passed both houses of the legislature, it was allowed to die by the governor’s failure to sign it.[84]

Again in 1875 a regulation bill was proposed as a means of reducing the increase of both crime and disease in New York City. This bill also was defeated because women’s rights groups continued to argue against the licensing system on the grounds that experience had shown that its inclusion of only a relatively small group of prostitutes would doom it to failure and because it unfairly exempted men from inspection and restraint. As in the past, groups such as the Moral Education Society of New York joined in opposing the measure because they believed it unacceptable to license immorality.[85]


Though regulatory measures were again advocated by official or public bodies in both 1876 and 1877, no legislation was adopted. By this time, the failure of the system of regulation in Europe and in one American city, St. Louis, was being publicized. Furthermore, opposition groups had become well organized in their attempts to prevent any further legislative efforts and had sensitized the public to the dubious aspects of the system. Gradually, the movement for legalizing prostitution in New York City died.[86]

That New Yorkers would neither license or regulate prostitution nor “decriminalize” the profession by repealing ineffective anti-prostitution laws that were blatantly discriminatory is indicative of the general public ambivalence about prostitution. Prostitutes continued to be harassed and abused by being shuttled in and out of court and jails throughout the period from 1830 to 1870, but without any significant impact on the overall practice of the profession. This revolving-door approach to prostitution appeared to satisfy nineteenth-century New Yorkers’ need to feel that public morality was being preserved and that the unrespectable classes of society were being kept under control. The gender and class biases of the justice system received few challenges. Certainly nowhere in the laws governing prostitution was there recognition of the fact that the prostitute had an equally culpable partner in her “crime.” As one observer has said, “prostitution is really the only crime in the penal law where two people are doing a thing mutually agreed upon and yet only one, the female partner, is subject to arrest.”[87] That some could have argued that prostitution was a “victimless crime,” or more properly a “complainantless crime,” was irrelevant. Prostitution statutes remained firmly based on a sexual double standard that punished the female only. Moreover, the sexual bias of the legal system was equally evident in New Yorkers’ approach to juvenile justice. An overwhelming number of the delinquent females arrested and sent to the House of Refuge in the mid-nineteenth century were committed for immoral conduct offenses. Case histories repeatedly note that juvenile female offenders were arrested because they “stayed out all night with boys,” yet there are no cases of juvenile boys being arrested and committed to the Refuge for “staying out all night with girls.” As one commentator has observed,

The actual situation in the city is that prostitution is accepted by everyone— police, judges, [court] clerks, and lawyers. Arrest and prosecution are purely gestures that have to be made to keep up the facade of public morality. The method of dealing with it is simply a form of harassment, not a form of


prevention, abolition, or punishment. There is no conviction at any level that prostitution is a crime on anyone’s part, only a total and satisfied acceptance of the double standard, excusing the male, accusing the female.[88]

This assessment was made in the 1970s, not the 1800s, but it is equally descriptive of circumstances a century earlier—making a significant statement about the ineffectiveness of the justice system in confronting the legal abuses surrounding prostitution.[89]

Although the double standard inherent in the anti-prostitution laws was never directly challenged in any major way in the nineteenth century, the concept did receive an indirect challenge through the campaign for laws to punish the offenses of seduction and adultery. Seduction was a civil offense in the early decades of the century, but to make a successful seduction case the plaintiff had to be someone other than the seduced. If the case was won, the plaintiff, usually a parent or guardian, was awarded a financial settlement for “loss of services.” The seduced was not allowed to seek justice or restitution for a wrong done to her but was “objectified,” technically becoming another’s chattel or plaything. Critics of the law felt it was an outrage because it required that a “woman must acknowledge herself the servant of somebody, who may claim wages for her lost time!”[90] Furthermore, charges could be difficult to prove if a defendant challenged the character of the woman who allegedly was seduced; the burden of proof then lay with the woman, who had to counter any suspicions that she might be unchaste.[91]

Women could be charged with seducing men during the early decades of the century, when prostitutes were viewed as “victimizers of morally upright men.” The aforementioned Eliza Smith, who had been warned by police that complaints would be made against her brothel if she again admitted the son of a certain respectable family, was charged under the seduction statute in the mid-1830s. Although there is no evidence Smith readmitted the young man, she later did stand as a witness when he and a prostitute were married at a minister’s house. The angry father instituted a suit against Smith for recovery of damages for harboring and aiding in the seduction of his son.[92]

By the late 1830s, some male biases of the socio-legal system were being challenged by supporters of the moral reform movement, whose anger over the unfairness of the sexual double standard led to a campaign for laws that would impose criminal penalties on male seducers. Citizens were encouraged to write letters and organize petitions to send to the


state capital. By 1840, 20,000 petitions had been sent to the New York legislature, 5,000 from New York City alone. A seduction and adultery bill was reported in the legislature that year but was not acted upon.[93] Throughout the 1840s debate continued over tougher laws against seduction and adultery, and the issue became a topic in the popular press. Major newspapers such as the Tribune , the Herald , and the Sun supported the drive for stricter legislation and helped coalesce public opinion into a sympathetic stance for women who had been seduced, even those who were prostitutes. A focal point in the debate was the trial of Amelia Norman, alias Lydia Brown, who was charged with stabbing her seducer, Henry S. Ballard, on the steps of the Astor House Hotel.

Norman described herself as twenty-five years old, a native of New Jersey, and “a dressmaker by profession which I follow for a living.”[94] According to the Herald , Norman had been courted by Ballard and then seduced. She had given birth to one of his children and aborted another with the help of Madame Restelle, the famous abortionist. Ballard had then left her without means for thirteen months while he was on a trip to London and on his return had refused to see her. The editor of the Herald called Norman’s story the “most heart rending history that ever was read or conceived” and described Ballard as “one of those worthy, honorable, moral men who are continually prowling about our large cities in pursuit of such friendless, unprotected girls as this unfortunate Amelia Norman.”[95]

Court testimony verified that Norman had unsuccessfully attempted to speak to Ballard on several occasions. Ballard’s brother Francis testified that several months before the stabbing, Norman had come to their home and, when told she could not see Ballard, had threatened that she “was determined to ruin him, and if she could not do it in one way she would do it in another, and that she would either send him to the Devil or to Hell.” Francis Ballard responded that if she tried to see his brother again “he would send her to the Tombs or Halls of Justice.”[96] Henry Ballard testified that Norman had threatened to take his life on several previous occasions. He said that on the evening of the assault Norman had followed him down the street, unsuccessfully attempting to talk to him before she “assaulted him with intent to kill” as he was entering the Astor Hotel.

The prosecutor described Norman as a prostitute and denied that Ballard had seduced her, though he argued that even if he had, seduction


was no justification for her act. He remarked that if the accused were acquitted, “12,000 women living by prostitution in the city . . . would be licensed to commit murder.”[97] Several witnesses testified to seeing the wounded Ballard fall on the hotel steps, and one witness said that he had taken the knife from the hand of Norman. After eight minutes of deliberation, the jury found Norman not guilty and acquitted her of the crime. The speed with which the jury made its decision and the decision itself were indicative of much public sympathy for Norman’s case, even though she was believed to be a prostitute, and of a desire to see women as victims given greater protection.

Throughout the trial the press took strong stands in support of seduction legislation. “Let seduction be at once made a state prison offense,” argued the Herald . “Talk of a civil prosecution for damages! It is an insulting mockery—mockery of justice—of morality—of right.”[98] However, after such a short jury deliberation and the acquittal of Norman the Herald questioned whether or not law had been perfectly satisfied, and said it was an “evil day if claims of justice are decided by feelings.”[99] Nevertheless, the Herald continued to advocate making seduction a penal offense so that men such as Ballard would not be made “the occasional victim to satisfy public indignation.”[100] The Herald supported its stand by printing letters from the public such as the one that stated: “Seduction, of all crimes, is the greatest. . .. Murder, I consider far inferior in point of criminality. Murder kills but the body— but seduction kills both body and soul forever.”[101]

Several bills on seduction and adultery were unsuccessfully brought before the legislature, including one that mandated three years’ imprisonment for seduction, and twelve months’ imprisonment for each offense of adultery.[102] Groups of women from New York City as well as other cities traveled to Albany to lobby for the legislation, exerting relentless pressure on the lawmakers. A few lone voices questioned whether the laws on licentiousness ought not to provide for the equal punishment of females, but there was no following for this point of view. Finally, in 1848 the Act to Punish Seduction as a Crime passed the legislature. It stipulated that “any man who shall under promise of marriage seduce and have illicit connection with any unmarried female of previous chaste character shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be punished by imprisonment.”[103] Though the law had been reformed, and a seducer now could be sent to jail, the protection


of the law had not really been extended, especially not for a woman believed to be a prostitute. A line had been drawn between the chaste and the unchaste, thus eliminating the prostitute from claims under the law unless she could prove that the act of seduction was the cause of her “downhill course.” Like the old law, the new statute excluded the prostitute from the purview of legal protection because she was perceived to be outside the “circle”—which was basically the family circle—of those the law intended to protect. Nineteenth-century patriarchal attitudes were so antithetical to women protecting themselves that even the reformed law made any successful prosecution rely on the actions and testimony of the woman’s “protectors.” Prostitutes were not considered under the law, less because of the illegality of their profession than because they composed a female subgroup which was not familial and thus was outside the protection of the law.

Nevertheless, to a few males the seduction debate and the Norman trial appeared to be enough of a threat to encourage precautions in consorting with prostitutes. A Brooklyn lawyer was arrested and brought to court for seducing a young woman in New York City. He won his case by producing affidavits that had been signed earlier by the woman, Mary Ann Coyle, admitting she was a common prostitute. Whether or not Coyle had been a prostitute prior to the court hearing is unknown, but records show that a year and a half later a Mary Ann Cole was arrested with a group of five prostitutes during a raid on a neighboring house. Regardless of her background, the lawyer had been shrewd enough to protect himself from seduction charges.[104]

Although seduction became a criminal offense, it does not seem to have been used much as grounds for legal action. Six months after the bill was passed the Police Gazette pointed out that no convictions had been made under the law, and the community wanted its repeal. According to the paper, the law was encouraging perjuries and conspiracies to extort money, and the public was disgusted with the kind of revelations it caused. In the two years following the law’s adoption there were a total of four arrests for seduction and four for attempted seduction.[105] There is no indication that any prostitutes pressed charges under the statute, no doubt because most were realistic enough to know they had little chance of a successful prosecution and would only jeopardize future business by attempting to use the protection of the law. In spite of the extensive public debate and much publicity on the


seduction issue, it appears attitudes did not change much, if at all. In 1858 William Sanger was still echoing the same lament voiced in the 1830s and 1840s. Under the existing state of public sentiment, he complained, “the seducer is allowed to go unpunished, and the full measure of retribution is directed against his victim. . .. Legal enactments can scarcely ever reach them, although sometimes a poor man without friends or money is indicted and convicted.”[106]

In terms of statutory law, prostitutes were victims of a system whose patriarchal assumptions left them, as a female subgroup, almost wholly unprotected, subject to the random whims and power of males in general and legal officers in particular. The vagrancy act especially, which was used so readily against prostitutes and subjected them to punishment virtually without regard for procedural protections, defined the “crime” at issue not as illicit sex trade but as being female, poor, and without a male protector. What allowed prostitutes to function reasonably effectively in this period was that while New York City moved into a more urbanized and impersonalized era, the common customs and values of the community retained enough strength to avert the full intent of legalized male domination. As will be illustrated more fully in the next chapter, arbitrary as the system was, it was a great benefit in general to prostitutes because the customs of the community were more flexible and more respectful of women as individuals (as well as of men as sexual animals) than the high moralism of the period, which always retreated toward its patriarchal roots and prejudices when pushed toward law.


Notorious Defenders
Prostitutes Using the Law

While walking down Broadway, Catherine Wilson, who said she had a good memory for faces, recognized a man she had met five or six months earlier in a prostitution establishment in Orange Street. The man had stolen her watch, beaded bag, handkerchief, pocket book, and ivory rule. Wilson approached the man, made a citizen’s arrest, and escorted him to the police station. At the station, Wilson filed a charge of theft, and the man was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for six months.[1] Although Wilson’s assertiveness may have been notable, her confidence as a citizen, working with legal authorities, was not unusual for a nineteenth-century prostitute. Because they worked their trade outside the law, prostitutes were always vulnerable to arrest and to abuse and harassment from officials, patrons, rowdies, and the public. Many of them suffered repeated legal indignities, difficulties they accepted as part of the profession, but many, like Wilson, also found ways to deal with the legal system and even to work the system effectively to their own advantage.

Prostitutes and Law Enforcers

The biggest factor in determining the impact of laws on the prostitute was her relationship with law enforcers, especially with the


police officers on the street, who represented law-enforcement authority at the level with which the prostitute had the most day-to-day contact. In most cases it was the local police who determined whether a prostitute was to be recognized as such, was breaking the law and should be arrested, or was inoffensive and could operate free of legal interference.

New York was not a well-policed city in the nineteenth century, and twentieth-century notions of police professionalism are distant from the police organization that prostitutes of the time encountered in New York City. For the first few decades of the century, New Yorkers were still close enough to the period of British rule to be suspicious of any form of “military” authority or control in their communities, so they rejected the idea of a well-organized permanent police force. Citizens preferred to depend on police supervision that was casual and sporadic and that was supplied by fellow members of the local community. The result was an inefficient but very personalized form of law enforcement, where many decisions involving conflicts between prescribed law and local customs and communal attitudes were left to the discretion of the neighborhood police. Police discretion defined who was deviant and how deviants should be controlled, and this discretion involved discrimination in the form of selective law enforcement. Thus, nineteenth-century New Yorkers’ desire for a limited formal institutional police power resulted in an unchecked informal discretionary police power.[2]

Although by 1830 New York’s population and urban problems had increased to the point that many New Yorkers felt that the social controls of a stable society had broken down in many areas of the city, police organization remained much as it had been in the late eighteenth century. Officials such as the mayor, high constable, constables, marshals, and night watch all bore some responsibility for the police protection of the community, as did members of the Common Council and police justices. The mayor was the chief police officer, taking charge at fires, riots, and other breaches of the peace. Constables were elected from each ward annually. It was not always easy to find people who were willing to undertake the arduous duties of the constable’s job, but any citizen who refused to accept his election as constable was fined. Occasionally, someone could be found who was eager to serve because of the fees that could be earned or the power conferred by the office. Marshals were appointed by the mayor and held office at his pleasure. Both constables and marshals had the common law duties and powers


of peace or police officers, but they did not wear uniforms or carry identifying badges or emblems. They did not receive regular salaries but were compensated by fees for services performed according to a schedule established by the state legislature. Critics of this form of job compensation argued that police officers devoted their time to what was likely to earn the largest fees, not to what was most important, that they made unnecessary arrests of the poor and powerless to collect fees, and that honest officers often earned very little money under the system.[3]

Night watchmen, who patrolled the city at night, did not have police powers and could arrest free from reprisal only if a crime were committed before their eyes or if they were acting under the direction of a police officer. By 1830 there were 512 watchmen in New York, who were paid on a per diem basis; shifts were arranged so that watchmen could also hold daytime jobs, with the result that only 128 of them, one-fourth of the force, were on the streets at any one time. The pay for watchmen ranged from 75 cents to 87-1/2 cents per night. Watchmen owed their appointment and tenure in office to the mayor, aldermen, and assistant aldermen, who competed over the years for power in controlling this valuable patronage. The watch was an ancient institution, as its long history (and the age of its members) attested, but it did not have much prestige since many thought it inadequate and its members incompetent. Watchmen wore leather helmets while on duty and were thus derisively known as leatherheads. If a watchman’s helmet was taken from his head twice while asleep on duty, he was to be dismissed. Citizens often joked, “While the city sleeps, the watchmen do too,” a jibe borne out by statistics. Men chosen for the watch were often of a low caliber, people who had few other means of earning a living.[4]

Between 1830 and 1845, a marked upsurge in crime, vice, and disorder plus the model of the recently restructured more “professional” London police force spurred efforts to provide a similar police organization for New York City. The number of complaints entered at the police courts in 1835 was 10,168, more than five times the number that had been recorded three decades before. All citizens worried about the growth in violent crimes, and moralists complained about the great increase in the crimes of prostitution, gambling, and intoxication. In 1835 there were almost 3,000 licensed drinking places in New York City, a ratio of one for every fifty persons in the city over the age of fifteen. Riots also greatly increased in the 1830s; there were so many in


1834 alone that it was long remembered in New York City history as the year of riots. At riots in both 1834 and 1835, local law enforcement officials were unable to suppress rioters, a failure that led the mayor to call in the militia. These outbreaks dramatically highlighted the weakness of the city police force.[5]

In the decade and a half after 1830 citizens also worried about the potential for corruption by police. Police appointments were regarded as patronage plums, and thus any changes in the party in power meant an influx of inexperienced men. Policemen were considered entrepreneurs more than public servants, in a system with many openings for bribery and not many rewards for diligence. Reliance on fees rather than salaries was an evil that had grown over the years; in cases involving stolen property, for example, officers were not overly concerned about apprehending offenders, since recovering the property for rewards was far more lucrative. Some New Yorkers believed that police officers made deals with criminals in which the thieves turned over stolen property in exchange for being set free. The competitiveness of the fee system also discouraged cooperation among police officers in the apprehension of offenders. A policeman received 50 cents for each unlawful citizen committed to jail, a seemingly small sum but one that was equal to two-thirds of a watchman’s nightly pay.[6]

Between 1830 and 1845 there were a number of formal proposals for reforming the police, but political parties’ competition for control of the police as patronage prevented innumerable plans from being adopted. Finally, a reorganization and reform of the New York City police was accomplished in May 1845 by a bill passed in the state legislature and endorsed by the Common Council. Two of the major reforms were the abolishment of most of the existing police offices, with all police functions to be performed by a new “Day and Night Police,” and the elimination of the fee payment system by the establishment of set salaries. Although the new plan provided for a better organized and unified police structure, the force retained its “political” orientation because policemen of all ranks were appointed by elected officials. The reform established the basic structure of the New York police for the rest of the century, though some changes were made over the years. In 1857 the city police force was put under the auspices of the state legislature, remaining in the state’s control until home rule was once again established in 1870.[7]


New York City’s personalized and localized form of law enforcement gave the prostitute the opportunity to establish a working relationship with local law enforcers and reduced the likelihood of a large, citywide vice structure that might victimize the prostitute. As vagrancy and disorderly persons cases make clear, the police arrested and jailed prostitutes under the law, but their toughest enforcement seemed directed more at the poor and less “established” streetwalkers than at prostitutes living in neighborhood brothels. Distressed citizens charged that prostitution was allowed to exist because police received monetary payoffs from brothel operators. In the spring of 1844, when pressure was strong for a police reform, the Tribune ran an expose by a writer called “L” on the corruption of the police. The article claimed that thieves, harlots, and other depredators paid off public officials to avoid prosecution.[8] It is likely that some prostitutes were permitted to work in a neighborhood because of payoffs or bribes to police, but, other than public complaints about suspected bribes, there is no evidence that an extensive system of prostitution payoffs existed in the early and middle part of the century. Theoretically, if a policeman collected a bribe for leaving a prostitute alone in the years before police reform, he would then have few other opportunities to collect scheduled fees for legal proceedings against that prostitute. It is more likely that individual prostitutes paid to be kept out of jail after being arrested so that an officer who arrested a prostitute might get a bribe for dropping the charges. If there were a time when brothels paid for protection, it was probably after 1845 when police salaries replaced the fee system—even though salaries were supposed to eliminate police corruption which many believed was caused by the fee system.

Historians have often mentioned payoff practices in the antebellum period but have not clearly documented them. Some have cited as evidence for payoffs the legal system of fees and fines that existed before the police department was restructured. Aside from misconstruing the fee system, however, sufficient documentation has not been presented and examples typically are cited from the post-Civil War era. One contemporary with firsthand knowledge, former police chief George Walling, wrote in the 1880s that police blackmailed poor prostitutes, and he argued that a policy of segregating prostitutes in specified sections of the city would help prevent this practice. Walling did not state if his claims of blackmail applied to the earlier period as well as the 1870s and


1880s, nor did he state how widespread the practice was.[9] Available evidence suggests that the systematic and organized control of commercialized sex through payoffs was not characteristic of New York City until the last quarter of the nineteenth century.[10]

Most sources indicate that prostitutes and prostitution houses were allowed to operate in local neighborhoods because law officers did not perceive them to be “criminal” or a major problem in the community. The women managing and living in these houses were treated as neighborhood citizens operating local businesses, unless their establishments became too disorderly.[11] In 1849 Samuel Prime noted that “nice” houses were protected by the police and even were allowed to exist “next door to police stations,” a reference to the brothel of Kate Hastings at SO Leonard Street, next door to the fifth ward station house.[12] Thus, prostitutes associated with police officials as members of a local neighborhood, and they established a working relationship with law enforcers because their professions interfaced in several ways. Prostitutes were a source of official fees for legal actions taken on their behalf, such as arresting rowdy guests or serving processes, and prostitutes also gave police payments or “tips” for other types of services performed, such as recovering stolen property or helping in various private matters. Whereas prostitutes might have resented a payoff system as harassment, they could regard fees and tips for services as positive rewards for assisting them. Furthermore, prostitutes often furnished information to officials about investigations or other police business, and in some cases the association of prostitutes and police even reached a “friendship” level.[13]

The working relationship between prostitutes and law enforcement officials was brought to the public’s attention during the Jewett murder trial in 1836. Officer Dennis Brink, who had arrested the suspect the morning after the murder, testified in court about the nature of his relationship with Rosina Townsend, the madam for whom Jewett had worked. Brink pointed out that he had known Townsend for three years, had been in her brothel about six times, but had not been there as a client or as a participant in a card game. He had served processes against Townsend’s boarders and against her servants on different occasions, and he had received the regular fees for these services. One of the processes he served had been against a boarder for assault and battery. Brink also had been summoned on several occasions when there were disturbances in the house, but the rioters had always dispersed before he arrived. He


stated he had never paid Townsend money, but she “may” have paid him for legal fees or costs or for serving processes for her. Brink and several other officers had been paid $5 each for helping with Townsend’s household sale a month before, but he denied that he had received two vases free from Townsend at the sale. Defense counsel Ogden Hoffman quizzed Brink on whether he had ever received money from Townsend for speaking on her behalf to the district attorney, or if he had ever gone to the district attorney to intercede on Townsend’s behalf in regard to an indictment pending against her. When Brink said he could not remember, Hoffman asked him to name the district attorney at the time of the case in question. Brink answered that it had been Hoffman.

Hoffman then questioned Brink’s involvement with other prostitutes. Brink acknowledged that on several occasions he had received money from Mrs. Berry for services rendered in suppressing troubles at her brothel, and he estimated the payments to have been approximately $1 each time. He also acknowledged receiving money from a gentleman for settling a case that was pending in the Court of General Sessions against two prostitutes who had torn the clothing of a third prostitute.[14]

Although Brink appears to have had frequent involvement with prostitutes, his actions were not always on their behalf. In several cases brought before the Court of General Sessions, Brink had been the officer on duty who brought charges against a house of prostitution, and on one occasion Brink brought charges of assault and battery against a prostitute, Margaret Ryerson, for “violently seizing hold of him and tearing his shirt while in the execution of his duty” at her disorderly house.[15]

Police often testified alongside prostitutes in court trials, especially in cases of divorce, since adultery was the major grounds for divorce. A policeman usually was asked to verify that a female witness was a prostitute because of his knowledge of her or her house, and this testimony almost always indicated that the police had had amicable relationships with the prostitute. In the 1852 divorce trial of Edwin and Catherine Forrest, eleven active or former policemen were called to testify about Caroline Ingersoll, who had operated several assignation or prostitution boarding houses in the city. Policeman Lorenzo Savage testified he had been to Ingersoll’s house before with two other policemen, and he said that he “did not stay but they did.” Officer Jacob Carlock noted that he knew Ingersoll because he lived up the street as a neighbor, and he gave descriptions of the types of men and women


who entered and left her residence. Another officer, Augustus Goodrich, said he had only been to Ingersoll’s once as a policeman, but since he was a cabinetmaker by trade, he had done a few carpentry jobs for her there.[16]

In the case of Mary Fowler, who was charged with operating a disorderly house, one ward captain and four other policemen testified indirectly on Fowler’s behalf. All of the officers were acquainted with her and admitted to seeing men and women going in and out of her house as late as 3 A.M ., but none of them “knew” if it was a disorderly house, and none had ever “seen anything improper there.” In summarizing the case, the presiding judge pointed out the obvious by noting that disorderly houses “exist in all parts of the city, . . . even the most respectable neighborhoods, and are indirectly countenanced by the police.”[17]

Evidence of the close association of legal officials and prostitutes in the day-to-day investigations of the police is found in the diary of Robert Taylor, a police justice for eight years who had earlier served as a captain of the watch. In the early 1840s, Taylor had played an active role in pushing for police reform, and after the adoption of the reorganization plan in 1845 he had prepared the manual for the new force.[18] In his advice to police, Taylor, advocating an active, investigative force over a responsive one, wrote: “The prevention of crime being the most important object in view, your exertions must be constantly used to that end.”[19]

The year and a half of entries in Taylor’s diary indicate that he viewed himself as an investigator as well as a judge, actively pursuing wrongdoers and seeking their punishment. The diary catalogues his dealings with thieves, gamblers, drunks, liquor dealers, and prostitutes. The prostitutes with whom he worked, however, were regarded not as law violators but rather as neighborhood resources for his investigations. Nor did Taylor consider himself corrupt in any way for not interfering with the prostitution operations. He mentioned having seen a daybook and register that “gave proof that corruption exists to an alarming extent with many officials connected with the administration of criminal law in the city,” but he obviously did not regard his own relations with prostitutes in this category.

