THE PRIVATE WORLD OF THE PROSTITUTE
― 253 ―
Friends and Lovers
Relationships with Men
An 1853 brothel directory description of Mrs. Cornell’s prostitution establishment at Grand and Mercer Streets stated that she “lives at home with her folks but attends to business here evenings.” The images created by the use of the words “home” and “folks” at first seem incongruous with the connotations of words such as “prostitution” and “business,” but the juxtaposition of multiple identities is precisely the key to understanding the several dimensions of prostitutes’ lives. Prostitutes as “public women” can be traced through newspaper accounts, brothel directories, court records, and censuses, but information about their private lives—their personal and family relationships and their feelings about their life situations and themselves—is much more difficult to find. Nonetheless, by exploring the available information on these women’s interactions with others, one can learn much about their interpersonal relationships and private lives.
By definition, men were a dominant factor in prostitutes’ lives. The majority of a prostitute’s male associates were her customers, and as a rule her relationships with these clients were brief and impersonal. Although some men patronized brothels in search of emotional solace, most customers were primarily or entirely interested in sexual contacts only. Many of the men who migrated to New York as permanent or temporary inhabitants found the city to be large and impersonal and sought out prostitutes because they felt lonely and uprooted. For others, the many brothels and prostitutes of the city promised excitement and
― 254 ―
the opportunity to indulge in forbidden pleasures, activities that would have been frowned upon in their home towns or in more close-knit communities. Although a prostitute’s or a brothel’s primary function was to minister sexually to customers—both those seeking excitement and those seeking solace—nineteenth-century brothels also served as social gathering places for men, providing a male club atmosphere in much the same way saloons or gambling establishments did. As a rule, a man could patronize a prostitution house for an evening, enjoying female companionship (not necessarily including sex), the fellowship of male peers, wine, and perhaps gambling. In this environment he did not need to fear that social or emotional obligations would be exacted from him.
Since nineteenth-century surveys and studies of prostitutes do not include research on their customers, it is difficult to establish a definitive profile of these men. Records indicate that all sectors of the male population were represented in the clientele, though socioeconomic status and race strongly influenced brothel access. Helen Jewett had some customers who were older family men, but most of her clients were young, unmarried clerks, businessmen, and professionals such as accountants, journalists, and playwrights. An indication that brothel patronage was widespread among young, white-collar, male New Yorkers was provided by diarist Philip Hone in his description of the courtroom crowd at the trial of Richard P. Robinson for the murder of Helen Jewett.
I was surrounded by young men, about his [Robinson’s] own age, apparently clerks like him, who appeared to be thoroughly initiated into the arcana of such houses . . .. They knew the wretched female inmates as they were brought up to testify, and joked with each other in a manner illy comporting with the solemnity of the occasion.
Mid-nineteenth-century daily newspapers also printed stories about young working men who patronized brothels, a number of whose wives complained to authorities that their husbands were spending most of the family’s income on such escapades. Sources indicate that men tended to frequent brothels where women were of approximately the same, or a lower, social class. Though all classes and races in New York participated in the city’s sexual commerce, black males were the most restricted of prostitutes’ clients. They patronized poorer prostitutes and the few integrated or black prostitution establishments that existed in the lower wards of the city, especially in the Five Points area, but the strong
― 255 ―
stand against “mixing of the races” expressed in the newspapers (especially concerning black males with white females) indicates that sexual-racial integration was limited.
Tim Gilfoyle, in his study of nineteenth-century sexual commerce in New York City, also has noted that by mid-century, brothel patronage was extremely common among New York men of all social classes, age groups, and marital statuses. Gilfoyle argues that in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century American men infrequently consorted with prostitutes, and the majority of those who did were transient mariners and longshoremen. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, “sex with prostitutes was customary for significant numbers, perhaps the majority, of males,” increasingly including middle-class residents as well as transients, a pattern that continued to the turn of the century. According to Gilfoyle, increased patronage of prostitutes was caused by the anonymity and freedom offered by the growing city, a dramatic commercialization and impersonalization of sex, an increasing inability of many laborers and journeymen workers to economically afford marriage and family, and a male resentment of the increasing power of women within marriage over sex and reproduction. New York’s prostitution clientele may not have been as large a proportion of the population as Gilfoyle indicates, but the large supply of prostitutes was indicative of a high level of demand as well as of a lack of alternative opportunities for female employment.
Since money was less personal than sexuality, the customer gave less than he received in a sexual transaction with a prostitute, but a customer’s advantage in the exchange was tempered by the fact he was on the prostitute’s turf and was subject to the conventions and practices of her culture. She was more knowledgeable about sexual commerce than he. Furthermore, prostitutes had a certain power over clients if the men feared exposure. Although brothel visits were often forgiven as lapses in morality which were not totally unexpected of the male, a man might fear that consorting with prostitutes could jeopardize his marriage, job, or social position.
Many prostitute-client relationships were characterized by hostility and mistrust. For some prostitutes, hostility probably originated as much in their childhoods or in early sexual experiences as in their more immediate circumstances. Hostility also was a response to violence and verbal abuse from clients and to the fact that many prostitutes had to have
― 256 ―
daily sexual relations with customers for whom they felt physical indifference or revulsion. Prostitutes like Jewett who could exercise much control over their choice of clients were fortunate and a minority. In many situations, prostitutes accepted whichever customers they could get, regardless of how repulsive or frightening they were.
Many prostitutes acted out their hostility, or supplemented their fees, by stealing from their clients; some probably considered most men fools and believed a prostitute should take as much as she could get from the exchange. As a rule, however, prostitutes accepted that the customer was their source of income and needed to be kept happy, in hopes of both a smooth, conflict-free business transaction in the present and continuing regular visits in the future.
In some situations hostility may have been assumed rather than demonstrated. A popular notion existed that prostitutes brought to their profession a pre-conditioned hatred of men. The Herald printed an editorial digression on the topic in its coverage of the Jewett murder, accepting the assumption that Jewett was “possessed of a very devil, and a species of mortal antipathy to the male race . . .. She seems to have declared war against the sex… and would say . . . I despise you all . . . you have ruined me—I’ll ruin you—I delight in your ruin.” The difference between this picture of Jewett and the complicated and often positive feelings and ties indicated in Jewett’s correspondence with her clients suggests that this vision was more the product of the guilty underside of male fantasy than of reality.
Although most men sought and were given exactly what they bargained for—impersonal sex—at times the prostitute became an undemanding friend to the customer, a pleasant companion whose company he enjoyed and in whose presence he felt comfortable. For the prostitute, this meant she would be guaranteed his patronage and money. Thus, unless a customer was considered undesirable for personal or safety reasons, a prostitute would feign interest or would genuinely enjoy a relationship that created a little more security in the present and possibly offered the opportunity and resources for a better situation in the future, whether within the profession or outside. Although these friendships might seem genuine, they were usually unequal because of the social stigma associated with prostitution, which meant the prostitute did not fully share the respect necessary for a true friendship. When put
― 257 ―
to a test of public recognition of the relationship, the friendship was flawed. For the prostitute to have expectations usually meant she would have disappointments.
The violence and hostility underlying some relationships between prostitutes and customers has been described in discussions of the legal system (Chapters 4 and 5) and prostitutes’ working conditions (Chapter 7). What is missing in these descriptions of violence and overt adversarial confrontations, however, is a sense of the more congenial relationships that existed between prostitutes and clients, including the ways in which prostitutes interacted with, manipulated, or covertly sparred with their customers.
The Jewett correspondence contains letters from nineteen different men whose relationships with Jewett ranged from that of a potential customer who had not yet met her to that of Robinson, or Frank Rivers, who became her lover. Many of the letters are straightforward, explaining why an appointment or liaison had to be canceled, but even these suggest a level of politely affectionate consideration that seems remarkable.
Thursday morning, Oct. 9, 1834
My Dear Helen,
I may not possibly call on you this after-noon, as I have a sick friend, who engrosses nearly every moment of my time. If I can steal away, however, for a time, I will do so, and meet you this afternoon. I hope, my dear girl, you will pardon this apparent neglect, and indeed I know you would, could you fully comprehend the unpleasant situation in which I am so unfortunately placed.
Very affectionately yours, William
From Charles H., Jewett received a note stating that: “It is with deepest regret, that I inform you, I cannot fulfil my engagement with you this evening. My sister and her husband arrived here this morning from Havana . . . after an absence of nearly two years.” Charles promised, however, to call on Jewett at the first available opportunity. From “Pupil,” Jewett received a note saying: “I am extremely sorry to say that it will be out of my power to wait on you either Thursday or Friday, as I leave town Thursday morning for Boston.” Since his return was planned for the following Monday, Pupil asked that Jewett drop him a note, in care of his office, informing him what night it would be possible
― 258 ―
to see her. More mysterious about his reasons for canceling was Robert, who wrote:
My Dearest Helen,
Circumstances quite beyond my own control compel me to remain at home this evening, and you would I know, pardon this apparent neglect could you be aware of the cause which will deter me from keeping my engagement with you this evening.
Truly yours, Robert
P.S. I will see you early tomorrow evening.
Although equally mysterious about the reasons for his last-minute absence, Stanhope notified Jewett he would send a substitute, “a proper friend, who insists upon usurping, what I would not forego even for friendship under other circumstances, and who [assures me] of his perfect gentleness . . .. Tomorrow evening . . . I shall be most happy to perform an attention, which in truth, I do not feel myself capable of this evening.” Such complicated consideration and stress on “perfect gentleness” suggest concerns unexpected in prostitute-client relations.
In most instances the customers indicated they would like to re-schedule their appointments. In other cases, however, such as that of “J.,” who had not yet met Jewett personally, the reason for not coming may have been legitimate but also may have been an excuse for postponing a visit until he was more secure about his proposed action. “J.” had fallen for Jewett’s flattery, was delighted with the prospect of corresponding with her, and was eager to hear more about himself.
I am highly gratified at the promptitude, with which you have responded to my desire to form your acquaintance, the more so, because if I am to believe you, (and as yet I have no reason to doubt your sincerity) it is a favor which has not been granted to all who have sought it. My gratification, however, is not a little alloyed by my present inability to avail myself of the permission you have given me. Since I wrote you two days since, I have had the misfortune to be thrown from a gig, and though not seriously hurt, I am just enough so to be obliged to keep my room and in the language of my physician to avoid all excitement. This would be sufficiently annoying at any time; but it is particularly vexatious now, because it deprives me of the pleasure of seeing you. You can, however, alleviate in some measure the sufferings of my confinement, by writing to me, which I feel assured, even from the little billet which I have now before me,
― 259 ―
you can do well. Tell me what impression I have made upon you. Any thing so that you write. Do not disappoint me I pray you.
Several of the letters to Jewett indicate that their client-authors had casual friendships with her, enjoyed doing favors or picking out gifts for her, and wanted to know her better· From one man Jewett received a gift with the following note:
My Dear Helen,
Stopping a few minutes in a book store in Broadway to see a friend, I noticed a new publication called the “Magnolia.” Thinking it a pretty thing and knowing your taste for reading, I bought it . . . and the acceptance of it will confer upon the donor more satisfaction than the receiver can possibly derive from it.
. . . I am going to the theatre where I may possibly meet you, or see you ere this note.
. . . From one who wishes to be called your friend “frequently, if not oftener.”
Literary interests seem to have been a significant tie between Jewett and several of her customers. J.J.A.S. wrote Jewett: “Being aware that you as well as myself are amateurs of literature, I send you the Boston Pearl , for which I have put your name as a subscriber . . .. I shall probably call and see you Saturday, till then, adieu.” Another client, Frederick, appealing more to a possible interest in imported finery, wrote to Jewett to tell her that a friend would be leaving for Paris the next day and had said he would bring back any goods requested. Asking Jewett to select “whatever you feel desirous of having” from Paris, he reminded her not to forget “the pretty little shoes.”
Some clients, like out-of-towners John P. and Ben, found Gotham enthralling and wished to continue their newly found “friendships” through correspondence:
How are you? Have you not received a letter from your friend Ben? If not you must blow up the postoffice. He has written to you twice, and is in a duced pucker to hear from her whom he deems the most fascinating of her sex.
. . . I wrote Catharine a long nonsensical love letter four week since, and have not yet received an answer.
― 260 ―
. . . Now my good girl be so kind as to write Ben or myself immediately, inform us of your health, whether Catharine has gone to Charlestown or not, and all the news. And I assure you that you will contribute to the happiness of two poor unlucky dogs “what” cannot forget Gotham. Do write soon and greatly oblige your friend.
John’s “nonsensical love letter to Catharine” suggests that Jewett was far from alone in getting such affectionate letters.
The correspondence also shows the rebuffs Jewett’s writing might trigger. Although N.J. said he “remains her friend,” he rejected her overtures for a visit or for public conversation:
Your letter, my dear Helen, has been received. In answer to your inquiry why I don’t call to see you, I know ’tis enough to satisfy you to say I have good and substantial reasons, which no doubt you can imagine. Your feelings with regard to speaking to me at the theatre are very proper. You know perfectly well that I am always happy to speak to you, but if I were to do so in such a place, you are aware, what inference would be drawn by those who know us only by name. Wishing you all happiness, I remain your friend.
Another customer, Archibald, had made plans to “share” his wealth with Jewett and then lost it all gambling. In a letter of apology and self-flagellation, Archibald said he knew she must think him an “ungrateful villain,” so he requested that she make inquiries of a gentleman in South Street to verify his good name and associations—but he asked that she do this “in such manner that he may not be acquainted with our connection.”
Demeaning or insulting statements also came from those who professed love and admiration for Jewett. T.C., or Henry, wrote to Jewett in February 1834 apologizing for leaving abruptly for his home, stating he would have found a farewell an impossibility. T.C. wrote that Jewett had “wrongfully abused” him and that she had called him a “snot,” but he forgave her and professed great love for her and unhappiness at their being separated. He looked forward to his return in two months for a longer stay and noted that, if she were to find herself short of money, he would send what she needed. T.C. then ended the letter with a postscript saying:
My friend P. will see you and state my feelings towards you. Pray do not make yourself too common, excuse me for so saying, but my reason is, that I was told
― 261 ―
you were any one’s for five dollars, I will not believe it. Write me at Montreal speedily.
Another out-of-town customer, Charles C., wrote to Jewett saying he was “one who is happy to call you friend.” His letter contained a number of passages from “Lallah Rook,” and he reminisced about their previous discussions of the poem. He also complimented Jewett’s virtues, especially her “regard for truth” which he found unusual for one in her “circumstances,” since most women in her position usually “display more or less deception.” Several months later Charles wrote again reiterating that he was one “who wishes to be called your friend,” stating that he was looking forward to an upcoming trip to New York and the “great pleasure” of her company. He chastised Jewett, however, for her “lack of judgement” when she was recently before the police court:
I am sorry to see your name in the police reports, and particularly to hear that you should have shown the bad taste to notice in any way the reporter who so coarsely bespattered you with praise.
