||June 03, 2004
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
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
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
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
"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
Bob Sabaroff, Noted screenwriter (Star Trek, Then Came Bronson,
Bonanza, etc.), and Historian.
Mattie's House of Mirrors at 1942 Market Street, 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
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
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
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 gave up the world's oldest profession in 1948. In 1972, she
was elected to the Sausalito City Council and in 1976 she was
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
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
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.”