Taylor recorded over fifty routine visits to brothels. His references include names of twenty-five different prostitutes, six of whom are


mentioned from three to six times each. Taylor always took one or more companions on his brothel visits—as co-investigators, as voyeurs, or possibly as witnesses to protect his reputation.[20] Taylor went to the brothels seeking information on cases involving divorce, death, abortion, counterfeiting, or theft, but he also noted that on one occasion he took Justice Ketchum for a tour because Ketchum had never visited a brothel before. After seeing what went on in eleven different brothels, Ketchum apparently was fascinated enough to return with Taylor on another evening that included visits to nine brothels.

In most cases the prostitutes appear to have been very cooperative in helping Taylor or in giving him information. Taylor made return visits to those houses where the women were most cooperative, such as the brothel of Adeline Miller on Church Street. In one instance, however, Miller refused to help get information for Taylor because he was investigating her son, Nelson, who had taken a shawl from his own wife. Apparently, Miller felt comfortable enough with her relationship with Taylor to refuse to help him instead of claiming she had no knowledge of the affair. When Miller would not help, Taylor persuaded another woman in the house to assist in locating the shawl, and she later notified Taylor where it had been pawned.

While Taylor was at church one day, a woman called at his home, a visitor he assumed to be prostitute Fanny White, who had promised the night before to get some information for him. That White would make a Sunday morning visit to his house did not appear to surprise or embarrass Taylor.[21]

Establishing a working relationship with a law officer was obviously to the advantage of a prostitute: it allowed her to operate freely in a neighborhood and gave her a contact on the police force in case customers, boarders, or rowdies caused problems in her brothel. Adeline Furman, alias Adeline Miller, summoned the watch to her Elm Street brothel because four men were being disorderly and refused to leave. Officer Harvey forcibly evicted them and ordered them to “be peaceable and go away.” The men still lingered outside the house, threatened to prosecute Harvey, and told him it was “a damned shame a watchman should receive pay for protecting whore houses.” Harvey then arrested and brought charges against the four men.[22]

Even if a police officer or watchman acted against a prostitute’s interests and arrested her, the New York City legal and court system


provided her with ways to avoid further legal restraints. Police justices, or magistrates, presided over police court, the first level of administration of the criminal justice system. Before 1848 justices were appointed to office, and after that date they were elected, thus involving them even more in the partisan politics of the city. Few, if any, of the police justices had legal training, and they conducted their courts with little regard for the niceties of legal procedure.

Aldermen and assistant aldermen were elected representatives from each ward to the city council, or Common Council, and they, with the mayor, had the power to make appointments to the police force. Aldermen also possessed magistrates’ powers, and many used this power to hold court in the station houses. Thus, a policeman might arrest a prostitute, and an alderman or magistrate could release the prisoner without any sort of hearing. An 1853 law modified this practice by no longer allowing aldermen to bail or discharge persons committed by other magistrates, but aldermen retained the right of releasing a prisoner before a magistrate had committed her or him, and they could also release a prisoner between the time of arrest and an appearance before a magistrate. Although the concurrent jurisdiction of the legal system lowered the morale of court officials, since they could countermand each other’s authority, it offered prostitutes alternatives for escaping the heavy hand of the law—alternatives they apparently used to their advantage.[23]

The Advocate of Moral Reform frequently voiced complaints about the close relationships between prostitutes and officials. The paper reported that an attractive prostitute from ward five, mother of two children, had sneered at the reformers’ threat that the law would root out her vice, and she informed them that “men of the first distinction in the city are the ones who pour from $50 to $400 a week into her treasury.” The prostitute told reformers that a judge had offered his name and money if she ever needed it. The reformers further confirmed their suspicions of collusion between prostitutes and officials when two prostitutes and two men were seen walking from the noted brothel of Patience Berger to the home of a judge not far away. In the period before restrictions were put on aldermen’s judicial powers, the Police Gazette reported an incident in which a sixth ward alderman came with two friends to the station house to order the release of two prostitutes. Because he was drunk, the police locked him up, a response to his


disorderly behavior as well as a possible indication of their resentment of the alderman’s power to countermand their orders. The press also reported the case of Mary Berry’s husband, Francis, who was charged with robbing a man in their Duane Street brothel. Berry offered to return one-third of the “booty” knowing, according to the Advocate , that the law usually required the return of much less. The judge refused the offer, but Berry’s bail was immediately provided by an ex-alderman.[24]

Samuel Prime also noted the tolerance of legal officials for prostitutes and their close association with the women in neighborhoods: “Hundreds of [disorderly] houses close by the houses of our magistrates spread their allurements before the eyes of our youth and tempt them into the vortex of hell, and the shield of law protects the portal, though all that enter, enter to be damned.”[25] At times, however, the close association or neighborhood proximity of prostitutes and officials could cause strain. One of the houses owned by Adeline Miller and managed by a Mrs. Brown backed up to the house of Alderman Erben. As disturbances at the brothel became more frequent, the Erbens became more annoyed because, whenever watchmen were called to Brown’s house, the riotous parties “effected their escape by taking the liberty of scaling the Alderman’s fence, rushing through his hall, and making their exit at his front door.” Finally after one of these late-night “unannounced visits,” the Sun reported that Erben “had the inmates of the house all removed to the watch house,” in the hope of breaking up the “nest of prostitution and iniquity, which he has so long tolerated directly under his own magisterial nose.”[26]

The result of New York City’s localized and personalized law enforcement was that it was selective, supporting both discretion and discrimination on the part of officials. Prostitutes understood this and hoped that either a lack of true concern or leniency by officials would allow them to escape harassment, arrest, or punishment. Sometimes prostitutes found that policemen’s actions crossed the boundary between law enforcement and abuse. Elizabeth Dairey, sent to the Tombs for stealing, reported she had been kicked by an officer. Others noted incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. Emeline Frisby, a black woman who worked in a “house of polluted reputation” in Reed Street, was arrested and put in prison for taking $164 from her “sister.” The Sun reported that officers had “compelled” Frisby to strip and submit to a “considerable search.” Mary Moore, from a brothel in Broome Street,


filed charges against watchman John Ostrander for entering her room and attacking her while she was asleep. He was tried but discharged by the jury. Another prostitute from the late 1860s reported she had been taken to an oyster house by an officer who then raped her and threatened to send her to prison if she told.[27] Though some policemen may have believed that a woman in the “unlawful sex trade” was fair game for whatever treatment they meted out, their abuse also may have reflected a disdain toward those prostitutes and other women who were poor and at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy.

The police were not completely insensitive to prostitutes in the lowest echelons of the trade, however. Many “down and out” prostitutes who felt they could no longer support themselves in prostitution turned to policemen for shelter, food, and medical assistance. There are a number of cases where prostitutes came to police asking to be sent to the penitentiary because they had been turned out of their brothels, had nowhere to go, or were sick and needed medical help. One twenty-three-year-old woman, who said she had been in the profession since she was a child, was committed to prison after having been out of the penitentiary only three days. When given a six-month sentence, she expressed her gratitude and said she would gladly take another six months at the end of her term. In 1850 the Herald reported the death of seventy-year-old “English Nance,” who had been mentioned in the press for decades and who, at a much earlier age, was said to have had the extraordinary strength to be able to “beat off half a dozen officers attempting to arrest her.” After reaching middle age, or for the last thirty years, the Herald noted that she had been a constant visitor in prison, “averaging more than half her time there.”[28] “Jail as home” was not an unusual choice for these women. There were few public agencies at the time, other than the police, who would have assisted these women in any meaningful way because, on the whole, public assistance was sparingly supplied to anyone in need, prostitute or not. Furthermore, while some might interpret their seeking out law enforcers and imprisoners as a perverse form of psychological dependency, it is also possible that previous interaction with police had established that they could respond to the necessities and limited options of unfortunate prostitutes as well as, if not better than, anyone else in the community. Both familiarity with the police station and personal interaction with legal


officials may have made the police the community agency with which many prostitutes interacted most comfortably.

In spite of some examples of police discrimination and abuse, New York’s law enforcement system based on officers’ personal discretion enabled prostitutes and other law violators to manipulate the system to their benefit. In a letter to Governor Fish in November 1849, New York City Judge J. W. Edmonds complained that “police magistrates and aldermen discharge at pleasure even after conviction anyone with influence enough to procure discharge.”[29] This influence occurred in many forms. Usually it was helpful if a prostitute came from one of the “better” brothels. Emma Place, alias Allen, was arrested for robbing a man of $40 while he was at Jenny Sweet’s well-known brothel on Church Street, but the justice at her arraignment dismissed the case after she claimed that the complainant was drunk when the alleged robbery occurred. Prostitutes also resorted to the use of monetary rewards to create influence. An example of such a case involved a prostitute who was arrested and sent to jail for assaulting a gentleman while he was with his family at the theater. According to the Tribune , the woman was freed after only a few days’ confinement because she distributed $25 among the police officers.[30] The Herald reported influence of a different kind in a case involving two third ward prostitutes who were arrested for soliciting. One, Kitty Bracket, was described as very ugly, while the other, Emma Howard, was said to be very attractive and well built. Howard’s good looks elicited much comment among policemen at the stationhouse but did not prevent the captain from locking her up in the cell next to Bracket. During the night Howard requested a drink of water and was said to be safely in her cell, but by morning she had managed to escape while friend Kitty was sent on to Blackwell’s Island. The Herald commented that those “who knew more of human nature and the power of a pretty woman” were not astonished by the miraculous escape.[31]

Kate Ridgley was another woman who understood that the power of a pretty woman and friendly relations could be factors in a court case. Ridgley, “a dashing looking woman,” managed a house at 78 Duane called the “palace of mirrors,” which was said to have sixty superbly furnished rooms. Ridgley filed a complaint against two “sporting men” who visited her house and “alarmed her boarders” by threatening to


damage her furniture. She took her case before the mayor to have a decision rendered, bringing along with her six “very fine looking young witnesses” who were “decked out in the tip of the fashion with silks, satin and jewelry.” These witnesses “were seated near the mayor, to be called upon in order to substantiate the accusations.” The defendants shrewdly hired a well-known political figure to protest their innocence, and even though the mayor found the two men guilty, he demanded only that they each post $100 bail to keep the peace. Ridgley seemed satisfied with the decision, and she and her boarders, “after chatting a little while with some of their old friends, left the office for the quiet of home.”[32]

If a prostitute failed to be shown leniency by police, aldermen, or justices, she had one final recourse if her case went to trial: the jury. In describing prostitution and disorderly house cases in the 1850s, Chief of Police George Walling wrote that “as a general rule, juries have something almost amounting to an aversion to convict in such cases, and especially is this so when the jury is made up largely of elderly men; they seem to sympathize, strangely enough, with the elegantly accoutred and apparently repentant Delilah, who sometimes sheds ‘crocodile’ tears, or else looks as prim and demure as a Puritan maiden fresh from the Mayflower.”[33]

Given the informal and personal nature of New York City’s law enforcement in the mid-nineteenth century, it is understandable that prostitutes would view law enforcement officials as more important than the law itself in the functioning of their daily lives. Officials decided whether the prostitute faced restrictions or freedom, punishment or accommodation, censure or camaraderie. The discretion allowed legal officials in the execution of their duties could mean a prostitute would be sent to the penitentiary for six months with little or no regard for legal due process or her individual rights, or it might mean she could operate her business in a neighborhood with little interference because she used working relationships, sympathy, personal and sexual favors, or monetary rewards to accomplish this end. Prostitutes understood that their well-being often depended on tenuous and unequal relationships with law enforcement officials. Nevertheless, many nineteenth-century prostitutes effectively avoided the punishments of the legal system and openly and smoothly practiced their profession by a tactful manipulation of the personalism of the system.


Prostitutes As Legal Citizens

No aspect of a prostitute’s life indicated more clearly her integration into the mainstream of New York City life and her confidence in that position than did her participation as a citizen in the municipal and judicial processes of the city. Prostitutes accepted the fact that they had to work around the legal strictures of their society, but they also believed they were entitled to certain rights and privileges as members of the community. Prostitutes expected the municipal government to defend their interests and protect their persons and property. When they, their possessions, or their brothels were threatened, prostitutes called the watch, pressed charges, and gave court testimony against their aggressors. In defending their interests, prostitutes were not afraid of being highly visible or of taking public action against another party because they viewed themselves as a part of the public citizenry, not as legal deviants who must function outside the established system.

Besides bringing their own suits against individuals in the courts, prostitutes also were called upon to participate in legal hearings or public inquiries. Sometimes prostitutes were required to give information at inquests into the death of a friend, coworker, or patron, and at other times they were subpoenaed to testify as witnesses in divorce hearings. Although a husband’s association with a prostitute proved he had violated a legally endorsed trust and must suffer the consequences, no questions were raised nor prosecutions made over the prostitute’s participation in an activity that was supposedly prohibited by law.

Finally, just as serving as a public witness at an inquest or trial was a civic obligation assumed by prostitutes, so too was the payment of taxes on their real and personal property. Prostitutes were assessed on their assets like other citizens, and like others, they readily challenged their tax assessments when they believed they were too high.

A year in the life of Kate Hastings suggests the variety of ways a prostitute might interact with the court system and public officials. A native of New Hampshire, Hastings began her New York career in prostitution in 1845 when she went to work in Sarah Tuttle’s Leonard Street brothel next door to the fifth ward station house. This brothel was familiar not only to the neighboring law enforcers but also to Justice


Robert Taylor, who in his diary mentions visiting it several times. Hastings took over management of Tuttle’s brothel in 1848 and purchased the property from Tuttle two years later. Following the purchase of the brothel, Hastings went before the tax assessor to have her personal property holdings “sworn off” the tax roll, since she apparently had used her personal assets in purchasing the real estate property.[34] Hastings’s appeal before the tax assessor was at least the fifth time over the period of a year that she made an appearance before some legal tribunal, including the police court, the criminal courts of Special Sessions and General Sessions, and the Superior Court.

Like other brothel managers, Hastings periodically had to contend with rowdy guests in her establishment. On one occasion she filed charges in police court against William Dowell for malicious mischief, and another time she gave testimony in the Court of General Sessions against James Berdell for assault and battery. Berdell had gotten into an argument with several of the women in Hastings’s brothel and had raised such a disturbance that police were summoned. The officials immediately recognized Berdell as a fugitive from justice who was wanted for violently assaulting a police officer a year before.[35]

Hastings also made an appearance before the Superior Court of Connecticut in the divorce trial of John C. Holland, president of the Norwich and Worcester Railroad Company. Holland’s wife, Frances, had subpoenaed Hastings and two other New York City prostitutes to verify her husband’s infidelity. Hastings was a cooperative witness and gave a brief account of her years in prostitution, including a description of her involvement with “Marquis,” the name by which all three prostitutes knew Holland. Not only did she describe Holland’s intimacies with several of the fifteen women in the brothel, but she also stated: “He has never been in bed with me [but] he has had carnal knowledge of me in my parlor adjoining my bedroom.”[36]

Hastings’s confidence that publicity or notoriety would not jeopardize her freedom to practice her profession was even more evident in a case in which Hastings aggressively defended her “name and reputation” both on the streets and in the courtroom in response to an unflattering article in a local newspaper.

Several of New York City’s mid-nineteenth-century newspaper editors were controversial figures. After the 1830s there was an increase in the number of inexpensive New York dailies, the penny press, whose


common fare was topics that would have been considered improper or indecent to discuss in print a decade earlier. Many of the stories encouraged a popular taste for vicarious vice and crime, while others appear both to have offended sensibilities and wounded reputations. Editors such as James W. Webb of the Courier and Enquirer , James G. Bennett of the Herald , George Wilkes of the Police Gazette , Moses Y. Beach of the Sun , and E. Z. C. Judson of Ned Buntline’s Own not only squabbled with each other as editors of competing papers but also became embroiled in a number of controversies with members of the reading public.[37] Both editors and citizens were brought to physical blows over the anger and animosities created by news articles. In light of this, editor J. G. Bennett’s biographer has stated that nineteenth-century “editorial impact could almost be measured by the number of welts and bruises a newspaper proprietor displayed. Assaulting an editor, generally with a whip, was rarely out of season on the streets of New York.”[38]

In April 1849, E. Z. C. Judson, editor of Ned Buntline’s Own , printed an article in his paper mentioning Kate Hastings. The first half of the small article called “Description of Gamblers” portrayed a local figure, Samuel A. Suydam, as a very unattractive person. The last half of the column said that

if . . . any of my readers feel particularly anxious to see this notorious blackleg, his den is at No. 14 Barclay-Street, and his chere amie is the infamous east-off mistress of a deceased gambler, known as gallows Kate Hastings, the keeper of a low house of prostitution in Leonard-Street. Sam dances attendance to this strumpet when called on.[39]

According to a letter from Hastings printed in the Herald , Hastings learned about the article the day after its publication while she was shopping in a store on Ann Street. Hastings stated that the article was “derogatory to my own character and the character of my house. . .. I immediately said I would cowhide Ned Buntline the first time I caught him in a public street.” Just as Hastings declared this to her acquaintances, Judson passed the store, and Hastings followed and caught him by the arm. She told him she would cowhide him for the insult the next time she met him, and she would wait on Broadway until the opportunity arose. Five days later, after waiting an hour on the corner near Judson’s office, Hastings found her opportunity. As Judson walked down


the street with friends, she gave him two blows on the head. Hastings said she “didn’t stop to see if he was much hurt and didn’t care.”[40]

The assault attracted much attention and comment both in the press and from New York citizens. J. G. Bennett appeared to take special delight in reporting an embellished version of the story in the Herald . The paper said it was alleged Judson had drawn a pistol and threatened the life of his fair assailant. Infuriated by the reporting of the affair, Judson wrote the paper pointing out that he had not drawn a pistol nor had a word been said. He stated he felt the Herald’s reporting was so particularly malignant that he had directed his lawyer “to enter a suit for libel against the paper’s proprietor unless he gives a full and immediate retraction.”[41]

Judson filed charges of assault and battery against Hastings, and her case went before a grand jury. The grand jury could not find a bill against her, so the case was “laid over.” Hastings waived her right to a trial by jury and accepted a bench trial in the Court of Special Sessions. The press gave a detailed description of Hastings’s appearance before the court:

She had on a splendid fawn-colored silk dress, and wore a rich broche shawl, with a pearl colored straw hat. She had about her person a profusion of jewelry, charms, watch, bracelets, buckles, pencil head, watch-key, and other like articles of adornment. She came in with a smart business-like air, and seemed to court dispatch.[42]

According to the Herald , the trial attracted a large group of spectators who were so eager to view Hastings they “stood to see her, put on eyeglasses, and ran to the balcony.”[43]

Hastings’s court deposition defended her actions on the basis of the derogatory attack that had been made on her by Judson in his paper. She stated that Judson had for a considerable period published similar gross attacks upon her which had been calculated to arouse her anger, and thus they had succeeded in causing her to “chastise” him. Even though the grand jury did not find a bill against her, Hastings said she wished to save the county the expense of a jury trial so had waived that right. She stated she readily accepted guilt for inflicting the chastisement upon Judson but believed that his “scurrilous attack” on her left him fully meriting the severe punishment she had meted out. Hastings reinforced charges that her adversary had a venomous nature and an unsavory


character by submitting as evidence two letters that had been sent to her the day following the confrontation on Broadway. One was signed by Judson and said:

You are an infernal dirty bitch and if you ever attempt to do to me a similar act you may consider yourself shot. Take warning by this you dirty whore. My paper is mine and I am able to be responsible for any articles contained therein.
E. Z. C. Judson[44]

The second letter, which also appeared to be in Judson’s handwriting, was signed, “One Who Knows Something.” It justified the actions of Judson and accused Hastings of being a destroyer of youthful morals and lives, a “damd [sic ] whore . . . [who is] fucked every night by sporting men.” The letter ended with the warning: “Woe be to you cursed whore. Look out!”[45]

The judges accepted Hastings’s plea of guilty, said they trusted she would not attack the man again, and imposed a fine of 6 cents. The Herald reported that when her sentence was pronounced, “Kate very deliberately opened an elegant purse she held in her hand, and was about to pay the sixpence down at once, but her counsel interposed saying to her that the amount was merely nominal, and that she might leave it to him to arrange.” According to the press, when the trial ended voices were heard all around expressing approbation at the decision of the court, and as Hastings left the room she audibly remarked that if Judson did not leave her alone in the future he would not be able to come to court the next time.[46]

In spite of the animosities expressed for each other, Judson and Hastings appear to have eventually reached a truce in their relationship. A police officer testified to seeing Judson and some companions leaving Hastings’s brothel only a month and a half after the trial for her assault on him.[47]

Many prostitutes were just as active as Hastings in their roles as citizens of the community—or in their interactions with municipal agencies, such as tax assessors. A review of tax records in wards five and eight in eight different years during the 1840s and 1850s reveals twenty-four instances of known prostitutes appealing their assessments. Some prostitutes, such as Eliza Pratt, Adeline Miller, Sarah Tuttle, Fanny White, and Ann Thomas challenged their appraisals on more than one occasion. The fact that prostitutes took advantage of the appeals process


Letter from Editor Judson to Prostitute Kate Hastings.
This letter, written by an angry E. Z. C. Judson after being horsewhipped
by Hastings, was submitted as evidence at the court hearing on the incident.
(NYDA Indictments, People v. Hastings, 17 April 1849, Municipal Archives,
Department of Records and Information Services, City of New York)


indicates that they were not afraid of challenging municipal officials and were not concerned about keeping a low profile for fear that public attention might jeopardize their ability to work in the community.[48]

Court records and newspapers also indicate that prostitutes repeatedly were called upon to serve as witnesses at public trials or hearings, especially to supply testimony verifying infidelity in divorce proceedings. When the parties involved were prominent, such as John Holland, the trials became news events, and the prostitutes became well known to the community. Six months after Judson’s altercation with Hastings, his wife sued for divorce, and Fanny White and the occupants of her house testified to repeated instances of adultery on Judson’s part. Testimony of prostitutes also was used in the 1852 divorce trial of the famous actor Edwin Forrest. Caroline Ingersoll, manager of assignation and prostitution boarding houses, gave guarded but important testimony that was crucial in bringing about a decision favorable to Mrs. Forrest.[49]

Prostitutes also testified at inquests or trials involving the deaths of prostitutes or their patrons and at investigative hearings into suspected crimes, such as the fire that destroyed the National Theatre and Julia Brown’s brothel next door. In the case of the fire, officials were investigating both a suspected arson and the death of a young prostitute. In the 1836 Jewett murder trial, ten prostitutes testified about events at the brothel and gave information concerning the parties involved. In the 1843 murder of Charles Corlis, five prostitutes were called to give information about circumstances surrounding the death. In the 1870 murder of Benjamin Nathan, Clara Dale, a prostitute from Irene McGready’s brothel, was a key witness because she provided the alibi for the prosecution’s major suspect, Nathan’s son.[50]

Prostitutes frequently appeared as plaintiffs in court cases. Some of the complaints filed in court by prostitutes were against their employees or servants, most often in cases involving the theft of clothing, items of adornment, or money. Servants appear to have been named as culprits far more often than were prostitute coworkers, and courts seem to have been tougher about, and less forgiving of, a charge of theft than a charge of practicing prostitution. Two servants in the house of Antoinette Goldstreng stole $97.40 from a stocking where Goldstreng kept the weekly rental fees. Even though police officers recovered part of the money, the two servants were sent to prison for two years. Eliza Fisher’s servant Mary Ann Furman also was sent to prison for stealing two hocks,


two shirts, two lace collars, and a velvet hat. Fisher made another complaint in court a couple of years later, when a second servant was arrested for stealing four petticoats, two dresses, a veil, a shawl, and $9 cash. Abby Meyers’s servant Amelia Thompson was jailed for twenty days for stealing material worth a mere $1.50, and another servant of Meyers was arrested and committed for taking a writing desk and silver valued at $200. Prostitute Matilda Edmonds, a resident in Isabella Stewart’s brothel, was arrested and sent to prison for stealing a gold watch, gold pencil, silk dress, hat, and other articles valued at $100.[51]

Theft also was an issue between prostitutes and their clients. Clients often claimed they had been robbed while in a brothel, but prostitutes also brought charges against customers who used their entry into the establishment as an easy opportunity to take unguarded valuables. Prostitute Jane Smith screamed for the watch when she realized a roll of bills had been taken from her pocket while a patron was with her in her room. The man was immediately arrested and taken to the police. Rachel Porter complained to police that a man had taken a safety chain worth $15 from her neck while they were together in her brothel. The customer denied the charges, and the necklace was not found, but Porter said he had given it to another man. Law officials believed Porter’s story over that of the customer, and he was committed to jail. The newspaper reporter covering the story commented that the customer’s “appearance warranted the expectation of better things from him.”[52]

Some prostitutes may have used charges of theft as a means of getting assistance in removing an unwanted customer from a brothel. Abby Meyers called officers to arrest a patron she claimed had robbed her while in her house. Meyers did not appear at the police station the next morning to press charges, so the newspaper assumed Meyers had not been robbed at all.[53]

Prostitutes appeared in court as plaintiffs most often when pressing charges against patrons and other males who created disturbances in their brothels. Sometimes clients got drunk or rowdy and refused to leave, so the watch was called to assist with their eviction. A guest at 24 Anthony who became angry and would not leave when ordered out at 1:30 A.M . got into a scuffle with one of the women in the house. The watch was summoned, and he was put in jail. Mary Jewell refused to let a lawyer into her brothel after midnight, so he kicked in the door. She called the watch and pressed charges in court.


