This your first time Honey?"
This may have been what you'd hear when cautiously and curiously stepping inside your first smoke-filled, dimly lit, nineteenth century bordello and seeing a Dove. After that first contact, caution was history, which is why this site exists; the love of old west notorious history from gold strike tent towns to established cities and the men and women that made their presence known.
Soiled-doves of that period were thriving far and wide, especially before the inevitable arrival of the community's "virtuous" women. Prostitutes were among the first to populate and establish businesses in burgeoning towns of the 1800s and like all other early settlers, they were significant in developing areas in which they lived and carried out their trade. For their efforts, like other pioneers of that time, they risked disease, injury and in some cases death.
Depending on the social and economic structure of the area, bawdy houses (or houses of prostitution) ranged from makeshift tents to stately mansions fitted with crystal chandeliers, carpets, electricity and populated with women of every age, color, size and price range. And let's not forget the mobile cat wagons or portable brothels that traveled the countryside giving the military at Fort Dodge in particular, trouble beyond measure. Others conducted business in one-room dwellings called cribs or anywhere else the opportunity would come up.
Among the more common names in reference to these ladies of the evening, depending on location, were sportin' women, soiled doves or prairie doves, frail sisters, public women, ladies of ill-fame, ladies of easy virtue, nymphs du prairie, women of the rehab, women of evil name and evil fame, demimonde, frail sisters, scarlet ladies, girls or women of the night, fancy ladies, calico queens, horizontal experts, fallen women, purveyors of pleasure (or purveyors of sin depending on your viewpoint), red light ladies, faeries of the half-world, brides of the multitude just to name a few. And, if the establishment was lucky enough to have a piano player, he was most often referred to as the Professor. The Professor not only played ragtime and blues but would greet visitors at the door and often invite the city's most talented musicians to get together and perform for customers at the bordello. Blues notables at these performances in New Orleans' Storyville from time to time during the late 1800s were Tony Jackson, Clarence Williams, King Oliver, Manuel Perez and the infamous Jelly Roll Morton whose tune, "Jelly Roll Blues," was written in 1924 and is what you hear playing now depending on your browser.
Prices varied for the ladies depending on their location, age and ethnic background. On San Francisco's Barbary Coast, fees ranged from 25¢ for a Mexican woman to $1 for an American. The regular rate in the cribs occupied by black, Chinese or Japanese girls was 50¢, while the French women sold their favors for 75¢. Even higher prices then any of these were sometimes obtained by prostitutes of unusual youth and attractiveness and particularly red-haired women. It was a popular myth in San Francisco for many years that a woman with auburn tresses was exceedingly amorous and that a red-haired Jewess was the most passionate of all.
Mining towns, cow towns, logging camps and large cities were not the only centers of prostitute activity. What can be said of cattle-shipping centers can also be said of end-of-track towns across western United States along with army settlements like Hays and Leavenworth, Kansas or any frontier boom town. Anywhere where the red light district and saloons provided the only entertainment and recreation for the men, most of whom were bachelors living lonely lives, alone for weeks or months at a time, there were the ladies of easy virtue.
In this business, name changes were inevitable so relatives would not be embarrassed. This lead to some of the most entertaining names oozing out of the Old West such as Cuttin' Lil Slasher, Hambone Jane, Tit Bit, The Great Easton, Sweet Annie, Black Pearl, Wicked Alice, Smooth Bore, Molly b'Damn, Little Gold Dollar, Fatty McDuff, Lady Jane Gray, Cotton Tail (said to be a natural blond), the Roaring Gimlet, the Little Lost Chicken, Irish Molly, Big Nose Kate, Rose of the Cimarron and in Alaska was the infamous Diamond Tooth Lil. As for the ladies who traveled north to Alaska and the Yukon in the late 1890s for its gold rush, Dolly Arthur in particular stands out with her own story in Ketchican, Alaska. Read what noted author June Allen has to say about Dolly and the ladies in that part of the country. (Click here for those stories.)
No matter what they were called or how they were perceived, the doves were there for the taking and taking all they could get because as you might imagine, this was not a lifelong career and when it was over, it was over. After time took its toll, what could they do? Where did they go? What would the ladies do with the remainder of their lives? Some started businesses or went on to careers beyond their beginnings, others started families and shared nothing of their past lives while others died by their own hand or were killed.
What would compel a woman to enter this line of work in the 1800s? Why women of any decade would turn to this lifestyle is always interesting and of course every story is unique. Generally, the girls had either been expelled from their homes or deserted by their parents or husbands and found prostitution as the only way to support themselves. Others were forced into prostitution to help their families survive and still others worked as domestics or servants and were tricked into prostitution because they had been seduced by their masters and abandoned, or simply mislead.
Research during the 1800s found that the majority of prostitutes were young, usually illiterate, poor and from broken families. These women had a limited number of options available to them during the nineteenth century and because of that, some turned to prostitution as a means of survival. Immigrant women arriving without money or brought into the country forcibly, as with many Asian women, had only prostitution as a way to make money. There were also the women who turned to prostitution as an escape from typical professions. And for others, they were as adventurous as the men heading west in the 1800s and this way of life was seen as temporary until something better came along.
Women did some recruiting too, often times they would get their daughters, sisters or friends into the profession in an effort to help get them out of the same dire circumstances from which they themselves had come. New girls would notice the profession was not quite as demeaning as what they had perceived it to be and they were earning large sums of money in some cases. And let's not forget the excitement and a possible path to marriage.
According to Elizabeth A. Topping, author of "What's a Poor Girl To Do?" the term RED LIGHT DISTRICT originated in Kansas where alleys filled with cribs crowded the areas closest to train stations making for quick and easy access by railroad workers and passengers with time to kill. History says the railroad brakemen would pay a young lad to watch for incoming and outgoing trains while they were otherwise occupied. While this was going on, the brakeman would leave his glowing red lantern outside the door indicating his location so he could be roused when it was time to go back to work. Some nights these slum locations would glow red with brakemen's lanterns giving the area its notorious moniker.
This site is dedicated not only to the ladies who first settled these wild, lawless towns of crime, violence, gambling and marketable sex but to the outlaws, bad men, bad women and bad decisions making up the fabric of America's old west. Like it or not, prostitution was a very important industry for the economics of any town. The fines alone were a necessity in some communities as they helped build and maintain the community and although their profession was frowned upon, they were still a very important part of all history, everywhere.
Craving more? How about one of Jay Moynahan's books of this genre or Jan MacKell's books on the bad girls of Colorado? Click on one of the links below for more information on the doves; an excellent story on the ladies of the Old West by Herbert Asbury author of Gangs of New York, western artwork for sale or roam through the extensive bibliography. Toward the bottom of this page are links to various Old West sites.
Venture into the Old West and the shady ladies who made life bearable.
Books by Jay Moynahan, retired past chair of Eastern Washington State Univ. Criminal Justice Dept
The Cripple Creek DOVE and other
stories by Colorado historian Jan Collins
Herbert Asbury's short story on the notorious Barbary Coast
Bob Skriver ... for sale
Bibliography, more good stuff to read
Others having as much fun as us:
(The shooter and victim below will take you to other fun sites, click on one.)
How about some more gun slingers, outlaws, good guys, bad guys ... and gals?
OVAL OUTLAW will take you to a site
American Old West facts from a former Texas newspaper reporter
and school teacher, now living in Canada ... by choice.
(She married a Canadian)
The dove checking her
reflection is doing business in Storyville, New Orleans,
the designated nineteenth century red light district in that area.
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