Charles, like several of Jewett’s other customer-correspondents, included in his letters greetings and “compliments to all old friends,” mentioning some by name. The letters from these men indicate that the authors were part of a group of males who hung around Jewett and were friendly with each other as well as with her. Charles asked the whereabouts of “your Englishman” (possibly T.C.) and mentioned correspondence from their friend Harvey. Bob of Cincinnati sent his “best respects to Frank” (Rivers) and asked Jewett to tell Frank he would be pleased to have him call if he were ever in Ohio. On his trip west, Wandering Willie had a letter from Jewett to give to Mr. P. of Cincinnati (possibly Bob), and he wrote home to Jewett requesting news of Frank and Bill (Easy). Frank and Bill discussed their activities with each other in letters to Jewett and also mentioned the names of new clients, such as Mr. Cook, Harry, and Cashier, that they and others had introduced to her. Most of these men appear to have been customers simultaneously, and all would have liked to be Jewett’s “favorite,” but they did not seem to resent greafiy the fact that another of the group temporarily held this position. For them, the brothel was a social gathering place as well as a house of prostitution. This social role of the brothel and Jewett’s
― 262 ―
centrality to the group is demonstrated by an incident mentioned in a letter from Mrs. Berry to Jewett when Jewett was visiting in Philadelphia in December 1835.
Last evening about seven o’clock, Bill Easy and Mr. Cook called to the house. I had a fire made in your room so they went up stairs and sat there some time. Bill Easy appears rather melancholy at your absence. He thought he would send you a letter, so he gave it to Hannah to carry to you . . .. Bill Easy is very anxious to see you . . .. Sam and three of his friends were here last night and enquired for you, but as you were not here they went away.
Bill Easy (George P. Marston) was one of Jewett’s most frequent companions and correspondents, at least for the year preceding her death. He greatly enioyed receiving and sending her letters but seems to have been intimidated by the exercise, usually excusing his responses as being composed in haste because of business. Responding to one of her “beautiful letters,” he said: “You must not expect my letters to be equal to yours, in any respect whatever, for I am wholly incompetent to answer letters so far superior to any I can write.” In another letter he tried to find the right word to finish a compliment to her and finally gave up: “My language fails me, I can’t draw any comparison, no how I can fix it. Your own imagination must conclude the sentence, which I was unable to do.”
Jewett’s friendship with Bill Easy illustrates, however, how friendships formed because of great emotional needs could become personally exploitative. Easy worked as a clerk in a store and lived in a respectable boardinghouse but appears to have spent much of his private time at the brothel, the theater, and with people he knew through these places. His letters to Jewett caused the Police Gazette to describe him as “one of those harpies who hang around brothels to receive chance favors from regardless women for services of business.” The term harpy seems ill-chosen. Easy was one who “wished to please”—he wanted to please Jewett by bringing her his finest friends as clients, and he wanted to ingratiate himself to his friends by introducing them to Jewett. He was a close enough friend of Jewett’s for her to make and mend shirts for him. Even though he accepted the fact that his good friend Frank Rivers was Jewett’s “favorite,” he was so infatuated with her that he seemed blind to Jewett’s use of him in a love triangle to get even with Rivers for neglect and disloyalty.
― 263 ―
Easy’s efforts in bringing Jewett his best friends were not always successful. In an early letter to Jewett, Easy explained that the dislike she felt for his friend Harry should not affect their relationship.
I know you was [sic ] not serious when you told me that Thursday night might be the last one which I should pass with you, for I won’t believe that you could tell me that, and not manifest any feeling of regret at all on parting. The deprivation of your society would be a serious loss to me and one that could not be repaired.
Eager to offer a more acceptable friend, Easy then inquired, “How do you like my tall friend Mr. Cook? I hope you feel a better disposition toward him than to Harry. He is a very fine man. In fact I never knew a person in my life, whom I like better than Mr. Cook.” He informed Jewett that Cook would be with him at the theater that night and would probably want to go home with her, and he hoped she would agree. “I would rather forego the pleasure of your company myself than be the cause of disappointment to him.”
Apparently, Cook missed his cue, because Easy wrote the next day to explain:
My friend Cook was disappointed in not seeing you home from the theatre last evening, though I don’t see as he can blame you any for going with another person. You certainly waited long enough for him to acquaint you with his intentions, and I thought we gave him hints enough to that effect.
. . . I don’t believe he could be angry with you if he tried, he loves you too well . . .. When I introduced him to you, I little expected he would so soon become infatuated. Whether his feelings toward you are reciprocated is no business of mine. I was not jealous of him, but I do hope he will never have your miniature in his bosom.
From your friend, W.E.
Easy must have felt he should give Jewett some remuneration for the “missed opportunity,” so he added a note at the bottom of the letter: “Do not be angry that I enclose the piece of paper accompanying this. It is all I have or it should be more.”
When Jewett’s relationship with Rivers (Richard Robinson) began to crumble, she turned to Easy as both a source of information and an instrument to create jealousy. On learning of Rivers’s supposed infidelity, Jewett abruptly ended her visit in Philadelphia and returned to New York, paying an immediate visit to Easy’s place of business to get
― 264 ―
information. Easy’s response again pointed out to Jewett the fatal flaw in many of her friendships. The need for public camouflage meant she could not be publicly acknowledged and thus did not really have a friendship of mutual respect.
I have just this moment heard that a young lady was in the store this morning after paper, and that she also enquired after me. From the description I had of her, and from having learned that you was [sic ] in town, I think it must have been you. I regret very much that I was out at the time, I can assure you. Our porter has just told me the circumstance of your being in, and says he did not know what to make of you. I hope when you enquired of the clerk for me, that none of the bosses were near. I must confess I was not a little surprised that you should mention my name at all, for instance, if it had been D. Felt himself that you asked, I should have been blown slick as a whistle . . .. I hope you will never ask for me again in that manner, for you must be aware that a discovery would be a serious evil to me.
Easy’s later letters indicate that Jewett’s conduct toward him vacillated between showers of affection and gifts, and barrages of slights and reprimands as she used him to try to reestablish her old relationship with Rivers. Eager for her affection and attention, Easy consciously or unconsciously allowed himself to be used. Both men were her companions until the time of her death—but the degree of affection she held for each can be seen in the testimony of Rosina Townsend as she recalled the details of Jewett’s last evening.
Helen Jewett told Mrs. Townsend at Tea Table that Frank Rivers will be there and stay all night and also Bill Easy would come but requested that B. Easy would not be admitted in the House . . .. Mrs. Townsend had the keys of the place at 8 o’clock and kept watch at the door so as to prevent Bill Easy to come in.
Even when a prostitute and her client mutually enjoyed each other’s company, friendships sometimes failed because each had different expectations of the relationship. In Edward, Jewett had a pleasant companion who was refined, interesting, and older. He admired her mind, enjoyed their conversations, sexually desired her, and was fond of her. In the midst of their relationship, however, Jewett’s “young” lover returned to town, changing the terms of Edward’s and Jewett’s association. Neither wished to let go of the relationship entirely, but neither could accept it on the other’s terms. Jewett conceded the public lim-
― 265 ―
itations of her liaison with Edward—that she could “not see [him], nay, not even recognize [him] at the theatre,” but she wanted to continue their correspondence and occasional visits in a non-sexual friendship. Edward wanted everything—intellectual and sexual companionship with emotional commitment, but he granted he “could not be to [her] the friend, which, perhaps, [she] anticipated.” Thus, Edward wrote to Jewett:
Had not this correspondence better be discontinued for the present, at least. Start not at the proposal; it is with reluctance that I speak of it, but you are with your young friend, and . . . your attachment for him must increase, while for me, it must lessen for want of that occasional intercourse which is necessary to the very existence of any decided preference . . .. During our last interview your partial refusal on a certain matter, convinced me that I reigned in your bosom with no deep seated preference. It spoke volumes in favor of your feelings for your friend, and your regard for your word, but very little for your partiality for me. Pardon me for alluding to the circumstance even in this remote manner.
In spite of Jewett’s “partial refusal” and his pessimistic assessment of their relationship, Edward wrote that he would “still call at the house to enquire of [her] well-being,” and in closing the letter he requested time for a visit at the end of the week.
Perhaps the most genuine and long-lasting of Jewett’s male friendships was that with Wandering Willie. He was the reporter whose story about Jewett’s appearance in police court caused Charles C. to reprimand her. Jewett’s and Wandering Willie’s friendship began with this police-court incident and continued for two years until her death. In contrast to most of Jewett’s other “friends,” Willie did not hide his association with Jewett, even though he may have partially camouflaged it as “journalistic interest.” Willie went on an extended trip to the West in 1835, and their surviving correspondence is from this period. His letters are long and filled with experiences he wished to share with Jewett. His affection and desire for her are obvious.
God has given me a sufficient share of sincerity to entitle me to full credence, when I state that the receipt of your letter this day, gave me much real and unmingled pleasure . . . .
I wish that you had been with me, my girl, on the glorious river of the Lakes, and on several other occasions . . .. Had I been rich enough, Ellen, I would
― 266 ―
have requested you to make my journey completely delightful by accompanying me. On my soul, Ellen, I never knew but two women whose society I thought worthy of accepting on a journey . . .. I trust, however, that the day is not far distant when we shall make a tour together through two or three places.
In Another Letter He Added:
God bless you Ellen; I long to see and talk to you, for I have seen such sights—but I have not yet transgressed with an Indian girl, no, nor with any other kind since I left New York, but this is not virtue, for I wish, oh, how I wish I had you with me this very night.
Willie expressed his respect for Jewett’s “soul” as well as her mind. He used extensive literary references to convey this message, noting that Jewett, like Ellen in Scott’s Lady of the Lake , “was cast pro tern among a set of rude and rough mortals, yet she preserved her mind’s bright purity; her soul was unpolluted; so it is with you my girl.” Doing small favors was also a part of the friendship. Willie thanked Jewett “for the numerous acts of kindness which your letter tells me you have conferred upon me . . . relating to the commissions which I gave you to do.” A postscript to another letter stated: “See that my Boy obeyed my mandate.”
Jewett’s client associations offer a wide spectrum of different types of customer-prostitute interactions, and they reveal common factors that influenced many prostitute-client relationships or that were impediments to genuine friendships. A more comprehensive view of the full range of customer associations is gained by adding data from sources such as House of Refuge records and police reports. Most of the young women who were committed to the House of Refuge for prostitution had had as their first sex partners young men in their teens who had run around with them on the streets at night. A hair ribbon or a walk in Battery Park for these girls could be equated with a magazine subscription or evening at the Park Theatre for Helen Jewett—added currency in the sexual exchange. From young boys many teenage prostitutes graduated to the local grocer, hackman, or boardinghouse resident, and then to men of a variety of ages and occupations that they picked up on the streets at night. Some women preferred totally impersonal transactions with a transient population, while others hoped to be taken on for a period as a kept mistress.
― 267 ―
Prostitutes’ interactions with customers covered the full range of possibilities from impersonal, perhaps hostile, sexual intercourse to genuine friendships. The impersonal associations occurred more frequently than did friendships, but the latter did exist. In the nineteenth century, as now, for prostitutes or non-prostitutes, a “testing” of friendships had the potential to reveal flaws in those relationships. Thus numerous friendships existed without the ideal components of mutual respect, compatibility, loyalty, or lack of exploitation but were nonetheless acceptable and satisfying to the parties involved. Prostitutes accepted less than perfect relationships even though some genuine, sustained male friendships did exist for them. Wandering Willie appeared to have had such a relationship with Helen Jewett—he first was her customer, then also became her friend. “Customer” and “friend,” however, were only two categories of relationships that existed between prostitutes and their male associates. On many occasions the mutual affection of friendships blossomed into deeper relationships, and a client or male friend became a prostitute’s “lover” or husband.
A man could be called a prostitute’s lover when the liaison was of long duration (several months), was intense, and was rooted as much in emotional attachment as in material considerations–even though the lover might continue to pay or to gain through her as a business associate or recipient of gifts and cash. It is difficult to give a precise definition of a lover because relationships differed greatly from case to case and because the roles men played in the lives of prostitutes—customer, friend, lover, protector, spouse, business associate—were not exclusive. An emotionally attached lover might live with a prostitute and at the same time also serve as her protector, work with her as a partner in a panel-thief operation, or operate a bar that catered to her clients; or he might have a social role separate from her prostitution operation, earning some of his income as a gambler, thief, policeman, or employee of another business.
If a man depended on a prostitute for more than temporary support, he might be thought of as a pimp, but the use of the term can be very misleading when referring to the nineteenth century before 1870. Pimps, as they are known today and have been known since the last decades of the nineteenth century, can be defined as men who exploit prostitutes financially, living off their earnings, and who have control over the women’s public and private sexual lives. Pimps may or may not
― 268 ―
be the recipients of a prostitute’s affection and gifts. Some men who related to prostitutes as pimps existed in nineteenth-century New York, just as they must have existed in all ages. In New York City, however, it was not until around 1870, when prostitution began to be more segregated in red-light districts, that evidence of the presence of pimps becomes clear. Furthermore, not until the last decades of the century did a full-fledged pimp system develop in New York, as males gained control over the complete range of citywide prostitution operations. The distinction between a lover and pimp basically involved whether the woman or the man was primarily in control of both the personal and professional ties. Clearly, up until the last decades of the nineteenth century, women were in charge of the operation and profits of prostitution.
The use of the word pimp is found in only a few sources in this period. John R. McDowall, in the Magdalen Society report, stated that in some prostitution houses pimps “beat the girls and drug those who want to reform.” Most sources in this period that mention males who are associated with brothels (including McDowall’s Journal ) do not refer to them as pimps but as bullies or “bouncers” hired to provide protection, sentinels who kept watch on the street and warned the houses when police or other trouble was approaching, or business associates. The term pimp also is found in sources as an epithet for one’s adversaries or a disliked member of the community who was associated with a prostitute. In 1872 the New York Worm referred to Dan Sickles, former Civil War general, state legislator, Congressman, secretary to lames Buchanan, and Minister to Spain as a “pimp” because he had had a liaison with prostitute Fanny White and allegedly had accepted funds from her for his political campaign.
Romantic “lovers” were important to prostitutes, and most nineteenth-century social commentaries note the prevalence of lovers among these women. As with their analyses of brothels and prostitutes, which were nearly categorized and placed in a hierarchical order, these authors attempted to impose a structure on the existence of lovers, endeavoring to find distinctions, often based on moralistic fantasy, that would fit them into the prostitution hierarchy. Because romantic attachment is more difficult to categorize than functions within a relationship, functional distinctions were usually emphasized. Thus, nineteenth-century commentators indicated that lovers were taken on for romantic reasons
― 269 ―
and were lavishly treated, but they also usually were expected to protect, to steal, to assist with the brothel operation, to accompany, or to entertain.
According to New York physician Charles Smith in 1847, all classes of prostitutes had lovers—thus satisfying their “natural desire of having one man as a constant friend and companion . . .. The woman who keeps a house of ill fame has her man, the kept mistress has her lover and prostitutes have their ‘friends'”—none of whom pay for the affection they receive and many of whom draw some of their support from the women. “The lover is not jealous of her profession because he knows she does not enjoy it.” According to Smith, women made great sacrifices for these men and remained devoted even when treated brutally. Smith believed most of these lovers spent their time on billiards, dominoes, races, and elections, and that the liaisons sometimes led to retirement from prostitution and to marriage.