Often customers were destructive of a prostitute’s property, and in most cases prostitutes immediately prosecuted the assaulters. Two so-called “Texas patriots” who raised a ruckus in Catherine Cochran’s brothel by bragging about their war exploits were thrown out by the other male customers. The two men returned and started smashing glasses and assaulting the women and were sent to jail. Mary Wall admitted five customers who had arrived at her brothel in a hack. Once seated in the parlor, they requested drinks, and then one proceeded to use a fire shovel to destroy decanters and almost all the other glassware on the sideboard. Wall took them to court for their assault.[54]

Much of the property destruction and physical violence that occurred in brothels, especially in the 1830s and early 1840s, was the result of groups of rowdy males who roamed the streets and took great pleasure in wanton attacks upon prostitution houses. Whether these attacks were the result of excessive alcohol, male resentment over the independence of working and sexually active women, or entertainment for men who saw violence as an assertion of their rising social and political power in an increasingly egalitarian society, the victims of the attacks often tended to be those persons perceived to be “oppressed, unpopular, or unprotected.”[55] Prostitutes were viewed as vulnerable because they were women and possibly because they operated as “illegals” in the community, but ruffians were often surprised at the persistence and force of both the legal and physical responses of these women to their attacks.

George Gale and some of his friends spent two weeks in the spring of 1831 harassing several brothels, including those of Phoebe Doty and Elizabeth Baker. Both Dory and Baker were attacked three times each during this period. At Baker’s brothel, the men threw stones at the house, breaking and destroying windows, and then demolished her stoop and forced themselves inside, where they were “crass and offensive.” At Doty’s house, Gale and Enoch Carter kicked furniture, took lamps down, spilled oil, and threatened to knock Doty to the floor. Angered rather than intimidated, the women filed charges against the men.[56]

Bullies did not single out prostitutes alone for their vicious rampages. In late April of 1835, the house of Elizabeth Jeffreys at 63 Church was forcibly entered by John Chichester, John Boyd, and several other members of their notorious gang. The men assaulted Jeffreys, moved on to the home of Abel Welles and repeated the same violence, and then attacked three men in a neighborhood store. The next week, the gang


went to the brothel of Jane Ann Jackson and threw brickbats and stones against the door and windows, breaking the window shutters and sash. They then entered the brothel, assaulted Jackson with a large gilt ball, and threatened to set fire to her house. From Jackson’s they went to Eliza Ludlow’s brothel and forced her to serve them brandy. Afterward, Chichester and friends threw the glasses into the fire, burned a rug, broke a bench by hurling it at a prostitute, and threatened to toss a woman out the window. After leaving the brothel, the bullies assaulted three more men in the street and broke several street lamps. The prostitutes, joined by the other neighbors who had been attacked, pressed charges against the Chichester gang, and the men were convicted.[57]

Prostitutes made especially easy targets for the bullies. Brothels were managed by women and were open at very late hours. Also, prostitutes angered some men by denying them entry to their brothels, by refusing to let them act as they wished when admitted, or by refusing sexual service to some. Violence was a response to rejection and frustration, but it was also a form of sport. As the activities of the Chichester gang illustrate, however, many neighborhood citizens besides prostitutes suffered from the increased street violence of the period, indicating that attacks on prostitutes were because they were vulnerable citizens rather than unacceptable social outcasts. Certainly, they felt secure enough as members of the community to prosecute the bullies instead of being cowed by their aggressiveness.[58]

Prostitutes pressed criminal charges against rowdy males to get them incarcerated, but they also pursued damages in court for the property the men destroyed. A gang of six men broke into the vacated brothel of Adeline Miller at 44 Orange Street, destroying about $100 worth of furniture. From Orange Street they went to Miller’s house at 133 Reed and in spite of her resistance, broke into the window, threw bottles of liquor at Miller and then began destroying her most valuable property, demolishing $400 worth of oil paintings, glassware, mirrors and furnishings. They asked for money, and as she was giving it to them they grabbed her by the throat and struck her on the head with an iron bar. From Miller’s the men went to the house of Jane Weston (alias Jenny Graham), where they drank and demolished a basket of champagne before asking for money. Both women swore out complaints against the men, and they were jailed. They also sought remuneration for damages.


Five months after the attack on the brothels, the men were ordered by the court to make restitution of $700 and fees before they were released from jail.[59]

Court prosecutions were not the only way prostitutes responded to assaults, intimidation, and the loss of property. Many prostitutes responded to physical force by defending themselves with aggressive physical actions. On Christmas day in 1847 John Briggs and some friends came to the brothel of Phoebe Dory at 166 Church Street. Briggs and his cronies became very rowdy, bullied the inmates of the brothel, and began to conduct themselves in a “beastly and indecent manner.” When the men refused to leave, one of the women in the brothel, Moll Stephens, put a gun to Briggs’s head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for Briggs, the bullet chamber that was shot was the only one of the six that was empty. Briggs grabbed the gun and ran out of the brothel. The next day Doty filed charges against Briggs for assault and battery, but he countered with the same charges against Stephens. The judge put both parties on bail, but the Police Gazette pointed out that, when a black boy had done the same thing with a pistol to a black prostitute a few years before, he had been sent to state prison for nine and a half years.[60]

Another instance of self-defense occurred in a Duane Street brothel when one of the patrons became jealous of the attention being shown another customer by an attractive prostitute named Maria. Later the customer took Maria to her room and threatened her with a dagger. Although Maria was short, she was very muscular and, when the jealous customer threatened her, she jumped up, seized his arm, snatched the dagger, threw him on the floor, put her knee on his chest, called him names, slapped his face, and then threw him down the stairs. Prostitute Mary Gamble, when attacked with a sword and stabbed in the nose, scratched her assailant’s face so badly that she was certain he would show the marks for weeks. When three men kicked open the door of Susan Shannon’s brothel, she cut one with a sword. Jane Williams also acted to protect herself when twelve men tried to forcibly enter her brothel. She confronted the men with a revolver, but one man hit her, took the gun from her, and ran away. Williams then pursued justice by filing charges in criminal court.[61]

Sometimes prostitutes responded physically to attacks or injuries that were non-physical in nature. Kate Hastings horsewhipped Judson for


insulting her, and Amelia Norman stabbed Henry Ballard for abandoning her after making her pregnant. Ginderella Marshall, madam of a Leonard Street brothel, horsewhipped and struck on the head a guest who would not pay after enjoying himself in her house. Mary Stewart confronted a man in her brothel with a gun and threatened to blow his brains out. The man had come to persuade his younger brother, who was living with Stewart, to leave the prostitute and go home. Another prostitute assaulted and attempted to stab a man on behalf of her paramour. The man had given testimony against her lover, charging him with stealing a watch.[62]

The self-assurance prostitutes showed concerning their rights as community citizens is especially evident in a few cases one would have thought would be almost impossible for a prostitute to win. Because rape was generally regarded as a sexual act instead of a violent assault, any woman had difficulty proving her case. If challenged, a woman charging rape usually had to establish that she was chaste, which obviously was a difficult burden of proof for a prostitute.[63] Nevertheless, some prostitutes did file charges of rape and attempted rape, and their attackers were convicted. Even if justice officials thought of the act as assault and battery, the prostitute was better off than in cases where the rape was believed to be what she had bargained for as a prostitute.

One case of rape involved a gang of men led by Thomas Hyer. The men entered the brothel of Ellen Holly and gang-raped one of her boarders, Ellen Bellmire. Hyer and his friends were convicted of the assault but were out of jail by the end of a year. Eliza Logue’s house was forcibly entered by five men who destroyed some furnishings, strangled Logue, and then “threw her across the foot of a bed and endeavored by force and violence to have connection with her.” Only the arrival of the watch prevented the rape from occurring, but charges were brought against the men, and they were convicted.[64] Prostitute Hannah Fuller also pressed charges for attempted rape. Fuller was seated in the window of her bedroom at 4 A.M . one summer morning when William Ford passed by and saw her. Ford climbed over the gate and broke into the house. After kicking in Fuller’s door, Ford removed his boots and pants and carried her to bed and attempted to “ravish and . . . carnally know her.” Mary Ann Grovenor came to help Fuller but left when Ford threatened to split open her head. Only through the intervention of the watch was the rape prevented.


Fuller pressed charges against Ford but later withdrew her complaint, saying she “believed he was under an excitement at the time” and was an “old friend and has been for a long time back and still is.” She requested that no further action be taken against him because she now believed they were both at fault. “Had I known the consequences to befall him I would never have made the complaint.” The court then prosecuted Ford for assault and battery on the watchman.[65]

A second type of case where a prostitute might not expect to receive a sympathetic hearing involved harassment when streetwalking. By the 1850s, because of the large influx of poor immigrants to New York and the great increase in street traffic, authorities became very strict in policing city thoroughfares if the public complained that prostitutes were being a nuisance. As the 1855 case of Matilda Wade showed, any woman on the streets at night had difficulty proving she was not a streetwalker or vagrant. Streetwalkers in the two preceding decades also had been considered a public harassment as well as a symbol of eroding public morality, but several cases illustrate that these women believed they should be guaranteed and usually received—personal protection even while plying their trade on public thoroughfares.

Prostitute Mary Smith of Leonard Street filed charges against William Nosworthy for assaulting her as she was walking home from the Park Theater. Nosworthy seized her and “raised her clothes so to expose her nakedness to passers by.” Nosworthy was fully prosecuted. Another prostitute who was promenading on Broadway was approached and kissed by a drunken man. She objected to his sexual advances and prosecuted him but dropped the charges after he apologized. Prostitute Julia Meadows also was strolling on Broadway at night when a young man approached her from behind and threw oil of vitriol on her clothes, burning both her silk dress and her visette. Meadows screamed for the police, who pursued and caught the man; she filed charges, and he was committed. Prostitute Jane Williams, while on her evening stroll, picked up hack driver Jim Waters and was taking him to her brothel when they passed another man who touched Williams’s shoulder. Williams left Waters for the new escort, and Waters seized her by the arm and objected. After Williams hit Waters in the face, he turned her over to the watch, charging her with assault and battery. Williams told the judge she hit him in order to get away, and the judge ruled against Waters, dismissing the case on grounds of self-defense.[66]


Although there are many examples that demonstrate how prostitutes enjoyed the rights and privileges of community citizenship, there are also instances that illustrate that the prostitute was always vulnerable in public disputes because of the illegal status and stigma of her profession. Even though prostitutes frequently used the legal and judicial system for their own interests, there was the possibility their credibility would be challenged because of their way of life. In the case of a theft or other conflict, it was the prostitute’s word against the client’s, and the reports of these cases indicate that the lack of an “irreproachable character” sometimes worked against prostitutes. In the well-publicized Jewett murder trial in 1836, for example, the major thrust of the defense counsel’s argument was that the testimony of prostitutes could not be received in a court of justice, even in a trial for murder. According to the defense counsel, “the connection between chastity and veracity is so vital that the loss of the former is the instant destruction of the latter.”[67] The judge in the case concurred with the defense, and in his charge to the jury warned that jurors must

consider well the character of the persons brought forward as witnesses. Testimony principally is drawn from … persons of very bad repute … [and] their testimony is not to be credited unless corroborated by testimony drawn from more credible sources. In the judgment of the law you are not entitled to conviction upon it; but if it be corroborated and strengthened by other credible testimony then give to it all the credibility which it is in justice entitled.[68]

Since one young man contradicted the testimony of the prostitutes at the trial, the suspected murderer was found not guilty. Most of the editorial opinion was against the decision of the court. The Sun noted that the defense counsel’s argument was based on a “specious and dangerous principle” on the basis of which crimes need only be committed in the presence of prostitutes for the murderers to walk away free. The paper also pointed out that the counsel himself had won many convictions in the past based on “testimony of the same character.”[69]The Advocate of Moral Reform voiced similar sentiments, adding that it saw

no reason why the testimony of Mrs. Townsend and her inmates is not worth as much as that of the young men, who by their own confession are in the habit of visiting her house constantly … thus reducing themselves to her level.[70]


There were a number of sources in the period that reinforced the notion that “prostitutes are known to be notorious liars.” The Advocate of Moral Reform ran an article in 1841, “The Habit of Lying Among Prostitutes,” which was taken from William Tait’s study, Prostitution in Edinburgh .[71] In the February 1840 trial of a group of men who were charged with assaulting Susan Shannon at her brothel, the jury was unable to reach a verdict because one juror stated that he “did not consider a prostitute a human being, and could in no event find a verdict from her testimony.” Two weeks after the Shannon trial, however, Justice Wyman found two men guilty of assault and battery on Julia Brown and her prostitutes, even though the defendants claimed the prostitutes had lied. After hearing the verdict the men expressed indignation that the testimony of the prostitutes had been valued over theirs.[72]

Although prostitutes’ credibility in testimony continued to be challenged periodically throughout the middle decades of the nineteenth century, judicial experience confirmed that a prostitute’s veracity could be accepted with the same care as that of any other citizen. In the disorderly house trial of Mary Fowler, nine years after the Shannon and Brown cases, Judge C. P. Daley declared that “bad and vicious habits do not necessarily imply a want of veracity, for it is a matter of familiar experience in the courts of justice, that persons otherwise of the most degraded character, not unfrequently manifest a strict regard for truth.”[73] A prostitute’s testimony would continue to be accepted or rejected based on the plausibility of the evidence given—or the attitudes of the legal officials in charge.

Thus, whether challenging laws that discriminated against them or working with law officials, courts, and municipal agencies to further their own interests, prostitutes of the mid-nineteenth century demonstrated that, in spite of the existence of anti-prostitution laws, they and their profession were very much a part of the social fabric of New York City life. The ambivalence shown by both ordinary citizens and officials toward prostitution underscored this position in the community. Anti-prostitution laws were kept on the statute books in an effort to satisfy a public need to feel that morality was being preserved and that the unrespectable and poor classes would be kept in control when necessary, but the actual casual and discretionary enforcement of the laws illustrates that many citizens did not find the existence of prostitutes in their neighborhoods so offensive. Prostitutes did not, however, achieve the


status of coworkers and fellow citizens in the urban community merely because New Yorkers showed a tolerance or lack of concern about them. Prostitutes actively worked to create a positive customary and legal environment for themselves in ways that helped integrate them into New York City life. In theory, they were faced with laws vastly indiscriminate and procedurally unrestrained, but in practice, the more successful prostitutes particularly were able to use their money and their working legal knowledge and connections to make vigorous use of the law to protect themselves.


“Thronged Thoroughfares” and “Quiet, Home-Like Streets”
The Urban Geography and Architecture of Prostitution

[Prostitution] no longer confines itself to secrecy and darkness, but boldly strides through our most thronged and elegant thoroughfares, and there, in the broad light of the sun, it jostles the pure, the virtuous, and the good. It is in your gay streets and in your quiet, home-like streets; it is in your squares … and summer resorts; it is in your theatres, your opera, your hotels; nay, it is even intruding itself into the private circles.[1]

William Sanger’s description of the pervasiveness of prostitution gives a clear indication of how integrated prostitution had become in the geographic and social structure of New York City by the mid-nineteenth century. New York was different in this respect from large European cities, where prostitution was confined to specific areas of the community. In New York, no neighborhoods were exempt from the profession. It was found in “quiet, home-like streets” and “private circles” as well as in public places; in the neighborhoods of the rich as well as those of the poor.

New York’s prostitution population had not always been so widespread throughout the community. In the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century, practitioners of the profession tended to congregate in areas near the taverns and cheap lodging houses of New York City’s dock area. More importantly, most prostitution at that time was hidden from public view. By the 1820s, however, the prostitution community began to disperse, spreading into a variety of residential and commercial neighborhoods. Prostitution also became so


blatant in its public display that by 1831 the Reverend John McDowall felt compelled to publish his Magdalen Report apprising the community that many of the over 10,000 prostitutes he estimated to be in the city were to be found in respectable neighborhoods, operating “under masks of boarding houses … [and] shops of various kinds.”[2] A few years later, in 1835, the Advocate of Moral Reform summarized the contemporary situation by noting that there was “an open and almost legalized existence of houses of prostitution everywhere in the city.”[3] The Advocate’s appraisal was confirmed by other observers, all of whom drew the same conclusion—prostitution had become very much a part of New York City life and was found in all areas of the city.[4] In the decades following the 1830s there would be periodic protests and efforts to control the profession in its most public aspects, but prostitution’s pattern of citywide dispersal would remain basically the same until the last part of the century. Even when prostitution later became more concentrated in specific neighborhoods, it never returned to its eighteenth-century status as a geographically confined and little visible profession.[5]

In placing prostitution within the larger social context of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century, one finds that the demographic and geographic patterns characteristic of the profession at that time are very similar to those of the urban community as a whole. Antebellum New York not only lacked segregated red light districts, but it also was not characterized by other significant segregated population clusters, such as racial and ethnic ghettos. Interestingly, New York City’s immigrant segregation lessened in this period as immigrant population increased. An index of the segregation of foreign-born inhabitants of New York City in 1855 was almost half what the index had been three decades earlier. Not until after the Civil War would New York develop the large segregated immigrant areas that were characteristic of some other major cities.[6]

Although black residential patterns were somewhat the reverse of those of foreign-born New Yorkers—racial segregation increased as the black percentage in the population decreased—blacks also continued to be represented in nearly all geographic areas of New York City through mid-century. In 1825 blacks represented 7 ½ percent of the population, while by 1860 they comprised only 1 ½ percent of the city’s inhabitants. Although the largest concentration of blacks was found in wards five and


eight, no area of New York City in the antebellum period could be designated a black ghetto since black residents never comprised more than 12 percent of any ward’s population.[7]

Just as there were always small concentrations of ethnic and black citizens in New York City, so were there pockets of poverty and extreme destitution. But economic segregation, like other forms, did not become prevalent in New York City until after the Civil War; rich and poor lived side-by-side, as did black and white, and native and foreign-born. Certainly, many wealthy citizens chose to live near each other, and some neighborhoods had “notable concentrations of wealth,” but wealth was dispersed enough throughout the city that one could say at mid-century that at least half of the wards had a “gold-coast-and-slum” character. Local citizens as well as visitors to the city commented on the strange contrast of “costly luxury and improvident waste” with “squalid misery and hopeless destitution.”[8] In spite of the diversity in its population and an increasing economic stratification of rich and poor, however, New York City retained a “social wholeness” unusual for an urban community of such large size.[9]

New York’s integration of diverse populations was encouraged by the fact that a concept of restricted land use, or zoning, was not a part of the mid-nineteenth-century New York urban picture. In 1850 the commercial and industrial concentration in lower Manhattan was unmistakable, but every ward still had retail businesses, public markets, and dozens of small manufacturing establishments.[10] Consequently, commercial businesses, “vice” institutions, and private residences of the rich and poor were found next door to each other and continued to be established together as the city expanded north into new areas of Manhattan Island. This intermingling of diverse population sectors and institutions caused one newspaper editor to complain in 1841 that he could not stand “the strange and disreputable anomaly of theatres, churches, and houses of ill-fame all huddled up together in one small block.”[11] Thirty years later, in spite of a few efforts toward urban planning, regulation, and reform, another New Yorker noted that the city’s development was continuing in a haphazard fashion and that the “strange anomaly” of mixed classes and mixed land use still existed in New York: “Only a stone’s throw back of the most sumptuous parts of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, want and suffering, vice and crime, hold


their courts. Fine ladies can look down from their high casements upon the squalid dens of their unfortunate sisters.”[12]

The designation “unfortunate sisters” also included some women who did not live in squalid dens but who, nevertheless, appear to observers today out of place in their chosen neighborhoods. In the 1830s and early 1840s, one of New York’s most elite areas, the fifth ward neighborhood around Park Place, Broadway, Warren, and Leonard streets, was only a block or two from several well-known brothels. Residents such as Philip Hone, former Mayor Walter Bowne, and merchant Cornelius Low had to walk a mere block to stand in front of a neighboring brothel.[13] New York social historian Charles Lockwood has noted that in the 1860s, prostitute Julia Brown operated a stylish prostitution establishment at University Place and Twelfth Street, where her immediate neighbors included James Lenox, a wealthy citizen whose library collection served as the foundation of the New York Public Library; merchant William H. Aspinwall; the socially elite Mrs. Peter A. Schemerhorn; Union Theological Seminary; and the New York Society Library. Julia Brown’s close proximity to some of New York’s wealthiest citizens and most august institutions reflected a certain tacit acceptance of prostitution as part of the urban landscape, but her presence in the neighborhood also probably went unchallenged because neither Brown’s establishment nor her clientele were disruptive.[14]

Prostitute and non-prostitute also lived close together in the many poor tenements of the city. In most of these cases, the “work” of the prostitute was not hidden from view or practiced unobtrusively because “inmates know no such thing as privacy…. Within the same walls are gathered the virtuous and the depraved.”[15] Describing the living situation in one of the multiple-roomed tenement houses, a mid-century reporter noted that one room, twelve feet by twenty, housed five families totaling twenty persons, but only two beds; a much smaller room nearby was home to a man, woman, and three children who helped pay their rent by allowing prostitutes to bring their customers there for their nightly business.[16] Another contemporary described a large building in ward six that had been subdivided into dozens of small “apartments” rented to the poor and the prostitute alike, where it was “not unusual for a mother and two to three daughters, all prostitutes, to receive men at the same time, in the same room.”[17] In such indigent neighborhoods, geographic and social intimacy with prostitutes existed in part because


Lodging for the Poor. Nineteenth-century New York City’s housing
for the poor was crowded and miserable. Reformers were shocked that the
city’s poorest prostitutes were said to have serviced their customers in public
lodging rooms such as this. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

the poor and laboring classes accepted prostitutes as fellow citizens who needed some way to eke out a living in a depressed economic environment, but geographic intimacy also was a function of limited affordable housing options.

