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Cover Story June 03, 2004

Working Girls


by lyle e davis

Many a lonely cowpoke when cautiously and curiously stepping inside his first smoke-filled, dimly lit, nineteenth century bordello and seeing a Soiled Dove would enter one of the bordello's rooms to be greeted with . . . "Come on in! This your first time Honey?" ...

Regular readers of The Paper know that we have a fondness for things historical.

We've taken a look from time to time at our famous Civil War battles, we've examined the lives and legends of our western hero and our western outlaw. We've looked at our military champions . . . but one area we've overlooked is the lives of those hardy pioneers of the American West . . . the 'working girls.'

The ratio of men to women in some areas was as great as 45 to one. Prostitutes were the exception; thousands worked in brothels, dance halls, saloons, cribs, shacks, and streets, providing female companionship for the lonely prospectors, cowboys, and soldiers who tamed the West.

In so doing, prostitutes helped populate the land--as this famous poem from San Francisco succintly explains:

The miners came in '49,
The whores in '51,
And when they got together,
They produced the native son

One of the wives of Wyatt Earp was a prostitute. Mattie Blaylock (real name, Celia Ann Blaylock, was born in 1850 in Wisconsin, but raised in Fairfax, Iowa. She ran away from home at the age of 16. Wyatt would meet Mattie in Dodge City around 1873. It is commonly held by researchers that Mattie, as well as other Earp wives of Virgil, Morgan, and James, were at least at some point prostitutes. James' wife would continue the "trade" with his approval after their marriage. By the time Wyatt and Mattie left Dodge City, Kansas for Tombstone in 1879, Mattie was at the very least Wyatt's common law wife.

After she and Earp separated she went to Globe, Arizona, and became a prostitute. On July 3, 1888, Celia Ann Blaylock Earp, always called Mattie, took an overdose of laudanum. It was almost certainly suicide.)

Colorado's most famous madam, Mattie Silks, franchised her popular girls. Mattie ran brothels in Georgetown, Leadville, Dawson City, Alaska, and at least three different cat houses in Denver, including 1916 and 2009 Market Street (the latter is preserved as a designated Denver Landmark).

"The Sweet Singers of the Yukon"

Thanks to "San Francisco's Golden Era," by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, Howell-North; Berkeley, California, 1960, we have the above. It's a Klondike picture from 1898, from Dawson. These girls were imported from San Francisco and elsewhere in the West, and were christened, for the picture, "The Pacific Street Alumni Association." 
Bob Sabaroff, Noted screenwriter (Star Trek, Then Came Bronson, Bonanza, etc.), and Historian.

Mattie's House of Mirrors at 1942 Market Stre
et, the most elegant and famous of Colorado brothels, was restored in 1998 as an elegant restaurant with an upstairs bar and museum to the world's oldest profession. At age 19, she had started out by running a brothel in Springfield, Illinois. Mattie boasted that she never worked as a "girl" but started out as a madam. Short, blonde and attractive, she always carried a pistol, convinced that she was a crack shot.

The 1900 census lists Mattie as a "land lady" renting to "female borders" age 19 to 25. Mattie went east each year to recruit fresh young talent, which she paraded through the streets of Denver upon her return-highly effective advertising which attracted new customers and re-energized old ones. She treated her girls well, letting them keep half the high prices she charged for their favors. She served her girls two fine meals daily, breakfast at 11:30 a.m. and dinner at 5 p.m.

Mattie retired to respectability after marrying Jack Ready, a Wray, Colorado, rancher, and lived to a ripe old age-becoming a plump, grandmotherly soul who never lost her wink.

Mattie Silks had a good friend and competitor, Jennie Rogers. She was six-foot-tall, and hot-tempered. No one messed with Jennie, not even her lover Jack Wood. She once shot him and then blurted to police those immortal words of a woman scorned: "I shot him because I love him, damn him!"

Jennie's sumptuous house boasted a dining room, three parlours, a ball room, a wine cellar and 15 bedrooms. The mirrored ceilings captured the grand piano, a golden harp, crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs, bird's-eye maple woodwork-and some marvelous anatomical wonders. These two smart, entrepreneurial women made Denver a favorite stop for cowboys, miners and other lonely men throughout the Rockies.

Working hours were usually noon until dawn. Each girl had one day off a week, and a popular girl in a popular house earned as much as $200 a week. It was the custom in most of the cheaper establishments that while a man dallied, he was not permitted to remove any of his clothing except his hat.

Census-takers canvassing the frontier found that many prostitutes were single parents, using their earnings to support children. Others, such as successful prostitute/madam Ella Hill of Amarillo, Texas, paid for their children to be brought up by reputable families or boarding schools elsewhere. Descendants of prostitutes surely comprise a substantial portion of the population of the western states today.

Life for prostitutes wasn’t, and isn’t, all grand and glitter, however. Some 100 military garrisons protected the burgeoning West against desperados and hostile natives. Prostitutes provided a welcome diversion for soldiers trapped in the hard, dreary life of the fort. Officers and enlisted men alike visited brothels in neighboring towns. Closer and cheaper bordellos, called "hog ranches," were situated along nearby roads. Prostitutes even worked right inside the base, some officially listed as "assistants" to civilian shopkeepers, others employed as "laundresses" by the military itself. Still more pretended to be military wives (living with soldier "husbands") but actually serviced the entire garrison. Some made no pretense at all, simply dwelling and working in abandoned shacks. Others sneaked in among Mexicans who were allowed to set up temporary marketplaces within the forts. Meanwhile, "camp followers" accompanied military expeditions. Prostitutes found myriad ways of serving their country by "entertaining the troops."