A decade later, in the 1850s, William Sanger noted the existence of lovers among keepers of brothels who
have an exaggerated affection for some man to whom they are passionately attached. Some few of them are professedly living with their husbands, but this is an exception to the ordinary rule. Generally speaking, they are the mistresses of some persons upon whom they lavish all their tenderness, and for whose gratification they willingly incur any amount of expense. Some of these individuals are men upon town, gamblers, or rowdies of the higher class, whose noblest aspirations are satisfied by a liberal supply of money.
Sanger went on to point out that first-class madams did not as a general rule allow prostitutes’ lovers to reside with them, “although they allow them to visit; a constant residence is considered as likely to engross too much of the girls’ time to the neglect of the interest of the proprietress.” Madam Berry handled the problem by granting each of her boarders the “privilege of having one night a week at her own command, in arrears or not, in which to see her ‘private friend.’ “
Sanger also noted that a lover or “bully” was characteristic of middle-and lower-class prostitutes. The lover, usually indolent, acted as the prostitute’s protector if she became involved in any difficulty with rowdies and strangers, but at times he also exercised an arbitrary and brutal control over her. “In many cases, singular as it may appear, an actual love is felt by the woman for ‘her man.’ “
― 270 ―
A similar description of lovers was given by George Ellington in 1869: “Sometimes the girls support the lovers, and sometimes the lovers support the girls—the first custom being the more common, and the latter more honored in the breach than in the observance. The lovers are supposed by the women to be their best friends,” who give them advice about business matters and introduce them to men with money. Ellington considered the lovers to be of the lowest sort, frequently thieves and gamblers, or partners with the women in the “panel house game” or “husband game.” Ellington conceded, however, that in better houses, the prostitute’s lover “gives more than he receives.” As often as the house rules would permit, these lovers would take their women to the theater or other resorts of pleasure and appear proud of their company.
Some of the negative intricacies of prostitutes’ relationships with their lovers are spelled out in contemporary newspaper accounts of prostitutes’ conflicts with these men. The brutality noted by Smith, Ellington, and Sanger is borne out in some of the incidents described in the papers. One of the worst attacks of brutality was perpetrated on prostitute Mary Mansfield by hack driver Dennis Diamond, who had been her lover and for four years had “measurably lived with the girl” at a brothel at 128 Anthony Street. Diamond had quarreled with Mansfield and had knocked her down, kicked her, and jumped on her stomach, breast, and face. Her face was so lacerated that her features were barely discernible, and her internal injuries were so serious that, since the incident, she had been in a “torpid, senseless state with little prospect of surviving.”
Prostitute Ann Burk found that the violence she experienced with her lover was not much different from that she had endured as a married woman. Burk’s husband was a seaman, and while she lived with him he beat her frequently. As a result of marital violence, Burk left her husband, “turned out upon the town, and opened a house of infamy,” even though her husband still visited and beat her whenever he was in port. For over a year Burk had had a “sleeping partnership” with John Rue, who also worked with her as a business partner. During a quarrel about their business establishment, Rue beat, knocked down, kicked, and stomped upon Burk. A “battle royal” ensued in which “glass lamps were hurled at each other’s heads, broken andirons were thrown about, shovels and thongs were used as weapons and broken, and the furniture was battered and destroyed.” Rue was arrested by the watch, and Burk
― 271 ―
pressed charges against him. In revenge, Rue made out a complaint against Burk for keeping a disorderly house and had her and all of the inhabitants of the house arrested. The prostitutes and “their bully” were committed to Bridewell until they could find bail to keep the peace.
Sources indicate that prostitutes often forgave and returned to their violent lovers. Mary Reffell and Benjamin Rhinggold came from Washington, D.C., to lodge with Frank and Mary Berry in Duane Street. After two days in the city, they had a “domestic quarrel,” and Rhinggold beat Reffell savagely and “threatened her with a huge Bowie knife—nearly one-half as large as she—with which he cut her on the head.” Reffell attended court when Rhinggold was arraigned, appearing “to suffer considerably from injuries upon her head, which was bandaged up.” As the judge was about to sentence Rhinggold to Bridewell, Reffell intervened and begged he not be punished, saying they would leave the city in a day or two. Because of her intercession, Rhinggold was discharged, but the judge extracted a promise from Reffell that she would leave town for a different destination than her lover—a promise she most likely did not keep.
More philosophical about her lover’s temper was Ann Farmer, a friend and correspondent of Helen Jewett. In a letter to Jewett she wrote: “You ask if Mr. W. and myself have become friends; we have made up and fallen out twice since you left. I have become so accustomed to his freaks of temper, that I almost find them a necessary evil.”
Violence between prostitutes and their lovers was not perpetrated by the men alone. Prostitutes were strongly attached to their paramours, and their intense feelings were often manifested in jealousy, anger, and rage which resulted in physical conflicts. Police officers were called to Anthony Street where an “old bawd named Delia May, nineteen years on the town,” was beating and swearing oaths at W. Purse, “her particular friend and keeper,” who the night before had gone off with another woman. May, covered in soot and coal dust, was arrested and sent to prison to keep the peace. In another incident, a young prostitute named Mrs. Baker was jilted by her lover, a man called Burke. Not long afterward, while sitting in the third tier of the Bowery Theatre, Baker saw Burke with another woman in the first tier of boxes. Baker went down to Burke and his friend and began hurling insults at him. Burke told Baker she must be mistaken, he had never seen her before, and then shortly afterward he went to Baker’s and beat her for “taking such
― 272 ―
liberties with him when he was in respectable company.” Baker filed charges of assault against Burke. The theater also was the scene of another assault by a prostitute on a gentleman who apparently had played with her emotions. In this case, the former paramour was accompanied by his family when he was attacked by the distraught woman.
Although relationships between prostitutes and their lovers were frequently volatile, even brutal, police reports in the press often distort the full range of feelings that existed in these relationships. Clara Hazard, friend of Helen Jewett, left New York for her hometown of Philadelphia in pursuit of her lover, “Conch.” The following is part of a letter she wrote to Jewett describing the events that transpired on her arrival in Philadelphia and on a subsequent trip to Baltimore a few days later:
Baltimore, Friday, June 12, 1835
Excuse my not writing before to you, my esteemed friend, for my mind was in such a way that I was incapable of writing. I arrived in Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon, and saw a woman who [sic ] my Conch had sinned with, though he denied it all. But we had a fight. He struck me and I scratched his face awfully. He threw me down and jumped on me, after which I followed him out of the house for two squares, running down the street after him, almost naked, having nothing on but my night clothes. He ran in the house of my wash-woman and I after him, when he begged me to let him alone. I then made him go back, when it was all right. He was in Baltimore last week, and misbehaved himself all around. One Maria Gartzher is in love with him. He walked Baltimore streets with her, and blame him, he shall pay for the sport.
A month and a half later, Clara wrote again from Philadelphia describing her life with Conch:
Philadelphia, July 26, 1835
. . . Conch and myself arrived here safe on Wednesday, at half past 2 o’clock. There is no news in this place, no theatre is open or place of amusement of any kind, the streets look forsaken, you scarcely see fifty persons during the day. The weather is very warm, and yesterday was the warmest day we have had this summer. Conch and myself fight every half hour, and are friends the next. He starts home on Friday next, and I expect to go with him, and if you do not receive any letter from me until I return from Virginia, I beg of you not to think hard
― 273 ―
of me, for it would never do to have letters sent there in my name, as the place is small, and the fellows in the Post Office are acquainted with Conch and myself, and then we would be found out.
. . . Conch and myself roll on the floor all day. I really think we have the coolest room in the city. Nothing more at present.
I remain your friend, C. Hazard
Three months later, Clara’s relationship with Conch seemed to have stabilized somewhat. She appeared to be contentedly spending most of her time in domestic pursuits and suggested she was pregnant.
Philadelphia, October 20, 1835
I received your letter last Friday, and would have answered it before, but have . . . been very much engaged in darning stockings, making night caps, & c. I have turned very industrious and economical since I have seen you. I spend most of my time at home, and walk out but very seldom, and when I do, it is only to my mother’s. I find that there is more real happiness by staying at home and mending up my old clothes, until my dear Conch comes, than in running up and down the streets with the girls. Helen, I never was happier than I am now, C. giving me all that is necessary, and remaining with me altogether. . .. I do not go to the theatre but once a week, and that is Saturday night, it being the only night in the week that Conch can go, he being compelled to read every night until twelve and one o’clock. If you see me in three or four months from now, you will see good signs of the first duty of life. . . Conch’s respects to you. I remain your friend.
Prostitutes took many different forms of action in trying to hold on to their men. Prostitute Mary Ann Barnes was living with a seventeen-year-old youth at her brothel in Walnut Street. The boy’s mother made repeated trips to see Barnes and beg for her son’s “release” and was finally told by Barnes that she would “rather go to Hell” than part with the young man. In order to force the removal of her underage son from the brothel, the mother filed charges of seduction against Barnes, who was then arrested.
More emphatic in her efforts to keep her lover was prostitute Mary Stewart. Stewart also was living with a young man who, on coming of age, left his guardian-aunt and moved into Stewart’s brothel. When the young man’s brother came to persuade his sibling to leave the brothel,
― 274 ―
Stewart became enraged, pointed a loaded pistol at the brother, and threatened to blow his brains out. The issue was settled, at least temporarily, when Stewart was arrested.
Brothel madam Rosina Townsend was more subtle in her actions to maintain her relationship with a lover. The night of Jewett’s murder Townsend spent with a man described by the press as her “paramour.” When the court refused to give credence to Townsend’s testimony incriminating Robinson because it was not corroborated and the testimony of this companion could have offered the necessary corroboration, Townsend refused to give his name because he was a respectable merchant. Conscious of the effect of public disclosure, Townsend opted for companionship over credibility.
A more poignant example of the loyalty and devotion felt by a prostitute for her lover as well as a prostitute’s tenacity in trying to hold on to her special relationship is found in a letter written to Helen Jewett by prostitute Agnes J. Thompson, who had once been acquainted with Jewett.
Baltimore, Maryland, Nov. 2, 1835
Some three years have transpired since I had the exquisite pleasure of seeing you, and I may have grown entirely out of your recollection; therefore, I must ask your excusal in my assumption of this boldness, but believe me that I am urged to trouble you on account of my man—having been informed by a gentleman of your city that my lover was acquainted with you. His name is Lawson M. [The name was “suppressed” by the Gazette in case the man had since redeemed himself.] Should it prove that you are acquainted with him, please, in the name of Heaven, persuade him to return to me, and tell him I am almost dead by the intermission of his absence, and that I will do anything on earth, or give him anything I can, to make him happy. Also tell him I have been true to him. Should he not heed your entreaties, please write me forthwith, and I will proceed to your city. My anguish is so great that indeed I can hardly pen these lines.
The wife whose affection glows in true love for her husband, and in return meets with only cold indifference, can but faintly imagine my anguish.
Thompson then went on to say she would leave the next morning for Philadelphia and requested that Jewett send a response there to Madam Western’s on Race Street. She stated that, if she did not receive news of her lover, she would then leave for New York and would “stop at your house if I can be accommodated.”
― 275 ―
One prostitute who demonstrated a limited tolerance for her lover’s transgressions was a Mrs. Howard who ran an assignation house on Elm Street. When she was robbed of a $45 necklace, fifteen or twenty half eagles, and a gold-framed miniature of her daughter, Howard suspected the thief to be her lover, Dr. Benjamin A. Jocelin. Since she was not absolutely sure of his guilt, Howard had Jocelin arrested on an old assault and battery warrant. After he was locked in jail, Jocelin admitted stealing the items and told where they were hidden. The Sun , accustomed to the forgiveness of prostitutes, was certain Howard would take back “to her chaste embraces the lover who captured her kisses, and then cabbaged her goods.”
The best-documented example of the development of a relationship between a prostitute and her lover is that of Helen Jewett. Jewett met Richard Robinson in 1835, and their correspondence covers the period from June 1835, when their emotional involvement intensified, until shortly before Jewett’s death less than a year later. From the beginning of their association, Robinson appears to have used the pseudonym Frank Rivers. At the time they met, Rivers was seventeen and Jewett twenty-two. Jewett’s brothel madam, Mrs. Berry, said that she did not at first allow Rivers to visit her house “because he made quarrels—and was under age.” She also noted that he and two co-workers “did not spend much money with her.” Berry soon relented, perhaps because Rivers reached either his majority or some money; by midsummer he was a regular visitor at the brothel.
The correspondence between Jewett and Rivers reveals that both “fell in love” during the early part of the summer. In late July Jewett wrote to Rivers:
I have often wished I possessed your amiable disposition. . .. You have such a happy faculty of rendering yourself agreeable, witty and engaging that whatever society you may come in contact [with], you cannot fail to please.
. . . I have often told you that I loved you, (which perhaps a woman should blush to do) but it is, not that I have told you so that I would have you believe it, but in all my conduct I would evince the devotion I feel for you.
Although Rivers expressed similar sentiments to Jewett in his letters, he also disclosed an ambivalence which was to lead to future difficulties.
You was [sic ] offended Wednesday evening at my language. I do not wonder that you were. It was harsh—very harsh but I could not help it. No one can
― 276 ―
Prostitute Helen Jewett. Jewett, one of the best-known prostitutes of the
nineteenth century, was brutally murdered in 1836 at the age of twenty-three. The
details of her life story and relationships with customers and other prostitutes
fascinated New Yorkers for several decades.
(Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)
― 277 ―
Sketch og Miss Helen Jewett. Publications describing the life and
death of Helen (Ellen) Jewett began to appear shortly after her murder. This
Sketch was one of the earliest to be published, and its cover illustration portrayed
a more demure young woman than later works. (Courtesy of the New-York
Historical Society, New York City)
― 278 ―
love you more than I do, dear Nelly; yet how strange, whenever I meet you I cannot treat you even with respect. You must think it very strange that I profess to love you so much, and yet always treat you so harshly. Yet I have told you over and over again, that loving you as I do and not being able to see you, it makes me most crazy, and I have no control over my feelings, but Nelly you must forgive me.
. . . I know my letters cannot be very interesting to you, Nell; they are full of oh! how I love you, and a piece of other nonsense, exactly what they all write you. They all call you dearest Nelly, so do I.
I suppose you think us all alike. I shall see you again Sunday at one o’clock, until that time I shall count the hours.
Jewett continued to see many other clients during her relationship with Rivers, including some arranged by him. Wishing to please him, she followed his directives in arranging meetings with his associates, in corresponding with them, and in giving to and getting from them certain pieces of information. In one letter she stated: “I wrote you a letter and took the liberty of enclosing one to Mr. G. . .. that you might have the pleasure of reading it first—after which you were to seal and put it in the office for me.” In another letter she wrote: “I last night saw the person whom you are desirous of meeting and tried to induce him to go to the play tonight but he refused.” On a different occasion Jewett stated: “I cannot imagine why you wish to know so particularly about Mr. C;. Your request alarms me, and I beg you may assign some reason for it.”