The degree of prostitution’s integration within the community as a whole becomes even clearer, however, when one looks at residential configurations in mid-century censuses. Many brothels and prostitution boarding houses are interspersed among the homes of middle- and lower-middle-class families. It is most likely these prostitution establishments did not operate surreptitiously, since it would have been very difficult for several brothels on a street to conduct business without drawing the attention of neighbors, especially given that the locations of many were openly advertised in brothel directories. Prostitutes Eleanor Barrett and Caroline Cook lived on a block of Mercer Street


with several other brothels, but the block also housed the families of a chemist, druggist, broker, engraver, physician, importer, merchant, grocer, painter, music teacher, and two respectable boarding houses, one of which rented to male laborers. Margaret Brown owned a brothel with thirteen prostitutes, and her neighbors included a widowed Baptist clergyman, a lawyer with his son and a servant, and several merchants and their families. Prostitutes Emma Clifton, Jenny Grey, and Kate Rowe shared their block with a “psychologist” gentleman, several clerks, a blacksmith, a physician, marble cutters, female teachers, a hairdresser and family, and several boarding houses with families, one of which was a German establishment. Even in more intimate or shared housing situations such as renting rooms in one’s own house, censuses further indicate that prostitutes were accepted as residents. The 1855 census records that millwright Lawrence Archer, his wife, and their seventeen-year-old son and twelve-year-old daughter had been landlords for more than two years to Ann Swift, whose occupation was listed as prostitute. They also had a servant living with them. Likewise, Kate Cannon and her fifteen-year-old son Leland boarded thirty-five-year-old prostitute Mary Lewis in their home.[18]

Although a general tolerance of prostitution as a part of urban living was one reason women like Ann Swift and Julia Brown lived openly and relatively hassle-free in most nineteenth-century New York neighborhoods, social historian Charles Lockwood has offered other explanations. In referring to Julia Brown’s Twelfth Street establishment, he wrote: “The apparent ease with which prostitution could flourish in so select a location reflects the social strains of the time as well as patterns of urban development.”[19] Perhaps a gradual process of urbanization might have reduced “social strains” and altered residential patterns, but with the population multiplying monthly during these decades, New Yorkers seemingly had little time for orderly urban development. Population pressures forced the city to expand physically, and New York’s geographical limitation as an island necessitated that expansion be to the north. Either because of or in spite of the fact they were suffering from the “social strains” of a rapidly growing population and urban change, New Yorkers appeared to be very flexible about making residential shifts in responding to the city’s growth, and they appeared to worry little about who their neighbors were.[20]


Another reason citizens’ attitudes about neighborhood diversity seem so flexible is that nineteenth-century New Yorkers appear to have enjoyed, in fact thrived on, mobility—not establishing long-term roots in any household but happily changing residences and neighbors often.[21] New York prostitutes seem to have responded to the same mobility impulses as the general population, changing brothel locations and boarding situations frequently. Even though a stable location may appear to have been desirable for a brothel or an individual prostitute seeking repeat business from customers and a well-known business address, this business factor was not significant enough to keep prostitutes stationary very long. The desire to change locations seems to have outweighed the desire for stability. Several reasons, with both negative and positive implications, help explain this impulse.

Without a doubt, some prostitutes moved because of pressure from community individuals or the law. Some landlords, who unwittingly rented houses or rooms to prostitutes, evicted the women once the true nature of their establishments was discovered. Disorderly house cases illustrate that some neighbors also complained about prostitutes, and some of these women thought it wise to move to avoid a court hearing, fine, or possible incarceration. Pressure from the law, however, usually was in response to complaints, and the small number of disorderly-house cases suggests a relatively small number of neighbors’ complaints. Still, in spite of few objections before the law, some prostitutes possibly moved because of other forms of harassment. Even though physical assaults on houses appear to have been as much a factor of prostitutes being females without male protectors as their being socially unacceptable neighbors, and even though many prostitutes responded to attacks by pressing charges in court, violence by street youths may have frightened some prostitutes into relocating.[22] But on the whole, one might conclude that in the absence of either rigorous legal restrictions or profound social pressures, prostitutes often made decisions to relocate for more positive reasons.

One such reason involved personal preference and business calculation: prostitutes were as interested as other New York residents in moving to new and more fashionable, or “better,” neighborhoods. They also wanted to remain close to their clientele. Those prostitutes such as Julia Brown who catered to the middle and upper classes would relocate


along with their customers as new neighborhoods opened in the “advance guard north.” As poorer residents moved to occupy the houses formerly inhabited by the more well-to-do, prostitutes who catered to the working classes also occupied vacant establishments in these areas.

Another reason nineteenth-century prostitutes moved frequently was that many of them, like other New Yorkers, celebrated the “May Day” custom. Although incomprehensible to many observers today, May Day, or moving day, was an “institution” in antebellum New York, practiced and apparently enjoyed by many citizens. Originating in the early Dutch colonial period, the custom continued well into the nineteenth century. According to tradition, February 1 marked the day residences were put on the market “to let and all go snoop in others’ [houses].” On May 1 citizens moved to their new dwellings, illustrating, according to the New Era , the extreme “restlessness of New Yorkers who have no attachment to their homes.”[23] In January 1837, the New Era also noted: “The period of the year is fast approaching when persons begin to look out for new residences, according to the custom of New Yorkers, not to remain under the same roof, more than twelve months.”[24]

Several nineteenth-century diaries and records, including those of Philip Hone and George T. Strong, contain personal testimonies concerning the May Day practice. William Dunlap, playwright, theater manager, and artist, noted in his diary that he followed the May 1 moving day custom but was not a frequent participant: “Got my family removed to No. 64 Sixth Avenue by noon on this first of May 1832 after living in Leonard St., No. 55 for sixteen years.”[25] When Dunlap moved out, prostitutes moved in, and 55 Leonard became a well-known brothel address for several decades afterward. Prostitute Caroline Ingersoll, a much more regular observer of the custom, testified about her moves during a divorce trial before the Superior Court:

I first came back to New York from Philadelphia. I went to reside at 355 Greenwich Street … about a year and a half; I moved here in the fall; I left it on the first of May; the second first of May after I went there, I moved from that house to 628 Houston Street, and lived there about two years; I left that house on the first of May last, 1851; I went there the first of May and left it on the first of May [for 4 Murray Street].[26]

Tax records, city directories, censuses, and newspapers indicate that Ingersoll was not unique among prostitutes in being so mobile on May


Table 16
Residential Changes of Selected Brothel Keepers

Adeline Miller (Furman)

Phoebe Doty (d. 1850)




123 Anthony


167 Church


129 Anthony


32 Orange


167 Church


85 Cross


44 Orange


53 Crosby


9 Desbrosses


44 Orange


35 Leonard

39 Elm


29 Leonard


133 Reade


107 Mercer

44 Orange


12 Elm

— Mott


166 Church

39 Duane


133 Reade


134 Duane


130 Church


139 Church (last address)

Jane McCord


35 Warren


75 Duane

J. Ann Malloy

80 Reade



71 Mercer


112 Canal


633 Houston


112 Church


6 Staple


18 Mercer


56 W. Houston


155 W. Broadway


42 W. 15th


14 Mercer


24th Street

SOURCES : Record of Assessments, City Directories, Brothel Directories, Court of General Sessions Indictment Papers, Newspapers.

Day and other days. Table 16 illustrates the extent to which some madams or prostitution house keepers changed residential locations during their careers.

It is more difficult to trace the mobility of ordinary prostitutes who were inmates of brothels, but they too seem to have changed residences frequently. One 1860s source stated that the residents of brothels changed every two to three months.[27] If an ordinary prostitute continued in the employment of a particular madam, she moved with the house-


hold, but apparently many prostitutes were not, or did not feel, obligated to stay with a madam for very long. Many prostitutes left the profession altogether after a couple of years; others, like Helen Jewett, stayed in prostitution but looked for “change” by shifting to new locations. Although Jewett was killed at the young age of twenty-three, she had practiced prostitution in at least three different cities, and in the four to five years she was in New York, she lived in six different houses. All indications suggest that Jewett’s changes, like those of many other prostitutes, were at her volition rather than that of madams or officials.[28] The frequent movement of madams and ordinary prostitutes from house to house was not as disruptive to the overall trade, however, as might first seem to be the case. Many addresses of prostitution houses became notorious because brothels remained in operation at the addresses for several decades even though the madams and prostitutes in these residences changed often (table 17).

Despite prostitutes’ frequent relocation and their dispersal throughout the city, one can nonetheless pinpoint areas of prostitution activity that gained notoriety in different time periods and follow the geographic shifting of these regions in the decades between 1830 and 1870. Such findings probably overemphasize areas with brothels and prostitution boarding houses, as opposed to neighborhoods frequented by street-walkers, since the visible “temples of Venus” could be identified readily and represented to contemporary observers a localized vision of urban evils. Furthermore, the “brothel bias” is accentuated because addresses of known houses are easier for the historian to locate than the private rooms used by the floating and part-time prostitution population. However, as certain thoroughfares were famous for streetwalking activity, one can assume many of the prostitutes working these streets either used assignation rooms in the area or boarded nearby. A prostitute would not want to risk losing her time or a client’s “ardor” by having to walk a couple of miles to her quarters before consummating her proposition. Still, there were many women who practiced prostitution on a part-time or casual basis—servicing the local men in their immediate neighborhoods or trading sex for money with male companions when the opportunity was available or when they were economically pinched. Because these women may have worked very privately in quiet neighborhoods where commercial sex was less prominent, their numbers would not be reflected in a prostitution-activity-area evaluation. And finally, although special


Table 17
Long-Term Prostitution Establishments

55 Leonard

28 Anthony


Mary Blaylock


Abby Meade/Meyer


Ann Welden


Rosina Thompson


Ann Miller


Ann Boyd


Julia Brown


Mrs. Thomas


Rosanna Turner


Mrs. Shott


Mrs. Lyons


Lavina Stafford


Francis O’Kille


Mary Ann Foster

Cinderella Marshall


Maria Adams


Rosina Styles (for Adams)


Maria Adams

39 Thomas


Eliza Smith


Caroline Andrews


Mary Wall

100 Church


Susan Scott


Rebecca Cooper


Mrs. Price


Jane Ann Jackson


Susan Shannon


Mary Benson


Mary Robinson


Julia Brown


Mrs. Smith/Clark


Harriet Brandley


Matilda Green


Susan Sweet


Mrs. Kelly


Emma Andrews


Dorothy Myers


Dorothy Myers

136 Duane


Mrs. Meyer


Jane Williams


Sarah Tuttle


Jane Wilson


Jenny Winslow


Mary Howard


Mrs. Bushnell

SOURCES : Record of Assessments, City Directories, Brothel Directories, Court of General Sessions Indictment Papers, Newspapers.


time periods and geographic areas of concentration can be delineated, such time-frames and areas appear to be more precise than they actually were, since the expansion or shifting of prostitution activity to a new area was a gradual process.

One can discern the geographical changes in New York’s prostitution activity from the 1830s to the 1870s by dividing these years into roughly three periods. The first period, from 1830 to 1850, was the early period of expansion when prostitution “went public” and spread through lower Manhattan. Although prostitution activity moved inland, commercial sex establishments in the dock areas were not abandoned, and they continued to serve seamen, transients, dock laborers, and other poor males for the remainder of the century. The most famous area of prostitution in this early period was the Five Points and the sixth ward neighborhood surrounding it. Less raucous but equally well known to New Yorkers at the time was the area of parlor houses and prostitution boarding establishments in the side streets along Broadway, especially those on the thoroughfare’s western side in wards five, eight, and the northern part of ward three.

In the second period, from 1850 to 1865, the Five Points was still considered the scene of much of the city’s most debased prostitution activity, and sixth ward arrests for prostitution continued to lead those in other wards. In this decade and a half, prostitution in the Broadway West area showed the greatest expansion, both numerically and geographically, as it moved north toward Washington Square, shifting its locus from ward five to ward eight.

In the final period, from the end of the Civil War into the early 1870s, prostitution’s main center of activity again shifted further to the north, to the area beyond Washington Square between Seventh Avenue and Lexington, with a few scattered houses as far north as Fortieth Street. Some prostitution activity continued in the older neighborhoods of the Broadway West district to the south, but prostitution declined and became less fashionable as commercial and industrial establishments and warehouses took over the area. Opposite the Broadway West district in south Manhattan, prostitution fanned out from ward six into adjacent wards to the north and east, into the Bowery East area. The Five Points was more a district of the poor than of vice in this final period, and prostitution no longer drew the great numbers of men to the vicinity that it had in earlier years. Prostitutes in the dock areas, especially along


Water Street, continued to find customers among neighborhood inhabitants and unwary transients, but New York residents considered the district not only a poor slum but also one of its most dangerous neighborhoods (see map, p. 97, for areas of concentration).

This overview of prostitution population shifts tracks geographic changes that can be illustrated both chronologically and cartographically. A much clearer understanding of prostitution mobility is gained, however, by focusing in depth on each neighborhood area, so that the social changes that accompanied geographic shifts become more evident.

The Dock Areas

Since New York was a preeminent port and shipping terminal throughout the nineteenth century, the dock areas along the East River and up the west side on the Hudson River continued to be populated with seamen, laborers, and travelers. Ships stopping at the New York port brought approximately 22,000 crewmen to the city in 1835 and approximately 66,000 in 1860.[29] Catering to these seamen, other transients, and dock workers, prostitutes attached themselves to the many drinking and lodging establishments that were crowded into the vicinity of the docks. Two waterfront districts were especially well known for prostitution activity in the period 1830 to 1870—the Water and Cherry streets area, in the fourth and seventh wards, and Corlears Hook, a point of land at the east end of Grand Street, also in the seventh ward. The Battery, the riverfront park at the tip of Manhattan Island, was a favorite promenade of streetwalkers in the colonial period and remained popular until the mid-nineteenth century.

Even though known to be riotous and disorderly, the Water-Cherry streets area in the 1830s and 1840s still housed some of New York’s wealthiest families, especially along Cherry Street, where a number of substantial mansions were found. By the mid-1840s, however, most of the well-to-do had moved to other wards, and their once-grand residences were converted to tenements and brothels inhabited by poorer citizens.[30] Dock area streets also were filled with saloons and their attached prostitution quarters, usually second-story rooms above the


saloons. In some saloons the basement was used for dancing, and these dance houses became famous for their raucous activity. Prostitution and drinking establishments on one street in this area were so numerous they were said to be “standing almost cheek by jowl—more than forty of them in a single half-mile stretch.”[31] After mid-century, all commentators agreed that women practicing prostitution in the Water-Cherry streets area had sunk to the lowest depths of prostitution, becoming “living corpses.”[32] Having made the final descent to Water Street, a prostitute “almost immediately … falls a victim to the terrible scourge of these places. Disease of the most loathsome kind fastens itself upon her, and she literally rots to death.”[33]

Prostitution at Corlears Hook, northeast of Water and Cherry streets, had a similar reputation for degradation. Long known as an area of prostitution, “the Hook” has been proposed as the origin of the slang term hooker .[34] The district known as the Hook was located mostly in Walnut Street, a seven-block-long thoroughfare. Like prostitutes of the other dock areas, the women of the Hook were described as “bloated with rum and rotten with disease,” and they occupied themselves “chewing snuff, smoking tobacco, and eating opium, … exposed to every description of brutality and victims of every kind of excess. “[35] Because of the clientele of seamen and dock workers, the area was known to be rough, and it retained a reputation for low prostitution and drinking throughout the century. Yet it is difficult to determine how much of the vice-ridden and “low” reputation earned by the Hook and Water-Cherry streets areas was a function of their poverty and squalor and how much was a function of vice and corruption. There is also some abstraction in contemporary descriptions of such places, as if they were less observed locations than comfortably isolated moral locuses for all the broad evils urban observers both feared and found fascinating. As would be the case in other parts of New York as the century progressed, often those areas that became centrally defined by their poverty also became famous as centers of vice.[36]

The Five Points

Even more vital as a circumscribed symbol of all the new urban dangers was New York’s most notorious nineteenth-century pros-


15 and 16.
Two Views of the Five Points. These two nineteenth-century prints
of the notorious Five Points illustrate the variety of characters said to congregate
in this neighborhood, an area known for both licentiousness and poverty.
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)


titution area, the Five Points, a small commercial vice district in the sixth ward. Located on the site of a former swamp, the neighborhood became known throughout the United States and Europe as America’s “most famous slum.” To New Yorkers, it also was the symbol of all that was degenerate, debauched, and sinful in the city. The Five Points, which was formed by and got its name from the intersection of five streets, did not exist until the second decade of the century, when the Collect Pond was landfilled, and streets and structures were built over the site.[37] Attracting vice activities of all types, the Points was one of the first places to which prostitutes moved after dispersing beyond the dock areas.

Contemporaries who wrote about the Five Points could find little that was redeeming about the neighborhood. “Mere words can convey but a faint idea of the Five Points,” maintained one mid-century writer, though his and others’ descriptions seem to give a pretty good indication of the depth of their feelings: “sink of iniquity,” “plague spot,” “nest of vipers,” “hell of horrors,” “that infected district,” “the great central ulcer of wretchedness,” and “the very rotting Skeleton of Civilization, [from] whence emanates an inexhaustible pestilence that spreads its poisonous influence through every vein and artery of the whole social system.”[38] Respectable New Yorkers clearly enjoyed believing that the Five Points was the receptacle housing all of the city’s human garbage.

At the crossroads of the Five Points was a one-acre triangular plaza with the euphemistic title of Paradise Square. Emanating out from this park, the streets of the Five Points were lined with gambling dens, lottery offices, liquor stores, pawnbrokers, second-hand dealers, and all of the institutional forms of prostitution: brothels, cheap lodging houses, saloons, dance halls, and theaters. The concentration of this type of business establishment in the area prompted one contemporary to say that “nearly every house … is a groggery below and a brothel above”— a comment that had some truth in it, since during the decade of the 1830s almost two-thirds of the forty-three blocks surrounding the Five Points housed prostitutes on at least one occasion.[39]

Structures at the Five Points had been crowded into every conceivable open space along the quarter’s streets and alleyways, and about one-third of them were constructed of wood and were very ramshackle. Inside the buildings, prostitute and non-prostitute poor residents were crammed into every nook and cranny, giving the Five Points at mid-century the highest density of population in the city, twice as great as in the rest of the sixth ward. Because of the establishments’ appearance and activities,


many of the Five Points’ buildings were given sinister names by which they became well known to contemporary New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors such as Charles Dickens. Cut-Throat Alley, Squeeze Gut Alley, Bagler’s Alley, Cow Bay, Diving Bell, Swimming Bath, and Arcade were some of the “hotbeds of debauchery, wretchedness, and poverty” along Orange, Anthony, Little Water, and Cross streets.[40] Philip Hone described the establishments on Orange Street as “abodes of filth, destitution, and intemperance, . . . where water was never used internally or externally, and the pigs were contaminated by the contact of the children.” Using his swine analogy more than once in reference to Orange Street, Hone also said that the street’s inhabitants suffered “from personal neglect and [were] poisoned by eating garbage which a well-bred hog on a Westchester farm would turn up his snout at.”[41]

The descriptions of respectable contemporaries illustrate not only their objections to the immoral and vice-ridden Five Points residents but also their disdain for other large population groups that were housed in the community: the poor, blacks, and immigrants. Given the biases against these groups, it is often difficult to distinguish between situations that indicated blatant depravity and those that were indicative of extreme destitution, unfamiliar customs, and racially integrated social activities. Articles in the Sun in May 1834 illustrate this descriptive confusion. Writing about the Points during several days of May and June, an editor of the Sun noted it was a “resort of vagrants, vagabonds, and crime,” “of indecency, squalid poverty, and intemperance,” where people “riot and revel in continued orgies, and sober humanity is shocked and horrified. People are constantly attacked and robbed.”[42] This initial appraisal was followed by a visit to the Five Points and a first-hand account of what was seen. According to the journalist, those who live in and near the Five Points “endure literally, a hell of horrors, arising from their poverty and wickedness, such as few others on earth can suffer.” Houses known as the locations of prostitution activities were said to be divided and subdivided into numerous small and comfortless apartments, “the inmates sleeping or lying on heaps of filthy rags, straw, and shavings, the stench from which was almost insupportable . . . white women, and black and yellow men, and black and yellow women with white men, all in a state of gross intoxication, and exhibiting indecencies, revolting to virtue and humanity.”[43] Prostitution at the Five Points was promiscuous, unrefined, and interfacial, and it thus offended respectable citizens. Sixth ward vagrancy/prostitution arrests at mid-century, which


were almost totally of immigrants and blacks, also indicate that officials saw little distinction between public immorality and the poor, the immigrant, and the black. Offering an interesting counterpoint to these descriptions is Carol Groneman-Pernicorn’s analysis of the 1855 census, which reveals that the resident population of the Five Points was not primarily young, unattached individuals as one might suspect; rather, the area’s residents were actually slightly older than in the rest of the city and more likely to be married.[44]

Although the Five Points retained its reputation as a “haunt of vice, debauchery, and misery” for the remainder of the century, by the Civil War many citizens became more aware of the fact that the area’s population was most distinguished by its poverty. After 1850, groups such as the Ladies Home Mission Society moved into the Five Points and bought property formerly housing disreputable establishments. Offering job training and wages as well as redemption, they worked to change the Five Points. The northward movement of commercial development also helped alter the area.[45] Whatever the reasons for change, by 1860 many residents no longer viewed the neighborhood as the city’s center of sin. After conducting a house-by-house survey of the major streets of the vicinity in 1860, Samuel B. Halliday, a Five Points House of Industry missionary, noted that the Five Points no longer fit its stereotype. Strangers, he said, often assume the district is simply a collection of brothels, but his firsthand observations led him to conclude that “the number of abandoned women is very much smaller than those familiar with the region have supposed.”[46] Less than a decade later, James McCabe described the Five Points as “the realm of Poverty. Here want and suffering, and vice hold their courts. . .. Yet, bad as it is, it was worse a few years ago. There was not more suffering, it is true, but crime was more frequent here.”[47]

The Bowery East

Although prostitution at the Points declined somewhat, it remained significant in other parts of the sixth ward. Not far away, the Bowery, the favorite promenade of the working-class Bowery b’hoys and g’hals, also was the favorite thoroughfare of many poor streetwalking


prostitutes, who looked to working-class males for their customers.[48] After the Civil War, prostitution expanded beyond the region surrounding the southern end of the Bowery, moving into ward ten and the southern part of ward seventeen, or the Bowery East area. Although more significant later in the century, this enclave was characterized mostly by immigrant and working-class prostitutes and clientele. A contemporary described east-side prostitutes by saying:

The principal difference between them and their sisters of the west side is the fact that they are of a lower order, not so good-looking, and attire themselves in a very gaudy and showy manner in order to attract the attention of the passer-by. . .. There are many foreign girls on the east side—the Germans and the Irish predominating.[49]

Prostitutes in the Bowery East were patronized mostly by seamen, mechanics, workingmen, “fourth-rate actors and the Bowery b’hoys.”[50] Many New Yorkers considered the Bowery East to be a “closed and insular world, most of whose inhabitants worked, shopped, and played close to where they lived.”[51] Since play included commercial sex, local working-class prostitutes met the demands of their neighborhood.

Broadway West

Less famous to out-of-towners than the Five Points, but well known to nineteenth-century New Yorkers, was the Broadway West area of prostitution. Seemingly spilling out of the western sixth ward into the fifth ward and the northern part of the third ward, prostitution then flowed northward into ward eight and the western part of ward fourteen. Prostitution in this district was almost exclusively parlor houses, prostitution boarding houses, and assignation establishments. Catering to local residents, to travelers who lodged in the hotels only a block or two away on Broadway, and to patrons of the theaters and other amusement institutions, this region contained most of New York’s finest prostitution establishments from the 1830s until the Civil War.[52] The vicinity also contained many modest prostitution establishments, as well as some very “low” ones, and it attracted prostitutes from a variety of economic situations who, as streetwalkers, strolled up and down Broadway and its side streets looking for customers to take to some nearby room.[53]


During the period when prostitution flourished most in this area, Broadway and the adjacent streets also contained some of New York’s most elite residences and most prominent citizens as well as a cross section of the city’s blacks, immigrants, and poor. No part of New York better exemplified mixed land use. Churches were across the street from brothels, police stations were next door, and, when the National Theatre was destroyed by fire in 1841, it toppled onto the brothel of Julia Brown, partially destroying that establishment and killing one resident prostitute. Columbia College, New York’s oldest institution of higher education, was surrounded by brothels housing black and white prostitutes, and the great commercial establishments of Broadway served as a backdrop for a large proportion of the city’s streetwalkers. Interspersed among all these institutions were the homes of respectable New Yorkers.