Most of modern Nevada retains attributes of the pioneer days: rugged mining and farming work; vast, sparsely populated plains; and people who distrust government interference in their lives. Thus it is unsurprising that prostitutes still work in legal brothels in this last bastion of the western frontier.

Following the history of prostitution in America is not particularly difficult. There are reams of information about them. We know, for example, that prostitution was a European import to North America, for the concept was foreign to Native American culture. Compared to England, the American colonies had few prostitutes, and most of them were confined primarily to the waterfront neighborhoods of seaports.

Prostitution became a social and political issue only after 1810. In the ensuing century, virtually all American cities and numerous towns experienced noticeable increases.

Nineteenth-century prostitution was structured around three subcultures. First, about 5 to 10 percent of young females in large cities engaged in prostitution at some point, earning twice as much in an evening as factory or service employment would bring in a week.

Second, a prominent "sporting male" subculture encouraged men to hire prostitutes. An improving economy found more and more men with the means to engage in extra curricular activities, prizefighting, the theatre, and women. The worst elements in this fraternity were the pimps, who first appeared in New York after 1835.

The third subculture, part of an underground economy, was that of the brothels, which numbered in the hundreds in Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. By the time of the Civil War, New York had over five hundred, many advertising in newspapers and guidebooks. There were proportionate numbers in Austin, Louisville, Omaha, Richmond, San Antonio, and Spokane. Concert halls, saloons, cigar stores, restaurants, and cabarets supported prostitution to attract patrons.

Sex, or "red-light," districts were well known before 1850 and later. New York's Five Points and the Tenderloin, San Francisco's Barbary Coast, New Orleans's Basin Street and Storyville, Chicago's Levee, and even the Alley in Boise, Idaho, were nationally known for the promiscuous sexuality they promoted. By the late nineteenth century, prostitution was a multimillion-dollar business, with organized networks of madams, landlords, doctors, and municipal officials.

By the 1920s, the era of the brothel and open prostitution had ended, and significant changes emerged over the next four decades. Municipal officials grew less tolerant of the sporting male subculture. Prostitution became a clandestine activity; prostitutes no longer advertised but conducted their business in tenements, dance halls, massage parlors, "call houses," and even taxicabs. During Prohibition, prostitution developed closer ties with the alcohol trade and organized crime. The famous New York madame Polly Adler, for example, was protected by gangsters

Public titillation was fed by the periodic attention given to celebrity madames, like Polly Adler and San Francisco's Sally Stanford.

Stanford gave up the world's oldest profession in 1948. In 1972, she was elected to the Sausalito City Council and in 1976 she was elected mayor.

After 1965, prostitution entered a new period of openness and publicity. One study in 1968 found 95,550 arrests for prostitution nationwide and estimated that every day 286,650 men visited prostitutes. Sporadic attempts have been made over the years to legalize prostitution on various grounds, and in 1971 Nevada became the first state to do so (in its smaller counties).

By the end of the 1980s, however, growing fears regarding the AIDS epidemic threatened prostitutes with even greater regulation and discrimination.

The Local Scene Today

According to the Sheriff’s office serving San Marcos, “In San Marcos we have maybe one or two incidents a year and we respond only when there's a complaint. Most of the time the action takes place in the 'hootches' (migrant field camps). I know they bring girls up from Mexico from time to time and we'll have reports of migrants standing in line to visit the girls . . . but it's very seldom we see any visible evidence of prostitution in San Marcos. If someone gets burned and goes to a pay phone and calls us, of course we'll respond . . . but unless there's a complaint we have very little information to go on.”

Lt. Dave Mankin, Public Information Officer for the Escondido Police Department reported that “It’s a rather small problem in Escondido. Girls into narcotics will work the local street and hotel scene. When complaints come in from citizens we respond quickly. Sometimes it’s just transient women who need money for a room, for dope, sometimes both. They’ll turn to prostitution for some quick cash. Our chief narcotics problem that relates to prostitution is methamphetamine.”

In Valley Center, it’s pretty much a repeat story of the San Marcos situation. They do have migrant camps scattered about the area and the department is pretty certain that girls come up from Mexico to service this market. But, again, without any complaints the department is not able to do much. The Sheriff’s substation in Valley Center agrees that it’s not much of a problem. “It’s a rural community here, everyone knows everyone else; there’s no hotels. It’s just not a problem.”



Copyright © 2004 The Paper


Above, Mattie Blaylock, one of Wyatt Earp’s wives (whom he deserted). She became a prostitute in Globe, Arizona after Earp left her. She later (1888) died in Pinal, Arizona, of an overdose of Laudanum, probably a suicide.

Above, The man is Harvey Logan, better known as Kid Curry, the stone-coldest killer of The Wild Bunch. Most of their murders were done by him, and he was the most wanted of the Wild Bunch. The lady is his girl friend, Annie Rogers, then a prostitute and later a madame.

Most of the best available photos of prostitutes (sometimes called hookers since the Civil War, after the camp followers encouraged by General Hooker) got into print because they were associated in some way with a famous figure on one side of the law or the other

Colorado's most famous madam,
Mattie Silks

 A temptress from the early 1900’s.

Mary Catherine Horony, also know as "Big Nose Kate" - a working girl and madam, saved the life of Doc Holliday.

One of Denver’s elite madams, Jennie Rogers. 6’ tall and with a fiery temper, Rogers was never seen without her famous emerald earrings. In addition to running one of Denver’s top ‘sportin’ houses’ she is also famous for having shot her lover, then marrying him.

Sally Stanford, former "honorable Mayor" of Sausalito City and, prior to her public life, well known San Francisco Madam.

Modern day working girls