In spite of Jewett’s efforts to please Rivers, by late August their relationship began to undergo some strain. Jewett wanted more attention and more visits from Rivers and this became a recurring theme in most of her letters. Some letters contained only a line or two on the topic: “You will recollect I spoke to you relative to visiting me oftener than twice a week,” but more often an entire note was dedicated to the complaint:
Unkind, ungenerous Frank, to remain away from me so long, when you know with what anxiety I expected a visit from you. I do not think I merit such treatment from you, or if I have, an explanation is due me, and if you ever liked me you would put an end to the painful suspense I am enduring by replying immediately.
― 279 ―
In addition to complaints, Jewett tried other tactics to get Rivers to visit her. Some letters tried to arouse his sexual interest:
I beg you will wait tonight until half past eight, when I promise you my door shall be kept unlocked for you, and you shall have all the fun you anticipate.
Another letter ended with a more explicit sexual invitation: “I feel amazingly like blowing you up, if I dared—not with powder.” Other letters tried to arouse River’s curiosity with lines such as: “I have something to tell you which from anyone else you would never give credence to”; “I want to see you tomorrow afternoon or evening very much, as I have something urgent to say to you”; and, “to-night you must call upon me, for I have something very particular indeed to communicate, which interests you more than you are aware of.”
The less attentive Rivers seemed, the more insecure Jewett became about their relationship, fearing he was unfaithful.
You often speak to me relative to my jealousy. but you must, ere this, be aware of my feelings; and it is not strange that I should wish you all my own, and feel vexed when you do not come at the time I expect. Then I fancy that you are engaged by ladies who are fond of you, praising them and giving them smiles . . . and they are kissing you . . . and that would be a sacrilege.
At times Jewett’s jealousy and insecurity became self-pity.
You have so much to occupy you which I can never share in. You of course cannot enter into the succession of frivolous pursuits and uninteresting engagements that occupy all my time, and I dare not, nay, have not the inclination to describe them to you, for if I should do so you would really be disgusted with the description.
In another letter she wrote: “I . . . solicit you, if you ever liked me, to pass an hour with me this evening, if you have one that you can spare from your numerous friends.” As Jewett’s anxieties increased, so did the conflicts with Rivers. Thus, in November 1835, Rivers wrote asking that the relationship be ended and his miniature be returned. In spite of this near-break, a reconciliation was reached, and they remained lovers for a while longer. In mid-December, however, a complete break occurred after Jewett learned that Rivers allegedly had tried to stay with a friend and co-worker in Berry’s brothel while Jewett was in Philadel-
― 280 ―
phia. Although the couple began seeing each other again after a few weeks, the relationship never completely mended. Rivers had proved he was not considerate, loyal, or loving. He took the relationship for what it was on the surface—a liaison with a prostitute which required no commitment on his part. Jewett, on the other hand, wanted a deeper relationship, and in her efforts to achieve it became insecure, possessive, and nagging—a very different person from the vivacious, witty, and understanding woman she appeared to be with her female friends and most other clients. Shortly before her death, Rivers asked to have his correspondence returned, and it was rumored he was going to marry someone else. He was, however, the last guest Jewett entertained before she was murdered.
Some prostitute-lover relationships came to the attention of the authorities or public not because of the female’s devotion to her lover but because of the male’s attachment to the prostitute. Conventional wisdom held that it was the prostitute who was desperate for the lover, not the male who might want the relationship. Only when the involved male was married did his attachment merit comment, and only then because it seemed so incomprehensible. The Herald thought it disgraceful that five young married mechanics who were just starting out in business would pay the bail of their special “syrens” who had been arrested during a raid on Leonard Street. The Sun hinted its approval of the arrest of Adeline Watson, a young prostitute who had “completely entangled in her toils” a young married clerk. The young man had virtually abandoned his pregnant wife and had spent almost every night for the past several months in the “polluted arms of this lascivious syren.” He also was spending most of his money and “much of his employer’s, which he had clandestinely taken,” to feed and clothe his companion. The merchant employer followed the clerk to the brothel and broke up the relationship by pressing charges against Watson for prostitution/ vagrancy; she was sent to prison for six months. In a case recorded in the House of Refuge records, a young married woman walked all the way to the Refuge on a bitter cold day to ask that Refuge officials recommit a former inmate and “girl of the town,” Mary E. Graham. According to the distraught mother of two children, Graham had taken her husband—his time, money, and health (he now had the “bad disorder”)— and had left her supporting the family on a $2 a week allowance.
― 281 ―
Sympathetic to the woman’s plight, the Refuge had the police arrest Graham and return her to the Refuge.
Although most prostitute-lover relationships probably were not sustained over a long period of time, some were based on a mutual devotion which appeared to offer a stable association and possibly a way out of the profession. One of New York’s most famous madams, Fanny White, is an example of a prostitute who practiced her profession for a number of years, had several liaisons, and finally left the profession to marry a lover. White came to New York in the mid-1840s and by the end of that decade was running her own brothel. Also at this time she began her most famous liaison, one with Dan Sickles, which was to last over five years. The son of a wealthy New York family, Sickles was a lawyer who became involved in Tammany politics and was elected to the state legislature in 1847. He was flamboyant and indiscreet, and his relationship with White was well known to New Yorkers. On one occasion Sickles took White to Albany with him and allegedly scandalized even those who had come to expect the unusual from him by introducing her at the table of the hotel where he regularly boarded. He also shocked observers by taking her on the floor of the assembly, an act for which he received the censure of his colleagues. Sickles’s association with White further fueled gossip because it was believed Sickles had helped finance his political campaigns with money White had earned in prostitution.
In 1852 Sickles married a sixteen-year-old named Teresa Bagioli, but this union did not interfere with his liaison with White. Because of his adulterous behavior and his contemptuous attitude toward his wife and her family, Sickles had a difficult relationship with his in-laws. It was rumored, among other things, that Sickles had forged notes in his father-in-law’s name. Interestingly, the personal tax record for 1851 for White’s brothel at 119 Mercer lists “M. Bagioli” as the payer of taxes for the property along with Fanny White. It is possible that White was involved with Antonio Bagioli, but it is also possible Sickles was using his future father-in-law’s name or funds to assist his mistress.
In 1853 Sickles was appointed secretary to James Buchanan who was serving as Minister to England. When Sickles sailed for Britain, he left wife Teresa at home but took Fanny White with him. Not able to avoid controversy for long, Sickles caused an uproar by introducing White at
― 282 ―
court. White returned to the States in 1854 and again took over management of her brothel. She continued keeping company with wealthy, flamboyant, prominent New Yorkers. George Strong wrote in his diary that his friend Bob LeRoy’s father, “semi-millionaire Jake LeRoy,” had caused a scandal “for all respectable people by driving Mrs. Fanny White up Broadway in his flashy wagon.”
By 1856, having accumulated considerable assets, White moved with two of her boarders from her Mercer brothel to quieter quarters on Twelfth Street. At this time she also met a lawyer, Edmon Blankman, whom she married a year later. White was said to have “reformed and retired” after her marriage, and she lived happily with Blankman until her premature death several years later.
Another marriage between a prostitute and a man of some stature and wealth was that of Eliza Bowen (or Brown) and Stephen Jumel. Bowen, the daughter of a prostitute, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1775. She moved to New York at age nineteen and worked with a theatrical troupe. For six years she was well known to New Yorkers as an actress and prostitute, attracting the attention and affection of French-born wine merchant Stephen Jumel. Bowen and Jumel lived together for several years until 1804, when they married. In 1810 Jumel bought the Roger Morris mansion in the northern part of the city, and the couple lived there until Stephen Jumel’s death in 1832. The following year, Aaron Burr, then nearly eighty, married the widow Jumel, This union caused Philip Hone to note in his diary: “It is benevolent in her to keep the old man in his latter days. One good turn deserves another.” William Dunlap, dramatist, critic, and artist, was not as complementary of Mrs. Jumel-Burr when he recorded in his diary a meeting with her a year later. His comments also indicated that the marriage to Burr was not as beneficial as her first one had been.
Today in the street a woman accosted me by name who [sic ] I immediately recognized as the Madam Jumel Aaron Burr married about a year back. She had been a supernumerary at the Theatre before Jumel married her. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Dunlap.’ ‘Oh, yes, Mrs. Burr, How does Col. Burr do?’ ‘O, I don’t see him any more. He got $13,000 of my property, and spent it all or gave it away and had money to buy him a dinner. I had a new Carriage and pair of horses cost me 1000 dollars he took them and sold them for 500.’ . . . I turned off glad to part from her. What confidence can be placed in the words of such
― 283 ―
Madam Jumel (Mrs. Aaron Burr). Prostitute and actress Eliza Bowen,
who married the wealthy Stephen Jumel and later Aaron Burr, represented success
in the eyes of women who entered prostitution with hopes of improving their
socioeconomic situations. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City)
― 284 ―
a woman it is hard to say, but Burr’s marrying her makes anything told of him credible.
The intimate details of the Burr marital split received much publicity, thus continuing to keep Burr embroiled in controversy until shortly before he died in 1836. Mme. Jumel-Burr lived another three decades, to the age of ninety, and on the occasion of her death she was remembered somewhat fondly by George Strong in his diary.
July 19 . . .. Died , old Mme. Jumel, or more strictly, Mrs. Aaron Burr. She was very old. When I was a boy she was spoken of mysteriously as a very wonderful, wealthy, wicked old lady, living in great seclusion.
Jumel-Burr was buried in the uptown cemetery of the distinguished Trinity Church.
The marriage of middle-class lawyer Edmon Blankman and well-known, long-term prostitute Fanny White, and that of wealthy merchant Stephen Jumel and prostitute Eliza Bowen were exceptions for men in Blankman’s and Jumel’s professional and social positions. The correspondence from Jewett’s middle-class patrons points out that most often men feared that social and business repercussions would result from public knowledge of their associations with prostitutes, so marriage was not likely to occur. The marriage of wealthy businessman Thomas Smith to a local prostitute appeared to confirm this assumption. Strong noted the marriage in his diary and called it a “case of deliberate infatuation”:
Thomas H. Smith is actually married—I did not believe the rumor before—and his blushing bride is a protege of that respected female, Mrs. Miller of Duane Street, a damsel who has been on the town for twenty years. . .. He urged and implored her to marry him for a long time, and she wrote a Southern friend to know whether he’d keep her or not if she didn’t. He declined and she thereupon consented. Very pleasant this for [Smith’s business partners] Bruen and Waddell. I should be sorely tempted to shoot a brother of mine who should perform such an operation. . .. Poor devil, he’s to be pitied.
Shortly after the marriage, partner Bruen sold out his share of the business partnership, and a few weeks later Smith’s commercial establishment burned. Smith’s misfortunes were further compounded when only six months after their marriage
Smith’s amiable bride . . . left him, having cleared out across the Atlantic with a young gentleman of nineteen (we are growing precocious), Goodwin, by
― 285 ―
name, a clerk . . . who carried off at the same time the snug amount of $6,000 from his employers.
The fear that marriage to a prostitute would result in social and business repercussions seems to have been more operative at the upper levels of prostitution, with full-time prostitutes and women catering to the middle classes, than with part-time and occasional prostitutes and those whose clientele was drawn from the laboring classes. Less well-known and part-time prostitutes found it easier to slip into marriage or other roles with no one being the wiser. In addition, the line separating respectable from disrespectable sexual behavior was much clearer for middle-class women than for those of the poorer classes. The laboring poor understood that public shame was associated with prostitution, but within their milieu a “fallen woman” could return to respectability, and a marriage to one who had practiced prostitution was not necessarily a disreputable union. The temporary or occasional practice of prostitution was viewed as an acceptable means of supplementing one’s income when necessary, not a permanent stigma. As Christine Stansell has noted in her study of nineteenth-century New York poor women:
Laboring people saw the connections of prostitution to problems of ordinary life. . .. For the laboring poor, prostitution was part of a complicated and dense web of relationships between men, money and sex; a web in which marriage and courtship were woven as well. . .. [Whereas] urban moral reform groups saw prostitution as a moral choice conditioned by economic necessity, . . . working people perceived prostitution [as] an economic choice with moral implications.
There are numerous examples in nineteenth-century records that illustrate that marriage to a former prostitute was judged acceptable and not unusual. The Water Street Home for Women noted in its second annual report that two marriages had taken place at the Home during the preceding year. The report stated that the two brides, former prostitutes, had “married Christian men who knew of their past life.” Although the House of Refuge did not keep complete records on the lives of women after they left the Refuge, there are numerous notations telling about the marriages of former inmates who had been prostitutes. When follow-up information is available, it appears that most of the prostitutes who were wedded went on to live normal married lives and worked to help support their families; many of them had children.
― 286 ―
Ann Jeanette Utter, who was introduced in an earlier chapter, was one of the Refuge prostitutes who married after spending a few years in the profession. Refuge records follow the life of Utter over a twenty-year period, noting her placement in a job as a Refuge indenture, her marriage to a Mr. Sarles, the birth of their children, and the progress of what appeared to be a successful married life.
In some cases, although a husband did not care that his wife was a former prostitute, his family did, and this led to marital difficulties for the couple. Felicite Lavoie had been visited frequently by John Waters before their marriage, when she, under the name of Catherine Stone, had lived at the well-known brothel of Mrs. Reed at 46 Laurens Street. John Waters was “barely of age” at the time they met, while Felicite was said to be “on the off side of thirty at least.” After a three-month courtship, Felicite and John were married in St. Catherine’s Church in Canal Street and then celebrated their marriage with a cake and wine reception at Mrs. Reed’s brothel. The couple moved in with John’s family and were seemingly happy until “a family member thought she saw some eccentricities in the movements of the lady.” On making inquiries, the family discovered that Felicite had been of “vicious reputation” before marriage and had continued the same course of life after marriage. Their accusations were strong enough to raise questions in John Waters’ mind over her marital fidelity, and testimony elicited for the subsequent divorce trial confirmed that acts of adultery had been committed. Felicite, who apparently would have liked to continue her double life, protested that the testimony was “a monstrous conspiracy gotten up to rob her of her husband and honor.” After listening to the witnesses at the trial, Felicite’s lawyer told the court that the testimony had taken him “by shock,” and though he believed every word his client said, he had no means at hand to disprove the plaintiff’s evidence so would submit the case under the direction of the judge and would not take any more of the court’s time. The judge found in favor of the plaintiff, and Felicite’s marriage was ended.
In another case, the son of a “respectable” family was spending too many nights away from home, and his parents became suspicious. The father followed the son to a brothel and had a police officer remove him; the brothel inhabitants were threatened with arrest. Evidently, the son was more serious about one of the prostitutes than
― 287 ―
the parents realized, and he followed his love to Philadelphia, where she had gone to avoid trouble. Again the son was brought home and again he left, this time marrying the prostitute before they departed from the city in order to escape the interference of the family. After their departure, the groom’s family discovered that the new bride was already married to but separated from a man who had tried unsuccessfully to get her to leave prostitution. When the case was last reported in the paper, the angry father was trying to get the bride arrested and imprisoned for bigamy and was suing the brothel owner for aiding in the seduction of his son. In both of the above cases where families objected to their sons’ marriages, objections appear to have been made mostly because of the wives’ occupation but partially because of the sons’ young ages.