As prostitution expanded northward between 1830 and 1870, the largest and most fashionable centers of parlor houses gave way gradually to neighborhoods further uptown. Brothel directories and other sources confirm this trend in both their brothel appraisals and numbers of houses listed in each ward. Through the 1840s, the fifth ward section of Broadway West had the greatest concentration of fashionable prostitution houses, but by the 1850s and early 1860s, ward eight and the southern part of ward fifteen below Washington Square surpassed ward five in brothel numbers and clientele status.[54] In the late 1860s, ward eight and the northern part of the Broadway West district experienced decline, as centers of prostitution activity continued to move northward. By 1870, Greene, Mercer, and Wooster streets, which only a few years earlier housed some of New York’s finest brothels, were described as “a complete sink of iniquity.” Within the area of six square blocks there were said to be forty-one houses of the “third class” or lower. “The scenes enacted here, the filth and turmoil would lead a stranger to suppose that he was in Baden Baden, or that old Sodom and Gomorrah had risen from their ashes to greet the sun once more.” By the 1860s, ward eight also became known for concentrations of black prostitution houses.[55]

Washington Square North

The region of prostitution that became most notorious after the Civil War was the Washington Square North area. Following


the migration of the general population up the island, some prostitutes had moved into the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street as early as the late 1850s. By 1870 a few houses of prostitution were found as far north as Fortieth Street, but the greatest concentration was from Twenty-Second to Twenty-Seventh Streets, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue on the east, and Seventh Avenue on the west. This area would become famous as New York’s Tenderloin district, home to the seven brothels along West Twenty-Fifth Street that would be known as “the Seven Sisters.” Another area of concentration was around Union Square and the vicinity of Fourteenth Street, which was later referred to as the Rialto. This neighborhood had attracted many of the city’s wealthiest citizens in the late 1840s and the 1850s, and after the Civil War it remained a location of some of the best places of leisure and amusement for the upper classes.[56]

Most of the prostitution in the Washington Square North area was housed in magnificent brownstone row houses. These structures were decorated even more elaborately and luxuriously than had been their sister institutions in the Broadway West vicinity a decade or two earlier. As one contemporary noted:

The furniture and appointments of the house[s] are of the most elegant description. Everything is there that money can procure which will gratify the eye or charm the senses. . .. The parlors are the same as those of any fashionable mansion on Fifth or Madison avenue, and in furnishing them it is aimed to make them look as nearly like the parlors of the fashionably respectable houses as can be.[57]

Although prostitution would continue to expand northward, moving into many new neighborhoods, the Washington Square North area would remain New York’s predominant district of prostitution into the twentieth century.

The Prostitute’s Workplace

Nineteenth-century New York neighborhoods contained a variety of institutions from which prostitutes plied their trade. No longer feeling bound by the secrecy that was required of their eighteenth-


century sisters, New York’s nineteenth-century prostitutes also did not feel restricted to the same institutions primarily used by eighteenth-century prostitutes for marketing their profession: taverns and waterfront lodging houses. This diversification in commercial sex institutions was both a contributor to and result of prostitution’s geographic and social expansion throughout the New York community.

Nineteenth-century prostitution institutions can be classified as either primary or secondary. The primary institutions, such as the brothel, the prostitution boarding house, and the assignation house, were established for the express purpose of marketing sex, and a male (or female) sought out one of these residences with that objective in mind. Although buying or selling sex might also be the primary motive of people attending other entertainment institutions, such as saloons, theaters, concert halls, and dance halls, these establishments ostensibly served other commercial functions, and prostitution was available as a secondary activity. Primary sexual institutions were residential in nature and were most often managed by female proprietors, while the secondary institutions featured leisure or entertainment and were predominantly operated by males.

The most common primary institution of prostitution was the brothel, also known as a parlor house, bawdy house, disorderly house, whore-house, bordello, bagnio, or seraglio.[58] Structurally, the brothel was most often a row house (New York’s architectural answer to limited, expensive land space), a narrow, several-storied residence linked to neighboring structures. The brothel usually had a parlor or living room for receiving and entertaining guests, with one to three floors of bedrooms above. In lower-class brothels the parlor or living room was a bar-reception room. Row houses served as brothels, prostitution boarding houses, rooming houses, assignation houses, and tenements, which allowed them to blend in with the houses of ordinary neighborhood citizens.

In its purest form, the parlor-house brothel was inhabited by from two to possibly twenty prostitutes who were managed by a madam in a communal or family-type arrangement. The madam and the prostitutes worked together as a “team,” creating the house’s ambience and reputation, though individual prostitutes might be well enough known to attract their own customers. Since the parlor house was both a workplace and residence, meals were provided, as was domestic service. The mad-


am functioned as household mistress, chief social hostess, and business manager. As business manager, she was responsible for paying all household bills. In some cases she may have been the recipient of all of the income of the house, granting each prostitute room, board, and a salary for her services. However, sources that elaborate on the financial practices of New York City brothels indicate that the madam seldom had total control over the receipts of the house, and prostitutes were not salaried; instead, they appear to have paid a weekly fee for room and board and then shared customer profits with the madam, or else they paid her a per-guest fee for each customer entertained.[59] This individual payment of room and board was one characteristic that caused many parlor house brothels to be referred to as prostitution boarding houses, a blurring of two institutional types that were popular in this period.[60]

The prostitution boarding house developed at the time that respectable boarding houses became popular in New York City. Just like individuals or families in respectable boarding houses, prostitutes rented separate rooms from the housekeeper but dined in common with the other resident prostitutes. Theoretically, the boarding house had less of a “team approach” than did the parlor house, since each prostitute was responsible for recruiting her own customers, but in practice, boarding prostitutes also serviced customers who knew of the existence of the boarding house but came without being recruited by a particular prostitute. A boarding house keeper, like a brothel madam, most likely charged the boarders a fee per customer and shared in the profits of liquor sales. Although a prostitution boarding house might not rent exclusively to prostitutes, in most cases a respectable woman would not wish to rent at such a house for fear of risking her good name. Many madams referred to their brothels as “boarding houses,” and they also established their businesses along the same principles as respectable boarding houses, muddling the terminology but taking advantage of the camouflage of respectability for the illicit operations of the house. Many brothels outwardly appeared as ordinary boarding houses to neighbors and authorities, and they were listed in city directories along with their reputable counterparts. Consequently, the distinctions between reputable and disreputable boarding houses were completely lost to the casual observer, and the operational distinctions between parlor-house brothel and prostitution boarding house ultimately disappeared. The term parlor


house eventually came to designate an exclusive and finely furnished brothel, as opposed to a lower-class or more commonplace brothel.[61]

The third type of primary prostitution establishment—the assignation house—also eludes precise definition because of the variety of functions it served. Theoretically, an assignation house was not a prostitution house, but a bedroom establishment where illicit and adulterous lovers could meet for a tryst. Rooms could be rented for a short period—a few hours or overnight. The most important characteristic of an assignation house was secrecy, so that couples could be assured that their identities would never be known to others inside or outside the house. Many assignation houses, like upper-class parlor houses, were lavishly decorated, with special attention given to the furnishings in the bedroom quarters. The parlor was not a communal entertaining room but served as a private waiting room until an individual or couple could be taken to a bedroom.[62] It was said that if prostitutes were allowed to patronize assignation houses, then the so-called respectable clientele would shun the establishments. This may have been true of some patrons, but on the whole New York’s assignation houses appear to have been well-integrated into the commercial sex structure, and business did not suffer because of it. Streetwalkers frequently used assignation houses for their prostitution activities, and there are numerous examples of assignation houses having a few prostitutes as permanent residents to serve patrons who were seeking prostitution in an establishment less notorious than a regular brothel. Some men found that, when having an extended liaison with a prostitute or non-prostitute, an assignation house offered both private and convenient quarters for lodging the “kept woman,” while other men rented assignation rooms on a long-term basis so that a private room would be immediately available for use whenever wanted.[63]

Although assignation houses were in plentiful supply and were increasingly popular during the period from 1830 to 1870, one should note that alternative establishments were also utilized by prostitutes as the century progressed. In effect, an assignation house functioned as a very private hotel and was particularly convenient since the early Broadway hotels resisted prostitutes as patrons. After the Civil War, discreet prostitutes found the large hotels not so reluctant to take their business, and some of New York’s more sophisticated prostitutes were able to use even the most fashionable Broadway hotels for servicing clients. James Mc-


Cabe noted in 1872 that “impure women of the ‘higher,’ that is the more successful class . . . abound at the hotels. The proprietor cannot turn them out unless they are notorious . . . for fear of getting himself into trouble.”[64] Bed houses and furnished rooming houses also became popular with some independent prostitutes who were attracted to the privacy gained by avoiding the boarding arrangements of the more common multiple-resident dwellings. The disadvantage of such an arrangement was that prostitutes had to worry about their own meals. At the bottom end of the scale, prostitutes worked out of tenement houses, often sharing crowded quarters with non-prostitute residents.[65]

Although panel houses are sometimes mentioned as an additional form of residential sex institution, in reality they were a form of brothel or assignation house to promote thievery. One or more rooms of a brothel or a bed house might be furnished with a curtain, wall, or movable panel from which another prostitute or a partner-in-crime could gain entry into the locked bedroom. While the customer was occupied in bed, the intruder would steal from the client’s pants pocket. The sex-for-money exchange had a new twist, but the institutional structure of the establishment remained the same.[66]

In spite of the fact that New York’s primary sex institutions were numerous, and their existence and locations were well known to many citizens, it was the public, undisguised presence of prostitutes in secondary sex institutions and public thoroughfares that made the profession so visible and seemingly pervasive throughout the urban social structure. Here prostitution moved openly in the public arena for all but the most naive or sheltered eye to see. Although some prostitutes remained discreet, for most prostitutes secondary sex institutions were public forums for sexual solicitation. Both male patrons and prostitutes attended the theater, the saloon, concert hall, or dancing hall expecting an evening of good entertainment but also an opportunity to buy or sell sex.

The theater was the most popular of New York’s entertainment institutions, and its connection with commercial sex was unmistakable because of the designation of the third tier as the exclusive province of prostitutes and their male suitors or friends. Just as mid-century New York led the nation in other fields, it also led the nation in numbers of theaters, and these establishments catered to all classes of the population. Although theaters like the Bowery had greatest appeal to boisterous


masses such as the Bowery B’hoys, while the Park and Broadway theaters attracted a more refined clientele represented by Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, all theaters had their prostitute population.[67] According to mid-nineteenth-century physician Charles Smith, “a particular set habitually and constantly frequent the third tiers of the theaters. There may be two hundred in all who nearly every night are seen at the Park, Broadway, Bowery, Olympic and Chatham theatres.” Smith also noted that the character of the “ladies” in the third tier varied with the house, just as did that of the regular audience. “The Park and Broadway are genteel and formal; the Olympic, bizarre and grotesque; and the Bowery and Chatham, sensual, bold and roystering.”[68] According to Smith there were three places a prostitute could appear in the theater—the third tier, the gallery (if thickly veiled), and the stage. The rest of the house was “considered sacred even by the third tier [who] won’t allow one of their own to appear elsewhere if they know it.”[69] An incident reported by Madam Mary Berry about three prostitutes from her brothel indicates that Smith may have been right about a “common code of theater behavior.” As Berry related the tale: “Hannah Blisset and lady Elizabeth stole out last night, and graced the Richmond Hill Theatre with their presence. They went in the first tier of boxes, got gloriously drunk, and were turned out. . .. English Ann was going to whip the pair.”[70]

New Yorkers generally understood that the third tier was a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients. Prostitutes made arrangements to join their customers of long standing at the theater, but they also made new client contacts there, both in the third tier and at the nearby bar that serviced their gallery. Some men went up to the third tier without previous arrangements in order to look over the prospects, while others were taken by mutual friends to be introduced to a prostitute.[71] A prostitute hoped to be escorted home by a customer at the end of the performance, or even better, to be taken out to dinner before going home. Sometimes suitors were impatient about waiting until the end of the evening. Prostitute Louisa Wilson met a man in the third tier of the Park who asked her to leave in the middle of the performance and accompany him to a house behind the theater, where he paid her a $2.50 retainer. They returned for the remainder of the performance and then left for her brothel.[72]


Third Tier of the Park Theatre. This 1822 watercolor of the Park Theatre,
which clearly shows the “ladies of the third tier,” includes actual portraits of eighty-
four well-known New York figures. One of the patrons in the second tier was Jake
LeRoy, who shocked New Yorkers by his highly visible relationship with prostitute
Fanny White. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)


Prostitute Mary Steen entertained a customer at her brothel on Chapel Street early one evening, and afterward he suggested they catch the performance at the Park Theatre. Steen said she and her “girls” were in the habit of going to the Bowery because they liked the manager there, so her escort consented and bought two tickets for the third tier of the Bowery. During the performance Steen slipped away to the bar, where her date shortly discovered her drinking with another man. She refused to return to her date, apparently because she was trying to line up a second commission for the evening. Later, the spurned escort spotted her in an adjoining box and was so enraged he attacked her with a pen knife, cutting up the sleeve of her dress.[73] Such disruptive and rowdy behavior was not unusual in the third tiers of theaters and often triggered complaints from the rest of the house. There are several instances of prostitutes having men arrested for tearing their clothes or bonnets, and one third-tier frequenter had a man arrested for trying to kiss her.[74] More often, however, arrests were made for prostitutes fighting with each other or being drunk and disorderly.[75]

Another complaint from theater patrons was that the numerous prostitutes attending the theater “enter by the same door as the chaste.”[76] Contemporary George Foster lamented that prostitutes “come up the same steps and stairs as our wives, and into the same lobby.”[77] Although a separate stairway for prostitutes was incorporated into the building design of many nineteenth-century theaters in other cities, this feature was late in coming to some of New York’s biggest theaters, which sometimes required remodeling to add a staircase on the outside of the building.[78] Even though the third tier and, later, the special stair separated prostitutes from the general public, there was a limit to the isolation of prostitutes. When the manager of one of the city’s dramatic establishments erected a partition to shut off the prostitutes from other patrons altogether, “he soon yielded to the dreadful necessity of the stage, and the protest of this class, and removed the partition.”[79]

Nineteenth-century newspapers and contemporary accounts note how frequently prostitutes attended the theater, but to credit this popularity primarily to the desire or need to solicit clients is to ignore the full dimensions of the prostitute’s working life. With the prostitute’s workplace and residence the same, the theater offered a way to “get out of the house.” It was also a place where her presence was not legally questioned. Furthermore, the theater was one of the opportunities a


prostitute had for escape, for vicariously experiencing the lives of others. For those who were illiterate and did not have the alternative option of reading magazines and popular novels, the theater may have been especially important. Theater attendance was also a social occasion—a way to meet new people or old acquaintances in an environment not necessarily associated with sex. Many theaters opened the third tier one to two hours prior to the performance, which allowed prostitutes a longer time to socialize with fellow prostitutes and male friends—while increasing the bar revenues for the house. The early entry hour also was a way to avoid the complaints of respectable patrons who preferred not to mix with the unchaste.[80]

Documents pertaining to the life of Helen Jewett repeatedly attest to the importance of the theater in the lives of Jewett and her fellow prostitutes. In the Jewett correspondence there are twenty-three letters in which some reference is made to the theater, usually in the context of meeting a client or lover at the Park Theatre, of which Jewett was a devoted patron. (See Appendix 2 for a full explanation of the Jewett correspondence.) One letter discussed a man’s failure’ to get Jewett together with one of his friends at the end of the previous night’s performance. The intended acquaintance had hoped to “escort her home,” but there was a misunderstanding. The same client/friend wrote two other letters mentioning the theater—one of which asked why Jewett left the playhouse without him the night before, without even saying goodbye. Jewett apparently had gone to the theater with the friend, had become perturbed, and left in a carriage with fellow prostitutes from other brothels.[81]

Most of the letters to and from Jewett’s lover discussed the couple’s hoping to see, or failing to see, one other on various evenings at the theater. While the letters were solicitations to meet together at the playhouse or at her brothel, the relationship was of long enough duration that attendance at the theater was a social outing for the couple as well as an attempt by Jewett to have the lover’s company at the brothel afterward.[82] In one letter Jewett indicated she went to the theater for two nights in a row hoping to see the lover; failing, she wrote with some irony and humor:

You will think I have degenerated sadly to go to the theatre two nights in succession, but to tell you the truth, the sole inducement in going last night


was the pleasure I anticipated from seeing you, in which you are aware I was disappointed.[83]

On another occasion, Jewett wrote that she had failed to persuade a male acquaintance, to whom her lover wished to be introduced, to meet her at the theater that evening. Even though she was unable to arrange the introduction for her lover, she stated: “I wish you would drop in there tonight, as I am going quite early.” Her reference to her early attendance at the theater is a further indication of the prostitutes’ enjoyment of the theater’s “third tier social hour.”[84]

Jewett also kept up with the Park’s performance schedule and made an effort to attend those shows that promised to be special. In June of 1835 she wrote:

Tonight is Chapman’s farewell benefit at the Park. I have an engagement to go with Clara, and if you get in town, and my letter in season, you will have arrived most opportunely, for then we may expect the pleasure of your company.[85]

On another occasion she hoped ill health would not keep her away from a promising performance:

I am quite unwell this morning, and unable to go out. Wallack plays tonight in two of his best pieces, and I should very much like to go, and hope by evening to feel well enough. You know it will be Saturday night, and I do not ask you to promise, but may I expect you to bring me home?[86]

Jewett also appeared to have some personal associations among theater personnel. She once wrote to her lover teasingly: “I had a little private chat with the manager of a certain theatre since you have been gone; which, however, I intend to explain and obtain entire absolution for.”[87] She also entertained another theatrical personage as a client and received letters from him discussing dramatic and literary affairs. In December 1835 “J. J. A. S.” wrote:

I went last evening with my good lady and her daughter, to watch the performance of Reeve, but we were all much disappointed. . .. I hope you will pardon the shortness of this feeble attempt to assure you of my regard for you. It is not the want of friendly sentiment, but of time, as I am now busily engaged with Simpson, the manager, in bringing forward a drama, of which I am the humble author.[88]


Many prostitutes were connected to actors and actresses, and the comment of Chapel Street madam Mary Steen that she liked the Bowery manager because he was a “clever fellow” may have indicated she knew him more than just by reputation.[89]

The open toleration of prostitutes at New York’s dramatic establishments left no doubts in the minds of many that theatrical institutions were immoral. Many parents were certain that unchaperoned attendance at the theater meant that a daughter would become a prostitute— or already had become one. Thus, if a girl were found in one of the city’s playhouses, parents sometimes had her arrested and sent to the House of Refuge.[90] One young man, who said he “accidentally” had gone into the third tier, discovered his sister there and had her taken to the police station.[91] The Advocate of Moral Reform believed that theaters were responsible for corrupting not just young women but also New York’s children. They reported that girls as young as ten and eleven were in the habit of attending the third tier of the Franklin Theatre “for purposes of prostitution,” and young boys of similar ages were found there with them. The Advocate also reported that one officer had said that girls from as young as three to thirteen (italics mine) had been found in the third tier. Given such information, it is not surprising that some observers believed that the increasing immorality of the entire city could be traced to its dramatic establishments.[92] As one editor wrote:

To the theatres of this city, above all other places, is the iniquity that abounds to be traced. . .. They are sinks of vice and pollution—houses of assignation and incipient prostitution—in four words, The Vestibules of Hell![93]

Whether it was the fact that prostitutes frequented the theater or a belief that the clientele and productions induced licentiousness in others, many people shunned the theater as an immoral establishment. One nineteenth-century scholar of the theater went so far as to estimate that seven-tenths of the population in mid-century America looked on attendance at the theater as a sin.[94]

Public condemnation of the third tier ultimately led to a movement to have prostitutes banned from New York’s theaters, but either the prostitute’s presence was not deemed offensive enough or her patronage was found to be too financially important to allow such legislation to pass.[95] Nevertheless, by the end of the 1850s the third tier as a place where prostitutes could solicit clients had begun to disappear. According


to William Sanger, “many of the managers of our best theatres have abolished the third tier . . . and if any improper woman visits them she must do so under the assumed garb of respectability and conduct herself accordingly.”[96] Even after the demise of the third tier in the period after the Civil War, New Yorkers commented on the continued importance of prostitutes’ attendance at the theater. By this time, however, it appears prostitutes had come to prefer matinee performances to evening shows. One 1869 source noted that New York prostitutes “entirely support the theatre matinees,” and another 1860s commentator pointed out that the attendance of prostitute patrons was important to theaters throughout the East: “In some instances in Eastern cities, in addition to free admissions, messengers have been sent to the haunts of vile women, to invite their attendance as the necessary attraction of a large and indispensable portion of the patrons of the stage.”[97] Whether “under the assumed garb of respectability” or not, the prostitute’s attendance at the theater remained important to the American stage in the postwar era.

No other secondary institutions appear to have had as wide an appeal to the prostitution population as did the theater, but various other entertainment establishments were popular with many of these women, whose presence in turn was a draw for male patrons. Taverns, groggeries, and saloons had long served as complementary establishments to the prostitution business. Eighteenth-century prostitutes entertained their customers in small rooms behind or above saloons, or they picked up clients in the vicinity of public taverns and took them to nearby lodging houses for sexual transactions. As prostitution spread throughout the city in the nineteenth century, however, new varieties of public leisure developed just as did new forms of residential prostitution. The traditional saloon continued to thrive along the waterfront and in such areas as the Five Points, but some proprietors added music and dancing to their businesses. German prostitution establishments introduced a variation of the saloon to mid-century New Yorkers. A German couple often ran the business together, the husband working as bartender and the wife as madam, with both overseeing the young women who served as waitresses and dancing partners in the barroom and as prostitutes in the bedrooms behind or above. Mid-century New York also witnessed the development of another form of drinking establishment, the concert saloon. Although a few concert saloons (or concert halls) existed in the 1850s, their great surge in popularity came after the Civil War when


more than three hundred such establishments existed in New York City. Furthermore, the concert saloon rose in popularity at the same time the New York theater was restricting prostitutes in its effort to become more respectable, thus filling a “leisure-entertainment recruiting” void for some women in the prostitution business as well as a general cultural void for New Yorkers who wanted cheap but lively entertainment.[98]

Most concert saloons were located on major thoroughfares, in the basement or second floor of a building. The essential ingredients of the business were a bar, music, and “waiter girls.” Some establishments also offered keno or billiards. Most concert halls had a stage for performances, and the music of the establishment was provided by one or more musicians who alone or with other entertainers might also provide the stage show. Waiter girls were a major attraction of the establishment and varied from the elegantly clothed, dignified woman with the “sister-like” demeanor employed at the Broadway and Fifth Avenue concert saloon to the “beastly, foul-mouthed, brutal wretch” who worked on Canal, Chatham, or Water streets.[99] Cheap liquor was furnished at inflated prices, and the waitress got a percentage of the drinks she sold. Her prostitution business was a private negotiation, which she arranged at the concert saloon but practiced in quarters elsewhere, unless private alcoves were made available by the establishment. Police records indicate that as many as seventeen hundred women were employed as waiter girls in the post-Civil War years. Although at first considered improper entertainment for respectable women, by the latter part of the nineteenth century concert halls were attracting a non-prostitute clientele, especially young working women.[100]

Another entertainment institution that was sometimes identified with the concert saloon was the dance hall. Dance halls were popular in New York as early as the 1840s, especially in areas like Water Street and the Five Points. According to one contemporary, dance halls differed from concert saloons in that “they are one grade lower both as regards the inmates and the visitors, and . . . dancing as well as drinking is carried on in them.”[101]

Another contemporary described one of the dancing houses of the Five Points as “a large dimly-lighted cavern” having an “intolerable stench of brandy, tobacco, and steaming carcasses.” A fiddler, sitting on a barrel by the bar, played for a group of dancers while “around the sides of the room in bunks, or sitting upon wooden benches, the remainder


John Allen’s Dance Hall. John Allen’s was one of New York’s most
famous “secondary sex institutions,” a place of public entertainment
where prostitutes could recruit customers. (Courtesy American Antiquarian Society)

of the company wait[ed] impatiently their turn upon the floor—meanwhile drinking and telling obscene anecdotes, or singing fragments of ribald songs.”[102]

The most reputable of the nineteenth-century dance houses was Harry Hill’s, which opened in the mid-1850s and was located on Houston Street near the Mulberry Street police station. Men paid twenty-five cents to enter, but women were allowed in free. All patrons were “required” to act with decorum, a house rule that the owner, a former pugilist, enforced for the thirty years his establishment was in business. Soliciting was an accepted part of dance halls, but at Harry Hill’s it had to be done unobtrusively, and any illicit activities had to take place off the premises. Hill’s had a large barroom as well as a dance hall, and patrons were treated to floor shows, one reason why some referred to his establishment as a concert hall. Harry Hill’s closed in the late 1880s, the era when the concert hall was declining in popularity; his establishment had spanned the heyday of this form of entertainment. By the end of the century, former patrons of the concert saloon, including prostitutes,


turned to the cabaret as the latest form of public entertainment, which prostitutes regarded as the newest secondary sex institution.[103]

One form of prostitution was centered not in buildings but outside them—the practice of streetwalking. The most well known of the soliciting techniques used by prostitutes, streetwalking was a very significant part of nineteenth-century New York’s prostitution culture and, more than any other aspect of this culture, tested the limits of tolerance of New York citizens. Streetwalking became a major political issue.

Many women chose streetwalking as their arena of prostitution because of its ready availability. For the casual prostitute wishing for a quick source of money, streetwalking was a way temporarily to enter the profession without the “commitment” associated with a house of prostitution. Some career prostitutes chose this method of solicitation because they wanted to operate as independents—neither sharing their profits with nor having to adhere to rules set by the madam of an establishment. Other women had no alternative but streetwalking because they had descended the professional ladder of brothel prostitution and were considered too old, sick, or slovenly to be accepted again as brothel inmates.[104] Many very young girls, in fact child prostitutes, gradually eased into streetwalking as an extension of their peddling and huckstering activities and looked on their prostitution less as a new job than as another aspect of the street-world’s exchange and barter of whatever commodity one had or could find.[105]

When Sanger wrote that “prostitution no longer confines itself to secrecy and darkness, but boldly strides through our most thronged and elegant thoroughfares,” he accurately described the transition of street-walking from the out-of-the-way streets of the eighteenth-century dock areas to the city’s busiest thoroughfares and walkways—the Battery, the Bowery, and Broadway. Although the Battery had long been a resort of New York’s streetwalkers, it gained new prominence in the antebellum period. The Battery was said to be “the favorite park of New Yorkers, and was indeed the handsomest.”[106] For prostitutes, it was a convenient and pleasant promenade where one could stroll looking for business. In the 1840s a plan was proposed for enlarging Battery Park through landfills, a plan many commercial groups opposed. Preferring to see the enlarged area used for commercial development, the Journal of Commerce noted that the city could ill afford to have a park where land was worth $150,000 an acre and there was so little to be had at any price.


“If land is wanted for solitary meditation, or for the concealment of villainy, it would be better to select a site where land is cheaper.”[107] By mid-century, however, the “villainy” of prostitution, as well as the respectable New York citizenry, had all but abandoned the area for other favorite walking places. The conversion of Castle Garden to an immigrant depot in the late 1850s, along with the use of poor landfill materials, helped bring on the decline of the Battery, causing it to become a virtual slum until it was reclaimed in 1869.[108]

Next to Broadway, the Bowery was said to be “the most thoroughly characteristic” of New York streets. The street originated in Chatham Square, “the great promenade of the old time denizens of the Bowery.” Once a respectable thoroughfare, “the Bowery commenced to lose caste” after the city began to extend up the island. A nineteenth-century citizen noted: “Decent people forsook it, and the poorer and more disreputable classes took possession. Finally, it became notorious, . . . known all over the country for its roughs . . . and its doubtful women.”[109] The street was filled with pawnshops, dance houses, lodging houses, concert saloons, and lower-class theaters. Although always a busy thoroughfare, at night and on Sundays the Bowery came especially alive with noise and throngs of people, including the Bowery streetwalkers whom George T. Strong described as “members of the whore-archy in [their] most slatternly deshabille .”[110]

By far, the most famous New York thoroughfare was Broadway—New York’s pride and her shame, celebrated as “the most wonderful street in the universe.”[111] Filled with elegant shops, “monster” hotels, and the latest in transportation vehicles, a look at Broadway was a “must” for all visitors to New York. Few contemporary sources discussed the city without mentioning the beautiful, elegantly dressed women who promenaded the famous thoroughfare in the afternoons—and few discussed Broadway without mentioning the “flashily dressed” females found there at night, “walking rapidly, with a peculiar gait, and glancing quickly but searchingly at every man they pass.”[112] As the heart of the city moved from the tip of Manhattan in the 1830s to the middle of the island in the postwar years, streetwalking shifted in location and intensity along Broadway just as did the centers of brothel prostitution. First concentrating in the area from Fulton to Prince Street, then from Canal to Bleecker, by the 1870s the prime areas for streetwalkers were from Grand to Fourteenth Street, and from Twenty-third to Thirtieth Street.[113]


Working the streets exposed prostitutes to a number of dangers— mugging, rape, and other abuses, as well as disease and physical decline. Whatever the reality of the streets’ deleterious effects on these women, one nineteenth-century observer expressed a common belief when he noted: “A healthy Street Walker is almost a myth.”[114] Another risk faced by the streetwalking trade was harassment and possible arrest by police, since streetwalking was the least tolerated of the various forms of soliciting. Streetwalking prostitutes were subject to arrest if they stopped to talk to male pedestrians, and police enforced this rule much more aggressively on a major street like Broadway than on the less traversed side streets.[115] Sometimes a difficulty with the law occurred because of the streetwalker’s unfortunate choice of patron; several streetwalkers were arrested for propositioning justices. Justice Hopson said he was on his way to court when Anne Miller stopped him at the corner of Water Street and, as she stated, “made the mistake of soliciting directions.” He had her arrested, questioned what she did for a living, and sent her to the penitentiary for six months.[116] Catherine Cochran detained Justice Lowndes on Pearl Street one December evening and “made certain delicate but immoral overtures.” Lowndes had Cochran brought in to the station house but released her after she promised to behave herself. Six days later she was arrested again by the watch for annoying a man in the street, and this time Lowndes sent her to Bellevue as a vagrant.[117] A few months later, Justice Bloodgood said he was taking a “sentimental stroll” through the Five Points when a woman stopped him and asked “if it wasn’t time to go to bed.” He had the watch lock her in jail until the next morning, when she went before Justice Lowndes and complained that she had “accidentally run against a stout gentleman” who was “so ungallant that he wouldn’t listen to her apology but roughly and gruffly sent her in.” Lowndes reprimanded her severely and let her go.[118] Since “evidence” was seldom necessary to arrest a suspected prostitute, it is unlikely the justices were in questionable neighborhoods for entrapment purposes. These occurrences were probably unfortunate accidents for the prostitutes as well as examples of how prostitutes approached pedestrians, but it is also possible that the justices were out strolling for voyeuristic reasons, observing and experiencing up close the underworld of illicit sex.[119]

By the 1850s pressure from citizens and politicians caused officials to take, on occasion, a more aggressive approach to the problem of


streetwalking. The practice had become too obvious and too intrusive, characteristics that challenged the community’s usual attitude of quiet toleration of the profession. Articles in the press decried

the shame of our city, . . . the open and indecent parade permitted of miserable women of the lowest sort in Broadway at all hours from nightfall until far past midnight. . .. Has not this abomination been borne about as long as society can safely bear it? Is not this . . . a favorable time to attempt to purge Broadway of this, its greatest disgrace?[120]

The perceived boldness of streetwalkers was partly a function of the sheer numbers of prostitutes who were found on the major thoroughfares, but as distressing as their numbers was the nature of the women walking the streets. The streetwalkers of the 1850s were women who overwhelmingly represented the disinherited and undesirable of New York. The majority of them were drawn from the immigrant and poor classes, those who were hardest hit by the economic stresses of the decade. Also, the practice increasingly included children, or young girls who were described by George Strong as “hideous troop[s] of ragged girls, from twelve years old down, brutalized already almost beyond redemption by premature vice, . . . with whore [written] on their depraved faces.”[121] With the increasing presence of children added to the immigrants and the poor in the ranks of prostitution, the rhetoric of reform shifted away from the immorality of illicit sex to what really bothered respectable citizens most: the specter of social disorder, a threat they believed was created more by unacceptable appearances than by sexual immorality itself. Discussing Mayor Wood’s reform program, Strong wrote:

What the Mayor seeks to abolish or abate is not the terrible evil of prostitution (for the great notorious “ladies’ boarding houses” of Leonard and Mercer Streets are left in peace), but simply the scandal and offence of the peripatetic whore-archy. [122]

Nevertheless, Strong agreed with the Mayor’s reform intent—for prostitution’s “conspicuousness and publicity are disgraceful and mischievous and inexpressibly bad.”[123] William Sanger, writing a few years later, confirmed that the general attitude among contemporaries supported Wood: “Being a prostitute is acknowledged by all as a degradation; while a vagrancy commitment . . . is a positive disgrace.”[124] As with


prostitution establishments, where the distinctions noted by contemporaries between the elegant and the poor establishments seemingly reflected New Yorkers’ fear of and fascination with new or strange aspects of urban living as much as they did actual differences in the types of houses, the streetwalker or vagrant also became a moral locus or symbol of urban chaos and social disorder. Not only was the streetwalker often poor and foreign, but she also walked through the streets unchaperoned, an act which further challenged patriarchal notions of proper social order.

The presence at mid-century of so many child prostitutes represented a different kind of threat to society, one that involved a failure of the family, the institutional backbone of American society. In response to this threat, interest groups coalesced to become advocates and protectors of this segment of the population. While Chief of Police Matsell and Mayor Wood attacked prostitution in the streets, organizations like the Children’s Aid Society and the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor attacked its perceived source, the poor man’s home. Yet all of the moralistic rhetoric and public statements condemning streetwalkers and the improper homes of child prostitutes obscured the fact that streetwalking was a quick source of income, often the best option a female had for supporting, or helping to support, herself and her family.

The end result of the 1850s legal and reform campaigns against streetwalkers was the issuance of municipal directives providing a more cautious method of arresting and pressing charges against adult prostitutes. Even so, most of the women found their fate still dependent on the whim of the officer on duty. Most of those arrested continued to be sent for a short while to prison, the revolving door of prostitution. For child prostitutes, a different approach was tried. In the past, young girl prostitutes had been sent to the House of Refuge where, through the strict regimen and rigid discipline of the Refuge or indentured positions, the girls, it was hoped, were taught respectable habits—a remedial approach that met with modest success. In contrast, the Children’s Aid Society trained working-class girls in the domestic arts, because such skills were believed to offer these girls an alternative to prostitution and to create, in the long run, a new kind of working-class woman. By the 1860s, the large anti-streetwalking campaigns of the 1850s were a thing of the past, but streetwalkers, both adults and children, continued to


throng the city’s thoroughfares, seeking a readily available source of income.[125]

Although streetwalking was the most common form of soliciting by prostitutes, some found other creative ways to attract clients. In the early decades of the nineteenth century when New York was a “walking city,” streetwalking on the city’s thoroughfares was an adequate way to be exposed to potential clients. With the rise of each new form of public transportation, however, prostitutes extended their solicitation efforts. They not only congregated at depots of ferries, ships, and omnibuses to seek out disembarking passengers, but they also rode the routes to allow greater time for establishing “rapport.” Some observers complained that prostitutes had overrun the night lines of steamers traveling from New York to cities like Albany and Boston and consequently had become a great nuisance to respectable travelers.[126]

New York’s prostitutes also utilized literary forms of solicitation. Some corresponded with prospective and established clients, using both mail and messenger services. Helen Jewett wrote to men who had visited her previously, requesting that they return, and she wrote to new acquaintances encouraging them to call sometime.[127] Soliciting through correspondence gave Jewett greater control over her time and her calendar. She scheduled visits for particular nights and hours, thus avoiding the surprise of spontaneous visits and the embarrassment and difficulty of having two or more well-liked clients show up at the same time.[128]

In addition to private correspondence, the personal columns of the daily newspapers became popular in the postwar period for arranging both introductions and assignations between illicit lovers. Even more offensive to some newspaper readers than these printed messages between lovers was prostitutes’ use of the personals column to announce to the public their moves from one brothel to another. For example:

Miss Gertie Davis, formerly of Lexington Avenue, will be pleased to see her friends at 106 Clinton Place.[129]

Another form of literary solicitation popular in this period was the brothel directory, several of which were published from the 1830s through the 1870s, each giving locations of the most reputable brothels as well as descriptions of the establishments, their madams, and the house prostitutes.[130] Though the establishments and neighborhoods


Gentlemen’s Directory. This 1870 brothel guidebook assisted patrons
in locating and evaluating the city’s “temples of love.” (Courtesy of the New-
York Historical Society, New York City)

described in brothel directories were usually the more appealing and elegant places of prostitution, such as the places George T. Strong called “the great, notorious ‘ladies’ boarding houses’ of Leonard and Mercer Streets,” newspapers and reform tracts repeatedly reminded New Yorkers there were also “dens of filth and debauchery” located at the Hook, in Water Street, or at the Five Points. Both sorts of descriptions were of real places, establishments that actually existed within more broadly defined geographic divisions of prostitution. Yet one sees within the descriptions of what actually was, visions of what must be—the moral prototypes of what New Yorkers feared was threatening the social fiber of the city. Both the tempting licentious palaces of sumptuous luxury and the retributive pestilent dens of debauchery were generalizations within a moralistic framework that helped residents deal with what seemed worrisome in their changing society.

In spite of New Yorkers’ attempts at a geographic and institutional ordering of prostitution and related evils, the women to whom George


T. Strong referred as the “peripatetic whore-archy” or the “noctivagous strumpetocracy” were not readily “ordered.”[131] As Sanger noted, they were boldly striding through the most “thronged and elegant thoroughfares, and there, in the broad light of the sun, . . . jost[ling] the pure, the virtuous, and the good.”[132] Some citizens may have been alarmed by the public specter of prostitution, but there was another aspect of prostitutes’ existence in the city that reflected a different relationship with New Yorkers. Censuses and tax records demonstrated that prostitutes also were quietly living in the next block, down the street, or in an adjacent room—fellow New York citizens and neighbors who were coping with daily living in the nation’s largest urban metropolis.


“Upon the Foot-Stool of God”
Working Conditions of Prostitutes

Many nineteenth-century contemporaries believed that the degrading and dehumanizing conditions of prostitution caused a woman unavoidably to experience a complete character change. The woman who was once pure in nature supposedly became totally depraved, capable of an assortment of crimes and the most disgusting actions. Charles Smith devoted an entire chapter of his 1847 book on prostitution and abortion in New York to a discussion of a phenomenon which he said “astonished all observers”: the “extreme and marvelous rapidity with which the purest girls become depraved” once they became prostitutes. According to Smith, a pure girl would become a prostitute, and within a few months she would be bold, brazen, impudent, audacious, foul-mouthed, and vulgar, apparently destitute of all sense of decency and shame. “An angelic woman,” he claimed, “becomes the most revolting creature that crawls upon the foot-stool of God.”[1] An 1837 commencement speaker at Columbia College argued that “in the female character there is no mid-region; it must exist in spotless innocence, or else in hopeless vice.”[2] The “poison” of prostitution, wrote contemporary George Foster, “is active as lightning, and produces a kind of moral insanity, during which the victim is pleased with ruin. . .. The woman is transformed to a devil and there is no hope for her.”[3]

These observations helped uphold contemporary notions that women must be either mother-angels or whore-devils and also helped rationalize


why women, though initially victims, would stay in the prostitution profession. Part of the attempt by contemporaries to explain the nature of women who would violate accepted norms of womanhood and become prostitutes also involved an attempt to explain and impose some kind of order on the underworld of commercial sex which had expanded so greatly. Most nineteenth-century observers who wrote about prostitutes utilized an elaborate hierarchical cataloguing of prostitution establishments and their inhabitants, partly as a way of imposing order on the institutions of sexual commerce and partly as a distancing technique. As Judith Walkowitz has pointed out, the use of stratification helped to depersonalize the social underworld and establish a demarcation between the respectable and “dangerous” classes of society.[4]

The hierarchical method of describing commercial sex establishments was first used in 1836 by Parent-Duchatelet, whose method was apparently imitated by most of New York’s observers of prostitution. Writing in the decade after Parent-Duchatelet and basing his observations on his experiences as a physician among New York’s prostitutes, Charles Smith was the first to analyze and classify New York’s prostitution businesses. Sex establishments were judged by the luxury and comfort they offered; the refinement, behavior, and attractiveness of the women who worked in and managed them; and the socioeconomic status of clients who patronized them. Establishments also were characterized by the types of “lovers” drawn to the class of prostitutes who resided there. Writing a decade after Smith, William Sanger used the same types of classifications and categories but was more “scientific” and more like Parent in that he incorporated into his study not only his professional observations but also statistical data from actual research among these women. Sex establishments and prostitutes’ working conditions also were described in more “popular” antebellum works, the urban sketches in which readers were guided on fictional tours through the dens of vice and poverty of the New York underworld. In the late 1840s and early 1850s several journalists published book-length sketches, such as Solon Robinson, Hot Corn: Life Scenes in New York Illustrated ; Ned Buntline (E. C. Z. Judson), Mysteries and Miseries of New York ; and George Foster, New York in Slices, New York by GasLight , and New York Naked . Literature published after the Civil War drew from both types of antebellum works, keeping the class stratification of the scientific observers but combining commercial sex clas-


sifications with the voyeuristic style used by Foster, Robinson, and Buntline. These postwar authors attempted to educate the reader on the “other,” “under,” or “nether” world of prostitution. Most of these writers, such as George Ellington, Matthew Hale Smith, James D. McCabe, and Edward Crapsey, not only adopted the format of earlier authors but also closely followed each others’ works in content, organization, and style, basically repeating the information given by the most recently published of their group.[5] In spite of the fact that many of these nineteenth-century descriptions were manipulated to create a well-delineated hierarchy, they are valuable as general descriptions of how urban prostitution was organized in the United States from the early decades of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, and they offer examples of the vast range of conditions under which nineteenth-century prostitutes worked.

For most of the laboring population of nineteenth-century urban America, working conditions were less than desirable. A sweatshop; a poorly ventilated, often unsafe factory; or the crowded, dark, unsanitary home-laborer’s tenement provided the physical environment most New Yorkers could expect for their daily employment. The majority of New York prostitutes were poor, so they, too, faced a work environment oftentimes as dismal as that experienced by their non-prostitute peers. Yet there was another side to prostitution, visible to all and tempting to many, that offered prospects for improved working conditions—conditions far more comfortable than the ordinary working woman could ever hope to experience. The possibilities for wealth and luxury increased greatly over the century, and well-to-do New Yorkers built residential structures that reflected their economic success, surrounding themselves with material objects of the finest and most luxurious kinds. Those prostitution houses that catered to a prosperous level of client duplicated this opulent atmosphere, appealing to a client’s economic aspirations as well as his sexual fantasies. Some brothels were filled with the best furnishings available, while others settled for ostentatious or tawdry imitations. Many women entered prostitution dreaming of working in a more luxurious atmosphere, but most hoped simply to achieve comforts and working conditions better than those they faced in respectable employments. Since clients’ expectations and economic resources varied, there was always a demand for houses with different levels of luxury and comfort, as well as for prostitutes who exhibited


distinctions in refinement and behavior commensurate with the status of the houses. Responding to market demands, the prostitution business in nineteenth-century New York supplied a diversity of houses and women, establishments that could cater to patrons from every social and economic class—the rich and the poor, the refined and the vulgar.

Observers developed various systems for classifying prostitution establishments. Most distinguished between brothels, assignation houses, and leisure or secondary prostitution institutions, and within each of these categories they noted from four to eight different class levels. In general, however, one could say that establishments and their employees were grouped as upper or first class; middle class, with subcategories related to inmates’ ethnicity, methods of solicitation, and other norms of behavior; and lower class. Contemporary descriptions of houses in each of these classes give an indication of how establishments were evaluated and how they differed in terms of physical and social environment.

Extremes often attracting most attention, observers tended to describe either those brothels that were the most lavishly decorated or tenements that were disgusting and filthy. In the 1830s, Rosina Townsend was said to have one of the “most splendid establishments” in the city, a large, four-story, double house that was painted yellow. The interior was “elegantly furnished with mirrors, splendid paintings, sofas, ottomans, and every variety of costly furniture.” An elaborate staircase led to the upper rooms. The second-story bedroom that was the scene of the Jewett murder was described as “elegant and extravagant.” The room had a large draped bed and a number of other pieces of furniture, including a work table with “pen, papers, and pamphlets,” and a “library of light novels, poetry and periodicals.” Over the fireplace mantle were hung several theatrical fancy sketches, and on another wall was a print portrait of Lord Byron.[6] Even more elaborate than Townsend’s brothel was Kate Ridgley’s place at 78 Duane Street, described in an 1853 brothel directory as the palace of mirrors, with sixty superbly furnished rooms, including “two lower parlors lined with mirrors which alone cost $8000. The furnishings of the palace cost upwards of $70,000.”[7] Two decades later, the equally posh but smaller brothel of Kate Woods, located further uptown on West Twenty-fifth Street, was popularly known as the Hotel de Wood. Wood’s brothel was a “three story, brownstone house furnished through with the most costly and newest improvements. Her


gallery of oil paintings alone cost $10,000. Rosewood furniture, immense mirrors, Parisien figures, & c. The house is furnished at a cost of $70,000.”[8]

Although the houses of Townsend, Ridgley, and Woods offered the physical working conditions most prostitutes dreamed of having, the majority of them worked in much more modest surroundings. According to one mid-century observer, the difference in the first- and second-class (or middle-class) brothels was that “what is costly luxury in the one is replaced by tawdry finery in the other, and for expensive mirrors and valuable paintings they substitute cheaper ornamentation.”[9] Some middle-class establishments were in very old houses, where the inhabitants’ plain rooms contrasted sharply with the well-decorated private quarters of Townsend’s brothel. Prostitutes of this class might rent an apartment “of middling size, . . . having but little furniture . . . a bed, two or three chairs, some rude toilet conveniences,” and perhaps a stove for cooking meals.[10] A different type of middle-class establishment was the German house. Small and often located in a basement, German houses were entered through a reception/barroom in which the windows were decorated with crimson and white curtains, a symbol that the business was a prostitution establishment. “The room is very clean; a common sofa, one or two settees, and a number of chairs are ranged round the walls; there is a small table with some German newspapers upon it; a piano, upon which the proprietor or his bar-keeper at intervals performs a national melody; and a few prints or engravings complete its furniture.”[11] Behind the barroom, the remainder of the floor space was partitioned off into very small bedrooms to accommodate the three or four women who worked as prostitutes in the house.

Prostitution establishments of the lower class were often characterized by abhorrent working conditions that a woman found hard to escape. The Sun described a prostitution “kennel” in Cross Street as a place where the prostitutes “sleep promiscuously heads and points on a field bed of straw spread over the whole floor like so many pigs, men and women, drunk and sober, and black and white.”[12] Places of this sort were “without a table, chair, or any other article of furniture, save a cooking utensil, a few plates, and knives, and bottle, with which to carry on the business of living.”[13]

Acknowledging that contemporaries often exaggerated their descriptions, the hierarchy of prostitution made clear that, even if only for a


brief time, a woman in prostitution had the opportunity for working conditions that at best could be far superior to those of thousands of her working-class sisters and at worst might not be any more degraded. Thus, if the prostitute herself thought about a hierarchy of prostitution, she thought of it first in economic terms—wishing to create a level of luxury or the ambience necessary to attract the desired clients who would provide the greatest economic profit for her and her house. Second, prostitutes judged or “ranked” their work environments by the personal comforts and pleasures afforded by the house, their coworkers, and their clients. Lastly, prostitutes were concerned with the degree of physical security the workplace provided. Most prostitutes, therefore, considered themselves to be moving up or down within the profession as they increased or decreased their profits, comforts, and security. As far as clients were concerned, most prostitutes did not entertain men who had vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds from their own, though many hoped through personal attractiveness, social skills, and cleverness to have the opportunity to improve their social and financial situations. Some succeeded in this goal, but many others, especially long-term prostitutes who did not go into management, often suffered from the debilitating aspects of the profession and experienced a decline in socioeconomic status, personal comfort, and physical safety.[14]

The person who was key to ensuring the benefits expected of a prostitution establishment was the madam or house keeper. A large portion of her success was determined by her personal traits and individual talents and skills, but the house customs and practices she established also played a role in ensuring profits, security, and comfort.

Like house prostitutes, the madam was a part of the profession’s hierarchy, and her refinement, sophistication, cleverness, and skills were directly related to her success in her job. The madam was a major factor in determining the “personality” of the house. The key phrases describing houses of prostitution in brothel directories usually were those concerning the madam’s disposition, which appeared to set the tone for the house. The following examples illustrate the importance of the madam’s personality:

Miss Ridgley is a lady of high order and conducts her house in a manner that is an honor to herself, while her lady boarders pattern after her.


Mrs. M. Gardner . . . is the most honorable landlady in New York; her word is good for any amount. . .. Gentlemen will receive the best of treatment at her hands; her young lady boarders take after her.

This pug-nosed thing [Mrs. C. C. Cook] . . . pretends to be very nice- . . . [but] gentlemen had better not trouble her crib as there are enough better places where a person can enjoy a little pleasure with perfect safety.

Miss Marshall . . . [is] not much liked by sister landladies; her boarders are apt to be saucy. The landlady is a little too set in her ways and not very benevolent.

Mrs. C. Hathaway [is] experienced, witty, etc. The house is elegant throughout . . . and much frequented. Her young ladies are healthy, amiable, pretty, accomplished, and know how to entertain.