Some prostitutes were offered marriage and declined, even though matrimony could have offered respectability and a certain degree of security. Keziah Anne Kidd, a streetwalker who had worked as a prostitute for about six months, was “discovered” by her mother and sent to the House of Refuge after she contracted a venereal disease. While she had been working as a streetwalker, “a decent young mechanic was visiting her and proposed marriage,” but because of her disease she refused. Even after she was in the Refuge and confined to bed, the mechanic accompanied Kidd’s mother on a visit to see her. According to the Refuge matron, “we declined to allow an interview,” even though Refuge officials said they believed the mechanic had not “known” her. Kidd’s prostitution was not seen as an impediment to marriage, however, because the matron noted: “I suppose if she was well [he] would marry her.”
Some prostitutes who accepted marriage became discontented and decided respectability and marriage were not worth the sacrifices of an unhappy union. Consequently, some reversed the process and “chose” or returned to prostitution. Thirty-nine percent of the prostitutes interviewed by Sanger stated that they had been married at some time. Certainly, some of these women lost their husbands because of desertion, but others left their spouses for prostitution because it was preferable to abuse, infidelity, or general unhappiness.
Catherine “Kitty” Seely was “a visitor of all the lowest dens of prostitution” at the Five Points for two years, until she married William
― 288 ―
Seely and moved to his home in New Durham, New Jersey. Mrs. Seely was described as
a chunky looking Irishwoman, with a very red face very much freckled, a short, turned-up nose, and fiery red hair cropped short behind. Her dress consisted of a loose dress, open in front, giving her general appearance [that of] a kind of negligee, which is only to be found amongst the beau monde on the Five Points.
After two months of married life in New Durham, Mrs. Seely apparently pined for the “oyster cellars, groggeries, and dance houses” of the city. One day, when given two shillings by her mother-in-law to buy salt, she bought a drink instead and left for New York. Seely found his bride in a Five Points prostitution den, drunk and with “the worst thieves,” so he took her before the local magistrate. Seely admitted that his wife had been living with another man at the Five Points at the time he decided to marry her, but said she was a good woman, a hard worker, and very smart, and he wanted to keep her. He told the judge he did not want a better woman. But his bride protested, saying she did not get enough to eat in New Durham and calling her husband a “devilish old fool and an old jackass.” She went on to say that he had known what she was when he married her, and that the marriage was not valid because she would not have married him had she not been drunk at the time and unaware of her actions. After hearing both parties, the judge pointed out that he had no power to force her to return to her husband and encouraged the reluctant Seely to get a divorce. Another prostitute, a Miss Decker, married Hamilton Dobbs, a blacksmith, and after six months she decided he was lazy and did not support her well, and she returned to a brothel. Dobbs found her streetwalking one evening and “solicited her strongly to return home with him but she would not—so he had her taken to the watchhouse.” Mrs. Dobbs was committed overnight but then discharged the next morning, apparently free to return to her profession instead of her husband.
Even though most nineteenth-century contemporaries assumed that a successful marriage was an avenue out of prostitution because the practice of the profession was incompatible with matrimony, in reality, it was not unusual for practicing prostitutes to be married. Sanger noted that 2 5 percent of the prostitutes he interviewed said they were married at the time, and more than half of these were still living with their
― 289 ―
husbands while practicing prostitution. Some women remained in the profession because prostitution was a lucrative means of contributing to the family economy, while others returned to prostitution occasionally when economically necessary or when they were so inclined. Many prostitutes may have married for the same reasons they had entered prostitution—it was a practical and convenient way to cope with the issues of everyday life—but marriage did not necessarily solve all their problems nor meet all their needs, so they continued in prostitution. Susan Striker worked as a streetwalker for six months before meeting and marrying her husband, a barber. He died less than a year later. In telling about her married life, Striker voiced no complaints about her husband but noted that during their year of marriage she had occasionally stayed with other men. After becoming a widow, she continued working as a prostitute. Catherine Cosine and Charles Ray worked together in service positions before getting married. A week after their wedding, Ray left for two months to be a sailor on one of the Charleston packets. Catherine, assuming that she would receive part of her husband’s wages, quit her place of service and went home to her mother’s. When she learned that no salary arrangements had been made for her, she requested help from her new father-in-law, who said he thought she should work and provide for herself. Consequently, Catherine started going in the company of “careless girls” to earn some income until her husband returned. Prostitute Cecelia Smith, at her mother’s urging, married James Hentwish, a printer. They lived together about three months, and during that time Cecelia occasionally went to prostitution houses. According to her case history at the House of Refuge, Cecelia contacted a venereal disease so decided she could not stay with her husband. She did not view her disease as an impediment to prostitution, however, and continued in the profession. A few months later Hentwish saw his wife “and told her if she would return with him he would support her decently—and they might live very comfortably.” According to the Refuge record, Cecelia refused because she still had “her bad disorder hanging on . . . she fear’d to accept his offer.” For Refuge matrons, fear of contaminating one’s husband was a logical explanation for choosing prostitution over marriage, which may have been true in this case, but it is also possible that Cecelia’s disease was used as an excuse for leaving her husband and continuing in a profession she had never given up anyway.
― 290 ―
Sometimes husbands accepted the fact that their wives were practicing prostitutes at the time of their marriage, but had difficulty living with their involvement in the profession after marriage. In 1848, James Becket married Frances O’Kille, keeper of a well-known brothel at 55 Leonard Street, “considered to be one of the bon ton palaces of that class.” For several months the couple lived “harmoniously and might have still if the green-eyed monster hadn’t appeared to Mr. Becket.” Becket “enforced his legal rights” and threw out all “seventeen elegantly attired females.” Under legal advice, he then began taking an inventory of stock in the house. This action infuriated O’Kille, who summoned her lawyer. “Maintaining jurisdiction of his own castle,” Becket physically forced the lawyer out of the house, an act which caused him to be the recipient of an assault and battery charge.
A direct contrast to the O’Kille-Becket marriage was that of Jacob and Mary Browning in the 1860s. Jacob married Mary expecting she would “go out upon the street and solicit and allow men to have connection with her for money.” When she refused, he beat her. Tiring of the beatings, Mary left the marriage and filed for divorce.
Mary Browning ended her marriage by obtaining a legal divorce, but many prostitutes do not appear to have bothered with court procedures when they wished to escape a marriage. “Separation” tended to be the method of divorce used most often by prostitutes, just as it was by the nineteenth-century working class. Many times a woman was abandoned, as was Rosina Townsend, but often it was the prostitute who left, and the lack of legal procedures would become important only if one of the parties wished to remarry rather than cohabit or if a husband were to lay claim to her property later on.
In many cases where prostitutes were married, both parties looked upon the marital union as a business arrangement as well as a marriage. In both the O’Kille-Becket marriage and that of Jacob and Mary Browning, difficulties arose because one of the two partners appeared more interested in the business association than the conjugal union. O’Kille was running a large, successful brothel when she married Becket and took him on as a partner, and she had no intention of giving up her career and commercial enterprise to please her spouse. Jacob Browning, on the other hand, viewed the marriage contract as a business contract, and wife Mary was failing to use her earning capabilities for their mutual benefit. In many other cases, however, prostitutes entered into marriage, com-
― 291 ―
mon law relationships, or other living arrangements with men because the couples found their associations—which were based on the woman’s prostitution business—to be economically beneficial to them both. The relationship was a practical arrangement for dealing with the issues of everyday life, and it might or might not include mutual affection. Melinda Hoag took on Alexander Hoag’s name, and they lived together but were not married. He characterized the relationship as one in which she “kept house for him by the month,” even though the more important aspect of their relationship was their business association as panel thieves. As a prostitute, she lured customers; as a thief, he robbed them. Mary and Frank Berry ran their brothel together—she managed the arrangements between customers and the prostitutes, and he oversaw gambling, drinking, and, according to some, a little customer theft. When Susan Shannon was charged with keeping a disorderly house, her co-defendant in the case was John Taylor. Shannon described Taylor as the man from whom she hired the house, paying him $25 per week for the house and furniture. She further noted that he lived in the house with her and five other prostitutes and that he did the marketing for the house but did not pay board because he was her friend. One of the other prostitutes in the house referred to Shannon as “Susan Taylor,” and another stated that John Taylor “lived with” Shannon, insinuating that Shannon and Taylor probably had a relationship closer than that of co-residents. Both of these women pointed out, however, that Shannon paid rent to Taylor while he did the marketing for the house, a clear division of labor and responsibilities in the partnership. Joseph Farryall and his wife, Phebe West, operated a brothel together; he recruited their inmates on trips to New England, she served as madam of the house, and together they took care of brothel management. Mrs. Jackson and Cyrenus Stevens also ran a similar establishment at 87 Mercer Street. A number of German couples, such as Louisa and Charles Kanth and Catherine and Shay Hoffman, ran prostitution house/saloons “on the German order,” which meant that he served as saloon-keeper/bartender, and she oversaw the prostitution business.
With such business arrangements, the economic nature of a prostitute’s involvement with a male associate is clear because the prostitute and her husband, lover, or friend were co-workers—they shared responsibilities in a joint economic endeavor. There were numerous other males in the community, however, who were less intimately related to
― 292 ―
the business operations of prostitution but whose economic well-being depended in some part on the profits made in illicit sex. Some people claimed that the police benefited from prostitution. The Tribune noted in 1844 that several police officers had homes in brothels, and, in exchange for lodging, they allowed the establishments to function free of official harassment, a domestically related form of payoff. One former policeman was even said to have left his wife and family for a prostitute, with whom he managed a prostitution establishment on Mercer Street for many years before moving to Long Island. As noted earlier, William Applegate worked with Adeline Miller publishing pornographic material for customers until they got into a legal dispute about the business. And finally, less visible but more frequently found among male business associates, or the profiteers of prostitution, were landlords who leased the brothel properties. Many men, such as John Delaplaine, John Livingston, and James Ridgeway, not only earned a substantial income but became wealthy from the profits earned in real estate that housed illicit sex businesses. A few court cases suggest some landlords may have been ignorant of the nature of their lessees’ businesses but, in a community such as New York where prostitution was openly practiced and tolerated, most probably knew what was going on and accepted it, in effect becoming “silent” business associates of the prostitutes. In most cases landlords probably had little personal contact with the women who rented from them, since the relationship was based primarily on an economic exchange, but it is also possible that some were clients or exploited the inhabitants personally by asking for sexual intimacies as well as rents.
Because prostitutes spent most of their working lives surrounded by men, male relationships were an important part of their private as well as public lives. A prostitute’s interactions with men spanned the range of possible relationships from casual associations to intimate unions. Some relationships were structured and well-defined, while others were more fluid, with men having overlapping identifications and functions. A lover could be a prostitute’s customer or her landlord, and a spouse could be her protector and/or business associate. Often male relationships were exploitative and adversarial, but commonly they were congenial or mutually beneficial.
― 293 ―
“As a Friend and Sister”
Relationships with Women
When prostitute Clara Hazard began a letter to Helen Jewett by saying she was writing “as a friend and sister,” she gave an indication of the warm relationships that often existed between prostitutes. Several of Hazard’s letters, as well as information from other prostitutes’ records, reveal that close but complex relationships often characterized prostitutes’ friendships. This evidence contrasts with the descriptions of prostitutes’ associations frequently found in nineteenth-century literature. Contemporaries’ superficial appraisals of prostitutes’ female peer relationships resulted in the creation of two distinct stereotypes: a “negative” image that characterized such associations as fraught with jealousy, rivalry, and hatred, and a “sympathetic-idealized” image that assumed a scenario in which prostitutes were believed to bond with one another in opposition to men and respectable society.
According to the negative stereotype, prostitutes’ need for customers led to cutthroat competition, and their jealousies over their lovers often led to feuds and even violence. Supposedly, female adversarial relationships were especially noticeable between madams and the prostitutes in their brothels, whom the madams tried to exploit. Because of the degradation inherent in their occupation, prostitutes lost the normal womanly feelings of tenderness, compassion, and love and thus seldom were good women who would care for the sick or love children. This lack of womanly feelings also was the reason many sought the downfall
― 294 ―
and destruction of fellow females by trying to lure them into the profession.
In contrast, the sympathetic-idealized scenario presented the prostitutes’ natural adversaries as predatory men. Although non-prostitute women also had to deal with male predation and discrimination, respectable women were unable to have mutual friendships with prostitutes. Thus, prostitutes were bound to each other by their opposition to customers and their social separation from other women. They demonstrated mutual loyalty in several ways, such as offering assistance if another prostitute’s customer became abusive and adhering to a common code that governed their conduct in relation to each other’s lovers. Because prostitutes understood the extreme devotion one felt for a lover, there was a mutual understanding that one should not get involved with another prostitute’s man, and, if one knew a lover was being unfaithful, one should tell her fellow prostitute. Furthermore, since prostitutes understood how difficult “the life” could be, they often displayed “hearts of gold,” giving even their last cent to help an unfortunate sister in great need. Finally, a life of exploitation enhanced some womanly feelings, causing prostitutes to become especially compassionate nurses to sick friends and nurturing caretakers of children.
The persistence of both of these images suggests that each stereotype was rooted in an element of truth. Some professional competition existed between prostitutes: clients were money. A prostitute always hoped to attract new customers to become part of her regular clientele, and she carefully guarded those clients she already had. Incidents of violence between prostitutes, reported in the press and in court documents, indicate that some antagonisms and jealousies were very real. The third tier of the theater, where prostitutes congregated in large numbers, was often the scene of such feuds; the New Era , for example, reported that Lydia Wilson, an “old, well-known prostitute,” and Mary Barton, newly arrived from Philadelphia, were arrested in the third tier of the Park Theatre for “kicking up a rumpus” when they fought over who was the prettiest, who could drink the most champagne and walk a crack, and who had the handsomest and most agreeable male friend. Wilson reportedly called Barton names and “drew a dirk” on her, seriously cutting Barton’s cheek. In another incident, a prostitute named Maria Tracey brought vitriol into the Bowery Theatre and threw it on two other prostitutes, allegedly because Tracey was jealous of their good
― 295 ―
looks and hoped to spoil their faces. Fortunately, she damaged only their clothes. According to the Sun , two black prostitutes, Maria Mitchell and Adeliza Coin, got into a fight in the gallery of the Park Theatre over “who had the blackest complexion and who was the boss of the Five Points.” Both were arrested; Coin was sent to prison, but Mitchell was given leniency because she was known to the magistrates for having adopted an “unprotected babe.” The saloon of the Park Theatre also was the site of an attack by Matilda Phillips on Frances Mills. Phillips became drunk and “split open the head of Mills.” Although the precipitator of much disorder and violence among prostitutes was drunkenness, most of their quarrels were rooted in smoldering frustrations, jealousies, and antagonisms.
Another common scene of conflict was the brothel or prostitution boarding house, not only because of problems in living arrangements or the strains of forced intimacy but also because those in closest proximity were vulnerable to displaced anger generated by frustrations a prostitute might feel about her life in general. Prostitute Mary Fowler was arrested for biting off the ear of Sarah Ann Cooper while both were working at the brothel of Mrs. Powell in Elizabeth Street. Cooper was a servant who had angered Fowler by not giving her a “properly cooked breakfast.” The Sun reported no cause for an attack by Sarah Hall on Mary Ann Foster in their brothel at 28 Anthony. Hall was sent to prison for giving Foster a “considerable gash in the region of the abdomen with a table knife.” Ann Wilson was arrested for an assault on Mary Kelly, a coworker in her house. Wilson attacked Kelly, beating her with an iron griddle, tearing her hair, and cutting her hand to the bone. Wilson claimed she was acting in self-defense because Kelly first had hit her several times over the head with a poker and also had pulled her hair. The judge believed Kelly, and Wilson was committed to prison.
One of the most vicious examples of female violence was the killing of prostitute Mary Drake by her madam, Catherine Hoffman. Drake, known as a very intemperate woman, boarded with Hoffman and her husband Shay. On a May evening in 1839, Drake was sitting on the step at the door of the Hoffmans’ bar/brothel. A young man stopped and propositioned Drake, who refused his offer, so he went away. Infuriated, Catherine Hoffman seized Drake by the hair, slapped her face, and dragged her into the barroom. Hoffman then threw Drake down, hitting her head against the door, beating and kicking her violently, and de-
― 296 ―
sisting only when her husband cried out, “Catherine, you have given that girl enough,” and pulled her away from Drake. Drake lay in bed at a neighboring saloon for several days “in a stupid state” before dying. Hoffman was convicted of manslaughter. Although few conflicts between madams and prostitutes reached this degree of violence, the potential for discord was so built into a relationship where one’s success depended on the exploitation of another that clashes were bound to occur. Aggressive reactions were not limited to the brothel keepers alone, however. Prostitute Mary Barton, perhaps angry over a perceived mistreatment by Mrs. West, brothel keeper at 3 Franklin Street, went to West’s house while West was ill and “fell upon and beat her severely.” West lodged a complaint at the police office, obtained a warrant, and was escorted home by two police officers. While West was at the police office, Barton had returned to the brothel with a prostitute-friend, Mary Redstone, and together they had abused and beat other inmates before stoning and throwing mud at the house. Barton and Redstone were arrested and sent to prison.
Since police records, court reports, and newspaper stories tend to emphasize the conflicts and problems that characterized prostitutes’ associations with each other, these sources offer a distorted view of the role of female peer relationships in a prostitute’s life. Day-to-day events involving compatibility and congeniality are, as a rule, not newsworthy stories, but they present a more complete picture of the prostitute’s life and the female friends that were such an important part of her daily existence.
A female support network was as essential to the prostitute’s life as it was to other nineteenth-century women’s lives, and certain structural aspects of prostitution—living and working together—facilitated close female friendships. Prostitutes shared living quarters and leisure activities, visited each other, exchanged gifts and small favors, corresponded with each other, fought and reconciled, protected and nursed one other, and died together. At a minimum, these interventions in each other’s lives created cooperative relationships; at best, they led to intimate friendships built on genuine affection and mutual concern, and often reinforced by the family rejection experienced by many prostitutes. Prostitutes turned to one another for the emotional support and comfort they might otherwise have found at home, and to counteract feelings of isolation from the respectable community or demonstrations of hostility
― 297 ―
sometimes experienced in customer relationships. Thus, prostitutes assumed an emotional centrality in each other’s lives, which often led to deep, mutual friendships characterized by strong female bonding and a special sense of solidarity.
Several letters found in the Jewett correspondence vividly illustrate the important role female friendships played in the lives of prostitutes. Clara Hazard appears to have been one of Jewett’s closest friends. Three letters to Jewett from “Friend Clara” were written after Hazard left New York and returned to her home town of Philadelphia; three others are mentioned in the police inventory but were never published. Clara also is mentioned in three letters between Jewett and Frank Rivers.
Hazard wrote in language demonstrating obvious affection for Jewett, whom she called her “esteemed friend” and even, as noted earlier, her “sister.” Hazard wrote: “As a friend and sister I embrace this time to write you a few lines.” Her letters close with expressions of affection such as, “I remain, yours affectionately until death, Clara.” The nostalgia Hazard felt in being separated from her friend was indicated in her description of things that reminded her of Jewett: “I tell my fortune with the cards, when I think of you, and hope you do of me.” The intimacy of the friendship is suggested by the personal nature of the details Hazard chose to share with Jewett, including the ups and downs of her love life, the minutia of everyday life, and her innermost feelings about her relationship with her lover.
In Hazard’s letters one sees evidence of the many kinds of services and small favors performed by prostitutes for each other, which cemented their friendships. Before moving from New York, Hazard apparently was sick and was nursed back to health by Jewett. On her arrival in Philadelphia, and later in Baltimore, Hazard gladly executed a series of errands for Jewett and other New York friends.
I called on the lady you requested me to [in Baltimore], and left the small package with her sister, as she was not in. . .. I left JoAnn in Philadelphia and she was well. Little Mary called on her landlady and left $40 the day before JoAnn arrived in Philadelphia. . .. Tell Mr. Berry I called on Catherine to-day. She sent the cape by Hannah Blisset.
In another letter she reported, “Tell Josephine as soon as Mrs. Smith gets an opportunity to send the cloak safe, she Will do so.”
― 298 ―
Hazard’s letters also give a clear indication of the existence of a close friendship network among prostitutes within a city, such as New York, as well as between one city’s prostitutes and those who worked in other major cities of the East Coast, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Boston. Jewett made her first trip to visit friends in Philadelphia in late June 1835 and apparently returned there in late July or early August. She discussed a third trip to Philadelphia in the fall (which she may or may not have taken) and then made her final trip in mid-December 1835. Jewett wrote home from her first trip that Clara had given her “a warm reception,” and she added that “there is much pleasure in going where people are glad to see you.” Jewett was not alone in taking trips to visit friends in other cities. Letters mention other prostitutes making short visits to East Coast cities to stay with friends, including some out-of-town prostitutes who traveled to New York to visit Jewett and other prostitute-friends in the network there. During Hazard’s short trip to Baltimore, she made a call on Jewett’s “lady friend” and also on “Catherine,” who was acquainted with a number of New York prostitutes as well as with brothel owners Mr. and Mrs. Berry. Catherine sent a message that “she will be on to see you [Jewett] shortly, and sends her love to you and all other friends.” Hazard also mentioned that Catherine had just seen their mutual friend Hannah Blisset, who also was visiting in Baltimore but was on her way back to New York.
The importance prostitutes placed on trips as a means of maintaining close contact is evident in repeated requests to one another for additional visits. Hazard mentions in her first letter: “I want much to see you, and will do so next week,” and in her next letter she states: “I want to see you very much, and would be very glad if you would pay me a visit this week.” She also is eager that her correspondence be answered: “My dear H., be sure to write me as soon as you receive this, and let me know the news of your city.” Clara apologized to Jewett for an anticipated interruption in their correspondence while Clara was on vacation.
Letters from Jewett’s other friends confirm the existence of a strong network of friendships among prostitutes. Ann Farmer of Philadelphia, like Clara Hazard, was grateful to Jewett for nursing her through an illness: “I’ve almost recovered from my indisposition, perhaps I should have been quite well had you have [sic ] been here to attend me with your kind nursing, which I shall never forget.” She also asked Jewett to
― 299 ―
extend words of appreciation to Mrs. Gallagher, a New York brothel keeper and friend of madams Mary Berry and Rosina Townsend:
. . . Dear Helen, I wish you to go to Mrs. Gallagher’s, and tell her for me, I have not forgot her kindness to me while in New York. I hope she will not prevent my returning the compliment. I hope to see her this summer when I will have more time to devote to her ladyship; for she was truly attentive to me.
Farmer followed this request with a few lines that revealed she felt a financial as well as emotional obligation to Mrs. Gallagher: “I am only sorry that disagreeable occurrence took place losing her money. Tell her I have not forgot the handsome dress which she fairly won. I shall do myself the honor of paying it soon.”
Farmer ends her letter with an evocation of the warm feelings for Jewett held by the inhabitants of Farmer’s brothel, suggesting the extent to which a sense of “family” existed in the brothel among the prostitutes, servants, and children.
The ladies are well, the fish are well, the servants are well, and we are all well. Your favorite, little Steve, says you must make haste and come on here and bring him a pair of trousers and some money. The family all join in sending their love to you, and I expect if old John, the hackman, knew I was writing to you, I presume he would send his love also.
Farmer also sent Jewett greetings and messages from some of her male admirers in Philadelphia, indicating that Jewett had spent enough time there to know the circle of men who hung around Farmer’s brothel, who were similar to the group that gravitated to Jewett in New York. Farmer further noted she was familiar with some of Jewett’s closest male friends in New York, such as “Mr. Crockett,” who was traveling in the West at that point.
Some of the most interesting letters received by Jewett were those from her brothel madam, Mary Berry. Although a brothel keeper and one of her prostitutes might be friends or fond of one another, the fact that the madam’s economic well-being depended on her ability to exert some control over the prostitute in order to manage a business and earn a profit militated against a completely mutual tie. Thus, a friendship with a madam was complicated—as a “mother” and friend she might demonstrate genuine affection for her prostitutes, but her actions could
― 300 ―
always be interpreted as having ulterior motives designed to guard her economic interests.
On Jewett’s trip to Philadelphia in December 1835, she sent a letter to Berry and received two letters in return. Much of what Berry wrote was about the members of their “brothel family,” and it gives evidence of the close relationships that existed within their brothel-home. Mr. Berry was on a trip to Washington, and Mrs. Berry sent a message to him through Jewett because she thought he might visit in Philadelphia for a while. The light-hearted manner in which Berry related the “escapades” and activities of Jewett’s brothel friends reflects the congeniality that existed in the relationships of the brothel females:
I want to tell you a good joke. Hannah Blisset and Lady Elizabeth stole out last night and . . . got gloriously drunk. . .. Hannah was somewhat more sober than Lady E. . .. Hannah will be on to Philadelphia on Monday, so you will have some fun in plaguing her on the matter. Saucy Caroline and Elizabeth send their love to you. Elizabeth is going away to-day.
Berry also noted that Jewett’s presence was missed by brothel inhabitants and clients as well: “There has not been any of our folks to see us since you have been gone, only the Englishman. . .. You don’t know how I long to see you. We are all quite lonesome without our Merry Nell.” In her second letter, Berry again illustrates that a warm companionship existed among the female friends of the brothel:
Hannah, Louisa and Caroline send their best love to you, all wish you to come home, particularly Hannah, for she has no one to dig round town with her.
In this second letter, however, the cash nexus of the madam/prostitute relationship is much more evident. Berry was concerned with protecting her business, which apparently was suffering because of the absence of the brothel “favorite.” Berry pointed out that some clients were so eager to see Jewett that they left the house on learning of her absence. Berry also asked Jewett for a loan.
. . . Dear Helen if you have got any more money than you know what to do with, I wish you would oblige me by sending me some, and I shall not forget you, for the times are very hard indeed.
Her most important piece of information was the revelation that Jewett’s lover, Frank Rivers, had come to the brothel to be with Jewett’s
― 301 ―
friend, Hannah Blisset. Berry reported that Blisset’s behavior had been beyond reproach: “She, in a very ladylike and candid manner, told him she would not, and rejected his offer with becoming dignity, so he went away.” If Betty’s motive was to adhere to the “code” by telling a fellow-prostitute of the infidelity of her lover, she suffered for being the bearer of bad news. If her motive was to get Jewett back home so business would pick up, she made a terrible miscalculation. Jewett did return home immediately and broke off her relationship with Rivers, but she also had conflicts with Berry which strained that relationship and caused her to move to another brothel within a few weeks.
The importance of prostitutes’ friendships is also evident in admissions records at the House of Refuge. These records verify that friendships were crucial both initially in bringing a woman into the profession and as companionship after a woman had become a prostitute. Young girls started streetwalking together, shared rooms with each other, entered a brothel together, and were brought to the Refuge together. Maria Williams and Keziah Anne Kidd, both daughters of working-class parents, had another girlfriend who first took them “walking in Broadway for company” to find men who would escort them to assignation houses. Williams and Kidd also accompanied each other to the third tier of the Bowery Theatre. For several months the girls lived at home while practicing prostitution in the evenings but then decided to move in together at Mrs. Langdon’s prostitution house on Greene Street. They had been there only a short time before their parents discovered their whereabouts and had them arrested and sent to the Refuge. Another set of friends, Mary Ann Brewer and the Utter sisters, also were sent to the Refuge together. All three had worked and lived with each other for several months in Williamsburgh, often coming into the city together on their nights off and once getting arrested together for harassing a woman and child, the incident which led to their being sent to the Refuge. Brewer and the older Utter sister had both been casual prostitutes before they were admitted, but presumably twelve-year-old Ann Jeanette had not. After a year at the Refuge, each girl was either indentured or sent to the care of friends, positions which lasted only a brief period. At roughly the same time, all three ran away from their new homes and returned to New York, where they again went on the town.
Census records also reinforce the assumption that friendships existed and were important to women who lived in prostitution boarding
― 302 ―
houses or in brothels. Since censuses contain no narrative histories, information is more speculative, but it is still suggestive of supportive friendships. Carry Belmont and Ellen Stevens were in Emma Clifton’s house in 1855, and both had come to the residence from Massachusetts three months before. Of the names recorded in Jane Winslow’s house, three besides Winslow were in the house in both the 1850 and 1855 censuses. If these women remained together for at least five years, and maybe more, they probably got along together well enough to consider each other friends. The same was probably true of the women in Maria Adams’s house. Adams was listed as the head of household at 55 Leonard in both 1850 and 1855. A Miss Stiles also is listed as a resident in both censuses, and in an 1853 brothel directory, R. Stiles is listed as the “keeper” of Adams’s house at 55 Leonard. The house also lists a Miss LeCount from Canada in 1850 and a Miss LeCompt from Canada in 1855, possibly the same person, who may have found the company and living situation pleasant enough to remain a number of years with Adams and Stiles. Another situation indicating possible friendships is that of Margaret Brown, who owned and was a resident of a brothel run by Frances Barton at 35 Mercer. Both Brown and Barton had been residents of New York for twenty years. By 1859, Brown still owned the house, but Mary Clinton, who was a resident in the house in 1850, was listed in a brothel directory as manager of the house.
Other indications of the existence of friendships among prostitutes were the leisure activities enjoyed by these women. Although “walking out” and attending the theater were methods of attracting clients, they also were important leisure events enjoyed by prostitutes together. Prostitutes frequently strolled in company with each other in both the afternoon and evening, and, as Madam Berry wrote, her boarder Hannah was wishing Jewett would return home soon because she had “no one to dig around town with her.” The theater also might be attended several times a week and usually was visited with other prostitutes. One contemporary noted that the “demi-monde” were very fond of picnics and balls, and often the profession predominated at these events. He added that occasionally “a number of the cyprians of the city and their friends go on a pie-nie by themselves, . . . the whole company is fallen.” He made special note of the fact that male companions were
― 303 ―
Two Prostitutes on an Outing to the Park. Prostitutes enjoyed
each other’s company and friendship. Those with sufficient economic resources
accompanied one another on carriage rides in the park, evenings at the theater,
and outings to the country. (Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society,
New York City)
not necessary for prostitutes to enjoy an excursion from the city— prostitutes had “ways of enjoying themselves alone”:
A number of them have formed themselves into a boat club, and every summer enjoy the sport of rowing on a little river in New Jersey, away from the vulgar gaze. They have a tasty uniform, fashioned so as to fully display their graceful and beautiful forms, and are said to be expert oarswomen.