Mrs. Redding—Sweetness of temper being no prominent ingredient in this lady’s (if we may so call her,) composition—boarders never stay long with her.[15]

No matter how charming or witty a madam was, if she did not possess certain business skills, the house probably did not prosper as a profitable enterprise. As a business manager, the madam supervised the resident prostitutes and in larger houses also managed the staff that serviced the women and the customers. The better brothels had staffs to cook and serve meals, clean the houses, and keep linens fresh, and some used the services of musicians, hairdressers, seamstresses, porters, bartenders, and maids who helped with dressing. In some cases the number of brothel employees was so large that the madam was, in effect, running a small hotel. In 1850 Ellen Thompson had sixteen resident prostitutes, six female servants, one coachman, and a baby of one of the servants in her house. Jane Winslow also had sixteen prostitutes and one black male waiter in residence; she must have used day help for domestic chores. Kate Hastings also must have had day help because no servants were listed in a parlor house that had twenty prostitute residents. Amanda Parker housed nine prostitutes, four female servants, and one male servant. Maria Adams, noted for her benevolence as the “Queen of the Landladies,” had fourteen resident prostitutes and also boarded six female servants and four children. By 1855 several of these madams had slightly reduced the number of inhabitants in their establishments,


but others expanded their operations, like Cinderella Marshall, who employed seventeen prostitutes, five female servants, and one male servant. With staffs as large as these, madams needed effective personnel and communication skills as well as business management talents.[16]

Keeping finances in order often meant a madam had to be tough with business associates. Julia Brown was brought to the court because she refused to pay fees she had been assessed for legal services. According to testimony, Brown had engaged a lawyer to transact all of her legal affairs, and, unbeknownst to her, he had subcontracted the legal work to another attorney. Arguing that she had not been consulted and thus was not financially responsible, Brown refused to pay the second attorney. The court supported her action and ordered a “nonsuit.”[17]

A major portion of brothel management involved overseeing household purchases and other expenditures. As household mistress, the madam had to see that there were adequate supplies of wine, fuel, and other staples, and she was in charge of ensuring that the building was properly maintained. Just like any other homeowner, a brothel madam made certain that carpenters, plasterers, and painters were available for repairs, and that these were done quickly and properly, especially since rowdy and destructive patrons and bullies were a frequent problem.[18]

Physical stamina was also important for a madam. A household mistress was “on duty” as long as there were customers in the house, which could be until the early hours of the morning. Household chores then had to be taken care of in the pre- and post-noon hours so that the brothel was ready for business by early evening. One of the complaints voiced by several brothel managers was that the job was a twenty-four-hour endeavor and was extremely demanding physically. One nineteenth-century madam noted that as a result of the physical and psychological stresses of running a brothel, she lost weight and was “too tired to care” about the attractive men in her life that she should have been enjoying.[19] Furthermore, in some of the middle- and lower-class brothels, physical strength as well as physical stamina was an asset because madams often had to try to control rowdy patrons.[20]

As friend and “mother” to her prostitutes, a madam frequently had to counsel the women about their problems. She also served as mediator in an effort to keep quarrels, conflicts, and competition among residents to a minimum. Her role as confidante and friend, however, had to be balanced with her role as efficient manager, and this sometimes meant


that tough decisions had to be made about dismissing a prostitute who was too diseased to work or who no longer was attracting enough customers to pay her way.[21] In addition, madams often were called upon to have some knowledge of first aid and a little do-it-yourself gynecology. Finally, if a prostitute died, the madam usually saw it as her role to see that the woman had a “decent” funeral and burial.[22]

The internal affairs of a house were only part of a madam’s responsibilities. Tact and diplomacy were key skills in dealing with customers and community members. Care had to be taken that neighbors were not offended enough to make complaints to the police, and it was important to keep a congenial working relationship with local officials so they would be as lenient as possible in the event of complaints. Most important of all was being discreet about customers. Prostitutes pretended not to know customers if they met them in public situations.[23] If subpoenaed to testify in court hearings, prostitutes cooperated with legal officials, but the testimony of brothel or assignation house managers was often extremely evasive. Rosina Townsend was willing to have her court testimony discredited rather than reveal the identity of a respectable client, and Caroline Ingersoll’s testimony in the Forrest divorce case was a paradigm of evasiveness. The transcript of her testimony ran to four pages characterized by claims that she saw or remembered nothing:

I never saw him in the room or go into it; I never saw him in any place in my house, except my parlor, which is in the front room on the first story; I received him in the parlor and left him there; . . . I retired because of my household duties; I cannot recollect the charge for the room; when he asked for a room, he simply asked for a room;… I don’t know whether he occupied it or not; . . . I never saw him bring anyone with him; I never heard any one with him; it may appear very strange to you, but nevertheless it is truth. I did not usually endeavor to hear and understand all that I could, or to see what he did with the room; that is not my character; I never saw any one with him, never heard anyone with him, and I could not know what business he had in the room; . . . I kept a boarding-house.[24]

Although a madam’s personal skills were key to the success of her establishment, she could use certain “house customs” or practices as a means to further control brothel security or increase profits. A few of the more select houses had requirements or rituals for entry which allowed housekeepers to screen clientele. Rituals also served to make clients think they were being admitted to discriminating houses. Some estab-


lishments required a letter of invitation or recommendation from a previous patron-in-good-standing, while others had a special knock and password or counter-sign known to the select few. In others, the door was kept locked, and the madam or doorkeeper looked at the patron through a peephole or glass panel before allowing entry.[25] Townsend had a special door lock that was used after midnight, so that each prostitute letting out a customer after that time had to awaken Townsend to get the key. Another house had a spring chain on the inside of the door, and the only way to enter or leave was to have the chain loosened by a special instrument kept by the madam.[26]

Madams also helped subsidize house income with the custom of “treating.” Although many customers bought wines or champagne over the course of an evening, in some houses customers, especially new customers, were expected to treat the house, or buy drinks for everyone in the parlor. Some customers, such as John Kinmon, found that failure to treat caused difficulties for them. Kinmon reported to police that “the old hag” of an Orange Street brothel asked him to treat everyone (at 50 cents a glass), and when he refused, she told him: “It is always customary to treat.” When he persisted in refusing, he said the women of the house gathered round him and taunted him by taking off his hat and goading him with a pin. In response, he knocked down several prostitutes, which set off a free-for-all with broomsticks, shovels, tongs, and pokers. The women brought charges of assault and battery against Kinmon, but the judge released him.[27]

Although madams or prostitutes might have tried to increase revenues by servicing as many customers as possible, sources do not indicate that efficiency was even overtly emphasized, at least not in the more established brothels. There are several late-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century references to an “assembly line” approach to patrons, noting that a prostitute might have sex with as many as thirty customers in an evening and might spend only three minutes with a customer from the time he entered the bedroom until he left. One turn-of-the-century prostitute was said to have had sex with fifty-eight men in less than three hours.[28] This kind of “efficiency” might have been characteristic of lower-class “cribs” rather than high-priced establishments, but references such as these are not readily found for the early half of the nineteenth century, regardless of the class of house. Antebellum prostitutes appear to have been more “task oriented” than


“time disciplined,” and such pre-industrial rhythms apparently prevailed in brothels through most of the century.[29]

William Sanger gives some indication of the range in numbers of customers that might have been seen by mid-century prostitutes in attempting to illustrate the alarming possibilities for the spread of venereal disease. In estimating the number of New Yorkers exposed to venereal disease each day, Sanger used a factor of one to two clients per prostitute but noted that an estimate of one customer was “ridiculously small, . . . even two visitors is a very low estimate, and four is very far from an unreasonably large one.”[30] At one point in his discussion he stated that “each prostitute in New York receives from one to ten visitors every day” and, in a few instances, “sometimes double” that number, a total that would alarm anyone calculating the possibilities for the spread of disease.[31] Even when trying to create a sense of urgency over the need to pass contagious-disease legislation, the closest researcher of prostitution in the age put twenty clients per day as an extreme. When not discussing disease, but rather determining the “most correct” total of fees earned in parlor houses, Sanger recommended calculating on the basis of two visitors per prostitute per day.[32] Apparently, most mid-century patrons expected their sex transactions to be allotted more than a few minutes, and prostitutes also expected to give more time. The nineteenth century’s increase in public prostitution may have been indicative of the widespread impersonalization of sex, as historians have noted, but antebellum commercial sex transactions still appear to have retained characteristics of sociability. If prostitutes had but two clients on average a day it seems that the relationship must have been somewhat social as well as sexual—though that of course does not prove the prostitute liked the one any better than the other.

Even though prostitutes and madams tried to ensure that their working conditions were comfortable and secure, they could not avoid all the risks and dangers that went along with the profession. Of all of the prostitute’s problems, perhaps the least harmful, but bothersome, was harassment from other members of the community. Neighbors who found prostitutes offensive seldom took direct action but made complaints to the police asking that officials use legal measures to close the houses. The relatively small number of disorderly house cases brought to court, however, is an indication of the general ineffectiveness of this procedure.[33] In one instance, neighbors took direct action by offering


to pay a madam more than $1,000 to move her house to another neighborhood. She refused unless they would double the payment. Angry, the residents went to the police but would not file charges because they did not want attention focused on their neighborhood. The police came to the group’s aid by posting an officer at the entry to the house. As each customer arrived, the officer flashed a light in his face and told him not to enter because the house was to be “pulled”—a tactic that quickly caused the madam to remove the brothel from the area.[34] Though in this case harassment was successful, the complexity of these offers and transactions, capped by the police engaging in illegal tactics to aid the neighbors, underscores the bargaining position of prostitutes in conflicts with the community.

Other community members who were concerned about prostitution houses were missionaries and moral reformers. Representatives of these groups who visited brothels in their spiritual capacities usually reported that they were treated with courtesy, but the prostitutes who had to listen politely to lectures, Bible verses, and prayers must have become impatient with the visitors at times. Still, the reports suggest rather notable politeness on both sides, much like that between gentler home owners and the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness missionaries who might knock today. Of course, rougher places of prostitution sometimes were the scene of rougher responses. McCabe stated that in the lowest sort of dance houses on Water Street, missionaries might be met with vile abuse and be driven away with curses.[35]

Another form of harassment experienced by prostitutes was the claim by customers that prostitutes had stolen from them. Certainly thefts occurred, as panel houses show, but since theft was commonly touted as one of the dangers of patronizing prostitutes, disgruntled clients believed they would receive a ready ear to such claims. Although cash often was at issue, watches were said to have been stolen almost as frequently. Jane Brown of 136 Duane Street was charged with stealing a watch from a German man. She told the judge it had been given to her for her “services,” which the customer did not deny, so she was acquitted and discharged.[36] Jane Robinson was not so fortunate in the court. Her client tried to leave without paying, so she made a fuss, and he, too, gave payment with his watch. The customer then went to the police and charged that Robinson had stolen the timepiece. After hearing her story, the judge released her but forced her to return the watch,


leaving her with no remuneration for her night’s work.[37] Whether or not claims of theft were true, prostitutes had to take the time to defend themselves before the police, and, if the item in question was found in the prostitute’s possession, she had to persuade the authorities it was legitimately hers.

One mid-century case illustrates the confidence (or perhaps naiveté) with which some prostitutes operated in the community. The police had received information that a $500 bank bill had been found in Elizabeth Williams’s Greene Street brothel, after being reported missing by a previous client. They went to the house, and Williams turned over the note—but later she read in the paper that a $100 reward had been offered for its return. Feeling she had been cheated out of her rightful reward—not that she might be the prime suspect for theft—Williams went directly to Mayor Havemeyer and argued her case. The mayor promised to review her claim, even though the reward money already had been divided among the police and the person who had provided the tip leading to recovery of the note at Williams’s house.[38]

Finally, loss by theft was also a danger for prostitutes themselves, since they daily opened their private quarters to strangers. Prostitutes’ possessions were periodically stolen by customers, leading to legal hassles as prostitutes sought to reclaim lost valuables, get restitution, or press charges.[39]

Many times disgruntlement or harassment turned into violence. Prostitutes had a long list of potential adversaries—clients, local bullies, lovers, creditors, madams, and each other. Many examples of violence have been noted in Chapter 5 in relation to eases brought by prostitutes in the courts. (Also see Chapters 8 and 9.) Prostitutes certainly worried about their property being destroyed by violent attacks, but they worried even more about being physically assaulted. Newspapers and court records detail an enormous catalogue of acts of personal violence: prostitutes were beaten, stabbed, stomped, kicked, burned, bludgeoned, stoned, cut, bound, raped, seared with acid, shoved down stairs, and finally, murdered.[40] In one episode described by the Sun, two sailors who were visiting a brothel

took bureau drawers and threw them downstairs breaking them to pieces, tore bedding and attempted to set fire to beds, and did set fire to the hair of a girl and burned her severely. They threw two chairs at her as she was going upstairs


to prevent further destruction of property, broke and destroyed trunks and threw them downstairs and left the place a scene of destruction.[41]

In most cases the prostitute found legal recourse in the courts, but court action could hardly repair the physical and emotional damage suffered by the women.

Some of the prostitute’s legal problems and personal abuse were caused by the criminal element that hung around many brothels and secondary prostitution establishments. Participants in the “panel game” were the most well known of the prostitute’s criminal connections, but willingly or unwillingly, prostitutes also found themselves parties to other illegal schemes. A number of sources noted that prostitutes often had close connections with gamblers, a profession from which Sanger, Foster, Ellington, and other contemporary writers believed many prostitutes’ lovers were drawn. Some prostitutes’ acquaintances were known to use brothels to unload counterfeit money, while others found the houses of their prostitute “molls” convenient places to stash stolen items.[42] One brothel owner’s husband was convicted of robbery and election fraud, and another prostitute, “grass widow” Harriett Smith, was said to have five “husbands” in five different prisons. According to the Police Gazette , Smith was considered an asset to the state because marriage to her seemed to ensure that a lawbreaker would be brought to justice. The newspaper further noted that Smith “stands with arms open for a new alliance, but thieves are getting shy of her.”[43]

Prostitutes easily could become partners in blackmail schemes, sometimes without full knowledge of the implications of what they were doing. One notorious extortion case in the 1850s, which the press believed was representative of many in the city, received daily coverage in the papers for the several months it was being heard in the courts. Prostitute Ellen Williams, who had been “kept” in an assignation house by an older man named Henry Havens, became pregnant and asked attorney George Niles to assist her in getting financial support from Havens during her period of confinement. Niles and his co-conspirator, attorney Nathan Roberts, told Williams they probably could not get much money for her unless she could claim she had a husband, and then they could pursue heavy damages on charges of criminal connection. Williams had been married previously, so the case was brought in the name of her ex-spouse. In the end, the lawyers told Williams they were


able to get only a few hundred dollars, which actually was only a portion of the $2,000 they had extorted from Havens. Apparently, Havens learned he had been misled and brought conspiracy charges against Niles and Roberts for obtaining money by false pretenses. The Herald seemed to show sympathy for Havens, who was characterized as one of the “many rich old fathers, bachelors and husbands who have paid the penalty” of getting caught in various types of extortion schemes. Such men were both innocent and guilty: “No sensitive old man wishes to be subjected to such an ordeal. . .. Dupes pay thousands to be held harmless of exposure.” The judge in the case, recognizing the person really defrauded, pointed out that Williams rightfully should recover the full amount of the money.[44]

A number of prostitutes tried to offset the complications arising from their associations with the criminal world by helping authorities with cases. The Police Gazette intimated that Harriett Smith may have “squealed” on her five husbands’ illegal activities, and Eliza Fisher actively intervened as an intermediary in several robbery cases in 1839. One of Fisher’s acquaintances, a man known as Black Hawk (George Rollough), apparently stole some money which he first hid in a brothel in Mulberry Street and then moved to Fisher’s brothel. After Black Hawk was arrested, Fisher visited him in prison and advised him to give up the money. He instructed her to give the officers $36, and he then was released from prison. On another occasion Fisher was asked to keep a hundred-dollar bill for a man known as Green Jacket (James Charles). Green Jacket was arrested on grand larceny charges for taking some “Texian bank bills” from a man at a restaurant. Fisher visited Green Jacket in prison and got his permission to give the bank bill to the police. At first she refused to identify the man who had given her the money, in hopes the issue would be dropped and Green Jacket freed, but the authorities were able to confirm he had been the culprit. Another time, James Smith, alias Mouse, was identified by an eyewitness (a prostitute whose husband also was being sought by the police) as the thief of a fur cap which was taken from a store near the Astor House Hotel. Officer Bowyer then went to Eliza Fisher’s and asked her to get word to Mouse that the police wanted to see him as soon as possible. In a short while, Mouse and his accomplice met officer Bowyer, were arrested, and were found guilty of the theft. In spite of her well-publicized connections with criminals, Eliza Fisher appears to have taken exception to publicity that


she would allow a lawbreaker to live in her house. In January 1840 the Sun printed an article about the arrest of two men on burglary charges, and it noted that one of the men resided at Eliza Fisher’s in Leonard Street. Fisher went to the paper and insisted that a correction be printed, noting that the man was not an inmate of her house, had not been arrested there, and had no connection whatsoever with her.[45]

Some of the risks and dangers faced by prostitutes were considered occupational hazards. One of the most widespread dangers was venereal disease, or what William Sanger described as a “frightful physical malady.”[46] In his survey of prostitutes, Sanger asked if the women had had “any disease incident to prostitution.” According to Sanger, two-fifths of the prostitutes examined “CONFESS that they have suffered from syphilis or gonorrhea.” He then noted his belief, based on his professional experience, that “the real number far exceeds this average; that, alarming as is the confession, the actual facts are much worse.”[47] Sanger stated that venereal disease was seldom found in the first- and second-class brothels and assignation houses, but was very common among prostitutes of the lower orders, being a major reason for a prostitute’s decline to the bottom levels of the profession. He also believed that venereal diseases were much more prevalent among foreigners than the native-born. Aside from his general class bias, Sanger attributed some credit for a better health environment in upper-class brothels to the fact that a few of the brothel keepers paid “a physician a liberal salary to visit their boarders every few days for the express purpose of carrying out [medical examinations and] resorting to treatment whenever he finds it necessary.”[48] In The Gentleman’s Directory of 1870, the entry for Lizzie Goodrich’s establishment on West Twenty-seventh Street confirms this practice, noting in the midst of a description of the attributes of the brothel that “there is a regular physician attached to this house.”[49] The practice of in-house medical exams was especially popular among house keepers who were from Europe and were accustomed to laws that enforced regular medical examinations of prostitutes, a procedure that William Sanger, Charles Smith, and other members of the medical and public health professions were campaigning to have accepted in American cities. [50]

But whatever medical treatment a prostitute might receive for venereal disease was of questionable effectiveness. Salvarsan was not introduced until 1910, so nineteenth-century medical practitioners


largely depended either on mercury cures, which had terrible side effects, or on surgery, the most gruesome of possible cures. Mercury treatment was dreaded because it was known to cause bleeding gums, ulcerated cheeks, gangrene, necrosis of the jaw bones, frothing at the mouth, and occasionally, strangulation. [51] But as ineffective as physicians’ treatments might be, the cures advertised through newspapers and journals and in handbills distributed on the streets were even less helpful. Patent medicines such as “Red Drop” and “Unfortunate’s Friend” could easily be ordered through the mails. One mid-century brothel guidebook contained an advertisement which read: “Private diseases of both sexes cured without mercury. Seminal pills for Nervous Debility, $1 a box or 6 boxes for $5. Mail or office circulars sent.”[52] Drugstores also sold a variety of cures both over the counter and by prescription, and one could even mix one’s own remedy without having to purchase ingredients from a druggist. Pine Knot Bitters was a favorite home remedy sold in liquor stores, said to be used most frequently by the “lower classes.” Even if poor prostitutes had the resources to purchase Pine Knot Bitters or one of the other ineffective popular remedies, many sooner or later were forced to resort to the only professional treatment available to the diseased poor, the penitentiary hospital. A prostitute wanting “public” treatment could go to the police station, request a commitment to Blackwell’s Island Hospital, and be committed to the penitentiary on the grounds she was a vagrant, “having contracted an infectious disease in the practice of debauchery.”[53] Police court proceedings in the newspapers record that this was not an uncommon practice. Elizabeth Burgen, like many other poor prostitutes, went before the local magistrate and requested to be sent to the Island so she could be cured of her “chronic syphilitic disease.” Justice Wyman committed her for ninety days, a term she never got to serve because, as she was ascending the jail stairs, she became faint, sat down, and instantly died. The inquest held to determine cause of death confirmed that her diseased condition had indeed been desperate. [54]

It is difficult to say what percentage of prostitutes contracted venereal disease since, as Sanger noted, the number “willing to confess” they had been infected may have been much lower than the number who had actually had the disease. [55] Knowledge that a prostitute had been infected surely was a deterrent for customers, so the woman would not want the fact known if the disease’s manifestations were in remission. No class of


prostitute was exempt from the danger, but some were able to hide it better. The majority of victims may well have ended up as diseased, dissipated “hags” at the bottom of the prostitution hierarchy, but the upper echelons of the profession were equally vulnerable. The coroner’s report of the examination of Helen Jewett’s body noted that: “The uterus was unimpregnated but labouring under an old disease.”[56] No age group was immune to the problem either. As distressing as it was for New Yorkers to think about the number of adult prostitutes who were infected with venereal disease, the large number of juvenile prostitutes who were being treated in public institutions was even more distressing. Mary Kemp became diseased in her young teens while living in a prostitution house in Albany. Though treated by a doctor for five months, the disease got worse, so she moved to New York City hoping to find a cure. In New York she lived with a girlfriend at a prostitution establishment on Greene Street. She was discovered there by a missionary, Mr. Brown, who took her to the Magdalen Asylum, where he paid her board and put her in the care of a physician. Since she did not improve, the Magdalen Asylum asked that she be moved to the Almshouse. After five weeks at the Almshouse, Mr. Brown found her employment, but Kemp was so weak she could not keep her job. She was then fifteen years old and was admitted to the House of Refuge, where it was recorded that her disease was “filthy in the extreme” and was marked by sores that were “disagreeable” to anyone coming near her. After some improvement she was indentured away from the city, but the employer sent her back because she was so badly infected. [57]

Many prostitutes tried to hide their venereal disease, and all of them wished to avoid it, but their multiple sexual contacts made them likely victims as well as carriers of the “frightful physical malady.” Few contemporaries, however, recognized the prostitute as the “victim” of venereal disease. Blame was passed in only one direction, and it commenced with the prostitute. Husbands who consorted with prostitutes were condemned for spreading the disease from the brothel to their respectable wives, but no one worried about or condemned the men who gave the disease to prostitutes. [58]

Another occupational hazard of prostitution was pregnancy. Since pregnancy caused a prostitute to be out of work for at least some period of time and created post-delivery concerns as to how or whether to care for a child, many prostitutes took steps to avoid or stop a pregnancy.


Full-time prostitutes were assumed to be well-versed on birth control methods, and part-time prostitutes also were probably familiar with some of the techniques, which were well-publicized in contemporary literature. Although contraception literature was labeled “obscene,” it was not until the post-Civil War period that legal restrictions made the dissemination of birth control information difficult. [59]

Almost every birth control method used today existed in some rudimentary form by the middle of the nineteenth century; the notable exception, of course, is the contraceptive hormone pill. None of the nineteenth-century methods was sure, some were totally ineffective, and others were harmful. Also, some of the techniques, such as the then-popular rhythm method, were unsuitable for commercial sex. Even if it had been practical for prostitutes to arrange their business calendar around their fertility cycle, the rhythm method still would have been ineffective for them, as it was for everyone else until 1924, when the ovulation cycle was first identified with precision. Methods requiring the customer’s cooperation, such as coitus interruptus and condoms, were obviously risky for the prostitute.[60] Nevertheless, some men used condoms as a protection against venereal disease, and the prostitute benefited by reducing her chances for conception–and infection. One mid-century brothel directory advertised condoms, noting their dual purpose as well as their differences in cost and quality:

French Imported Male Safes–A perfect shield against disease or conception, made of both skin and India rubber. Can be procured at the following prices at office, or by mail. $2, $3, and $4 per dozen; 3 for $1,4 for $1.[61]

The same source advertised “Ladies Protectors, $3.00 each,” which probably referred to vaginal sponges, pessaries, cotton tampons, or suppositories, all of which were used at the time. The most popular form of contraception employed by nineteenth-century women was douching, often with plain water, or with alum, perlash, zinc sulfate, carbolic acid, saline solution, or infusions of white oak bark and red rose leaves. [62] Some of these solutions were ineffective; others were so strong they were harmful, causing damage to tissue, which then led to infections and other complications.