― 304 ―
Although it appears that most of a prostitute’s friends were within the profession, there is evidence that prostitutes had some female friendships outside the profession as well. Hazard’s and Jewett’s friend Catherine, who was visiting in Baltimore, possibly was visiting non-prostitute friends because Hazard reports: “She says she is living virtuously with her friends” (italics mine). Since Hazard “called on her,” however, it does not appear that she was making a special effort to hide her other life.
Helen Jewett also corresponded with a Philadelphia woman named Emily who seemed to be a friend from outside the profession, perhaps from the days before Jewett entered prostitution. In one letter she commented to Jewett: “Helen, I feel for your situation, I regret that you have fallen,” and she chastised Jewett: “if you have some bad qualities, I am sensible you have many redeeming ones, and I look forward to the day when you may set more value on them. . .. You [are] unkind to none but yourself.”
Emily’s two letters to Jewett are filled with intimate feelings of sorrow and grief over the loss of her infant son, feelings she wished to share: “I have lost my dear, dear baby. . .. I thought he was only lent to me, and now I know it, for he was an angel. Helen, his little cherub face is ever before me. I cannot write.” In Emily’s first letter, she commented on Jewett’s having recently sent her money, a gesture which did not seem to surprise her. Emily acknowledged that she was one who had “seen much trouble.” From her second letter Jewett learned that their relationship, like some of her male friendships, had its limits: apparently, Jewett needed a character reference or a court alibi, and the friendship stopped short of Emily’s “coupling her name” with that of Jewett before a public forum.
. . . Helen, you are aware that I would oblige you at almost any risk, but that of losing my character , which I do not estimate lightly, and I trust your sense of honor is not so far lost, that you would couple my name with yours in a court of justice, where my motives for obliging you could not be appreciated. I do not wish to wound your feelings; my Heavenly Father knows I would not do so. . .. You say that you have been in the police office. . .. I believe you to be innocent of any crime that would bring you there, and I’m sure the world would think so too, if they knew you were unkind to none but yourself. . .. If I can honorably assist you in any difficulty, [I] will do so.
In spite of her refusal, Emily ended her letter by encouraging her friend both to confide in her and solicit her aid: “When you write,
― 305 ―
keep nothing back. Write soon and let me know how I can assist you.”
Even though Emily felt she could not be completely supportive of her prostitute friend, there are many examples of prostitutes demonstrating strong loyalty for their colleagues as well as receiving it from them. Samuel Prime commented on an incident that occurred when a watchman was dragging a prostitute to the police station from one of the “dens of vice” in lower Manhattan. Another woman followed close behind, declaring she would go with her, even though a man was holding on to the second woman, trying to pull her back. Prime noted:
There was devotion in the woman who would follow her friend to the prison; and she did follow her, in spite of the force and entreaties of her husband. In this extremity of vice there was such friendship as we rarely meet.
Prostitutes also came to one another’s rescue when situations appeared dangerous. Catherine Erriott picked up William Branton while she was streetwalking on Chatham Street. She took him home, and in the middle of the night a scuffle started between them. Branton soon found himself in a “pitched battle with seven to eight female demons,” Erriott’s prostitute friends.
Mary Louisa Clark, who was probably both a seamstress and a prostitute, received support from her friend, Sarah Edmonds, when Edmonds testified on her behalf as a character witness before a court. Clark was arrested along with two other women for operating houses of prostitution at 3, 5, and 7 White Street, addresses long known as brothel locations. On being ordered out, one woman vacated immediately but the others, Clark and Mary Ann Demarest, “defied the law” and stayed. The neighbors then took the case to court and testified that “persons were passing to and fro from these houses frequently, particularly at night when a free intercourse has been observed.” The neighbors went on to say that
it may be attempted to prove that Mrs. Clark, No. 3 White St. keeps an establishment for Ladies Dressmaking—a sign appears on one of the window shutters “French Dress Making.” No indications of a respectable establishment of this kind have appeared . . . respectable females do not visit the House and no persons are seen going to or from it with bundles or parcels as is usual at Dress Makers.
― 306 ―
The neighbors also pointed out that at each step in the complaint and court process, pictures of fashionable ladies’ dresses had been placed in Clark’s windows for a couple of days and then removed.
At the court hearing, Demarest admitted her guilt, but Clark denied hers and brought in Sarah Edmonds as a character witness. In her testimony, Edmonds, wife of George Edmonds, said that she met Clark through another acquaintance who had “learned the mantua making trade” with Clark. Edmonds said Clark was the widow of a respectable man and was now maintaining herself by dressmaking, a profession “at which she labors with a great deal of industry.” Edmonds stated that she usually walked past the house daily and had visited Clark frequently, both in the day and night, and the house was not a house of ill fame but was perfectly proper.
Despite the testimony of friend Edmonds, the Court believed the neighbors, and Clark was convicted of operating a disorderly house. Clark may have been using the dressmaking alibi as a subterfuge, but it is also possible she considered herself (as did Sarah Edmonds) a dressmaker by trade who worked at sewing and practiced prostitution, if at all, for supplementary income.
At times prostitutes may not have fully appreciated the loyalty and support of their friends. The friends of Eliza Hall, concerned about her future, went to the police and requested that the authorities arrest her and remove her from a house of prostitution. Hall was arrested and committed to jail in hopes she would consider reforming.
Because attitudes hostile to a prostitute’s way of life, such as those exhibited by Hall’s friends, made friendships with women outside the profession relatively difficult to sustain, most full-time prostitutes probably had few “straight” friends. Current studies show that breaking with straight friends is considered by those in the trade to be a crucial step in the socialization into prostitution. For occasional and part-time prostitutes, however, a woman’s friends probably did not change much when she began to practice prostitution, since friends themselves may have experienced the same pressures, i.e., economic, familial, social, that led to occasional prostitution.
Whether nineteenth-century female friendships among prostitutes also included lesbian relationships is not known. Very little is recorded about homosexual relationships at all, male or female, so there were either few relationships of this nature or they were literally unmen-
― 307 ―
tionable. The Sun printed one story about Jane (alias James) Walker, a “man woman,” who was not associated with prostitution. Walker was arrested in the street drunk, in male attire. She told the authorities she was born in Scotland and orphaned before age twelve. While in Scotland, she began wearing male attire, a practice she said was common in that country. She also took the name George Moore Wilson and was hired as a male in a cotton factory. Walker said she had “entered a bonafide courtship” with the factory superintendent’s daughter and married her in a Scottish church. The couple soon after left for the United States, and en route to America Walker’s wife discovered she had married a woman, “but it didn’t appear to upset her and they continued to live and labor together in harmony and love.” The wife, described by the paper as “a rather hard visaged woman of thirty or thirty-five years of age . . . [with] a rather fiery temper,” corroborated the story. An indication that such relationships were infrequent is the Sun’s comment that the couple had “the most singular of all connubial ties with which we were ever acquainted.”
Another story covered by the Sun which did have some connection to prostitution was that of a black New Yorker, Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones, alias Eliza Smith. “Miss Jones” was arrested by police for stealing a wallet and money from Robert Haslem. Haslem met Jones walking in Bleeker Street and was taken to a nearby alley, where Jones and Haslem “caressed and conversed.” After parting, Haslem discovered the theft and went to the police, and Jones was arrested. While officers were searching the prisoner for the wallet they discovered that “Miss Jones” was really a man, Peter Sewally.
In court, when questioned about why he had dressed as a woman, Sewally replied:
I have been in the practice of waiting upon Girls of ill fame and made up the Beds and received the Company at the door and received the money for the Rooms and etc. and they induced me to dress in women’s clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own colour dressed in this way—and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way.
Sewally was found guilty of grand larceny and was sentenced to the state prison for three years. In reporting the case, the Sun noted that Sewally frequently prowled the streets in the vicinity of the Five Points
― 308 ―
in order to lure men into dens of prostitution, where he picked their pockets. It is possible Sewally’s disguise did not fool all of his customers, some of whom may have knowingly accepted his caresses, even if they were unsuspecting of the theft of their wallets.
Although no statutes outlawed lesbian relationships, females were subject to arrest for wearing male attire. The law could have been directed against a woman’s “misrepresenting” herself, but it also may have been a statement of public sexual boundaries. On numerous occasions women were arrested on the streets for masquerading in men’s clothing. In one case, a young woman was arrested in an “impure neighborhood” where she had visited a cigar store and a soda fountain in male disguise, and the court released her on promise she would “reform her morals in the future.” Another woman claimed she dressed as a man in order to spy on her unsuspecting boyfriend. Most, however, said they dressed as men “on a lark” so they could roam the streets and night spots the only way they could be out without being arrested as prostitutes.
The stories of Walker and Sewally hint that some homosexuality did exist in nineteenth-century New York, but these relationships probably were rare or very well hidden. Whether lesbian relationships were a part of nineteenth-century prostitution is even more of a mystery. Marion Goldman has pursued the same question for late-nineteenth-century Western prostitutes, and her conclusion applies to New York as well:
The question of whether . . . prostitutes had genital or other physical contact with one another is as unimportant as it is unanswerable. Twentieth-century conceptions which absolutely dichotomize platonic and romantic love distort the rich emotional relationships which occurred between many nineteenth-century women. . .. Some . . . prostitutes created their own social worlds of love and mutuality, although the scope of those worlds remained and remain private matters for the friends who shared them.
Perhaps some of the closest of a prostitute’s friends were her sisters and cousins. Census records are among the sources attesting to the fact that many female family relationships remained intact while a woman practiced prostitution. However, since the only relationships recorded by census takers were relationships to heads of households, kinship is not necessarily noted. In many cases in which surnames in a household are the same, birthplaces are identical also, but different places of birth do
― 309 ―
not preclude the possibility that prostitutes with the same name could be sisters. Moreover, sisters could be together in a brothel but have different names, as in the case of Emma Soule and Grace Walton, in which case kinship would only be known if noted by the census taker. Like surnames could suggest that the women were cousins, aunt and niece, or even sisters-in-law. It is also possible that since many prostitutes changed their names, the names in a household are coincidentally the same, although a prostitute creating a new identity for herself probably would make some effort to be different from other women in a brothel. The following related names were found in the 1850 and 1855 censuses:
Names of Prostitutes (ages )
Virginia Norwood (22)
Harriett Norwood (19)
Louisa Norwood (17)
Susan Wells (24)
Jane Wells (23)
Alvina Wallace (24)
Adele Wallace (22)
Susan Stewart (23)
Josephine Stewart (18)
Amanda Cooper (19)
Ellen Cooper (17)
Kate Rowe (25)
Harriet Rowe (22)
Victoria Clark (23)
Charlotte Clark (18)
Emma Soule (25)
Grace Walton, sister (20)
Ann Malloy (36)*
Mary Malloy (50)
Jane Winslow (29 +)
Frances Winslow (31)
Linda Rosella (20)
Ida Rosella (19)
― 310 ―
Elizabeth Rome (22)
Louisa Rome (20)
Georgiana Wood (23)
Fany Wood (20)
Clara Philips (28)
Emma Philips (21)
Anna McReady (38)*
Sophia McReady (21)
* Because of the fourteen-year age span of the Malloys and the seventeen-year age span of the McReadys, each set could be mother and daughter instead of sisters or other kin. One finds in comparing censuses, however, that recorded ages are very inexact—for example, names may be repeated in subsequent censuses, but the recorded ages may not always reflect the number of years between censuses.
In 1855 Grace Walton was still living with her sister Emma Soule, but by this time Harriet Rowe was no longer in Kate Rowe’s house because she had become the head of her own establishment. Also, Mary Malloy is no longer listed in Ann Malloy’s brothel.
Tax records support census data in testifying to the existence of siblings and female kin working together in prostitution. In the 1848 tax record, Elizabeth Lewis and Maria (also Mary or Maggie) Lewis are listed together at 73 Grand, and then for the next ten years one or the other is listed as head of a prostitution house at 6 Thompson. The House of Refuge recorded several sets of sisters admitted for prostitution: Ann and Catherine Butler, Christina and Caroline Hoyt, Margaret and Sarah Lyon, Eliza and Catherine Faulkner, Phebe and Eliza Seigler, and the previously mentioned Ann Jeanette and Mary Ann Utter. Julia Decker, Eliza Van Tassle, Amelia Goldsmith, and Jane Anderson were each said to have practiced prostitution with a sister, though the sisters were not admitted, most likely because they were over eighteen.
That sisters or cousins might remain in close contact with each other in prostitution was more understandable to many in the nineteenth century than that parents would “accept” a daughter’s moral transgressions by continuing to associate with her while she was a prostitute. Newspapers like the Advocate of Moral Reform reported as fact, though somber fact, that families commonly disowned daughters who had affairs, not to mention those who “fully went on the town.” When parents were forgiving, it usually was assumed that the daughter repented and returned home to a moral life. That a parent might accept a
― 311 ―
daughter’s ongoing life of prostitution was incomprehensible to observers. The Advocate expressed great dismay over the response of the parents of one young prostitute who were confronted with their daughter’s improbity. The Moral Reform Society’s visiting committee had been to see a family on Twenty-third Street who had two daughters, eighteen and sixteen. Later, one of the daughters was observed entering a “house of ill fame,” and the reformers went immediately and informed the parents. The Advocate reported that “the father, who was a foreigner, manifested a cold indifference, and said, ‘Oh, lady, I no care for that.'” Another case of parents who accepted and continued associating with a prostitute-daughter is that of Clara Hazard. Hazard noted in a letter to Jewett that: “[I] walk out but very seldom, and when I do, it is only to my mother’s.” A third example is that noted at the beginning of Chapter 8 of a Mrs. Cornell, who, while managing the operations of a prostitution establishment at the corner of Grand and Mercer streets, “a very private house” attached to a saloon, was said to be “liv[ing] at home with her folks, but attend[ing] to business here in the evenings.”
Even more offensive to reformers than parents who passively accepted a daughter’s prostitution were parents who actually assisted her in the profession or profited from her illicit sex. This offense Sanger termed a “social crime.” To reiterate a few examples: Mary Berry was said to have learned the prostitution profession from her mother, and Charlotte Willis’s mother managed the brothel where Charlotte worked as a prostitute. Ann and Catherine Buffer were the daughters of a “low, drunken” prostitute who was reported by neighbors to have “traded the girls’ sex for rum.” Mary Anthony was brought up by prostitute Patience Berger, who claimed to be her guardian, but was believed by some people to be her mother. Although Berger sent her “daughter” away to boarding school for several years, Anthony returned home to the brothel and began a career in prostitution that was intermittent over the next decade.