In spite of efforts to prevent conception, some prostitutes became pregnant. If the child was not wanted, abortion was the quickest solution. An abortion was not difficult to get in mid-century New York, and


Advertisement for Male Safes, Regulating Pills, and Birth Control Devices.
This advertisment for condoms, abortifacients, and birth control devices was
included in an 1870 brothel guidebook. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical
Society, New York City)


well-known abortionists advertised widely. Notices were put in newspapers, handbills, and brothel directories, and their messages were only slightly veiled: “Ladies cured at one interview with or without medicine, $5. Regulating Pills, $6.” Also advertised were “monthly pills, to remove obstructions and irregularities, however produced.”[63]

The abortion business boomed despite laws regulating the practice. In 1828 New York was one of the first states to pass a criminal statute on abortion, which would hold an abortionist criminally liable if he or she performed an abortion on a woman after her pregnancy had reached “quickening,” or the first perception of fetal movement around the mid-point of the pregnancy. Because the law was intended not so much to control abortions as to protect women from quacks and unsafe medical practices, it did not penalize the woman on whom the abortion was performed. The abortion rate during the first three decades of the century has been estimated at approximately one abortion for every twenty-five to thirty live births, and initially the anti-abortion law appeared to effect little change in abortion practices. In the decade of the 1840s, however, there was a marked shift in the birth rate, perhaps caused by women’s greater understanding of birth control and intervention methods as well as the increased availability of abortifacients; by the 1850s, the estimated ratio of abortions to live births was one abortion for every five to six live births. This trend continued for two more decades, while abortionists such as Madames Restelle and Costello became famous and prosperous, as did male practitioners such as Jacob Rosenzweig and Dr. Charles Jackson.[64] A number of court cases and sensational news stories involving abortionists in the 1840s were instrumental in the passage of a new anti-abortion law, which made pre-quickened abortions illegal and imposed penalties on the woman herself for seeking or performing an abortion. But the provisions of this tougher ordinance were never enforced. Law officers looked the other way, and the public and the press appeared fairly quickly to become less concerned.[65] Consequently, women from all walks of life and marital statuses, prostitutes included, took advantage of the tolerant attitude toward abortion that existed until the end of the Civil War. [ 66]

When William Sanger surveyed prostitutes about their abortion histories, he got a very small response—only 1.75 percent of the two thousand women said they had ever had an abortion: one widow, five women who had been married, and twenty-eight single women. [67] Since


officials believed that fully 20 percent of all of the city’s pregnancies were being aborted, Sanger concluded: “That prostitution largely contributes to this crime can not be doubted, but to what extent must remain unknown, from the secrecy which surrounds it.” The actual number of abortions procured by prostitutes, he was sure “would be startling.”[68] A quarter of a century earlier, the Reverend McDowall had voiced the same belief, based on what a reformed prostitute had told him: “It is a common practice every three months to use means preventive of progeny.” He noted that the “means” used were “balsam copaiba and spirits of turpentine,” which, he added, “won’t work.”[69] These two substances were only a few of the products used by nineteenth-century women as intended abortifacients. Other substances ranged from quinine, iodine, oil of tansy, seneca snakeroot, and black cohosh to patented pills containing hellebore, ergot, iron, aloes, powdered savin, and extracts of tansy and rue. Internal medicines such as these produced abortions only in dosages so large that they caused harsh bodily reaction–treatment so severe that the result was sometimes lethal. Mechanical abortions were considered less dangerous, although they, too, were painful, harmful, and sometimes fatal. Most mechanical abortions were induced with rudimentary catheters, but some were caused by knitting needles, sticks, or wires. [ 70]

Although the extent of abortion among prostitutes cannot be accurately determined, newspapers confirm that prostitutes were among the many New York women utilizing the services of “professional” abortionists. During an investigative hearing about Madame Restelle, one woman testified that while visiting Restelle’s house she had seen a socialite, a Sunday school teacher, and a twenty-three-year-old “kept woman” who pretended to be a milliner and had been to Restelle’s nine times before for the same purpose. Some prostitutes, such as Susan Smith, never had the option of making a return visit. In March 1840, Dr. Charles H. Jackson performed “an abortion with an instrument” on Smith, a procedure from which she subsequently died, causing Jackson to be charged with manslaughter. A number of prostitutes’ abortions may have been performed in their brothels, and, unless a death occurred, no one was the wiser. Sarah Tuttle, a brothel servant, tried to self-induce an abortion by taking oil of tansy, but instead caused her own death. [71] In 1846, the Police Gazette reported that a “so-called doctor” had delivered a five-month-old fetus to a young prostitute named Mary


Arkley, in the attic of Honey Brewster’s den at 474 Broome Street. Arkley later died, and an investigation was conducted. In a notation in his diary two weeks after Arkley’s death, Robert Taylor mentioned that he and police clerk E. T. Cory had gone to:

Mrs. Brewster’s, 474 Broome Street, and Mrs. Pratt’s 472 Broome, houses of the same character . . . to obtain information in relation to an abortion said to have been caused at Mrs. Brewster’s, and the mother of the child died in consequence.[72]

One prostitution-house keeper knew the legal risks involved in having an abortion performed in her house, so refused to allow a young woman to take the prescribed treatment at her residence and warned her that only a fool would try to get rid of the child at that point in her pregnancy. This house keeper, Eliza Taylor, was one of many people who testified in the abortion trial of Dr. Thomas E. Gage, who was charged with killing the child of prostitute Ellen Gallagher. The proceedings of the Gage trial give one a glimpse of the milieu surrounding the practice of abortion as well as the complicated and dangerous procedures often faced by young women who had unwanted pregnancies.

The Gage trial occurred during the period when reformers were working to get seduction laws passed in the state legislature, and abortion was frequently coupled with the seduction issue in the press. Within this emotionally charged atmosphere, each party in the Gage case tried to discredit the other on charges that related as much to issues of seduction as to the abortion for which the trial was being held. Gage and his co-defendant, William Davis, the man who had made Gallagher pregnant and arranged for her abortion, brought witnesses to court who claimed that Gallagher was a prostitute and was unsure of the paternity of the child. Furthermore, Gage argued that the medical procedures he used on Gallagher were “normal” and could not have produced an abortion. Gallagher, on the other hand, claimed she had been forcibly seduced by Davis, her employer, and that he had subsequently abused her during and after her pregnancy. She also described how he had arranged for her to have an abortion. [73]

Between the allegations and disclaimers was the story of a young woman who at age sixteen or seventeen became unhappy with child care and domestic service and left these positions to become an employee in Davis’s refectory. After being “seduced” in a manner approaching


rape, she lived in several assignation or prostitution boarding houses. In about her fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, she was taken by Davis to visit two separate abortionists, who treated her with a variety of abortion procedures. It was not until her sixth month of pregnancy, however, that these procedures succeeded in causing Gallagher to abort a live fetus, which was “thrown into the vessel under the bed” and then “wrapped in paper and thrown from the dock.” In the weeks after the birth of the baby, both Davis and his business partner physically abused Gallagher, causing her finally to file assault and battery charges against them, which led to the abortion investigation and trial.

Davis, the seducer or paramour, seemed far more familiar with the world of illicit sex and abortion than did Gallagher. In fact, it appears that it was Davis who informed her she was pregnant. He first took her to Madame Restelle, who said she was no longer performing abortions because she was in court at the time on an abortion charge. Davis challenged Restelle’s refusal by pointing out that she had recently given medication to a woman he was living with at another address! Apparently, Restelle agreed to give Gallagher some pills, but they had been “like sawdust and did no good.” Gallagher then went to see Dr. Gage and moved into Eliza Taylor’s, where she planned to live while having Gage’s treatment. When Taylor would not let her stay, Gallagher moved to Sarah Clarke’s house, an establishment that Dr. Gage had used previously for keeping a woman. Apparently the doctor first prescribed several types of abortifacients, one of which was administered by house mistress Clarke in some tea. In all, Gallagher lived at Clarke’s for five weeks before the abortion was successful. Presumably she was continuing Gage’s various forms of treatment with no results during this period of residency. She testified that during the last week of her stay, she had “daily operations.” The final operation, performed with a wire, brought on premature labor. Once in full labor, Gage was sent for, and he “had to use an instrument to get her to deliver.”

At the trial, Gage was able to bring several members of the medical profession to testify on his behalf, claiming that he was an excellent doctor and that the procedures described by Gallagher could not produce an abortion and were the normal actions of a doctor. In response, the prosecution presented the testimony of a doctor who had practiced obstetrics for twelve years and who stated that “what Gage did had been calculated to produce an abortion.” After twelve and a half hours of


deliberation, eight jurors voted for conviction and four for acquittal, so Gage and Davis were discharged, a result that appeared in keeping with usual dispositions of abortion cases.[74]

Since legal practice did not hold a pregnant woman liable for her own abortion (even though technically she should have been under the revised laws of 1845-1846), one New York prostitute openly used the abortion statute to wreak revenge upon her doctor/lover. Ann Lloyd, who was living at the brothel of Mrs. Phillips on Church Street, went to the local druggist, Dr. John Sloat, for medical advice. After an examination, he gave her some pills which made her very sick and caused her to abort. A few days later Sloat persuaded Lloyd to let him keep her as his mistress at Mrs. Balch’s, and he also took her savings to ensure that the money would “be properly cared for.” Evidently, Sloat soon tired of the arrangement and failed to return, leaving unpaid bills. When Lloyd went to Sloat’s office looking for him, he abused her and kicked her out, prompting her to file charges against him for procuring an abortion, false pretenses, and assault and battery.[75] Apparently the opprobrium of having had an abortion was not great enough to offset the satisfaction Lloyd got from bringing three charges against Sloat.

Lloyd’s actions also raise the question of whether prostitutes considered abortion so much of a disgrace as Sanger assumed they must have when he received so few affirmative responses to his questions on abortion. Instead of indicating reservations about the propriety and legality of abortion, the prostitutes’ lack of responses may have indicated that they did not have as many abortions as contemporaries believed. One of the reasons the public believed prostitutes had numerous abortions (beyond the assumption that prostitutes were characteristically profligate) was that so few pregnancies or offspring were observed among members of the profession relative to the number of sexual encounters they had. Judith Walkowitz has suggested that few children were visible in prostitution residences because many were boarded away from home; because prostitutes successfully used a combination of contraception, abortion, and infanticide; and because prostitutes were sterile as a result of venereal disease. [76] It seems probable that prostitutes controlled their reproduction less by abortion and more by contraception and sterility, as the Sanger responses suggest.

Recent medical research has suggested that immunological factors may also contribute to a lesser role for abortion as a form of birth control


among prostitutes. As early as 1871 Charles Darwin suggested that a direct relationship between sexual promiscuity in women and infertility may exist on the basis of exposure to semen. Several studies since have pursued this question, including one at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical Center which confirmed that prostitutes have “poor reproductive histories and a high incidence of spontaneous abortion.” The Michigan study suggests that prostitutes’ frequent exposure to sperm causes a high percentage of them to develop an allergic reaction to sperm (or immunization to sperm) that results in infertility. Furthermore, prostitutes were found to have twice as many spontaneous abortions after becoming prostitutes as they had had before joining the profession, though the cause could not be attributed to the same immunologic reaction.[77] Consequently, the combination of venereal disease, contraception, and immunologic reaction may have meant that, while their respectable sisters were using abortion more and more as a means of birth control, nineteenth-century prostitutes resorted to abortion less frequently.

With all other birth control methods failing, the prostitute’s final option for avoiding the burden of a child was infant abandonment or infanticide. Many newspaper stories attest to the fact that this was a community-wide problem in the mid-nineteenth century, and some of the unidentified infants must have been the children of prostitutes. In fact, infant death statistics rose so sharply in the middle decades of the century that the issue became a topic of concern to the Common Council, and infant deaths were given special scrutiny by authorities. [78] When prostitute Arabella Martin’s one-week-old baby boy died, a coroner’s inquest was held to determine the cause of death. The coroner ruled that the baby “came to death by being accidentally suffocated while in bed with his mother,” a believable accident under the circumstances, but also a means of infanticide that would be difficult to prove. Although prostitutes, like other women, might resort to infanticide, the more common and acceptable alternative was having and raising the child.[79]

A prostitute may have felt that others were to blame for many of the problems and dangers she faced on the job–harassment, violence, disease, pregnancy–but some potential problems, such as alcohol and drug abuse or an inactive or indolent lifestyle, she “chose” for herself, even though her work environment fostered the development of these


Bar at Five Points. Illicit sex and alcohol were linked together in the
minds of most nineteenth-century New Yorkers. Prostitutes frequented barrooms,
such as this one at the Five Points, for entertainment as well as recruiting.
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)

problems and seemed to exacerbate their severity. These “self-inflicted” problems also were those that contemporary observers believed reflected a weak and debased nature and for which they had less sympathy. Consequently, observers’ remarks and histories often tended to distort the reality of prostitution by ignoring prostitutes’ own accounts and presenting a stereotypical portrait of an inebriated and lazy prostitute.

Alcohol and drugs appear to have been part of many prostitutes’ lives, and contemporaries viewed alcohol addiction among members of that profession as a most serious substance abuse. The Reverend McDowall asserted that “intemperance and prostitution are inseparably connected,” and Sanger claimed that “not one per cent of the prostitutes in New York practice their calling without partaking of intoxicating drinks.” Even though Sanger’s survey question asking prostitutes if they drank intoxicating liquors received a five-sixths affirmative reply, he said he was “compelled to believe that this is not the whole truth, for it is almost certain that . . . [those] who claim to be total abstinents indulge themselves in occasional potations.”[80]


Alcohol was definitely a part of the prostitution culture, as well as of society generally, because it was a major source of revenue–in the brothel, saloon, concert hall, and dance hall. Most brothels sold high-priced champagnes, wines, or other forms of liquor, but contemporaries generally agreed that, in all but a few brothels of a higher rank, what one bought had “nothing in common with the genuine articles of commerce but the name.” The same was true of the liquors sold in many secondary prostitution establishments; they were either watered down or “the cheapest and most poisonous ‘raw spirits’ that the markets afford.”[81]

Contemporary observers noted that it was considered a disgrace among the “more aristocratic prostitutes” to be intoxicated, and alcoholism could cause a woman to be dismissed from an upper-class brothel. Although the lower establishments often did not consider inebriation so disreputable, proprietors knew intoxication could interfere with business, and many would not allow inmates or waiter girls to drink liquor until the end of the evening. To keep customers drinking, prostitutes were supposed to join them with “temperance drinks” or colored water. Still, presumably many prostitutes, like their customers, were under the influence of alcohol some of the time. [82] Streetwalkers were said to be the most intemperate of the profession, and many of them used “liquor stores” (small local bars) as their resting places during their nightly perambulations. With their pocketbooks rather than a brothel keeper governing their drinking habits, some streetwalkers bought the strongest liquors they could afford.[83]

Writing in the 1860s, George Ellington noted that the kinds of alcoholic beverages imbibed by New York’s parlor-house prostitutes were greatly influenced by their Parisian sisters. He gave a list of recipes for fashionable drinks popular with prostitutes, which included liqueurs such as curaçao, anisette, Kimmel, Beaumarchais, and absinthe or oil of wormwood, the latter ingredient being considered strong enough to have a deleterious effect on the nervous system of the women. Although “fashionable” drinks may have been popular with some, the vast majority of prostitutes depended on gin, rum, beer, and cheap wine for their daily tippling.[84]

Alcohol was the most widely used drug by prostitutes, but it was only one of several addictive substances resorted to by women in the profession. Sanger did not inquire about the use of drugs other than alcohol


Smoking Opium. Opium, a popular drug among men and women of
many social classes in the nineteenth century, was believed to be used
frequently by prostitutes. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society,
New York City)

and is surprisingly silent on the subject, since most other observers noted prostitutes’ frequent use of other drugs. In the 1840s Smith noted that:

Drinking gin is exceedingly common. Use of opium scarcely as much so, yet among prostitutes is sufficiently common, but the almost universal stimulant is the yellow scotch snuff, with which they fill their mouths several times a day, rubbing it upon teeth and gums, until they induce a complete intoxication. [85]

Two decades later, writer James McCabe also noted that among prostitutes the “use of narcotics is . . . very common.” He went on to point out that all the drugstores in the vicinity of prostitution houses were known to sell large quantities of opium, chloroform, and morphia.[86] George Ellington put the problem in its larger context by noting what others had often pointed out:

Women of all classes of society in New York use stimulants and narcotics to a greater or less extent, but the demi-monde in particular, above and beyond all


others, are addicted to these unwholesome and life-destroying habits. If the women of fashion are compelled to use various kinds of opiates to induce sleep, how much more are the women of pleasure. [87]

The popular use of opium also had been noted in the 1840s by George Templeton Strong, who wrote in his diary that “opium chewing prevails here extensively, much more so than people think,”[88] an indication of the intentional use of the narcotic over and above the amount many people ingested as one of the ingredients in a variety of popular patented medicines. In fact, one historian has stated that there is considerable evidence now “that a large proportion of middle-class American women in the late nineteenth century stayed stoned for most of their adult lives,” an evaluation which also possibly could have been made about a large proportion of prostitutes but which indicates a behavior not at odds with that of other contemporary women. [89]

Ellington concurred with McCabe that morphine and opium were two of the most popular drugs in use, but he stated that laudanum (tincture of opium) was the favorite of the demimonde, being used by these women to a “fearful extent.” He noted that hashish and arsenic had been popular a few years before, but their use had declined. Although some prostitutes and other citizens may have become addicted by morphine or opiate-laden medications prescribed by doctors, it was not difficult for them to continue their habits afterward or for a newcomer to begin a habit. Narcotics could be bought cheaply at drugstores, and, as a contemporary pointed out, most New York drugstores were located in the area where prostitution houses were concentrated.[90]

Most contemporaries believed prostitutes used drugs and alcohol because their lives were so degraded and dangerous. Alcohol was said to help prostitutes maintain an “artificial state of excitement, which is indispensably necessary to their calling,” and both alcohol and narcotics helped the women escape their problems by reducing inhibitions. Alcohol addiction was also believed to be hereditarily and environmentally induced, since studies like Sanger’s showed that three-fourths of the prostitutes’ fathers had had intemperate habits, as had over half of their mothers. A prostitute’s environment encouraged intemperance because she had to try to get customers to drink in order to raise profits, and joining the clients was always a temptation. George Strong also expressed the novel conclusion that the consumption of opium had increased for the New York populace because “the blessed Temperance


Movement” had made alcohol less acceptable. A final reason given for why prostitutes used drugs and alcohol was the moralistic evaluation that “a love of stimulation seems naturally to follow a life without industry or objective.” As with most of the evidence, it is impossible to decide where statements of fact end and moralistic presumptions that all vices were more extreme among prostitutes begin. The tone of most such claims, however, suggests self-righteousness more than observation.[91]

Whatever the causes of alcohol and drug use, the results were injurious to some prostitutes. Alcohol was a precipitator for much of the violence associated with prostitution, and inebriation sent many prostitutes to the penitentiary for drunk and disorderly conduct. Equally important were the effects on the prostitute’s health from long-term use of addictive substances. In some cases, one did not have to wait very many years to see harmful physical consequences. Twenty-five-year-old Julia Potter, a girl of the town, went on a “spree” for a couple of days and then “before going to bed drank half a pint of gin at a draught.” The next morning she was found dead, and the coroner ruled that intemperance had been the cause of her death.[92]

A final hazard of the prostitute’s working situation was emotional and psychological strain–mildly symptomized by boredom, escapism, and lack of incentive, or more severely experienced as despair and depression. One critic stated that the “prostitute’s life is as idle as it is dissolute”–a vacuous existence without effort or goal. Supporters of this opinion believed the prostitute was “only intent on killing time,” and had no taste for literary amusements or any kind of employment such as sewing or needlework. Card playing was said to be a common pastime, but commentators believed prostitutes seldom “gamed” or gambled with each other because it was assumed they had little to win or to lose. Most often, cards were used for fortune-telling since prostitutes were believed to be “ignorant, superstitious, and living by luck; they place great reliance upon this mode of looking through the curtain of the future.” Physician Smith also pointed out one more peculiar characteristic of prostitutes that he said had been noted by many other physicians besides himself: “They eat and sleep much and have a tendency to obesity. Three-fourths of the prostitutes are of more than ordinary fatness.” With no recognition of the relationship between eating and sleeping disorders and depression, Smith attributed these characteristics to the fact that “prostitutes are sensual by nature.”[93] These descriptions of the prosti-


tute’s depraved, idle, dissolute, and wasteful life are often at odds with other information available. Although observers may have disapproved of the prostitute’s leisure activities and domestic pursuits, evidence suggests that prostitutes were as active, as literary, as involved with life, and as goal-oriented as other women.

Prostitutes also were not unlike other contemporary women (and men) in expressing “despair” about their lives. Lewis Saum has noted that expressions of despair were commonplace among nineteenth-century Americans, illustrating an essential grimness in the life views of many ordinary citizens.[94] Many observers likely assumed that, if life was grim for respectable Americans, it must be even worse for the prostitute. One contemporary noted that “in the melancholy peculiar to fallen women there is an amount of suffering and disease that few of our readers have any conception of.”[95] “Melancholy,” “remorse,” and “mental anguish,” phrases euphemistically used for depression, were often applied to prostitutes and used as explanations by contemporaries for alcoholism and drug abuse and for the prostitute’s ultimate act of emotional desperation–suicide. A number of contemporary writers claimed that: “Suicide is quite common among this class of women,” or more simply, “[Prostitutes’] suicides are frequent.”[96] Another observer took a more fatalistic view: “Once entered upon a life of shame, however brilliant the opening may be, the end is certain, unless she anticipates it by suicide.”[97] Newspapers confirmed that suicides were common in mid-century New York, and some of these were of prostitutes, such as nineteen-year-old Mary Bishop, who “ended her miserable existence by a dose of laudanum.”[98]

Although suicide reflected the prostitute’s ultimate inability or unwillingness to cope with her life situation, there were coping strategies used by prostitutes that made the difficulties inherent in the profession more manageable. Current sociological research indicates that a “socialization process” is necessary for a woman to become fully integrated into the prostitution profession, or what the nineteenth century would have termed the “underworld” of prostitution. Part of the socialization process involves adopting the argot and social mores of the prostitution culture, but it also involves some identity changes. Symbolic of such identity changes for most nineteenth-century prostitutes was taking a new name, a step that, though it may have served to hide one’s true


identity, or to protect one’s family or future options, also seems to have been important in initiating one fully into the prostitution subculture. [99]

Nineteenth-century New York prostitutes always used two names–a given and a surname–and in most cases both of these were new. Prostitutes did not feel bound to the new name, however. After a while, some took a new pseudonym, and some used several aliases simultaneously. Others used variations on their names: Jane Graham Western sometimes went by Jenny Weston or Jenny Graham, and Rosina Townsend was sometimes listed as Rosanna Thompson. A few chose flamboyant nicknames such as Cinderella or Honey, but most used very conventional names with no special significance, at least to those unfamiliar with the woman’s private motives. One prostitute stated in a court hearing that the surname she chose for working in New York was that of her last lover in Boston. The pseudonyms of prostitutes suggest an element of shame and subterfuge in the profession, but also an ability to choose an identity rather than being given one by a father or husband. [100]

Many patrons of prostitutes also went by aliases or nicknames. This was done partly to hide their true identities but was also an aspect of the fantasy world of brothels and illicit sex, where one could select a title and persona different from one’s socially defined respectable self. Most of the men who frequented Rosina Townsend’s parlor house went by aliases–Richard Robinson, for example, called himself Frank Rivers–and the John Holland divorce case brought out that Holland went by the illustrious title of “Marquis” when he visited New York brothels. Testimony in the Gage trial also noted that the co-defendant William Davis had used the name Brown in a Grand Street brothel. [101]

Once a prostitute gave up her real name, she appears to have continued using a prostitution name even though she may have employed several variations or nicknames of the new chosen name. Census, tax, court, and death records all appear with the prostitute’s selected name, not her given name. One ingenious prostitute challenged this custom by arguing in court that a disorderly house case against her should be thrown out on the basis that she had been charged under the name Emily Tooker, the name by which she was known to brothel residents, patrons, and officials, but her real name was Emily Tucker. The judge refused to accept her argument, and she had to pay the $100 fine. [102]


Whatever the psychological value of the new nomenclature in helping one adapt to the life of prostitution, it seems to have been significant to the socialization process in the profession. Becoming part of a subculture with its own special customs, language, folklore, and history was important in helping one cope with working conditions and life situations that were often difficult; it also permitted creation of a new world and self freed from some of the difficulties and unhappinesses prostitutes had encountered in the respectable culture. Equally important, however, and perhaps even more critical in determining how one dealt with the day-to-day life of prostitution, were the people a prostitute interacted with and the personal relationships she established with these individuals, relationships that created for her a private as well as public life.


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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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