There are other cases involving parents who were not in the prostitution business themselves but who were not bothered by their daughters’ associations with prostitution; in fact, many such parents actually played a role in exposing the daughters to the profession. After observing close-at-hand the life of prostitution, the daughters accepted illicit sex as a practical or familiar way to make money. Margaret Ann Bush was placed by her mother in the brothel of Mrs. Robins at 49 Beaver Street
― 312 ―
so she could learn to work as a domestic. Jane Leve, a child of Jewish parents, was left at her mother’s death with Mrs. Van Allen, keeper of a brothel. Leve helped dress the prostitutes in the brothel and then began sleeping with Van Allen’s son before she was brought to the House of Refuge by the police. In the case of Lydia Ann Hawhurst, whose parents seemed not to care about her welfare, it was the police authorities themselves who bound her as a child-keeper to boatman William Harrington and his wife, who kept a bawdy house in Center Street.
Although parents might wish that their daughters were in occupations other than prostitution, the above data on families’ relationships with their prostitute daughters suggests that the practice of prostitution was not as alienating a profession as nineteenth-century moral reformers would have one believe. The line separating respectable from disrespectable behavior was much clearer for the middle class than for the laboring class. Working families, like middle-class families, understood differences between moral and immoral actions, but within their milieu, cultural and ethical norms were less rigidly fixed. Some allowance was made for the exigencies of a present situation and the need for choices among limited and unappealing options. A daughter’s prostitution may have been instrumental in maintaining a family’s economic well-being, in which case rejection was not likely to occur. Certainly, prostitution could be an isolating and difficult occupation for many reasons, but alienation from and lack of emotional support by one’s family was not always involved.
A prostitute’s relationship with her parental family was often important to her and could be demanding, but the family connection that probably required the most from the prostitute in terms of responsibility and emotional involvement was her role as mother. Sanger’s study clearly pointed out how frequently prostitutes assumed this role. Almost half of the interviewees had children—about three-fourths each of the widows and married women, and about 30 percent of the single women. Even though widows and married women had been in legal marital relationships at some point, a little over 40 percent of their children were illegitimate, and thus were children for whom the prostitutes assumed sole responsibility. Sanger also noted a high rate of mortality among prostitutes’ children, an overall 62 percent, which was an indication of the difficult life faced by both children and mothers. In spite of the many difficulties encountered as parental providers, however, prosti-
― 313 ―
tutes were not so different from other working women as they struggled and worried about how to care for their offspring.
The Advocate of Moral Reform noted that the fact of motherhood was one of the “excuses” prostitutes often stated for not leaving their wicked life: “I have no other way of getting a living—I keep my children at boarding schools, and colleges, from the money I receive from [prostitution].” The Advocate’s editor also pointed out that prostitutes were “the last in the world to have their daughters follow their footsteps.” Thus, by sending children away they could provide a better environment for them. Sanger found that one-third of the prostitute mothers he interviewed boarded their children away from home, and only 10 percent cared for their offspring at home. The remaining children, over 50 percent, presumably lived with relatives or were on their own.
Boarding a child away from home did not solve all of a prostitute-mother’s worries. Sarah Buchanan’s mother obtained for her twelve-year-old daughter a position as a domestic but then brought Sarah back home when she was raped by her employer. After Susan Matilda Badger turned fourteen and began to mature, her mother, Mary Jane Roberts, placed her in the country to live with a family. When the family learned the profession of the mother, they refused to keep Susan any longer and sent her home. Roberts then resorted to a “public” boarding situation for Susan and “took her before a magistrate and sent [her to the House of Refuge] as a vagrant.” And although Patience Berger sent her ward to boarding school for several years and relieved herself of the daily worries of parenting, the experience did not keep the girl out of prostitution.
Many prostitutes lacked the means or the desire to board their children away from home. For a streetwalker with her own living quarters, child care probably was handled much as it would have been by a day worker—older children or relatives helped out, or the children roamed the neighborhood streets, playing and scavenging. For women who lived in brothels or prostitution boarding houses, offspring became part of the brothel family, working at small household tasks or, if too young to be domestically productive, playing with other prostitutes’ or servants’ children.
Several children who appear to be the offspring of prostitutes are listed in brothels and assignation houses in the censuses of 1850 and 1855.
― 314 ―
Since censuses contain no material that elaborates on family histories or the dynamics of childrearing in the brothel, one must speculate on the nature of some relationships. Jane Lord had her four-year-old son John living with her in her assignation house in 1850. No husband is listed with Lord in either that census or the one in 1855, though city directories until 1855 list her husband, Jacob, a seaman, as a resident at the address. The 1855 census stated that Jane Lord was a widow, so it is unclear how much of a role the seaman father had in the family, if he had any at all. Also living as one of seven boarders in the Lord house in 1850 is a Rachel Brown, whose four-year-old daughter Sarah was with her, a probable companion for young John Lord. Elizabeth Darragh and her two sons, ages three and one, moved from Pennsylvania to the brothel of Anna Howell, who was also a native of Pennsylvania and possibly a kinswoman or former friend who offered single-parent Darragh a place to work and rear her children.
In a number of the other brothels, it is clear that one of the prostitute boarders is a mother because a child and woman by the same name are listed together. In some houses, such as those of Rebecca Weyman and Ellen Thompson, children are listed whose names match those of no one else in the brothel, making it impossible to identify their mothers. Perhaps the children were given the mothers’ real names or the surnames of the fathers. In Jane Hill’s establishment, one of the boarders was a mulatto prostitute named Rhoda Kelly, who had moved from Saratoga two years before and had a six-year-old daughter named Josephine Kelly with her. There is another mulatto child in the house named Anna Smith, who is the only Smith in the house. This child also had moved from Saratoga two years before, the same time as Kelly, so it is possible she was Kelly’s daughter and was using her father’s name, or she might have been a relative of Kelly, or of Hill, who also was a native of Saratoga. In Eleanor Barrett’s house, there is an Ellen Van Fost, age eleven, and a Robert Van Fost, age two, and their surname is different from those of other prostitute boarders. The real estate tax record, however, shows that the property was owned by a “C. J. Vanvorst,” possibly the children’s father and also possibly Barrett’s husband.
Although a prostitute could oversee the rearing of children who remained with her, she could not prevent them from being exposed at some point in their lives to violence, alcohol, drugs, or unsavory com-
― 315 ―
pany—dangers that might be, but were not necessarily, faced by children of other working parents. When rowdies attacked the brothel of Amanda Smith at 3 Franklin Street, they destroyed a very valuable piano and beat Smith on the head. The men then
wound up their inhumanity by attacking and beating her son, who was at the time crippled through being afflicted with the rheumatism, and whom they beat so violently that he was left on the floor nearly dead.
Smith had the men arrested for assault. In another incident, the four-year-old daughter of prostitute Mary Bowen of 104 Church Street was sent by her mother with a dollar to get crackers at a local store. On the way home, the child was stopped by two older girls, who bullied her and took her money. Accustomed to filing charges against individuals who assaulted her or her brothel, Mrs. Bowen had both girls arrested. Police released them to the custody of their parents, who had to promise they would enforce proper discipline and see that no similar incidents happened again.
Even if a prostitute’s children avoided violence, they occasionally witnessed situations that were unsuitable for young children. Reporters for the Advocate of Moral Reform were appalled that a middle-aged madam allegedly had seventeen “awful deaths” of prostitutes in her house on Leonard Street in her twelve years in the profession. Compounding the evil was the fact that in addition to the eleven boarding prostitutes in the establishment were two of the madam’s own daughters, ages ten and twelve, who were “training for the business” and were exposed to the “unnatural” deaths. The Advocate reported that the madam said she also had a three-year-old daughter but admitted she “wouldn’t have her in such company,”
Sometimes prostitutes’ children ran with a group of friends whose activities got them in trouble with the authorities. Eleven-year-old Margaret Fox, daughter of Mrs. Francis Reed, who managed a brothel on Crosby Street, was arrested with four friends for stealing a basket of clothes. The police committed her to the House of Refuge, where she stayed for at least four years and possibly more. Although the Refuge at first thought Margaret was “full of talk but a promising child,” by the end of four years they said she had “so ungovernable a temper as to be past management… really she is a hard one.” Louis Sweet, son of
― 316 ―
Susan “Jenny” Sweet of 100 Church Street, got into trouble several times for stealing. Concerned about her son’s welfare, Mrs. Sweet
packed him off to New Bedford to ship on a whaling voyage, in order, if possible to relieve him of his bad associates; but the young scamp, before getting on ship ran off, and the day before yesterday returned back to the city again; and that night entered his mother’s house, stole [three gold bracelets and other jewelry valued at $60] and soon after pawned them to a Dutch grocer for some liquor…. Justice Mountfort gave the young man a severe reprimand and committed him to prison to await further examination.
Although most prostitutes probably tried to care for their children as well as possible, some were unfit for the task. Nine-year-old Maria Frampton’s parents were separated, and her father tried to board her in places where she would be “out of reach” of her prostitute mother. Her mother repeatedly found her and took her back to her brothel. When the mother was arrested and sent to the penitentiary for drunken and riotous behavior, Maria was sent to the House of Refuge, where she was found to be “filthy and full of sores from head to the soles of her feet—a real object of pity.” Several months after her admittance, the matron recorded that Maria was “knowing far beyond her age … and though a long distance off, her mother is bad and gives bad influence.” Mary Seymour, who was said to have become “crazy soon after she came to New York,” abandoned her baby. She spent five to six weeks “strolling” near Catherine Market and “sleeping in the most filthy cellars among Negroes and in every real sense [she] was a vagrant.” Seymour was sent to the House of Refuge because she claimed she was under eighteen, but the admitting officer recorded that she believed Seymour was twenty to twenty-two years old. Officials noted she had “turns of insanity,” when she tore her hair and clothes and several times tried to hang herself. On her last suicide attempt, when the matron cut her down she was nearly dead. Refuge officials finally sent Seymour to the “Belle View crazy house,” from which she escaped shortly afterward.
For many prostitutes with children, the role of mother was not sought but was a fact of life women had children, and children had to be cared for. For other women, however, the task of being a mother seemed too onerous, and action was taken to limit future responsibilities by contraception, abortion, and even infanticide or child abandonment. Though there are many reasons why prostitutes would not wish to have
― 317 ―
children, sources indicate that some welcomed the opportunity. John R. McDowall commented in his Journal that “orphans were sometimes taken by bawds and reared to puberty.” In 1850 police charged a black couple with “brutal and inhuman treatment” for tying up and nearly starving a five-year-old mulatto girl. The court removed the child from the couple’s custody and
she was placed in the kind care of Miss Eliza Fisher, a splendid looking colored woman, carrying a good natured countenance and weighing something like three hundred pounds weight. Eliza very smilingly took charge of the little responsibility, and with a crowd of colored persons, left the court.
Fisher’s long history as a prostitute is filled with incidents involving the police, so the authorities must have known her well and believed that she would take good care of the child. Law officials were also aware of the maternal responsibility assumed by prostitute Maria Mitchell, who, as described above, was let go after an arrest for fighting because the magistrates knew she had adopted an “unprotected babe.” For Fisher and Mitchell, as for all prostitutes, childrearing was a difficult responsibility—time-consuming as well as a financial and emotional strain. But the emotional rewards of motherhood—of having someone to love, care for, and work for—often seemed rewarding enough for prostitutes to wish to assume the task. Many prostitutes, like other women, including Jewett’s friend Clara Hazard, saw motherhood as “the first duty of life” and looked forward to it.
It is impossible to know how most relationships between prostitutes and their children fared over a long number of years, but it is also difficult to know about other relationships between mothers and children in the nineteenth century. In some cases, relationships continued as mother and child aged. Nelson Miller and his wife lived near and had contact with mother Adeline, who had a long career as a brothel madam. Clara Hazard probably continued seeing her mother. If Mary Malloy was the mother of brothel manager Ann Malloy, the fact that they were living together in their fifties and thirties indicates the relationship had continued through most of what would be the average lifespan of a nineteenth-century mother. Other prostitutes sent their children off to create new lives for the offspring, and their anonymity was maintained forever. Still others managed to see that the children grew up, but neither parent nor child invested in a lifetime relationship.
― 318 ―
Prostitutes, like other nineteenth-century women, had multiple identities—identities created through a variety of relationships in their private and public lives. Publicly, the prostitute was a harlot, a woman-for-hire, but privately she might be a mother, sister, daughter, and friend, as well as a wife, lover, or business associate. In each of her roles the prostitute had the opportunity for pleasure and enrichment as well as difficulties and disappointments. The prostitute’s own evaluation of all these experiences and relationships was crucial, of course, for determining how she felt about herself and her life as a whole. Despondency or depression was one response. The letters of Ann Farmer offer insight into the hopelessness and pessimism felt by some prostitutes. Farmer wrote to Jewett that she wished she had Jewett’s temperament and disposition because she then would be “more calculated to go through this ungrateful world.” Farmer apparently felt pain and distress because of her profession and because of the unhappy relationships she experienced both with the men in her life and with her family. She noted that even noble-hearted men, when it suited their convenience, would leave prostitutes like herself
unprotected, uncomplemented and uncomforted to buffet the storms of this bleak unfriendly world and leave us to brood over the disgraceful pangs of remorse, until we glide to the grave unnoticed—with perhaps hardly enough to commit us to our mother earth.
Farmer described herself as “extremely unhappy relative to family affairs of a previous nature. I have a silent sorrow here, a grief that rends my heart. O God, I must not think of it.” Those less articulate than Farmer sometimes expressed their depression and sense of isolation through alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide.
Although despondency, if not depression, must have been experienced by most prostitutes sometime in their professional lives, personal relationships, especially with fellow prostitutes, often provided solace and support. As a part of the so-called underworld, prostitutes created a subculture, a sphere of their own which encompassed a social world of brothels, disreputable boardinghouses, saloons, and theaters and was supported by a network of female friendships and relationships established through shared involvements and mutual understanding. Yet even though separated into their own social world, prostitutes were a part of the wider “woman’s sphere.” As a mother, sister, daughter, wife,
― 319 ―
lover, or laborer, a prostitute shared the common cares, desires, and constraints of nineteenth-century women, extending her “identity” into the larger female sphere. Some prostitutes could intellectualize about woman’s social and emotional position in nineteenth-century society, noting woman’s superior sensibilities but limited possibilities—her sub-ordinance in the affairs of the world but predominance in the “affairs of the heart.” Helen Jewett, in a letter to her lover, wrote of the differences in the “spheres” and sensibilities of men and women:
Women only can understand woman’s heart. We cannot, dare not complain, for sympathy is denied us if we do.
With man it is otherwise. He can with impunity expose all, … court sympathy and obtain it, while at the same time poor neglected woman cannot be allowed to share in the many pursuits and pleasures man has to occupy his time; of course he does not need to be pitied, unless it is for his vices and excesses.
Many prostitutes not as articulate as Jewett understood the limitations of nineteenth-century society in terms of their daily lives. But they also understood the options. Prostitution was a profession selected from the limited possibilities available to women. It could be difficult and isolating, but it did not prevent a woman from developing additional identities in life, and it certainly did not prevent her from enjoying rewarding and reinforcing relationships with others.
― 321 ―